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The Oncoming Storm V2
#21
Chapter Fifteen

“Transit completed, Captain,” Weiberg reported.

“Good,” the Captain said. “Set course for the rendezvous point.”

“Aye, Captain,” Weiberg said. “Estimated flight time; two days.”

William nodded to himself, knowing the die had been firmly cast. They’d spent the last four days writing a careful summery of their observations, attached a number of off-the-record comments from his contacts on the fleet, then uploaded it into the StarCom message buffer. The codes the Captain had been given, he had been told, should ensure that the message would be transmitted at once, then wiped from the buffer. It should have been impossible for any unfriendly eyes to read the message without the correct codes.

And if we’re wrong about that, he thought morbidly, our careers will be in the shithole.

He pushed the thought aside as he watched the display update. Ten freighters – another had joined them at Cadiz – were slowly making their way through hyperspace, shadowed by the giant heavy cruiser. William rather doubted the ships would be attacked, particularly if the Theocracy was backing the pirates, but he knew better than to take that for granted. Besides, it would have looked suspicious if Theocracy-bound freighters were the only ones spared pirate attacks.

A dull quiver ran through the ship and he smiled. They were on their way. There had been some good-natured grumbling from the lower decks about the shortage of shore leave – he’d ended up giving some of the crew only a few short hours on the planet’s surface – but it felt good to be heading away from Cadiz. He didn't want the lethargy affecting the fleet to infest Lightning – and it wouldn't not while he was XO. Even if Admiral Morrison insisted on keeping them at Cadiz, he would ensure an endless series of training exercises to keep the crew sharp.

He looked at the Captain’s blonde head and felt an odd flicker of affection. It had been brave of her to tell him the truth, knowing he might start disliking her again – or take it to the Admiral. Her career would probably have survived, but no one would ever have trusted her again. What CO would trust an officer who had spied on another officer? She might start spying on him next.

But her father was right, he had to admit. There was something deeply wrong at Cadiz Naval Base. He’d gone through the records and watched, in alarm, as standards had slowly dropped ever since Admiral Morrison had been appointed CO. Maybe it was deliberate after all, he wondered, although there was no way to tell. And, if so, was it for political reasons or outright treason? The sooner the IG carried out a full audit, the better.

“Mr. XO,” the Captain said, formally. She turned to face him. “You may conduct your inspection of the Wandering Soul.”

“Aye, Captain,” William said.

He saluted, then turned and walked through the hatch towards Marine Country, where Davidson, a platoon of Marines and a handful of inspectors were already waiting for him, the Marines carrying weapons and looking thoroughly intimidating. William wasn't expecting trouble onboard the Wandering Soul, but it was well to be prepared. He hadn't bothered to tell the freighter’s CO there would be an inspection. It would only have upset him ahead of time.

They scrambled into the shuttle, then launched from Lighting and flew towards the Wandering Soul. Like most freighters, William noted, she was ugly as hell, little more than a boxy superstructure with a drive section attached to the rear. There were no weapons, according to the manifest, although that meant nothing. He wouldn't have been surprised to find a handful of weapons blisters mounted on the starship’s hull.

He keyed the communicator. “Wandering Soul, this is Commander McElney,” he said. “I intend to board and inspect your vessel for contraband goods. Please open an airlock for my shuttle.”

There was a long pause. “Commander, I must formally protest,” a belligerent voice snapped. “My ship was inspected at Cadiz and we have not made landfall elsewhere ...”

“We have authority to inspect any freighter travelling in convoy at any moment,” William said, cutting him off. He already knew the ship had been inspected – or at least that the records claimed the ship had been inspected. “If you do not comply, your ship will be boarded and seized – and you and your crew will be held in custody.”

“An airlock has been cleared for you,” the voice said. “But I must warn you that I will file a formal protest.”

“Take us in,” William ordered, ignoring the protest. They were within their legal rights – and besides, if they found anything illegal he knew the protest would fade away. “I want to search the ship as quickly as possible.”

They docked, then swarmed onto the ship, weapons at the ready. No one offered resistance; William was mildly surprised, at least at first, to discover there were no women on the crew. But it made a certain kind of sense if they were dealing with the Theocracy. Captain Norton, a burly man who looked too big for his uniform, protested loudly, then reluctantly passed William his papers. William inspected them while the Marines checked the ship, then allowed the inspectors to go to work.

“You don’t seem to be carrying very much,” he observed, lifting his eyes from the manifest. “Why do you think you can sell civilian-grade sensor suites?”

Captain Norton smirked at him. “We already have a deal with an agent,” he said. “They’ll take as many suites as we can deliver, for thirty percent over the market rate.”

“Odd,” William noted. He could understand the Theocracy wanting military-grade sensors, but civilian-grade? They could obtain the plans just about anywhere in the Commonwealth and then produce the systems for themselves. “Do you know what they want with them?”

“Of course not,” Captain Norton sneered. “I don’t ask too many questions, Commander. I merely deliver what I’m told to deliver.”

William frowned. It made no sense ... which probably meant he was missing something. The Theocracy wouldn't throw away money on something they could produce for themselves. He checked the rest of the manifest and noted that it included other starship components, including a handful of drive motivators. Some of them were designs that had first been produced before the Breakaway Wars. Were the Theocrats trying to wage subtle economic warfare by buying up starship components? Or did they have some devious plan to use them against the Commonwealth?

“So it would seem,” he said, finally. “And are you carrying anything you’d hate to have us discover?”

“Commander,” Norton snapped. “We are a clean ship!”

“Remarkable,” William commented. He shrugged, expressively. “Just remember we won’t be able to help you if you run into trouble with the Theocracy’s authorities.”

“They do tend to be anal,” Norton agreed. “But they pay well, so we put up with their crap.”

My brother and you would probably get along, William thought, darkly.

He keyed his wristcom, making no attempt to hide his action. “Chief?”

“We’ve opened a couple of crates,” the Chief said. “So far, everything checks out.”

“I told you we were inspected on Cadiz,” Norton put in.

“Yes, but I wouldn't trust the inspectors on Cadiz to find a spacer in a brothel,” William retorted. The inspection had either been alarmingly light or someone had merely flagged the ship as inspected, probably after being paid a large bribe. It was yet another problem caused by the lack of a unified authority for Cadiz. “And you are aware of the dangers of taking the wrong thing into Theocratic space?”

“I am a businessman,” Norton said, stiffly. “I don’t care about politics.”

“Politics cares about you,” William said. He tapped his wristcom. It was tempting to spend the next few hours tearing the ship apart, but it would have triggered a more serious complaint from the independent merchant’s guild. “Open a couple more crates at random, Chief, then search the cabins.”

“Looking for women?” Norton asked. “I’m afraid we had to leave them behind on Cadiz.”

“Probably for the best,” William agreed. He looked at Norton for a long moment. Perhaps the man could offer some useful intelligence, if nothing else. “What happens when you reach their world?”

“Well, we just offload,” Norton said. “They search the ship, then take crates out through the airlock and tranship them to another freighter. It must cost a bomb, Commander, but they seem to swallow the cost. Then we just wait until they arrange an escort to chivvy us back to the border.”

William frowned. “Do they let you land on a planet’s surface?”

“Never,” Norton said. “They don’t offer any shore leave facilities. The closest they come to entertainment is allowing a missionary to board our ships to preach to us. We generally listen politely until he goes.”

“I see,” William said. His wristcom buzzed. “One moment.”

He lifted the device to his lips. “Go ahead.”

“We’ve found nothing illegal in the second set of crates or the cabins,” the Chief said. “Do you want us to search the rest of the ship.”

“No,” William said, after a moment. They were probably just wasting their time. “Return to the shuttle, Chief. I’ll join you there in a moment.”

“I told you so,” Norton said, with some pride. “We are a clean ship.”

“I know,” William countered. “It's very suspicious.”

He winked at the man, then turned and walked to the shuttle. Midshipwoman Cecelia Parkinson was standing just outside the hatch, looking nervous. It would be her turn to lead the next search, commanding men who had more years in the navy than she’d had in her life. And William would have to remain behind in the shuttle and hope she didn't screw up too badly ...

“Nothing to report, sir,” she said. Judging by her voice, she expected to be blamed for not finding something contraband. She hadn't found her confidence yet. “The ship appeared to be clean.”

“That’s a good thing,” William assured her. He’d rather hoped she would shape up before now. “I’d hate to be caught by the Theocracy if I did have something contraband on my ship.”

He led the way through the hatch and into the shuttle, then motioned for the pilot to disengage from the freighter and take them to the next ship. As soon as they were in motion, he looked down at the copy of the manifest and frowned. As far as he could tell, the Theocracy was spending money – well over the going rate too – on items that were practically worthless. It didn't make sense.

Midshipwoman Parkinson coughed when he said that out loud. “Sir,” she said, “it might make sense.”

She cringed when he looked at her, sharply. “I ...”

“Theories are always interesting,” William assured her. “What do you think it means?”

“They’re buying something they should be able to make for themselves,” Parkinson said, “but they’re not making them for themselves or they wouldn't need to buy them. What are they doing with all that productive capacity if they’re not using it?”

William felt his blood run cold. Out of the mouths of babes ...

“They’re not producing civilian-grade components for their freighters because they’re busy producing military-grade components for their warships,” the Senior Chief said. “It makes sense, sir.”

It did, William noted. It made far too much sense.

“I’ll bring it to the Captain’s attention,” he promised. Midshipwoman Parkinson would get a note in her file commending her for the deduction. He’d see to it even if the Captain didn't. “But how much production capacity do they have?”

He mulled it over as they moved from freighter to freighter, inspecting them all one by one. There were no surprises, apart from a large porn stash one of the freighter crewmen had kept for himself, despite the warnings. William warned his CO to have it confiscated and thrown into space, then ordered the inspection team to return to Lightning. He had an important report to make.

“You did good today,” he told Parkinson, once the shuttle had returned to Lightning. “Take a break, then write your report. Be sure to mention your deduction as well as everything else.”

“And that your approach was textbook perfect,” Davidson added. The Marine gave the young officer what was probably intended as a reassuring smile. “But you probably need to consider the unpredictable as well.”

***
“They’re purchasing civilian-grade starship components from us,” Kat mused, as she read the report. Her Ready Room felt unusually cold. “The Midshipwomen would appear to be correct, wouldn't she?”

“Someone must have noticed,” Davidson said. “If there was a steady pattern of components being drained into Theocratic space ...”

“They wouldn't,” the XO said, gruffly. “We’re not looking at classified pieces of kit here, Major. There isn't anything on the list that can't be obtained for a few hundred crowns just about anywhere in the Commonwealth. I’d bet good money that most of the components on that ship were third or fourth-hand by the time they were purchased by the Theocracy’s agents. As long as the money was upfront, no one would ask too many questions.”

“But the Theocracy shouldn't need the components,” Kat mused. It was a puzzle, all right, one that made little sense. “Or is their industrial base weaker than we supposed?”

“I’ve studied command economies,” Davidson said. “It’s quite possible they’re very good at producing warship tech, but less good at meeting their economic needs. They might have thrust everything they had into building their navy, then discovered they needed a civilian economy too.”

Kat nodded, slowly. It made sense.

“But we know almost nothing about the Theocracy’s internal structure,” she mused. All they really heard was propaganda and she was fairly sure that it was mostly lies. “Could they be far weaker than we thought?”

“Bluff and bluster?” Davidson asked. He sounded as though he liked the idea. “The Wizard of Oz in space? Pay no attention to the absence of starships behind the border? Maybe they don’t have anything larger than a light cruiser and they’ve been bluffing everyone they’ve met?”

“We know they took some worlds that should have been able to mount a defence against one or two ships,” the XO said sharply, before anyone could get too excited. “I don’t think they would be so keen to press up against our space if they were truly too weak to put up a fight.”

He shrugged. “Besides, their world was a careful investment, as carefully planned as Tyre herself,” he added. “They didn't owe the UN crippling amounts of money. I don’t think we dare assume they didn't manage to put together a first-rate industrial base of their own. It’s in their damned doctrine.”

“They do seem to believe that one has to deserve to win to actually win,” Davidson agreed, sourly. “It will make them dangerous, certainly far more dangerous than their predecessors.”

“So we have something else to report once we get back to Cadiz,” Kat said. She sighed. It was quite possible her father would have sent a reply, but it was equally possible that someone had noted the message and traced it back to her, even if they couldn't read it. “Did you find anything else even remotely suspicious?”

“No,” the XO said. “Cargo and crew manifests checked out. We ran the crews against the database and identified most of them. A handful weren't registered with the various trade guilds, but that means nothing. Membership in the guilds isn’t compulsory.”

And is keenly discouraged in places, Kat thought. Tyre had strict laws governing how unions could form and what they could do. Her grandparents had helped write them.

“They could have been enemy agents,” Davidson suggested. “The shipping firms would be a good place to hide an intelligent asset or two.”

“And then have them report back while under guise of being searched,” the XO said. “It could work.”

“Yes, it could,” Kat mused. “But we don’t have grounds to hold any of them, do we?”

“None,” the XO said. “Some of the ships were borderline when it comes to shipping regulations, but they’re out on the border. No one will give a damn if we report them.”

“It’s their lives at stake,” Kat agreed. Besides, if they pushed the limits too far, no one would insure the ships against accidents, let alone pirate attacks. “And out of our jurisdiction.”

She straightened up. “Write a full report,” she said, “and we'll attach it to the next message we send back to Tyre. And then get some sleep. We’ll need to be alert when we reach the RV point.”

“Aye, Captain,” the XO said. “Will you get some sleep too?”

“I’ll do my best,” Kat said. The thought of sleep was tempting, but she had far too much paperwork to grind through. She'd downloaded everything she could from Cadiz before they’d departed the system, trying to put together a picture of just how 7th Fleet had decayed into a useless mass. “It's still a day to the RV point.”

“Plenty of time to sleep,” Davidson rumbled. He rose. “I’ll prep the teams to inspect the next set of ships, Captain.”

Kat almost asked him to stay, but held her tongue just in time. Instead, she nodded.

“See to it,” she ordered. The freighters from the Theocracy would have to be inspected carefully, very carefully. Who knew what they might be carrying? “And get some sleep too.”

“I’ll sleep when I’m dead,” Davidson said. He headed for the hatch, which hissed open in front of him. “Goodnight, Captain.”

The hatch hissed closed behind him.

“I’ll write the reports,” the XO said. He looked as though he was on the verge of saying something himself, then thought better of it. “Please make sure you get some sleep.”

“I will,” Kat promised. She watched him leave the room, then sighed. “But I don’t know if I’ll have time to sleep.”
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#22
Chapter Sixteen

The dull red star had no name, only a catalogue number. It had been visited once, according to the files, by a UN survey team that hadn't spent any longer than necessary in the system, then simply left alone until an RV point had been required for transhipment between the Commonwealth and the Theocracy. The otherwise useless star system had seemed a perfect place for ships from both sides to meet with nothing at stake.

Kat studied the system display, feeling more than a little boredom. There was nothing in the system, not even a comet or a handful of asteroids. And the Theocratic ships were late. She settled back in her command chair, reaching for her private terminal, then paused as an alarm sounded. Moments later, a blue-green icon flashed up on the display.

“One vortex detected, Captain,” Roach said. “I’m picking up seven freighters and one starship of unknown design. Mass readings suggest a light cruiser.”

Kat leaned forward, interested, as the Theocratic ships spilled out of the vortex. The freighters looked practically identical to other designs used all over the galaxy, but the light cruiser looked as though it only carried energy weapons, instead of a mixture of energy weapons and missile tubes. She could see some advantages in the design, yet she knew the enemy ship would be vulnerable to a missile-armed enemy engaging her from outside her own range.

She might have been designed to serve as a point defence cruiser, she mused, thoughtfully. It would make a certain kind of sense.

“We’re being scanned,” Roach warned. The display washed red as the enemy sensors caught sight of Lightning and her convoy. “They have a solid lock on our hull.”

“Yellow alert,” Kat ordered. The Theocratic ships would have to come a great deal closer if they wanted to catch her by surprise. “Send them our IFF codes.”

There was a long pause. “They’re requesting an open channel,” Ross reported, as the enemy ships came closer. “Captain?”

“Open channel,” Kat ordered. She cleared her throat. “This is Captain Falcone of HMS Lightning.”

Twenty seconds passed before the reply arrived. A grim-faced man appeared in front of her, wearing a green uniform covered in gold braid and unfamiliar writing. He wore a green skullcap on his head, his beard trimmed into a neat goatee. A beard meant something among the Theocracy, Kat recalled, although she couldn't remember what. Was it devotion or something else?

“I am Captain Zaid of the Faithful Companion,” he grated. He sounded coldly furious, although there was no way to tell why he was annoyed. “Transmit your manifests now.”

Kat kept her face impassive with an effort. “Transmit the manifests,” she ordered, then turned her attention back to the Theocratic officer. “Transmit your own manifests.”

There was a long pause as both sides analysed the manifests against what they’d been promised. “Everything appears to be in order,” Captain Zaid said, reluctantly. “We will transfer our freighters to your command.”

“Picking up data packets from the freighters,” Ross injected. “Everything seems to be in order.”

“We will transfer ours to you,” Kat said, feeling a moment of sympathy for the merchantmen. They would be going into Theocratic space, where they would be at the mercy of the Theocrats and their clerics. “And thank you for your time.”

Captain Zaid’s face twitched, then his image vanished from the display. Kat watched, feeling an odd tingle of unease, as the Theocratic starship opened a vortex, then ordered the Commonwealth freighters through the tear in space time. As soon as the last of the freighters were through, she followed, departing without even a final message. It was oddly rude, Kat noted, as if they hadn’t wanted to talk to her any more than strictly necessary.

“He probably had someone looking over his shoulder,” the XO muttered, so quietly that only Kat could hear. “They wouldn't risk allowing him to be friendly.”

Kat nodded, sourly. “Open a vortex into hyperspace,” she ordered. “Order the freighters to proceed into hyperspace, then take us in after them.”

She looked up at the XO. “You’ll have to search their ships, one by one,” she said. “Good luck.”

“Thank you, Captain,” the XO said. “I’ll let you know what I find.”

***
The first two freighters were normal, William was surprised to discover, insofar as anything was normal on a Theocratic starship. There was a Captain and crew, but there was also a cleric whose job seemed to be keeping an eye on the crewmen for impure thoughts. He insisted on staying with the crew at all times, refusing to allow them to be interviewed in private by the Marines – and the crew themselves seemed reluctant to be interviewed without him. They’d need his testimony, William suspected, to prove they hadn't said anything they shouldn't to the infidels.

But it was the third freighter that set alarm bells ringing at the back of his head. It was simply too good. He was used to freighter ships pushing the margins, not freighter ships where everything was shipshape and Bristol fashion. The crew looked far too good to be merchantmen, while the Captain didn't even seem outraged at having outsiders tramping through his ship. And that was far from normal.

“Search this ship thoroughly,” he ordered, finally. “And check every last item against the manifest.”

Captain Junayd looked ... placid. His cleric looked absolutely furious, but the captain looked completely unconcerned. The alarm bells grew louder. William had never met a freighter commander who hadn't resented having Marines boarding his ship and poking through his hold. And yet this commander didn't seem to care. Spitefully, William ordered the vessel’s cabins searched too. But that didn't provoke any reaction either.

“As you can see, we have nothing to hide,” Junayd said, an hour later. He seemed far too amused at William’s discomposure. “The ship is clean.”

“So it would seem,” William agreed. “But we are far from finished.”

He looked down as the engineering crew inspected the freighter’s control systems and – finally – found something out of place. The vessel’s drives and shields were civilian-grade, no more capable than anything from the Commonwealth, but her sensors were top of the line military gear. Her passive sensors were on a par with Lightning’s, the engineers reported, while her active sensors might actually be better. Now they had a clue, the engineers pushed harder and reported that there was a whole secondary computer network concealed within the hull. The ship looked like a harmless merchantman, William concluded, but she was a spy.

At his command, five armoured Marines came onto the bridge. “I’m afraid we will be taking you and your ship into custody,” William said. “I would ask you not to do anything stupid.”

Captain Junayd, for the first time, showed a hint of something other than amusement. “We have been cleared to deliver our cargo to Cadiz,” he said, his voice darkening. “To hold us is a breach of the trade agreement between the Theocracy and the Commonwealth. It will have the most unpleasant repercussions for your career.”

“I’ll take that chance,” William said. He checked the crew manifest, quickly. There were seventy men on the ship, thirty more than any half-way competent crew needed to operate the vessel. What were they doing on the ship? “You and your crew can be held in reasonable comfort onboard my vessel or you can be held in stasis.”

The cleric swore vilely in a language William didn't recognise. There were few samples of the language the Theocracy used, mainly because their personnel always used English when talking to outsiders, but it didn't sound pleasant. Captain Junayd gave him a sharp look, somehow shutting the cleric up instantly. That was interesting. None of the other freighter commanders had shown anything like that degree of control over their watchdogs.

“We will file a formal protest, of course,” Junayd said. “But as long as you’re bringing my vessel to Cadiz anyway, we will be happy to accept quarters of reasonable comfort.”

“Of course,” William agreed. He looked around the bridge for a long moment, then back at the Theocratic officer. And he was sure he was looking at a naval officer, not a civilian merchantman. “I suggest you order your crew to behave themselves. They are under our jurisdiction now.”

***
“I took the ship’s sensor system apart, piece by piece,” Lynn reported, four hours later. He sounded tired, but grimly amused. “She doesn't have a lick of justification for such an elaborate sensor suite. Captain.”

Kat nodded, slowly. Taking a Theocratic ship, even a freighter, into custody would raise eyebrows right across the Commonwealth. There would be questions asked, both by Admiral Morrison and in Parliament. The evidence had to be gathered completely by the book, she knew, or someone would move to dismiss it as tainted. Luckily, everything seemed to be in place.

“If she entered the Cadiz System,” she mused, “she would be able to determine much about 7th Fleet purely from her passive sensors.”

“Yes, Captain,” Lynn agreed. “The suite is really quite elaborate. They’d be able to intercept radio traffic and monitor the situation on the ground, as well as recording the fleet’s emissions. And the only way to find it was to carry out a full search and examination of the ship.”

“Which you did,” Kat said, nodding to the XO. “What tipped you off?”

“The crew was just too good,” the XO said. “Most freighter crews are ... well, not sloppy, but lax. They cut corners, don’t update records, wear their uniforms poorly if they wear them at all, all bad habits we try to keep out of the military. This crew was far too good to be true.”

“Better than you might think,” Davidson put in. His voice was very cold. “You noticed there were more crewmen than strictly necessary?”

The XO nodded, impatiently.

“I watched some of them through sensors as they filed into the holding cell,” Davidson said, grimly. “I’d bet good money they’re Special Forces, not regular crewmen. There’s something about their cocky attitude that is familiar.”

“Theocracy Marines?” Lynn asked. “Are they better than you?”

“Of course not,” Davidson huffed. He looked at Kat, his eyes worried. “Those guys are definitely trained soldiers, Captain. Give them weapons and armour and they’d be able to cause one hell of a mess on Cadiz.”

“Or onboard ship,” the XO said. “We do have them under close guard?”

“Yes,” Davidson said. “But they have to be watched carefully at all times.”

Kat rubbed her forehead. “And the other freighters?”

“We’ve searched two additional freighters,” the XO said. “They seemed normal, as far as we could tell, but we have four more to go.”

“It’s unlikely there will be more than one spy ship,” Davidson commented. “They wouldn’t want to heighten the chances of detection.”

The XO leaned forward. “And what do we do with our new prisoners?”

Kat had given the matter some thought. “We have to take them to Cadiz, along with their ship,” she said. Regulations admitted of no ambiguity in such matters. “Admiral Morrison will have to decide their fate. In any case ...”

She took a breath. “We have legal authority to hold them for questioning,” she added. “And we have precedent on our side. The Theocracy has held some of our crews for quite intensive questioning in the past.”

“They’re not going to like that,” Davidson rumbled.

“Tough,” Kat said. “If they want to hold our crews, we can hold theirs.”

“Yes, Captain,” the XO said.

“But it could cause a diplomatic incident,” Davidson cautioned. “We could have made a fuss over them holding our crews, but we didn't.”

Kat muttered a curse under her breath. The bigger shipping lines had been interested – very interested – in opening links to the Theocracy. They’d had visions of a colossal new market opening up in front of them, which had pushed them to ignore any reports of crews being mistreated or threatened with prosecution under Theocratic Law. She sighed, inwardly. Her father, at least, should have known better. Trading was always unstable when one party felt free to ignore civilised convention at its leisure.

Evict the crews, if you like, she thought. But holding them for crimes that aren't crimes where they come from opens a dangerous set of precedents.

She pushed the thought to one side and forced herself to smile. “Search the rest of the freighters, then report back to me when you’re done,” she ordered. “I’ll be writing my own report.”

“Aye, Captain,” the XO said.

Kat watched him go, then keyed her console, accessing the live feed from the makeshift cells. She’d spent enough time with Davidson to recognise soldiers and she had to admit he had a point. The Theocracy crewmen didn't look like crewmen. They had the finely-honed confidence of men who knew they were the best of the best, just like Davidson and the other Marines she’d met. And there were definitely too many of them to man the freighter.

She checked the manifest again. The crew manifest had only been submitted upon request, a slip that would probably have gone unnoticed under other circumstances. Who would have thought anything of a sloppy civilian crew? But if the Theocracy had been lucky, the soldiers could have been landed on Cadiz without anything counting them in and then counting them out again. Even now, they could walk off ship and make their way to the local guild house, then vanish after their mothership had left the system. It wasn't as if anyone would be surprised to see a Theocracy freighter shedding crewmen.

Spies, she thought, darkly. But she knew it had been a risky trick for the Theocracy to try to pull. They took a blatant risk in sending a spy ship into our space.

The thought didn't bring her any comfort. There was no way to know how many other ships might have been slipped through as part of the regular convoys. Or, for that matter, if there were spy ships that weren't part of the convoys. Perhaps they’d been meant to find this one, just to convince them that they had caught all of the spies. But they might be wrong.

And if they’re sending spy ships now, they must be preparing their attack, she concluded. It might be too late to save 7th Fleet. Checking their figures before they launch a final assault.

She shuddered. How long would it take her father to arrange for the IG to make a visit to Cadiz? Weeks, perhaps months. Admiral Morrison had some damn good political cover. It might well be too late. And if that was the case ...

She shuddered, again. Cadiz wasn't vital, but 7th Fleet was largely irreplaceable in less than a year. And the war might be lost along with it.

***
“That filthy unbelieving infidel,” the cleric thundered. “How dare he lay his hands on ...?”

“Enough,” Admiral Junayd said. There were times when he felt that clerics had their brains – or at least their common sense – removed before they were permitted to grow the unkempt beards that marked them as keepers of religious orthodoxy. “You never know who might be listening.”

The cleric shut up, sharply. Junayd allowed himself a tight smile, then lay back on the bunk. As prison cells went, it was remarkably comfortable. The infidels hadn't even broken out truth drugs or torture instruments, both of which would have been used by the Inquisition back home. It wouldn't have helped – his crew all had suicide implants to prevent them from talking – but it did suggest the infidels weren't taking the threat very seriously. In their place, Junayd would have destroyed his own ship and sworn blind it had been a terrible accident.

He thought, rapidly. Flying into enemy space himself had been a risk, he knew, but it had been necessary. It was difficult, if not impossible, to trust reports from spies, no matter how well the spies had covered their tracks. There was just too much temptation for the spies to send the reports they thought their superiors wanted to hear. But who would have thought the Commonwealth had finally decided to start giving freighters more than a cursory inspection before clearing them to dock at Cadiz? Really, it was quite surprising they’d worked up the nerve.

The cleric mumbled prayers to himself, clearly unsure what was about to happen. Junayd kept his thoughts to himself. It was unlikely the Commonwealth would detain them for long, unless they somehow figured out just who he was. And if they had ... he thought briefly of the suicide implants, then sighed. He didn't want to die, but he didn't fear death. God was waiting for him in his Heaven.

He knew what would happen to a spy ship captured within Theocratic space. The crew would be interrogated, the technicians trying to beat the suicide implants, while the ship itself would be carefully dismantled. Did the Commonwealth have the nerve to kill him and his crew? It was possible, but the trade links the Theocracy had dangled in front of their greedy corporations would mediate against it. They wouldn't want to give up the chance to make money, even if it meant accepting humiliation after humiliation. Really! It was unbelievable just how much the Commonwealth’s government was prepared to swallow in exchange for trade links and a few other concessions.

But he knew how they thought. Money talked; common sense walked. Everything had a price, even religious fervour. It was insulting to think that someone – anyone – believed the Theocracy would surrender its principles for money. But as long as the infidels believed they could manage the Theocracy, the Theocracy would have all the time in the universe to prepare its attack. Even if Junayd didn't return home, he knew, the attack would still go ahead.

And the Commonwealth’s rich worlds and industrial base would be theirs for the taking.
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#23
Chapter Seventeen

Duke Lucas Falcone disliked the Houses of Parliament. As a veteran of the political wars that shaped Tyre’s government, he knew better than most that ninety percent of activity in Parliament was meaningless. Most political decisions were taken after careful backroom discussions, well away from the media, then presented to Parliament as a done deal. If the discussions were handled properly, there was little meaningful opposition from His Majesty’s Loyal Opposition. They benefitted from the end result as much as the government.

He silently cursed the planet’s founders under his breath as he took his seat and started to review his briefing notes. They had wanted to ensure that Tyre’s political system grew and changed as the planet itself changed, knowing that taxation without representation was sure to lead to an eventual revolt and civil war. But, with the House of Lords and the King controlling much of the planet’s wealth – and thus power – the House of Commons had become more of a talking shop than its creators had envisaged. Anyone driven enough to become successful could simply take out a patent of nobility and advance to the House of Lords.

The chamber filled slowly as Lords, MPs and reporters slid into the room and found their seats. His implants matched names to faces, although he didn't need them to identify the true movers and shakers of the Commonwealth. Others, elected on platforms that failed to match any of the political parties currently in existence, were strangers to him. They simply didn't command enough of the vote, let alone political power, to be important. The hell of it, he knew, was that some of them knew it. Their showmanship did nothing more than waste time and amuse the reporters.

“This session will come to order,” the speaker said, the sound field automatically projecting his voice to every corner of the room. “The doors will now close.”

