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The Oncoming Storm V2
As always, this probably requires some explanation.

I have been offered a chance to show my work to a mainstream publisher. Problem is – this has to be something unpublished (i.e. not on Kindle.) After much careful thought, I have decided to capitalise on the success of Ark Royal and rewrite an older series of mine under the title of Angel in the Whirlwind.

I have put the previous versions online at -

I do intend to follow the basic idea of The Oncoming Storm (so beware; spoilers). I don’t know how much of Dauntless will make it into the overall revised storyline, but we will see.

As always, comments and thoughts are very welcome. Please point out errors, glitches, spelling mistakes and screw-ups <grin>. Requests for cameos are also welcome.

Thank you for your time.


PS – and I have a new forum.
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Admiral Junayd passed through the security field and stepped into the conference room, careful to remove his cap as he bowed to the First Speaker and the Lord Cleric. They nodded in return, pressing their hands together in greeting, then motioned him to a chair at the round table. Junayd sat down and composed himself, despite the growing excitement running through his mind. The greatest military operation in the Theocracy’s history was about to begin. It was no time to allow his enthusiasm to overpower his common sense.

He looked up at the giant painting behind the First Speaker. Hundreds of men and women, some bound, others in chains, were making their way towards a giant starship, sitting on the ground like a common aircraft. It was a lie, he knew, a fanciful depiction of a carefully-planned exodus from Earth, but the essential truth shone through. The Believers had been forced into exile, forced to leave God’s chosen world. Many of the exiles had lost the will to live in horror at what had been done to them.

But others had understood. God would not have allowed His faithful to be removed from their homeworld without a reason. It would be safer for them to be elsewhere. And now Earth was scorched rubble, the great cities of Rome, Jerusalem and Mecca little more than blackened marks on a dead world. The religious leaders who had failed to realise their time was over were gone. And the United Nations, the force that had served as their enforcer, was gone too. The True Faith could begin its expansion into the galaxy – and no infidels would stand in their way.

He nodded in greeting as Inquisitor Samuilu stepped into the room, unable to avoid feeling a cold shiver running down his back as he met the Inquisitor’s eyes. Everyone was secretly guilty of something, the Inquisitors believed, and innocence was no defence if one caught their ever-roaming eye. Even a high-ranking Admiral was not immune to suspicion. The Inquisitors spent most of their time rooting out hearsay on the occupied worlds, but they had never relaxed their watch over the Believers.

And a word from them would be enough to condemn anyone to the stocks – or the gallows.

“Let us begin,” the First Speaker said.

He spoke the words of a very old prayer, echoed by the other three men in the room, then looked up at Junayd. “Admiral,” he said. “How fares our planning?”

Junayd took a long breath. “We will be ready to launch the offensive in six months, Your Holiness,” he began. “Planning has been completed for a short, sharp campaign that will bring the infidel Commonwealth to its knees. We will trap and destroy their border fleets, then advance towards their homeworlds before they know what has hit them. Victory will be assured.”

“Only God can assure one of victory,” the Lord Cleric said.

That, Junayd knew, was true. Other religions, the shadows of the True Faith, had believed that God granted victory to his followers without forcing them to work for it. But the True Believers knew that God only helped those who helped themselves. What was the point of victory – or redemption – if it was just handed out on silver platters? But he dared not seem uncertain, not now. There were no shortage of others who would take his place if he ran afoul of his superiors.

“We have been watching their deployments to Cadiz ever since they annexed the border world,” he said, instead. “Their readiness levels are at the lowest we have observed since we started monitoring them closely. The Admiral in command spends most of his time on the planet, training and exercising schedules are not followed and morale is incredibly low. We would not wish to wait long enough for the Commonwealth to appoint an effective commander to take Admiral Morrison’s place.”

The First Speaker smirked. “That would be inconvenient,” he agreed.

“We have allies on the planet’s surface,” Junayd continued. “They will be ready to go on the offensive when our fleet arrives in the system. Cadiz will be cut off from the StarCom network, her command and control systems crippled, allowing us to score a decisive victory before the infidels can mobilise. Their long-term potential is staggering.”

He kept his face impassive, refusing to admit how much that bothered him. The first conquests made by the Theocracy had been easy. They’d largely been primitive worlds, with no spacefaring capability at all. It had taken little more than a destroyer to crush formal resistance, then the Inquisitors had gone to work, digging all who would dare to resist their place in the Theocracy. But the Commonwealth was different. It was a multi-system political entity with a growing trading fleet as well as a formidable military machine.

The Theocracy’s industrial base was geared to supporting the colossal war machine they intended to use to conquer the settled galaxy. It was limited, more limited that Junayd cared to admit, but they would never be able to relax some of the restrictions on economic and social development. But the Commonwealth didn't have that problem. Somehow, the infidels had created an economy that was growing by leaps and bounds. It presented a formidable threat as well as a challenge.

And it wasn't the only state to emerge from the ashes left by the Breakaway Wars. It was quite possible that the Commonwealth and the Theocracy could batter each other to pieces, then watch helplessly as another state moved in and took over. Or, for that matter, that they would block expansion of the True Faith. It could not be allowed.

“But nothing compared to ours,” the Lord Cleric said.

The First Speaker smiled. “Six months,” he mused. “Can you not attack earlier?”

“We would need to call up freighters to support the military offensive,” Junayd said. “It will take several months to assemble them without damaging our economy too far.”

He paused. “Besides, we would also need to place our forces in position on our side of the border,” he added. “And then place our agents in the right places to do harm.”

The First Speaker looked at the Lord Cleric, who nodded.

“You have permission to start assembling our forces,” he said, firmly. “And my God defend the right.”

“I thank you,” Junayd said. He stood, placing his hand on his heart. “And I pledge to you, Your Holiness, that the Commonwealth will be ours within a year.”
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Chapter One

“The Hotel Magnificent, My Lady,” the shuttle pilot said. “I’ll drop down on the roof?”

“Yes, please,” Captain Lady Katherine Falcone said. She felt a tingle from her implants as security scanners swept the shuttle, confirming her presence. “I believe they should already have cleared us to land.”

She looked down as the shuttle dropped towards the landing pad. It had been four years since she’d seen Tyre City from the air, but it never failed to impress. The designers had covered everything, from the Royal Palace to the military barracks and giant apartment blocks, in white marble, creating a glittering haze in the air as aircars and shuttles flew overhead. Only the brooding presence of the giant planetary defence centre, carved into a nearby mountain, spoilt the impression of a city out of fantasy. But then, the Kings of Tyre had had the money to make their fantasies reality.

The shuttle touched down gently, allowing Kat to stand up and make her way through the hatch and out into the warm morning air. A pair of bodyguards stood there, their faces hidden behind black masks; her implants reported that she was being scanned, again, before they stepped aside and allowed her to walk through the door into the hotel. She sighed, inwardly, as they followed her, even though they knew who she was. It was the paranoia of living in a goldfish bowl, among many other things, that had caused her to seek out her own career, as far from her family as possible.

She caught sight of her own reflection in a mirrored door before it opened and tried not to wince. Her family had the very best enhancements sequences into their genes, ensuring that she had an estimated lifespan of over two hundred years, but she looked young, as if she was barely out of her teens. The long blonde hair she had refused to cut, despite years on various starships, fell around her heart-shaped face, drawing attention from everyone who looked at her. The black uniform she wore, complete with the golden star on her shoulder that designated starship command, fitted her perfectly. But then, her body was perfect too.

At least I’m not Candy, she thought, thankfully. Her older sister spent most of her life aping fashion, even to the point of changing her body or gender completely, just to fit in with her friends. But I could have turned out just like her.

“My Lady,” a voice said.

Kat looked up to see a thin dark-skinned girl, wearing a dress that left very little to the imagination. She sighed. One would have thought that the Hotel Magnificent could have dressed its maids and other staff in something more classy, rather than a dress that wouldn't have been out of place in a pornographic VR sim. But she supposed the vast majority of the visitors probably appreciated the dresses. Besides, it was easy to underestimate someone who looked so harmless.

“Your father is waiting for you in the dining room,” the maid said. She curtseyed. “If you would care to accompany me ...”

“Of course,” Kat said. Why would her father have chosen to meet her in the dining room? “I would be honoured.”

She saw the answer as soon as the maid led her into the giant room. It was immense, large enough for nearly fifty tables ... and they were all completely empty, save one. Kat felt an odd mixture of embarrassment and shame as she saw her father, realising that he’d spent millions of crowns merely to hire the room and ensure that everyone else who might have had a reservation was paid off. It was a display of power that she couldn't help feeling was a little vulgar. But one truth she’d learned as a child was that if you were rich enough, it didn't matter what sort of person you were. Everyone would want to be your friend.

Her father, Duke Lucas Falcone, rose to his feet as she approached. He was a tall man, his hair starting to go grey after years of serving as CEO of the Falcone Consortium. Kat didn't envy him his position, even though she knew there was almost no chance of her inheriting anything more than a trust account and some stocks and shares. She’d seen enough of how her older siblings were prepared to take his place to know she didn't want it for herself.

“Father,” she said, carefully. “Thank you for agreeing to meet with me.”

“I was in the city,” her father said, gravely. “It was no hassle to see my youngest daughter.”

He motioned for Kat to take a seat, then sat down facing her. Two maids appeared, as if from nowhere, each one carrying a menu in her delicate hands. Kat took one and placed it on the table in front of her, rolling her eyes at the sheer assortment of cutlery and glasses in front of her. The knives and forks alone could have fed a poorer family for several weeks.

“Please tell me you don’t roll your eyes like a teenager on your command deck,” her father said, tiredly. “I don’t think your crew would be very impressed.”

Kat felt her face heat. She was twenty-nine years old and he still made her feel like a child, the few times they met in person. He’d rarely had time for her or any of her nine siblings when they’d been children, leaving them in the care of the household staff. There were times when she understood precisely why Candy was intent on blowing through her trust fund as rapidly as possible. She wanted attention from her parents – and they’d only really paid attention when she’d done something shocking or scandalous. Kat had felt the same way as she’d grown into adulthood. But she’d joined the navy instead of becoming a trust fund brat.

“I imagine they wouldn't be,” she said, tartly. “I need to talk to you.”

“Order your food first,” her father advised. “This place does an excellent caviar and chutney ...”

“Fish and chips, please,” Kat said to the maid. Her father looked impassive, but she knew him well enough to tell he’d probably swallowed a disparaging comment. Fish and chips was a plebeian dish and they both knew it. “And a glass of water.”

Her father ordered – something both expensive and unpronounceable – and then waited for the maids to leave, before leaning forward to face her. “You wanted to talk to me,” he said, flatly. “Talk.”

“I have been promoted to command a heavy cruiser,” Kat said, tapping the golden badge on her shoulder. “What did you have to do with my promotion?”

“Congratulations would seem to be in order,” her father mused. “Perhaps Champaign ...”

“Father,” Kat snapped.

She took a breath, forcing herself to calm down. “I am too young and inexperienced to take command of a heavy cruiser,” she said. “And there were at least forty other officers, some with previous command experience, ahead of me. I should not have been placed in command.”

Her father smiled. “You doubt your own abilities? What happened to the girl who broke her arm climbing up the trees on the estate?”

Kat met his eyes, willing him to understand just how serious this was. “I should not have been offered command,” she said. “Why did you pull strings to ensure I received the ship?”

“Because it was necessary,” her father said.

“Necessary?” Kat repeated.

“Command of a heavy cruiser at such a young age,” her father mused. “It will look good on your service record, won’t it?”

Kat stared at him, angrily. She’d been haunted by the Falcone name ever since she’d been old enough to realise that not everyone lived in a vast estate, nor had almost everything they desired as soon as they desired it. Going into the Royal Tyre Navy had seemed like a chance to escape her name, to earn fame and promotion on her own merits. But she was still haunted by her family’s name ...

“Every single officer in the service will know you ensured I would get command,” she said, finally. “I will never be taken seriously again.”

“Correct me if I’m wrong,” her father said, after a long moment, “but wasn't it you who was decorated for heroism when raiders attacked your ship?”

“It won’t matter,” Kat said. “I did well at Piker’s Peak – and I didn't come first – but this is going to stink like limburger.”

Her father smiled. “You could always decline the command.”

“You know I can't do that,” Kat snapped. Declining promotion was technically permitted, within regulations, but it ensured that promotion would never be offered again. Her father should have understood ... or perhaps he didn't. The corporate world was nothing like the military, no matter what management fads said. “Father ...”

Her father, oddly, reached out and placed his hand on top of hers. It was a curiously intimate gesture from someone who had always been very reserved, when he'd bothered to pay attention to her at all. The last time they’d spoken alone had been just after Kat had applied to join the navy. He’d seen it, perhaps, as a cry for attention rather than a serious attempt to escape the family name.

“I understand how you feel,” he said, softly. “But I also know that the family needs you.”

Kat felt her temper flare. “What do I owe the family?”

“Your life,” her father said. He ticked points off on his fingers as he spoke. “Your expensive education. Your exclusive implants. Your looks and genetic legacy. And the safety bubble that protected you as you grew into adulthood.”

He paused. “And are you going to keep acting like a teenager?”

Kat felt her face heat. What was it about her father that made her act like a child?

“There were reasons for my decision,” her father said, when Kat said nothing. “And, if you will listen, I will enlighten you.”

He paused as the maids returned, carrying two large plates of food. Kat wasn't surprised to see that the chef had done his best to make the fish and chips look expensive, rather than the greasy food she remembered from the cafe near Piker’s Peak. The senior cadets had gone there on weekend passes, just for the pleasure of eating something that wasn't navy rations, while having a drink or two with friends. And then most of the young men had headed to the brothel.

“Your ship is being assigned to Cadiz,” her father said, once they’d eaten enough to satisfy the hunger pangs. “And I have some reason to believe the situation is dire.”

Kat leaned forward, puzzled. “Father?”

“I haven’t been able to find much hard evidence,” her father confessed. “Even me, even with my connections; there’s little evidence to find. But there are alarming whispers coming out of Cadiz Naval Base, while some of my ... operations on Cadiz itself have been disrupted by the insurgency. And then there’s the decision to appoint Admiral Morrison to command the 7th Fleet. Do you know him?”

“No,” Kat said. It wasn't as if Admirals made a habit of socialising with lesser beings, even those who happened to have aristocratic families. She made a mental note to read his file – the parts of it she could access, at any rate – as soon as possible. “I’ve never even heard of him.”

“Probably for the best,” her father said. “Admiral Morrison was a compromise choice, Katherine. The Hawks wanted someone more ... aggressive; the Doves wanted something who wasn’t inclined to make waves. Morrison seemed the best of a bad bunch. But, with war looming, choosing him to command the fleet might have been a deadly mistake.”

Kat nodded. Everyone knew war was coming. Ever since the Commonwealth had encountered the Theocracy – and the first refugees had started streaming across the border – everyone had known that there would be war. Everyone ... apart from a number of politicians who believed the galaxy was big enough for both the Commonwealth and the Theocracy. It sounded idiotic. Nothing anyone had seen had suggested the Theocracy was interested in peace.

“Local politics,” her father said, when Kat voiced her thoughts. “The Opposition feels that the King and his Loyalists pushed the Cadiz Annexation through on false pretences. They’re not inclined to pay much heed to suggestions that storm clouds are gathering on the horizon when Cadiz was such a costly disaster. But, right now, their refusal to admit there may be war looming is costing us badly.”

He took a breath, then sighed. “Admiral Morrison’s position is almost impossible to assault right now,” he added, grimly. “We need hard evidence to propose to the Privy Council that the Inspectorate General be ordered to inspect Cadiz. But the only way to get that hard evidence is to send in the IG. Which we can't do without due cause ...”

“Or a report from me,” Kat said. “That’s what you want, isn't it?”

“Among other things,” her father said. “I believe you will have ample opportunity to observe Admiral Morrison at close range.”

Kat didn't bother to hide her distaste. Naval tradition insisted that naval officers were not meant to criticise other officers to civilians, let alone spy on them. There was no shortage of officers who had been promoted through serving as someone’s eyes and ears within the service, but she had never wanted to be one of them. The fact she’d been promoted so rapidly, she realised numbly, would convince a great many officers that that was precisely what she was.

“It gets worse,” her father said. He didn't bother with any insincere condolences. “Are you aware that there’s been an upswing in raider activity over the past four months?”

“... No,” Kat said, alarmed. “It’s been covered up?”

“More or less,” her father said. “Most of the media is owned by the big family corporations and none of them are eager to do anything that might drive confidence down and insurance rates up. Proportionally, losses are a small fraction of our overall merchant marine, but it’s rapidly growing to alarming proportions. I believe the Admiralty is already assigning starships to serve as convoy escorts.”

“Which reduces the number of hulls available for border patrol and screening duties,” Kat said, slowly. “I’d bet that isn't a coincidence.”

“Me neither,” her father said. “Raiders have been a problem since the Breakaway Wars, but this is on a considerably greater scale.”

He took a breath. “And then there’s trade with the Theocracy itself,” he added. “They’ve layered whole new security precautions on our ships entering their space.”

Kat gave him a sharp look. “You’re trading with the enemy?”

“Certain ... factions within the Houses of Parliament believe that trade will eventually cause the Theocracy to moderate its territorial expansion and concentrate on economic growth,” her father said. “Others think its a good chance to gather intelligence. And still others believe that trade will convince the Theocracy that they don’t have to be scared of us – and our expansion.”

Kat couldn't help herself. She snorted.

“They’re politicians,” her father pointed out, dryly. “A good grip on reality isn't part of the job description.”

He shrugged. “Quite a few voters think the bastards have a point, though,” he added. “If the Theocracy had been the ones to grab Cadiz, instead of us, wouldn't we be worried about what they would do with it?”

Kat considered it, reluctantly. She didn't want to admit it, but the politicians had a point. The Commonwealth had expanded peacefully until Cadiz, when they’d annexed a world by force, even if they did have the best of intentions. It had cost the Commonwealth a great deal of goodwill among the other independent worlds. And was it worth it? By almost any measure, Cadiz was a net drain on the Commonwealth’s resources.

Her father cleared his throat. “In any case, our crews have been completely isolated while their ships have been in Theocratic space,” he said. “It doesn't bode well for the future.”

“I see,” Kat said.

“So we need you out there to report back to us,” her father said. “We need an accurate report of just what is going on.”

“Yes, sir,” Kat said. “But if I see evidence that you’re wrong, I won’t hesitate to bring it to your attention.”

Her father nodded, then reached into his pocket and retrieved a Secure Storage Datachip, which he dropped on the table in front of her. “There’s a contact code here that will allow you to access the StarCom,” he said, “along with a number of personnel files and other pieces of information you might need. You should review it on your flight to Cadiz.”

Kat nodded, wordlessly.

“Tell me,” her father said, straightening up. “How is your relationship with Davidson?”

Kat felt her face turn bright red. One of the other reasons she’d been so quick to abandon her family estate was the simple lack of privacy. Everyone knew what she was doing, almost all the time. She knew, just from listening to Candy’s complaints, that the family security division vetted all of her friends and romantic entanglements, making sure that none of them posed any danger to the family. There was no privacy at Piker’s Peak either, but at least everyone was in the same boat.

“We’re just friends,” she said, tartly. She shouldn't be surprised her father knew. They’d been lovers, once upon a time, but the call of duty had separated them and so they’d parted as friends. “Why?”

“I’m having him assigned to your ship too,” her father said. “If you need support, it will be good to have a Marine you can trust behind you.”

“Thank you,” Kat said, icily. “And are you going to be making any other decisions for me today?”

“No,” her father said.

He looked up, meeting her eyes. “I’d like to believe I’m wrong,” he admitted. “Wars are chancy things, as you would know better than I. But I don’t think I’m wrong. And if the Theocracy does come over the border ... you might have a chance to prove you belong in a command chair sooner than you might think.”

Kat shivered.
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Chapter Two

“She’s a child,” Commander William McElney muttered.

Manfully, he resisted the temptation to throw the datapad across the compartment and into the bulkhead. It was a military-grade machine, capable of surviving an astonishing amount of abuse, but it would be very satisfactory. Angrily, he pushed the impulse aside and reread the official notification for the second time. HMS Lightning had finally been assigned a commanding officer. And it wasn't him.

William clenched his teeth, then forced himself to relax. He’d hoped that he’d be appointed commander of Lightning, but he’d known it wasn't likely to happen. He hadn't been born on Tyre, after all, nor had he been born after Hebrides – his homeworld – had entered the Commonwealth. Someone like him would always lose out to a citizen of Tyre, even though the navy’s rapid expansion was opening up all kinds of possibilities for someone born away from the capital and founder world. But discovering that his prospective CO was nothing more than a child.

He glowered down at the terminal, then keyed his access code into the device, accessing the naval datanet. Officially, he only had access to the bare bones of his new commander’s file, but he’d been in the navy long enough to learn a few tricks. Accessing the complete file – the one that would have been available to a Captain or a Commodore – was relatively simple; indeed, he’d never understood why the Admiralty set out to classify such data in the first place. But it wasn't reassuring.

There was no aristocracy on Hebrides – or, at least, there hadn't been one until the Commonwealth had arrived. The planet had simply been too poor to support a ruling class, no matter the pretensions of some of the elected leaders. But he was familiar with the concept – he had thirty years in the navy – and now, looking down at the file, he understood how his new commander had received her command. She was the daughter of one of the most powerful men in the Commonwealth, a man so staggeringly wealthy that he could buy an entire superdreadnaught squadron out of pocket change. The nasty part of his mind wondered just how many superdreadnaughts the old man had bought just to ensure his daughter got a chance to sit in a command chair.

He skimmed through the rest of the file rapidly, noting – to his alarm – that it was surprisingly thin. Either she hadn't done anything worth mentioning or nothing had been written down – or, if it had, it had been classified well above Top Secret. He supposed that made a certain kind of sense. The aristocracy wouldn't be interested in having their dirty laundry aired for all to see, but they would need to know who was letting the side down or simply couldn't be trusted with any kind of real power. Kat Falcone, it seemed, wasn’t considered a potential risk to the aristocracy’s reputation.

Captain Kat Falcone, he reminded himself, sternly. Resentment or no resentment, he was still a professional and he was damn well going to act professional.

Shaking his head, he switched to the planetary datanet and ran a search. Hundreds of results popped up – it sometimes seemed the media had little better to do, but report on the activities of young aristocrats – but Kat Falcone didn't seem to court scandal. Instead, the reports merely mentioned that she’d gone to Piker’s Peak, then helped save a starship during a border tussle. That, at least, matched with the navy file, although neither was very informative, suggesting that some of the details had been classified. It left an odd taste in his mouth.

A wider search revealed more about the Falcone Family and Corporation than he’d ever wanted to know. It was one of the original Founding Corporations that had moved operations to Tyre, accounting for the planet’s considerable economic growth before the Breakaway Wars had smashed humanity’s fragile unity and created dozens of independent star systems, some on the brink of total collapse. The Family had remained powerful through the economic crash, then played a key role in organising the Commonwealth and building up the Royal Tyre Navy. As aristocracies went, he had to admit, they were definitely enlightened.

So why, he asked himself, had the Duke ensured his daughter received one of the most coveted command chairs in the navy?

She wasn’t qualified, he knew. He’d looked it up. The youngest person to be appointed to command a heavy cruiser had been thirty-seven, eight years older than Captain Falcone. A handful of younger officers had taken command briefly, when their commanders were disabled, but only one of them had been allowed to keep the ship. He’d been in line for a command of his own, according to the files, and the Admiralty had merely decided to leave him on the ship rather than transfer him elsewhere. And he’d been thirty-six.

His wristcom bleeped. “Yes?”

“This is Ross,” Lieutenant Linda Ross said. Her voice was, as always, calm and professional. “We have received a signal from groundside. Captain Falcone is on her way.”

William gritted his teeth, unsurprised. It spoke well of her that she wanted to see her new command as soon as possible, he supposed, but Lightning was nowhere near ready to receive her. Half of her personnel were assigned to urgent duties, while the remainder were scattered all over the ship, those that remained. The Admiralty had been dragging its feet on assigning the remaining crewmen to Lightning, something that irked him more than he cared to admit. But a superdreadnaught had required urgent crew replenishments in a hurry and Lightning wasn’t scheduled to leave for another two weeks.

“Understood,” he said.

“She specifically requests no greeting party,” Lieutenant Ross added. “And she also wants readiness files transmitted to her at once.”

William lifted an eyebrow. He’d served under five Captains since joining the navy and some of them had been egotistical enough to demand that their senior officers stop work and greet them whenever they returned to the ship. A greeting party was traditional, at least when the Captain boarded for the first time, but it would be a headache at such short notice. The captain’s appointment had only been confirmed nine hours ago, for crying out loud. But it spoke well of her, too, that she didn't want a greeting party.

“Transmit the files,” he ordered. Technically, they shouldn't be sent until after the Captain had formally assumed command, but there was no point in withholding them. It would be petty, pointless spite. “Do we have an ETA?”

“Thirty minutes,” Linda said, after a moment. “She’s coming directly from the planet.”

“I’ll meet her at the shuttlebay,” William said. He glanced down at the terminal once again, then returned it to his belt. “Pass the word to the other senior officers, Linda. The Captain is about to come aboard.”

He closed the channel, then looked around the Ready Room. It had been intended for the starship’s commander, but he’d found himself using it during the desperate struggle to get Lightning worked up and ready for deployment. As always, the yard dogs had missed things that only experienced crewmembers would have noticed – or simply didn’t show themselves until the starship was run at full power for the first time. He looked at the pile of paperwork on his desk – the Captain’s desk – and sighed to himself. The room would have to be cleaned before the Captain laid eyes on it ...

No, he told himself. There isn't anyone who can be spared from more important work.

Leaving the office behind, he walked through Officer Country and into his own cabin. It was smaller than the Captain’s chambers, but it suited him, even though the bulkheads were still bare and utterly untouched by any paintings or moving images. A handful of old-fashioned paper books sat on a bookshelf, each one very well thumbed. They’d cost him a month’s salary apiece, but they’d been worth it. There was something about a paper book that was never quite matched by anything on the datanet.

He stripped down rapidly, then pulled his white dress uniform over his underclothes and glanced at the mirror. His homeworld hadn't possessed any form of rejuvenation technology until after they had made contact with the Commonwealth and it showed. Naval personnel were offered rejuvenation treatments as a matter of course, but his hair was already starting to turn grey, even though he was only sixty. He had a good seventy years of life left in him, he knew, assuming he wasn't killed in the line of duty, yet he looked old. And he wasn't vain enough to use cosmetic surgery to make himself look young.

Besides, he thought, looking old makes it easier to get younger crewmen to pay attention.

He keyed his wristcom. “Inform me when the Captain is five minutes from arrival,” he ordered. “And then hold any calls for me unless they’re priority-one.”

The thought made him smile. Everything was priority-one right now, with yard dogs crawling over the cruiser’s hull and countless problems popping up every day that only the CO could solve. Captain Falcone was going to jump right into the deep end, as soon as she assumed command. But, as a good XO, he would take as much of the weight from her shoulders as he could.

“Aye, sir,” Lieutenant Ross said.

Kat felt, at times, as though she belonged in space far more than anywhere else. Space was simple, governed by a set of cold equations that even the most advanced technology in existence couldn't thrust aside completely. If one made a mistake, one died; it was far simpler than political or social struggles on the planet below. She pressed her face against the porthole as the shuttle rose out of the atmosphere, feeling nothing but relief as the planet fell away behind them. In space, she was free ...

Or as free as I will ever be, she thought, sourly. Her father’s influence followed her everywhere, ensuring that no one would ever think she’d earned something on her own merits. They might even be right. Her father didn't have to pull strings overtly to ensure that some toadying Admiral would try to flatter or promote his daughter, all in hopes of pleasing Duke Falcone. Maybe I should just run.

It was rare, she knew, for a member of the aristocracy to simply abandon his title and walk away, but it did happen. There were even legends of one particular aristocrat who had cashed in his trust fund, bought a handful of starships and set out to build a trading empire of his own on the other side of the Dead Zone surrounding Earth. Others, more practically, found places to live on the other worlds and allowed the universe to pass them by. But Kat knew she was too ambitious to ever abandon her dreams and just walk away. Besides, she knew she’d done well at Piker’s Peak. She was damned it she was throwing her achievement away because of a fit of pique.

“We’re passing the StarCom now,” the pilot called back. “Any last messages?”

Kat snorted, then turned to stare at the giant construction as it floated in high orbit around the planet. It looked crude, like a brick orbiting the planet, but she knew it was a technological marvel, allowing humanity to pulse messages through hyperspace without an open vortex. But she also knew that it was incredibly vulnerable. Dozens of automated Orbital Weapons Platforms surrounded the StarCom, while other orbital fortifications and gunboats were nearby, ready to protect it if necessary. Tyre was the only Commonwealth world that had more than one StarCom, but losing it would be disastrous. They’d wind up dependent on starships to carry messages from star to star, crippling the speed of information as it flowed around the Commonwealth.

She shook her head, then allowed her gaze to drift towards lights orbiting the planet. It was hard to see much at this distance, at least with the naked eye, but she knew what they were; giant orbital industrial nodes, space habitats and shipyards, some of them owned by her family. Few human minds could truly comprehend the sheer scale of industry surrounding the planet – and yet it was smaller than Earth's legendary asteroid belt. But Earth was gone now, the Sol System devastated by the Breakaway Wars. Tyre might be the single greatest industrial node remaining in human space.

Unless the Theocracy has a larger industrial base of its own, she thought, morbidly. No one knew anything about the internal layout of Theocratic space, at least nothing more detailed than it had been prior to the Breakaway Wars. Most of the worlds within their sphere had been stage-one colony worlds, barely capable of supporting themselves, but a handful had funded their own settlement and produced small industrial bases of their own. How far had they progressed, she asked herself, under Theocratic rule? There was no way to know.

She shook her head as they flew away from the planet, the twinkling lights blurring into the ever-present stars, then turned her attention to the files her father had given her. Much of the data was, as she’d expected, drawn from naval files, but some came from independent civilian analysts. Naval officers tended to scorn; Kat, who had seen some of the analysts who worked for her father, knew better. Civilians often had a different – and sometimes illuminating – way of looking at the universe. It was, at the very least, a different point of view.

The first file tabulated shipping losses along the Border. Kat worked her way through it and slowly realised that her father had, if anything, underestimated the situation. The losses were tiny in absolute terms, but they were steadily gnawing away at the Commonwealth’s merchant marine. It would be years before the big corporations were undermined fatally by their losses, yet the smaller companies and the independents were in big trouble. She was astonished that the problem hadn’t made the mainstream media, no matter what the bigger corporations said. But then, it would be a brave editor who went against the will of his ultimate superior.

If the losses are made public, insurance rates will soar, Kat thought. She could see why her father and the other CEOs wanted the matter to remain quiet. But sooner or later, someone is going to notice anyway. Or are we compensating the colonies for destroyed ships out of our own pockets?

The next file detailed other problems along the border. It wasn't easy to mine large tracts of hyperspace – energy storms and gravity waves ensured the mines wouldn't stay in place for very long – but the Theocracy had been doing it, showing an astonishing persistence and a great deal of paranoia. Kat couldn't help agreeing with the analyst’s conclusion; no one, not even the most bloody-minded state in human history, would expend so much resources on mining hyperspace unless they had something to hide.

Or perhaps they don’t want us to spread ideas about freedom into their space, Kat thought, remembering a handful of refugees she’d met during border patrol. They’d stolen a starship and made it out of the Theocracy, placing their lives in the Commonwealth’s hands rather than stay one moment longer under the Theocracy. Their stories had been horrifying. The Theocracy gave lip service to the idea of religious freedom, but those who didn't accept the True Faith suffered all kinds of legal penalties. It was, apparently, incentive to convert.

The third file consisted of a detailed political briefing, written by yet another independent analyst. Kat felt her eyes glazing over as she tried to follow the jargon – it seemed that jargon changed every year, depending on who was sitting in the Houses of Parliament – and eventually skipped to the executive summery. Kat had to read it through twice to understand what her father had been trying to tell her. The Commonwealth was enduring a political deadlock; the War Hawks demanding preparations for war, perhaps even a first strike, while the Doves were sceptical of any real threat from the Theocracy. After all, the Commonwealth was much larger than any other state the Theocracy had overwhelmed.

“Captain,” the pilot said. “We’re entering final approach now.”

Kat nodded, returned the datachip to her uniform pocket, then scrambled forward, into the empty co-pilot’s chair. Outside, a cluster of lights were slowly coming into view; a mobile spacedock surrounding a starship. She leaned forward, her breath catching in her throat, as HMS Lightning took on shape and form. Her command, she told herself, forgetting her anger at her father for pulling strings on her behalf. Lightning was her command.

She was longer than Kat had expected, she noted, although she’d reviewed the files on the Uncanny-class heavy cruisers when she’d received the first notification. Lighting resembled a flattened cone, her white hull bristling with shield generators, missile tubes, weapons mounts and sensor blisters. Her name was prominently blazed on her hull, drawing Kat’s attention to the drives at the rear of the ship. If the files were to be believed, Lightning enjoyed a higher realspace velocity than anything larger than a destroyer or frigate.

But she still won’t have a hope of outrunning a gunboat swarm, she thought. A gunboat was tiny, able to outrace almost anything. And they were hard to hit. Or a missile.

The thought was chilling. No one had fought a real war since the Breakaway Wars – and that hadn't really included formal fleet actions. Who knew how well doctrine would hold up when the navy was tested in a real fight? Like it or not, she knew, there would be a steep learning curve as soon as the war began. If the war began ...

She shook her head. She knew that was wishful thinking.

“Take us in,” she ordered, unable to hide the excitement in her voice. “Put us down as quickly as possible.”
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Chapter Three

William watched, keeping his face impassive, as the shuttle passed through the forcefield holding the atmosphere inside the shuttlebay and settled down on the deck with an audible clunk. He'd known Captains who would be annoyed with the pilot for such a rough landing, which he suspected proved the Captains had never been in actual combat. Landing in a combat zone was always far rougher than a landing onboard a peaceful starship. But he pushed the thought aside as the hatch opened with a hiss, revealing his new commanding officer.

She was young, he realised, the part of him that had been raised on a world without rejuvenation technology mentally classing Captain Falcone as a teenager. Even knowing she was twenty-nine, almost thirty, it was hard to escape the emotional reaction to her apparent age. He knew there were midshipwomen on the ship who looked about the same age, but they were the same age. They certainly didn't have pretensions to command. He kept his face under strict control as Captain Falcone stepped onto the deck, then saluted the flag painted on the bulkhead. By tradition, he couldn't formally greet her until after she had made her salute.

He drew in a breath as she turned to face him. She was pretty, he had to admit; too pretty to be quite natural. Cosmetic surgery and genetic programming had been non-existent on Hebrides until after the Commonwealth had rediscovered his homeworld, but Tyre had never lost the technology. His Captain looked like a perfectly proportioned teenage girl, pretty enough to set hormones raging throughout the ship. Even her uniform was perfectly tailored to draw attention to her beauty. He had to call on all of his years of discipline to remember that she was his Captain, as well as a fellow officer.

She lifted her elegant eyebrows. “Permission to come aboard?”

“Permission granted,” he said, then saluted. “I’m Commander McElney, your XO.”

“Thank you,” she said, returning his salute and then extended her hand for him to shake. “I’m Captain Falcone.”

William nodded as he shook her hand. Her voice seemed to lack the aristocratic accent, although four years at Piker’s Peak and then several more years as a serving officer would have probably helped it to fade away. And her salute was perfect, something that really shouldn't have been a surprise. Young cadets were drilled in saluting until they could do it in their sleep. She still looked absurdly young, but she was a graduate of Piker’s Peak. It was only experience she lacked.

“I took the liberty of preparing a tour of the vessel,” William said. “We’re still working up for departure, but most of the officers and crew are in place.”

Her eyes narrowed. “Most of the officers and crew?”

William was mildly impressed. He'd known Captains who wouldn’t have picked up on his words. But then, she’d served as an XO too. And being an XO was good experience for understanding the difference between what someone actually said and what they actually meant.

“Yes, Captain,” he said. “We’re short around forty crewmen. The Admiralty needed to assign additional crew to Thundercloud and tapped the men who were supposed to be assigned to us. We’ve been promised replacements within a week.”

“Failing that, we might have to draft some of the Yard Dogs,” Captain Falcone said. She didn't sound as though she was joking. “Overall, Commander, what is our status?”

William smiled. He’d taken the liberty of preparing a set of detailed briefing notes too.

“We ran full-power tests last week, then replaced several components and ran the tests again,” he said. “Drives, life support, shields and weapons are all at optimal readiness, apart from long-range shipkiller missiles. The Admiralty has promised us a resupply within the week. Overall, we’re at roughly ninety percent readiness right now. I expect we will meet our scheduled departure date.”

“Unless they choose to move it forward,” Captain Falcone said.

“Yes, Captain,” William said. He’d been expecting a message telling him precisely that for several weeks, ever since Lightning had been formally commissioned into the navy. Ninety percent readiness was hardly bad. They could fly, fight and generally give a good account of themselves if they ran into hostiles. “It's a very real possibility.”

The Captain smiled. It was sweet, but he thought he detected an air of cool calculation behind it. “I think you’d better give me the tour now, before I formally assume command on the bridge,” she said. “I want to see everything for myself.”

“Certainly,” William said, with the private thought that it spoke well of her. “If you’ll follow me ...?”

He half-expected her to grow bored within minutes of the tour beginning, but Captain Falcone managed to surprise him by keeping herself awake and attentive as they moved from department to department. Sickbay, Main Engineering and Tactical were all at full readiness, thankfully. The Captain listened to the various departmental heads as they outlined their current status, then watched a tactical simulation as the crews worked on their consoles, trying to practice for every conceivable encounter with the enemy. But far too much of it, William knew, was guesswork. There was little hard data on the warships developed and deployed by the Theocracy.

“We’ve seen destroyers and frigates, but nothing heavier,” he explained, when the Captain finally asked. “Some of the ships have even been ex-UN designs, probably refugees from the Breakaway Wars. All extensively modified and refitted, of course, but nothing to show us the cutting edge of their technology. But then, they wouldn't need to be more advanced than the UN to overwhelm the worlds closest to Ahura Mazda.”

The thought was a bitter one. If the Commonwealth had been a hair less expansionist, Hebrides might have been discovered by the Theocracy and brought under its rule. There would have been resistance, of course, but with an enemy controlling the high orbitals the outcome would never have been in doubt. If all the horror stories were true, the Theocracy was quite prepared to engage in mass slaughter, as well as shipping in hundreds of thousands of settlers to ensure the demographic balance turned in their favour. The Commonwealth might be biased in favour of Tyre, but its member worlds still had local independence. There was no way the Theocracy would offer the same deal to its captive worlds.

“So we need to try to project what they might have developed on their own,” Captain Falcone mused, bringing him back to the here and now. “Or stolen from us.”

“They had an industrial plant with them when they were booted off Earth,” William reminded her. The UN had been fond of exiling small groups from Earth, officially for their own good, although it also made it easier to work towards total planetary unity. “They should have been as advanced as the UN before the Breakaway Wars.”

“We’ve advanced,” the Captain said. “Have they?”

William said nothing. Instead, he led her into Main Engineering, where there were greeted by the Chief Engineer, Zack Lynn. Like William himself, he wasn’t a native of Tyre, although he had followed the engineering track rather than command track. It was, William suspected, rather more fulfilling than command track, at least for the moment. A good engineer couldn't be passed over for someone with poorer qualifications, but the right birthplace.

“Captain,” he said, gruffly. If he had any doubts about the Captain’s appearance, he kept them to himself. “It’s a pleasure to meet you at last.”

“Thank you,” Captain Falcone said. “And are we ready for departure?”

“We can leave whenever you give the order,” Lynn said. He nodded towards the large status display in front of Fusion One. “Our stockpile of spare parts has been badly reduced, thanks to the components that failed during full power tests, but we should have them replaced within the week. Overall, however, we have had far few problems than Uncanny.”

William saw the Captain wince and nodded in agreement. HMS Uncanny had been intended to serve as the first starship in her class, but her construction and commissioning had been plagued by design faults and problems that had delayed her completion for nearly a year. By the time she had finally entered service, she had gained a reputation as an unlucky starship – wags even called her HMS Unlucky – and hardly anyone wanted to serve onboard her. Hell, her first CO had even died in an accident when an airlock seal broke at the worst possible time.

“I’m glad to hear it,” she said. “Please keep me informed of your status.”

“Full reports are in the message buffer in your office,” William said. “I have reviewed them and believe they are suitable.”

The Captain looked briefly embarrassed. She'd been an XO until her promotion, William knew, and it would take time to break her of the habits of being an XO, including reviewing status reports in order to save the Captain from having to do it himself. But at least she was well aware of her responsibilities to the crew.

“Thank you,” the Captain said, finally. “And now I believe I should see the bridge.”

Kat couldn't help feeling a little out of her depth as they rode the intership car towards the bridge. Lightning was smaller than Thunderous, the battlecruiser she’d served on as XO, but Thunderous had been in service for several years before she’d assumed her post. The responsibilities of serving as a starship’s first commanding officer were different, she knew, from merely taking over command from a previous Captain. If nothing else, there was no prior history for her to study.

Her XO was definitely older than her, she knew. According to a very brief skim of his files through her implant – it was rude to access implants in polite company, let alone use them in conversation – he was old enough to be her father, maybe even her grandfather if he started early. That wasn't a surprise – her real father was older still – but there was something about him that suggested age. He’d clearly not had the rejuvenation treatments from a very early age, she noted, instead of deliberately trying to look old and distinguished. There wouldn't be anything wrong with his general fitness, she was sure, but he was mentally old.

And he didn't seem to like her.

Kat had grown up in a sheltered estate, but she wasn’t naive. She had learned, from a very early age, that there were people who would suck up to her, purely because of her family connections, while hiding their contempt behind bland smiles. One of the very few practical lessons Kat had had from her mother was how to determine what someone really felt about her, a harder task than it seemed. Anyone who was anyone on Tyre had implants to help disguise their emotions if they feared revealing more than they wanted in front of prying eyes. It took careful perception to tell when someone was trying to hide their feelings – and that, she had learned, suggested that they had something to hide.

The XO seemed ... distrusting, almost disdainful. His attempt to hide it was good, but not good enough. Kat wondered, bitterly, just what he felt about her. Had he thought he would win command for himself ... or had he thought Kat was far too inexperienced to take command of a heavy cruiser? He would be right, she had to admit, if he thought the latter. She knew she wasn't ready to take command of anything larger than a destroyer, not yet ...

There was a ding as the hatch opened, revealing the bridge. Kat stopped and stared, allowing her gaze to move from station to station. The Captain’s chair sat in the centre of the compartment, surrounded by a semi-translucent orbital display that showed the shipyard surrounding her ship. Only half of the consoles were manned, she noted, which didn't surprise her. No one expected to be attacked here, in the heart of the Commonwealth’s defences. Tyre was surrounded by enough firepower to make even fanatics think twice about risking an attack.

But we can’t take that for granted, she reminded herself. The Theocracy is a whole multi-star system of fanatics.

Kat kept her face impassive as she took a closer look. Several of the unmanned consoles were clearly not installed yet, a handful of technicians working frantically to link them into the starship’s datanet. The private console beside the Captain’s chair was blank. It looked as through the bridge was far from ready for action. She made a mental note to review all the reports closely, despite knowing they should be left for the XO. She needed to know what was going on. Surprises, in the military, were rarely nice.

“Captain on the bridge,” the XO said.

There was a rustle as the crew stood and saluted. For a long moment, Kat enjoyed the sensation, knowing that she would never step onto her bridge for the first time again. And then she reached for the piece of paper in her uniform jacket, slowly pulling it out and unfurling it. That too, she knew, was part of the ceremony. She couldn't take another step onto the bridge without asserting her authority.

“Captain Katherine Falcone,” she read. She had memorised it already, but she had to appear to read from the parchment. “You are ordered to assume command of HMS Lightning and serve as her Captain, Mistress under God. Fail in this charge at your peril. By order of Grand Admiral Tobias Vaughn, First Space Lord.”

There was a long pause. She allowed the moment to stretch out, then turned to her XO.

“Mr. XO,” she said. “I assume command.”

The XO’s face remained impassive. “I stand relieved,” he said.

Kat let out a long breath she hadn't realised she’d been holding. There was only ever once source of authority onboard a starship, one person who held command. As long as he’d been the senior officer, William McElney had been the acknowledged commander of the starship, even once Kat had come onboard. But now ... she was the commanding officer. The final responsibility was hers. She felt the full weight of command settling around her shoulders and fought to keep her face impassive. Independent command was the ambition of every commissioned officer in the navy, but it could also break her. The buck would stop with her.

“Thank you,” she said. “Please make a note in the log of the date and time I assumed command.”

He nodded, then saluted. That too was tradition.

Kat felt her cheeks heat as a smattering of applause ran through the bridge.

She took a breath. Some officers wrote speeches for when they assumed command. Kat had never bothered, although she had honestly never expected to be granted her own command for at least another year or two. Besides, the speeches had always struck her as pretentious. The crew would have more than enough opportunity to formulate an option of their commander without being forced to sit through a tedious speech.

“Return to your duties,” she ordered.

She watched them sit down, their backs a little straighter now they knew their Captain was watching them. The memory of her first days as a commissioned officer warmed her as she walked over to the command chair, passing through the insubstantial hologram, and sat down in the chair. It felt good, soft enough for her to relax, hard enough to ensure she wouldn't fall asleep. That wasn't a shooting offence, but any junior officer unlucky enough to fall asleep while on watch would rapidly start wishing it was.

Her XO stood behind her as she touched the console with her finger, activating the system and linking directly into the starship’s datanet. The automated command systems buzzed around her, displaying the starship’s current location and plotting courses automatically to prospective destinations. Not, she knew, that she would trust the systems completely. One rule of AI was that AIs always went insane, shortly after being brought to life, and nothing lesser could hope to remove the human element from starship command. But without the automated systems, their efficiency would be cut in half.

She resisted the temptation to play with the system any further. Instead, she rose to her feet and passed command to the tactical officer, Lieutenant-Commander Christopher John Roach. He was a young man, younger than her, but his face was badly scared, while he’d chosen to shave his head completely. Kat made a mental note to review his file too, then motioned for her XO to follow her into her Ready Room. Inside, she stopped dead. The compartment was dirty as hell, the deck covered in pieces of paper, datapads and several coffee mugs. It didn't look remotely ready for any commanding officer.

“I’ve been using it as an office,” the XO admitted. “There was no time to clean it.”

Kat felt an odd flash of irritation, which she forced down sharply. The XO was entirely correct. He needed to stay near the bridge and he needed an office, a place to work without disturbing the bridge crew. Using the Ready Room – her Ready Room – was the logical solution. But it still gnawed at her.

“Don’t worry about it,” she said. She hesitated, then said what she knew she had to say. “Keep using it until we are ready for deployment.”

“I believe a steward has been assigned to you,” the XO said. “She will clean the room once she arrives.”

Kat nodded, reluctantly. A steward was something she’d managed to avoid until now, even though she was entitled to one as an aristocrat. But there was no point in declining one now.

She picked a pile of datapads off the chair, wondering why anyone needed so many, then placed them on the desk and sat down.

“So,” she said, once her XO had found a place to sit. “Tell me about my starship.”
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Chapter Four

“Come,” Kat ordered, as the door bleeped.

She barely looked up from her datapad until she heard someone clearing their throat in front of her. The sound made her look up to see a short, bald man standing there, wearing the grey shipboard uniform of the Royal Marine Corps. Kat found herself smiling openly as she rose to her feet and walked around the desk to envelop him in a hug. It had been far too long since she’d seen her old friend and former lover.

“It’s good to see you again,” she said, remembering when they’d first met. “Time and the Marine Corps has been good to you.”

Captain Patrick James Davidson – he would be given a courtesy promotion to Colonel while onboard ship – hugged her back, then let her go. Kat understood, even though it hurt a little; they were no longer lovers, while he was – technically – her subordinate. Marines had a great deal of independence, but not from their starship’s commander.

“I was promoted, eventually,” Davidson said. He grinned, toothily. One of his front teeth had been knocked out on deployment and he’d never bothered to have it replaced. “They must have grown sick of scraping the barrel for officers to promote ahead of me.”

“Something always rises to the top,” Kat agreed. She walked back around the table and sat down, then smiled at him. “Thank you for accepting this posting.”

“Ah, it was a choice between this ship or another hellworld,” Davidson said. He stood to attention, suddenly. “Colonel Patrick James Davidson and crew reporting for duty, Captain!”

“Welcome onboard,” Kat said, dryly. She waved at the seat behind him. “Take a seat, Pat, and put off the formality.”

Davidson sat, but still remained ramrod straight. Kat smiled to herself. Even when they’d been on shore leave, free of all other demands on their time, he had been unmistakably a Marine. She had half-expected him to loosen up with promotion and added responsibility, but he still seemed as tough and determined as ever. But then, Marines were only ever promoted from the ranks. None of them graduated from OCS without experience as a infantryman first.

“It’s been years,” she said. “What have you been doing?”

“Spent a great deal of time on MacKinnon’s World,” Davidson said. “The locals voted for annexation and they’re generally happy, but there’s a small bunch of resistors who have been making everyone else miserable. They could have had an island of their own, if that was what they wanted, but instead they started to attack settlements and so-called collaborators.”

Kat nodded, unsurprised. “And you managed to hunt them down?”

“Gave them a damn good thrashing, the one time they fought a pitched battle,” Davidson said. “We ensured the local security forces got a breathing space that ensured they had time to rebuild, train and take the offensive. But it will be years before all support for the insurgents fades away into nothingness.”

He shrugged, then met her eyes. “Did you pull strings to get me onboard?”