A dull thud echoed through the chamber as the doors closed with majestic grandeur. Lucas kept his face impassive with an effort. The designers of the chamber – and many of the chamber’s traditions – had wanted to create a sense of dignity, of timeless power and majesty, but he had a feeling they’d failed. There was no sense of forward thinking, merely stanch conservatism. The only advantage to the whole system, he’d decided long ago, was that anyone trying to be fashionably late would be barred from the chamber, unable to enter or cast a vote. A handful of MPs had lost their jobs over failing to vote, recalled and sacked by their constituents. It never failed to amuse him.

The party whips moved through the chamber, noting attendance, as the dignitaries settled down. There was no need for them, Lucas knew, but their act was tradition too, warning any MP considering independent action that their party was watching. It wasn't unknown for MPs to cross the chamber from government to opposition, yet there was always a high price tag. Only the most principled – or confident – MP would risk the recall election that would automatically be called, if they switched party allegiance. For some of them, the gamble even paid off.

“We are called to debate the issue of Cadiz Naval Base,” the speaker said. There was no sense of surprise in the chamber. Anyone who was anyone had sources within the government, sources that would have informed them of the debate’s subject, even though it hadn't been officially announced. “The Honourable Eustace Perivale is called to speak.”

Lucas allowed himself a tight smile as faces turned in his direction. Perivale was his creature, an MP who had sold his soul and his vote to the Falcone Corporation in exchange for money and political backing. There would be no doubt among the movers and shakers who had organised the debate, even though nothing – again – had been said officially. It was just another part of the political game.

“Mr. Speaker, Members of Parliament, My Lords and Ladies,” Perivale said. He didn't look impressive – like most MPs, he aimed for an air of dignity he didn't have the wealth or self-confidence to pull off – but he had a fine speaking voice. “Cadiz Naval Base is one of the most vital facilities in the Commonwealth. It is required to support naval operations, provide convoy escorts and defend the border. But I have received evidence that the base has been allowed to fall into disrepair.”

The speaker keyed his switch. “I invoke parliamentary rights,” he said. “The house will now go into closed session.”

Politics, Lucas thought, as the reporters were shoed from the room. There would be rumours that something was badly wrong on Cadiz now, but no specific details. It would force the government to do something without provoking panic or encouraging the Theocracy to jump now. Or so he hoped.

Perivale waited until the chamber fell silent again, then continued. “The evidence suggests that the base is no longer capable of maintaining operations,” he said. “7th Fleet is not in a better state. Furthermore, there are strong suggestions that evidence of incompetence, even wrong-doing, has been actively suppressed.”

There was a low buzz of chatter from the benches and, more importantly, dozens of private encrypted signals sent from MP to MP. Lucas watched, keeping his face impassive, as the loyalists spoke urgently to the Prime Minister, who didn't look pleased. He might be the leader of the strongest political party – and a loyal servant of the King – but he didn't have the power to change anything, unless the rest of the Commons backed him. And that was unlikely.

He wanted to sigh, but kept the expression to himself. The true problem with politics at such a high level was that everything was interrelated. Admiral Morrison’s posting to Cadiz had been part of an elaborate quid pro quo, giving several parties that had nothing else in common incentive to maintain the status quo. And he wasn't entirely sure who among the aristocracy was pushing it. Someone who wasn't interested in Cadiz – that was a given – or thought there was no prospect of war breaking out. But there were quite a few aristocrats with the combination of power and political beliefs to make it work.

The Prime Minister rose to his feet. “My Honourable Friend wishes you to believe the situation on Cadiz is out of control,” he said. “But anyone should know that the task of integrating Cadiz into the Commonwealth, a task undertaken at the behest of a majority of the House, will be a long and difficult one. Immediate success was never likely, nor was it expected.”

Lucas didn't quite resist the urge to roll his eyes like a schoolgirl. The Prime Minister’s answer answered nothing. Bland generalities rather than specific details. He must be rattled, he noted, with a hint of amusement. Or someone higher up the food chain had been working on him. Just who, he asked himself again, had put Admiral Morrison’s name forward for command of Cadiz?

“With respect, Prime Minister,” Perivale said, “that answer is far from sufficient. We are not talking about the need to provide security on the planet’s surface, but the condition of the naval base and fleet charged with defending our borders. The fleet is simply incapable of carrying out its duties.”

This time, the buzz of chatter was louder. Lucas watched, quietly monitoring the signal bursts, trying to determine who would jump what way. The decision to annex Cadiz had almost torn the Commonwealth apart, he knew; there were MPs who had no intention of allowing any further annexations ... or anything that might be deemed provocative. In their world, the Theocracy was an innocent victim of the Commonwealth’s paranoia. And besides, why would anyone want to fight a full-scale war? There were enough resources in space for everyone.

But that assumes the Theocracy follows the same logic as ourselves, Lucas thought, grimly. And everything we’ve seen suggests they don’t.

He shivered. The Believers had been exiled from Earth. They had been weak; their enemies had been strong. Lucas could understand why they would seek to take control of as much space as possible, quite apart from their duty to spread their religion. They wouldn't want to be weak again.

And then there was the constant stream of refugees ... and missionaries. It boded ill for the future.

On the floor, tempers were running high. The Prime Minister was trying valiantly to defend the situation, while the Leader of the Opposition was being goaded into pushing for an independent parliamentary investigation of the situation. That would be a mistake, Lucas knew; independent parliamentary investigations tended to become political very quickly. But it would provide political cover if someone wanted to remove Admiral Morrison, then swear blind they’d never heard of him.

But it would also be used to undermine the occupation of Cadiz itself. There was a small, but substantial group that wanted to abandon Cadiz, along with the investments the Commonwealth had made in the system. A parliamentary investigation would give them ammunition to aim at the government, perhaps even seduce other MPs and Lords to their side. And then the base might simply be abandoned ...

He sighed. Politics.

“Please be seated,” the speaker said. The noise-cancelling field silenced the rest of the MPs, who glowered at the speaker before resuming their seats. “I believe it would be better for us to take a break. We will reconvene in two hours.”

Lucas nodded, then stood and followed the rest of the Lords as they made their way to the restroom. There would be a chance for a drink, something to eat and some political scheming ... or maybe not. He stopped as a new message blinked up in his implants, inviting him to the Royal Palace. His Majesty had clearly been monitoring the whole debate. Lucas hesitated, thinking hard, then sent back a brief acknowledgement. It was time he spoke to the King.

***
The Royal Palace looked almost undefended, Lucas noted, as he strode through the garden path leading from the Houses of Parliament to the Palace. It was built of glowing white marble, just like the rest of the city, reflecting the sunlight into his eyes. And yet he happened to know that successive monarchs had worked defences into the building until it was almost as tough as a planetary defence centre.

He sighed inwardly as he passed through the security screen and walked into the palace, where the King’s aide – a middle-aged woman with a hatchet face – met him and led the way up the stairs. Tyre had originally been built by corporate families, families who had councils to elect the person who would succeed the previous CEO ... and put limits on his power, if necessary. Combined with an open invitation to anyone successful to join the nobility, it helped ensure that the people in charge had a firm grip on reality. But the Royal Family passed inheritance – and the bulk of their power – down a strict line of succession. One of his nightmares was an incompetent monarch rising to power.

The King is not incompetent, he told himself as he was shown into the private audience chamber. He is merely young.

“Your Grace,” King Hadrian said. “Thank you for coming.”

“It was my pleasure,” Lucas said, as he took a seat. There was little formality in the private chambers, thankfully. “It has been far too long since we spoke.”

The King smiled, although it didn't touch his eyes. Lucas sighed inwardly, again. The King was barely two years older than Kat, yet he had inherited far more wealth and power than anyone else in the Commonwealth. He was young, with short dark hair and darker eyes, and a drive to match his father that needed to be tempered. But then, his father had built the Commonwealth and started the build-up against the Theocracy. It would be hard for anyone to live up to such a man.

He wouldn't have succeeded me, Lucas thought, coldly. The family wouldn't have accepted someone with so little experience.

“Perivale made an impressive speech,” the King said. “How much of it did you write for him?”

“Enough of it,” Lucas said. He didn't bother to deny his involvement. The King and his advisors would have known before Perivale opened his mouth. “The situation on Cadiz is growing dire.”

He took a breath. “Admiral Morrison needs to be removed, now,” he added. “Whatever he’s good for, Your Majesty, it isn't command of a fleet base on the brink of war.”

“Politics,” the King said. There was a bitter tone in his voice. “Accepting Admiral Morrison as the Fleet Base’s CO was the price we paid for getting the last Naval Budget through Parliament.”

“Politics be damned,” Lucas said, evenly.

“They’re very keen to prevent another Cadiz,” the King pointed out. “They don’t see the real danger.”

Lucas wasn't too surprised. The hell of it was that there were good arguments against annexing worlds that didn't want to be annexed. If nothing else, occupying them was a steady drain on the Commonwealth’s resources. Admiral Morrison could be relied upon to do nothing, if that was what they wanted. He certainly wouldn't invade Theocratic space on his own authority. But what would he do if the Theocracy attacked?

“Then we need to sideline him,” Lucas said. There were plenty of ways to remove someone from effective power, while leaving them with an impressive job title. He’d used them himself on members of the family who didn't deserve to wield power. “Separate his command responsibilities. Put someone else in command of 7th Fleet, but leave Morrison in an oversight role.”

“They’d resist any change in the status quo,” the King said. “We couldn't undermine Morrison’s position without risking a political confrontation.”

“Some confrontations have to be fought,” Lucas said. “And your position can't be undermined so easily.”

“Their position can,” the King said. “They will fight tooth and nail to keep Morrison in command.”

“Then find something you can offer them in exchange for cutting Morrison loose,” Lucas snapped. “He has to go!”

But he knew it wouldn't be easy. Political patronage was a fact of life. Any aristocrat worthy of the name had a whole string of clients, who accepted his money and political support in exchange for service. Admiral Morrison had reached high office through being a client of someone much more powerful, but his very position gave him influence over his patron. If nothing else, cutting Morrison loose would damage his patron’s reputation for defending his clients, making it harder to attract new ones in future.

Not for the first time, he cursed the system under his breath. Push Morrison too hard and the whole system might come tumbling down. And the Theocracy would be glad to take advantage of the political chaos. If Kat was correct and they were backing the raiders, they had to be almost ready to jump. They wouldn't risk alerting the Commonwealth until it was too late to matter.

They could be crossing the border now, he thought. Cadiz might already be under attack.

“We need to take steps,” he said, instead. “Something to ensure we can replace Morrison quickly, if war breaks out.”

The King nodded. “I intend to dispatch Admiral Christian and 6th Fleet to backstop 7th Fleet,” he said. “The fleet movement will be kept classified, but they’ll be in position to reinforce Cadiz if necessary. I’ll add sealed orders for Christian too. If the war begins, he is to relieve Morrison without further ado.”

Lucas eyed him, feeling an odd flicker of suspicion. Had the King, who was Commander-in-Chief of the Navy, had a redeployment in mind all along? Or had he made it up on the spot?

“It may be impossible to save Cadiz,” the King added. “In that case, we will fall back and hold the line elsewhere.”

“You’ve been giving this some thought,” Lucas observed. The King had wanted a naval career, but the shortage of heirs had ensured he would never be allowed to serve. “Have you been talking to the Admiralty?”

“Yes,” the King said, flatly.

He leaned forward. “I will need your assistance to get this through the Defence Committee,” he said. “We dare not take it to Parliament.”

“Very well,” Lucas said. The King was right ... but he was unable to shed the feeling that he’d been manipulated. “But we do need to limit Morrison’s ability to do harm.”

“Tricky,” the King observed. “Do you have any ideas?”

“We could always recall him for consultations,” Lucas said, reluctantly. “There are some matters that can't be discussed over StarCom.”

“True,” the King agreed, “but his patrons would smell a rat.”

Lucas shook his head in disbelief. Had anyone, the King’s father included, realised that by annexing Cadiz they would cause the entire political system to gridlock? There was just too much opposition to any form of adventurism to allow Admiral Morrison to be removed. Lucas could understand their point, particularly after Cadiz had been such a dismal failure. But what would happen if it was the Theocracy who started the war?

“I’ll speak to some of them,” he said. “Perhaps we can find something to trade in exchange for kicking Morrison upstairs – and into somewhere harmless.”

“Good luck,” the King said. “And give your daughter my best wishes.”

Lucas wasn't surprised. No one would send such a damaging – and uncompromising – report back home unless they were assured of political cover. Kat was almost certainly the only person at Cadiz who would, even though it might cost her a career she’d worked hard to build. Anyone who checked the fleet lists would find her name and look no further.

“Yes, Your Majesty,” he said. He’d once hoped that Kat would be one of the King’s playmates, but it hadn't worked out. The Prince, like most boys of that age, had been more interested in spending time with his male friends. “I’ll give her your good wishes.”
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#24
Chapter Eighteen

“You released the spy ship?”

Kat stared at Admiral Morrison in absolute disbelief. She had thought herself prepared for anything, from a lecture on telling tales to her father to a demand she turn in her command codes, badge and uniform. She’d spent the return flight telling herself that she could survive if she had to fall back on her trust fund. Perhaps she could buy herself a starship and set out as an independent trader. But she had never considered the Admiral simply letting the spies go.

She caught her breath. “Admiral,” she said, “we caught them red-handed!”

“A modern sensor suite doesn’t make them spies,” Admiral Morrison said, with unaccustomed firmness. “They were hardly crammed full of weapons.”

Kat’s eyes narrowed. “Intelligence is a weapon, Admiral,” she said. “Why did you release them?”

“The Trade Guilds were furious,” Admiral Morrison said. “I had complaints coming in to my office almost as soon as you arrived. I skimmed the evidence, decided you had overreacted and ordered the ship released.”

“You released them because the traders complained,” Kat said. She had to fight to keep her voice under control. “Admiral, that was not a trading ship.”

“You should know better than I just how many ... non-standard trading ships there are along the border,” the Admiral said. “There are quite a few with military-grade gear.”

“But a sensor suite that is better than anything generally available?” Kat demanded. “And far more crew than they need to run the ship?”

She shivered. Having enemy commandos onboard her vessel, even unarmed and under heavy guard, had been a nightmare. It had been a relief to reach Cadiz and transfer them to the planet’s security forces. She should have known it wouldn't last.

“Trade with the Theocracy brings a considerable amount of money to this planet,” the Admiral said. “The Occupation Government was most upset. They actually wanted me to formally censure you for your ... overreaction.”

He gave her a smile that was probably meant to be reassuring. It came off as condescending.

“I understand how hard it can be to avoid letting go of one’s first impressions,” he continued, smoothly. “My first glance at the records didn't leave me with a good taste in my mouth either. But, upon mature reflection, I decided there was simply not enough evidence to hold them against their will. There would be ... diplomatic repercussions.”

“The Theocracy is unlikely to want to draw attention to their spy ship,” Kat snapped. She rather suspected the crew would simply have been abandoned to their fate. “And the trade guilds don’t make that much money ...”

“They have quite a few links to corporations back home,” the Admiral said. he gave her a wintery smile. “Your father might not be pleased to get a report that his daughter had damaged his investment.”

Kat thought, rapidly. Did the Admiral know she’d sent a report to Tyre? It didn't sound like it – and the security codes should have prevented it from being intercepted. Or had he set out to lure her into a false sense of security? There was no way to tell.

“My father is not part of this discussion,” she said, finally. “I have my duties as a naval officer ...”

“You have a duty to obey orders,” the Admiral countered. “In this case, the evidence has been reviewed and found to be lacking. We cannot justify holding on to the freighter. I will not put a note in your file about the incident, Captain, but I would advise you to be careful in future.”

Kat looked past him, out the window. In the distance, a plume of smoke was rising into the air, while a pair of helicopters flew overhead. The insurgency was alive and well, even in Gibraltar itself. Just how much worse would it become, she asked herself, if the commandos she’d captured added their skills to the mix? And were they the first ones to make it to the surface?

I should have wiped their computers, even destroyed the cores, she thought. Davidson had suggested it, which would have rendered the ship completely useless without a major refurbishment, but she’d wanted to preserve the evidence. There would be no chance to do it in future, either. Now the spy ship had been cleared, she could collect her evidence at leisure and make her way back to the Theocracy. Somehow, she doubted she would be allowed to escort the next convoy.

“Yes, Admiral,” she said, finally.

“Now, onto more pleasant matters,” the Admiral said. “I am hosting another party in four days, Captain, and I would like you to attend.”

Kat fought down the urge to grind her teeth. She hated parties; she’d always hated them, particularly after she’d realised that her birthday parties were a chance for her parents to network, rather than dote on their daughter. And who could attend parties when war was looming in the distance? The mere presence of the spy ship suggested the Theocracy was merely making sure of its figures before launching the attack.

“This will be a good opportunity for you to meet your fellow commanding officers,” the Admiral continued, unaware of her inner thoughts. “And there are quite a few others who would like to meet with you as well.”

I’m still not in a position to influence my father, Kat thought. But she knew saying it out loud would be pointless.

She forced herself to think logically. The Admiral was right about one thing, at least. It would be a chance to meet the other commanding officers and take their measure. None of the reports sounded promising, but maybe things could be better in person. She could talk to them, even try to warn them about the oncoming storm. Perhaps they would listen ...

Or perhaps they will see me as someone promoted ahead of her competence, she thought, bitterly. And they won’t listen to me.

“I’ll attend,” she said, finally.

“Splendid,” the Admiral said. “I’ll have my Society Aide get in touch with your Steward about dresses and suchlike. It's completely non-formal, Captain. We wouldn't want anyone allowing their rank to get in the way of pleasure, would we?”

Kat had to draw on her implants to keep her face still. Candy had spent hours trying to play dress-up with Kat, even after they had both reached their majority. She hated playing dress-up. If there was one advantage to naval dress uniforms, which were universally hated too, it was that no one could try to outshine everyone else. It wasn't something anyone could say of society balls. If two different women happened to wear the same dress, it could start a feud that could last for years.

“Yes, Admiral,” she grated. She would have to give her Steward some very precise instructions. Some of the dresses society butterflies had been known to wear in public barely covered anything. She was damned if she was talking to her fellow commanders while looking like a whore. “I will look forward to it.”

There was a flash of light in the distance, followed by a fireball rising up into the sky. Kat shook her head, feeling a moment of pity for everyone on the surface, caught between the insurgents and the Commonwealth military. If half of the reports Davidson had forwarded to her were accurate, the Commonwealth was definitely losing control over its long-serving soldiers. The number of ‘incidents’ was definitely on the rise.

And those are only the ones we know about, she thought. How many more haven’t been recorded, let alone investigated and punished?

The Admiral was speaking. Kat winced, inwardly. She’d distracted herself.

“I’m sorry, Admiral,” she said. “I was staring at the blast.”

“You get used to them,” the Admiral said. “I was suggesting you spent some time in the facilities here. They’re designed for senior officers.”

Kat wanted to go back to Lightning, but she knew she should have a look round the government complex. Who knew when she’d have another chance?

“It would be my pleasure,” she said, finally. “Your aide can escort me.”

The Admiral nodded, then summoned Commander Jeannette Macintyre and issued orders, ending with a wink. Kat sensed trouble long before Commander Macintyre escorted her out of the Admiral’s office and down a long flight of stairs, ending up in a restaurant that wouldn't have been too out of place on Tyre itself. She couldn't help being reminded of the Hotel Magnificent; the waiters looked snooty, the customers looked rich ... and half the tables were empty.

“I’ve already eaten,” Kat said, when Macintyre started to steer her towards a table. “I’d just like to see the rest of the complex.”

It was larger than she’d realised, she discovered, as Macintyre gave her a short tour. And it was also surprisingly luxurious. There were two swimming pools – one for enlisted, the other for senior officers and bureaucrats – both of which seemed to be busy at all hours of the day. Behind them, there were three bars, again separated by social class, and a large gym. It was better equipped than the compartment on Thunderous – or Lightning.

“Most of the workers here can't leave the complex,” Macintyre explained. “There’s no shore leave, not even a brief trip to the spaceport. They have to find their entertainment here.”

Kat shook her head in disbelief. She knew a little about funding, thanks to her father, and she had a sneaking suspicion that the bureaucrats had spent more than they should have had available to decorate their living quarters. The Commonwealth had poured a vast amount of money into Cadiz, but where had half the money gone? She knew, all too well, that the bureaucrats had to spend their entire budget or it would be cut ... if they hadn't been able to spend it on Cadiz, had they spent it on themselves?

Another flash of light in the air caught her attention. “That’s a mortar shell,” Macintyre explained, utterly unperturbed. “We shoot them down before they can strike the complex, vaporising the bastards. Everyone loves seeing them explode.”

Kat heard the sound of guns, firing from the other side of the complex. “And those?”

“Firing back at the bastards,” Macintyre said. “We try to kill as many mortar crews as possible.”

“I see,” Kat said.

Macintyre leaned forward. “Would you like some companionship?”

Kat felt herself flush. She’d never really explored the brothels near Piker’s Peak, even though they catered for both male and female customers. It shouldn't really have surprised her that there was a brothel attached to Government House. The Admiral would probably have ordered one if it hadn't been there already. But it had never really been her style.

“I think I would like to go back to my ship,” she said, instead. “There’s nothing for me here.”

Commander Macintyre offered no objection, somewhat to Kat’s surprise. Instead, she just called the security commander and arranged for a convoy to escort Kat back to the spaceport. Kat wasn't surprised – but more than a little alarmed – to discover that shuttles weren't allowed to land in the complex or even overfly the city. It was clear that the situation on the ground was actively degrading, far worse than any of the reports suggested. She couldn't help imagining what would happen if the Commonwealth ever lost control of the high orbitals. It would be a nightmare.

“The Admiral is a busy man,” Macintyre said, apologetically. “He will have more time for you in future.”

Kat kept her opinion of that to herself. The less time the Admiral had for her, the better. She silently composed a second report to her father as they waited for the escort, then climbed into the small tank and took her seat. This time, there was no transparent window allowing her to see out into the city. All she could do was sit and wait for the vehicle to reach the spaceport, hearing – from time to time- bullets pinging off the armour. It was clear the insurgents weren't afraid to challenge the occupation force directly.

They’re wearing us down, she thought, morbidly. The occupation force had powered armour and access to the best medical treatment in the galaxy, but there was still a steady stream of casualties heading back home. If it grew worse, she suspected, there would be more urgent questions asked in Parliament, perhaps even widespread protests against the war. It hadn't happened before, but Cadiz was a special case. There wasn't even a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel.

Kat let out a sigh of relief when they reached the spaceport and the hatch opened, allowing her to scramble out onto the tarmac. She wasn't claustrophobic – it was impossible to serve in the navy if one was scared of tight places – but she had disliked being in the vehicle intensely. It probably wouldn't have been any better if she’d been able to see outside, knowing bullets and homemade rockets would be hurled in her direction. She walked towards the shuttle, then climbed through the hatch and ordered the pilot to take her back into space. It would be a relief to be away from the planet’s surface.

And if it can do this to me, she thought grimly, what does it do to someone who spends months on the surface?

She called the XO and Davidson as soon as the shuttle docked, inviting them both to her Ready Room. As soon as they arrived, she explained – briefly – what the Admiral had done to the spy ship. Both of them reacted with horror, but there was nothing they could do. The spy ship had been released and there might not be a chance to search it again, after she left Cadiz.

“The Admiral isn't interested in preparing for war,” Kat said. She’d checked the message buffer. Her father hadn't replied. “And it might take too long for any new orders to arrive from Tyre.”

The XO leaned forward. “Your father can’t do anything?”

“My father isn't all-powerful,” Kat pointed out. “Someone is backing Admiral Morrison and that someone will have to be ... dissuaded. It’s never easy when so many different political personalities are involved.”

She ran her hand through her blonde hair. “We need to make some contingency plans of our own,” she added. “And we need to bring in others from the rest of the fleet.”

The XO’s eyes narrowed. “I received a message only an hour ago, inviting me to the Dead Donkey,” he said. “That’s a bar in the spaceport, Captain. It has quite a bad reputation.”

Kat had to smile. “For Cadiz?”

“Yes,” the XO said. “But it’s also one of the places the Shore Patrol don’t dare go.”

“Sounds like someone wants to chat,” Davidson said. “Do you want me to come with you?”

The XO shook his head. “The message was unsigned,” he said. “If it’s someone Fran might have pointed in my direction, Major, they won’t want to see a Marine. They might assume the worst.”

Kat cleared her throat. “How many officers do you know – and trust – on the fleet?”

The XO hesitated. “I’ve recognised around thirty names,” he said. “There might well be others. Pretty much all of them are mustangs with their hands screwed on properly.”

Kat took a breath. What she was about to propose was not – technically – against naval regulations. On the other hand, the Admiral might well be able to class it as conspiracy to commit mutiny or barratry, both of which carried the death sentence. Kat’s father would be able to save her life, if at a cost, but anyone else who took part was doing so at the risk of their life. And their reputation would be shot to hell.

“I’ll make an assessment of the other commanding officers at the Admiral’s party,” she said, “but we have to assume the worst. We need to convince your friends to help prepare 7th Fleet for battle as quickly – and covertly – as possible.”

The XO frowned. “That will be difficult,” he said. “Even the most data-constipated bureaucrat would be unable to avoid noticing the sudden upswing in requisitions.”

Kat cursed under her breath. He was right.

“It has to be done,” she said, finally. She looked at Davidson. “Can you warn the Marines on the ground that the system might come under attack?”

“I can try,” Davidson said. “But if the fleet isn't ready to defend the planet, the Marines on the surface will be screwed.”

“I know,” Kat said. Any other planet would have countless loyalists ready to resist the Theocracy. But Cadiz was different. They’d learn their mistake soon enough, if the refugees were telling the truth, yet it would be too late to save the forces on the ground. “Do what you can.”

The XO gave her a long look. “What guarantees can I offer them?”

“I don’t know,” Kat admitted. It was possible her father would be able to arrange for her to get wide authority, perhaps quasi-sealed orders she could use to justify her actions. But they would have to be procured from the Admiralty and there would be resistance, not least because she was such a junior Captain. “They may be risking their lives as well as their careers.”

The XO didn't object. In some ways, that worried her more than she cared to admit.

“I’ll meet with this contact,” the XO said, “and then get in touch with my old friends. No one will think anything of us meeting in a bar for a drink and a yarn about old times.”

“Thank you,” Kat said. She wished she had more contacts, but the XO had been in the navy longer than she’d been alive. Most of the officers she knew were on Tyre. “If it does go to shit, I’ll do what I can.”

“I know you will,” the XO said. He sounded as though the last of his reservations had faded away. “Thank you, Captain.”
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#25
Chapter Nineteen

Finding the Dead Donkey was not an easy task in the evening darkness, William discovered. The bar didn't have any lights advertising its presence, apart from a single slit in the door that hinted there was something inside. But it did have had one thing going for it, he decided as he walked through the door; it was the perfect place to meet someone without the Shore Patrol interrupting the meeting.

He gritted his teeth as he looked around, searching for the rendezvous point. The Dead Donkey was a large bar, but the tables were separated by privacy walls, while several expensive – and only semi-legal – ECM generators were operating, making it extremely difficult for anyone to overhear anything. Even the air was tainted with foul-smelling smoke. Gritting his teeth, fighting the instincts that warned him the air was badly contaminated, he walked into the section and sat down. There was no sign of his contact.

He looked up as the bartender appeared, one hand clutching a battered-looking terminal. “A drink, sir?”

“Water, please,” William said. he wanted something stronger, but he had a feeling he’d need all of his wits around him. “And a small packet of peanuts.”

The bartender nodded and withdraw. William sighed and studied the pornographic images someone had drawn on the privacy wall. They were very imaginative, if somewhat impractical. Besides, no one would come to the Dead Donkey hoping to pick up a woman for the night. There were brothels for that back towards the more civilised parts of the spaceport.

“Billy,” a voice said. “You look as young as ever.”

William stared. “... Scott?”

His brother slipped into the compartment and sat down facing him, resting his hands on the table. “You were expecting someone else?”

“Yes,” William said, flatly.

He studied his brother carefully. Scott was older by ten years, but he looked younger. His hair was still brown, rather than greying; he wore a merchant spacer’s uniform and wore it well. But there was no starship ID on his collar, suggesting he was trying to conceal his starship from prying eyes. That, William knew, was no surprise.

“I caught sight of your Captain this morning,” Scott said, as he pulled a privacy generator out of his pocket and placed it on the table. “She’s very pretty – and quite young.”

His eyes gleamed with amusement as he activated the generator. “Do you ever feel you made the wrong choice?”

“No,” William said. His brother had always been able to get under his skin. “I don’t.”

“You should have your own ship by now,” Scott said. “You've had thirty years in the Navy, seven of them as an XO. But she has powerful connections and I guess those trumped your experience.”

He smiled, then twisted the expression into a leer. “But she’s young,” he said, again. “Do you ever pull her over your knee and spank her when she makes a mistake?”

William tapped the table, sharply. “Is there a reason you asked me to come here?”

“Yes,” Scott said. “But aren't you remotely pleased to see me?”

“You’re a disgrace,” William said. “I haven't seen you for nearly thirty-five years.”

“You’ve probably heard of me,” Scott said. He leaned back, placing his hands behind his head and leaning on the partition. “Not under my real name, of course.”

William sighed. Scott had loved a girl on their homeworld, a girl he had hoped to marry when he grew old enough to start a croft of his own. But she’d been sacrificed to the pirates to appease their wrath, only a year before the Commonwealth had arrived. Scott had obtained a starship and departed Hebrides, refusing to listen to either their parents or William himself. And he’d become a smuggler. There were times William wondered if his brother hadn't crossed the line into piracy too.

“Probably not,” he agreed. “What are you doing here?”

“There aren't many barriers to free trade here,” Scott said, absently. “You never know what one might be able to pick up in this system?”

William glared at him. “Are you shipping weapons to the insurgents?”

“I never disclose secrets belonging to my clients,” Scott said. He smirked as he saw William clenching his fists. “But I have other places to serve right now.”

“Oh,” William said. “And those are?”

His brother smiled, then held up a hand as the bartender returned, carrying a tray of glasses and a packet of peanuts. William’s eyes narrowed as he realised his water was nowhere in sight.

“I took the liberty of ordering some Highland Ale for us both,” Scott said. “You do remember drinking ourselves stone cold drunk one day?”