Kat didn't want to admit to anything, but she knew she couldn’t lie to him. “My father pulled strings,” she admitted. “Far too many strings.”

“I was due to assume command of a company anyway,” Davidson assured her. “I’m not too disappointed by the way things have turned out.”

And few people know we were lovers, Kat thought. None of the crew from HMS Thomas had been assigned to Lightning. As far as anyone knew, Davidson and her might have crossed paths, but they were hardly close. But if someone had good reason to think strings had been pulled, they might deduce the truth. And then who knew what they would think?

She looked up, meeting his eyes. “Can we talk freely?”

“Of course,” Davidson said.

Kat nodded. Captains couldn't talk to anyone about their doubts or fears, not when it was important never to show weakness in front of their junior officers. The only person on the ship who came close to them in terms of authority and position was the Marine Commander, who had similar tasks and responsibilities. They could talk to each other openly, if they developed a good working relationship. By that standard, she knew, Davidson and herself were probably far too close. They’d been lovers, after all.

But he’d seen her naked and vulnerable. He wouldn't put her on a pedestal.

“I don’t think some of my officers like or trust me,” she said, reluctantly. It had taken her time to unbend enough to talk to her friends, once she’d joined the navy. Back home, anything said was almost certain to be used against her at some later date. “And I feel overwhelmed.”

She waved a hand at the datapads on the desk. Three days after her arrival, the compartment had been cleaned, but there was still an enormous amount of files to read and paperwork to sign. Normally, a commanding officer would have much more lead time before assuming command, enough time to read the files for himself and decide how he wanted to proceed. Kat had the uncomfortable feeling that she was falling behind, no matter what she did. It was one hell of a struggle to force herself to read just one more file ... and then another ... and then another.

“You are young for your post,” Davidson pointed out. His eyes sharpened. “Did you pull strings to gain promotion?”

“My father did,” Kat said. She’d liked Davidson from the start because he’d never treated her any differently, even after learning who her father was. But then, Marines from the aristocracy tended to assume false names when they entered Boot Camp. Everyone started at the bottom and worked their way up. “He has ... concerns.”

She hadn't really wanted to talk about it, but the whole story came tumbling out. Davidson listened, carefully, as she outlined her father’s fears, then the steps he was taking to try to obtain some hard data. By the time she was finished, Davidson was frowning, an expression she knew meant trouble. He’d only looked like that once before in her presence, after one of his fellow Marines had screwed up badly. It was a fearsome sight.

“I have heard ... rumours, through Marine Intelligence, that things are not good along the border,” he said, slowly. “But only rumours.”

Kat felt her eyes narrow. The Marine Corps had a separate intelligence section, something that irked both the Office of Naval Intelligence and the civilian External Intelligence Agency. It was normally geared around local intelligence collection to support Marine deployments, but it did tend to collect tactical and strategic intelligence as well. Sometimes, it even picked up on something the larger intelligence services had missed.

“I see,” she said, carefully. “What did they say?”

“Nothing concrete,” Davidson admitted. “Mostly, there were concerns about the growing insurgency on Cadiz and the certainty that something is supplying the insurgents with heavy weapons from off-world. The wretched planet is sucking in too many of our cadre of Marines, not to mention the Army and forces from Commonwealth planets. Hell, the latter are growing increasingly reluctant to send any further forces to Cadiz, citing the Commonwealth Charter. Overall, Marine Intelligence thinks that Cadiz isn’t the only world that has received attention from the Theocracy. Those missionaries might have done more than try to spread the good word.”

Kat grimaced. The Commonwealth had total religious freedom – and total separation of Church and State. There had been no choice. The Commonwealth couldn't afford to exclude potential members states because of their religion, as long as they adhered to the Commonwealth Charter. If someone wanted to worship Satan, or accept a subordinate position because of gender, there was no law prohibiting it ...

... Which made it hard to deal with missionaries from the Theocracy. Kat suspected – and she knew that most of her fellow officers shared her suspicions – that the missionaries were nothing more than spies. But they couldn't be barred from any member planet, not without breaking the Commonwealth’s law. All the intelligence services could do was keep an eye on them and watch for signs they had something else in mind.

“All along the border,” she mused. “And those insurgent groups might be receiving help too.”

“Not on the same scale,” Davidson said. “But every other world voted for annexation. Cadiz ... did not.”

And that, Kat knew, was the core of the political struggle that had deadlocked the Houses of Parliament. Cadiz had been, to all intents and purposes, invaded and conquered, without even the benefit of a great many people willing to welcome the Commonwealth. Peace was needed to start investments on the surface, investments that would pay off handsomely in the long run, but the locals weren't interested in peace. All they wanted was to get the outsiders off their world, which would leave them hopelessly vulnerable when the Theocracy came calling.

Other resistance groups could be handled. They could be fended off until the newly-annexed world was ready to take responsibility for its own security ... and the economic boom undermined whatever support the resistance had from the population. But Cadiz ... Kat suspected that there were Members of Parliament who would vote for unilateral withdrawal tomorrow, if the issue was put to a vote. And that would be costly too.

Davidson cleared his throat. “It does look like war is looming,” he said. “Many of the readiness reports from Cadiz are not good either.”

Kat looked up at him, sharply. “You have evidence?”

“Just funny little reports from Marine detachments,” Davidson said. “You do realise that there are very few Bootnecks on 7th Fleet?”

Kat blinked. Davidson commanded a full company of Marines, one hundred in all. A superdreadnaught rated at least four companies of Marines. In total, Admiral Morrison should have had around three thousand Marines assigned to his fleet. Marines didn't just kill people and break things. They served as everything from shipboard police to damage control officers and emergency manpower.

“They’ve been assigned to the planet, largely,” Davidson explained, answering her unspoken question. “The report wasn't too clear, but it looks as though the only ships that still have Marine complements are starships on escort or border patrol duty. Now ... what does that tell us about the situation on the ground?”

“That it’s poor,” Kat said. It wasn't a guess. The Commonwealth had assigned nearly a million soldiers and Marines to Cadiz, but they were garrisoning an entire planet. If they needed to strip Marines from their starships, she suspected, the local commander clearly felt he needed them. “And that there’s hardly anyone to provide support services for the fleet.”

She looked down at the desk. “Who’s providing onboard security?”

“Shore Patrol, I suspect,” Davidson said. “If there’s anyone providing it at all.”

Kat fought down the urge to start screaming. The Shore Patrol was universally loathed among spacers, being nether spacers themselves nor civilian law enforcement. Their normal role was nothing more than patrolling spaceports, pulling drunken spacers out of bars and providing first responders to any emergency near the spaceport. It was far from uncommon for isolated Shore Patrolmen to be beaten by drunken spacers, who would then slip away to their starships and swear innocence when the Senior Chiefs demanded answers. If Shore Patrolmen were providing boarding parties ...

She shook her head in disbelief. Boarding a starship, even if the crew had surrendered, was a tricky job at the best of times. The Shore Patrol weren't even trained as Junior Crewmen, let along experienced spacers. There was a reason such tasks were normally left to the Marines.

“I think that's something that should be relayed to my father,” she said, although she wasn't sure what – if anything – could be done with it. Any half-decent PR flack could come up with a dozen excuses that would sound plausible, at least to a civilian. “But ...”

She looked up, meeting his gray eyes. “I don’t think my XO trusts me.”

“So you said,” Davidson said. “You must be rattled. It’s not like you to jump around.”

Kat nodded, wordlessly. He knew her well.

Davidson placed his hands on her table, then leaned forward. “You are too young and too inexperienced to be formally assigned command of this ship,” he said. “Your XO – and your other officers – will be aware of it. As your family name is rather well known ...”

Kat snorted, rudely. There wasn't a person in the Commonwealth who hadn't heard of the Falcone Family.

“... They will suspect that strings were pulled to get you command,” Davidson continued. He paused, significantly. “No. They will know that strings were pulled to get you command – a command you didn't earn. They will be very worried about your competence and well they should be. For all they know, your previous successes came about because of your family name too.”

“They should have seen me at Piker’s Peak,” Kat said, ruefully. “I didn’t flunk out, but ... I didn't exactly win any awards.”

“I don’t think that would reassure them,” Davidson said. “Whenever someone new takes command, even in the Marines, there is a period when everything is out of shape and nothing feels quite right. No one quite trusts the newcomer, particularly if they haven't served with him before. Hell, things change even when the new CO is promoted from the ranks of those already serving within the unit. In your case, it’s worse because you have far less experience than anyone else.”

Kat nodded. “Even a Marine who was promoted as soon as it was legally possible would have the experience of being a infantryman,” she mused. “I didn't come up from the ranks.”

“No, you didn't,” Davidson said. “And your XO did. I don’t blame him for having a chip on his shoulder.”

“I know,” Kat said. She’d reviewed personnel files until she’d felt her eyes glazing over, starting with her XO. “He wasn’t even born as a Commonwealth citizen.”

“That’s a problem that will probably come back to bite us,” Davidson said. “We treat people like him as second-class citizens, no matter their competence.”

Kat sighed, remembering lessons from a series of tutors. The idea of creating the Commonwealth had caused an almighty struggle in the Houses of Parliament, with some families contemplating a whole new series of markets for their goods while others feared the dilution of their power base in the wake of an influx of newcomers. In the end, a compromise had been hammered out, ensuring the current balance of power was maintained while the newcomers were allowed to enter the aristocracy. Given time, the projections had maintained, the newcomers would become part of High Society.

They might be right, she thought. But that does no good for anyone born before their world joined the Commonwealth. They’ll never rise as high as they could.

“My advice,” Davidson said, “is to be the best Captain you can be.”

Kat glowered at him. “And I couldn't have thought of that for myself?”

“Sometimes the only way out is through,” Davidson said, unabashed. “You will have to work hard to convince them that you deserved to be promoted. Think of yourself as a version of Labelle Jones.”

“Oh,” Kat said. Her lips twitched, humourlessly. “That isn't the most reassuring thing you could say.”

She remembered. The story had been taught at Piker’s Peak as a cautionary tale, although no one had been quite sure if it was a warning about the dangers of favouritism or just how people could jump to the wrong conclusions. A young officer, assigned to a remote station, had been promoted several times, simply because the bureaucracy insisted that someone higher in rank had to be in command. But when the screw-up had finally been noticed by the IG, no one had been willing to believe it was just a clerical error. The poor officer’s next set of superiors had assumed the worst and piled work on her until she’d nearly collapsed.

“I’m not trying to be reassuring,” Davidson said. “I’m trying to tell you that earning the respect and trust from your subordinates isn't going to be easy.”

“I know,” Kat said. She looked down at her hands for a long moment, then looked up. “And how are your Marines?”

“Settling in,” Davidson said. “We would like the use of the main corridor, if you don’t mind.”

“Once it’s clear of junk,” Kat said. At least the crew was making rapid progress now. “And ...”

She shook her head, dismissing the thought. Part of her had wanted to ask if he was seeing someone. His file had said he wasn't married, but Marines rarely married until they left the service or became combat lifers. But he might still have a girlfriend on Tyre or one of the other ships ... God knew she hadn't exactly been chaste since they’d split up and gone their separate ways.

“I’ll expect you to handle your men,” she said, instead. Their relationship could never be the same, no matter what she wanted. And she was being stupid even considering the possibility, not when she was his commanding officer. “And I’ll see you at dinner tonight.”

Davidson lifted an eyebrow. “Dinner?”

Kat smirked, then tried to hide it. Perhaps he’d had the same thought too.

“You’re the last officer to board the ship,” she said, instead. “I was waiting for you before hosting a formal dinner.”

“I look forward to it,” Davidson said, stiffly. He rose to his feet. “With your permission, Captain, I will return to Marine Country. I have training exercises to plan.”

“Me too,” Kat said. They couldn’t fly into battle, not yet, but they could run exercises to make sure they made all the obvious mistakes before actually facing a real enemy. “I’ll see you tonight.”

She watched him go, then turned back to her terminal, feeling an odd tinge of regret. She missed what they’d shared, more than she cared to admit ...

But at least, she told herself firmly, there was one person she could trust on her ship.
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So far, the main concept seems remarkably familiar - a blend of Honor Harrington and Lieutenant Leery. The Theocracy looks like a more advanced Masada which is still backward compared to the good guys. Waiting to see how you make it your own with your own stamp.
Chapter Five

All things considered, Commander William McElney conceded reluctantly, it could have been worse.

The Captain was inexperienced, at least when it came to being a commanding officer. She had a tendency to do too much of the work that should have been left to her XO, a common trait in newly-promoted captains. But at least she wasn't a tyrant or a whiny brat in a naval uniform. He’d served under both kinds of commanding officers in his long career. But he was still worried about the first time Lightning went into battle. Who knew how the Captain would react?

He pushed the thought to one side as he stepped into the conference room and glanced around the table, silently gratified to note that all of the senior officers had made it. They’d spent the last two days finalising the preparations for departure, something that had worn them out and made him urge the Captain to ensure they had a day or two of rest before they actually departed the system. There was no time for shore leave, even to the orbital Intercourse and Intoxication station, but at least they could have stood down for a day. But the Captain had warned that it would depend on their orders from the Admiralty.

The conference room seemed smaller than he remembered, now it was actually serving its designed role. A large holographic image of the starship hung over the table, which was surrounded by comfortable chairs and a handful of consoles. A coffeemaker sat against one bulkhead, with several officers glancing wistfully towards the machine. William sighed, then motioned for the steward to begin serving coffee. There were days when he knew the Navy practically ran on coffee. He took his seat, beside the Captain’s chair at the head of the table, and waited. The Captain entered the compartment moments later.

She looked tired but happy, he noted as he rose to his feet in greeting. Somehow, actually working so closely with her made it easier to ignore the fact she looked too young to be on a starship, let alone sitting in the command chair. He had a feeling, judging from her expression, that the Admiralty had finally got around to cutting the starship her orders. No Captain, not even the most rule-abiding commanding officer, would be entirely happy drifting in orbit near Tyre. It would be far too easy for the Admiralty to interfere with the smooth running of their starship.

He sighed at the thought. The new crewmen had arrived, as promised, and some of them were going to be trouble. He would have rejected them, if there had been time, but the missives from the Admiralty insisting that they move up their departure date had grown more and more ominous. Instead, all he could do was ride herd on the potential troublemakers and make sure the Senior Chiefs did the same. It was possible that careful supervision would turn them into valuable crewmen. Or, at least, keep them out of trouble.

“Please be seated,” the Captain said, as she took her seat at the end of the table. There was a rustle as the officers sat down, then a pause as the steward served the Captain a mug of coffee. “I would like to start by saying that you have all worked very hard to prepare this ship for departure and I am very proud of you.”

You would like to say? William thought, dryly. He dismissed the thought a moment later; he’d had some commanding officers who indulged themselves with word games, but Captain Falcone didn't seem to be one of them. Instead, it was just a clumsy choice of words. It didn't look as though anyone else had noticed the slip in any case.

“We have finally received our orders from the Admiralty,” the Captain continued. “We will be departing for Cadiz in two days. Unfortunately, we will also be escorting a convoy of nine civilian merchantmen. It will not be an easy task.”

That was an understatement, William knew. Merchantmen didn't tend to have the inherent flexibility of military starships, not when their contracts specified that deliveries had to be made by a specific date or penalty clauses would come into effect. One of the bigger shipping firms would hardly be inconvenienced by having to pay out compensation for late delivery, but it could literally ruin a smaller firm – or an independent shipper. Indeed, he would have expected the latter to run through hyperspace on their own, relying on the energy storms to cloak their presence.

The holographic image changed. This time, it showed nine bulk freighters, all Rhesus-class. It was an old design, dating all the way back to the era before the Breakaway Wars, but it was known for being reliable and – more importantly – easy to refurbish as technology grew more advanced. William would have bet half his monthly paycheck that none of the freighters in the convoy still had anything from their original configuration, apart from their hulls. Even civilian-grade sensors had advanced immensely since the days of the UN.

“It’s four weeks to Cadiz,” the Captain continued. “During that time, we will both be handling escort duties and running constant exercises. It is my intention to have this ship ready for battle by the time we arrive at Cadiz. We do not know when war will break out, but it will. We have to be ready.”

William couldn't disagree. Scuttlebutt around the fleet suggested the Admiralty expected war to break out within the year, although cynics wondered if the whole collection of rumours was an attempt to justify the latest military budget as it fought its way through Parliament. It was true enough that the Royal Navy had claimed a larger share of the budget ever since the Commonwealth had come into existence, but it didn't take superdreadnaughts to provide convoy protection and hunt down pirate bases. That was a task for frigates or destroyers.

“The latest weather report suggested the presence of a storm moving towards us in hyperspace,” Lieutenant Nicola Robertson said. The Navigator looked uncommonly nervous, although that wasn't too surprising. Predicting the course and duration of energy storms in hyperspace was more a matter of lucky guessing and consulting tea leaves rather than good reliable science. “We may have to add an extra week to our journey to avoid brushing up against its edges.”

William held his breath, wondering how the Captain would respond. Some Captains would have understood the point, others would have snapped at the imprudent officer who had dared to question their arrangements. Which one, he asked himself, was Captain Falcone?

“Better to take a week longer to reach our destination than try to fly through a storm,” Captain Falcone said, simply. She gave Lieutenant Robertson a reassuring smile. “I would prefer not to test the ship’s hull in a storm.”

Thank God, William thought. In theory, a low-level storm could be navigated through as easily as an aircar would fly through turbulence in a planetary atmosphere. But in practice hardly anyone would take the risk if it could be avoided. And a high-level storm would rip the ship apart so thoroughly that no one would ever find any wreckage, even a few stray atoms. The Captain, at least, understood the basic realities of travel through hyperspace, unlike some of his former commanding officers. They had seemed to think that their will bent the laws of time and space themselves.

He nodded at Nicola, who looked relieved. She was young – like most Navigators, she had learned her trade at Bendix Base, rather than Piker’s Peak – and had very little grasp of military formality. Technically, she wasn't even in the line of command. William had a private suspicion that her informality would get her into trouble one day, although he intended to ensure it didn't happen on his watch. And she was pretty enough to get into a different kind of trouble on shore leave.

Lieutenant-Commander Roach cleared his throat. “Captain,” he said carefully, “are any other warships being assigned to the convoy?”

The Captain’s face darkened. “No,” she said. “The freighters have a handful of weapons mounts apiece, but we’re the only true warship.”

William nodded to himself in approval. The Captain understood the implications. Judging from the level of communications traffic between Lightning and Naval HQ, she’d also tried to argue with her superiors, requesting additional support. But she’d clearly failed.

Roach put it into words. “Captain,” he said, “we couldn't guarantee security for nine freighters in hyperspace.”

“I know,” the Captain said. Her mouth twisted, as though she had bitten into a lemon. “We might lose one of our ships in a distortion zone and never realise it.”

She was right, William knew. Hyperspace played merry hell with sensors, particularly long-range sensors. It was quite possible for a pirate ship to shadow the convoy, satisfy itself that it could pick off one of the freighters, then attack during an energy distortion that would make it impossible to tell that something had gone wrong. It would be hours before the freighter failed to check in, at which point it would be countless light years away, being looted by the pirates. The crew would be in for a fate worse than death.

He rather doubted their weapons would make any difference. The big corporations could afford weapons licences, cramming as many weapons into their freighter hulls as they could, but it wouldn't make their freighters effective warships. Freighters wallowed like pigs in mud, their sensors and shields rarely military-grade ... hell, there were restrictions on selling military-grade technology to civilians, even the big corporations. There was just too great a chance of it falling into very unfriendly hands.

And it was starting to look as though someone had set the Captain up to fail.

“We cannot hope to hide the convoy,” the Captain said. “The scheduled departure date cannot be put back any further. Anyone with eyes on the system will be able to track our numbers, course and speed, then make a rough estimate of our location. And ten ships are easier to locate in hyperspace than one.”

She took a breath. It was easy to see she was nervous. “I plan to turn our weakness into a strength,” she continued. “Standard doctrine places the escorting warship at the prow of the convoy. I intend to place us at the rear. We will pose as a freighter.”

There was a long pause. No one spoke.

William evaluated it rapidly. It was risky, he had to admit; if they ran into an ambush, the first freighters would be hammered before Lightning even realised they were under attack. But few pirates would dare to take on a heavy cruiser, even if they thought they had the firepower advantage – and few pirate groups had anything larger than a frigate under their command. It was much more likely that they would try to pick off the freighter at the rear of the convoy, rather than challenge Lightning directly ...

And, if the Captain’s plan worked, they would run right into a heavy cruiser instead.

“Workable,” he said. “Do you intend to use drones to ensure that any observers see us at the prow of the convoy?”

“One of the freighters carries a modified ECM package,” the Captain said, briskly. “The Mother’s Milk will pose as Lightning. She wouldn't fool anyone in normal space, but in hyperspace sensors are unreliable enough to create reasonable doubt.”

She smiled, coldly. “Maybe next time we can have all the freighters posing as warships,” she added. “Make them guess which of us is the real warship.”

“The odds would favour them,” William pointed out.

“We could run a pair of drones forward, if we mounted a control station on Mother’s Milk,” Roach offered. “Their sensors would give us some additional warning if anyone took up position in front of us.”

“Costly,” William pointed out. Drones configured to work in hyperspace cost a cool five million crowns apiece. The beancounters would be furious, even if the drones were recovered and recycled. “They might garnish your wages to pay for them.”

“But worthwhile,” the Captain said. “See to it.”

William made a note of it on his terminal, thinking hard. The Captain was from an aristocratic family. She would, if the scandal pages were accurate, have a trust fund, a share in the family’s wealth for her to use as she pleased. Was hers large enough to afford a five million crown drone? It was unlikely she needed her monthly paycheck to live a life of reasonable luxury ... he felt a flicker of envy. Growing up on Hebrides had been far from easy. If his brother hadn't ...

He shook his head, forcing the thought to one side. Memories of his brother and what he’d done to feed the family still brought stabs of pain and guilt. Thirty years in the Royal Navy had never quite healed the scars.

“We could also follow a more evasive course,” Lieutenant Robertson suggested. “If we went off the normal shipping lanes ...”

“Too great a risk of losing one of the freighters,” the Captain said, so quickly that it was clear she’d already considered the possibility. “We couldn't take the chance.”

“They would have real problems picking up the navigational beacons,” William agreed. “Not every ship has a skilled navigator.”

Robertson blushed, as he’d hoped, rather than looking crushed.

The Captain cleared her throat. “I will not shed any tears for a destroyed raider,” she said, firmly. “However, I intend to capture a raider intact if possible, along with her crew. I have” – her face twisted in disgust – “authority to offer them life on a penal world if they surrender once we have them at gunpoint.”

William shared her feelings. Pirates were the scum of the universe, as far as any naval officer was concerned, and the Royal Navy had legal authority to simply execute captured pirates on the spot. In some ways, it was counterproductive – there was rarely any attempt to interrogate prisoners before shoving them out the airlock – but few pirates actually knew anything useful. Their senior officers, well aware of what fate awaited them, often fought to the death.

“There has been a considerable upsurge in raider activity recently,” the Captain continued, before anyone could muster an objection. “We need to know if a foreign power” – there could be no doubt which one she meant – “has been supporting the raiders for reasons of their own. Prisoners may be the only way to obtain hard evidence.”

There was a long silence. Roach finally broke it.

“Captain,” he said, “what will happen to the prisoners if they’re not going to be spaced?”

“They will be held in the brig, then transported to Nightmare,” the Captain said, flatly. “Once they’re on the surface they can work or die.”

Roach looked pleased, William noted. Nightmare was a marginally-habitable planet, its original settlers fighting a losing battle to survive when they’d been rediscovered. The Commonwealth had transported most of the settlers to another world, then turned Nightmare into a penal colony. It was possible that the prisoners could master their new world, the government had argued at the time, eventually creating another member world for the Commonwealth. And if they killed each other there ... well, they wouldn't be hurting innocents. Everyone who was exiled to Nightmare thoroughly deserved it.

The Captain gave them a moment to assimilate what she’d said, then went on.

“We will take tomorrow as downtime,” she said, “then prepare for departure. There’s no time for shore leave, I’m afraid, but there will be reduced duty hours for almost all of the crew. Please don’t overindulge in the still I’m not supposed to know about.”

William concerned his amusement with an effort. There was always a semi-legal still on a naval vessel, producing alcohol that was barely suitable for human consumption. It was tolerated as long as the operators didn't do anything stupid, but it was generally the XO’s responsibility to keep an eye on it. The Captain was not meant to know anything – officially – about the still. But she’d been an XO herself not too long ago.

The Captain rose to her feet. “Dismissed,” she said, as her officers rose. “Mr. XO; please remain a moment.”

She waited until the conference room was empty, then turned to face him. “I want you to take some rest too,” she said, firmly. “You’ve been pulling double duty since you were assigned to Lightning.”

“It’s part of the job,” William said.

“I know,” the Captain pointed out. “But you’re working yourself to death.”