“Yeah,” William said. He wasn't blind to the underlying message either. Highland Ale was cheap on their homeworld, but expensive elsewhere. Scott was displaying his wealth, without ever quite bragging openly. “Dad was not pleased.”

Scott tapped the privacy generator again as soon as the bartender withdraw, switching the frequencies. This time, William gave the generator a closer look. It wasn't civilian, he saw, despite a careful paint job. It was military-grade. His brother followed his gaze and smiled, coldly.

“It's astonishing just how much falls off the back of a shuttlecraft,” he said, mildly. “If you know who to ask, of course.”

“Of course,” William said. “Why did you ask me to come here?”

Scott took a sip of his beer. “Can I ask you to keep some parts of the story to yourself?”

“Maybe,” William said.

Scott studied him, then nodded. “I’ve been smuggling for nearly forty years,” he said, bluntly. “You’ve probably heard of my alias, which I won’t share with you right now because it would cause you a conflict of interest. Suffice it to say that I have a small fleet of smuggler ships and don’t give a damn about borders.”

William put two and two together. “You’ve been smuggling goods into the Theocracy,” he said, suddenly. “That’s why you’re here.”

“Yes,” Scott said, simply. He leaned forward, resting his elbows on the table. “It’s astonishing how much those wankers are prepared to pay for smuggled goods. Anyone would think they didn't believe in their religion.”

His face twisted with remembered pain. William winced in sympathy. Scott had been a regular church-goer, just like the rest of the family, until he’d lost his girl. It might have been better if the priest hadn’t tried to convince him that one girl was a small price to pay for their safety. Scott had had to be dragged off the priest and he’d never gone back to the church since then, despite pleas from their mother and beatings from their father.

“They want porn,” Scott said. “And luxury goods.”

“Stuff regular traders aren’t allowed to send them,” William commented. “How do you get away with it?”

“Large bribes,” Scott said. He shrugged. “Honestly. The Theocracy isn't that different from... well, Cadiz. As long as you know who to pay off, and keep them sweet, no one touches you. The Inquisitors even have a sideline in very rough porn.”

William frowned. “Do I want to know?”

“Probably not,” Scott said. “You were always more straight-laced than me.”

“Oh,” William said. Their homeworld had been very conservative. It had been a shock to discover that nude photographs, video clips and VR simulations were freely available in the Commonwealth. And then the porn just became more and more hardcore. He was used to it now, but it sometimes still shocked him, even though he knew everyone involved were actors. “Is there a point to this?”

“I've been hiring out more ships to work within the Theocracy,” Scott said. “I don’t mean just smuggling work, either. I mean hauling just about everything you can imagine from star to star.”

“You’d think they have their own freighters for that,” William said, slowly. A very nasty idea was starting to build up in his head. “What happened to them?”

“A very good question,” Scott agreed. “Time was we couldn't penetrate more than a few star systems into the Theocracy. The officials got more and more expensive to bribe. Hell, some systems were off-limits no matter what we offered. But now ... now, we’re actually hauling freight for them regularly. It’s all rather odd.”

William shivered. Civilians might think of the navy as being nothing more than warships, but the fleet train – the freighters that transported missiles, spare parts and other essentials – was just as important. A large part of Cadiz’s importance lay in the stockpile of supplies that had been built up in the system, ever since it had been annexed. But if someone had wanted to launch an invasion of hostile space, they would need freighters to keep their warships supplied with everything they might need to function.

“They’re reserving their freighters for some other reason,” he said, slowly.

“That’s right, Billy,” his brother said. “And I don’t think it bodes well for your mistress.”

He smirked, then pressed on. “Not the only odd thing too,” he continued. “I’ve seen agents moving through the underground, looking to hire mercenaries and pirate ships. But I think you’ve already seen some evidence of this.”

“You have a pipeline into the Admiral’s office,” William said.

“The Occupation Government leaks like that bucket you dropped down the gorge,” Scott said. “I didn't have to spend more than a few hundred crowds to get a look at the report your Captain filed. Most of your conclusions were correct. Someone is paying pirates handsomely to destroy ships, rather than try to take them as prizes.”

“If you have proof of this,” William said, “it’s your duty to share it with us.”

“I don’t have a duty,” Scott said. “Am I a Commonwealth citizen?”

William winced. His brother had never been quite the same since his girl had been taken by the pirates. Once, he would have been as selfless as anyone else raised by a poor but proud family. Now, he looked out for himself, first and foremost. He’d certainly never done anything to help the rest of his family, although that might have been a favour of sorts. Their parents would not have accepted anything from such a tainted source.

“If war comes ...”

“There will be room for us,” Scott said, cutting him off. “We can make deals with whichever side comes out on top.”

“If you believed that,” William said, swallowing his anger, “you would never have come to me at all.”

Scott smiled, openly. “True, I suppose,” he said.

William pressed his advantage. “The Theocracy is prepared to tolerate you – now,” he said. “That will change, I think, if they win the war. They certainly won’t want to see their civilians corrupted by outside influences. I think you’ll be invited to a meeting that will be nothing more than cover for a mass slaughter.”

“Perhaps,” Scott said.

He took a breath. “Let me be blunt, then,” he added. “Myself and my associates are unwilling to take a side formally. We have ... contacts who will be outraged at the thought of us working with you. Some of them are more scared of the Commonwealth than the Theocracy. Others just want to stay out of the firing line.

“But we’re prepared to provide intelligence, for a price.”

William wasn't surprised. “What price?”

“I suppose that depends on what you’re prepared to offer,” Scott said. He leaned forward, smiling coldly. “What are you prepared to offer?”

“And what,” William asked, “are you prepared to offer?”

“It depends on what you are prepared to offer,” Scott said. “I ...”

William slapped the table. “Stop playing games,” he snapped. “If there's something you want, say so.”

“Money,” Scott said. “And certain ... events being officially forgotten.”

William thought, fast. The Captain had a discretionary fund she could use to made deals, if necessary – and she had her trust fund too, he reminded himself. It was quite possible they could simply purchase whatever Scott had to offer ... and he was fairly sure his brother wouldn't try to cheat them. If he did, there would be no grounds for a long-term relationship.

“Money we might be able to offer,” he said.

Scott met his eyes. “Might?”

“You didn't tell me who I’d be meeting,” William snapped. He reached into his pocket and pulled out his credit chip. “I can offer you a few hundred crowns, if you like.”

“Point,” Scott agreed.

He leaned backwards, then took a long swig of his beer. “I have a considerable amount of navigational data,” he said. “You are aware, no doubt, that most of the hyper-routes into Theocratic space are mined or patrolled. But a handful of the more ... hair-raising routes are largely unguarded. You might find the information useful.”

“I’d prefer to know more about pirate bases and contacts,” William said.

“I bet you would,” Scott said. “But I’m afraid” – he tapped his forehead meaningfully – “that isn't on the table.”

He paused. “I will say that demand for our services has actually been growing stronger,” he added. “You may discover that you have less time that you think.”

William sighed. “Are you saying you’ll close a deal with them if we refuse or that we might not have long until the war breaks out?”

“Maybe both,” Scott said. “It’ll cost you at least a hundred crowns for a definite answer.”

He reached into his pocket and produced a datachip. “I brought something as a gesture of good faith,” he said. “My crews have a habit of recording everything picked up by their passive sensors, including local news broadcasts. This ... is everything they recorded from a visit to Heaven’s Star. You used to know it as Abadan.”

William checked his implants. Abadan had been settled just before the Breakdown and remained largely untouched by the Breakaway Wars and other galactic affairs, at least until the expanding Theocracy had rolled over it. There was nothing else listed in the files, not even a mention of refugees. But if the world had been a stage-one colony before the Breakaway Wars, it was unlikely they’d had any homebuilt space industry of their own before it was too late. The only advantage they’d had was that their debts to the UN had died with the UN itself.

“You won’t find it very reassuring,” Scott said. “We can provide more, for a price.”

“Of course,” William said.

His brother leaned forward. “Can I ask you a question?”

William hesitated, then nodded.

“I could give you a command,” Scott said. His voice was very soft, as if he feared being overheard. “I have a handful of former warships in my fleet. Someone like you, with the skills of the common spacer and bearing of an officer, would be very helpful. Why don’t you join me?”

He pressed forward before William could say a word. “You would rise on your own merits,” he added. “You wouldn't have to take orders from a girl who was born with a silver spoon in her mouth. You would be free.”

“Tell me,” William said. “How is you giving me a command any different from the Captain’s father giving her a command?”

“You’ve proved you can handle command,” Scott said. “And none of my people would dispute it.”

He reached out and touched William’s hand. “Come with me,” he said. “This star system is a disaster waiting to happen. Don’t stay and die for a Commonwealth that doesn’t appreciate your service.”

William stared down at the table, his thoughts awhirl. He was tempted, he had to admit, even though he would never have said it to his brother’s face. Command was his dream, yet it seemed increasingly unlikely that he would ever have a starship of his own. Even if he succeeded to command of Lightning, the Admiralty would probably find another commander to replace him. And an independent shipping captain had far more autonomy than a naval commander.

“It’s immoral,” he muttered.

“I do have legit businesses,” Scott said. “You wouldn't have to dirty your hands if you didn't want to.”

The hell of it, William suspected, was that his brother was being sincere. Their relationship had died the day Scott had turned his back and walked away, yet before then Scott had always looked out for his younger brother. And the offer was tempting. If the Captain had been half the brat he’d feared, he would have seriously considered turning his own back on the Royal Navy. But the Captain was a better person than he’d dared anticipate.

“I have my duty,” he said, firmly. “And my pride.”

“Pride doesn't put food on the table,” Scott said.

William’s lips twitched. “I’m not that desperate,” he said, finally. “Thank you for your offer, Scott, but no.”

Scott stood. “I’ll pick up the tab,” he said. He dropped a second datachip on the table, then picked up the privacy generator. “There’s a contact code for my current location on the chip. Should you try to trace it ... well, I’m afraid it won’t work. And you won’t see me again. Send me a message, tell me who you’ll be bringing and we will see.”

“Understood,” William said. “How long will you be in the system?”

“I’m not sure,” Scott admitted. “If the system comes under attack ... well, I’m gone.”

He nodded to William, then walked away.

William looked at the bottle of beer, then took a long swig himself. It tasted worse than he remembered, but oddly familiar none-the-less. Part of him was tempted to order more, to drink himself as senseless as they’d done years ago, but he knew his duty. Leaving the rest of the beer on the table, he stood and walked through the bar’s doors. Outside, there was no sign of Scott. All he could see was a flashing light advertising a nearby brothel. He was tempted to knock on the door, to find a girl for the night, but he pushed the thought aside.

I have to get back to the ship, he thought. And then work out what I’m going to tell the Captain.
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#26
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Chapter Twenty

“Don’t worry about having a smuggler in the family,” Kat said, the following morning. “I have politicians in mine.”

The XO looked relieved. Technically, he should have declared any potentially ... embarrassing family connections when he’d joined the navy. His brother might not have been quite as notorious as he’d hinted at the time, but it would still look very bad on his service record. And, if his brother was one of the smugglers wanted by the law, it was unlikely his career would survive.

“Thank you, Captain,” the XO said.

Kat looked down at her hands. “I’ll send the information to Tyre,” she said, flatly. “And add it to every other factoid we’ve collected. But I don’t know if anyone will pay attention.”

The XO sighed. “Did your father not send anything back to you?”

“Nothing useful,” Kat admitted. “All he sent was a brief acknowledgement and a note that the matter would be discussed.”

She sighed. “And I have to waste time going to the Admiral’s party rather than patrolling the border or doing something useful.”

“Yes, Captain,” the XO agreed. “Think of it as a chance to gain some useful intelligence.”

“Think of it as a chance to practice removing lips from my ass,” Kat countered, crossly. The Admiral’s guest list had been announced on the planetary datanet, as if anyone cared who the Admiral chose to invite to his parties. Most of the guests were either naval officers or civilian administrators looking for posts in the private sector after they finished their terms of office on Cadiz. “I should take a blowtorch and a monofilament knife for swift removal.”

The XO smirked. “And can you do anything for them?”

“I doubt it,” Kat said. “I was never groomed to take an important place within the corporation.”

She rose to her feet and started to pace the compartment. “How long do we have?”

“I wish I knew,” the XO said. He stayed in his seat, watching her. “I’ll be speaking to my friends tomorrow night.”

“Have fun,” Kat said. She wished she could go, but she knew the XO’s friends would talk much more freely without her around. “And tell them they will have my full support, if necessary.”

“I wish it were that easy,” the XO said. “What about your family’s people within the system?”

“Few of them are in any place to assist us,” Kat said, slowly. “But I do plan to talk to them when I have a moment.”

The XO stood. “I’ll inform you of the outcome,” he said. “The only other problem right now is shore leave rota. There have been complaints.”

“I know,” Kat said. She’d heard from Davidson that there had been grumbles. “But we’re not allowing the crew levels to drop below seventy percent, not now. I want to be ready to fight if the shit hits the fan.”

The XO nodded. “Aye, aye, Captain.”

“Dismissed,” Kat said.

She waited for him to leave, then sat back down at her desk and called up the file the Admiral’s office had sent her. It was clear, alarmingly so, that the Admiral had imported personal staff from Tyre and then put them on the Occupation Force’s budget. One of them had sent her details of the dress the Admiral expected her to wear at the party. Instead of a dress uniform, he wanted her to wear a little black cocktail dress. She’d look good in it, Kat had to admit, but she wouldn't look anything like a commanding officer. It would be hard to restore discipline if any of her crew saw her in it.

Bastard, she thought, angrily. What the hell is his game?

***
It was depressingly easy to hire a bar for the night, William discovered. The Captain had given him a credit chip with a sizable balance, which had allowed him to reserve the entire bar, buy a considerable amount of alcohol and give the staff the night off. It had required a deposit of an extra thousand crowns to secure their absence, but it was worth it. There would be no eavesdroppers when he and his friends met to discuss the situation. God alone knew what rumours would start if anyone overheard the discussion.

We’d probably all get charged with plotting a mutiny, he thought, as he watched Davidson and Corporal Loomis scan the entire bar for bugs. They’d already found and disabled a couple of monitors, but he was feeling paranoid. Or perhaps with using common sense in the vicinity of a senior officer.

“It's clean,” Davidson confirmed, finally. “The security fields should ensure no one can overhear you.”

William nodded. “Go back to the shuttle,” he ordered, as he checked the bar himself. The supplier hadn't bothered to do more than drop the crates of booze behind the bar. It didn’t bother him. “I’ll call you if I need you.”

“No shore leave for us,” Davidson agreed. The Marines had had to stagger their shore leave, just like everyone else. “Good luck, Commander.”

“Thank you,” William said.

It was nearly twenty minutes before the door opened for the first time, revealing Commander Fran Higgins. William smiled at her, then tossed her a bottle of beer and waved her to one of the chairs. She gave him a puzzled glance, but said nothing as the door opened again to allow two more officers to enter the bar. William passed them both drinks and smiled, waving away their questions. There would be time to talk once everyone had arrived.

“William,” Commander Trent said. “is there a reason you called us all here?”

“Patience,” William said. Trent was a friend, rather than a former subordinate. It put them on more equal terms. “I’ll get to the meat of the matter when everyone has arrived.”

He couldn’t help noticing that several of the officers, perhaps suspecting the truth, had brought privacy generators of their own. His implants monitored the intermingling fields, decided they were suitable, then ignored them. He kept passing out bottles of beer, waiting for the final few officers to arrive. As soon as they entered the bar, he closed and locked the door before walking around the table and sitting down.

“I suppose you’re wondering why I called you here,” he said. There were some chuckles at a joke that had been old before humanity had reached for the stars. “Before we start, I should tell you we can speak freely. The bar is clean and there are at least twelve privacy generators operating within the room.”

“Doesn't look very clean,” Commander Jove said. He waved a hand towards a stain on the wall. “I dread to imagine what that is.”

“Me too,” William said. As Jove had probably hoped, the jokey comment broke the ice. “I should also warn you that this discussion will be very sensitive. You were all invited because I trust you to have your heads screwed on properly – and to have enough sense to keep the subject of our discussion a secret. As far as anyone else is concerned, we’re meeting for a chat and a session of swapping lies about our heroic exploits.”

He paused, trying to gauge their mood. Some of them, including Fran Higgins, seemed to understand what they were actually being told, others looked mildly bemused. And to think he hadn't even reached the crux of the issue yet. It was quite possible that he’d misjudged one of them and they would be betrayed, as soon as the meeting came to an end. The only upside of such a disaster was that it would be impossible for the Admiral’s patrons to hide or cover up.

“The Theocracy is preparing to invade this system,” he said, flatly.

There were no objections, much to his relief. Some of them would have already seen the writing on the wall, either through reports of pirate attacks or the simple decline of 7th Fleet into a mass of combat-ineffective units. None of them were stupid, after all; mustangs commonly had a very hard time of it until they proved themselves to officers who had been through Piker’s Peak, rather than rising from the ranks. And none of them trusted the Theocracy.

He ran through the gathered evidence as quickly as possible, then pressed on. “I do not believe that anyone from Tyre will handle the situation in time to dissuade the Theocracy from attacking,” he warned. “We know there’s an enemy spy ship in the system right now. They will know just how weak we are – and how much damage they can do if they hit us within the next few weeks. And if that happens ... are we in any state to beat them off?”

“No,” Fran Higgins said.

No one disagreed. William felt chills running down his spine. They’d all been ‘can-do’ people when he'd met them, mustangs who had risen because they believed nothing could truly stop them. To see them so broken, so fatalistic, was disturbing. And yet, what could they do? The highest-ranked among them was a Commander. They couldn't challenge the Admiral. It would cost them their careers.

“I don’t know what Admiral Morrison is playing at,” William said. “His patrons appointed him because they knew he wouldn't rock the boat. But it’s equally possible he’s a traitor, someone in the pay of the Theocracy. Or he may simply be as incompetent and greedy as the evidence suggests. What I do know is that we need to make contingency plans to do something if – when – the Theocracy attacks.”

Commander Trent leaned forward. “It seems to me, William, that you’re talking about mutiny.”

William sighed, inwardly. “No,” he said. “I’m talking about doing our damn duty.”

He took a breath. “It won’t be easy to repair the damage without higher authorities realising what we’re doing,” he added, flatly. “A sudden upswing in demands for spare parts alone would be noticeable. But we have to do what we can to prepare for a sudden attack on the system.”

“Without anyone noticing,” Fran Higgins said. “You do realise that discipline is in the shitter?”

“Time to get it out of the shitter,” William said. A crew could endure much, but not a slow decline in standards, followed by a demand to revert immediately to the old ways. It was one of the reasons military training was so damn hard. “You can work with Senior Chiefs and petty officers to ensure that the really bad cases are dumped on the planet or assigned to punishment duties.”

He paused. “Between us, we have over five hundred years worth of experience,” he said. “We ought to be able to think of something.”

“Break up gambling rings by swapping crews around,” Trent suggested. “God knows we should be able to move crewmen around without getting our commanders to sign off on it.”

William nodded. First Officers had considerable power to handle crew transfers, duties that would merely waste their commander’s time. Any gambling – or worse – rings could be broken up and scattered over a dozen ships, if there was any reason to believe they could be redeemed. And the real hard cases could simply be assigned permanently to the planet. It would probably sit very well with them until the Theocracy attacked.

The thought caused him a flicker of guilt. He hadn't attended to the gambling ring on Lightning yet. He’d hoped the problem would sort itself out, but he simply hadn't had time to check. Making a mental note to see to it as soon as he returned to the ship, he sat back in his chair and listened as his friends discussed potential ideas. Training schedules could be fixed, given some time and effort; hell, with a little fiddling, they could be used to make the commanding officers look good. If presented properly, most commanders would simply sign off on it without considering the deeper implications.

“The King’s Cup is being held in nine months,” Jove pointed out. “We could try to put together a team.”

William had to smile. The King’s Cup was awarded to the starship with the finest gunnery crews in the fleet. It was an important award, which was at least partly why the commanding officers would want it for themselves. If they were convinced they had a chance to win, they’d resist the Admiral if he started trying to prevent the crew from engaging in gunnery exercises. It wasn't as if they would be preparing for war.

“I have a question,” Commander Stroke said. “What happens if we are attacked before we have a chance to prepare the fleet for doing more than spitting helplessly in their general direction?”

“We run,” William said, simply.

None of his friends looked happy at that prospect, but they all understood the situation. 7th Fleet represented a vast investment, one that couldn't be replaced in a hurry. The ships could be repaired, their crews could be retrained ... but only if they got out of the trap before the Theocracy destroyed them. Keeping the ships intact was their first priority.

Stroke scowled at him. “And what if we receive orders to fight to the death – or surrender?”

William took a breath. Nothing he’d seen on Cadiz had convinced him that Admiral Morrison would command the fleet effectively, even if he was able to take command without problems. The Admiral rarely showed his face on his flagship, preferring to command the system from Government House. An all-out attack on the system might start and finish before the Admiral even managed to make it back to orbit, assuming the attack wasn't coordinated with insurgents on the ground. It was what William would have done.

And the Theocrats sent commandos to the system, he thought, slowly. Were they meant to sneak into the secure zones and cause havoc?

“We retreat,” he said. “Preserving the fleet is more important than trying to defend Cadiz.”

“A few months of occupation by the Theocracy would teach them a lesson or two,” Fran Higgins muttered, darkly. “Let them see what a real invasion force can do to helpless civilians.”

“They’re not that helpless,” Trent pointed out, mildly.

“We operate under strict ROE,” Fran countered. “Our forces aren't trying to reshape their society, merely trying to convince them to accept a role in the Commonwealth. The Theocracy, if the refugees are to be believed, will crush any resistance with maximum force, then start encouraging mass conversions to their faith. Cadiz will simply become another Theocratic world. And good riddance.”

Stroke cleared his throat, loudly. “You’re talking about disobeying orders in the face of the enemy,” he said, sharply. “That will get us all shot.”

“Better we get shot than lose every ship in the fleet,” Trent snapped.

William opened his mouth, but Stroke overrode him. “Or can your ... Captain guarantee we keep our lives?”

It took William several seconds to calm his temper. “There are no guarantees of anything, beyond this,” he said, icily. “The Theocracy is planning an invasion. 7th Fleet is in no condition to defend this system against overwhelming force. We are making contingency plans to take action in the event of an attack before we are ready to meet it.”

He braced himself. “We swore to defend the Commonwealth when we signed up,” he added, slowly. “I don't intend to allow Admiral Morrison to weaken the defences to the point the Theocracy can just walk in and take over. And nor should any of you.

“If we are discovered, or betrayed”- he shot a sharp look at Stroke – “it is quite possible we will be charged with planning a mutiny,” he warned. “There will be no guarantees that the Captain’s influence, such as it is, will save us from anything. But I don’t believe any of us were ever offered any guarantees when we signed on the dotted line and gave our lives to the navy.”

His gaze moved from face to face. “If you don’t want to take the risk of being involved,” he concluded, “you can back out now. As long as you keep your mouths shut, there shouldn't be any danger, at least from your superior officers. The danger from the Theocracy will not go away.”

There was a long pause. “Count me in,” Fran Higgins said, finally. “But it will not be easy to get the supplies we need.”

“We could always bribe the bureaucrats,” Stroke offered. “Or simply play silly buggers with the supply manifests.”

There was a thought, William knew. The senior bureaucrats wouldn't know anything was wrong if the junior bureaucrats helped his friends camouflage their actions. He might have to make some promises – the Captain might have to make some promises – but it should be doable. If nothing else, a promise of guaranteed employment in the Falcone Consortium should unlock a few hearts and minds.

The discussed raged backwards and forwards for nearly two hours before he called it to a halt and produced a handful of datachips from his pocket. “These are cutting-edge encryption codes,” he said. It had been alarmingly easy to obtain them, a factoid he would not be including in any report to Tyre. “We can use them to send messages through the planetary datanet, if necessary.”

He paused. “I think we should meet again three days from now,” he added. “That will give us time to see what needs to be done, then start planning to do it.”

Stroke sighed. “And what if the bastards attack tomorrow?”

William glowered at him. “We die,” he said. “Any more questions?”

There were none. He smiled to himself, handed out a final round of beers, then dismissed them with a warning to stagger their return to outer space. A couple would probably seek solace in the arms of a prostitute before returning to their shuttles. It was hard to care, he knew, even though he didn't have time to find companionship himself. There was no way to avoid one simple fact.

The die was well and truly cast.
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#27
Chapter Twenty-One

The Admiral’s mansion was magnificent, Kat had to admit, as the aircar descended towards the building. It resembled the Royal Palace on Tyre, but where the Palace was built from white marble the Admiral’s mansion was built of redbrick. Brilliant lights illuminated the garden, allowing guests to make their way through the foliage even as night fell over Cadiz. Kat couldn't help being reminded of her family estate on Tyre, though there were fewer guests there. Her family had had so little privacy that it valued what it had.

She braced herself as the aircar touched down,, then stood and adjusted her dress as the hatch hissed open. Candy would have loved the black dress, Kat knew, but she disliked showing off her body. It wasn't something she’d earned, not even something she’d paid for herself; her looks had been shaped by her father’s genetic engineers long before she’d been more than a glint in his eyes. The dress made her look younger than she was, young enough to pass for a teenager. If she’d shown up on the bridge wearing it ...

The thought made her smile as she stepped out of the aircar and looked towards the giant mansion. It was clear the Admiral had decided to have some fun at the expense of his guests. The men all wore fancy uniforms, some dating all the way back to pre-space Earth, while the women all wore variants on the same cocktail dress. Some of them had even cut the dresses shorter to expose as much of their legs as they could, without showing their underwear. Kat smirked at the thought of them bending over to pick something up, then smiled inwardly as a maid hurried towards her. What was it about powerful men, she asked herself, that they insisted on dressing their female servants in revealing outfits?

Power, she thought. Her father didn't indulge his power in such a manner, but his father had been born to wield power. He had never been insecure, not like the Admiral and the newly-rich. They flaunted their power out of fear it would fade away if it wasn't displayed to the world. And yet, they wouldn't have obtained their Patents of Nobility if they hadn't had the wealth and power to back them up.

“Captain,” the maid said. She was clearly a local, her voice accented yet understandable. “The Admiral requests the pleasure of your company in the reception room.”

Kat sighed, inwardly. She would have preferred to wander the gardens. It had been clear, from a single glance, that absolutely nothing useful would be accomplished by attending the party. But the maid would be blamed for failing to convince Kat to attend upon the Admiral ...

“It will be my pleasure,” she lied, smoothly.

The maid led her through the gardens, up a long flight of stairs and into the building itself. Kat’s first impressions didn't fade as she looked around, while they walked through a long corridor and down another flight of stairs. The building was crammed with artworks, each one probably worth at least ten thousand crowns, gathered together merely to show off the sheer wealth of their owner. There was no elegance, Kat noted, nor any attempt to do more with them than just show off. The Admiral was definitely one of the newly-rich.

She sighed again as the maid paused, nodding to a footman standing halfway down the stairs. The man stepped forward, then announced Kat in a loud booming voice that echoed through the entire room. Men and women turned to look at her, their faces under strict control. Kat kept her own face under control as she descended the final stairs and walked towards the Admiral. Their carefully-controlled faces suggested they were wondering just what she could do for them.

“Lady Falcone,” Admiral Morrison said. He was wearing a uniform with so much gold braid that it threatened to blind anyone who looked at it. “Thank you for coming.”

“It was my pleasure,” Kat lied. She couldn't place the Admiral’s uniform, but she had a feeling that whoever had designed it had hated officers. It would make an excellent target for a sniper, watching from a distance. “How could I refuse your kind invitation?”

The Admiral either missed or chose to ignore the hints of sarcasm in her tone. Instead, he took her hand – his gaze flickered over her chest, then looked back at her eyes – and led her through the room, introducing her to dozens of people. Kat filed their names and titles away in her implants for further investigation, then chatted politely about nothing with each of them before the Admiral led her to the next one. None of them seemed to have anything interesting to say.

“It’s a disgrace that the brothels are allowed to remain open,” one elderly woman snapped, her hand catching Kat’s shoulder as though she was a young child. “The morals of our officers and men will suffer.”

Kat resisted – barely – the temptation to slap her. She’d met far too many elderly women like her, women who saw themselves as anointed monitors of society. To them, life wasn't complete unless they held the moral high ground and used it ruthlessly to lecture and belittle their juniors for not living up to their moral standards. But then, they were rarely actually powerful, if only because few would vote them into power. Their preaching and whining was all they had.

“They should be shut down,” the woman continued. She hadn't let go of Kat’s arm. “And the sheer quantity of alcohol swigged by serving men and women is dreadful ...”

“It is also all that makes serving here bearable,” Kat said, feeling her patience snap. Her training had its limits, particularly when she knew shore leave facilities were a vital necessity for the health and morale of her crew. “And besides, do you think they wouldn't be able to find women and alcohol if the spaceport bars were closed?”

The woman stared at Kat as thought she had started speaking in tongues. “I ...”

“Do you have the slightest idea,” Kat asked, “why the bars and brothels exist?”

Admiral Morrison interrupted before the woman could think of a response. “Katherine Falcone,” he said, “there’s someone I would like you to meet.”

“Of course,” Kat said, smoothly. The woman was gaping at her in shock. It would be dangerous to her reputation in society to badmouth a Falcone. “I would be honoured to talk with someone intelligent.”

Admiral Morrison led her across the room and through a large door, which led into a dancehall. A band was sitting on the dais, murdering a tune that Kat vaguely recognised as having been fashionable ten years ago. The dancers didn't seem to be following any set dance, she decided; couples were merely moving around the hall, hand in hand. It wasn't the sort of dancing Kat enjoyed, though she had to admit it had its moments. But only when she was dancing with someone she actually liked.

“Katherine Falcone,” the Admiral said. “I’d like you to meet my son, Adam Morrison.”

Kat took one look and just knew they weren’t going to get on. Everything she knew about the Admiral told her that he would do anything to maintain his position and the favour of his patrons, because his position could be undermined quite easily. Adam Morrison lacked even that level of self-awareness. His face was strikingly handsome, so handsome it was almost bland. The suit he wore, rather than a fake uniform, was cut tightly enough to show off his muscles to best advantage. But it was clear, from the way he moved, that he had no training at all.