William shrugged, expressively. A few days of leave would be enough to go to the I&I station, or perhaps a more expensive holiday on Tyre if he’d felt like stretching his legs. Or he could have hired a hotel room and just slept for several days, or found someone young, female and willing to share his bed. But a day wasn't enough to do anything, apart from relaxing in his cabin or watching entertainment flicks. He hadn't been brought up to be lazy.

“If that’s an order,” he said, “I will obey. But ...”

“It is an order,” the Captain said. There was a thin smile on her face. She’d probably been very like him when she’d been an XO. “Get some rest, Bill. You need it.”

“Bill,” William repeated. The nickname brought back bad memories. His brother had always called him Bill – or worse. “Please just call me William, Captain.”

The Captain gave him a sharp look, but nodded. “Get some rest, William,” she repeated. “I think there will be little time for resting when we’re on our way.”

William saluted, then left the compartment. The hatch hissed closed behind him.

Outside, he stopped and considered, briefly. He’d worried about the Captain. He knew he had good reason to worry about the Captain. But perhaps he’d been wrong. Perhaps it wouldn't be so bad after all.
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Chapter Six

The bridge looked and felt different as Kat stepped through the hatch and walked towards her command chair. All of the consoles were manned this time, each one installed, then checked and checked again until the engineers were absolutely certain they were working perfectly. She felt the hum of the starship’s drives, a constant background noise ever since the fusion plants had been activated for the first time, grow stronger as the Chief Engineer ran his final checks. Lightning was finally ready to separate herself from the shipyard and head into deep space.

She settled back in her command chair, trying to control the mounting excitement within her heart. This was her ship. She’d sat in command chairs before, stood watches and even held command for days at a time, but none of those ships were hers. Lightning was her ship and she was finally ready to leave. She forced herself to calm down as she keyed the console, then looked up at the display. Lightning still sat in the midst of the independent shipyard, like a baby attached to her mother. That was about to change.

Bracing herself, she activated the internal communicator. “Mr. Lynn,” she said, formally. “Status report.”

“All systems are green, Captain,” the Chief Engineer said. She’d had a dozen meetings with him since they’d first met and he’d impressed her with his competence. At least he didn't seem to be one of the engineers who inflated his estimated repair times to make himself look like a miracle worker. “Our fusion plants are online, drive harmonics are nominal and the vortex generator is at optimal readiness.”

“Good,” Kat said. She looked up at Commander McElney. “Mr. XO?”

“All stations report ready,” her XO said. His face was impassive, but she thought she detected a hint of concern. No one could forget just how much bad luck had struck Lightning’s predecessor. “We are ready to separate from the shipyard.”

Kat took a long breath. “Check the tubes, then seal all airlocks,” she ordered. No one would be in the tubes now, not after the alert had sounded, but they had to take precautions anyway, just in case. Besides, overlooking safety precautions was a bad habit. “And then prepare to cut the power lines.”

Minutes ticked away before the XO spoke again. “Captain,” he said formally, “all tubes are cleared. The airlocks are sealed.”

“Cut the power lines,” Kat ordered. Previously, her ship had drawn its power from the shipyard’s fusion cores. Now, she would be completely reliant on her own reactors for power. “Engineering?”

“These beauties took the strain without even dimming the lights,” Lynn pronounced. “All power cores are functioning optimally. Battery power is held in reserve.”

Kat had to smile. Keeping the lights on was hardly a significant demand, not compared to the ship’s drives or weapons. They could have operated the lights through batteries alone for days, if necessary. But it was good to know there hadn't been any minor problems. They were often warning signs of greater problems in the future.

“Disengage from the tubes,” she ordered, softly. “And then prepare to take us out of the yard.”

“Manoeuvring thrusters online,” Lieutenant Samuel Weiberg reported. The helmsman looked disgustingly confident in his skills, but he had reason to be. “Drive field generators standing by.”

A faint shiver ran through the hull, so faint that Kat wondered if she’d imagined it.

“Tubes disengaged,” her XO said. “We will be clear to depart in five minutes.”

Kat felt her heartbeat racing in her chest, thumping so loudly that it was a wonder no one else could hear it. Her ship was finally ready to depart ... she braced herself, mentally counting down the seconds. Suddenly, she just couldn't wait.

“The shipyard just signalled us,” Linda Ross reported. The communications officer looked up from her console, her gaze meeting Kat’s. “We are cleared to depart.”

“Take us out,” Kat ordered.

A dull quiver ran through the ship as the manoeuvring thrusters fired, slowly pushing Lightning out of the shipyard and into open space. The quivering grew stronger as the helmsman checked and rechecked his systems, knowing that a single mistake could have disastrous consequences if he didn't catch it in time. Drive fields were so much simpler, Kat knew, as she watched him work, but bringing a drive field up within a shipyard would tear the complex apart. They would have to wait until they were in open space before powering up the drives and leaving the system behind.

She watched the display until they were outside the shipyard, then keyed her console. “Mr. Lynn?”

“Drive nodes are online,” the engineer said. “You may bring the drives to full power at will.”

Kat smiled. “Bring up the drive,” she ordered. “And then run a full cycle of tests before we go anyway.”

“Aye, aye, Captain,” the helmsman said. Another quiver, stronger this time, ran through the entire ship. The background noise deepened for a long moment, then returned to the steady thrumming that had pervaded the entire ship since the fusion cores were activated. “Drive online ... field active in twenty seconds.”

Kat held her breath. This, she remembered, was where Uncanny had suffered her first major systems failure. Her drive nodes had proved utterly unequal to the strain placed on them and blown, one by one, leaving the starship tumbling helplessly through space. After that, she was mildly surprised the navy had kept the ship in commission, let alone built a second cruiser to the same – if somewhat modified – specifications. She felt tension rise on the bridge as the ship quivered, a faint sensation spreading through the hull, then settled down.

“Drive field active, seventy percent power,” Weiberg informed her. “All systems appear to be handling the strain.”

The XO looked relieved. Kat didn't blame him. Quite apart from the potential for disaster, a repeat of the Uncanny debacle would probably have destroyed both of their careers. The last she’d heard, almost everyone who had served on Uncanny as senior officers had left the navy, although not all of them had had their careers blighted. They’d no longer felt like pushing their luck.

“Good,” Kat said. She took a breath, then leaned forward. “Bring us up to one hundred percent power.”

The quivering grew stronger as the ship shook herself down, but the status lights remained green. Lightning wanted to move, Kat realised; she’d been in the shipyard far too long. And now she was in open space.

“Take us towards the convoy,” she ordered. Briefly, she wondered what the Admiralty would have told the merchantmen if Lightning had been unable to escort them. Probably detached a cruiser from Home Fleet to do the honours. “Mr. XO?”

“All stations report full readiness,” the XO said. “No problems detected.”

Kat smiled and sat back in her command chair as her ship sliced through the vacuum of space, heading towards the gathering convoy. The quivering was almost completely gone now, even though the starship was operating at full power. She glanced down at the constant stream of updates from the datanet and felt a wave of relief as she realised that most of the bugs that had crippled Uncanny had been removed. At least the navy had learned from the disaster, she noted. She'd always had the impression the navy was slow to learn, let alone incorporate changes into later generations of starships.

But Uncanny lost power in front of a horde of dignitaries, she reminded herself. King Hadrian himself had been there. No one could be allowed to sweep such a balls-up under the table.

She leaned back and studied the long-range sensors as they came to life, feeding data into her personal display. Tyre was one of the most heavily industrialised star systems in the known galaxy and it showed. Her sensors tracked asteroid miners, remote industrial nodes, cloudscoops for mining HE3 from the gas giants and thousands of spacecraft or starships, making their way to and from high orbit. Tyre itself was surrounded with orbital defences, including thirteen massive battlestations and countless remote platforms. It all looked so safe and impregnable.

Earth felt the same way, she thought, feeling cold ice running down her spine. Who knows what will happen when the system comes under attack?

She shivered. Before the Breakaway Wars, the UN had believed humanity’s homeworld to be untouchable. They’d found out the hard way they were wrong and they hadn't lived long enough to correct their error. And now, all that was left of the once-proud Sol System was a handful of asteroid settlements, struggling to survive against the odds. The UN and most of the worlds that had taken the lead in fighting it were long gone.

“Approaching convoy waypoint,” Weiberg reported. On the display, the nine freighters were coming into view, grouped around a small trade station. There was a faint hint of amusement in his voice. “Request permission to slow down.”

“Granted,” Kat said. Had she ever been that young? She looked towards Lieutenant Ross. “Contact the Convoy Master. If they’re ready to depart, we might as well leave the system at once.”

She waited for the response, silently regretting the lack of a formal launching ceremony. Lightning had been commissioned weeks ago, of course, but it would still have been nice to have a formal ceremony. But the Uncanny disaster had ensured that her sister would have a far less public launch and departure. There had been so many questions asked in Parliament that the navy had bent over backwards to avoid publicity. Kat didn't mind – there would have been questions about her qualifications she would have found hard to avoid – but her crew deserved better.

“The Convoy Master reports that his ships will be ready to depart in twenty minutes,” Lieutenant Ross said. “They have to bring up their own drives.”

Idiot, Kat told herself, sharply. A freighter – even one of the most modern freighters in the galaxy – could hardly afford to keep its drive field active at all times. The wear and tear on the drive nodes would cost them thousands of crowns to fix, if the drives didn’t fail completely while they were in hyperspace. You should know better.

She turned to look at the tactical officer. “Raise shields,” she ordered. “Cycle the weapons systems; bring us to full tactical alert.”

Alarms howled through the ship as the crew raced to combat stations. They’d run endless drills while they were in the shipyard, but this was different. Kat watched as the starship’s shields snapped into existence, silently relieved that the navy designers had indulged their usual desire for multiple redundancy. Lightning could take a great deal of damage and still maintain her shields. But she wished there was more time for a live-fire exercise.

“Shields and weapons at one hundred percent efficiency,” Roach reported, after several minutes had passed. “Long-range tactical sensors active; passive sensors active. Running tracking exercises now.”

Kat allowed herself a moment of relief. At least they could fight, if they ran into problems. A skirmish in hyperspace was always chancy, no matter what they were facing, but she would have hated to go into battle and then discover her weapons didn't work. It was dangerous enough to use energy weapon in hyperspace at the best of times.

“Good,” she said. “Stand down from combat stations, then devise a set of exercises for when we reach Cadiz. There should be some harmless asteroids in the system we can use for target practice.”

“There should be drones too,” the XO put in.

His voice was impassive, but Kat thought she sensed doubt in his tone. Cadiz Naval Base was on the front lines of the war everyone knew was coming. 7th Fleet should be training every day, running live-five exercises constantly, despite the cost. But she’d checked the shipping manifests and noted that Admiral Morrison hadn't requested any replacement drones from Naval HQ. It was just possible, she supposed, that his techs had managed to salvage all the drones, but she wouldn't have put money on it. No matter how good the techs were, one or two drones per exercise were always a write-off.

She gritted her teeth. It was far more likely Admiral Morrison wasn't running any training exercises – and that was absurd. Didn't he know there was a war on its way?

Lieutenant Ross cleared her throat. “Captain, the Convoy Master reports that his ships are ready for departure,” she said. “He would like to know if we intend to open a vortex for the merchantmen.”

Kat tapped her console. “Engineering, this is the Captain,” she said. She wasn't surprised by the request. Each use of a vortex generator cut its lifespan by several months ... and they were staggeringly expensive. She didn't blame the civilians for wanting to rely on a military ship to open the pathway into hyperspace. “Can we hold a vortex open long enough for the merchantmen to enter hyperspace?”

“Yes, Captain,” Lynn assured her. “We should have more than enough power to hold the gate open for ten minutes, if necessary.”

Kat nodded, then closed the channel and turned back to the helmsman. “Plot the gate coordinates, then pass them to the convoy,” she ordered. “We’ll follow them into hyperspace, closing the gate behind us.”

“Aye, aye, Captain,” Weiberg said. He worked his console for a long moment, designating a location several thousand kilometres from the station. Opening a gate close to a large structure was asking for trouble. “Gate coordinates set.”

“Take us there,” Kat ordered. Lightning started to move, followed by her nine charges. She had to wince as she saw what passed for a formation among the civilians, then shook her head ruefully. This wasn't a parade. “Lieutenant Ross?”

Ross turned to look at her. “Captain?”

“Transmit a formal departure notification to System Command,” Kat ordered. It was unlikely that System Command would object to their departure, not after they’d received orders to leave as quickly as possible, but the signal had to be sent. “Attach a full copy of our readiness status and the test results from our final trials.”

And let them know the ghost of Uncanny didn't put in an appearance, she thought, silently. It wasn’t something she could attach to an official communication. She’d send a private note to the Admiralty later. They should have sent someone to give us a proper farewell, no matter what I wanted. The crew deserved better.

“We are in position, Captain,” Weiberg informed her. “Vortex generator is online; coordinates locked.”

Kat looked up and met her XO’s eyes, then looked back at the display. “Open the vortex,” she ordered. It was time to leave. “And hold it open as long as possible.”

Space seemed to twist in front of the starship, a blaze of light rapidly spinning into a tear in the fabric of space and time. She saw the eerie lights of hyperspace peeking through, like something from a very different universe, then forced herself to relax as the first of the freighters went through the vortex. There were people who refused to watch as their ship passed through, claiming the vortex was actually a giant mouth waiting to swallow them, but she’d never had that problem. All she felt was relief at getting underway and leaving Tyre far behind.

“The last of the freighters has passed through,” Roach reported. The tactical officer sounded amused. “They’re heading towards the first waypoint now.”

“Take us through,” Kat ordered. There was a faint sensation of ...wrongness as they passed through the vortex, which rapidly faded away to nothingness. A handful of people had problems in hyperspace, but none of them joined the navy. They stayed firmly on the ground or made the trip in stasis. “Status report?”

“The vortex generator performed splendidly,” Lynn stated. The engineer sounded pleased with himself. “We didn't need to activate any of the secondary power systems at all.”

“Excellent,” Kat said. She watched as the vortex faded away into nothingness, leaving them in hyperspace. Her sensors insisted that there was no one close enough to follow her ships, let alone pick up on her deployments. “Communications, pass the deployment plan to the Convoy Master.”

“Aye, aye, Captain,” Ross said.

Kat turned to the XO. “Have the shuttle launched,” she added. They’d loaded the shuttle with command and control systems for the drones prior to leaving the shipyard, but she hadn't risked informing the Convoy Master of what she had planned. “Once the equipment is mounted, launch two drones to provide additional sensor coverage.”

“Aye, Captain,” the XO said.

Kat watched him leave, then turned her attention to the display. Hyperspace was always relatively calm near a star, although only an idiot or a suicidal fool would try to fly through the area of hyperspace that corresponded to the location of a star in the real world. It would get much worse as they headed away from Tyre, she knew; even short-range communications would become erratic. And who knew who might be following them, relying on hyperspace to cloak their presence? The pirates just had to get lucky once to secure a hard lock on her hulls.

“The Convoy Master ... ah, sounds a little astonished,” Ross reported. No amount of control could hide the nervousness in her voice. It was her first posting as Communications Officer, after all. “But he says he will comply.”

Doubts my sanity, Kat translated to herself. She had a feeling his response had been rude, too rude for any officer to dare repeating. God knew she’d done the same as a junior officer. But as long as he does as he is told, it doesn't matter.

“Take us to our position,” she ordered. The freighters were already forming up, although their formation was, if anything, even less orderly than their formation in realspace. “And then we can start our journey to Cadiz.”

And see what comes crawling out after us, she added, mentally.
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Chapter Seven

“You seem to have forgotten how to spar,” Davidson said. “How terrible.”

Kat lay on her back on the mat, wondering if it was worth getting up. Davidson had taught her how to spar, years ago, but she’d never had the time to become one of the navy’s martial artists. Indeed, being able to kill a man with a single blow wasn't a valued skill on the bridge of a starship. It did build confidence, she had to admit, but little else.

“It’s been too long,” she muttered, as she sat upright. Her entire body was covered in sweat, while her muscles ached in pain. “I should have sparred more.”

“That is evident,” Davidson said. He stuck out a hand to help her to her feet. “You’ve really let yourself go.”

Kat glowered at him as she stood upright. Her body, thanks to genetic engineering, didn’t decay as far or as fast as a baseline human, but she still needed to exercise regularly just to keep herself in shape. She rather suspected that the engineers had been more interested in designing her for beauty rather than endurance, although the former was often a matter of taste while the latter required far more extensive enhancement. But she’d refrained from looking into their files, fearful of what she might find. She loved her father dearly, at least when he wasn't interfering with her life, yet she had no illusions about his ruthlessness.

“You should have more practice sessions,” Davidson warned, as he let go of her hand and reached for a towel. “What would you do if we were boarded by a bunch of scurvy pirates?”

“Shoot them with my pistol,” Kat said. “Have you ever fought hand-to-hand on a pirate ship?”

“I had a sucker come at me with an axe once,” Davidson said. He passed her the towel and reached for another one for himself. “I don’t know what era he thought he was living in.”

Kat dried the sweat off her body, then looked around, silently grateful that Davidson had picked a private sparring chamber for their exercise. She didn't want to show any form of weakness in front of the crew, even though cold logic suggested that anyone who had endured Boot Camp should be able to handle someone who hadn't. Besides, she had a feeling that Davidson hadn't wanted his Marines to see either. Their relationship was closer than it should have been.

“He was probably drunk or drugged,” she said, as she walked through the hatch and into the shower. Water cascaded down from high overhead as she pulled off her exercise clothes, dropping them into the cleaning bin. “Or maybe he thought he could catch you by surprise.”

“It would be more impressive if I hadn't been wearing armour,” Davidson conceded, as he followed her into the shower. “Do you want me to scrub you down?”

Kat felt her face heat. Modesty was impossible to maintain at Piker’s Peak, where the cadets were bunked together without regard for age or sex. And Davidson had seen her naked countless times before, back when she’d been a mere Midshipwomen. It was a tempting offer – her body remembered his touch far too well – but she knew she couldn't allow it, not now. They were senior officers, not junior crew.

“No, thank you,” she said, as she washed the sweat off her body. “I’m sorry, but ...”

Davidson didn't show any signs of obvious regret when she turned to look at him. If anything, she noted, he was more muscular than before, but he’d picked up a handful of nasty scars on his chest. Marines kept their scars, she recalled him telling her, even when modern medical science could leave their skin as smooth and untouched as a baby’s bottom. It was how they kept score.

“I don’t remember that scar,” she said. “How did you get it?”

“Some bastard planted an IED far too close to the Rover,” Davidson explained. “I got slammed in the chest by the wreckage and sent howling to the ground. If I’d been wearing my armour ...”

Kat nodded. Marine armour was almost impossible to penetrate without heavy weapons, but it was also hellishly intimidating, not the sort of thing that should be used when the Marines were trying to win hearts and minds. Davidson’s other enhancements were under the skin, impossible to detect without a deep scan. Some of them, she knew, were so highly classified that no one outside the Royal Marines was supposed to know about their mere existence, let alone what they actually did.

She felt his gaze passing over her body. “You’re still perfect,” he said. “You didn't pick up a single scar?”

“They faded quickly,” Kat said. Her body didn't allow scars to last for more than a few weeks. She might spend a long time healing, but anything that didn't kill her outright wouldn't inflict permanent damage. Or so she had been told. “I don’t have the ego required to show off my cuts and bruises.”

Davidson smirked. “Paper cuts and coffee stains?”

Kat gave him a one-fingered gesture. “Vacuum scars and plasma burns,” she said, remembering a major systems failure on Thunderous. She’d spent a week in sickbay afterwards, having the damage repaired. “I don’t think I could hack it as a groundpounder.”

“You have the bloody-minded determination to press on until you get killed,” Davidson said, snidely. “Everything else would come, in time.”

Kat shook her head, then stepped out of the shower into the drying room. She picked up a towel and dried herself swiftly, then reached for the small pile of clothes she’d left on the bench. Part of her was very tempted, she knew, just to turn and take Davidson into her arms. They both knew there would be no strings attached. But she knew better than to allow it, not now. She was the ship’s commander. It was quite possible she would have to order him to his death.

She shivered at the thought as she pulled on her panties and bra, then donned her trousers and jacket as Davidson joined her. He dressed himself with formidable speed – he’d always had that habit, she recalled – then sat down on the bench. Kat checked her appearance in the mirror, decided she passed muster, then sat down facing him.

“I meant to ask,” she said. “How are your Marines coping with shipboard life?”

“They’re surviving,” Davidson said. he smiled, suddenly. “And they’re glad of the chance to practice boarding starships.”

Kat had to smile. The Convoy Master had been hearing from his subordinate captains and he’d passed their complaints on to Kat. She wasn't surprised – no civilian starship crews enjoyed seeing Marines prowling through their ships – but it wasn't something she intended to stop. Given where the ships were going, afterwards, she wanted to make sure they were searched thoroughly before they were allowed to leave.

“Anyone would think they had something to hide,” she mused.

“Oh, they do,” Davidson said. He shrugged at her expression. “There’s always a market for smuggled goods, Kat. Something as simple as the latest AV recording or bootleg flick will bring in thousands of crowns, if sold to the right distributor. And then pornography from Tyre or Paradise will fetch a high price on one of the dourer worlds in the Commonwealth.”

“True,” Kat agreed. “Though I don’t see what people enjoy about modern music.”

The thought made her smile. Cindy had patronised – in all senses of the word – a dozen up and coming musicians, often lobbying her father to use his influence to keep others from pirating their music. But it was a losing battle. There might be stars who were famous on a particular planet, yet they rarely saw any royalties from anywhere outside the system. It was just too easy for a starship crewman to copy their records, upload them to the datanet on a different planet and then start distributing them. Their father had eventually banned Cindy from speaking to him outside family gatherings.

“Everyone has different tastes,” Davidson said. He paused. “It’s a little more dangerous for those freighter crews, though.”

Kat nodded, sourly. Years ago, a freighter crew had been arrested and jailed by the Theocracy’s enforcers for daring to bring pornography into the Theocracy. There had been no evidence that the crew had intended to distribute the porn, but it hadn't mattered. The Commonwealth had had to make a number of increasingly sharp diplomatic protests before the crew was finally released. They hadn't had a good time while prisoners.

“I hope you warned them,” she said.

“Oh, we did,” Davidson said. “Porn isn't illegal within the Commonwealth. But the Theocracy ...”

Kat understood. They’d all heard from the refugees. Anything the Theocracy didn't like was destroyed, starting with religious sites and eventually including schools for girls and mixed-sex gatherings. The Theocracy had picked up the worst, she sometimes thought, of its predecessors as well as the best. If they genuinely believed God would only grant them victory if they worked for it ... they might well be very dangerous opponents.

She stood. “I have paperwork to do,” she said, dryly. “I wish we had more time to just chat.”

Davidson gave her a sly look. “Shore leave on Cadiz?”

“Only if you let me borrow a suit of armour,” Kat said. She rather doubted the entire planet was dangerous, but she knew better than to take chances. “Don’t let anyone’s complaints slow you down.”

William read the latest series of complaints from the Convoy Master with a rather jaundiced eye. The man didn't seem to have any sense of proportion; first, he complained about the Marines poking their way through his ships, then demanded compensation for the fuss and upset. Given that most of his crews actually had very little to do until they reached Cadiz, William rather suspected the Convoy Master was trying to hide something. Or perhaps he just resented having Marines tramping through his ships.

Sighing, he looked up at the bridge display, half-hoping that something would happen to spare him the monotony of endless paperwork. But there was nothing on the display, apart from the nine freighters and the live feed from the drones in front of them. Operating them at such a remove was tricky – yet another source of complaints from the Convoy Master – but he had to admit the idea had worked out well. If there was someone lurking ahead of them, the drones would spot them before they realised they’d discovered the convoy.

He put the complaints to one side, promising himself that he would write out a proper response later, then turned his attention to the personnel reports. Department heads always waited until they were in hyperspace to do the reports, which wasn't entirely a bad sign. If there had been a crewman who was a real problem, he or she would have been reported before they left the spacedock. The absence of such a report was heartening. But it was clear, as he skimmed through the reports with a practiced eye, that there was at least one problem that might need his intervention.

“Idiots,” he muttered, under his breath. It always happened, no matter what he said or did – or anyone else, for that matter. “There’s always one idiot – and someone ready to take advantage of an idiot.”

It was surprising how certain indicative patterns could appear in the data. The navy automatically held half of its wages in reserve, in the Naval Bank, but the other half was always transferred to the starship’s database. A crewman’s bank balance could be accessed anywhere in the Commonwealth – or onboard ship – and used for anything from souvenirs to small luxuries. Or gambling. The data in front of him suggested there was a gambling ring on the ship. And it was starting to get out of hand.

“Bloody fucking idiots,” he swore.

Roach looked up from his console, where he’d been running tactical exercises. “Sir?”

“Belay that,” William growled, annoyed at his own loss of control. “Go back to work.”

“Aye, sir,” Roach said.