“Charmed,” Kat lied.

She had to fight to keep her face under control, particularly when Adam’s eyes dropped towards her chest. She knew what was happening. The Admiral’s son was unmarried – and the Admiral had ambitions. Even a short marriage between Adam Morrison and Kat could secure the Admiral’s place in High Society. She sighed, inwardly. It was hardly the first time someone had tried to introduce her to his children. But it said a great deal about High Society that Adam wasn't the worst she’d encountered.

“Charmed,” Adam echoed. He held out one hand. “Shall we dance?”

Kat took his hand and allowed him to lead her on to the dance floor. He wasn't a bad dancer, she discovered to her surprise, but his hands crept creeping downwards as he whirled her around the room. The Admiral was nowhere to be seen after the first dance, depriving Kat of any easy excuse to escape. Instead, she found herself pulled into a second dance.

“I understand you’re in command of a destroyer,” Adam said, putting his lips close to her ears. “Do you enjoy being in command?”

“A cruiser,” Kat corrected, icily. “And command is enjoyable.”

“I bet it is,” Adam said. He leered at her, his hands crawling downwards again. “And do you ever want to just relax?”

Kat stepped backwards, forcing him to jerk his hands back up. “I walk fifty miles a day to relax,” she said, “and then spar with Marines.”

“I spar with Marines too,” Adam said. “Do you know I hold a reserve commission in the planetary militia?”

“No,” Kat said. She was sure Adam didn't spar with anyone, just from the way he moved. A graduate of Piker’s Peak unarmed combat course could have taken him. “What do you do in the militia?”

“I command the reserve defence unit,” Adam informed her. “We aced our last evaluation.”

“You must have a wonderful sergeant,” Kat said, unable to keep the sarcasm out of her voice. “What does he do for you?”

“He takes the burden of command off my shoulders,” Adam said.

He keeps you from getting everyone killed on training exercises, Kat translated, mentally. It wasn't uncommon for young noblemen to hold reserve commissions, but it was clear that Adam didn't even meet the bare requirements. Even her older brothers were expected to spend at least three days a month with their units. Poor bastard.

“Come on outside,” Adam urged. He pulled her towards a large pair of doors that led out into the gardens. “You’ll love it.”

He would have been right, Kat decided, if he hadn't been with her. Whoever had designed and shaped the gardens had done so as a labour of love. Instead of the sheer tackiness of the building’s interior, there were flowers, bushes and trees, planted according to a pattern that pleased the eye. And, she noted, as Adam led her down to a large pond, served as a home for all kinds of wildlife.

“It can be a hard life out here,” Adam observed. “I rarely speak to anyone my equal.”

Kat had to bite down a laugh. On Cadiz, Admiral Morrison and his family were at the very pinnacle of High Society. They could distribute patronage freely, while everyone looked up to them as something to emulate. But on Tyre they’d be nothing more than junior aristocrats at best. Adam was deluding himself if he thought he could go back to Cadiz and still be top dog. There were people back home who wouldn't hesitate to poke his bubble if he tried to maintain the illusion.

But that might be why the Admiral introduced us, she thought. A marriage would improve their status immeasurably.

It would also not be approved, she knew. She was the youngest child, without the obligations of her elders, but she only had her trust fund in her own name. If her father decided not to approve the match, she wouldn't be granted any voting stock or anything else she could use to influence politics. Admiral Morrison’s dreams of marrying his son into the highest tier of the aristocracy would crash and burn ...

... And Kat knew she wouldn't accept Adam in any case.

“How lucky for you,” Kat said. She looked up. The moon was slowly rising in the sky, casting an eerie light over the scene. “I think we should go inside now.”

“There's no one in there, but boring people,” Adam said. His voice became a whine. “Wouldn't it be better to stay outside?”

“I don’t think so,” Kat said. She couldn't quibble with his assessment of the party guests, but she did need to speak to some of her fellow commanding officers. Perhaps one or two of them could be talked into helping prepare 7th Fleet for combat. “You should be showing your face to the guests.”

“They don’t care about either of us,” Adam said. He reached for her hand and caught hold, then pulled her towards him. “Wouldn't it be much more fun to ...”

His lips met hers. Kat froze for a second in genuine astonishment – no aristocratic buck she’d ever met had crossed the line so blatantly – and then she pulled her hand free and shoved his chest, hard. He lost his footing and tumbled backwards, falling into the pond and hitting the water with a giant splash. Kat smirked, then carefully pulled her dress back into place. She couldn't help wondering, despite the seriousness of the situation, just what Adam would tell his father.

“You are an idiot,” she said, as Adam surfaced. It was clear that the pond was deeper than she’d thought. His fancy uniform was dripping wet, completely ruined. The nasty part of Kat’s mind hoped it had cost hundreds of crowns. “Did you really think I would give myself to you out here?”

Adam stared at her in shock. Kat glared back, recognising the symptoms. Adam, like far too many aristocrats, had been raised in an environment where no one could say no. From some of the things Kat’s elder brothers had muttered when they thought she couldn't hear, their father had been much less permissive than some of the other fathers on Tyre. But then, they were being groomed to take his place.

“Stay there until I’m gone,” Kat ordered. She was tempted to ask him just what his father had said, but she didn't want to talk to him any more than necessary. “And I suggest you think about what could have happened.”

She turned and walked back to the building, straightening her dress as she walked. Behind her, she heard splashing, but nothing else. She listened anyway, half-expecting to hear him come charging after her. Thankfully, he had more sense than to believe he could just give chase and catch her before it was too late. It was already too late.

Shaking her head in disbelief, she slipped through a side entrance and made her way into the nearest refresher. It was empty, surprisingly; normally, the bathrooms were packed with women chatting about men. She paused, then looked at herself in the mirror, feeling her heartbeat finally starting to race. Her training had kept it under control until she was safe.

I’ve had worse, she told herself, firmly. Vacuum training at Piker’s Peak had been nightmarish. She'd shaken for hours afterwards, the first time. And then there had been unarmed combat training ... it had been her first real experience of physical violence and it had shocked her. There were female Marines, she knew, but she couldn't have been one of them. She just didn't have the endurance.

She washed her face, then forced herself to think coldly and rationally. She could file a complaint, she knew, but it wasn't enough to have Adam convicted of anything, let alone take down his father with him. It would look like a date gone wrong, rather than attempted rape; hell, she wasn't even sure if he had wanted to rape her. She’d met enough aristocrats who had refused to press any further when it was clear their attentions were unwanted. The whole situation would not only look very bad; it would distract attention from the very real problems facing 7th Fleet.

Bastard, she thought. She checked her implants and noted the time. If she spent another hour chatting to the other Captains, she could leave afterwards without upsetting the Grand Masters and Mistresses of Etiquette. Cursing, she looked down at her dress. It would be hard enough to convince them to take her seriously without wearing a dress that made her look like a damned teenager ...

The Admiral must have wanted me to look attractive for his son, she thought. Oddly, the thought made her smile. I wonder if he still likes me.

The building shook. Moments later, she heard the sound of shooting.

Insurgents, she thought, horrified. She’d checked the map. The building was over a hundred miles from the closest settlement. But the sound of shooting – and screams, echoing through the building – suggested the insurgents had managed to get an attack force into place anyway. Another explosion shook the building, sending pieces of plaster dropping from the ceiling and down to the floor. Kat shook herself out of her shock and activated her implants, trying to send a distress signal. Moments later, a warning message popped up in front of her eyes.

DATANET DOWN, it read. The local data nodes had been corrupted – or simply destroyed. She remembered the maid, a local girl with access to the building, and shivered as a second message popped up. UNABLE TO ACCESS PLANETARY NET.

Kat swallowed a curse, unsure what to do. Outside, the sound of shouting and screaming was growing louder. The insurgents had clearly broken into the building. Her training had never covered combat on the ground, at least not in anything other than theoretical detail. They’d always been told to leave ground combat to the Marines.

Get out, she told herself. Someone had to have noticed that the Admiral’s mansion had come under attack. But this was Cadiz. No one had impressed her with their competence since she’d first set foot on the planet. Get to the aircars and contact the Marines. Or ...

She froze. The door was opening.
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#28
Chapter Twenty-Two

“Hands in the air,” the insurgent snapped.

Kat obeyed, studying the insurgent carefully. He wore a black mask that concealed his features, but she was sure he was male – and young. It was clear he had received some training, just from the way he held his weapon, but it wasn't anything like complete. She wasn't too surprised. The insurgent masterminds had to know anyone assigned to attacking the Admiral’s mansion was unlikely to return. They wouldn’t waste their best men on such an operation.

“I’m just a maid,” she said, trying to stammer convincingly. Her name and face had been flashed across the planet’s society pages, but the little black dress made her look completely different. “I ...”

She straightened, trying to push her breasts forward. The insurgent’s eyes dipped, just slightly. It was possible, she told herself, as he advanced on her, that he wasn't as well-disciplined as he should be. Did he know it was a suicide mission? Kat braced herself as he came into reach, then looked up pleadingly into his eyes. He looked amused, rather than suspicious. Kat shoved the gun to one side and slammed her fist into his throat. He choked, then stumbled to the floor. She let out a sigh of relief as he let go of the rifle without pulling the trigger and alerting his companions that something had gone wrong.

Taking the rifle, she checked it quickly. It was an unfamiliar design, but the principles were almost identical to weapons she’d used at Piker’s Peak. She held it in one hand, then searched the insurgent with the other. He was also carrying a small pistol and several clips of ammunition for the rifle. Kat picked them up, then cursed. Her dress didn't have any pockets for storing bullets. Eventually, she tore off his mask and used it as a makeshift carry.

She stepped over to the door, listened carefully, then stuck her head outside. There was no one in the corridor, as far as she could tell, but she could hear the sound of loud protests in the distance. She wondered, absently, just where the Admiral had gone, before deciding it didn't matter. If the insurgents had any sense, they’d make damn sure they didn't kill him. His replacement could hardly be any less competent. Gritting her teeth, she advanced out of the room, trying desperately to remember the way back to the aircars. Perhaps it would be better to slip out of the door and move round in the gardens ...

An insurgent was guarding the door. Kat cursed under her breath as she yanked her head back, then tried to think of something else she could do. Of course the insurgents would be guarding all the exits and entrances ... she turned and headed towards the stairs. If the Admiral was even remotely competent, there would be a spare communications suite in his bedroom, automatically linked into the fleet command network. It was a gamble, but she couldn't think of anything better. She knew she couldn't beat however many insurgents there were single-handedly.

She froze as she reached the stairs, then ducked into the shadows as she heard people – several people – moving towards her. Three of them were insurgents, she realised as they came into view, but the others were maids and menservants. They weren't prisoners either, she noted, unsurprised. Clearly, the insurgents had been plotting the operation for quite some time. Local labour was cheaper than importing servants from Tyre – and besides, the locals couldn’t demand better treatment under Commonwealth Law. As long as they seemed trustworthy, she knew, they would be hired.

The thought made her shiver as the insurgents walked past and vanished into the distance. How many local men and women were working at the spaceport? Or in the government complexes scattered all over the planet? Hell, the whores alone probably heard enough pillow talk to keep the insurgents informed of everything that happened on the planet before it hit the media. The only thing preventing a general uprising, she knew, was 7th Fleet and the orbital defences. But the Theocracy’s attack would deal with them.

She felt a stab of pity for the brain-dead men and women who had attended the Admiral’s party, then made her way up the stairs as soon as the insurgents were out of sight. The building was eerily quiet – she couldn't help wondering just what the insurgents intended to do with their prisoners – but she pushed the thought aside as she reached the top of the stairs and turned right, down the corridor. A noise caught her ear and she froze, then looked into one of the larger rooms. A number of men and women lay on the ground, their hands bound behind their backs. It took her a moment to realise that they had to be the servants who had remained loyal – or at least hadn't been part of the insurgency from the start. She briefly considered freeing them, then dismissed the idea. There was no way to know if they could be trusted.

No loyal retainers here, she thought, morbidly. Her family had entire families serving as retainers, almost part of the Falcone Family itself. Most of their children tended to start their lives as playmates for the aristocratic children, then become servants as they grew older. But it simply wasn't possible to build such an edifice on Cadiz. No one can be trusted completely.

Kat took one last glimpse at them, then strode onwards. Her implants kept blinking up warning messages – the house nodes were flickering on and off, suggesting that their software was trying to overcome a viral attack – but she’d already downloaded and saved a copy of the mansion’s floor plans. The Admiral’s bedroom was at the end of the corridor, through a large wooden door. She stopped dead as she heard someone speaking ahead of her, then peeked through the door. Two insurgents were ransacking the room, hunting for something the Admiral might have concealed in his bedroom. They turned and stared at her, then reached for their weapons. Kat shot the first one instinctively, then swung her weapon to target the second insurgent. He threw himself at her, too late. She shot him, then jumped to one side. His body hit the floor, already dead.

She fought down the urge to throw up as she checked the body. She knew she’d taken life, but it had always been at a distance. She’d never seen any of the men and women who had died under her fire. Now ... she swallowed hard, then looked around the chamber. The Admiral hadn't stinted on his personal quarters. Everything was designed for comfort, particularly the bed. It was large enough for five or six people to sleep comfortably ... she kept staring around until she located a solid wooden cupboard, then pulled it open. For once, the Admiral had followed regulations. He’d installed a full communications system in his quarters.

Kat let out a sigh of relief, then reached for the controls, inputting her access codes. There was no point in calling the local government, not now. God alone knew what else might be going on. She needed to call her ship.

“This is the Captain,” she said, as soon as the channel was open. “We have a situation.”

***
Captain Patrick James Davidson knew, without false modesty, that he wouldn't rise any higher than command of a company of Marines. Fortunately, he didn't want to rise any higher. He would be happy with his company of Marines and a chance to test himself against the best and brightest the enemy had to offer. In a way, he’d even mourned when the Theocratic commandos hadn't tried to break out of the hull before they’d been handed over to local authorities on Cadiz. He’d been sure they would have tested his men to the utmost.

He pushed the thought aside as the shuttle raced through the atmosphere towards the Admiral’s mansion. The report had been precise and to the point; the Captain was stranded inside the mansion, while the building was occupied by an unknown number of insurgents with unknown objectives. Judging from the situation, Patrick rather suspected their objective was to blow the mansion and escape, leaving the occupation government with a black eye and a great deal of embarrassment. But they couldn't be allowed to get away with it.

“Prepare to jump,” he ordered. He’d brought two platoons with him, both wearing light combat armour. The remainder of the company would remain in reserve until they were called forward. Thankfully, the local authorities hadn’t tried to interfere with his mission planning. They’d been caught flatfooted by the attack. “Now!

He was first out of the shuttle, plummeting down towards the building. It was impossible to tell if the insurgents knew they were coming or not; they didn't seem to have any active sensors operating near the building, but they might well have agents somewhere within the planetary ATC. But no ground fire rose up to meet them as they fell, their antigravity units arresting their fall bare seconds before they would have hit the rooftop. He tore open the hatch with his armoured hands, then jumped down into the building. There was no sign of any enemy forces.

Warning, his suit buzzed. Combat jamming enabled.

Patrick nodded, then dismissed the alert as he led the way forward. Being deprived of microscopic spies was irritating, but hardly a surprise. His suit picked up the sounds of someone shooting in the distance, perhaps the Captain. He put on a boost of speed, hastily comparing their current location to the mansion’s floor plans. The Captain had said she was hiding in the Admiral’s bedroom. As he rounded the corner, he saw she was under attack.

He threw himself forward, landing amongst the terrorists before they knew he was there. At such close range, there was no way he could miss. He stunned them all rapidly, then muttered orders to the rest of his platoon. The terrorists might have the rest of the guests under guard, but stun grenades would knock out everyone, hostages and insurgents alike. It might be the only way to prevent them from blowing the building up, taking everyone inside with it.

“Captain,” he called. “The corridor is clear.”

It had been odd seeing Captain Falcone again after their relationship. They’d parted on good terms – he was too realistic to think they had a chance of staying together forever – but part of him had been tempted to try to restart their relationship when they’d found themselves assigned to the same ship once again. But he’d known it wasn't a good idea ... now, he found himself staring at her as she inched out of the room, weapon in hand. Her dress was torn, one of her legs was badly bruised ... and he thought she’d never looked more beautiful.

“Captain,” he said. The voder would ensure that no one heard the tremor in his voice. “Are you all right?”

“Yes, thank you,” the Captain said. Her eyes were shining, despite the situation. And the dress. “Status report?”

Patrick checked his HUD. “We’re advancing on the hostages now,” he said. “We don’t have time to waste.”

The Captain nodded. “And the Admiral?”

“Unknown,” Patrick said. “With your permission ...”

“Good luck,” the Captain said. “Try to take some of the insurgents alive, if possible.”

“Yes, Captain,” Patrick said. “We will try.”

***
Kat sat back in the corridor, feeling her body shaking with a combination of relief and fear – and frustration that she couldn't do anything, but wait. Davidson didn't need her getting in the way, nor could he spare anyone to stay with her. She kept the rifle on her lap and waited, listening carefully to the sound of stunners and grenades echoing through the vast building. It was nearly forty minutes before the jamming cut out and her implants started to work normally again, reporting the sudden arrival of a small army of soldiers from the spaceport.

“Captain,” Davidson said. “We have shuttles inbound from the ship. Do you want to return to the ship?”

“I want to know what happened to the Admiral,” Kat said. “And his son. What happened to his son?”

She watched as the stunned guests were carried out of the building for transport back to the spaceport, where they would recover in hospital. Behind them, soldiers moved among the insurgents, flexi-cuffing and then searching them before marking them down for transport to the nearest holding cell.

“That was surprisingly easy,” Davidson observed. “They didn't even have the building rigged to explode by the time we attacked them.”

Kat gave him a sharp look. The insurgents had clearly spent months laying the groundwork for the assault, an assault that had only managed to kill a handful of officers and bureaucrats before it had failed spectacularly. They’d had a stroke of bad luck – they’d probably assumed she would be captured with the rest of the commanding officers – but it was still odd. The more she thought about it, the more she realised something was badly wrong.

“Maybe they were trying to embarrass the Admiral,” she said, slowly. The insurgency had to know that someone more competent would be sent to replace Morrison if he died. “Or just to embarrass the occupation government itself.”

“Could be,” Davidson agreed. “Men and women can be replaced, Captain. A reputation cannot be repaired so quickly.”

Kat nodded. The occupation of Cadiz was already a sore spot back on Tyre. If the insurgents managed a tactical success, even if it failed in the end, it would undermine support for the war. It would also undermine Admiral Morrison’s position, but she had a feeling he would find a way to survive. No doubt he would have incentive to minimise the scale of his failure.

“This wasn't the commandoes,” Davidson added. “They’re still in the spaceport.”

Kat ground her teeth, then looked up sharply as the Admiral appeared and made his way over to face her. “Admiral,” she said coolly. “Where the hell were you?”

“The hero of the hour,” the Admiral said. He completely ignored her question. “I believe the press wants to meet you.”

“I have to see the doctor,” Kat said, quickly. She leaned forward. “Admiral, where were you?”

“The panic room,” the Admiral said. He looked embarrassed. “My staff shoved me inside as soon as the attack began.”

Kat’s eyes narrowed. “And you couldn’t call for help from there?”

“I tried,” the Admiral said. “But no one replied.”

Davidson touched Kat’s arm, lightly. “Someone did manage to get the word out,” he said, quietly. “You weren't the first to call for help.”

Kat stared at the Admiral for a long moment, fighting to control her temper. The Admiral had wasted her time with a useless party, pushed her into the arms of his leech of a son and then had the gall to cower in the panic room while his guests were menaced by armed insurgents and threatened with death. Only sheer luck had saved him from a disaster that would have ended his career, along with the occupation itself.

Could her father save her from execution if she shot the Admiral? She was tempted to find out.

“I believe a starship has to be assigned to patrol the border,” she said. The previous cruiser was due back in a day or two. “I would like Lightning to be assigned to that role.”

The Admiral opened his mouth, then apparently thought better of whatever he’d intended to say. Instead, he merely nodded.

“I will have orders cut for you,” he said. “And you have my thanks. Captain. You will be honoured for this.”

Kat wanted to roll her eyes in disgust. Somehow, she resisted the temptation.

“I would be honoured to discuss it when I return to Cadiz,” she said. She had no doubt the Admiral would try to award her the highest honour he could bestow, just to avoid calling attention to his failures. “But for the moment I need to return to my ship and see the doctor.”

She allowed herself to lean on Davidson’s armoured arm as they walked towards the shuttle, then straightened up as soon as they were out of sight. Her body ached, but it was tiredness rather than bruises or broken bones. She reached the shuttle’s hatch, then paused. A line of men and women with bound hands were making their way into a large transporter.

“The former servants,” Davidson explained, grimly. “They will be interrogated to see what they knew about the whole affair.”

“And if they’re not insurgents by the time they go into the detention camps,” Kat muttered, “they will be when they’re released.”

She stepped through the hatch, cursing the Admiral under her breath. He’d be looking for a scapegoat, someone to take the blame for the whole affair. Chances were some innocent bureaucrat would be made to take the fall, either through accusations of incompetence or threats of criminal investigation. But the true cause of the problem would be left in command, utterly unmolested. The Admiral had set the tone for his entire command.

The shuttle’s drives powered up, then propelled the vehicle up through the atmosphere and out into space. Kat let out a sigh of relief as they passed through the edge of the atmosphere, silently promising herself never to set foot on Cadiz again. It was a promise, she knew, she might well be unable to keep.

“Put us alongside the emergency airlock,” Davidson ordered. “I want to go directly to sickbay.”

“Aye, aye, sir,” Midshipwoman Parkinson said.

Kat opened her mouth to object, but Davidson shook his head. She saw his stubborn expression and gave in. He thought she needed sickbay and he would damn well take her to sickbay.

“Pass me a uniform jacket,” she ordered, crossly. It was increasingly hard to maintain her dignity in the black dress. “I’m damned if I’m wearing this on the ship.”

Davidson, thankfully, didn't argue.
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Chapter Twenty-Three

“Some cuts and bruises,” Doctor Braham said, briskly. “But no real damage.”

“Thank you,” Kat said. “Can I be dismissed now?”

“There is still the matter of your medical check-up,” Doctor Braham said. “By regulation, all senior officers are to undergo a full medical scan every three months. You haven’t been scanned once.”

“I was scanned on my previous posting,” Kat pointed out, although she knew she had already lost the argument. She should have found time while Lightning was in transit to have her scan. “There wasn't anything wrong with me.”

“I’ll be the judge of that,” the doctor said. “Lie back on the bed and take a deep breath.”

Kat sighed, but held her peace as the doctor ran a series of scanners over her body. Her implants kept flashing up alerts, each one noting that her body’s secrets were being exposed and dissected. It wasn't a real problem, Kat knew, but it was still annoying. And, as the doctor was the only person who could relieve the Captain of command, it was rare for a Captain to willingly turn herself in for a medical scan.

“Your genetic engineer was a master,” the doctor commented, as she ran through the final set of scans. “Or was he one of those who believed he could create the superman?”

“I think my father didn't allow any experimentation,” Kat said. There were a hundred research institutions seeking newer ways to enhance the human mind as well as the body, but none of them had succeeded in improving the basic level of intelligence. Direct computer interfaces helped more than genetic rewriting. “At least, he didn't allow it on any of us.”

“Probably wise of him,” Doctor Braham noted. She stepped backwards, then sent a silent command to the scanners, which withdrew. “You’re as fit and healthy as could reasonably be expected, under the circumstances. I’ll see you in another three months.”

“Yes, Doctor,” Kat said, as she sat up and reached for her uniform jacket. “How are you coping with the crew?”

“No serious problems, apart from a couple of cases of excessive intoxication after shore leave,” the doctor informed her. “No matter the sheer number of bars on the surface, there's always someone who goes to an unlicensed place and drinks something strong enough to pickle their brain cells. But I think the crew could do with shore leave somewhere safer.”

Kat nodded. Piker’s Peak had stressed the importance of an active shore leave – and they hadn't just meant Intercourse and Intoxication. The XO should be organising activities for the crew, everything from skydiving to power boating or simply enjoying the sun on a sandy beach. But there were no such facilities on Cadiz. Even if they had located a beach far from a local settlement, Kat wouldn't have trusted it. The insurgents might have seen it as an opportunity to winnow down her crew.

She pulled her jacket over her chest, then stood. “We’re due to rotate back to the core in a few months,” she said, with the private thought that the war might well have started by then. “There will be time for more active shore leave later.”

“It could explain some of the situation here,” the doctor offered. “Crews without the prospect of a meaningful shore leave ...”

Kat snorted. She’d never been an ordinary spacer, but she had appreciated the chance to get off the ship for a few days, even as a Midshipwoman. A few days at the spaceport would have satisfied her, although it wouldn't have satisfied Davidson or any of the more active crewmen. But there were no real facilities on Cadiz outside the spaceport itself and there was nothing she could do about it. A complaint to the Admiral would probably get her nowhere.

She nodded to the doctor, then walked out of the small compartment. Davidson was outside, pacing the deck like an expectant father. Kat had to suppress a smile at the mental image, then nodded to him as he came to attention. If she knew him – and she did – he was probably planning to escort her back to her cabin. The thought both pleased and annoyed her. Part of her wanted the company, but part of her resented anyone thinking she needed help.

“I’m fine,” she said, as she turned to lead the way through the hatch. “And your men?”

“They’re fine,” Davidson said. His blue eyes watched her with undisguised concern. “But we trained for this sort of shit.”

Kat said nothing as they walked through the corridors and finally reached her cabin. She hesitated, then opened the hatch and beckoned him into the barren room. Davidson looked surprised at the lack of decor, but Kat had never felt the urge to collect artworks or show off her wealth to her officers. The only decoration she had allowed herself was a painting of HMS Thunderous an officer had done, years ago. Kat had liked it enough to keep for herself.

She felt her body sag as soon as the hatch hissed closed. Davidson caught her and helped her over to the sofa, then sat next to her as she started to shake. Kat looked down at her hand, watching in dismay as it betrayed her, then up at him. His eyes were worried, yet unsurprised. He’d expected her to go into shock, she realised. She wanted to scream at him for not warning her. But what could he have said?

“It’s all right,” he said. One of his arms enveloped her and Kat relaxed into his embrace. “It’s a natural reaction.”

“Oh,” Kat muttered. It was hard to think straight. Now the whole incident was over and she was safe, her imagination was providing hundreds of suggestions about what could have gone wrong. She could have been killed or used as a hostage. There were stories about kidnapped officials who had been held for months before they were released – or killed, their bodies found by patrolling soldiers. “What’s happening to me?”

“You weren't trained as an infantryman,” Davidson pointed out. He didn't sound accusatory, for which Kat was grateful. “Now the crisis is over, your body is reacting.”

“Damn it,” Kat muttered. She hated showing weakness. Even as a young officer, she’d done everything in her power to avoid showing even the slightest hint of fear. It could have destroyed her career. “I’m sorry.”

“It isn't your fault,” Davidson assured her. His hand was stroking her back, lightly. “Just relax and let it pass.”

Kat glowered at him, but did her best to follow his advice. He was right, of course; she’d never had any real ground combat training. The Royal Navy had discussed boarding and counter-boarding actions, but no one had seriously expected the enemy to try to board a starship in the midst of combat. They’d be more likely to force the ship to surrender and then send in the Marines. Or whatever the Theocracy used in place of Marines. No one had thought Kat and her fellow cadets would ever go into battle on the ground.

“I didn't have the shakes after I fired a starship’s weapons in anger,” she muttered, resentfully. “Why do I have them now?”

“Ground combat feels different,” Davidson said. He let go of her and stood, then walked over to the coffee maker positioned against the bulkhead. “Tea?”

“Something warm,” Kat said. She wanted him back holding her and to hell with discipline or her reputation. “Anything.”

Davidson poured her a mug of tea, then walked back and held it under her nose until she managed to force her hand to take it and hold it to her lips. It tasted remarkably good, even though she knew naval tea and coffee came from the lowest bidder. But then, she was alive and her enemies weren't ... she giggled despite the situation, almost slopping hot tea on her legs. At least she’d managed to get rid of the damned dress. She would have hated to wear that while the doctor was poking and prodding at her.

“That’s a normal reaction,” Davidson said. He shrugged, then sat down next to her. “Did I ever tell you about the balls-up at boot camp?”

Kat shook her head, feeling her hair caressing her face.

“We were meant to crawl under a hail of incoming fire,” Davidson said. “The Drill Instructors had rigged up a set of machine guns to fire over our heads. It was absolutely terrifying, but we told ourselves that it was perfectly safe. Somehow, despite the deafening racket, we managed to crawl through the trench until we were midway to our destination. We were just starting to get used to it when the machine guns went out of control and bullets started hitting the ground right next to us.”

“Shit,” Kat said.

“That’s precisely what I did,” Davidson admitted. He smiled at her expression. “We all froze, then crawled for the end of the trench as fast as we could, despite the mud and ... other stuff in our path. And we all had the shakes afterwards.”

He paused. “We learned later that the whole thing was just another test and there was no real danger, but it was mortally convincing,” he added. “I never had the shakes again after that day.”

“I’m not surprised,” Kat said. She took another sip of her tea, then wrapped her arm around him. “But I don’t think I’ll be applying for Boot Camp anytime soon.”

“You probably wouldn’t have made it,” Davidson told her, bluntly. “Boot Camp is nothing like as genteel as Piker’s Peak.”

He was probably right, Kat knew. Even apart from ground combat training, Piker’s Peak was focused on turning out officers and gentlemen, rather than groundpounders who could run fifty miles and then attack the enemy without a pause. Kat’s training had touched on a great many issues; Davidson’s had focused on killing the enemy and breaking things. There were times when she envied the handful of aristocrats who had gone into Boot Camp. None of them were ever accused of having used connections to put themselves ahead of the rest.

No mercy, she recalled. It was the motto of the Marine Boot Camp. There were no allowances for weakness or family name. Those who graduated were the best of the best; those who were discharged for medical reasons were honoured for having tried, even if they hadn't made it. And those who quit bore no shame.

She finished her tea, then stared down at her empty cup. Too much had happened in one day for her to think properly. She knew she should consider the Admiral’s actions, and the actions of his son, and perhaps even report them to her father. But the raid on the mansion had pushed such petty concerns out of her mind.