William glared at his back, then worked his way through the data. He was no accountant, but there was no logical reason for repeated transfers of money from one account to another, apart from gambling. Gambling was not – technically – against regulations, where almost anything else would get the participants dishonourably discharged from the navy. It hadn't been that long ago when a Senior Chief had been convicted of running a prostitution ring on a superdreadnaught. He’d been put in front of a court martial board, then dishonourably discharged and shipped to Nightmare. His associates had served prison terms of their own.

He sighed as he finished putting the picture together. Gambling. It had to be gambling. And he was right. It was definitely getting out of control.

Shaking his head, he typed a message on his console, ordering the Senior Chief to have a few words with the gamblers. There was always one or two assholes at the centre of the ring, he knew from bitter experience, one or two crewmen cunning enough to lure inexperienced young men and women into bad habits. Perhaps this ring would be smart enough not to take it too far, something that would require his intervention, or into criminal realms. The Captain would have to become involved and there would be a full investigation. And the Navy Police would start rooting through the ship’s internal affairs to find out just what had happened and why.

His review of the remaining files passed without incident, much to his relief. The older hands, who had won that title by being assigned to Lightning as soon as she was commissioned into the King’s service, had been helping the newcomers to grow accustomed to their new ship. Meanwhile, the newly-qualified officers were doing well, apart from one who might have become ensnared by the gamblers. He made a note to speak to her if the disturbing financial transfers continued and perhaps offer a few words of fatherly advice. If there was one thing he knew from his pre-navy life, it was that the game was always rigged.

“I've completed the exercise, sir,” Roach reported, breaking into his thoughts. “It seems to work fine, Commander, but we really need more cruisers to form a full squadron.”

“And a command vessel,” William noted, as he strode over to Roach’s station. The Uncanny-class hadn't been intended to serve as command vessels. Their designers had configured them more for independent operations, pointing out that they were heavily armed and fast enough to run away from anything bigger than themselves. Given that they’d said the same about battlecruisers, William wasn't too impressed. “We’d need another ship to coordinate the datanet.”

“We might be able to reprogram the tactical computers to handle a datanet,” Roach said. “It would be risky, because we don’t have as many laser communicators as a dedicated command vessel or a superdreadnaught, but it could be done.”

William considered it for a long moment. “We’d also mark ourselves out as a target,” he warned, finally. “Every ship in the enemy fleet would fire on us.”

“Probably,” Roach agreed. He tapped his console. “But we could make the same modifications on every other starship in the squadron. We’d all look like command vessels.”

“I’m sure that would endear you to their crews,” William said. No one liked being a target, even if they were inside a superdreadnaught’s formidable shields. “But it would also make it easier to keep the datanet up and running, wouldn't it?”

“I think so,” Roach said. “Right now, losing a command vessel means losing the datanet, even for superdreadnaughts. It takes time to re-link the ships together, which give the enemy time to fire on suddenly-isolated vessels. But if we had multiple datalinks up and running, we could just switch command and control to a different starship.”

“Work out a plan,” William ordered. “Forward it to me once you’re done; we’ll go through it and see how well it holds up in the simulator.”

And then we will have to test it for real, he thought, tartly. There was no other way, short of combat, to know how well a theory would work in practice. If Admiral Morrison lets us do any exercises at all.

“Sir,” Lieutenant Robertson said. “We’re picking up a distortion zone alarmingly close to us.”

William walked over to her console and looked down at the display. No one had a real model for predicting energy shifts within hyperspace, which meant that starships might have to change course at unpredictable intervals. Flying through the distortion zone wouldn't be as bad as flying through a storm, but it would disrupt sensors and communications. It was the perfect place for an ambush.

“Pass the word to the freighters,” he ordered. The Captain had given him blanket authority to change course if he deemed it necessary. “Order them to prepare to change course to” – he studied Lieutenant Robertson’s console carefully – “to the following coordinates.”

He walked back to the command chair as the small convoy started to alter course. The distortion zone was growing stronger, he noted, sweeping towards the convoy like an ever-expanding storm. Scientists sometimes wondered if the starships in hyperspace actually attracted storms and distortion zones. They sometimes did seem to blow up out of nowhere and overwhelm passing ships.

“There’s going to be some disruption,” Lieutenant Robertson reported. She sounded frustrated. Tracking storms and distortions was her job, yet it was guesswork at best. “I ...”

There was a ping from Roach’s console. “Commander,” he snapped, interrupting the navigator. He would only interrupt if he thought it was urgent. “I think we have company.”

William took a look at the sensor display, then nodded. There was something out there, hidden in the distortion zone. It was impossible to be sure, but they had to assume the worst.

He keyed the console. “Red alert,” he said. “I say again, Red Alert. Captain to the bridge!”
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Chapter Eight

“Report,” Kat snapped.

Her XO was already rising from the command chair. “One starship on intercept vector,” he said. “She’s coming out of the distortion zone.”

She must have been lurking in ambush, Kat thought. It wouldn't have been too difficult for someone on Tyre to ping a signal ahead of them, inviting a pirate ship to take up position and wait for the convoy to arrive. Not bad timing on their part.

“Bring the ship to battlestations, but do not raise shields,” she ordered. Shields didn't work well in hyperspace and their mere presence would almost certainly tell the enemy that they weren't approaching a helpless freighter. “How close can they come without getting a hard visual of our hull?”

“Aye, aye, Captain,” Roach said. “They probably won’t have a good look at our hull until they’re much closer, but it’s impossible to be precise.”

Kat nodded, reluctantly. Hyperspace did weird things to sensors, even visual scanners and crude telescopes. It was possible the enemy ship would approach to point blank range before realising that something was badly wrong – and equally possible they would get a visual from thousands of kilometres away and shy off before Kat could open fire. All she could do was hope for the former.

She ran through the tactical situation in her mind as her crew raced to battlestations. The enemy ship was coming up behind the convoy, which suggested they believed Lightning was definitely at the prow of the formation. No pirate would dare tangle with a heavy cruiser if there was any way to avoid it. If they’d been right, they would definitely have a chance to pull a freighter away from the convoy before her escort noticed something was wrong.

“All stations report combat ready,” her XO said. “Weapons systems are online, ready to fire; point defence datanet online, ready to go active on your command.”

Kat smiled. They’d run exercises nearly every day since they’d left Tyre. They damn well should be at battlestations by now. She thought, briefly, of Davidson and his Marines, taking up position to aid with damage control if necessary, then pushed the thought to the back of her mind. There were more important issues to handle.

“Pass the word to the Convoy Master,” she said. She wished, suddenly, she knew the man better. But she’d resisted meeting with him after the endless barrage of complaints. “Inform him that we have company and that the convoy is to remain in formation. They are not to scatter.”

The XO nodded, without argument. Kat hadn't expected one. A single pirate ship could be handled easily – Roach could blow their unwelcome companion out of space now, if she hadn't wanted to take the pirate ship intact – but scattering would expose the convoy to any other pirate ships in the area. She looked down at the live feed from the sensors, trying to determine if there were any other pirate ships nearby, then scowled in irritation. It was impossible to be sure.

But at least there isn't anyone close enough to be noticed, she thought, relieved. We won’t have to worry about multiple enemies.

She settled back in her command chair and watched as the pirate ship slowly closed in on the rear of the convoy. The ship’s crew seemed to be playing it carefully; unless she was much mistaken, she was sure they could have caught up with her by now. But they had plenty of time to close in on their target, all the while bracing themselves to run or crash back to realspace if Lightning put in an appearance. Kat allowed herself a cold smile. She wanted the pirate ship intact, she wanted prisoners to interrogate ... but she wouldn't shed any tears of the pirate ship was accidentally blown apart or destroyed by a hyperspace storm. Pirate crews had gone far outside any standards of morality. They deserved nothing less than death.

An alarm buzzed. “They just swept us,” Roach said. “I think our ECM fooled them.”

“Prepare to fire,” Kat ordered, sharply. If the pirates had realised what Lightning actually was, they’d run. She’d only have a few minutes to kill them before hyperspace hid them from her sensors once again. “Lock weapons on target, but do not go active. I say again, do not go active.”

“Aye, aye, Captain,” Roach said. He would have kept a firm lock on the pirate ship as soon as they’d detected her, but the order had to be repeated. “Weapons locked; I say again, weapons locked.”

Kat felt her heat thumping within her chest as the pirate ship seemed to hesitate, then glided closer. They’d been fooled! ECM was always tricky, even in realspace. The slightest mistake could render one of the most expensive systems in the navy worse than useless. But it had definitely worked. The pirates still thought they were crawling towards a harmless freighter.

She thought, fast. Civilian sensors were rarely military-grade. What would be a reasonable time for the freighter they were pretending to be to detect the pirates? The pirates knew that anyone who detected them would alert their escort, which meant ... the pirates would probably issue their demands as soon as they believed they’d been detected. Ideally, they’d want to do it before their target could scream for help.

“Go active when they reach here,” she ordered, tapping a point on the display. By then, a basic civilian-grade kit should have located the pirate ship. “Sweep them, but make it look sloppy.”

Roach turned to grin. “Aye, aye, Captain.”

Kat looked up and saw the XO’s face. He looked as pleased with the situation as Kat felt – more so, in fact. Kat recalled his file and understood. Tyre had never been attacked by pirates – even during the worst days of the Breakdown, the system had been heavily defended against rogue starships – but Hebrides had been attacked several times. It hadn't been until the Royal Tyre Navy had established a permanent presence in the system that attacks had died away, leaving a legacy of bloody slaughter and slavery. No one from the XO’s homeworld would show any mercy to pirates.

Nor will I, Kat thought.

But she knew she had permission to offer the pirates their lives, in exchange for information. Life on Nightmare would be far from fun – the last report had suggested the exiles had set up small communities and were raiding each other – but it wasn't death.

We need the intelligence only they can provide, she thought, as she looked back at the holographic display. The red icon representing the pirate ship was drawing closer, while a wave of distortion was coming into view ahead of the convoy. Letting them keep their lives is a small price for actionable intelligence.

Kat gritted her teeth as the distortion washed closer. If she’d been in command of the pirate ship, she would open communications once the distortion was close enough to make it difficult to signal Lightning. They’d get their threats in first, followed by promises few spacers would believe. But if they refused to cooperate, the pirates could simply slam a missile into their hull and blow their ships into atoms. There was hope, they might think, even if they were taken as slaves.

She shuddered at the thought. She’d seen pirate slaves, men and women liberated after HMS Thomas had captured the pirate base. They’d been broken beyond repair. The lucky ones had had skills the pirates could use, so they’d been press-ganged into joining pirate crews, but the unlucky ones had been raped, then put to work as manual labourers. Human slavery and trafficking was alive and well on the edge of explored space, despite the best efforts of the more civilised powers. Even the Theocracy cooperated when it came to hunting down pirates.

“Captain,” Lieutenant Ross said. “I’m picking up a tight-beam radio signal.”

“Put it through,” Kat ordered.

“... Under the guns of a warship,” a harsh male voice said. There was so much static that it was hard, even with computer enhancement, to be entirely sure they were hearing the entire message. “You are ordered to cut your drives and prepare to be boarded. Do not attempt to alert any other ship in your convoy. If you cooperate, your lives will be spared.”

Kat’s lips twitched. Few spacers would believe promises from pirates. If she’d been a merchant skipper, she might just have tried to ram the pirate ship. It wouldn't have had a hope in hell of working in realspace, but it would definitely have had a chance in hyperspace. And even if it failed, the pirates would have been forced to blow their own prize rather than take it intact. It might cost them dearly, in the long run. Pirate economics demanded a constant supply of prizes just to feed their market.

“Tell them that we will cooperate,” she said, “as long as our lives are spared.”

Her smile grew wider. “And try to sound scared when you say it,” she added. “Let them think we’re feeling vulnerable.”

She could imagine the reaction on the pirate ship as someone young, female and apparently helpless begged for mercy. They’d probably find it funny, she knew, as well as a lure pulling them closer. If their crew hadn't been psychotic before they’d boarded their ship, they probably would be by now. Some of the men they’d tried to rescue, the ones who had been forced to work onboard the pirate ships, had been just as bad as their enslavers by the time they’d been rescued. Others had zoned out completely.

“They’re ordering us to fall back from the convoy slowly,” Lieutenant Ross reported. “And not to signal anyone else.”

“Unsurprising,” Kat commented. She looked at the helmsman. “Comply with their directive. And remember we’re posing as a freighter.”

“Aye, aye, Captain,” Weiberg said. “Reducing speed ... now.”

“Establish a tight-beam link with the Convoy Master,” Kat ordered. “Inform him of our situation and order him to keep his ships in formation. I don’t want anyone to come looking for us.”

“Aye, Captain,” Ross said.

“And order him not to reply,” Kat added, quickly. “We don’t want the pirates to hear it.”

“They might pick up our signal,” the XO warned, softly. No one else could hear him. “This is hyperspace.”

Kat nodded. Hyperspace did weird things to radio signals, no matter how carefully they were transmitted. It was quite possible that a tight beam signal would be scattered by hyperspace, allowing the enemy to pick up on it despite being on the other side of the transmitter. If that happened ... the pirate ship would probably open fire, intent on punishing the freighter that had dared defy orders. Kat would have no choice, but to kill the pirates as quickly as possible.

Seconds ticked away. It rapidly became clear that the pirates hadn’t picked up the signal.

“Picking up another signal,” Ross said. She sounded rather surprised. “They’re ordering us to hold position and be ready to greet them. All weapons are to be stowed in lockers; any onboard security systems are to be disabled.”

The XO snorted. “Who do they think we are?”

Kat had to smile. It was common for passenger liners and select shipping freighters to have onboard security systems, but rare for standard freighters to have anything beyond a safe and security locks on the computers. The pirates might have assumed the worst, though; it was a logical precaution. And the order to stow all weapons suggested they didn’t intend to take additional risks.

Or perhaps it will give them an excuse to break their agreement, she thought, grimly. But they don’t really need the excuse.

“They’re entering approach vector now,” Roach reported. “I don’t think they’re interested in maintaining plausible deniability any longer.”

“Good,” Kat said. Her lips curved into a tight smile. The game was about to come to an end. “Neither am I.”

Pirate crews had never impressed her with their intelligence, but it was unlikely they would get much closer without taking a hard look at her hull. Roach’s passive sensors were already filling in details, suggesting that the pirate ship was an old frigate, probably one dating all the way back to the Breakaway Wars. A number of such ships had gone missing after the wars had come to an end, although no one was quite sure how many. The UN had kept extensive records – every little thing had to be detailed, according to the bureaucrats who actually ran the government – but the records had been destroyed on Earth. Speculation over just how many ships remained in existence had been a common topic of conversation at Piker’s Peak.

“I have hard locks on their drive section,” Roach reported. He sounded pleased with himself. The locks had been established without needing to run an active sensor sweep. “I can pop a hammerhead missile into their ass, no problem.”

“Excellent,” Kat said. In normal space, she would have used energy weapons, but they were dangerously unpredictable in hyperspace. There was a reason most people preferred to avoid fighting battles outside realspace. “Prepare to fire on my command.”

She braced herself. One of the other reasons why fighting in hyperspace was so dangerous was that explosions tended to attract energy storms. They could score a damaging hit on their target, allowing them to board the hulk, yet an energy storm could blow up around them and destroy their target before it could be claimed. Even a hammerhead missile, a warhead designed to inflict limited damage, ran the risk of drawing a storm to them. But there was no real choice. The only other option was blowing the pirate ship into dust.

There was a ping from Roach’s console. “They swept us, Captain,” he snapped. Red lights flared on the console. “They know what we are.”

“Fire,” Kat snapped.

Lightning shivered as she launched her missile, aimed right at the enemy drive section. If they were lucky, the pirates would have no time to do anything, either return fire or take evasive action. But they hadn't been alert at all. They didn't even have their point defence on automatic, ready to blast unexpected threats out of space. The missile slammed into their rear section and detonated.

“Open a channel,” Kat ordered. She waited for the nod from Ross before speaking. “Pirate ship, this is Captain Falcone of the Royal Tyre Navy. If you give up now, without further ado, your lives will be spared. You have one minute to surrender before I blow your ship into atoms.”

There was a long pause, long enough that Kat wondered if the pirate ship had lost all power along with her drive section. A military starship shouldn't have had that problem – there would be batteries, at the very least – but it was quite possible the pirates hadn't kept up with their maintenance. Military discipline wasn't part of their lives. Besides, she knew, the ship was over a hundred years old. They might well have done a poor job of refitting her with the latest sensors and weapons systems.

She thought, rapidly. If the pirates couldn't communicate, she would have to send the Marines into the hulk, knowing the pirates could be waiting long enough for a boarding party before blowing their ship, taking the Marines out as well as their crew. Or, if they’d lost life support completely, it was equally possible that most of the crew were trapped in sealed compartments – or dead.

But we could pull evidence from their hull, if we looked, she thought.

“Picking up a weak signal,” Ross reported. “They’re begging to surrender.”

Kat keyed her console. “This is your one chance,” she said. “Cooperate with the Marines and your lives will be spared. Any resistance will result in the destruction of your vessel.”

She switched channels. “Colonel, you have permission to launch,” she told Davidson. The Marines had been waiting in their shuttles, ready to launch as soon as the pirate ship was crippled. “Good luck.”

The display updated rapidly as the shuttles arced away from Lightning, heading towards the crippled pirate ship. Kat tensed as the Marines entered weapons range, knowing that a single energy weapon could pick off the shuttle before any of the Marines even knew they were under attack. Davidson was in command, of course. Even if it had been permissible for him to remain behind, he wouldn't have done so. The thought hurt more than she’d expected. It was one of the things she’d loved about him.

“Contact the Convoy Master,” she ordered, trying to distract herself. “The convoy is to hold position until we have searched the pirate ship, then we will resume our journey to Cadiz.”

“Aye, Captain,” Ross said.

Kat’s console bleeped. “This is Davidson,” Davidson’s voice said. His voice was calm and steady, betraying no excitement or concern. “We have boarded the pirate ship. No resistance. I say again, no resistance.”

“Very good,” Kat said. She looked at the XO. “We need to put an investigative team on the pirate ship.”

“I’ll see to it,” the XO said. “With your permission, I’ll take an engineering and tactical crew with me. They’ll be able to pull information from what remains of the enemy’s computers.”

“And determine if she can be safely towed to Cadiz,” Kat agreed. Taking the ship as a prize wouldn't win the crew much in the way of prize money, but it would be something. Besides, a full team of analysts from Cadiz might discover something her crew didn't have the expertise to find. “If not, place scuttling charges and abandon the hulk. I doubt she can move under her own power now.”

“Aye, Captain,” the XO said.

Kat nodded, then smiled around the bridge. “Our first real combat test,” she said, “and you all did very well.”

She paused. “Stand down from battlestations,” she added. “But continue to monitor local space. Our friend out there may have friends of his own.”
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Chapter Nine

“You’ll want to keep your facemask on,” the Marine Rifleman said, as William climbed through the airlock and into the pirate ship. His nametag read HOBBES. “The ship stinks like a brick shithouse on a very hot day.”

“Thank you for that mental image,” William said, dryly. Marines tended to be blunt and crude, something he tended to appreciate. But not today. “Where are the prisoners?”

“They’re being held in the mess,” Hobbes said. “If you’ll come with me, sir ...”

William followed him through the dark corridor, wondering just how the pirates had managed to keep their ship operational for so long. This particular section was some considerable distance from the drive compartment, yet half of the lighting elements seemed to have been blown out, while the onboard datanet had been completely lost. Clearly, the UN’s fetish for multiple redundancy – something shared with engineers the galaxy over – hadn't endured past the ship falling into pirate hands.

The corridors looked filthy, as if the pirates had never bothered to clean their living space. He glanced into one cabin – the door had been jarred open – and saw a messy room, with datachips and bedding scattered everywhere. One bulkhead had chains hanging down towards the ground, ending in manacles. He shuddered, realising that someone had been kept prisoner in the room. Whoever it was, he hoped they’d been rescued, rather than killed. It hadn't been that long since his homeworld had been raided almost every year by pirates.

They walked into the mess. William stopped, dead. A handful of armoured Marines were guarding thirty prisoners, all men. The prisoners were lying on the deck, their hands cuffed behind their backs, their clothes largely torn from them. Some of them were whimpering to themselves, their world suddenly turned upside down. William looked down at them for a long chilling moment, then looked at Hobbes. None of the prisoners looked very impressive.

“Which one of these pieces of shit is in command?”

“The Captain is dead,” Davidson said, entering from the other hatch. His face was set in a permanent frown. “So are most of the senior officers.”

“Dead?” William repeated. “How?”

“Suicide implants,” Davidson said. He motioned for William to follow him. “That’s odd, for pirates.”

William mulled it over as they walked up the corridor and into the bridge. Pirates rarely used personalised suicide implants. They were normally only used by secret agents and military personnel. All they did was kill their user if the command was sent or if they believed the user was on the verge of spilling specific secrets to interrogators. William knew better than to trust them completely. They were perfectly capable of mistaking an accident that left someone badly hurt for torture and killing their bearer.

The bridge was a shambles. Several consoles had exploded – he’d never seen that happen outside a bad entertainment flick – and a handful of bodies lay on the deck. Two of them had clearly been sitting at the exploded consoles, judging from the wounds, but the remaining five all looked surprisingly peaceful. But it was clear they were dead. The corpsman kneeling beside one of the bodies looked up, then saluted.

“Commander,” he said, gravely. “Their brains were turned to ash, along with their implants.”

“Understood,” William said. There was no point in looking for alternate causes of death. “I assume the implants are beyond recovery?”

“Almost certainly,” the corpsman said. “I’ll have the analysts plough through the dust, but I’d be astonished if they found anything beyond traces of their presence. The damage was total.”

William looked down at the pirate commander. He was a tall man, so extensively muscled that William would have bet good money it was the result of cosmetic treatment, wearing an outfit that showed his frame off to good advantage. His belt, lying beside him, had carried two pistols, a monofilament knife and a neural whip, the latter probably used on his crewmen when they misbehaved. Pirates commanders had nothing, but force to keep their men in line.

And most of them are probably challenged by their subordinates, he thought. Assassination was a common way of moving up the ladder on a pirate ship. There was certainly no such thing as promotion for merit. He would have had to keep his men under tight control, but not too tight.

He looked around the bridge. “Why did their implants trigger? Why not simply blow the ship itself?”

“Good question,” Davidson agreed. “We did smash their datanet to hell and gone, so they might have tried to trigger the self-destruct and failed. Or there wasn’t a self-destruct in the first place. I can't imagine pirates being very willing to sail under one.”

William nodded, turning back to the Marine. “How many did we take alive?”

“Thirty-one confirmed pirates, we believe,” Davidson said, as they left the bridge and headed down another corridor. Judging by the stains on the bulkheads, the pirates had been in the habit of urinating on the deck. “Fifteen slaves, all but two female, which we are holding in this compartment. They just can't be trusted.”

“I know,” William said, as they stepped into the compartment. “Stockholm Syndrome.”

Inside, a number of women lay on the deck, their hands bound behind their backs. It wasn’t fair or right to treat them as prisoners – on his homeworld, women had been respected – but he knew there was no choice. After so long as nothing more than slaves, the prisoners might have developed a kind of loyalty to their captors, just to keep their minds from cracking completely. The male captives had been pushed against the far wall, away from the women; the Marines eyed them warily. It was quite possible that some of them were pirates posing as captives in the hopes of escape.

Or that they were forced to partake in forbidden pleasures, William knew. It was the standard treatment pirates gave to prisoners who were too valuable to sell, hold for ransom or simply put out an airlock. Once they got their hands dirty, they knew they could never go home again.

“Have them all moved to Lightning,” he ordered, bluntly. They’d probably have to be put in stasis, after the doctors had taken a look at them. Once the ship reached Cadiz, they could be transferred to a specialised medical facility. “Do we have anyone who might know anything among the prisoners?”

“Not as far as we know,” Davidson stated. “They all claim to be ordinary crewmen.”

“Have them interrogated, then transferred to stasis cells,” William said. “If they happen to know anything useful, we can follow up on it at Cadiz.”

The next hour went slowly as the investigation team carefully searched the pirate ship, finding very little apart from hundreds of pornographic datachips and plenty of evidence that the ship had been involved in dozens of attacks. Most of the main computer had been destroyed – that part of the self-destruct system had worked perfectly – and what remained was scrambled beyond immediate use. William watched as the damaged cores were removed from their compartment, knowing that the techs on Cadiz would have their work cut out for them. It was highly unlikely they’d be able to produce anything more than gibberish or standard operating files.

“None of the crew kept a journal,” Hobbes told him, as he returned to the airlock. He brandished a little black book. “Or, at least, none we could use. This book details sexual conquests, rather than anything else.”

William wasn't surprised. The military banned its personnel from keeping personal logs, knowing that enemy intelligence agents would try to access them in hopes of finding actionable intelligence. It was clear the pirates probably felt the same way too. If one of their crew had kept a journal, it might wind up being used against them. A note of a pirate base’s location alone would be disastrous.

“Add it to the evidence locker,” he said. He had no wish to read a sexual journal belonging to a pirate. “Can this ship be taken under tow?”