“I’m buggered if I’m leaving the ship again,” she said, flatly. “It isn't safe down there.”

“Good idea,” Davidson said, with suspicious enthusiasm. “You’ll be the number one target of the insurgents right now.”

Kat eyed him. “Oh?”

“I reviewed the planetary datanet while the doctor was examining you,” he said. “The Admiral’s PR department has already credited you with escaping the terrorists and defeating them, practically single-handedly. Apparently, you’re some kind of super starship captain, a mistress of martial arts as well as a tactical genius ...”

Kat put her head in her hands. “I’m never going to live it down, am I?”

“Of course not,” Davidson said. “At last report, the Admiral was planning to grant you the Combat Infantryman’s Badge.”

“Fuck,” Kat said. “I’ll be a laughing stock.”

She felt her fists clench around her mug and hastily put it down on the deck. The Combat Infantryman’s Badge was given to soldiers who had seen combat and, more rarely, spacers who had found themselves fighting on the ground. It brought a considerable amount of prestige, but little else. But, as far as she knew, it had never been awarded to someone who had escaped a bunch of insurgents long enough to radio for help, then hide until help arrived.

“You won’t have to worry about it,” Davidson said. “I don’t think General Eastside will allow the award to go through.”

“Saved,” Kat said. She sighed, then stood. “I really should sleep, shouldn't I?”

“I’ve already spoken to the XO,” Davidson said. “Your schedule has been altered. You won’t have to stand watch until tomorrow evening.”

Kat hesitated. Under normal circumstances, the watch rota wasn't vitally important when the starship was orbiting a heavily-defended planet. It was generally seen as a good time to give junior officers a chance to practice without too much opportunity to screw up. But on Cadiz ... she’d insisted that senior officers remain on watch at all times. The Theocracy could attack at any moment.

But she knew she needed the rest.

“Thank you,” she said, finally. She looked down at him, feeling an odd mix of sensations in her breast. “Will you ... will you stay the night?”

Davidson hesitated, briefly. It would have been unnoticeable if she hadn't known him so well.

“Are you sure?” He asked, finally. “You could regret this ...”

“Yes,” Kat said. She wanted to feel alive. “Come with me.”

After a moment, Davidson rose to his feet and followed her into her bedroom.

***
“You do realise someone will have noticed?” Davidson said, the following morning. “I didn't bed down with the Bootlegs.”

“I think it’s none of their business,” Kat said. It had been a long time since she’d kissed anyone, let alone slept with them. The Admiral’s son didn't count. “Besides, we’re in orbit, not on deployment.”

“That isn't what I meant and you know it,” Davidson said. “There could be ... problems.”

“Then we will handle them,” Kat said. She reached for her terminal and skimmed through the handful of messages. “The Admiral has sent us our deployment orders.”

She read them, quickly. Lightning was to patrol the border, investigate any hints that starships might be crossing the border without permission, render aid to any ship attacked by pirates, etc, etc. Patrol duty was boring, she knew, but it was necessary, all the more so with the Theocracy clearly gearing up for war. They didn't have to include a spy ship in an escorted convoy to slip it over the border.

“Good,” Davidson said. “When do we leave?”

“Tonight,” Kat said. She tapped a key, forwarding the orders to the XO, then swore as she read the next message. “The spy ship left orbit yesterday.”

Davidson looked up, meeting her eyes. “Coincidence?”

“Perhaps not,” Kat said. “They might well have been there to watch what happened when the Admiral’s mansion was attacked.”

“Or it was just a coincidence,” Davidson said. “I’d hate to be the officer who tried to coordinate an operation across interstellar distances.”

Kat shrugged. It didn't matter. What did matter was that the Theocracy probably had up-to-date sensor readings on 7th Fleet’s condition – and the XO’s old friends had barely started trying to get the fleet combat capable once again. Kat’s most optimistic estimate was that the fleet needed at least a month of uninterrupted repair work ... and she knew it wasn't going to get it. The Theocracy would lower the hammer within weeks.

“It does make me wonder,” Davidson said. “Did the Theocracy authorise the operation?”

Kat considered it, carefully. By any reasonable standard, decapitating the enemy command network was a reasonable goal in war. But if they’d killed Admiral Morrison and his command staff, she reasoned, they could hardly have hoped for his replacement to be so incompetent. It was unlikely the Admiral’s patrons could put someone equally useless in his place. But did the Theocracy know Admiral Morrison was so incompetent? Or did they consider him a typical commanding officer?

“They might have hoped the occupation would collapse in the aftermath,” she mused. Word would have reached Tyre by now. Questions would be asked in Parliament. “That would give them Cadiz without a fight.”

“Maybe,” Davidson agreed. “Or they might have been horrified at losing their chance of taking out 7th Fleet.”

“There's no way to know,” Kat said, morbidly. She glanced at the next message, then froze. It was from her father. “One moment.”

The message wasn't informative. Her father had been unable to determine just who was backing Admiral Morrison. It took Kat several moments to understand the full enormity of what she’d been told. Her father commanded a patronage network that touched all levels of the Royal Navy, from the junior crewmen to very senor officers. If he couldn't determine who was backing Admiral Morrison it had to be someone very high in the aristocracy.

Or perhaps it’s just someone good at covering his tracks, she thought. But who?

Her father’s note concluded with authorisation to call on the Falcone-owned faculties in the system, if necessary, and order them to assist her. She felt a chill run down her spine as she studied the wording. It was more corporate authority than she’d ever been offered – or expected to wield. Kat hesitated, then forwarded both the authorisation and the contact details to the XO. The bureaucrats probably wouldn't notice if the Falcone-owned facilities started requesting spare parts, as long as they were paid. But the spare parts could then be forwarded to the starships that needed them, without sounding any alarms.

“I hate this,” she said. Frustration bubbled up in her mind, seeking an outlet. “We’re sneaking around our own officers, trying to get ready for war.”

“There’s no choice,” Davidson said. He looked down at the table. “At least some of us will be ready when the shit hits the fan.”

Kat nodded, reluctantly. “I’d better get the ship ready for departure,” she said. She felt much better after sex and a good night’s sleep. “And remind the crew I exist.”

“I’m sure none will dare disobey the martial arts artist,” Davidson said.

“Thanks,” Kat said, sourly. “I’ll be expected to try out for the martial arts team next.”
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#30
Chapter Twenty-Four

“I have the bridge,” the Captain said.

“I stand relieved,” William said, as he rose from the command chair. Two days of patrolling the border had turned up nothing, apart from some additional navigational data that would be forwarded to the weathermen when they returned to Cadiz. “With your permission, Captain, I have disciplinary matters to attend to.”

The Captain nodded. William took one last look at the display, then walked off the bridge and headed down towards his office. The designers had clearly not seen the value in placing it right next to the bridge, but he had to admit it was sometimes useful to have it right on the edge of Officer Country. He knew crewmen who would hesitate to walk into the command deck, no matter the cause.

Shaking his head, he stepped through the hatch and tapped instructions into the terminal, alerting the Senior Chief. He’d put the matter off for far too long, hoping and praying that it would resolve itself before he had to actually take action. But it hadn't. If anything, he noted as he looked at the figures, it was growing worse. Something would have to be done before a handful of promising careers were ruined. He sat down behind his desk and waited. Ten minutes later, the hatch beeped. Someone was waiting outside.

“Enter,” he ordered.

William looked up as Crewman Third Class Jonny Steadman entered the compartment. He was a fearsome brute, as muscled as a Marine, without the discipline that separated the Marines from the common spacers. His bald head and uncovered arms were covered in tattoos that pushed the limits of what regulations allowed – but then, Steadman knew he was unlikely to see promotion. If he hadn't been good at his job – and he was, according to the Senior Chief – he would have been discharged long ago.

Steadman saluted. “You wanted to see me, sir?”

“I did,” William confirmed. He'd known enough men like Steadman in his career to know that the slightest hint of weakness would be fatal. “Sit.”

He studied Steadman for a long moment, contemplating his options. The man seemed to be trying to decide which of his offences had led to the summons, but it was impossible to tell if he knew which one had caught the XO’s attention. Most disciplinary issues below decks were handled by the Senior Chief, with the XO only becoming involved if matters were serious. Which one, Steadman had to be wondering, was serious?

“You’ve been running a gambling ring,” William said, finally. “Haven’t you?”

Steadman’s eyes narrowed for a brief second. “Gambling isn't against regulations, sir.”

Bingo, William thought. Steadman wouldn't be trying to mount a defence if he hadn't realised why he was in the shit. And he might already have worked out just what had gone wrong – and why.

“Of course gambling isn't against regulations,” William said. “Of course gambling is common on a starship. I am shocked, shocked, to hear that there might be gambling going on below decks.”

Steadman smiled at the quote. It vanished a second later as William glared at him.

“Gambling is tolerated as long as it falls within acceptable limits,” he said. “And you’ve been breaking the limits, haven’t you?”

He allowed his voice to become contemplative. “A young officer, fresh out of Piker’s Peak, unversed in the ways of the universe ... wouldn’t you say she was easy meat? A young officer, trying her hardest to be liked by the rough crewmen under her command, partaking in gambling with her subordinates. And a young officer, too naive to realise that the game is rigged – that the game is always rigged – losing her salary to her subordinates ...”

Steadman’s face suddenly went very cold.

“Oh, don’t be an idiot,” William said, sharply. “I monitor bank accounts on this ship, you ninny. She didn't come crying to me. But once I noticed the pattern ...”

He allowed his voice to trail off meaningfully. Steadman rose to the bait.

“We didn’t ask her to play, sir,” he said. “And we didn't encourage her to keep playing.”

William lifted his eyebrows. “Are you trying to tell me you didn't want such a poor player to keep playing?”

He pressed his hands against the table, then went on before Steadman could say a word. “It’s already getting out of hand, isn't it? She can't give you more money ... how long will it be, I wonder, before you start using her debt against her? Will you ask her to help you with your less than savoury activities? Or merely to cover your ass when you get into trouble? Or will you simply try to get her into bed? I’m sure that would give you bragging rights below decks.”

Steadman looked as if he wanted to say something, but common sense was keeping his mouth firmly shut. William was almost disappointed. He had no proof of anything that could be used to throw the book at Steadman, beyond his own suspicions and the details from the bank accounts. And Steadman was right. Gambling wasn't against regulations. But William knew, all too well, just how easily it could lead to real trouble.

This is why more officers should be mustangs, he thought. They’d have some experience at handling problem cases before they became officers.

He pushed the thought to one side and glared at Steadman. “I will not order you to return her money,” he said. “You won it legitimately. What I will order you to do is to refrain from inviting her to play any more games. Do you understand me?”

“Yes, sir,” Steadman said.

“In addition,” William added, “you are not to gamble – ever – for anything more than petty cash. If you want a high stakes game, you can go to the casinos on Cadiz and play there.”

He sighed. Money wasn't the only stake in shipboard games. Everything from duty rosters to games and pornographic datachips could be included, if the gamblers were willing. But they tended to cause far too many problems. He’d seen crewmen try to hold down double or triple shifts because they’d gambled and lost. It could not be tolerated.

“I will have my eye on you,” he warned. “Step out of line just once more and it will be the Captain’s Mast.”

Steadman flinched. Even if he wasn't – technically – guilty of breaching regulations, a Captain’s Mast could destroy his career. The Captain had wide authority to determine what constituted a crime and issue punishment as she saw fit. Steadman might be able to convince higher authority to overturn the Captain’s decision, but it would be a major black mark on his record. And he would almost certainly never take up another posting on a starship.

William rose to his feet. “Report to the Senior Chief,” he ordered, flatly. “I dare say he has some work for you.”

“Sir,” Steadman said. He didn't look happy. There was never a shortage of unpleasant or uncomfortable jobs on a starship, which tended to be reserved for punishment duties or for very junior crewmen. “I ...”

“Out,” William ordered.

He watched Steadman go, then sat back at his desk. Steadman wasn't a problem. Men and women like him wouldn't go anywhere, not unless they cleaned up their act. If he stepped out of line again, it would be the end of his career. And he’d made a career of knowing just how far he could push regulations before they broke. But his second visitor would be much more of a problem. Her career, which had been promising, might have just run into a brick wall.

The hatch beeped again. “Enter.”

Midshipwoman Cecelia Parkinson entered, looking as though she had been ordered to face the headmaster – or a firing squad. If headmasters on Tyre were anything like headmasters on Hebrides, she might have preferred the firing squad. He wiped the amusement off his face as the midshipwoman closed the hatch and walked towards the desk, nervousness written all over her face. She stopped precisely the right distance from his desk and saluted.

“Be seated,” William ordered.

He took a long moment to study her. She really was young, he knew; young and naive. The Captain had been older when she’d graduated from Piker’s Peak, but the Captain hadn't shown the same level of promise as Midshipwomen Parkinson. And yet, if there hadn't been a looming war, it was unlikely she would have been allowed to graduate so early. Rumour had it that quite a few newer officers needed more polishing and encouragement from the Senior Chiefs than before.

And Steadman probably saw her coming, William thought, morbidly. Parkinson lacked the self-confidence to stand up to men like Steadman. And once he had his hooks in her ...

He shook his head. She should have approached the XO or one of the Lieutenants for help. No doubt Steadman had pointed out that her career would be at risk if her superiors knew she’d been gambling. Or maybe she’d been horrified at the thought of being a sneak. The Captain had had similar doubts over landing Admiral Morrison in the shit.

“Midshipwoman,” William said. “Do you know why you’re here?”

Parkinson shook her head, unconvincingly. She knew, all right, or at least she had a very good idea. William wasn’t surprised. Given her behaviour over the last few weeks, she had clearly thought too much about just how badly she’d damaged her own career. He should have tackled the matter earlier, or asked one of the Lieutenants to give her some friendly advice. But he’d failed her.

“Gambling,” William said, flatly. “How much do you owe Crewman Steadman?”

Parkinson hesitated. “Five hundred crowns,” she said, finally. “I ...”

William sighed. Half her income would be inaccessible as long as she was onboard ship, a precaution against this very situation. But Steadman wouldn't have pushed her to withdraw it when she was on Cadiz, not when having her in his debt would be far more useful in the long run. Parkinson was beautiful. Who knew what the crewman had had in mind?

Maybe I should just beat him up, William thought. Or ask the Marines to encounter him in a dark alleyway one day.

“Five hundred crowns,” he repeated. It was a sizable part of her wages, particularly with half of her money being held in reserve. “You’re in debt to an ordinary crewman to the tune of five hundred crowns?”

“Yes, sir,” Parkinson said. Her hands twisted on her lap. “I ...”

“You were lured into the game,” William said. It was time for some fatherly advice. Technically, it wasn't his job to mentor young officers – that was normally handled by the Senior Chiefs – but he had a feeling Parkinson would listen to him more than the NCOs. “I believe there was a course at Piker’s Peak on maintaining the proper distance between yourself and crewmen?”

“Yes, but ...”

William cut her off. “But what?”

Parkinson swallowed. “Sir,” she said, “I was a fool.”

“Good,” William said. “That is a far more useful attitude.”

He met her eyes. “You went into Piker’s Peak because someone thought you had the makings of a fine officer,” he said. He’d checked her record. As far as he could tell, she didn't have any aristocratic or naval connections. “But you seem to have failed to learn anything useful about the universe. It is full of people who will take advantage of you, if you show them the slightest hint of weakness. Gambling with your subordinates was a dangerous mistake.”

“Yes, sir,” she said.

“It could easily have been a great deal worse,” he added. “You have been entrusted with rank, which brings power and responsibilities. He could have exploited you for his own personal benefit, either by forcing you to work for him or simply by offering to write off part of your debt in exchange for going to bed with him. Do you understand just how close you came to disaster?”

Parkinson flinched. “I wouldn't have ...”

“It is amazing,” William cut her off, “just how far someone will go with the proper manipulation. He would have started small. Perhaps he would have asked you to alter the duty roster in his favour, a tiny act that wouldn't have caused any real harm. And then he would have slowly worked his way up until you were completely in his pocket. You would have been his slave, all the time telling yourself that you wouldn't go any further. I’ve seen it happen, Midshipwoman. It can get so far out of hand that the IG has to be called in to sort out the mess.”

He met her eyes. “You’re lucky,” he said. “If he’d been a little more careful about covering his tracks, no one would have noticed until it was far too late. Your career would have been destroyed. As it is, you will have to pay the price for your carelessness. There are people who depend on you. You will be leading those people into battle one day. The universe is not a safe place for idiot young officers.”

“I know, sir,” she said. Tears were glistening at the corner of her eyes. “I’m sorry, sir.”

William reached for a handkerchief and tossed it to her, feeling very old. They came from very different worlds, literally. He’d served in the ranks before becoming a mustang; she’d never served on a starship until she’d completed her course at Piker’s Peak. She had self-confidence issues he’d never experienced. He wondered, absently, if the Captain had ever had such issues. But she would have been raised to give orders to her subordinates.

“You have to make a choice,” he said, once she’d wiped her eyes. “You can have NJP – non-judicial punishment – from me or you can face the Captain.”

He waited. When he'd been a junior crewman, he would have hated the thought of facing the Captain, even though the senior Chiefs had been very good at inventing unpleasant punishments for misbehaving crewmen. NJP punishments simply weren’t added to a crewman’s permanent record. He would have to make a note in Parkinson’s file that she’d had an NJP, as she was an officer, but by long tradition the matter would be assumed closed as long as there were no repetitions. Besides, it also cut down on paperwork.

“I’ll take the NJP,” Parkinson said, finally.

William nodded, respecting her choice. “There’s no point in docking your wages,” he said. He could have docked her reserved wages, but it would have been petty and cruel. “I will strip your seniority through a retrospective beaching. It will be pointless on this ship, yet the promotions board will take it into account when they consider promotions.”

He saw the wince she couldn't quite hide and nodded. Seniority in a given rank was important, even though Parkinson had only four months as a Midshipwoman. It might make the difference between early promotion and remaining a Midshipwoman for several months longer, after she completed her first cruise. Unless she did something heroic, of course, that jumped her ahead on the list. It was always possible.

“In addition, you will spend some of your off-duty hours training with the Marines,” he added. Parkinson had done poorly in her unarmed combat course and hadn't, according to the records, practiced with her firearm since boarding Lightning. “They will teach you how to fight and defend yourself, which will boost your confidence. And believe me, you need your confidence.”

“Sir,” Parkinson said. “I can't fight ...”

“You’re in the wrong career if that is literally true,” William said. He’d known people who had been too quick to fight and people who had been held back by their inner demons, but he’d never met anyone who was literally incapable of fighting. “The Marines will make sure you develop the confidence to kick some ass, the next time you need it. And you will.”

“Yes, sir,” Parkinson said, reluctantly.

“There is a war coming,” William said. “We cannot allow young officers to avoid their duties.”

He hesitated, then reached for his rank pips and removed them from his collar. “You should have come to me or one of the other officers at once,” he added. “I understand why you didn't, but you should have done. You would have been lectured and reprimanded, of course, yet you would have been helped. We are here to advise you if necessary.”

“Yes, sir,” Parkinson said.

“Report to Major Davidson this afternoon, after your shift,” William said. He smiled at her frightened expression. “The Marines look fearsome, but they will help you overcome your doubts and make you more confident. And you need confidence.”

“Yes, sir,” Parkinson said.

William nodded. He’d repeated it enough, he hoped, for it to sink in. If she didn't grow a spine, with or without the Marines, she would be in deep trouble when the war actually began and she was expected to fight.

He rose. “Dismissed, Midshipwoman,” he ordered. “I will call you back in a week or two from now. By then, I expect you to have a plan worked out for your future development.”

Midshipwoman Parkinson hesitated, as if she wanted to say something, then turned and walked out of the hatch. William watched her go, then picked up his rank pips and slowly returned them to his collar. Had she picked up the underlying message? He’d given her advice she had to hear, but not advice he could give as the XO.

He sat down and wrote a brief note into the log, then reached for the endless list of issues that needed to be considered. If nothing else, border patrol duty was good for testing the ship, without actual combat. Or interference from bureaucrats on Cadiz.

Poor girl, he thought, feeling a flicker of sympathy. On Hebrides, confidence would have been hammered into her head before she reached puberty. But Tyre was kinder to its children. All alone in the night.
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Chapter Twenty-Five

“Captain,” Ross said, “I’m picking up a distress signal.”

Kat swung her chair to turn and face the communications officer. “Is it real?”

“I think so,” Ross said, after a long moment. “There's none of the oddities hyperspace throws up when a message has been bounced hundreds of light years.”

“Show me its location,” Kat ordered. The display altered, showing a location on the near side of the border that was far too close to a hyperspace storm for comfort. “And is it genuine?”

“Unknown,” Ross said.

Kat hesitated. By law, and interstellar agreements, ships were meant to respond to distress calls, no matter who sent them. There was also an agreement against sending fake distress calls, an agreement she knew the Theocracy had never signed. It was quite possible that the call was a ruse, intended to lure her ship into a trap. But it was her duty to respond to the call unless she knew it was a fake. And she knew no such thing.

“Alter course,” she ordered. “Yellow alert. I say again, Yellow alert.”

She settled back in her chair as the drumbeat sounded, calling her crew to action stations. If it was a trap, so close to the border, they might find themselves in a fight at any second. An ambush in hyperspace would be risky, but the Theocracy might deem it a worthwhile risk if they wanted her ship destroyed. Taking her intact would be a little harder.

“Launch probes,” she added. Hyperspace would dim their signals, but there might be some advance notice if they were flying towards a trap. “And monitor them closely.”

She glanced up as the XO came onto the bridge and checked the situation, then took his seat next to her. He looked tired; it struck her, suddenly, that he’d been sleeping when she’d sounded the alert. She threw him an apologetic look, then looked back at the display. The signal source was getting closer, but it was still obscured by bursts of energy. Hyperspace roiled and boiled, as though it were a living thing.

And if it’s a trap, Kat thought, what better way to hide it from our sensors?

“I’m picking up weapons fire,” Roach snapped. “There isn’t one ship there, Captain. I’m picking up at least two.”

Kat sucked in her breath as the two contacts suddenly came into view. One of them was a freighter, clearly modified to carry at least some weapons and heavy defence shields. The other was a destroyer of unknown design, but definitely modern. She checked the records and found no match. They had to be looking at another indigenous Theocratic design. And it was clearly on the verge of blowing the freighter apart.

“The freighter is hailing us, Captain,” Ross reported. “They’re begging for assistance.”

Kat looked at the XO, who looked back evenly. They were in Commonwealth space, but they didn't have the slightest idea of what was actually going on. For all they knew, the freighter was crewed by terrorists or pirates and the Theocrats were doing the right thing by hunting them down. But it was equally possible the crew were refugees, fleeing the Theocracy’s iron grip on their worlds. There was no way to know without boarding the ship.

And she had orders to protect the border.

“Contact the Theocratic ship,” she ordered. “Warn them off.”

There was a long pause. “They’re opening a channel,” Ross reported.

“Put it through,” Kat ordered.

The image was so badly distorted by hyperspace that it was hard to make out any details about the speaker. His face seemed dark, but she couldn't tell if he had a beard or if it was merely his uniform. The audio channel was clear enough, however. She could hear the speaker without problems.

“The freighter has been stolen,” the voice said. The speaker didn't even bother to identify himself. “You are ordered to allow us to recover our ship without interference.”

“Ordered?” The XO repeated. “Unless he has some secret weapon mounted in that hull, Captain, we outgun him by an order of magnitude.”

“Red alert,” Kat ordered. Alarms howled through the ship as she touched his console, linking her into the audio channel. “This is Captain Falcone. Your vessel has engaged in hostile acts within Commonwealth space. You are ordered to stand down. The freighter will be boarded, then towed to the nearest Commonwealth Naval Base. You may request its return there.”

“They just swept us,” Roach snapped. “They’re locking weapons onto our hull!”

Kat blinked. “Are they mad?”

“They may not want to report failure,” the XO said, softly. “What will their superiors say if they back down now?”

It seemed absurd, Kat considered. Her superiors wouldn’t expect her to pick a fight with a starship several times her size, not over a mere freighter. And that suggested there was something important about the freighter, something that needed to be recovered at all costs, no matter the risk. Unless it was a trap, of course. The freighter had really been quite lucky, suspiciously lucky, that Lightning had picked up her distress call.

“Lock weapons onto their hull,” Kat ordered. They’d clearly been trying to take the freighter intact, but they might change their minds now Lightning had arrived. “And prepare to cover the freighter if necessary.”

There was a long pause. “Your attempts to shield the freighter are an act of war,” the enemy commander said, finally. “Stand down and allow my forces to board the freighter or you will be fired upon.”

Kat thought fast. Her orders were somewhat contradictory, thanks to Admiral Morrison and his bureaucrats. She was supposed to patrol the border and defend Commonwealth interests, but she wasn't allowed to fire first under any circumstances. It might start a war. And yet she knew the war was likely to start anyway ...

If we had a few weeks to prepare, she thought. But we won’t get those weeks ...

She keyed her console, opening the channel. “This is Commonwealth space,” she said, firmly. “I will not allow acts of aggression within our territory. You will have your chance to issue a demand for the freighter to be returned to you and any prisoners to be extradited. I ...”

“Incoming fire,” Roach snapped. Red icons blazed to life on the display. “Multiple missiles incoming; I say again, multiple missiles incoming!”

“Launch decoys,” Kat snapped. In hyperspace, point defence would be dangerously unreliable. “Return fire!”

Lightning shuddered as she unleashed a broadside, aimed right at the Theocratic vessel. Kat braced herself as the wave of incoming missiles altered course, some suckered away from her vessel by the decoys, others picked off neatly by the point defence. But two survived long enough to slam into her shields.

“Energy disturbances registered,” Lieutenant Robertson reported. “Hyperspace is started to become dangerously unstable.”

Kat winced. “Pull us away from the disturbances,” she ordered. On the display, the enemy ship had taken seven hits and was spinning out of control. “Raise the Theocratic ship. Order them to ...”

She broke off as the enemy craft exploded, ripped apart by the disturbances in hyperspace, her crew wiped out before they could hope to get to the lifepods. Kat felt a moment of true horror at what she’d done, then pulled herself back to reality. If their actions provoked a full-scale hyperspace storm, escape would become extremely difficult. Fortunately, hyperspace seemed calmer than she had any right to expect.

“Target destroyed,” Roach said. “I’m not picking up more than a few fragments of wreckage.”

“Understood,” Kat said. The war might have just begun ... assuming, of course, the Theocracy figured out what had become of their vessel. It was quite possible they’d assume the destroyer was lost in hyperspace, particularly if the freighter they’d been chasing was desperate enough to ram them amidships. “Contact the freighter. Inform them they are to hold position, stand down all weapons and shields and prepare to be boarded.”

The XO looked at her. “With permission, Captain, I should accompany the Marines,” he said. “One of us may have to make decisions in a hurry.”

Kat hesitated. It was possible, although unlikely, that the Theocracy had been in the right. If so, their crew had fought and died for nothing. But it was far more likely they were dealing with political refuges or defectors. Either one would require some quick decision-making.

“Do so,” she ordered. “But be careful. This could all have been arranged to trick us into lowering our guard.”

“They threw away a destroyer to do so,” the XO pointed out. “It doesn't seem likely.”

“We shall see,” Kat said. A destroyer might have seemed expensive, but she would be pocket change to her father. Given enough time, her family could have built and operated an entire fleet of superdreadnaughts. “Watch yourself.”

She watched the XO leave the bridge, then turned to watch the display. The freighter seemed innocent, too innocent. Kat felt suspicions flickering through her mind as the Marine shuttles launched, heading right towards the freighter. What was it carrying that was so important that an enemy commander had been prepared to risk almost certain death just to prevent it falling into Commonwealth hands? Or was it meant to convince the Commonwealth that they’d captured something vital?

But all she could do was wait.

***
Up close, it was alarmingly obvious that the freighter had been in a battle. Scorch marks covered its hull, revealing moments where the shields had failed and allowed directed energy weapons to caress the freighter. Someone had bolted weapons and sensors – even shield generators – from several different eras to the hull, trying to give her some extra – and unexpected – punch. William was alarmingly impressed with whoever had done the work, even though it was far too sloppy to be tolerated on a Royal Navy starship. They’d somehow managed to get the different systems to work together.

He pushed his admiration aside as the shuttle dropped towards the nearest airlock. According to the plans, they should be within a few metres of the bridge – much of the freighter was nothing more than cargo holds – but it was impossible to be sure. The freighter was old enough to have been refitted to be anything from a passenger liner to the garbage scow. A dull clunk echoed through the shuttle as she mated with the airlock, then a hiss as the hatch opened and air pressure matched.

“Stay here,” Davidson said. The armoured Marines would take the lead. “Watch our backs.”

William scowled as the Marines stepped through the airlock, ready for anything. Cold logic suggested it wasn't a trap, but he had to admit the Captain’s paranoia was grounded in reality, particularly after hearing some of the tales from the refugees. The Theocracy hadn't hesitated to call down strikes on their own positions, just to kill insurgents and freedom fighters. If they thought it was important enough, they could have easily sacrificed a destroyer just to make sure the freighter was taken into custody.

But if they intended the ship to serve as a Trojan Horse, he thought, it wouldn't work. We’d never allow it anywhere near the fleet base without checking it thoroughly first, would we?

“Commander,” Davidson said. “You might want to take a look at this.”

William stepped through the hatch. Inside, the freighter was as dull and grey as any other freighter from the early expansion era, but it wasn't the bulkheads that caught his attention. The men standing at one end of the chamber, their backs pressed against the grey metal, were cyborgs. Their bodies had been extensively modified in a manner he could only deem crude. Half of them had had their arms replaced by weapons, the other half had electric eyes or implants growing out of their heads. And they looked ... oddly unconcerned.

“They’re under orders to do nothing,” a soft voice said. “They will obey.”

William turned to see a slim man wearing a white robe. There was something oddly effeminate about his movements – and his face, come to think of it. If he hadn't had an Adam’s Apple William would have wondered if he was a girl, trying to pretend to be a man.

“Obey?” Davidson repeated. “What have you done to them?”

“They volunteered to be bodyguards,” the man said. “The doctors programmed them to be obedient.”

William felt sick. It was easy to use implants for thought control, to direct someone along an approved route of thinking – or simply to puppet their body like something in a simulation. But it was banned, so completely that anyone who dared suggest using it risked being summarily sacked, while standard implants had safeguards built in to prevent anyone hacking them and turning the user into a slave. It wasn't something he would have used on anyone, even a volunteer.

He gathered himself. “How many people are there on this ship?”

The young man hesitated. “Will you swear not to return us to the Believers?”

William felt his eyes narrow. The Theocracy called its people the Believers, but hardly anyone else did. He’d thought he was dealing with refugees from a border world, yet the presence of the cyborgs argued otherwise. Something was very deeply wrong. He drew on his experience and studied the young men, then pasted a reassuring expression on his face.

“If you’re seeking political asylum,” he said, “the case will be heard at the nearest naval base. However, I can assure you that you will not be returned, unless you are guilty of crimes under interstellar law. The ship may have to be returned; you can stay. But we need you to cooperate now.”

The young man took a breath. “There are seventeen crew, nineteen bodyguards and twelve passengers on this ship,” he said. “The passengers are important.”

William gave Davidson a sharp look, then looked back at the young man. “There isn't any more time for games,” he said. “I need you to answer the questions. Who are the passengers and why are they here?”

The young man straightened upright. “They are the Princess Drusilla and her maidservants,” he said. “And they request that you protect them from their enemies.”

Davidson gaped, openly. “Pardon?”

“Search the ship, thoroughly,” William ordered. He’d expected a defector ever since he’d seen the bodyguards, but he hadn’t anticipated a Princess. Everything they knew about how the Theocracy treated women suggested they were neither seen nor heard. How could one of their Princesses have stolen a ship and escaped? “The Captain will have to meet with the Princess, in person.”

“She cannot meet any unrelated male,” the young man said, quickly. “She ...”

“Will have to get used to our customs if she wishes to stay,” William said. If the Princess couldn't meet an unrelated man, what about the man facing him? Or her cyborg bodyguards? But the cyborgs could probably be programmed to ignore her. “Now, if you don’t mind, we will search your ship.”

***
Kat had grown up in a society where men and women were largely equal. A baseline woman might be weaker than a man, but an enhanced woman could be stronger than an unenhanced man and technology had liberated them from the drudgery of life in the past. She had to admit she was curious about a woman from a very different society, particularly one who had managed to escape her family’s grasp. Kat could sympathise. But, at the same time, it was a major diplomatic headache.

She felt a trickle of dislike as soon as Princess Drusilla was shown into her Ready Room by two female Marines. The Princess was slender, with dark skin, darker eyes and an air of helplessness only betrayed by the sharpness in her eyes. She was no fool, Kat knew, despite her air of fragile vulnerability. This was a woman skilled in manipulating others to get her way.

Just like Candy, she thought, but Candy could have abandoned her manipulations at any point and lived her own life. She had a feeling Princess Drusilla would never have been able to live on her own. Nothing they’d heard from the refugees had suggested women had good lives in the Theocracy. It seemed to be more common for them to become nothing more than baby-factories. Given the Theocracy’s expansion rate, Kat could well believe it.

“I did not believe them when they told us a woman commanded this starship,” Princess Drusilla said. Even her voice was perfect. Kat couldn't help being affected, even though she was well aware of the manipulation. By now, it was probably habit for the Princess to manipulate those around her. “And you’re so young.”

“Thank you,” Kat said, tartly. She swallowed her reaction as best as she could. “I just killed a destroyer to help you escape, Your Highness. Your mere presence is going to cause considerable problems for my government. I don’t have time for games.”

The Princess lowered her eyes. Kat wondered, absurdly, if she really thought a gesture of submission would help her case – or if she was thinking of Kat as a man in a woman’s body. The thought made her smile. Swapping sexes wasn’t common, but anyone who felt they’d been born the wrong sex could have a proper sex change. She shrugged, dismissing the thought. Under the circumstances, it hardly mattered.

“I need answers,” Kat said. She kept her voice under tight control. “Why did you come here?”

“To escape,” the Princess said. Her voice became urgent. “And to warn you. They’re already preparing to attack your worlds.”

Kat studied Princess Drusilla carefully. She certainly sounded as though she was telling the truth, but ... but it was hard to be sure. Growing up as an inferior being would have taught her how to lie and mask her reactions far more effectively than anything Kat had endured.

“I think you’d better start from the beginning,” she said, finally. “And don’t leave anything out.”

The Princess bowed her head, then began.
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Chapter Thirteen:

...plenty of time to know what to do himself and what to leave to met.

"met"?
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Chpter 14:

"... 7th Fleet’s condition crew worse every day."
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#34
Chapter Twenty-Six

“My father is the Speaker,” the Princess said. Even on a display screen, she was stunning. “I was his oldest daughter.”

William frowned, studying her. The Princess hadn't been crude, but she had been alarmingly seductive. He wanted to make her happy, he wanted to protect her ... and, even though he knew it was an act, he still found it hard to resist. Making a mental note to ensure she only dealt with female crew, he watched as the recording played out.

“He wants to launch an attack against the Commonwealth while he’s still in office,” Princess Drusilla continued. “I believe he thinks such a proof of God’s favour will ensure his son can take up the role of Speaker after him. The attack fleets are already being positioned to take the offensive against your worlds.”

“And why,” the Captain’s recorded image said, “did you come to us?”

William glanced at the Captain. The way she sat, so stiffly in her chair, suggested she was tense – and that she disliked the Princess on sight. William wasn't sure why, but he knew that women tended to pick up on subtle points men missed. Or maybe she just felt dowdy when compared to the Princess. It was clear the Princess was very skilled at manipulating men.

“My father promised me as a reward to the Admiral who conquered the Commonwealth,” Princess Drusilla said. “I protested; he told me I would be ... rewritten to suit the Admiral’s tastes in women. It would kill me, destroy my personality. I planned an escape with the help of my bodyguards and made it off-world. But then they gave chase.”

The Princess leaned forward, her every motion screaming earnestness. “I have copies of some of their plans,” she said. “You have to believe me. I won’t go back. I can't.”

William could well believe it. If the Theocracy took a dim view of backsliding among new converts – the refugees had told thousands of horror stories – he dreaded to think what they would do to the daughter of their leader, if she betrayed them. And she had betrayed them, unless it was an elaborate trick. But his years of service in the Royal Navy told him it was too elaborate to be a trick. They’d have to be damn near omnipotent to pull it off successfully.

The Captain tapped the table. “Doctor?”

Doctor Braham leaned forward. “I have examined the Princess and her handmaidens,” she said, shortly. “The Princess is not baseline human – there’s some genetic engineering and reshaping in her DNA – but she isn't outfitted with any implants, not even a basic neural link, apart from a simple tracking implant. I think it is comparable to a prisoner tracking implant from Tyre, although it doesn't have a stunner included. Fortunately for Princess Drusilla, the implant was apparently disabled. I have since removed it.”

“Good thinking,” the Captain said.

“Her handmaidens don’t have any implants either, but they have definitely undergone some conditioning,” Doctor Brahman said. “They’re very ... obedient; Princess Drusilla is apparently their mistress, but they will obey any orders as long as they don’t conflict with any from the Princess. However, they may well have other orders in their minds that might be activated at any moment. We lack the deep-scan facilities to make sure of it.”

William shivered. Conditioning – a form of brainwashing – could be used on almost anyone, unless they had implants to prevent it. The technology was the stuff of nightmares, he knew all too well; a loyal officer could be turned into a spy with only a few hours of enemy conditioning. Or worse. Someone could be turned into a slave if they encountered someone with bad intentions and no scruples. There were always lingering rumours about slavery rings that specialised in conditioned slaves ...

“The conditioning wasn't perfect,” Davidson said. “Not if they weren't able to alert the security forces that the Princess was planning an escape.”

“Or they might not have known what was in the Princess’s mind,” Doctor Braham said. “I think they’re also very ignorant, at least outside their specialist fields. One of them is clearly a doctor, charged with tending the Princess, but she knew almost nothing about life on a starship.”

She paused. “I can't offer any guarantees,” she added. “I simply don’t have the equipment to be sure they don’t have additional commands buried within their minds. All we can do is keep them in stasis until we return to Cadiz.”

William nodded. The crew of the Theocratic freighter had, much to their relief, already been moved into stasis and placed in storage. He had a feeling that none of them would want to go home, no matter how terrifying they found the idea of living among infidels. The Speaker would probably have them tortured for death for daring to assist in his daughter’s escape. And the bodyguards, after a brief set of scans, had joined them.

“She claims she would have been brainwashed,” Davidson said. “Is that plausible?”

“The technology to create Stepford Wives exists,” Doctor Braham said, flatly. “It isn't actually that difficult to remove a person’s ability to decide which orders to follow, or have their minds automatically interpret any instruction as an irresistible order. There have even been worlds where such techniques were used regularly, particularly on companions and servants of the local rulers. Would it be used in this case?”

She sighed. “Princess Drusilla has no implants, nothing that would protect her mind,” she added. “It’s certainly possible that someone could use the technology on her.”

“We already know what the Theocracy thinks of women,” the Captain growled. “It might well seem an ideal solution for them.”

William wondered, absently, if any of Tyre’s aristocracy had ever used such technology on their wives or children. It was certainly possible ... and someone with the wealth and power of the Captain’s father could have covered it up, afterwards. But if it got out, it would utterly destroy the perpetrator’s family. They’d be lucky if they weren't lynched in the streets by outraged citizens. No one took the idea of having their mind altered lightly.

And if the Princess tells her story back home, he thought, the public will be outraged.

“We have a problem,” the Captain said, tapping the table. “Is this a genuine defection or is this an elaborate trick?”

She keyed a switch, activating the holographic display. One star glowed red. “If the Princess is telling the truth,” she added, “the Theocracy’s attack fleet is gathering here, preparing to surge across the border and invade. But she doesn't know when the attack is actually planned to start, which leaves us with a dilemma. Can we believe her?”

William looked at Doctor Braham. “Can you confirm her identity?”

“No,” Doctor Braham said, shortly. “We don’t have any DNA records from her family to compare to hers. However, I monitored her brainwaves while she was speaking to me and she certainly believes she’s telling the truth.”

Davidson stroked his chin, thoughtfully. “This does seem to be too elaborate to be a trick, Captain,” he said. “They’d have to be able to track us through hyperspace just to be sure we were in position to save Princess Drusilla from her pursuers. And hyperspace could easily have swallowed their distress call before we ever heard it. If they wanted us to intercept the destroyer and blow it to pieces, Captain, they really got quite lucky.”

He paused. “It would have made more sense to have them enter Cadiz before threatening to destroy the ship,” he added. “There were just too many things that could go wrong.”

The Captain frowned. “So you believe it isn't a trick?”

“I don’t think so,” Davidson said. “This could be the break we’ve been waiting for.”

“Captain,” Roach said, “it’s nearly three weeks from here to their homeworld. How did they manage to avoid interception for so long? And how did they even get the ship in the first place?”

“Sheer audacity, if you believe them,” Davidson said. “I debriefed the Princess’s assistant extensively. He managed to get all the paperwork to get up to the freighter in spacesuits, so no one knew who was travelling, then used the bodyguards to take over the ship and set off into hyperspace.”

William considered it. The story sounded plausible; starships had been hijacked by passengers before, particularly largely-unarmed freighters. And if the crew had been promised their lives, they might cooperate long enough to get the ship into hyperspace and headed towards the Commonwealth. Quite a few things could easily go wrong, but given what was at stake ... he felt a sudden flash of admiration for Princess Drusilla. She’d clearly managed to turn her status as a second-class citizen into an advantage.

“Boarding the ship wouldn't have been easy, not if they wanted the Princess alive,” Davidson added. “A skilled crew might just have managed to remain away from the destroyer for three weeks.”

“Something to check,” the Captain said. She paused. “Opinions?”

Roach spoke quickly. “Captain, I don’t buy this,” he said. “We’re talking about a handful of uneducated women, from a world where women are expected to be little more than baby factories, and their bodyguards capturing a starship and travelling for three weeks without being intercepted by an immensely more competent and capable crew. And she’s someone so important we have to treat her with kid gloves. There are just too many unanswered questions for me to believe she’s what she claims to be.”

“But they don’t benefit,” Davidson mused. “If we believe her and go on the alert, they’re not going to be able to launch their attack against unprepared defences. How do they gain from letting us have a woman we think is their leader’s daughter?”

“Perhaps they want to make us look like aggressors,” Roach speculated. “Or perhaps they want to lure us into a trap.”

Davidson snorted. “Make us look bad in front of whom?”

He had a point, William knew. There were other interstellar powers, but none of them seemed inclined to worry overmuch about the Theocracy – or the Commonwealth, for that matter. They believed the Theocracy would either wind up hemmed in by the Commonwealth or would simply collapse under its own weight. There were few low-tech worlds left for it to conquer with a single destroyer, then occupy with a few thousand armoured soldiers. And then its people would start asking if the constant state of emergency, with all production going to the military, was worth it. There would be no good answer the Theocrats could give.

But they could keep their people in ignorance for quite some time, he thought. Unless a bigger power decided to intervene.

The Captain tapped the table again, harder this time. “Major?”

“The story seems plausible,” Davidson said. “And we are well aware of the possibility that it is a trick. However, I honestly don’t see how they benefit. Right now, they couldn't ask for a better chance to clobber 7th Fleet. Why put us on the alert when it gets them nothing, but the certainty of stubborn resistance?”

The Captain’s face flickered, just for a second. She didn't like what she’d been told, but why? William knew she was well aware of the danger from the Theocracy. She’d even risked her own career to send messages back to Tyre. It made no sense.

“It could be meant to cause political trouble,” Roach suggested. “Wouldn’t there be questions asked in Parliament if we went on alert?”

“There's a difference between putting the defences on alert and storming across the border, looking to kick ass and take names,” Davidson snapped. “They’d know the difference.”

William smiled. “Would the politicians?”

The Captain cleared her throat, loudly. “They certainly don’t seem to benefit,” she agreed, reluctantly. “But it could still be a trick.”

She shook her head. “We have to report it to Tyre anyway,” she said. “We’ll put a crew on the freighter, then head back to Cadiz at best possible speed. Once there, we will brief the Admiral on our discovery. The attack could begin at any moment.”

William frowned. “But why haven’t they jumped already?”

Davidson leaned forward. “They could be waiting for His Majesty’s Birthday,” he said. “We’d have most of our personnel down on the surface, getting rat-arsed drunk, with only skeleton crews on the ships. It’s pretty much tradition by now. And if they caught us then, we’d have our trousers around our knees and our ...”

“Thank you,” the Captain said, quickly. “But His Majesty’s Birthday is three months away. Think what we could do with three months.”

“Get 7th Fleet ready for a fight,” William agreed. He wondered, suddenly, what would have happened if the insurgents had managed to kill the Admiral and most of his commanding officers. The efficiency of the fleet would probably have doubled. “And even get some reinforcements out here.”

“They may understand Admiral Morrison very well,” Davidson grumbled. “I don’t think they’d expect him to change the habits of a lifetime.”

The Captain looked torn. William understood. Speaking disrespectfully of a superior officer was a court martial offense. But it was hard for anyone to argue that Admiral Morrison deserved respect. Whatever he'd done to earn his place on Cadiz, to buy patronage from powerful people, it hadn't been a lifetime of dedicated service, skill and efficiency.

She rose to her feet. “I will be writing the report to Tyre,” she said. “Mr. XO; please see to putting the crew on the freighter, then getting us underway. I want to be back at Cadiz as soon as possible.”

“Aye, Captain,” William said.

“We do have an issue with the handmaidens,” Doctor Braham said, before the Captain could take her leave. “Should we put them in stasis too?”

“Please do,” the Captain said, after a moment. “Mr. XO, Major; I want you to assign two officers to debrief Princess Drusilla as extensively as possible. Female officers.”

“Aye, Captain,” William said. “We’ll find out what she knows.”

The Captain nodded, then turned and walked out of the compartment. William looked from face to face, silently dismissing them, then reached for his terminal and started to assign a prize crew to the freighter. There would be no prize money for this ship, he was fairly sure, but it would give some of his crew a chance to stretch their legs and spend time away from Lightning. After a moment, he added a pair of engineering techs to the roster. If there were any unpleasant surprises on the freighter, they’d find them before the ship got anywhere near Cadiz.

“I’m going to assign one of my Marines to the Princess,” Davidson said, slowly. “Do you have a suitable officer to assign to her?”

William considered it, carefully. Midshipwoman Parkinson was probably young enough to seem unthreatening, at least to a woman who hadn't grown up surrounded by powerful and self-confident young women. It was quite possible Princess Drusilla would be scared by one of the female Marines, perhaps even see them as men wearing female bodies. But Parkinson didn't have the confidence to stand up for herself ... it was possible Princess Drusilla would overwhelm her.

But she’ll have a Marine to supervise, he thought. She’ll do.

“I think so,” he said, finally. “We also need to sort out a list of questions for her, see if we can pick holes in her story.”

Davidson nodded. “Kid gloves,” he said. “But at least we can monitor her brainwaves. If she lies to us, we’ll know about it.”

“Let's hope so,” William said. One possibility that hadn't been raised at the meeting was that the Princess might believe she was telling the truth, but she’d actually been lied to by her father. No lie detector could tell the difference between a person who was genuinely telling the truth and a person who thought they were telling the truth. “I dare say we’ll find out soon.”

***
Kat sat in her Ready Room, feeling oddly conflicted.

She had no doubt the Theocracy was planning an offensive – and a great deal earlier than His Majesty’s Birthday. The date was simply too obvious. Besides, by then, someone might have replaced Admiral Morrison with a more efficient officer. But, at the same time, she disliked Princess Drusilla. The reaction was so strong it surprised her. She’d encountered society butterflies and madams who hadn't irritated her so badly whenever they’d opened their mouths. It primed her to disbelieve anything the Princess said on principle.

An officer cannot afford to let her personal feelings interfere with her job, she told herself, sternly. But her own thoughts mocked her. Do you dislike the Princess because she could be you, if things were different, or because Patrick finds her attractive?

Angrily, she pushed the thought aside, then started composing the next message to her father. Given half a chance, Admiral Morrison would probably sit on the whole affair – or try to hand the Princess back to the Theocracy, just to avoid a diplomatic incident. He couldn't be allowed to hide anything. And yet ... she finished writing the bare bones of the incident, then added notes about her own reactions and that of her officers. The story would play well on Tyre, she knew. Perhaps too well.

She muttered curses under her breath as she called up the recordings and reviewed them, again. Princess Drusilla was good, very good. Manipulation was second nature to her – and, in truth, it was hard to blame the girl. What other tools did she have to exercise some control over her life? And if she was telling the truth about her father’s plans for her ... Kat couldn't blame her for running. God knew there were aristocrats on Tyre who’d fled just to escape their families and they had never been threatened with brainwashing. Even the most manipulative aristocrat on Tyre wouldn't consider rewriting his children’s minds just to suit himself.

“We’ll see,” she concluded. “But where do we go from here?”
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#35
Chapter Twenty-Seven

“I have received orders from Tyre,” Admiral Morrison said. He looked angry, although Kat couldn't tell if he was annoyed at his orders or angry that he had to leave his comfortable lodgings and meet Kat at the spaceport. “These orders, in my view, are provocative.”

Kat sucked in a breath. The Admiral had wanted to put a lid on the whole affair, as she’d feared, but it had been too late to prevent her from sending a message to Tyre. This time, he seemed to be aware she’d sent the message, even though he hadn't called her to rip her head off. The thought brought her no pleasure. Given what had happened at the party, it was quite likely the Admiral was reconsidering his plans for her.

“They are our orders, sir,” she said, trying to sound respectful. It wasn't easy. “The Admiralty needs hard data.”

The Admiral looked thunderous, but she thought she saw a hint of fear on his face. It was hard to blame him. The Admiralty’s orders, sent back a day after Lightning had returned to Cadiz, admitted of no ambiguity. Kat was to take her cruiser, slip over the border and investigate the reported staging base directly. If she found an enemy fleet there, she was to hightail it back to Cadiz and inform the Admiralty that the war was about to begin. And that would bring the Admiral’s failings to the attention of his superiors.

“So it would seem,” he said, finally. “But there are too many risk involved in this operation.”

“Orders are orders, sir,” Kat said. She couldn't help feeling nervous at the prospect too, even though she was grateful that someone was finally doing something. “And we have to know.”

She smiled. Admiral Morrison had wanted to keep the Princess at Cadiz, but the Admiralty had ordered Kat to dispatch her to Tyre as quickly as possible. Thankfully, a light cruiser had been on the verge of heading home and it had been a simple matter to arrange a transfer. The remaining bodyguards and starship crewmen would be held at Cadiz until a decision was made, one way or the other. Kat would have preferred to send them to Tyre too, but no one was quite sure what they wanted to do with themselves.

“So we do,” the Admiral grated. “You’ll depart tomorrow, Captain. And I wish you the very best of luck.”

He turned and strode out of the conference room, leaving Kat alone. She sighed to herself, then looked over at the navigational display. The star Princess Drusilla had highlighted would make a good staging base, she knew, if only because it was as worthless and unremarked as the star they’d used as an RV point for the convoy. It was highly unlikely that anyone would consider visiting, unless they had something to hide. Civilian shippers probably wouldn't go anywhere near the place.

But it was getting there that would be the problem.

“The Admiral wasn't pleased,” she said, when she reached the shuttle. Her XO was waiting for her, his face pale. “But our orders have been confirmed.”

“Good,” the XO said. Neither of them had been happy at being called down together, even though the XO had to be debriefed while Kat spoke to the Admiral. “Did he give you any updated navigational information?”

Kat shook her head. The Theocracy’s border was dangerous to starships, with energy storms moving randomly though space. There were a handful of known hyper-routes, but the Theocracy would have plenty of time to mount patrols, lay minefields and take other precautions to discourage anyone from visiting. Taking Lightning through a carefully-surveyed route would be asking for detection.

“I expected as much,” the XO observed. “But I did have a thought.”

Kat looked at him, putting two and two together. “Your brother?”

“He might have something to help us,” the XO said. He looked at his terminal. “But I don’t even know if he’s still here.”

“Send a message,” Kat said. “If he’s here, we can ask him if he has anything useful for us.”

“Aye, Captain,” the XO said. He keyed the message into his terminal, then hesitated. “Do you want to accompany me?”

“I’ll be needed to authorise the credit chip,” Kat said. She had a feeling the XO didn't want her along, but she wanted to meet his brother, particularly if she was paying him out of her trust fund. It was unlikely she’d ever be able to claim it back from the government. “And besides, it can hardly be more dangerous than the Admiral’s party.”

The XO snorted as a reply popped up in his terminal. “Change into civilian clothes,” he warned, after reading the message. “You don’t want to attract attention.”

The street of bars, brothels and gambling arcades looked different in sunlight, Kat decided, as they strode down the road an hour later. Bright sunlight obscured some of the charm, while revealing hints that some partygoers had partied too hard and were now suffering hangovers and other after-effects. A gang of locals wearing bright uniforms were trying to sweep the road, while a handful of crewmen shouted unhelpful advice from the side. Kat eyed the locals suspiciously, wondering if they could be trusted. If the Admiral’s servants had turned on him ...

“This bar caters to smugglers and other forms of lowlife,” the XO muttered, as he escorted her into a tiny building. “It’s very secure.”

Kat nodded, thoughtfully. Her implants were blinking up warnings, stating that the building was drenched in privacy fields. One or two of them might be countered by modern surveillance technology, but several fields working in unison would be enough to defeat even the most sophisticated system. Using so many in one place, she suspected, was technically against the law, although she doubted the case would ever go to court. The general public disliked the idea of being spied on by anyone.

“It would have to be,” she muttered back. Even in the semi-darkness, it was clear that no one came to the Dead Donkey for the ambience. Kat saw a cockroach scuttling across the floor, suggesting the owner didn't care about health and safety regulations ... if, of course, there were any on Cadiz. Such matters were the task of the local government and Cadiz had none. “Why else would anyone come here?”

“Billy,” a voice carolled. “Over here!”

Kat turned and saw a man who looked like a younger version of her XO. Only the eyes, hard and cold, suggested he was actually the older brother. His gaze flickered over her once, then locked on to her eyes, a motion that warned her it would be dangerous to underestimate Scott McElney. The shirt she’d found was a size too tight, but he hadn't even looked at her breasts, just her eyes. He wasn't going to underestimate her.

“You must be Katherine Falcone,” Scott said. He held out a hand. “It is a pleasure to meet an aristocrat who actually gets her hands dirty from time to time.”

“Thank you,” Kat said. She shook his hand, then allowed him to motion her towards a bench in a private compartment. “How many aristocrats have you met?”

Scott tapped his nose, but said nothing.

The XO leaned forward. “This isn’t a friendly chat,” he said. His voice was tense, as if he hadn't wanted to have company when he spoke to his brother. “The last time we met, you mentioned navigational data. Do you have such data on hand?”

“I have quite a bit of data on hand,” Scott said. “What, precisely, are you looking for?”

“Unguarded routes into the Theocracy,” Kat said. “A way to slip into their space without being detected.”

“I have several,” Scott said. “Some safer than others, but more likely to attract attention.”

He paused. “But what are you prepared to pay?”

Kat exchanged a glance with her XO, then reached into her pocket and produced a blank credit chip. She held it up so he could read the balance – zero – then pressed the coin into the palm of her hand, using her implants to authorise the transfer. The credit balance jumped up to 1000 crowns. And it would be largely untraceable, she was sure. The crowns would still exist, but they would no longer be connected to her.

“One thousand crowns, up front,” she said. She sensed her XO’s shock, but pressed on anyway. There was no time to bargain. “And I will pay another thousand crowns upon our successful return.”

“You could be caught – or reveal the existence of the passageway,” Scott said, smoothly. “I dare say it won’t remain a secret after you report it back to Tyre.”

Kat suspected he was right. But she also knew he was trying to see how much she was prepared to pay. “I will put the other thousand crowns in an escrow account,” she said, shortly. “If we don’t make it back, the board of inquiry will determine the cause of our deaths. The account will then be unlocked if the problem isn't with your directions.”

And if it was, she added silently, there will be a number of hard questions for you.

“It sounds like a decent offer,” Scott said. “But what happens if the Theocracy starts guarding the passageway?”

“They haven’t started guarding it yet, even though you’ve probably used it yourself,” the XO grated. His voice was very cold. “They could start guarding it tomorrow or from the moment the war breaks out.”

“True,” Scott agreed. “But I do have commitments ...”

Kat studied him for a long moment, then sighed. “I will put two thousand pounds in the escrow account,” she said. “It will be released to you upon our safe return, no further questions asked. And we shall do our best to remain undetected.”

“Very well,” Scott said. “One thousand now; two thousand afterwards.”

“And you will add a guarantee of secrecy,” the XO added. “You’re not allowed to trade anything you might have picked up today to anyone else.”

Kat swore, inwardly. She’d grown up amongst the aristocracy ... and she’d never considered the possibility of betrayal. But it was far too possible. The smugglers lived in the void between the two interstellar powers, trying to play each of them off against the other. Scott might be loyal enough to his brother not to consider betraying him to the Theocracy, but there was no way they could take it for granted.

“Very well,” Scott said. “You will have exclusivity.”

He reached into his pocket, produced a datachip and pressed it against his palm. There was a long pause as he worked silently, then removed the chip and passed it to Kat. She took it and scanned it with her own implants, discovering that there were five navigational files on the chip and nothing else. After a moment, she passed him the credit chip and pocketed his datachip. The smuggler smiled and rose to his feet.

“One moment,” the XO said. “What else have you heard about recent events?”

“Not much,” Scott said. “For once, the Admiral’s office is very quiet. It’s quite suspicious.”

“Good,” Kat said. “Let us hope it stays that way.”

***
William couldn't help brooding as they made their way back to the shuttle, then flew into orbit and returned to Lightning. His brother was a disgrace, both to the family and his entire homeworld. There was no avoiding the fact he’d made his fortune smuggling everything from guns to farming equipment – and probably slaves. William had no illusions about life on primitive farming worlds. There were no shortage of worlds that would be grateful if smugglers shipped in young boys and girls, children who could be taught how to farm. Or equipment they simply couldn't afford for themselves.

He wondered, briefly, what the Captain had thought of Scott, but she hadn't said a word to him. Instead, she seemed almost meditative, perhaps contemplating the task ahead of their ship. Even if the navigational data was as good as Scott clearly believed, it would be difficult to sneak across the border without being detected. But they had no choice. Orders were orders – and besides, if they discovered an attack fleet preparing to launch, it would wake up the Commonwealth to the oncoming storm.

“I need you to review this data,” the Captain said, as they entered the navigational compartment. Lieutenant Nicola Robertson was sitting inside, studying the latest update from the weathermen. “If this is a safe course to use, we need to depart this afternoon.”

Lieutenant Robertson took the chip and slipped it into a reader. “Not a standard piece of navigational data,” she noted. “Can I ask where it came from?”

“No,” William growled.

The Captain shot him a look, but said nothing.

“Interesting,” Lieutenant Robertson said. “This course would take us right through the Seven Sisters.”

William swore. “The bastard!”

The Captain leaned forward. “But is it usable?”

Lieutenant Robertson hesitated. “If the data is accurate, there is a passage through the region,” she said. “But it wouldn't be a very safe passage. I’d honestly not recommend sending an entire fleet through in a body. And a handful of mines could be used to close the passage permanently.”

William studied the display, thinking. The Seven Sisters – seven stars that orbited each other – projected an odd gravitational pattern into hyperspace. Smart navigators deemed the entire area impassable and refused to go anywhere near it, but smugglers would probably consider it an ideal place to meet and transfer stolen cargos in private. They could be almost assured of avoiding detection, even by border patrol ships. The sheer level of hyperspace distortion made any form of patrolling almost impossible.

“It might be doable,” he said, reluctantly. “But it will be very risky, Captain. A single mistake and we might be forced back into normal space or vaporised by a hyperspace flare.”

The Captain nodded. “But they’re not guarding that approach route,” she said, slowly. “If we could get through the passageway, we’d be almost assured of a safe voyage to our destination.”

“But they might well be keeping an eye on approach routes to the star itself,” William mused. “We could be detected then ...”

“That would prove they had something to hide,” the Captain said. She smiled. It lit up her entire face. “There’s no point in guarding, let alone mining, the approach routes to a useless red dwarf star. The only reason for having guardships in place would be to protect a secret, such as a waiting attack fleet.”