“The Chief Engineer believes it can be towed by one of the freighters,” Hobbes said. “But it’s hull is badly damaged. There won’t be much prize money.”

“There will be a baseline rate, if nothing else,” William pointed out. Taking a pirate ship out of commission alone was worthwhile. If any actionable intelligence was pulled out of the hulk, even on Cadiz, the crew would be in line for another bonus. “Besides, we can always melt the hull down for scrap.”

He smiled as the Marines pulled their prisoners to their feet, none too gently, and pushed them towards the airlock. Some of the pirates looked panicky as they were shoved through the hatch, as if they expected to discover the airlock opened into empty space, while others just looked resigned. They’d had enough time, he decided, to come to terms with the fact their reign of terror was over.

“Doctor,” he said, as Doctor Katy Braham entered the compartment. “What do you have to report?”

Doctor Braham – she had always insisted on being called Katy – looked grim. She’d been in the navy almost as long as William himself and she’d seen more than her fair share of horror, but she had always seemed optimistic. Not this time, William suspected. Pirate ships were always houses of true horror.

“All, but one of the women will require extensive rejuvenation treatments as well as counselling,” she said, bluntly. She’d never bothered to sugar-coat bad news. “The good news is that the sheer scale of their wounds implies they were definitely captives; the bad news is that they will probably have to be permanently supervised by female personnel until we reach Cadiz. Their ... conduct will leave much to be desired.”

“They attempted to come on to the Marines,” Hobbes put in.

“Thank you, young man,” Doctor Braham snapped. She glared at Hobbes, then switched her attention back to William. “They’ve had servitude beaten into them, Commander. It’s the only way they know to guarantee their safety. I don’t think they will ever return to what they were before they were captured.”

William winced. “Do we know who they were?”

“We’re running their DNA through the records now,” the Doctor said. “But I would be surprised if we found a match. Their genetic patterns don’t suggest any high-tech world.”

They could have come from Hebrides, William thought. The pirates hadn't wanted much from his homeworld, apart from food, drink and women. And the planetary government had no choice, but to send them whatever they wanted. Some of the girls had volunteered. Others ... had been drafted. Can we take them home?

Doctor Brahman cleared her throat, loudly. “The two male captives have been beaten, quite badly,” she continued. “They were worked over by professionals. The damage was not extensive or permanent, but it would have been very painful. I think we can safely assume they're not willing pirates.”

“Keep an eye on them anyway,” William ordered. Stockholm Syndrome could strike any kind of captive, no matter how badly they were treated. And if the pirates had forced their captives to get their hands dirty ... he shook his head. “And see if they memorised anything they can tell us.”

“I’ll have my staff supervise the transfer to Lightning,” the Doctor said, as though she expected objections. “I think we will probably need to put most of the former prisoners in stasis. There’s too many of them for my staff to handle.”

“See to it,” William said. He sighed. Yet another problem. “But they will need to answer questions eventually.”

He took one final walk through the pirate ship, noting the sheer lack of maintenance that had contributed to her quick defeat, then returned to the shuttles as the crew prepared to leave the pirate ship for the last time. The female prisoners, according to Davidson, had had real problems with boarding the shuttles until two of the female Marines had removed their armour. Even so, the prisoners had shied away from them. The doctors had eventually resorted to sedating them all, with the intention of leaving them out of it until the ship reached Cadiz.

“The prisoner interrogations will begin in thirty minutes,” Davidson informed him. It was a Marine chore. “Do you wish to witness?”

The honest answer was no, but William knew he should be there. “I’ll catch a cup of coffee and a shower, then join you,” he said, instead. He was ruefully aware he stunk after spending several hours on the pirate ship. “Hold the interrogation until I arrive.”

He walked back to his cabin, showered, took a long drink of coffee and then returned to Marine Country. The prisoners had been separated, ensuring they couldn't come up with a shared story to tell the Marines, although William would have been surprised if they’d managed to cooperate in any case. Pirates weren't used to cooperating with one another, no matter the prize. He forced himself to look impassive as he walked into the interrogation chamber and peered through the one-way glass.

The pirate definitely didn't look impressive, he decided, as the Marines cuffed him to the chair, then attached a pair of monitors to his forehead. He was a young man, barely out of his teens; William suspected, despite himself, that he knew the boy’s story. Like so many others, he would have viewed a career in space as more glamorous than a life behind a mule on the ground. And he would have rapidly found himself so desperate for work that he would have taken the first job that came along. It was sheer bad luck it had been on a pirate ship.

Young and impressionable, William thought. And desperate.

It was never a good combination.

“The corpsman did a quick medical check,” Davidson said, as he entered the compartment. “There are no medical issues, nor any interfering implants. It’s unlikely he knows anything of substance.”

“We’ll see,” William said. It was impossible to say in advance what would serve as a clue to lead the navy to the pirate base. The pirate might have seen something that would fit in with another piece of information from a second pirate. “I ...”

He broke off as Hobbes began the interrogation.

“These devices,” Hobbes said, “allow us to monitor your brainwaves as you respond to our questions. Should you try to lie to us we will know about it. If you try to lie to us repeatedly, we will put you in a lab and access your memories directly. This process tends to result in the victim becoming brain-dead. Do you understand me?”

The prisoner nodded, rapidly.

“Good,” Hobbes said. He stepped backwards and smiled. “Where were you born?”

“Roslyn,” the pirate said.

William watched with growing impatience as Hobbes slowly built up a baseline on the pirate’s brainwaves. It was the closest humanity had come to a perfect lie detector, he knew, but it wasn't entirely perfect, even without the problem of separating between subjective truth and objective truth. And it could be fooled by a set of implants, if the pirate had been deemed important enough to have them. Instead, it was starting to look as though he knew nothing beyond his duties. The pirates certainly hadn't bothered to tell him where they were going or where they were based.

The odd piece of data, however, concerned two men who had joined the pirate crew as senior officers. Surprisingly, they hadn't joined the pirates in their games, even when they’d had new victims for their pleasures. Instead, they’d just alternated between the bridge and their cabin while the Captain fawned on them. The pirates had suspected the newcomers were actually paying their wages, such as they were. But their commander had always discouraged questioning.

“They didn't mind if we destroyed our targets,” the pirate explained, frantically. He seemed almost desperate to help the interrogator now. It was the only way he could hope to keep his life. “We got paid anyway.”

William and Davidson exchanged glances. Pirate economics were haphazard at the best of times, but there were some understandable principles. A destroyed ship, her cargo smashed to atoms, was worthless. The pirates wouldn't be able to take her cargo to one of the poorer worlds, a place where no one would ask questions, and sell their takings. They wouldn't even be able to have fun with the crew. And they would have to replenish the weapons they’d fired. The bastards would lose money on the raid.

“That’s odd,” Davidson said. He seemed to want to say something, but held his tongue. “We need to bring this to the Captain’s attention.”

“Yes,” William agreed. He’d noticed that the Captain and Davidson spent a great deal of time together. It wasn't uncommon – the Captain could hardly confide in anyone else – but she seemed to take it to excess. “And we will, once we’ve interrogated the remaining prisoners.”

He sighed as he looked back at the prisoner, who was currently outlining some of the raids he’d seen. It was the same story, he knew; once seduced, the pirate had nowhere else to go. But he was damned if he was feeling sorry for the idiot. He could have walked away, even gone back to his homeworld. Instead, he’d made the choice to stay with the pirates and join in their atrocities wholeheartedly.

“I hope the bastard chokes on Nightmare,” he said, bitterly. It went against the grain to allow pirates to live, no matter the tactical utility. They’d done far too much to his homeworld for forgiveness. “Or that he gets killed on the surface.”

“He might well discover he’s a very small fish among sharks,” Davidson agreed. His tone was expressionless. “The very worst of the Commonwealth can be found there.”

William nodded. It wasn't death, he knew. Or at least it wasn't immediate death, meted out by his own hands. But it was close enough.
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Chapter Ten

“They were happy to destroy the ships?”

“Yes, Captain,” Davidson said. “They still got paid.”

Kat frowned. She’d been sitting in her office, writing the first report on the encounter for the Admiralty, when the XO and Davidson had requested an audience. But their report was unbelievable. What sort of pirate actually took losses on his raids?

But one of the lessons she’d had to endure from her tutors bubbled up in her mind. “The Government can subsidise a service from taxpayers money, even though the service is operated at a loss,” he’d said. “Sometimes this serves a practical purpose. The service is necessary ...”

She looked at her XO. “Someone is subsidising the pirate operations,” she said. “The two strangers on the ships might well have been working for the Theocracy.”

It made sense, she told herself. There was no logic to pirates destroying ships, but if they were actually being paid anyway, no matter the outcome, they’d be happy to smash as many freighters as they could find into atoms. The report would have to be rewritten.

“If that’s the case,” the XO said slowly, “why didn't they just launch a missile at us as soon as they had a lock on our location?”

“Greed,” Davidson speculated. “They’d have a chance to sell our hull and cargo as well as collecting their paycheck from their backers.”

“Or have their fun with the crew,” Kat added, tartly. The medical report had made horrifying reading. “But this is a worrying development.”

“Yes, Captain,” Davidson said. “It’s also problematic because we have no proof the Theocracy is behind it. There are other multi-system powers in the galaxy.”

“None as threatening as the Theocracy,” Kat countered, but she knew he was right. “What did the autopsy show?”

“Nothing we can use to identify them,” Davidson admitted. “The dead men could have come from anywhere. There’s no specific genetic traits linked to the Theocracy. They do have basic enhancements, but they couldn't be narrowed down to a single world.”

“They could have got them from anywhere,” Kat said. It would have been more surprising to encounter baseline humans in space. Even newly-contacted worlds made the effort to get medical enhancements for its population. “So we have no real proof?”

“And no way to hunt down the pirate base,” the XO said. “It could be anywhere.”

He sighed. “None of the surviving pirates know anything important,” he added. “Their hands are caked in blood, their souls stained by their crimes, yet they know nothing we can use to track their bases down and destroy them. All we can do is transfer them to Cadiz for transfer to Nightmare.”

“Put them in stasis,” Kat ordered. It was two weeks to Cadiz and she was damned if she was feeding the prisoners. They could be dropped off at Cadiz, where they would be held until the next leg of their journey. “Is there any point in continuing to sweep the pirate ship?”

“I don’t believe so,” the XO said. “The ship’s computers are smashed, her datanet is shattered and her navigational systems completely wiped. Cadiz might be able to pull something from the wreckage, but we don’t have a specialised forensic team.”

“Then have her taken in tow by one of the freighters,” Kat said. “Offer to double their pay if they do it without complaining.”

The XO smiled. “Aye, aye, Captain.”

“We should get a bonus out of this, if nothing else,” Kat added. She didn't need the prize money, but her crew would be delighted. “Please inform the crew that we will get underway in” – she checked her wristcom – “thirty minutes. Hopefully, nothing will happen until we reach Cadiz.”

It was a dismissal and William recognised it as such. He stood, saluted and marched out of the hatch. Kat watched him go, then looked at Davidson. Her former lover was smiling, slightly.

“I think he’s grown a little more accepting of you,” he said, bluntly. “You did well today, you know.”

“I had a good crew,” Kat said, automatically. She smiled at him. “Thank you.”

Davidson stood. “I’ll get the prisoners into stasis,” he said. He sighed. “One of them did show up on the records.”

Kat lifted an eyebrow. There was enough storage capacity in a single computer core to list every man, woman and child in the entire galaxy, but records were far from complete, even in the Commonwealth. She’d expected the pirate crew to come from the edge of settled space, where there were no records and plenty of worlds happy to take stolen goods, no questions asked. It was unlikely that any files from those worlds would be added to her ship’s database.

“Ronan Yedica,” Davidson said. “Child of a nagging mother and largely absentee father. Ran away from home four years ago; never found, until today. God alone knows how he ended up on a pirate ship.”

“Let him write a letter home, if he wishes,” Kat said. She understood the impulse to run away from home, but hers had been much more constructive. Surely this runaway could have applied to Piker’s Peak ... or one of the more basic training academies. There were plenty of openings for merchant spacers. “But we can't make an exception for him.”

“No,” Davidson agreed. “We can't.”

He paused. “Have you told the XO about your father’s concerns?”

Kat shook her head. It would have only heightened his sense that Kat had pulled strings to be assigned to Lightning as her commanding officer.

“Probably a good idea,” Davidson said. “But I think he’s a keen observer. You will need him at Cadiz, if what your father suspects is true.”

“I know,” Kat said, reluctantly.

Davidson gave her a smile that reminded her of their time together. “You may be the Captain,” he said, “but you’re not alone. You certainly don’t have to do everything yourself.”

“The buck stops with me,” Kat countered. The Commandant of Piker’s Peak had had that burned into every desk in the building. It had taken years for the cadets to understand its true meaning. “I can't let him risk his own career for me.”

“I think he’s loyal,” Davidson said. “And you probably upset his universe by handling the pirates so well.”

He saluted, then turned and strode out of the cabin. Kat looked back at her terminal, then started to rewrite her report. Once it was completed, she wrote out a second message for her father. It was possible her report would be lost somewhere within the bureaucratic channels, but a more direct message wouldn't go missing. At least it would serve as evidence that something was badly wrong along the border.

She sighed herself, then stood. She wanted to be on the bridge when the convoy resumed course, then start carrying out additional drills. The next pirate ship they encountered might just launch a missile at them, rather than try to take her ship intact. Or they might open fire on the prow of the convoy instead ...

We need more escorts, she thought, sourly. More light units would need to be detached from the battle squadrons for escort duties, weakening the fleets patrolling the border. And that might be precisely what they want us to do.

“I’m afraid they all had to go into stasis,” Doctor Braham said, when William entered sickbay. “I just don’t have the facilities to even begin healing them all.”

William nodded, unsurprised. “You did manage to remove the cuffs first? Or take statements?”

“Yes to the first, no to the second,” the Doctor snapped. She eyed him, unpleasantly. “I think you don’t understand just how badly they were treated. They really need to spend several weeks in a regeneration chamber, not answer questions from you or any other men.”

“I understand,” William said, quickly. Annoying the ship’s doctor was never a good idea. “Do we know who they are?”

“I didn't find a match when I ran their DNA against the records,” Katy said. She pointed to a chair on the far side of the compartment, motioning for him to sit down. “But two of them were probably from pastoral worlds. There aren't many within six months of here.”

William sat, reluctantly. “You’re sure?”

“They were baseline humans – and I mean baseline,” Katy assured him. She dragged a chair over and sat down facing him. “Someone like you has genetic enhancements and improvements, even if they’re not spliced into your bloodline. They, on the other hand, have no enhancements at all. My best guess is that their homeworld was a dumping ground for a religious sect the UN decided didn't deserve to stay on Earth.”

She folded her hands on her lap. Only someone who knew her well would have picked up the sign of tension.

“The poor girls were on the verge of death,” she added. “I’ve never seen anyone quite so riddled with disease. I’m surprised they even managed to survive the shock of being rescued.”

“Some didn't,” William said. The bodies had been found when the Marines searched the pirate ship. “What sort of idiot doesn't go for the boosted immune systems, at the very least?”

Katy frowned. “Genetic engineering hasn't always been as precise as starship engineering,” she said, after a long moment. “The early engineers often pushed ahead in hopes of developing a provable science before they were shut down by their governments. Some of their experiments produced ... horrors. Others actually laid genetic time bombs in their test subjects that wouldn't explode until their grandchildren were born.”

She shrugged. “Back then, there were strong reasons to oppose widespread genetic engineering,” she added. “There were quite a few sects dedicated to maintaining the purity of humanity’s bloodline. One of them could have founded her homeworld.”

William shook his head. Hebrides had never asked to be a low-tech world, but the Breakdown had ensured the settlers were thrown back on their own resources long before they were ready. They’d managed to hold on to some technology, yet it hadn't been enough to protect them against pirates and raiders. Or, for that matter, to avoid having most of the population working in the fields just to feed the colony. Why anyone would want to trap themselves on such a world?

But humans were strange creatures. Perhaps some of them were strange enough to want to spend the rest of their lives on a farm.

“Thank you, Doctor,” he said. The former slaves wouldn't be needed to testify against their captors, at least. “Please let me know when they are ready for transfer to Cadiz.”

“I’d be happier if they were sent to another world,” Katy said. “Cadiz is hardly the most peaceable of locations.”

“That’s where we’re going,” William said.

Katy nodded. “You’re overdue for your physical, by the way,” she added. “I need you back in here within a week.”

“I think you just enjoy poking and prodding at me,” William teased. “I’m sure regulations give me at least another two months before it becomes mandatory.”

“Only if you count from the day we left spacedock for the final time,” Katy informed him, reaching for a glove. She snapped it, meaningfully. “If I have to go hunting for you, Commander, it will be a very uncomfortable medical inspection.”

William snorted. “I’ll come back in two days,” he said. By then, any problems with the crew after the battle should have shown themselves. He didn't expect any, but the thought of prize money had been known to make crewmen do stupid things. “You’ll have the table ready?”

“Of course,” Katy said. She paused. “Was there anything else you wanted to talk about?”

“I ...”

William hesitated. Just as the Captain could talk to the senior Marine, the XO could talk to the Ship’s Doctor. They shared responsibility for the health and well-being of the crew and were expected to meet at least once a week, if only to compare notes. But he wasn't sure he wanted to talk about his personal doubts with her.

“No, thank you,” he said, finally. He stood. “I’ll see you in two days.”

He strode out of sickbay and started to walk to the bridge, then changed his mind and walked to the observation blister instead. The hatch opened at his approach, revealing the eerie lights of hyperspace. At least it wasn't occupied, he noted, as he stepped inside, the hatch hissing closed behind him. Crewmen and women had been known to use the observation blister for a little bit of privacy from time to time.

It seemed as if there was nothing between him and the hyperspace storms alarmingly close to the starship’s hull. Colours no human had been able to name flickered and flared in the darkness, clouds of glowing mist that looked almost real, if one stared at them for too long. He stepped up to the transparent blister and sighed, remembering just why he preferred living in space to a planetary surface. It was a dangerous life, as the battle they’d fought proved, but it was boundless. One day, perhaps he would buy a ship of his own and head out beyond the rim of explored space. Who knew what might be lurking out there.

He sat down on the bench, mentally reviewing the battle. The Captain had done well ... hell, she’d done very well. A pirate ship was rarely a formidable opponent for a full-sized warship, but it could easily have turned nasty. He'd known commanders who would have blown their target away at maximum range or risked allowing the pirate ship closer ... Captain Falcone had done neither. She'd handled the battle just right.

And what does that say, he asked himself, about her competence?

The thought was galling, but it had to be faced. He’d assumed the Captain had been promoted through her father pulling strings, rather than merit. No, he knew there had been a great deal of string-pulling involved. She simply didn't have the experience to be assigned to command a heavy cruiser, at least not without succeeding her commander after his death. And her conduct since assuming command proved her limited experience. Even being an XO on a battlecruiser wasn't enough to simply jump straight into a command chair.

She'd made mistakes. They had all been minor, but she’d made them. And he'd worried about what she’d do when faced with a real challenge.

But she'd come through it admirably. She’d crippled the pirate ship, captured a number of pirates and collected physical evidence that suggested someone was bankrolling the pirates, rather than taking a commission on their takings. There were other, more experienced, commanders who might not have handled it so well.

And that meant that he’d underestimated her.

It wasn't something he could talk to, not even to the Ship’s Doctor. Naval officers had no right to privacy. The Ship’s Doctor had a duty to break her oath of confidentiality if she believed one of the crewmen was a serious danger to himself or his fellows. And he wasn't sure what Doctor Braham would do if he confessed his doubts to her. Grumbling about the Captain, no matter how she'd been given the job, was a severe breach of military etiquette.

Not, in the end, that he'd mattered.

He’d been wrong about her. She was inexperienced, she needed to learn fast, but she wasn't grossly incompetent. Nor had she hidden behind her rank or her father’s title. She had acted as befitted a good commanding officer and he had to admit that, even though it was only in the privacy of his own head. And he should take it into account. The contingency plans he’d been devising to take command if necessary, an act that could be construed as mutiny if the Admiralty happened to want a scapegoat, shouldn't be taken any further. He owed her the same trust and confidence he owed every other commanding officer, at least until the man had proved himself beyond redemption.

She wouldn't be the first officer to need to learn fast upon assuming command, he thought. He’d started his career as a crewman, after all, watching the Senior Chiefs gently manipulate young officers into becoming paragons of virtue. The Army did it all the time. It was only the Marines who insisted on having everyone spent a few years as an infantryman first, before assigning them to other roles. And I need to stop being so suspicious of her.

He turned his head as the hatch opened behind him, revealing a young woman wearing a Midshipwoman’s uniform. Midshipwoman Cecelia Parkinson, he reminded himself. She was young enough to be his granddaughter, with short red hair and a freckled face. He couldn't help noting that she looked rather pale and worn, unsurprisingly. But was it the stress of going into combat or something worse?

“I’m sorry, sir,” she said, flushing. She stumbled backwards so rapidly he thought she was about to trip over her own uniform. “I thought the compartment was free.”

“I forgot to lock it,” William said. Had he ever been that young? The Captain was barely ten years older than her, yet she had far more poise and self-control. “It isn't a court martial offence to walk through an unlocked door.”

The poor girl’s face grew even redder and she muttered something incoherent.

“Don’t worry,” William said, rising to his feet. “I was just leaving.”

She opened her mouth to object, but he stepped past her and through the hatch before she could say a word. It was probably her first real chance to take a break and look out at hyperspace and he wasn't about to deprive her of it. No true officer would act in such a fashion. And besides, if he remembered what he’d seen in the files correctly, she probably needed some time to think.

Making a mental note to have a word with the Senior Chief, he strode down the corridor and back to the bridge.
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Chapter 8:

"...Kat felt her heat thumping within her chest." She gets horny anticipating violence? Might want to fix the typo.
Chapter 9:

Stockholm Syndrome is interesting, but easily treatable with basic behavioral psychology. Future tech should make it far easier to rehabilitate victims and hostages. You may want to add some kind of pharmacological agent used by the Pirates that produce the problems cited here.
Chapter Eleven

“Captain,” the XO said. “We are ten minutes away from Cadiz.”

Kat nodded, then sat. The two weeks since the pirate attack had passed almost without incident, apart from a brief sensor contact that might have been another pirate vessel – or just another random glitch thrown up by hyperspace. All they could say for certain was that the contact hadn't attempted to close the range and attack.

“The Convoy Master will be pleased,” she said. He hadn't been too happy when he’d discovered his starship had been tapped to tow the pirate hulk. “Take us back into realspace as soon as we reach optimal coordinates.”

She studied the display as Lightning and her convoy plunged towards Cadiz. Unusually, there were several semi-permanent energy storms near the planet, limiting the number of hyper-routes starships could use to reach Cadiz. There were guardships within hyperspace, monitoring constantly for incoming fleets, although she knew there would be far too many false alarms. She’d half-expected the approaches to be mined when she’d read the files, but 7th Fleet’s CO had apparently decided there was too great a risk of accidentally destroying a civilian ship. If there hadn't been a war looming, Kat would have thought he was right.

“We are entering optimal coordinates now,” Weiberg reported, breaking into her thoughts. “Vortex Generator online; ready to return to realspace.”

“Take us out,” Kat ordered. It would be a relief to see stars again, even if it marked the start of her mission. “Now.”

Space twisted in front of them, then parted, as though an angry god had torn a hole in the very fabric of reality. Kat saw stars through the rip in space, shining their light into hyperspace, before the first freighters slid through the tear and back into realspace. Her ship brought up the rear, closing the tear behind them. A odd feeling ran through the ship, a sensation no one had ever been able to fully describe, then faded away. They were back where they belonged.

“We have entered the Cadiz System,” Weiberg said, formally.

Kat looked at her XO. “Please make a note in the log,” she said. They’d moved from one command region to another. “And then transmit our IFF code to Cadiz.”

“Aye, Captain,” the XO said. Lieutenant Ross echoed him a moment later.

Kat looked at the display as the passive sensors started to suck in and process data from all over the Cadiz System. It didn't take an expert eye to realise that the system looked odd, as if it hadn’t quite followed normal development patterns. There were installations orbiting the gas giants and mining stations in the asteroids, but there were relatively few stations near Cadiz itself. The brief guide to the system she’d read during the flight had started that several corporations had actually invested in terraforming packages for Cadiz V, a Mars-type world on the very edge of the habitable zone. It was a recipe for later trouble.

She sighed. Normally, a Commonwealth world would have a unified government able to handle off-planet development – and a solid claim on their star system. Cadiz, on the other hand, had no unified government; the only power that patrolled the outer edges of their star system was the Royal Navy. Corporate investment in the system had been made without the permission of any local government, something that ensured the locals received no true benefits from their resources. It was just another problem fuelling the growing insurgency on the planet’s surface.

But we didn't have a choice, she told herself.

And her thoughts mocked her. The strong have always told themselves they have no choice, but to steal from the rich.