She took a breath. “1nform the crew that we will depart in” – she checked her wristcom – “two hours from now. Once we are in hyperspace, we will set course for the Seven Sisters and try to thread the needle.”

“Aye, Captain,” William said.

She had nerve, he had to admit. There were experienced commanding officers who had been decorated for heroism who would have thought twice about trying to fly through the Seven Sisters, no matter the stakes. And her family’s position wouldn't protect her from hyperspace storms, if one lanced out and enveloped her ship. The number of starships that had survived a direct encounter with a hyperspace storm could be counted on the fingers of one hand.

“And then contact your friends,” she added. “Send them a message, update them on the general situation and ... suggest they speed up their preparations.”

“Aye, Captain,” William said, softly.

The Captain nodded. “How long do we have?”

It was the question, William knew. How much did the Theocracy know about what Princess Drusilla had known before making her escape? And did they know she’d been rescued by the Royal Navy? In their place, William would have assumed the worst when their destroyer failed to return, but how long were they prepared to hold out hope before drawing the correct conclusion? The Theocrats had to know that starships could rarely be held to a precise schedule. No one could predict when a hyperspace storm might blow up and push them dozens of light years off course.

He thought, grimly, of the reports from the debriefing. Princess Drusilla hadn't been expected to know anything, beyond how to look pretty. All she’d learnt had come from sympathetic tutors and a handful of servants, many of whom had been stunningly ignorant themselves of anything more than the basics. The Princess could neither read nor write, either in the Theocracy’s written language or Galactic Standard English. He honestly didn't know any high-tech world that didn't insist its civilians learnt Galactic Standard as a second language.

But would the Theocracy expect her to know about their plans?

It was hard, very hard, to think like the Theocrats. William had grown up on a world where women were to be protected, but anyone who treated them as property would have rapidly come to regret it. Hebrides bred strong women. Who would want a shrinking violet when the rough environment demanded someone who could do almost anything a man could do? Even now, even with genetic enhancement, his homeworld had never developed a tradition of engineering women for beauty. They preferred strength and stamina.

But the Theocrats had considered Princess Drusilla a child. No, worse than a child; they’d considered her property. Her duty was to live as her father willed, marry who her father decreed and then be his trophy wife. It was alarmingly possible that they honestly hadn't realised she could think for herself, which might have explained why the Princess and her servants had managed to steal a freighter. The security officers had been conditioned not to treat women as serious threats.

There might be an advantage for us in that, he thought, as he saluted and turned to the hatch. Maybe they won’t take any female Captain seriously.

Putting the thought to one side, he headed for the bridge. Running through the Seven Sisters would be dangerous. It was time to prepare the crew for the coming ordeal.
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#36
Chapter Twenty-Eight

“We are approaching the Seven Sisters,” Lieutenant Samuel Weiberg reported. “I estimate we will enter the passageway within twenty minutes.”

“Distortion levels are increasing rapidly,” Lieutenant Robertson added. “Sensors are at thirty percent efficiency and failing fast.”

Kat kept her face impassive with an effort. As a young girl, she’d tried to take up canoeing, only to discover her family forbade her to test herself against any of the really exciting rapids. Now, she felt something of the same attraction, mixed with a sick feeling in her gut. Her ship – and her crew – could be blown to atoms in a second, before they ever knew they were in trouble. And no one would ever find a trace of their remains.

They’ll never see us coming, she thought. If the navigational data was accurate , they could emerge from the passageway in a haze of distortion, then leave on almost any route they chose. It would require a stroke of very bad luck for any guardship to see them coming. But we might not make it at all.

“Keep us steady,” she ordered. She wondered, suddenly, if she should have updated her will. Her non-voting stocks and shares would be reabsorbed into the family, but her trust fund would be distributed among her former crew and their families. “Take us into the fire.”

She linked into the ship’s sensors through her implants and recoiled. Giant flashes of lightning cracked through space, each one powerful enough to swat her ship as easily as a man would stamp on an ant. Great rolling waves of energy blazed around the gravitational shadow cast by Sister III, while flickers of energy pulsed between Sister IV and Sister V. It was a maelstrom far more powerful than anything produced by mankind, Kat knew. No one, despite some proposals, had ever managed to tap hyperspace as a source of energy. All attempts had been universally disastrous.

Look at us, the storms seemed to say. You puny humans. So smug and secure. But you’re nothing compared to us.

Alerts flashed up in her implants as she disconnected herself from the sensors. Her heartbeat was racing, so fast she found sweat trickling down her back. Kat forced herself to take a deep breath, then composed herself with an effort. There was a reason officers and crew were discouraged from peeking through the starship’s when they were so close to a hyperspace storm. Mentally kicking herself for her mistake, Kat gripped hold of her command chair and braced herself for the first hint of trouble. The hull started to shake gently seconds later.

“Picking up waves of gravity turbulence,” Weiberg reported.

The XO leaned forward. “Can you see the passageway?”

“Yes,” Robertson said. “But it’s very thin, sir.”

Kat took a breath. “Take us in,” she ordered. “Best possible speed.”

There was no point in trying to sneak through, she knew. The passage might be safe, at least when compared to the remainder of local hyperspace, but their mere presence would exit hyperspace and trigger more storms. All they could do was race through it as fast as possible and hope they outran any surges of energy chasing them. She studied the display, carefully edited by the computers to be as unthreatening as possible, then braced herself. The shaking grew worse a moment later.

“Storms are picking up,” Robertson reported. “But they’re not closing in on us.”

The shaking abated, just long enough for Kat to relax, then it rapidly grew worse. On the display, waves of energy seemed to be spiralling towards them, almost as if the passageway was intelligent and rejecting their very presence. But Lightning passed through into the passageway without further incident, finding safe space at the very heart of the storm. It wouldn't last, Kat knew, but she relaxed for a long moment anyway. All she could do was watch and wait.

She tracked their progress on the display. They’d be passing closer to Sister VII than she would have preferred, but it seemed as though the navigational data was largely accurate and the passage was safe. But, behind them, storms were gathering. Kat wondered, in a moment of gallows humour, if the Theocracy intended to use the passageway to send their fleet into Commonwealth space. They’d lose at least half of their ships if they tried.

Another dull quiver ran through the ship, then a long series of tremors that had Kat bracing herself, praying under her breath in a manner she hadn't used since her first exposure to vacuum, back at Piker’s Peak. The lights seemed to dim for a second, then came back to life, just before something hit the prow of the ship hard enough to shake the entire vessel. Kat felt stunned, then confused, then finally realised they’d rammed right into a gravity wave. A physical impact would have blown the entire ship to bits.

Ramming always works, she thought, remembering lessons at Piker’s Peak. But it’s hard to ram when both ships are under power.

“Incoming gravity waves,” Robertson snapped.

Kat snapped out of her trance. “Brace for impact,” she snapped. “All hands brace for impact ...”

The hull rang like a bell, then they were suddenly back in clear space. Behind them, the passageway was thoroughly blocked as storms flashed and flared through the space they’d been, only seconds ago. Kat let out a sigh of relief as the shaking rapidly faded away, even though there were still distortions nearby. But it would be almost impossible for anyone to track them through the haze.

“Alter course,” she ordered. “Take us around the distortion, then pick a random course and head into Theocratic space.”

She took a breath. Her uniform was so soaked in sweat that she wanted to change, but she knew there was no time. They might still be unlucky before they put some distance between themselves and the Seven Sisters, then headed for their target star. She keyed her console, opening the link to engineering. It was several minutes before the engineer replied.

“No major damage, Captain,” he reported. “A number of circuit breakers blew, but nothing worse. I have damage control teams replacing them now.”

Kat nodded. Energy surges were among the most dreaded effects of hyperspace storms, all the more so as they sometimes materialised in starship systems without any prior warning and wrecked considerable damage. They’d been lucky, she told herself. Another passage through the Seven Sisters might well be the end of them. She silently thanked whoever had been crazy – or desperate – enough to plot out the course, then turned her attention back to the display. They were pulling away from the Seven Sisters now.

“Tactical,” she said. “Are we in clear space?”

“As far as I can tell,” Roach reported. He didn't sound happy. “Our sensor range has been cut down quite badly here.”

Kat didn't blame him for worrying. If their sensors were unreliable, a Theocratic superdreadnaught could be right on top of them and they’d never know about it. The only upside to the whole affair was that the superdreadnaught probably wouldn't see them either, unless the Theocracy had produced a major breakthrough in hyperspace sensors. She considered it, then dismissed the thought. If the Theocracy could track starships in hyperspace with perfect precision, the war was within shouting distance of being lost before it had even begun.

“Alter course,” she ordered. “Take us towards our target star, best possible speed.”

“Aye, Captain,” Weiberg said. “Estimated ETA: nineteen hours.”

“Good,” Kat said. Despite the situation, there was nothing to gain by pushing the drives until they overloaded. She'd only risk stranding her crew in enemy space. “Keep a close eye on the sensors. Assume that every contact is genuine and alter course to avoid detection.”

“Our course will become quite erratic,” the XO warned. “And we may be considerably delayed.”

Kat nodded. There was no accurate data on shipping lines within the Theocracy, but hyperspace had been known to throw up false contacts on a regular basis. It was quite possible they would be delayed, yet there was no alternative. The last thing she wanted was to have an enemy fleet on her tail because they’d ignored a possible contact until it was too late.

She rose to her feet, silently cursing the uniform designers. They’d gone for style – on the theory that every girl loved a spacer – and ignored some of the practicalities. Her shirt simply wasn't absorbing sweat. She wanted a shower, a change and a nap before they reached the enemy star system. There would be time, at least, to get them.

“Mr. XO, you have the bridge,” she said. She leaned close so no one else could hear. “Make sure you get some rest too.”

“Aye, Captain,” the XO said.

Kat walked out of the bridge and headed for her cabin, then changed her mind and went on a walking tour around the ship. Most of her crew, she was gratified to see, looked to have survived their close brush with a hyperspace storm without ill-effects, although some looked paler than normal and a handful had made their way to sickbay for a sedative. Kat was silently relived the Princess and her handmaidens had been off-loaded – they would have been terrified by the storm – then made mental notes to try to ensure her crew got a proper shore leave period as quickly as possible. But she knew it wasn't likely to happen. If the Princess had been telling the truth, the war might start alarmingly soon.

She finally made her way back to her cabin, then hesitated as she stepped through the hatch and heard it close behind her. It would be easy to call Davidson to her cabin, to invite him to sleep with her ... and she knew she needed something to work the tension out of her body. It wasn't like the aftermath of the insurgent attack, when she’d been shaking so badly she wanted someone to hold her and to hell with regulations, but she still wanted someone. She could call him ...

Angrily, she pushed her feelings aside, undressed and walked right into the washroom. It felt absurdly luxurious, given the cruiser’s size compared to a superdreadnaught or even a battlecruiser, but for once she was grateful. She showered, dried herself and then stumbled into bed. It felt as though she hadn't slept at all when the alarm rang, but when she checked her wristcom it was clear she’d slept for nearly eighteen hours. The whole experience had drained her in a way she hadn't expected.

But you should have expected it, she told herself, as she checked the ship’s status. They’d only had to change course twice to avoid a potential contact, something that both pleased and worried her. What if they’d missed something? But she had to admit the Theocracy kept a careful watch on its side of the border, preventing civilian craft from passing without a licence and a convoy escort. They wouldn't want to encourage free trade between star systems when that free trade could undermine their position. Or, for that matter, allow refugees to escape.

She dressed, then walked back to the bridge. The ship’s logs showed that the XO had taken a break, much to her relief, but he still managed to be back on the bridge before her. She took her command chair, nodded to him and concentrated on reviewing the reports from various departments. Thankfully, the storms definitely hadn't left any lingering problems in their wake.

“Captain,” Weiberg said. “We are forty minutes away from our destination.”

Kat looked down at her display, thinking hard. The star Princess Drusilla had identified was a red dwarf, largely useless for anything other than secret meetings and hidden colonies – assuming, of course, that it had any planets, asteroids or comets at all. It was unlikely the Theocracy would go to the expense of mounting dedicated sensor platforms to watch for intruders popping out of hyperspace, not if they had nothing permanent in the system to defend. But a fleet of starships would certainly have their own long-range sensors ...

“Take us out at the planned location,” she said, finally. They’d have to crawl into the system, just to pick up anything useful, but it would make it harder for any watching passive sensors to detect their arrival. “And then cloak us immediately.”

She forced herself to relax as the minutes became seconds and then ticked down to zero. Hyperspace roared and seethed, then opened up to allow Lightning to slip back into realspace, the gateway closing a second later. Kat tensed, despite herself, as the cloaking device hastily shielded their arrival. It was quite possible that, if there happened to be a guardship on duty nearby, their arrival would have been detected, no matter what precautions they took. No one had managed to find a way to cloak a starship’s arrival from hyperspace ...

“Passive sensors are clear,” Roach reported. “If there’s anything active within engagement range, I can't see it.”

Which proves nothing, Kat thought. Guardships rarely announced their presence. One of them could be lurking in space, drives and shield deactivated, watching through passive sensors for any uninvited guests. Or they could be hiding under cloak, watching and waiting for us.

She shivered, very slightly, as the passive sensors sucked in data from the nearby system. It seemed almost as barren as the last red dwarf she’d visited, although this time there was a small asteroid field and a handful of comets orbiting the dying star. Someone might have established a hidden colony here, she thought, in the days before the Breakaway Wars, but there was no way to know. Either they were hiding from the Theocrats or the Theocrats had occupied their colony years ago. Or they’d thought themselves far enough from the UN not to need to hide and had headed for a G2 star instead. There were three nearby.

“Captain,” Roach said. “I request permission to deploy the passive sensor arrays.”

Kat hesitated. Admiral Morrison had hemmed and hawed about allowing her to take them – and if she hadn't had her overriding orders from Tyre, she had a feeling he would have refused to allow her to even think about removing the systems from Cadiz. They were not only staggeringly expensive, but highly classified. Using them in an enemy-held star system ran the risk of having to destroy the arrays rather than bring them back onboard her ship.

“Deploy them,” she ordered. She wanted to know as much as she could about the enemy star system before she crept closer. “But be ready to recover them at all times.”

Long minutes passed as the systems were deployed, then activated. They were far more capable than starship sensors, she'd been told, although there were limits. Like all passive sensors, they were dependent on their target emitting something that could be tracked. And, unlike Lightning’s sensors, they could be blinded if something too powerful appeared far too close to them.

“I’m picking up limited drive emissions here,” Roach said. “They’re clustered around the asteroids, Captain. It could be a staging base.”

“They’d have to be powerful if we can pick them up from this distance,” the XO commented. “Superdreadnaughts, perhaps.”

Kat nodded. “Can you draw more data from the passive arrays?”

“I don’t think so,” Roach said. He paused, his hands flying over his console. “There are a handful of other drive sources in the system, but most of them are concentrated around the asteroids.”

Kat studied the display, then nodded. “Recall the passive arrays,” she ordered. “We’ll have to go deeper into the system.”

We should have brought two ships, she thought, although she knew two ships might not have made it through the passageway. One to sneak close, one to watch from a distance – and run if the shit hits the fan.

“Launch probes on ballistic trajectories,” she added. “Then launch a relay platform to link their laser communicators to us.”

“Aye, Captain,” Roach said.

Kat forced herself to watch as the probes moved into the system, feeling the tension rise as the hours ticked by. The drive sources slowly took on shape and form in the display as Lightning followed, her passive sensors watching carefully for anything that might betray the size or capabilities of the enemy starships. Kat swore under her breath as three of them suddenly snapped into view, marked clearly as superdreadnaughts. The UN had never built superdreadnaughts, let alone sold them to the Theocracy. Any doubts she’d had about the Theocracy having its own starship construction program had vanished.

“They look larger than ours,” the XO commented. He didn't sound impressed. “But their drive systems are actually sloppy compared to our ships. And their datanets don’t seem to be as capable.”

He paused. “But they might have stood them down here,” he added. “They won’t be expecting this system to come under attack, even if we launched a pre-emptive strike.”

Kat knew he had a point, but she hoped the enemy datanet was flawed. Superdreadnaughts carried more missile tubes than a whole squadron of heavy cruisers, giving them a formidable long-range punch, while their energy weapons could rip Lightning apart at close range. The thought of facing just one of them was worrying, an entire squadron would be worse. And the sensors seemed to indicate that there were at least three entire squadrons of superdreadnaughts holding position near the asteroids. Anything that evened the odds would be more than welcome.

“I think they have escort ships too,” Roach said. New contacts flashed up on the display as Lightning moved closer. “A handful of cruisers, several destroyers ... and there are definitely some gunboats – I think they’re carrying out limited exercises.”

“Odd,” the XO said. “You’d think they’d be interested in exercising as much as possible if they were expecting to go to war. And have more escort ships attached to the fleet.”

Kat couldn't disagree. “Perhaps they’re standing down in preparation for the attack,” she said. But then exercises tended to be more regular than genuine military operations. It was quite possible the enemy CO was giving his crews a rest. “Or ...”

An alarm sounded. “Captain,” Roach snapped. “They just swept one of the drones!”
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#37
Chapter Twenty-Nine

“We should be launching the offensive by now,” the cleric said. “Do you not have authority to launch the attack at the best possible moment?”

Admiral Junayd sighed. The cleric had not coped well with his brief imprisonment on the Commonwealth cruiser, even if the authorities on Cadiz had been very apologetic when they’d released the freighter and her crew. Junayd had merely been relieved that he’d been able to leave the system without being interrogated by the Commonwealth, but the Cleric had spent most of the return journey performing rituals to cleanse himself after setting foot on an infidel world. But at least it had kept the Cleric out of Junayd’s beard for a few glorious days.

“We do not have the fleet train assembled yet,” he said, firmly. It was infuriating. He’d gathered his attack fleet to start the invasion, yet the attack would fail if he wasn't guaranteed resupplies. Commonwealth weapons, assuming any were captured, were not designed to be fired from his ships. “Once the freighters are here, we will take the offensive.”

“But the infidels caught us,” the Cleric insisted. “They could be preparing their defences right now.”

He was right, Junayd knew, which didn't make him any less irritating. The Commonwealth had caught the spy ship, after all. But they hadn't had any proof .., at least, not enough to satisfy their legalistic-minded Admiral. And yet ... he recalled the private message from the Speaker with a tinge of horror. Who knew what would happen if Princess Drusilla actually made it to Commonwealth space?

Shaking his head, he turned back to the display. His spacers and troops hadn't been allowed to grow rusty, even though they’d spent the better part of three months orbiting a worthless star. He’d worked them like dogs, forcing them to undergo exercise after exercise, training simulation after training simulation. The crews had responded splendidly, particularly when he'd started offering rewards for best performances. They knew far more about their enemy than the Commonwealth knew about them.

But there were still too many unanswered questions, no matter how many simulations they ran. Would Commonwealth superdreadnaughts be better than Theocratic superdreadnaughts? Would the Commonwealth’s greater industrial might prove decisive if the early campaigns were unsuccessful? Would the Commonwealth’s far wider breadth of research and development give them another advantage? Would the Commonwealth’s merchant marine rally behind the flag or flee like frightened children? There were just too many questions nothing, but war would be able to answer.

He had no doubt the Theocracy – or at least the Believers who mattered – would be solidly behind the war. Expansion had brought great rewards, after all, along with millions of new converts. But how well would the system endure in a long war? In hindsight, he suspected, they should have built more freighters as well as warships, but anyone who suggested it would have been hauled off to face the Inquisition. The True Faith would never allow itself to be defenceless, not again. They would never allow someone else to determine their fate.

The Cleric cleared his throat. “Admiral,” he said, “God will not grant us victory if we refuse to take advantage of the opportunities He offers us.”

“I know,” Junayd said. “But God also expects us not to become too reliant on Him.”

It was the age-old problem, he recalled, that had spurred the growth of the True Faith. The older faiths – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – had all been too reliant on God’s help and support, rather than doing anything to actually earn that support. Their followers had fallen into disbelief and idolatry, resting on laurels that dated back hundreds of years, while their enemies had steadily undermined their positions and prepared them for the kill. In the end, the core of those faiths had died on Earth. But the True Faith had survived and prospected.

Of course we did, Junayd thought. We took nothing for granted.

An alarm sounded.

“Report,” he snapped.

“Admiral,” one of his staffers said. “The outer edge of the spider web was just brushed.”

Junayd swore. He’d thought the spider web was a boondoggle, a waste of time and resources that had only been put into production because the designer happened to have powerful family connections. But it seemed it had paid off after all ... unless, of course, it had been brushed by a tiny asteroid, something so small it had escaped the scans the attack fleet had done of the system when they’d arrived.

“Sensor focus,” he ordered. They could use the contact for yet another drill, even if it was nothing more dangerous than another piece of space debris. “Lock on and track the contact, then bring up active sensors. I want space dissected.”

“It’s a probe,” the staffer said. On the display, the contact suddenly came into sharp focus. A probe, Commonwealth design. Moments later, it’s onboard systems decided there was no hope of escape and triggered the self-destruct. “Target destroyed.”

“Bring the fleet to battlestations,” Junayd ordered. Probes were hardly FTL-capable. If one had brushed the edge of his fleet, so far from enemy territory, there had to be a mothership out there somewhere, watching them. His fleet had been located by the enemy. “Launch gunboats in a search pattern, then continue to sweep space with active sensors.”

He thought it through, rapidly. The enemy commander would keep his distance from the fleet, if only to stay out of weapons range, but he couldn't be that far away. Maintaining control of the probe would become harder as the light-speed delay between mothership and probe grew longer and longer. It was just possible the gunboats could catch the enemy ship before she made her escape. And even if they didn’t ...

“They know we’re here,” the Cleric said.

“Yes,” Junayd agreed. The Cleric was actually right! Given how little the bastard knew of military strategy, it was a small miracle in and of itself. “And there’s no other reason to be here, apart from staging an a invasion of Commonwealth space.”

“Then we have to take the offensive now,” the Cleric said. “Before they manage to warn the Commonwealth.”

Junayd nodded. On the display, a red icon representing the enemy ship had just popped into view. The gunboats were already altering course, sweeping towards their new target, but it didn't take more than a glance to tell him they wouldn't intercept their target unless the enemy commander decided to wait around for them. It wasn't likely to happen.

“Inform the fleet that we will be departing in an hour,” he ordered. “And then power up the StarCom. We need to alert our operatives that the war is about to begin.”

He took a breath. Years of careful planning and preparation were about to face their first true test, as was the Theocracy itself. Every previous conquest had been largely unable to defend itself, not against a pair of destroyers taking the high orbitals. But the Commonwealth was heavily defended, a multi-star political system with its own ideology that might well undermine the Theocracy’s control over its population, given time. Even if expansion hadn't been one of the tenets of the revised True Faith, Junayd suspected, there would have been war. The galaxy simply wasn't big enough for both of them.

It wasn't going to be easy, he knew. There would be a delay in offensive operations, a delay that could prove costly. But there was no alternative. If they let the moment pass, the enemy might have an opportunity to prepare to meet the oncoming storm. And that could prove disastrous.

We have to win quickly, he told himself. Or we may not win at all.

He pushed the thought aside. Defeat was unthinkable.

***
“They caught the probe,” Roach said. “Their fleet is coming to battlestations now.”

Kat nodded. Dozens of starships were bringing up their active sensors, revealing their positions to her sensors. The enemy fleet was bigger than they’d thought, although it was still strikingly light in escort ships. Perhaps they’d crammed more point defence into their superdreadnaughts then she’d realised, she wondered, or perhaps they’d simply concentrated on superdreadnaughts to the exclusion of all else.

The display washed red, just for a second. “They caught us,” Roach added. The display turned red again. This time, the colour refused to fade. “I think they have a solid lock on our position.”

“Crap,” the XO commented. “Do they have something new?”

Roach looked down at his console. “I think they ramped up standard sensors,” he said, after a moment’s thought. “I don’t think they’ve got anything new, sir.”

But you could be wrong, Kat thought. They’re not stupid. They might have developed something we missed.

She pushed the thought aside as red icons separated themselves from the enemy fleet and raced towards Lightning’s position. Gunboats. She cursed under her breath, remembering tactical analysis reports that had suggested the Theocracy had no gunboats. Clearly, someone had dropped the ball somewhere. Kat wasn't particularly surprised. Even if the Theocracy’s scientists hadn't come up with the idea for themselves, they’d have no trouble stealing it from the Commonwealth or one of the other independent powers.

“Gunboats will enter engagement range in five minutes,” Roach warned.

Kat thought fast. They’d already learned more than she’d expected to learn – and more than she’d wanted to learn – about the enemy fleet. There could be no doubt of its objective, not now. The only logical reason to mass a fleet around a useless star, where it couldn’t hope to defend an inhabited planet, was to prepare to mount an invasion of enemy space. Even exercises could be carried out in a populated star system.

“Helm, take us out of here,” she ordered. An engagement with enemy gunboats might prove disastrous, depending on what weapons they carried. Shipkiller missiles would rip her ship apart if they were launched from very close range. “And then set course for the border, maximum speed.”

“Aye, Captain,” Weiberg said.

“I’m picking up drive emissions from the enemy superdreadnaughts,” Roach said. “They’re powering up their drives.”

Kat exchanged a glance with her XO. They hadn't just found proof of the imminent offensive, they’d triggered it. She had tried to warn the XO’s friends and allies on 7th Fleet, but would they be ready to fight when the Theocracy arrived? Somehow, Kat couldn't help feeling as though disaster was about to unfold. It was vaguely possible the offensive wasn't about to begin ... she shook her head, angrily. That was wishful thinking and she knew it.

They’ve lost the element of surprise, she thought. But if they act fast they can still give us a pounding before we’re ready to meet them.

“Vortex opening,” Weiberg said. Behind them, the enemy gunboats broke off as it became clear they wouldn't be able to catch Lightning. “We are gone.”

“Take us to the border,” Kat ordered, as the eerie lights of hyperspace enfolded her starship. “Don’t worry about stealth. Just get us to Cadiz as fast as you can.”

She thought, rapidly. Thankfully, they did have some advantages. The enemy might give chase, but it was unlikely they could get a ship into hyperspace fast enough to actually track her ship before she put enough distance between them to be effectively invisible. But then, they’d have no real doubt of her destination. Cadiz was still the closest Commonwealth world with a StarCom. Once she reached Cadiz, she could scream a warning that would outrace any Theocratic attack fleets. But the first invasion fleet would be hard on her heels.

Assuming they’re not pushing their drives to the limit, she thought, how long would it take them to reach Cadiz?

She played with it on the display, but the solutions changed, depending on the variables she entered. If the Theocracy pushed its drives to the limit, there was a good chance they’d reach Cadiz within seventeen hours, just after Lightning’s own arrival. But if they decided not to risk burning out their drives within enemy territory, they’d take around twenty hours to reach Cadiz, giving the defenders several hours to prepare for the attack. It wouldn't be enough.

“We might run into a guardship,” the XO warned. “Or a minefield.”

“We have to take the risk,” Kat answered. “We don’t have time to try to sneak back through the Seven Sisters.”

She gritted her teeth. One day, she told herself, someone would invent an FTL communicator small enough to be mounted on a heavy cruiser, one that would save future ships from having to flee with the forces of hell snapping at their heels. It was possible, in theory, to mount one on a superdreadnaught, but as StarCom units were staggeringly expensive and power intensive, it was unlikely anyone would try. The Commonwealth had preferred to establish a single StarCom in orbit around each of its populated worlds. God alone knew what the Theocracy had done with their StarComs.

But the XO was right. They might well run into a minefield if they weren’t careful, although part of her suspected the Theocracy might have disabled its own mines in preparation for the invasion. Mines weren't known for being good at telling the difference between friendly and unfriendly targets, particularly in hyperspace. IFF signals were dangerously unreliable in hyperspace, after all. It was one of the reasons the Commonwealth had never bothered to mine even rarely-used hyper-routes.

That might cost us now, she thought, grimly. The Theocracy will have free reign to move through hyperspace to our worlds.

“Prepare messages for your allies,” she ordered, grimly. “Tell them that time is about to run out.”

She reached for her terminal and started to compose a message to the Admiralty. If it had the right priority tags, it would be bumped right to the top of the queue for processing and transmitting, as soon as they reached Cadiz. The Admiral would be informed, of course, but he wouldn't be able to stop the message. She attached the raw sensor recordings to a follow on message, then pulled up the records and started to study them, hoping to draw something from the raw data. But she knew it would take a team of analysts to parse the data successfully. The only hopeful sign was a suggestion that enemy datanets were nowhere near as capable as the Commonwealth’s systems – and she knew better than to take that for granted. It was equally possible the enemy systems had merely been stepped down.

“Captain,” Roach said. “We may have an enemy contact.”

Kat looked at the display. A yellow icon had appeared ... not quite blocking their path to Cadiz, but alarmingly close. There was no way to tell if it was a warship, a smuggler or simply a glitch in the sensors. But surely even the most paranoid guardship wouldn't be expecting a heavy cruiser hightailing it out of Theocratic space.

“Keep us on course,” she ordered. “If they come within engagement range, prepare to engage without further warning.”

“Aye, Captain,” Roach said.

Kat forced herself to relax. She'd done all she could. All they could do now was keep running to Cadiz – and pray to God they got there in time.

She accessed her implants, then linked directly to Davidson. “I want you to carry a message to the CO on the ground,” she subvocalised. “He needs to be informed that his garrison may come under heavy attack.”

“Understood,” Davidson said. There was a pause. “Do you want to disembark my company?”

“I don’t know,” Kat said, honestly. If Cadiz was about to come under attack, the defenders would need all the help they could get. But unless the situation was better than she thought, she would be sending Davidson and his men to certain death. “Do you believe it’s necessary?”

“They’ll need support, Captain,” Davidson said. He sounded solidly confident, although he rarely sounded excited or nervous. “And there is a PDC on the surface. The bastards couldn’t just flatten the planet from orbit.”

Not all of it, Kat thought. But the insurgents would probably tip the scales against the Commonwealth garrison. Poor bastards.

“Leave one platoon of Marines on the ship,” Kat ordered. “You may deploy the remainder of your force to the surface.”

And she hoped, as she closed the channel, that she hadn't made a deadly mistake.