She rubbed her eyes. Cadiz sat directly between the Commonwealth and the Theocracy, a world that either side could use as a jumping-off point for an attack into the other’s space. It could not be allowed to remain apart from the Commonwealth, some had argued, because the Theocracy had shown no hesitation in invading worlds incapable of defending themselves. And yet the locals hadn't wanted to join the Commonwealth. They might not have been as successful as Tyre, but they had made a solid investment and intended to work towards the future on their own. But the Commonwealth, reluctantly, hadn't respected their wishes.

They called it an annexation, Kat knew, and claimed it was for their own good. But the locals weren't happy. And, because it was impossible to form a stable government, Cadiz was losing control over its own resources. Indeed, if Cadiz V became a settled world in its own right, it would just sow the seeds for more trouble in the future. Cadiz might become nothing more than an economic backwater while Cadiz V controlled the system.

The display bleeped as it picked up the starships orbiting Cadiz. Kat sucked in her breath as she saw the icons for three superdreadnaught squadrons, followed by numerous smaller icons representing cruisers, destroyers and gunboats. It looked, at first, like an unstoppable force, a gathering of the most powerful warships in the galaxy. And yet, as more and more detail appeared on the display, it became evident that something was wrong. 7th Fleet should be moving around, rather than holding the same position.

She cringed, inwardly, as she thought through the implications. There was almost no control over civilian starships moving in and out of the system. Any of them could be a spy ship, reporting to the Theocracy; they’d know precisely where to find their targets. Standard procedure was to have the fleet in constant motion, or at least change position every few days, but Admiral Morrison seemed to believe it wasn't necessary.

“Captain,” Lieutenant Ross said. “We have picked up a formal response to our IFF codes.”

Kat glanced at her display. It had been nearly twenty minutes since they’d sent the codes. It shouldn't have taken more than ten minutes to receive a reply.

“Sloppy,” her XO muttered. His face was grim. “They should have detected our arrival and challenged us at once.”

“True,” Kat muttered back. They'd come out of hyperspace five light minutes from Cadiz, but the twist in space-time should have been detectable from right across the system, instantly. Cadiz should have sent a challenge the moment they arrived, the signal crossing the IFF codes Lightning had sent back. “They definitely should have challenged us.”

She cleared her throat. “Did they send us specific orders?”

“No, Captain,” Ross said. “They just acknowledged our arrival.”

Kat wounded, for a brief moment, if the system had already fallen. The thought sent a chill down her spine – were they flying right into an ambush? But it seemed unlikely. The superdreadnaughts orbiting Cadiz were Royal Navy designs, while there was no sign that a battle had been fought in the system. No matter the readiness level of 7th Fleet, she found it impossible to believe the system had fallen without a battle. Someone would have tried to fight.

“Keep us on course,” she ordered. “And request orbital slots for the convoy.”

“Aye, Captain,” Ross said.

More disturbing signs started to appear as Lightning flew towards the planet. The fleet in orbit should have had at least some of its starships at battle readiness at all times. Instead, their drives and sensors were stepped down to the point it would take nearly an hour to bring them back up to full power. Every ship was also supposed to keep its shield generators on standby, but she had a feeling they hadn't even bothered to take that basic precaution. She shook her head in growing disbelief. Superdreadnaughts were tough, built to take a staggering amount of punishment, but an antimatter warhead impacting against an unprotected hull would be disastrous. 7th Fleet was staggeringly vulnerable.

“They should be running gunboat patrols too,” the XO said, through their implants. It was rude to use implants to talk in front of other people, but it helped keep their conversation private. “”Someone could be sneaking up on the ships under cloak right now and they wouldn't even have a clue they were there.”

Kat couldn't disagree. Cloaking systems were only perfect if the starship under cloak stayed very still, pretending to be a hole in space. A starship under power emitted faint radiations that weren't completely concealed by the cloak, but it was still hard to track it. Gunboat patrols should have made it impossible for someone to sneak up on the fleet, yet the only gunboats she could see on the display were performing routine manoeuvres. They certainly weren't patrolling space as aggressively as she would have liked.

She turned her attention to Cadiz itself. There was a smaller orbital presence than she would have expected from a world at its development level, but there were dozens of freighters in orbit, along with several commercial stations. And, she realised slowly, 7th Fleet didn't seem to be doing anything to inspect the freighters coming in and out of Cadiz. They could be shipping heavy weapons down to the surface, yet no one was even searching the freighters before they entered orbit! And, by Commonwealth law, any freighter that was allowed to enter orbit was immune from further searches without clear proof of wrongdoing.

There’s no single authority here, she thought, grimly. And because of that, it’s hard to monitor everything that happens within their star system.

The only remotely encouraging sign was the level of security around the orbital StarCom, although she would have preferred considerably more. A handful of automated weapons platforms guarded the structure, while a bubble of clear space was enforced by gunboats and Marine shuttles. But then, losing the StarCom would have been disastrous, even if the system didn't come under immediate attack. How would the corporate representatives on Cadiz communicate with their superiors without it?

She smiled, humourlessly. Perhaps I should arrange for something to happen to it, she thought. Losing the StarCom would unite all the corporations against Admiral Morrison.

It was nearly thirty minutes before another signal arrived from Cadiz. “Captain, we have been assigned orbital slots,” Ross reported. “There’s also a private message for you.”

“Pass it over,” Kat ordered. Who would send her a private message? But she knew the answer before the message popped up in her inbox. Admiral Morrison, according to her father, was a contemptible social climber. Making the acquaintance of Duke Falcone’s daughter could only benefit him in the long run. “And inform System Command that we will take up our orbital slots as quickly as possible.”

She frowned as she saw the slots appear on the display. The freighters would be entering low orbit, while Lightning herself would be permitted to remain in high orbit, which would allow them some manoeuvring room if the shit hit the fan. It didn't look very safe at all, but there was no point in picking a fight with Admiral Morrison – or the system’s controllers, such as they were – so quickly. Instead, she rose to her feet and nodded to the XO.

“Mr. XO, you have the bridge,” she said. “Inform me when we enter orbit.”

“Aye, Captain,” the XO said.

Kat saw her forebodings reflected in his eyes as she walked past him and into her Ready Room. Inside, she waited until the hatch had hissed closed behind her, then sat down at her desk and accessed the private message. It was keyed to her specific command implants, which was oddly amusing. Admiral Morrison might not have been interested in her if she’d still been a Commander and XO of a starship, responsible to her Captain. It would have suggested she wasn't interested in pulling strings on her own behalf.

The thought made her feel coldly furious at her father. She hadn't even looked at the message, but she was sure Admiral Morrison wanted to make use of her. She’d run into other senior officers with the same ambition, yet this was different. This commanding officer, thanks to her father, had evidence that she was interested in pulling strings on her own behalf ...

Gritting her teeth, she pressed her palm against the terminal, then frowned as the holographic image appeared in front of her. Thankfully, the message had been recorded and sent before they were close enough to Cadiz for a real-time conference. Admiral Morrison was strikingly handsome, with muscles on his muscles, his uniform tailored to show his looks and build off to best advantage. But his appearance was too handsome, too striking, to be real. It suggested deep insecurities that even a minor visit to a cosmetic body-shop had been unable to cure. Even the genetic engineering that had shaped Kat’s appearance had given her something more natural.

But it’s easy to see why he impresses some civilians, she thought, as she keyed the switch to start the playback. He looks the very model of a modern space admiral.

“Captain Falcone,” Admiral Morrison said. His voice was perfect too, almost as practiced as one of the political leader speaking in the Houses of Parliament. But there was something about it that suggested it was far from natural. “Please allow me to welcome you to Cadiz.”

Kat nodded, impatiently. It wasn't common for starship commanders to be sent messages of welcome by the Station Commander. They were meant to be good little subordinates and present themselves to the Admiral’s office as soon as they entered orbit. Sending Kat a message, she knew, was not a good sign.

“I look forward to meeting you in person,” the Admiral continued. “You are welcome to visit my office once your ship has entered orbit. I would also like to invite you to a party at my estate the following week. You would be more than welcome.”

“A party,” Kat repeated, incredulously. Who the hell did the Admiral think she was? Candy Falcone? “He wants me to go to a party?”

“Your crew are, of course, welcome to begin their shore leave roster while the convoy prepares itself for its next destination,” the Admiral concluded. He smiled at her. It would have been attractive if she hadn't been so sure it was fake. “And I look forward to meeting you in person.”

Insecure, Kat thought to herself, as the message came to an end. She couldn't help being reminded of her first boyfriend, although they’d both been teenagers at the time. He told me the same thing twice, as if he were afraid I’d miss it or go somewhere else. And so did the Admiral.

Her father would have wanted her to get to know the Admiral, she knew, although he wanted evidence he could use to stick a knife in the Admiral’s back. Kat herself ... would have preferred to spend as little time with the Admiral as possible. But a direct invitation from her superior officer would be hard to avoid, even with her family connections. Someone without them would have had to humour the Admiral, at least as long as they valued their career.

She winced. Suddenly, the condition of the orbiting superdreadnaughts made a great deal of sense.

You’re jumping to conclusions, she thought, coldly. You don’t know the superdreadnaught commanders have been spending too much time on the planet's surface.

But it did seem alarmingly plausible.

“Record,” she ordered, after she was sure she could trust her voice to remain even. “Admiral Morrison. I will land on the planet’s surface once my ship has entered orbit. I look forward to meeting you in person. However, I have duties to my ship and I may not be able to attend your party. Thank you for your time.”

It was borderline rude, she knew; she'd known officers and aristocrats who would have exploded under much less provocation. But she had a feeling Admiral Morrison would let it slide. She sent the message with a tap of the console, then called the XO into her Ready Room. When he arrived, she replayed the message for him, smiling to herself at his reaction.

“I will not be attending his ... party,” she said, making the word a curse. “But I can't avoid visiting him in person.”

The XO didn't disagree. “It’s protocol,” he said. He hesitated, noticeably. “You should take a Marine detachment with you.”

Kat made a face. The official press releases claimed that violence on the surface was declining, but the instructions for travelling from the spaceport to Gibraltar – the planet’s capital city – suggested otherwise. She would be travelling in an armoured convoy, guarded by several platoons of soldiers. It didn’t suggest the planet was even remotely safe.

“That would probably violate some unwritten rule,” she said. She took a long breath. “Do we have a list of frontrunners for shore leave?”

“Yes, Captain,” the XO said. He pulled his datapad off his belt, then held it out to her. “I’ve put myself on the list, of course.”

They shared a smile. It was an old joke. An XO who couldn't manipulate the system to his own advantage was in the wrong job.

“Once I return to the ship, I’d like you to go with the first party,” Kat said. “I need your impressions of the planet’s surface too.”

She paused. “Besides, you need some leave,” she added. “I know you haven’t had any for the last nine months.”

“I’ve had worse,” the XO said. He hesitated. “Captain, I don’t believe we should risk allowing more than fifty crewmen down to the surface at any one time. If the system comes under attack ...”

He allowed his voice to trail off, but it didn't matter. Kat had already thought of it for herself.

“See to it,” she ordered. There was one major spaceport on the planet and a handful of minor ones. Getting her crew back to the ship if the system came under attack would be a nightmare. “And make sure we have enough manpower on hand to fight if necessary.”

The XO saluted, then withdrew, leaving Kat alone with her thoughts.
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Chapter Twelve

“They’re diverting us to a different approach route,” Midshipman Thomas Morse said. “I’m not sure why.”

Kat nodded as the shuttle fell through Cadiz’s atmosphere, heading towards the giant spaceport thirty kilometres from Gibraltar. The locals might not have access to many heavy weapons, but the reports suggested that they had obtained some antiaircraft missiles they had fired at a handful of shuttles or aircraft. Shooting down a helicopter would be annoying, but hardly fatal; shooting down a shuttle carrying a starship commander would be politically disastrous. Even Admiral Morrison’s backers would find it impossible to cover the disaster up.

She leaned forward as the spaceport came into view, a giant sprawling complex stretching out for miles. That alone was alarming, she knew; the average spaceport was nowhere near so large, even when handling military deployments. The briefing pack had noted that most of the shore leave facilities were within the wire, allowing starship crewmen to stretch their legs and relax without ever actually seeing the planet itself. Dozens of large hangers and military barracks dotted the landscape, while countless helicopters, attack craft and shuttles sat on the ground, ready to launch at a moment’s notice. It looked very far from peaceful.

The shuttle came to a halt over the spaceport, then dropped down to the landing pad. Kat had a brief impression of hundreds of soldiers jogging over the base, all carrying weapons slung over their shoulders, then the shuttle hit the ground. The shock surprised her, although she knew it shouldn't have done. A hovering shuttle was terrifyingly vulnerable to more weapons than expensive antiaircraft missiles that might have been smuggled into the district.

“The shuttle will be remaining here,” Morse said, consulting the live feed from the spaceport’s control tower. “Do you wish me to remain with it?”

Kat considered, briefly. She rather doubted she would be back anytime soon, even if the meeting with Admiral Morrison lasted less than an hour. The journey to and from the capital city alone would take quite some time. On the other hand, Morse was a young and inexperienced officer. Allowing him to wander the spaceport on his own might turn into a disaster. But it was his first time on the planet’s surface ...

“You may explore the complex,” Kat said, after a moment. “I’ll call you when I’m on my way back to the shuttle. Keep your wristcom with you at all times.”

She paused. “And don't drink anything even remotely alcoholic,” she added. “This isn’t shore leave.”

“Aye, Captain,” Morse said.

Kat smiled to herself, then scrambled out of the shuttle and onto the tarmac. The heat struck her at once, a wave of warm air that sent sweat crawling down her back. She looked around and saw a handful of soldiers, wearing grey urban combat dress, heading towards her, led by a corporal. He saluted as he approached, his eyes flickering over her and then meeting her eyes. Professional, Kat noted, mentally. That was a relief.

“Captain Falcone,” the corporal said. “I’m Corporal Whisper. I’ve been assigned to escort you to government house.”

“Thank you, Corporal,” Kat said.

She allowed him and his men to lead her through the complex towards the vehicle park, where they helped her into a large armoured vehicle that seemed a cross between a truck and a tank. The windows were transparent battle steel, she noted, allowing her to see out, but proof against anything short of a nuclear blast. It didn't bode well for the security situation either, she decided, as the vehicle jerked into life. A handful of smaller vehicles, some of them carrying mounted machine guns, followed them as they headed towards the gates. It definitely didn't bode well for local security.

Corporal Whisper seemed to have appointed himself her local guide and pointed out a number of landmarks as they drove through the complex. The swimming pool, the library, the giant strip of shops, bars and brothels intended to separate spacers from their money ... and the prison, where irreconcilable insurgents were held, pending their exile to Nightmare Penal Colony. Kat made a mental note to ensure the pirates were handed over for transport, then pushed the thought aside as she saw a long line of locals being searched by military police. There was almost no privacy, she realised. The locals had to endure countless humiliations just to enter the complex.

“They used to smuggle in bombs,” Corporal Whisper explained, when she asked. “Eventually, we insisted that anyone who refused to actually live within the complex had to be searched thoroughly whenever they went in or out of the gates. We found quite a few nasty surprises over the years.”

Kat shuddered. She’d never liked being searched during security exercises – and the locals had to endure it almost every day. It was just another humiliation piled on top of losing control of their homeworld to outsiders ... no matter the justification, she couldn't help thinking the Commonwealth would come to regret annexing Cadiz. But what other choice had there been?

They passed through the gates and out into the countryside. The road was surprisingly wide, she noted, wide enough to make it difficult for someone to plant IEDs along the roadside without making them instantly noticeable. Defoliants had been used to clear the bushes away from the road, ensuring that it was hard to set up ambushes too. There would be no new growth for years, Kat knew. Just something else for the locals to hold against the occupation force. And it wouldn’t stop a sniper from taking a shot at the convoy as it raced towards the city.

Cadiz was beautiful, she thought, with a trace of wistfulness. She had never been able to climb mountains or even hike before joining the navy, where she wasn't surrounded by bodyguards and interfering tutors. Davidson had taken her mountain-climbing once or twice, before their relationship had come to an end. The mountains she could see in the distance looked challenging, just the type of experience he loved. But she doubted they were safe for anyone, unless they were surrounded by armed Marines.

She sucked in her breath as they entered Gibraltar, after being waved through the gates by armed soldiers. Inside, hundreds of cars and motorbikes – some so primitive they were actually fuelled by gas, rather than power cells – buzzed around, while the locals who were on foot glowered at the passing convoy. Kat frowned when she saw them, realising just what – or rather who – was missing. There were almost no women at all. The only women on the streets were little girls or old mothers and grandmothers.

“Odd,” she said, out loud. “Where are the girls?”

“They’re normally kept indoors,” Corporal Whisper explained. “They’re quite a conservative culture, Captain. A young woman’s reputation is the key to finding her a good match. If there are suggestions she ... compromised herself with a young man, she won’t have a hope of getting married into a reputable family. She might even be kicked out of the house.”

Kat shook her head in disbelief. “And the young men?”

“No one cares about their experience,” Corporal Whisper said. “They spend more time at the brothels than working or even taking pot-shots at us.”

He smirked. “We have a medical clinic responsible for handling sexually-transmitted diseases,” he added. “And do you know how many times it’s been attacked?”

“No,” Kat said.

“It hasn't,” Corporal Whisper informed her. “None of the insurgents have ever gone anywhere near it.”

Kat started as a bullet pinged off the canopy, followed by a rocket that slammed into the vehicle and shook it, but inflicted no real damage. Their escorts opened fire, sweeping the nearby buildings with bullets, then relaxed as the incoming fire slacked off and died. There was no way to tell if they’d killed the snipers or merely forced them to take cover, but it hardly mattered. They weren't sticking around for a fight.

She looked at the buildings and shivered. Half of them were pockmarked with bullet holes and other signs of damage, while the other half looked as though no one had bothered to do any maintenance for years. But she could hardly blame them, she realised, as they swept past the buildings and across a firebreak. There was no point in repairing buildings that might be shot up again at any moment. She turned to look at Government House as it came into view and sighed again. It looked like a giant fortress, surrounded by solid walls and patrolled by soldiers on the battlements.

They passed through the gates, revealing a number of short-range guns behind the walls. If someone lobbed mortar shells into the complex, she reasoned, the gunners could track the shells back to their point of origin and return fire. And, if they reacted quickly enough, they might even kill the enemy mortar team before they could escape. But the cost in civilian life had to be quite high.

The vehicle came to a halt. Corporal Whisper opened the hatch, revealing a grim-faced woman in a uniform that had to have been specially tailored to show off her body to best advantage. Kat felt a flicker of sympathy. It was clear, just from her stance, that the woman didn't want to wear the uniform, but it had been forced on her. And it was easy to guess just who had decided such a revealing uniform was a good idea.

“Captain Falcone,” the woman said. “I’m Commander Jeannette Macintyre, the Admiral’s aide. Welcome to Cadiz.”

Kat studied her for a long moment. Commander Macintyre was beautiful, with long red hair and a perfect face, but her stance was all wrong. Someone had insisted she had her body upgraded, Kat decided, although it was impossible to say who. The look on Macintyre’s face suggested she wasn't inclined to share any confidences with Kat. She probably assumed the worst of her.

“Thank you,” Kat said, holding out a hand. “It's been an interesting tour.”

Macintyre smiled as she grasped Kat’s hand and shook it, firmly. In the distance, Kat heard the sound of explosions.

“It isn't a safe place for anyone,” Macintyre said, finally. “The Admiral is waiting to see you.”

Kat followed her through a network of corridors, then a collection of offices that seemed to be crammed with bureaucrats and officers trying to maintain the occupation. She couldn’t help noticing that most of them happened to be young and female – and almost none of them looked local. But that wasn't a surprise, she told herself. If none of the locals could be trusted, they couldn't be allowed to work in government. And yet, that would ensure Cadiz would have almost no one versed in running a government when the Commonwealth finally withdrew. They’d fall into chaos almost at once.

Perhaps that’s not a bad thing, she thought, at least for the workers. They would be taken for collaborators.

She pushed that thought aside as Macintyre led her into the Admiral’s office. Kat had to keep her face under strict control as she glanced around – there was a staggering amount of gilt embedded in the walls, surrounding a number of artworks from Cadiz – and then looked at the Admiral, standing in front of a holographic display. In person, he was even more striking, but it wasn't real. He’d definitely not had his looks spliced into his genes before birth. Like Macintyre, there was something subtly wrong about how he moved.

“Captain Falcone,” he said. He held out a hand. “Welcome to Cadiz.”

“Thank you, sir,” Kat said. She grasped his hand, allowing him to shake hers. His handshake was perfect, too perfect. It was just like the curtseys would-be aristocratic women were expected to drop every time they encountered someone from a high-ranking family. “It's good to be here.”

Admiral Morrison studied her for a long moment, his gaze seemingly welcoming ... but Kat detected an element of cold calculation behind his smile. She forced herself to hold still under his scrutiny, then allowed herself a moment of relief as he finally let go of her hand and motioned her towards a chair. Kat sat down and crossed her legs, then frowned inwardly as the Admiral sat on the sofa, facing her. His poise was perfect, too perfect. It was just like the rest of him.

“I understand that you have had an eventual trip,” Admiral Morrison said. “A captured pirate ship, no less!”

Kat’s eyes narrowed. She hadn't sent any report to the Admiral, not yet. By tradition, the first report was always supposed to be made in person. But the Convoy Master might have filed a report of his own ... or someone might have noticed they were towing a pirate ship with them. There were too many possibilities.

“Yes, sir,” she said. “We took the ship intact, capturing some of its crew and liberating some of its slaves, all of whom are currently held in stasis. I would like to transfer them to the planet’s surface as quickly as possible.”

The Admiral made a dismissive wave with his hand. “You can make arrangements with my aide for the prisoners to be added to the holding pens,” he said. “The former captives can remain in stasis until they can be shipped to Tyre.”

Kat frowned. “They can’t receive treatment here?”

“There are better facilities on Tyre,” the Admiral said.

Kat felt her frown deepen. There might well be better facilities on Tyre, but not by much, certainly not better enough to justify keeping the former captives in stasis until they were transferred to yet another planet. But it was the Admiral’s call ... if the situation on the ground was as bad as it seemed, the hospitals on the planet’s surface might be overflowing with casualties. Besides, sending them back to Tyre would make it harder for anyone to cover up the pirate attack.

“Yes, sir,” she said, finally. “We also found some disturbing evidence on the pirate ship.”

She briefly outlined what they’d found – and the conclusions they’d drawn, afterwards. The Admiral seemed attentive enough, but she had enough experience to tell he wasn't really interested. She couldn't tell if he was playing dumb or if he genuinely didn't care, but either way it was worrying. It was also in line with everything else she’d seen since entering the system.

“Admiral,” she concluded, “someone is backing the pirates. There is simply no other explanation.”

“They’re pirates,” the Admiral sneered. “They’re hardly an organised fighting force.”

“They don’t have to be,” Kat said. “All they have to do is attack and destroy our shipping.”

She thought, briefly, of her father’s warnings. If freighters continued to be lost to ‘causes unknown,’ insurance rates would start to rise steeply. This would lead to increased shipping costs, which would drive many of the smaller firms out of business and force the larger firms to tighten their belts. It was quite likely, she knew, that the bigger corporations were downplaying the situation purely to avoid an economic downturn. But they couldn't keep the pretence up indefinitely.

“The pirates are taking losses too,” Kat added. “They couldn't operate their starships without a backer.”

“There's no proof,” the Admiral said. “I do not believe that accusations of anything would improve relationships between ourselves and the Theocracy.”

“We have plenty of evidence that something is very wrong,” Kat insisted. “Who else benefits?”

Admiral Morrison shrugged. “I hope you will attend my party,” he said. “There will be dignitaries from all over the system in attendance.”

The sudden change in subject left Kat feeling breathless. “Admiral ...”

“I believe most of my superdreadnaught commanders will attend,” the Admiral continued, as if she hadn't spoken. “The CEO of Cadiz Incorporated will also be attending. He was particularly interested in meeting you.”

“Oh,” Kat said.

“Indeed,” the Admiral agreed. “I think he has a proposal he wishes to put before you.”

“I have no say in the affairs of Falcone,” Kat said, flatly. It was true. Her eldest brother would inherit most of the family stock, leaving her with just her trust fund and a bundle of non-voting stock. “The discussion would not be productive.”

She took a breath, knowing she was about to put her career on the line. “Admiral,” she added, “how can you ignore the growing threat to our shipping lines?”

For a moment, she saw a trace of anger behind the Admiral’s eyes, and then it was gone.

“The decision to annex Cadiz was, in my view, a mistake,” the Admiral said, finally. His voice was so flat she just knew he was using implants to keep it under control. That too was rude, at least in private conversation. “We did something very provocative, something that could have provoked a war, something that could have torn our government apart, purely for our own selfless interests. It would behove us to refrain from any other provocative actions in future.”

He cleared his throat, loudly. “Your ship will escort the convoy to the border in five days, once several pieces of cargo have been loaded onto the ships,” he continued. His tone made it clear he considered the assignment a punishment. “After that, we will discuss your future ... operations.”