***
Admiral Junayd listened absently as the Cleric harangued his men, telling them of the virtues of fighting the infidel and the rewards each man could expect if he died in combat against the Theocracy’s deadliest foe. Thankfully, the Cleric was smart enough not to insist the men dropped everything to listen, particularly as the fleet was readying itself for departure. He merely spoke through the communications network, trusting that those who had no immediate tasks would listen.

Junayd allowed himself a tight smile. They might have been caught by surprise, but the crews had responded very well. It had been barely fifty minutes after the enemy craft had vanished into hyperspace, but his ships and crews were ready to depart already. He’d sent messages to the homeworld, warning of the outbreak of war, and messages into the Commonwealth, activating sleeper cells that had been waiting for the command to move. By the time his fleet arrived, they would already have given the Commonwealth a bloody nose.

And then there would be the declaration of war ...

The Commonwealth would have some warning, he knew. Their spy ship had made certain of that. But it wouldn't be enough to make a difference. Cadiz would need months, perhaps years, to rebuild her defences; 7th Fleet would never have a chance to fix its myriad problems and become a combat-capable formation once again. The hammer was about to come down hard.

“Admiral,” his ops officer said. “The fleet is ready to depart.”

Junayd smiled, again. “Then open the vortex,” he ordered. There was no longer any time for doubt and uncertainty, merely victory. “And set course for Cadiz.”
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#38
Chapter Thirty

Lieutenant Jacob Moorland was shaking so hard, as he walked into the StarCom Control Centre, that he was surprised the security officers didn't pull him aside for questioning. It was his fault, he knew, and he would have deserved nothing less than arrest and imprisonment for being so weak, but he didn't have the nerve to turn himself in and confess everything. Instead ... he knew he would do as he’d been told, one final time.

He’d been bored on Cadiz. He’d moved between the giant StarCom and the spaceport, seeing nothing of the planet outside the walls and seeking what solace he could in the facilities on the ground. They’d managed to get their hooks into him there, he recalled; first, they’d helped get him into debt, then manipulated him into doing small tasks for them in exchange for payment. And then it had been too late to back out, confess all and escape unscathed. He’d been too deeply committed for surrender.

The giant control centre held over a dozen operators, each of them responsible for checking and vetting messages sent from Cadiz to Tyre and the rest of the Commonwealth. He sat down at his console, then pressed his hand against the scanner, allowing it to identify him and confirm his access permissions. There was a long pause, just long enough for him to hope the system had developed problems, then a line of messages streamed up in front of him. He couldn't help noticing that most of the messages were civilian. Military traffic was handled by another section.

He reached into his pocket and removed the datachip. It looked absurdly common, just like any other commercial datachip capable of storing a billion terabytes of data. There were trillions in existence, he knew, so many that no one would think anything of an officer carrying one or two in his pocket. It could have held anything from personal messages from home to his private collection of porn. But instead ... it had come from his masters, from the men who had ruined his life. Whatever it held, he was sure, it wasn't something as unremarkable as porn.

“You will insert the chip into the command system,” his contact had said. They’d met in one of the more extreme brothels, where the more exotic tastes were satisfied. “And then you will activate the chip.”

Jacob swallowed, wondering if he dared accidentally lose the chip. But he knew it would result in his betrayal – or death. He’d crossed too many lines already. No one would ever look the same way at him if they knew what he'd done. He would be lucky if he was only dishonourably discharged, then dispatched to Nightmare as an involuntary exile. Bracing himself, he took the chip and pushed it into the console. A screen popped up, requesting permission to run the chip. Jacob hesitated, knowing there was no going back now, then keyed his command code into the console. The chip activated without further delay.

Nothing happened for nearly an hour, as far as he could tell, then all hell broke loose. The StarCom pulsed signals across space with the assistance of a singularity, held within powerful force fields at the centre of the massive structure. Now, with terrifying speed, the singularity destabilised, then fell back into the quantum foam as safety systems activated, trying to prevent a disaster. Alarms howled in the control centre as datalinks to Tyre, Marigold and the other worlds that made up the Commonwealth collapsed, isolated Cadiz from the remainder of the network. It would take weeks, Jacob realised numbly, to purge the command and control system of the rogue software, then generate another singularity. Until then, Cadiz was cut off from the network.

They caught up with Jacob within an hour, but by then it was far too late.

***
“Transmit the signal,” Kat ordered, as Lightning burst back into normal space. They’d jumped out of hyperspace far too close to the planet for comfort, but she’d seen no other choice. “And then get me a secure link to the Admiral.”

There was a long pause. “Captain,” Ross said, “the StarCom network is down.”

Kat blinked. “Locked out?”

“No, Captain,” Ross said. “They’ve lost the singularity.”

“Shit,” the XO said. “It could take weeks to recreate the singularity.”

Kat couldn't disagree. Everything she’d been taught about singularities said that creating one was an incredibly finicky task. First, they had to produce the gravity well itself, then set it to resonate with the rest of the interstellar communications network. The XO was right. It could take weeks of fine-tuning before Cadiz was back in touch with the rest of the Commonwealth. By then, the Theocracy would have hammered 7th Fleet into the ground.

“Find a courier boat,” she ordered. There were always one or two commercial couriers in the system, even though their owners should have had access to the StarCom. Some information was just too sensitive to be placed on the network. “Hire him, then transmit a copy of our records and order him to fly directly to the next working StarCom.”

The XO gave her a look. “Captain,” he said slowly, “what if the entire network is down?”

Kat swallowed. It took three weeks for a starship to travel from Cadiz to Tyre. If the entire network was down, the war was within shouting distance of being lost before it had even fairly begun. The Theocracy’s commanders would be able to exercise a degree of command and control the Commonwealth’s officers would not be able to match. But she knew enough about the network to be fairly sure it couldn't just be taken down as easily as a commercial datanet. The system had multiple redundancies built in everywhere.

“Then we’re in trouble,” she said, grimly. She rose. “Contact your friends and warn them of the oncoming storm. I’ll speak to the Admiral in my Ready Room.”

“Aye, Captain,” the XO said.

Kat took a breath as she stepped through the hatch and sat down at her desk, then waited for the Admiral to answer the call. She’d hoped they could reach Cadiz ahead of any enemy force and it seemed likely they’d succeeded, but she hadn't anticipated losing the StarCom. And yet, in hindsight, it was the obvious move. The Theocracy could have sent their own signal ahead of Lightning, warning their operatives to move at once. And they’d succeeded magnificently.

She keyed her wristcom. “Patrick,” she said, “the StarCom is down. Do you still want to go to the surface.”

“Yes, Captain,” Davidson said. “Someone has to warn General Eastside.”

Kat nodded, impatiently. The Admiral still hadn't responded to her call.

“Then good luck,” she said. Was the Admiral occupied? Or was something more sinister going on? “Watch your back.”

The terminal bleeped, informing her that the Admiral had finally responded. Kat braced herself, then keyed the switch. The Admiral’s face appeared in front of her, looking tired and worn. Had they just woke him up? She checked local time and fought down the temptation to swear out loud. It was local night, just past midnight. She'd forgotten that detail in her desperate rush to return to Cadiz.

“Captain,” the Admiral said. He didn't sound happy. “I was at a party. My daughter is being introduced to Lord Percy. What is the meaning of this?”

“The system is about to be attacked,” Kat said, flatly. At least they hadn’t woke the Admiral, although that might have been preferable. She tapped a switch, transmitting the records her ship had collected. Her tactical department’s analysts had been working their way through them, but hadn't drawn any useful conclusions yet. “The Theocracy has an attack fleet within range, which may be less than an hour from Cadiz.”

She glanced at a message that blinked up on her display. The vast majority of the fleet’s commanding officers were down on the surface, either at the spaceport or enjoying themselves at the Admiral’s estate. Kat had to fight to keep her face impassive. Had they learned nothing from the previous attack? The StarCom was down, the victim of sabotage, and yet they were partying? She clenched her jaw. The theory about the Admiral being in the Theocracy’s pay was starting to seem a great deal more plausible.

“Your ship provoked them, Captain,” the Admiral said.

Kat said a word she knew her mother would have slapped her for saying, at least in front of her social inferiors. But it caught the Admiral’s attention.

“Admiral,” she said, “it doesn't matter if they thought they were provoked or not. They have already started their campaign. The loss of the StarCom cannot be coincidence. Their attack fleet is already advancing towards Cadiz. I implore you, Admiral, to sound the alert and ready 7th Fleet for action. Time is running out.”

“Captain,” the Admiral said. “I ...”

His image vanished from the display. Kat stared, then reached for her wristcom. It bleeped before she could touch it, just as alerts flashed up through her implants. The entire planetary command and control network had just crashed, violently. Each and every starship, orbital defence platform and automated tracking system was now isolated from everyone else.

“Captain,” the XO said. “The spaceport is under attack. So is Government House.”

“Red Alert,” Kat ordered. “Pat ... ah, Davidson. Where is he?”

“His shuttle was heading towards the spaceport,” the XO said.

“Recall him,” Kat snapped. Newer alerts were flashing up as the command and control system struggled to rebuild itself. The spaceport wasn't the only place under attack. It looked as though insurgents were striking everywhere from Forward Operating Bases to medical centres and even economic assistance facilities. There were so many attacks that the garrison commander would be unable to decide which one was the key, which one to deal with first. “We need him back onboard.”

She took a breath. “And try to re-establish a link to the Admiral.”

“That might be impossible,” Roach said. The tactical officer sounded worried. “Government House is under heavy attack.”

Kat shuddered. How many locals, from street-sweepers to prostitutes, had worked within the security fence? They’d had years to plan their uprising, smuggling weapons into the complex while pretending to be good little collaborators. And now, they were throwing everything they had at their hatred oppressors. The Admiral might already be dead. He was certainly in no position to take command of the fleet.

“We can't even call in orbital strikes,” the XO warned. “There’s no way to separate our forces from enemy insurgents.”

“Recall Davidson,” Kat ordered. At least she had a full crew on her ship. God alone knew how many of the other ships had full complements. “And then try to establish links to the remainder of 7th Fleet.”

She looked down at her hands, unsure of what to do. The entire situation was unravelling ... and the enemy fleet hadn't even put in an appearance. Given time, and orbital control, the Commonwealth could restore control, but she knew the Theocracy would know it too. Their fleet would have to arrive soon ...

Unless they want us to slaughter the insurgents, she thought, morbidly. They’re not going to leave Cadiz alone either. Better to kill off everyone who might resist first.

“Captain,” Ross said. “I have lost contact with the Marine shuttles.”

Kat shivered. “I’m on my way,” she said. She rose. “Keep trying to re-establish contact.”

***
The high-velocity missile came out of nowhere. Patrick and his men had no time to do more than brace themselves before the missile slammed into the shuttle’s drive field, sending them tumbling down towards the ground. The pilot struggled to maintain control, somehow managing to keep the craft steady long enough to make a proper crash landing. Patrick rose to his feet as soon as the craft was down, then ran for the hatch. Outside, it was calm, suspiciously calm. But in the distance, he could see smoke rising from the direction of the spaceport.

“I can't make contact with anyone,” Corporal Loomis reported, as the Marines fanned out, weapons at the ready. Whoever had shot them down might be coming to finish the job. “The planetary datanet is down.”

Patrick swallowed a curse. They’d landed in rough country, several miles from the spaceport, Gibraltar or the PDC. If the smoke was any indicator, the spaceport was under attack – and he couldn’t see any signs of shuttles coming or going over the land. And that suggested the insurgents had the spaceport locked down. For once, he found himself unsure what to do. What were their orders if caught in hostile territory?

Any other world would have a large population willing to help us, he thought. But not here.

“We move away from the spaceport,” he said, finally. He wanted to run towards the installation and join the defenders, but the battle might well be over by the time the Marines arrived. He’d seen too much of the spaceport’s defences to have any illusions about how long it could defend itself if it came under heavy attack. There were just too many enemies within the walls. “And find somewhere to go to ground.”

None of this men argued. Instead, they followed him as he led the way towards the capital city. Strangers would be noticed in the countryside, he suspected. It would be better to blend in with city-dwellers as much as possible. And they would probably have to ditch their uniforms and most of their weapons at some point.

He cursed the Admiral under his breath. It would have been relatively simple to ensure the shit never hit the fan – or, at least, that the installations on the surface were secure. But the Admiral had been too lazy – or criminally negligent – to care. Patrick silently promised himself that the Admiral would not survive, no matter what else happened. He wouldn't be allowed to go home and plead his case ...

Shaking his head, he looked towards the smoke rising from the city. It was unlikely the Admiral was still alive.

***
“I have a live feed from a drone near the spaceport,” Ross reported. “The installation is under heavy attack.”

Kat nodded as the images appeared on the display. The entire complex seemed devastated; fires were burning everywhere, while a number of destroyed shuttles lay on the ground. She could see hundreds of dead bodies, while a handful of men armed with makeshift weapons prowled the complex, seeking survivors. The barracks, which should have housed over two thousand soldiers, were nothing more than debris. It was clear that the defenders had been overwhelmed before they’d even known they were under attack.

She bit her lip. “Do we have a link to Government House? Or the PDC?”

“General Eastside seems to have taken command of the PDC,” Ross said. “But there’s no contact with Government House.”

Kat nodded, unsurprised. The Admiral was dead. Most of the senior naval officers were dead. Or, she told herself, they were out of contact. Not that it really mattered, she suspected. The spaceport was flaming debris, while insurgents prowled the countryside with surface-to-air missiles. There was no way she could send shuttles to recover the commanding officers, even if she’d had a solid lock on their positions. They’d be shot down by the insurgents.

“Purge the communications system completely,” she ordered. It would destroy any encryption codes, but right now they were worse than useless in any case. They’d have to send in clear and hope the enemy wasn't able to intercept and read them in time to make a difference. “And try to re-establish the datanet for 7th Fleet.”

And then new alarms sounded, followed by red lights on the display.

***
Commander Fran Higgins had never considered herself prone to despair. As a mustang, she had known her promotion prospects were limited compared to officers who had followed the proper command track, but she had also believed her competence would see her through. But Cadiz had sapped her determination even before the shit had finally hit the fan. If she hadn't had the bare bones of a plan – and taken steps to prepare Defiant for operations – she might well have given up completely.

She sat on the bridge, in the Captain’s chair, trying to pull some sense out of the distorted reports from the planet’s surface. Some of them were obvious nonsense, others far too optimistic to be believed easily. But she knew the worst when she finally saw the live feed from the spaceport. The occupation was doomed.

“The Captain is dead,” she said, flatly. A third of the crew was still down on the surface – if they weren't dead themselves – but at least she’d managed to keep the more competent officers and crew on the ship. “I want full operational power as soon as possible.”

“We’re working on it,” Chief Engineer Ryan said. Thank God he was competent. There were at least two engineers attached to the fleet who had to have politically-powerful relatives, or they would never have been promoted at all. “But it will take at least ten minutes to bring the ship to full power.”

Fran cursed loudly enough to shock several of the younger officers. “Keep working on it,” she snapped. There was nothing else she could do. “And ...”

New icons flared into life on the display. “Vortexes,” Lieutenant Robbins snapped. She sounded as though she was on the verge of panic. “Multiple vortexes.”

“Divert all power to weapons, shields and drives,” Fran ordered. The enemy fleet had arrived – and the mighty superdreadnaught and the rest of her squadron were practically sitting ducks. They could do without life support long enough to escape – or they’d be dead anyway. “And stand by point defence.”

She gritted her teeth. The enemy ships were already launching gunboats. And 7th Fleet’s gunboat crews were in disarray. It was unlikely many of them could launch in time to make a difference. 7th Fleet was thoroughly screwed.

And there was still no word from the Admiral.
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#39
Chapter Thirty-One

“Report,” Admiral Junayd ordered.

“The infidel fleet is in disarray,” the sensor officer reported. “They’re trying to power up their drives and weapons, but they’re at a very low state of readiness.”

“God is with us,” the Cleric said.

Admiral Junayd ignored him. “Launch gunboats,” he ordered. The infidels could not be allowed more time to prepare. One icon sparkled on the display and he glowered at it. The spying battlecruiser had made it back to Cadiz, too late. They’d already lost the StarCom, ensuring they couldn't send an alert to the remainder of the Commonwealth. “Targets are the capital ships. They are not to leave this system alive.”

He paused, significantly. “The battle line will advance,” he added. “The troopships and their escorts will remain behind, ready to escape back into hyperspace if necessary.”

The Cleric turned to face him. “Admiral,” he said, “must I remind you of the importance of bringing Cadiz into the fold?”

“We cannot land troops until we have defeated the enemy fleet,” Junayd pointed out. It was important to establish a strong presence on Cadiz, if only to hunt down the surviving Commonwealth personnel, but he was keen to keep the Janissaries and the Inquisitors away from Cadiz as long as possible. A few days under their rule and the locals would start rebelling again. “And besides, I don’t care to offer the enemy a clear shot at annihilating the troops before they hit the ground.”

He settled back, contemplating the task before him His superdreadnaughts would finish the job of blowing their way through the Commonwealth’s defences and obliterating their fleet. The balance of power would swing decisively in the Theocracy’s favour within an hour.

“And transmit the formal summons to surrender,” he added. “We must invite them to submit to us.”

It would be good if they did surrender, he knew, even though he would be cheated of a battle. But he wasn't expecting a surrender. The Commonwealth was no isolated single-star system, unable to police space outside its atmosphere. They had space they could trade for time and powerful fleets in reserve. It was possible they would despair so completely they wouldn't realise they could fall back, but he wasn't counting on it. They had had too much time to think since their spy ship had returned home.

“And send a general signal to the fleet,” he concluded. “Today we fight for victory.”

***
Kat watched as countless vortexes opened and dispersed nemesis. Twenty-seven superdreadnaughts, forty-two smaller craft and over five hundred gunboats, launching now from their carriers. The tiny craft carried one hell of a sting, she knew, and a handful of them could take down a superdreadnaught. 7th Fleet’s gunboat pilots were still dawdling. It would be too late by the time they joined the fray.

“Picking up a message,” Ross said. “They’re beaming it all over the system.”

“Put it through,” Kat ordered.

The voice was strongly accented, although Kat couldn't place the accent. “Infidels, the hour of judgement is at hand,” he said. “Accept your fate, surrender your ships and join us in worship of the One True God, or die at our hands and be plunged into the bitterest hell. You have ten minutes to comply.”

Kat glanced at the display. Ten minutes ... just long enough for the superdreadnaughts to enter firing range. The gunboats would be on the fleet in two minutes, unless the fleet surrendered beforehand. But that was not going to happen. The officers who might have surrendered had died on Cadiz.

Outsmarted yourself, didn't you? She thought, with a moment of bitter amusement. Your plan worked too well.

But she knew it was unlikely to matter.

She looked at the XO. “Do we have any ID on the senior surviving officer?”

“I can't find anyone higher than a Commander,” the XO said. He sounded shocked. It was easy to believe, now, that Admiral Morrison had been an enemy agent all along. “The fleet is completely headless.”

Kat drew in a breath. “Open a channel to the entire fleet,” she ordered. She waited for Ross’s nod, then continued. “This is Captain Kat Falcone. I am taking command of the fleet.”

She pressed on before anyone could challenge her. Technically, she outranked everyone else confirmed to be alive, but they would know how little experience she had. And she wasn’t part of 7th Fleet’s command network. Someone might well challenge her on those grounds alone. But, not entirely to her surprise, no one raised a challenge. They were all too focused on staying alive.

“Route the tactical fleet command net through Lightning,” she ordered, cursing the designers under her breath. Lightning just wasn’t designed for fleet command. If the designers hadn't been so fixated on winning the contracts for a whole new generation of command-capable heavy cruisers ... she shook her head, bitterly. It was water under the bridge now. “And get me a full status update.”

She took a breath. At least some of the gunboats were finally getting out into open space. It was clear the pilots were disoriented and their flight rosters had been shot to hell, but they were out in space. She issued orders to the gunboats, ordering them to engage the enemy gunboats before they attacked the fleet, then weighed the situation as best as she could. No matter how she played it in her mind, she saw nothing but defeat if they held their position and tried to fight. The enemy fleet had them firmly under their guns.

None of the reports sounded promising either. Her best superdreadnaughts required at least two weeks in the yards before they could be considered combat-capable, even though the crews were doing their best to bring the ships to battlestations. Many of the smaller ships were in better condition – the rot hadn't set in so badly – but they didn't have the firepower to take on the Theocracy.

“We will cover the superdreadnaughts until they are ready to escape,” she ordered. The Theocracy would go for the superdreadnaughts first, just to take them out before they could be brought back to full readiness. It would be quicker to repair them than build new hulls from scratch. “And as soon as they are ready to go, we will beat a hasty retreat.”

She felt several of her officers glancing at her back in disbelief. The Royal Navy didn't run ... but the Royal Navy had never faced a serious challenge before. They had never been involved in the Breakaway Wars. The only real opponent had been pirates and none of them had posed more than a brief challenge to their might. And if 7th Fleet had been worked up and ready to go, they might have given the Theocracy a bloody nose. But she knew all they could do was run.

The Board of Inquiry might blame me for running, she thought, as the enemy gunboats raced closer. But they won’t blame anyone else.

“The planetary defence network is still crippled,” the XO said, “but some of the automated platforms have been isolated from the communications net and are responding to orders.”

“Target them on the gunboats,” Kat ordered. She braced herself. “And stand by point defence.”

She watched, grimly, as the gunboats slashed into engagement range, evading with consummate skill as the superdreadnaughts opened fire with point defence. No gunboat could stand up to a single blast, but they were incredibly hard to hit. She had to admit the professionalism shown by the enemy pilots as they closed in on their targets, then opened fire with shipkiller missiles. Armed with antimatter, they would be devastating against shielded and unshielded targets alike.

“Antimatter detonations,” Roach reported, as four of the missiles were picked off by point defence. “They’re not holding back, Captain.”

Kat nodded. The gunboats had scored five direct hits on one superdreadnaught, blowing the massive vessel out of formation. For a long moment, it looked as though Hammer of Thor had survived, then the starship vanished inside a massive fireball. Kat fought down despair as the gunboats raced away from the destroyed ship, then reformed and angled back towards their next target. The point defence crews continued firing, trying to pick off the gunboats before they could enter engagement range again. But it seemed a waste of effort.

“Message to superdreadnaughts,” Kat ordered. Safety regulations told against it, but they were so far past caring that it hardly mattered. “They are to launch shipkillers on dispersal mode.”

“Aye, Captain,” the XO said. He seemed to have fallen into the role of her operations officer, even though he should have taken command of the cruiser while she commanded the entire fleet. But there was no time to switch roles. “But that will damage our datanet.”

Kat shrugged. “What datanet?”

***
“Direct hit, starboard hull,” the tactical officer snapped. “Shields held, but barely.”

Fran nodded. Defiant had been lucky. Four of the gunboats assigned to her had been picked off before they could launch their missiles, detonating the antimatter in their warheads and wiping out several of their comrades. Only one missile had struck her shields, which was lucky. Fran was grimly aware that the starship’s shields were held together by spit and bailing wire.

She glanced at the order from Lightning, then smiled. “Launch shipkillers on dispersal mode,” she ordered. “Target clumps of enemy ships and fire!”

She smirked as the superdreadnaught launched a spread of antimatter-armed missiles, aimed at the gunboat formation. There was no hope of actually scoring a hit, but it didn't matter. The warheads detonated as soon as they were within range, the giant explosions wiping out dozens of gunboats and disabling several others. It wasn't a viable tactic in the long run, but it would buy them some time. But would it be enough?

“Seven minutes until we can open a vortex,” the engineer reported.

Fran cursed. It was going to be a long seven minutes.

***
“Clever,” Admiral Junayd observed. His gunboats had been hammered by the shipkillers, far too many of them swatted out of space like flies. The remainder would have to return to their carriers to rearm before they could return to the fight. “But futile.”

He smiled grimly as the fleet finally came into range. “Target missiles on the superdreadnaughts,” he ordered, “and open fire.”

Moments later, the superdreadnaught launched the first full broadside of the war.

***
“The enemy superdreadnaughts have opened fire,” Roach reported.

Kat nodded, unsurprised. Under normal circumstances, firing at extreme range would have been futile. There would have been plenty of time for a fleet command datanet to lock onto the missiles, calculate interception trajectories and open fire. Hell, the missiles might have burned out their drives and gone ballistic by the time they entered the point defence envelope, making their destruction a certainty. But this time the tactic might well pay off for the Theocrats.

The point defence datanet barely exists, she thought, and the bastards are practically holding the planet hostage. One antimatter missile on the surface and most of the population will die.

She gritted her teeth. “The superdreadnaughts are to fall back, if they can muster the power,” she ordered. She hated to do it, but preserving the fleet was her first priority. Cadiz would just have to take care of itself. “Reform the fleet; I want smaller ships between the superdreadnaughts and the incoming missiles. If we can't form a datanet, I want to put out enough firepower to prevent the missiles from getting through.”

“Aye, Captain,” the XO said. “And the planet?”

Kat cursed herself under her breath. She couldn't leave Cadiz completely undefended, no matter how intensely she had come to dislike the world. “Reprogram the planetary defences,” she ordered. They would normally have put the planet first, but the standard command network was in tatters. “They are to concentrate on missiles that might enter the planet’s atmosphere.”

“Aye, Captain,” the XO said. He sounded relieved. “The enemy fleet is picking up speed.”

“Order our superdreadnaughts to fire a return barrage,” Kat ordered. The Theocracy’s fleet was advancing towards her ships, shortening the effective engagement range. But there would be no coordinated fire. She would just have to hope her fire dissuaded the enemy from pursuing too closely. “And then angle the point defence to provide as much cover as possible.”

She watched, grimly, as the swarm of missiles rocketed towards the fleet. None of them were targeted on Lighting – thankfully, the limited datanet had prevented the Theocracy from realising that a mere heavy cruiser was the linchpin of the fleet – but there were more than enough of them to do real damage. Her ship’s point defence went to work, sweeping missiles out of space, yet there seemed to be no shortage racing towards her superdreadnaughts. And then they started to strike home.

“Kali is gone,” Roach reported. “Agincourt and Bosworth have taken heavy damage. Bosworth report that her drive section is completely gone. Butcher and Thundercracker have both taken limited damage.”

Kat nodded. “Keep trying to link our point defence together,” she ordered. If Bosworth had lost her drives, there was no way she could be saved. “Order Bosworth to transfer all non-essential crew to her shuttles ...”

A green icon flickered once, then vanished, to be replaced by a handful of icons representing lifepods. “King David is gone,” Roach said, bleakly. “Defiant is requesting permission to launch SAR shuttles.”

Kat hesitated. “Denied,” she said, finally. The enemy gunboats would fire on shuttles, even though they were performing SAR duties. “The lifepods are to make their way to the planet.”

Roach turned to stare at her. “Captain ...”

“That’s an order, mister,” Kat snapped. “Concentrate on your duties.”

She understood his feelings all too well. The Royal Navy didn't leave anyone behind. It had been hammered into them at Piker’s Peak that starship crewmen and officers had to depend on one another. But she didn't dare risk allowing SAR shuttles to be engaged by enemy gunboats – or, for that matter, leaving them behind.

One more thing for the Board of Inquiry to judge, she thought. After they’ve buried Morrison, perhaps they’ll bury me.

The thought was a bitter one. She hadn't been expected to assume command of the fleet ... in hindsight, perhaps she should have made contingency plans to do just that. But she had never believed the disaster could be on so great a scale. It was a failure of imagination that would cost the Commonwealth dearly. If the Admiralty wanted a scapegoat, and Admiral Morrison was safely dead, they might turn their gaze on her.

Lightning shuddered, violently. “One of the missiles engaged us,” Roach snapped. “No major damage.”

Kat exchanged glances with the XO. “Pull us back,” she ordered. She glanced at the display, wondering if the enemy had worked out that Lightning was the command ship. But if they had, they would have thrown everything at her. “Time to escape?”

“Four superdreadnaughts are reporting that they’ve lost their drive sections,” the XO said. “The remainder will be ready to open vortexes in two minutes.”

Kat felt very cold, very composed. “The starships that cannot escape are to move forward and shield their fellows,” she ordered, hating herself. There was no choice. She knew there was no choice. And yet it smacked of sacrificing others to save herself. “The remainder are to keep falling back.”

“Aye, Captain,” the XO said.

The fighting seemed to grow more intense as the enemy ships concentrated their fire on the lead superdreadnaughts. Their commanders switched all remaining power to shields and weapons, then fought savagely, trying to hold the line. For a long moment, Kat dared hope that they would manage to hold the line, but she knew it wouldn't happen. The Theocracy was already targeting those ships specifically.

“Captain,” the XO said, “the superdreadnaughts are reporting that they’re ready to jump.”

Kat hesitated. Davidson was on Cadiz, along with thousands of Commonwealth personnel, all of whom would be at the mercy of either the Theocrats or the local insurgents. She had no idea how the Theocrats would treat their prisoners, but she suspected it wouldn't be in line with any of the post-UN conventions. She didn't want to abandon them, yet she knew all she could do was die in their defence, perhaps costing the Commonwealth it’s chance to win the war. They had to retreat.

“Open the vortexes,” she ordered. There was no longer any time to delay. “Take us out of here.”

***
“Admiral,” the sensor officer snapped. “The infidel fleet is retreating.”

Junayd cursed under his breath. Four superdreadnaughts seemed determined to fight to the last, but the remainder were falling back and opening vortexes, escaping into hyperspace. He knew he couldn't give chase, not now. An engagement in hyperspace could easily go either way.

“Let them go,” he ordered. There were still four remaining superdreadnaughts, fighting desperately. As he watched, one of them lost a shield and immediately rotated to avoid exposing a chink in its defences to incoming fire. “Retarget missiles on the remaining ships.”

He watched, feeling an odd glow of admiration, as the four superdreadnaughts fought and died. They couldn't stop him, they had to know they couldn't stop him, but they fought desperately to win their fellows time. In the end, they died, but they died bravely. It sent shivers down his spine. They’d calculated the infidels would be weak, that they would not put up a fight – and they’d been wrong. It was easy to imagine, now, that the war would be far from victorious.

They might have staved off defeat, he thought. And who knows what that will cost us, in time?

But he couldn't say it out loud. Who knew who might be listening?

“Clear the planet’s skies,” he ordered. The remaining platforms were fighting desperately, but there could only be one outcome. It was the PDC that would pose a more significant problem. “And then land the landing force.”
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