Kat fought down the urge to grind her teeth in frustration. How could the Admiral be so blind? But the hell of it was that he had a point. The decision to annex Cadiz had come alarmingly close to tearing the Commonwealth apart, no matter the justification behind it.

“Thank you, sir,” she said, rising to her feet. “I will return to my ship.”

“My aide will show you out,” the Admiral said. He stood, then held out a hand. “And I do trust I will see you at one of my parties, Captain. I believe you have a great deal to offer.”

“Yes, sir,” Kat said. She shook the Admiral’s hand reluctantly. “But my starship always comes first.”
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Chapter Thirteen

Night was falling over Cadiz Spaceport as the shuttle dropped down to the landing pad and landed neatly, the pilot shutting down the drives moments later. William climbed to his feet, opened the hatch and stepped through onto the tarmac. The air was cooler than the Captain had reported, but there was a strange smell that bothered him more than he cared to admit. It reminded him of his homeworld.

Behind him, the forty-nine officers and crew who had been assigned to the shore leave roster strode out of the shuttle. He turned round to face them, sighing inwardly. There was something about the prospect of shore leave that turned even the most disciplined spacers into a rowdy mob. He cleared his throat loudly and they quieted, knowing he could still bar them from shore leave, even now.

“You should all have reviewed the safety briefing before boarding the shuttle,” he said, knowing some of them probably wouldn't have taken the time to even skim the file. “Do not attempt to leave the spaceport or enter any secure zone. Should you do either ... you’ll probably spend an uncomfortable night in the cells before I come and get you.”

He paused as the sound of helicopters clattered overhead before fading away in the distance, then continued.

“Do not spend more than you have on your credit card, do not come stumbling back to the shuttle drunk and do not do anything you don’t want to appear on your service record,” he added. He turned and pointed towards the shore leave section. “Dismissed.”

The crew cheered, then ran past him and through the gates. William snorted, knowing he’d been just as enthusiastic once open a time, then strode after them with casual measured steps. The thought of shore leave was hypnotic, he had to admit, but it wasn't really what he wanted, not now. Forty-eight hours was hardly enough to relax properly. Once, he’d booked himself into a hotel and just spent four days in bed.

He smiled as he passed through the gates and looked down the long road. It looked like any other strip of entertainments intended to separate spacers from their money; a line of bars, strip clubs, gambling arcades and brothels. His smile grew wider at some of the memories, then he sobered as he caught sight of two armoured Marines patrolling the street. No matter how hard they tried to disguise it, the spaceport was a prime target for the insurgency. It wouldn't be hard for a spy to slip through the gates and cause trouble.

A line of spacers, the gold badges on their collars marking them as superdreadnaught crew, came pouring out of one of the bars, heading towards the brothels. They’d clearly not spent much time on shore leave, William decided, recalling his own adventures. It was genially better to go to the brothel first, rather than the bars or gambling joints. The only spacer he recalled spending much time gambling while on shore leave had been an asexual teetotaller, someone who wasn’t interested in anything else. Everyone else knew the games tended to be rigged, no matter what the house promised.

He sighed, feeling too responsible to just go to a brothel and carouse, then turned and walked towards the bar at the top of the road. The title, emblazoned on the door in glowing letters, read Officer Down. It wasn't particularly funny, he decided, as he pushed the door open, but it was unlikely any of the junior ranks would dare enter. The establishment was meant for officers and officers alone.

No doubt there’s a higher class of prostitute here, he thought, as he closed the door behind him and glanced around. The interior looked like a high-class cafe on Tyre, one of the places that sold cakes and cream teas along with expensive liquor and fancy drinks. And I’m too poor to spend any time here.

“William,” a female voice called. “It is you, isn't it?”

William stared. He knew that voice.

“William,” Commander Fran Higgins said. “Long time no see.”

“You too,” William said. He walked over and sat down facing her. “I didn't know you would be here.”

“I’d have called you if I’d known,” Fran agreed. She smiled as the waiter arrived, carrying a small notebook in one hand rather than a data terminal. “My friend here would like a Cream Plum, thank you.”

The waiter bowed and retreated. William blinked in surprise, then looked at Fran. She looked almost as he remembered, with short brown hair and a face that was solid, rather than pretty, but she looked tired. In a way, she looked older than William himself – and he knew she was ten years younger.

“It’s good to see you again, Fran” he said. “But why are you drinking here?”

Commander Higgins gave him a sharp look. “Why are you drinking here?”

“Touché,” William said. “I’m here because I don’t want to have fun in front of the crew.”

Fran snorted, rudely. “Snap.”

The waiter returned, carrying a small glass, which he placed in front of William. William eyed it doubtfully – it seemed too fragile for him to pick up – then reached for it and took a sip. The taste was surprisingly strong, but there seemed to be relatively little alcohol. But that probably shouldn't have been a surprise. Officers were not meant to get drunk in public.

He settled back and looked at Fran, taking in the signs of someone who had been worked to breaking point. Her hands twitched constantly, her eyes kept flashing from side to side and she looked ... tired. He couldn't help wondering if he should book a hotel room and force her to actually sleep for a few short hours, perhaps with the help of a sedative. But he knew she’d kick him somewhere painful if he even dared hint she should take a break.

“I only just arrived,” he said, once the waiter was out of earshot. They’d have more hope of keeping their conversation private in one of the louder bars further down the strip. “How long have you been here?”

“Years,” Fran said. She eyed her drink, but made no move to take a sip. “Or at least it feels that way. I think it’s been around eleven months.”

William felt a shiver of alarm. “You think?”

“I try to forget it,” Fran said. “Defiant is not a happy ship.”

“I see,” William said, after a moment. “But you’re her XO, aren't you?”

“Of course,” Fran said. She tapped her uniform meaningfully, drawing his attention to the silver badge on her shoulder. “Only one XO and that’s me.”

She sighed. “And a whole fucking pile of shit on my shoulders,” she added. “You want my advice? Run. Run far.”

“I don’t think that’s an option,” William said. He took a breath. “Fran ... what’s happening here?”

Fran sipped her drink. She was already marginally drunk, William realised, or she wouldn't have let anything slip. The Fran Higgins he remembered had been a paragon of efficiency and emotional control. And if she was turning to drink ... it wasn't a good sign. Defiant – a superdreadnaught – was definitely not a happy ship.

“We were a good squadron when we were assigned to Cadiz,” Fran said, mournfully. “The Commodore might have been a political appointee, but he was a good man; the Captain had years in the service, plenty of time to know what to do himself and what to leave to met. I thought a deployment to Cadiz would allow us plenty of time to train and exercise for the war. But I was wrong.”

She shook her head. “It's all fucked up, William,” she added. “Take your ship and run.”

“I can't do that,” William said. “What’s wrong?”

Fran laughed, bitterly. “Where do I even start?”

She shrugged. “No training exercises,” she said. “Half the crew on shore leave at any one time. Shore Patrolmen getting into trouble because they don’t have the sense to stay out of shit. The Captain spending most of his time on the planet’s surface; the Commodore kissing up to the Admiral rather than sticking up for his crews. I can't run regular maintenance cycles and the ship is practically unserviceable. We’re fucked if we have to get into a fight without at least a week to prepare for action.”

William blanched. “It’s that bad?”

“It's worse,” Fran said. She took a long swallow, finishing her glass, then waved to the waiter. “Another!”

“Water would be better,” William said, quickly.

“You’re not the boss of me any longer,” Fran thundered. “You didn't try to screw me. The Captain is certainly trying to screw me.”

Her voice slurred for a long moment, then recovered. “If someone inspects the ship, I’m screwed,” she said, with heavy satisfaction. “I will take the blame.”

She wouldn't take the blame alone, William knew, at least if regulations were honoured and the IG carried out the inspection. The buck stopped with the vessel’s commanding officer. But if the Captain and the Admiral carried out the inspection, it might be possible to blame Fran ... assuming no one took a close look at the reports. And, with Fran a nobody, politically speaking, it might just be shoved under the rug.

“Shit,” he said.

“Yeah,” Fran agreed. “Shit.”

She met his eyes. “You have no idea just how many problems we’ve had,” she said, darkly. “One of the Shore Patrolmen walked out an airlock, another was beaten halfway to death by someone – we still don't know who. Exercises would help the crew pull back together, but I’m not even allowed to run them. Apparently, they cost too much money.”

William winced. Naval bases had a specific budget each year. If there was a shortfall, cancelling training exercises seemed an excellent way to save funds. But it was a false saving. Troops and starship crews who had no time to exercise tended to lose competency alarmingly fast. If they had to go into battle, they’d be screwed.

He placed his hand on top of the drink when the waiter placed it on the table. “Is 7th Fleet combat-capable?”

Fran surprised him by laughing, hysterically. “I doubt there's a single ship in the fleet that can move under her own power,” she said. “The superdreadnaughts certainly can't without some hasty repair work.”

William hoped – desperately –she was exaggerating. If she was correct, 7th Fleet was effectively a sitting duck. Cadiz had some planet-side defences, but hardly enough to make a real difference if the Theocracy came knocking. Besides, the locals would definitely rise up against the occupation force – and move from the frying pan into the fire. The Commonwealth meant well, even though it had blundered badly. Theocratic rule would be far worse.

He took a long look at her, feeling pity intermingled with rage. The Fran Higgins he’d known had been a capable officer, not a drunken wreck. She deserved better. Hell, the crews on the fleet’s starships deserved better. They were wasting away because their commanders were more interested in partying than actually carrying out their duties.

And if any of her subordinates saw her like this, he knew, they’d lose all respect for her.

“Tell me something,” he said. “Have you not filed a complaint?”

“Nine of us did,” Fran said. “We never heard anything back from the IG.”

William swore under his breath. Admiral Morrison might well be able to prevent a formal complaint ever leaving the system, assuming he had a crony or two in charge of the StarCom. But he couldn't move against the complainers without ensuring they had their chance to face a court martial board. Instead, he seemed to have just left matters as they were. It wasn't a smart way to behave.

He signalled the waiter. “I understand you have rooms upstairs,” he said. He placed his credit chip on the table. “I want one of those rooms and a sober-up injection, now.”

“Yes, sir,” the waiter said. He took the chip with practiced ease, then stepped back. “If you will come with me ...”

William helped a protesting Fran to her feet, then half-carried her through the door and up a flight of stairs. One of the doors on the next floor was open, revealing a naked man, a girl kneeling in front of him, sucking his penis. William was silently grateful he didn't recognise him, even though he had to be a fairly senior officer. He knew, intellectually, that his superiors had sexual drives too, but he didn't want to think about it. Thankfully, Captain Falcone didn't seem to be interested in patronising bars or brothels.

The room was larger than he'd expected, certainly larger than any room in a more normal brothel. He positioned Fran on the bed, took the injector from the waiter and pressed it against her neck. She glared daggers at him as the injection shot into her system, then stumbled to her feet and into the toilet. Moments later, he heard the sound of vomiting as the alcohol left her bloodstream, along with everything she’d eaten over the past few hours. He waited, as patiently as he could, until she walked back into the bedroom looking murderous.

“You’re a bastard,” she said, as she sat down on the bed and removed her jacket. Her uniform was badly stained. “You could at least have let me go back to the shuttle before I took the pill ...”

“Friends don’t let friends fly shuttles while drunk,” William pointed out. “Besides, I dread to imagine what would happen to your service record if you were found drunk and disorderly while under the influence.”

“Under the circumstances,” Fran said, “that wouldn't be a problem.”

She placed her head in her hands, embarrassed. “I’m sorry, William,” she said, refusing to look up. “You shouldn't have seen me like that.”

“I’m glad you still have some dignity left,” William said, gently. “Besides, I can't chew you out any longer.”

“I suppose not,” Fran said. She paused. “How much did I tell you?”

“Enough to worry me,” William said. How much had she drunk? Short-term memory loss wasn't normally a problem. “Is your Captain really leaving everything in your hands?”

Fran looked down at the grubby floor. “... Yes,” she said, finally. “But I don’t even begin to have the tools to fix this mess.”

William, for the first time in far too long, found himself completely at a loss. He’d prepared himself on the assumption he would be doing most of the work on Lightning, an assumption that had rapidly proven false. But Fran ... Fran definitely seemed to be doing most of the work, without the crew or authority that would make it possible. He honestly had no idea how to proceed. There were ways to handle a misbehaving crewman, even to manipulate a tyrannical commanding officer, but this ...?

The IG needs to come here, he thought, numbly. Like most officers, he hated the Inspectorate General, viewing them as a bunch of useless bureaucrats or desk jockeys who didn't have the slightest idea of how things really worked, but they were needed now. This isn't one ship, this is the entire goddamned fleet.

He looked at her. She shouldn't go back to her ship, not in such a state.

“Tell me,” he said. “How long until you’re due back on Defiant?”

“Two days,” Fran said. “But I should go back earlier.”

William let out a sigh of relief. “You can stay here and sleep,” he said, firmly. “I want you going back to the ship in tip-top condition.”

“For what?” Fran asked, bitterly. “I can't make it all better.”

“You can try,” William said. “And besides, you owe it to yourself.”

He thought briefly about telling her about the pirate attack and the worrying pattern behind it, then decided it could wait.

“I’ll get you a sedative,” he said, instead. “You can sleep here until you wake up naturally.”

Fran objected, loudly. William understood – he hated the idea of being sedated too, even with someone he trusted in the room – but there was no choice. In her state, Fran was unlikely to sleep very well without chemical aid. He keyed the console, requesting a sedative, then cast his eye down the list of other options. Some of them were truly alarming, others were merely amusing. What sort of commanding officer would want a pair of leather handcuffs?

Maybe he has dreams of whipping crewmen, he thought. It was understandable. There were quite a few crewmen he’d met who might have benefited from a whipping. Or maybe he’s just a sadist.

He took the sedative when it arrived, then held it up in front of her. “Lie down,” he ordered, firmly. “You’re about to go to sleep.”

Fran sighed. “I feel like a failure,” she said. Her tone was so bitter that he almost insisted she saw a counsellor before thinking better of it. Few officers would gladly visit someone who could have them removed from duty with a word. “I’ve failed the crew ...”

“You’ll have a chance to make it better,” William promised. The Captain wanted his impressions of the situation on the ground. She'd get more than she ever expected, particularly once he started looking up other friends attached to 7th Fleet. “And you can't fight for your crews without a good night’s sleep.”

He pressed the tab against her arm, then sat back and watched as she fell into sleep. Her face relaxed, until she was almost the younger officer he remembered, before she’d been assigned to Admiral Morrison’s command. He felt a spark of bitter hatred, even though he’d never met the man. What could have gone so badly wrong that it would cripple a girl he’d once known to be a good officer?

And not just her, he told himself. Whatever rot started here has spread through the entire fleet. If the Theocracy comes knocking ...

He shuddered. The thought was far from comforting.
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(04-30-2014, 03:40 PM)WmLambert Wrote: Chapter 8:

"...Kat felt her heat thumping within her chest." She gets horny anticipating violence? Might want to fix the typo.

Thank you!

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Chapter Fourteen

Kat waited until her steward had served herself, her XO and Davidson steaming mugs of coffee, then leaned forward, placing her hands on her desk.

“The situation looks bad,” she said. “Just how bad is it?”

“Disastrous,” the two men said, together.

They exchanged surprised looks, then Davidson motioned for the XO to continue.

“I spoke to several other officers I know,” the XO said. “All of them agreed that 7th Fleet is in no condition for a fight. The average superdreadnaught is at forty percent efficiency, which may be an optimistic assessment. It’s a little better for some of the smaller ships, as they still have useful work to do, but not that much better. The list of problems seems endless.”

Kat nodded, slowly. A cruiser could expect to serve as anything from an independent scouting platform to a convoy escort or colony guardship. No sane CO would risk allowing his ship to decline too far, knowing he might have to switch tasks at any moment. But superdreadnaughts spent far too much of their time near fleet bases, close to shore leave facilities for officers and crew alike. It took a strong-minded commander to keep his crew at peak efficiency when the temptations of the nearby planet were so strong.

The XO sighed. “Overall,” he added, “it seems likely that a mere squadron of superdreadnaughts could best 7th Fleet of they attacked tomorrow.”

He ran his hand through his greying hair. “Some of the officers I spoke with have been attempting to do something about the problem, but they haven’t been able to get any response from the Admiralty. And Admiral Morrison keeps pooh-poohing their concerns. A handful of officers who pushed it too far, apparently, were relieved for cause and assigned to asteroid bases in the sector. None of them went sent home for court martial.”

“Because a court martial would have required open discussion of just what was happening on Cadiz,” Kat said, thoughtfully. “Instead ... their careers were destroyed.”

She cursed under her breath. Her trust fund ensured she didn't have to work a day in her life, if she wanted to resign herself to a life of lazy luxury. But no one outside the aristocracy had that option, even a senior naval officer. The officers would have noted what happened to others who questioned too loudly and shut up, despite the growing risk of attack. They wouldn't want to see their careers blighted too.

“Yes, Captain,” the XO confirmed. “Admiral Morrison seems to have been remarkably successful in keeping matters under wraps.”

Kat looked at Davidson. “And what did you hear?”

Davidson looked ... irked. “I called a handful of Marine officers on the surface,” he said, darkly. “Most of them agreed the situation is dire, both in space and on the ground. The insurgency is still holding strong, the occupation forces are having to fight hard to hold their ground and senior officers are losing control. There have even been rumours that the dehumanisation of the insurgents has gone too far, to the point where atrocities have been covered up. I wish I could say it surprises me.”

Kat lifted her eyebrows, expressively.

“Occupation duties are always tricky,” Davidson said. “A soldier on patrol can lose sight of common decency when confronted by a civilian population that either does nothing or actively supports the insurgents. The urge to just hit out and smash the grinning bastards into paste becomes overwhelming. It doesn't help that there simply aren't enough forces on the ground to keep the entire planet under control. Our troops have been substituting superior firepower for boots on the ground.”

The XO frowned. “So an area is only under control as long as we have troops on top of it.”

“Yes,” Davidson agreed. “Once the troops move away, the insurgents move back and take control again. Anyone who collaborated with our forces gets brutally murdered. By now, the only people willing to work with the occupation forces are locals without connections or people who believe we can protect their families.”

He winced, noticeably. “But even they are bearing the brunt of suspicion,” he added. “I heard a dozen horror stories from a couple of Marines. If we didn't have overwhelming firepower in orbit, Captain, I think we would have lost Cadiz by now.”

“But we have handled insurgencies on other Commonwealth worlds,” Kat said, thoughtfully. “Why can't we handle this one?”

“Every other world had a large majority in favour of joining the Commonwealth,” Davidson reminded her. “All we really had to do was train and bolster the local security forces, then assist them in asserting control over the hinterlands. Hell, most of the insurgencies faded away when the benefits of Commonwealth membership became apparent. Here ... the locals largely hate our guts, with reason. The insurgency shows no sign of going away.”

“And we can't build up a local force allied to us,” the XO said. “But surely some of them see the advantages ...”

“Not enough of them,” Davidson said, cutting him off. “The whole situation is FUBAR, Captain. We can't fix the occupation and we can't abandon the star system.”

“Perhaps we should simply abandon the planet itself,” the XO said. “It isn't as if we need to have installations on Cadiz.”

Kat shrugged. Interstellar law was an odd thing, all the more so now the after-effects of the Breakdown were slowly fading away. Technically, whoever owned Cadiz owned the entire system, which meant the investments made in the system would be at risk if Cadiz was abandoned and allowed to go its own merry way. There were a dozen large corporations in the Commonwealth who would refuse to accept losing control of their investments. But with Cadiz V being terraformed, there might soon be a second settled world in the system. It was a horrible ghastly mess.

But we would have overwhelming firepower, she thought, slowly. What would it matter what Cadiz thought if they couldn't reach orbit?

“It would look very bad,” she said, finally. “It wouldn't play well at home and it wouldn't play well with the other interstellar powers – or even the other independent worlds along the Rim. The Theocracy will probably make use of the whole story to convince people we can't be trusted.”

“They’d have to be out of their minds,” the XO commented. “Haven’t they been listening to what the refugees told us?”

“It’s easy to manipulate the news,” Kat said, remembering one of the few lessons she’d had directly from her father. The Falcone Corporation owned a large chunk of the Mainstream Media. No editor would dare run a story that impinged on the corporation’s interests. “And the Theocracy is very good at it.”

She remembered the reports and shivered. There were no independent reports on Theocratic worlds, no one pushing anything but the official version of events. The locals welcomed the Theocracy; they either converted happily or lived in peace under their own religions and everything was simply wonderful. Kat knew the refugees told a different story, but they simply didn't have the reach and exposure Theocratic propaganda had. And, the further away a planet was from the expanding border, the more likely its population would believe the Theocracy’s version of affairs.

We should be telling them the truth, she thought. But the truth sounded less attractive than a barrage of lies. Or we should forward the refugees on to them.

“The overall situation is dire,” Kat said, finally. She took a sip of her coffee. “Mr. XO, there are some things we need to discuss with you.”

The thought made her feel a twinge of pain. She'd had the sense the XO had come to respect her, at least to some degree, after they’d tackled the pirate ship. Maybe she was still too young for her role, but at least she’d handled the situation competently. And yet ... now she had to discuss her father’s request for information with him. It was easy to imagine him considering her willingness to cooperate with her father a form of disloyalty to the navy.

She shook her head. What choice did she have?

“I wasn’t just assigned to command this starship,” she said, hesitatingly. “I ... was also asked to carry out an independent review of 7th Fleet – and Cadiz’s security.”

The XO’s face went blank. Kat sighed, mentally bidding farewell to their new rapport, then pressed onwards.

“I have a backchannel through the StarCom,” she continued. “The message I send won’t be intercepted or read by prying eyes. I intend to write a full report on what we’ve observed over the last two days.”

“Admiral Morrison will be furious if he finds out you’ve gone behind his back,” the XO said, mildly. “This isn't sending a private report to the IG, is it?”

He hadn't asked who would receive Kat’s message, she noted. Was it that obvious?

Of course it is, she told herself, angrily. Who else would request a report from right outside the normal channels from YOU?

“No, it isn't,” Kat said. She loved her career, but she could give it up if necessary. Besides, she could always formally protest an assignment to an asteroid station and demand a court martial. She had a feeling Admiral Morrison would bend over backwards to avoid putting her in front of a Captain’s Board. “But I don’t see any other option.”

“You would be making yourself a pawn in a political struggle,” the XO said, in the same mild tone. It was impossible to tell if he approved or disapproved of her actions. “Whatever happened, Captain, your career would never be your own again.”

“It never has been,” Kat said, unable to keep the bitterness from her tone. She looked at him, wishing she could read his face. “The entire report will be under my name.”

The XO shook his head. “I just saw an officer I trained, an officer I requested, trying to drink herself to death,” he said, softly. “She just couldn't cope any longer with the strain placed on her by her superiors. It has to be stopped.”

He paused. “Feel free to put my name on the report as well,” he offered. “It might help if your readers think it isn't just your work.”

Kat gave him a relieved smile, even though she knew he had far more at stake than herself. Her XO was a powerless nobody, someone who hadn't even been born a Commonwealth citizen. His career could be blighted or destroyed completely with a word or two from Admiral Morrison. Kat could fund him, perhaps even find him a place within the Falcone Corporation, but it wouldn't be the same. And he was offering to place his career at risk for her.

“Mine too,” Davidson said. He hesitated, minutely. It would have been unnoticeable if Kat hadn't known him so well. “Captain, I confess I have no idea why General Eastside has not reported the situation to Tyre. But I do have to make a report myself.”

Kat wasn't surprised. The Marine Corps, always on the tip of the spear, encouraged its junior officers to send reports and feedback back to Tyre. There were times when it allowed officers to do an end-run around a sometimes stodgy military bureaucracy. But someone should have already reported the problems, not settled for rumours and innuendo. Why hadn’t the senior Marine on the spot reported the problem himself?

“Add it to mine,” Kat advised. “I don’t want anyone to read the report until it reaches Tyre.”

The XO smiled. “Afraid of what the Admiral will say?”

“I’d prefer not to pick a fight with him right now,” Kat said. Part of her would have relished the confrontation, but it would have been disastrous. The issue at hand could be easily buried if enough people were convinced she was a snotty little brat who picked a fight because she wasn't happy with her orders. “And I would prefer to have the IG send out a team without any more fuss than strictly necessary.”

“Their presence might alert the Theocracy that their window for attack is closing,” the XO agreed. He looked down at the table, thoughtfully. “The Admiralty might want to assign three new squadrons of superdreadnaughts to Cadiz, then remove Admiral Morrison and call back 7th Fleet for refit.”

Kat leaned forward, alarmed. “It’s that bad?”

“I think several of the superdreadnaughts will need months of hard labour before they’d anything like combat-capable,” the XO said. He paused. “You know you can download fleet statistics from the datanet?”

“Yes,” Kat said. She’d been an XO. Maybe not as long as he’d been an XO, but she knew a few tricks. It had been an eye-opening experience in many ways. “Most of the Captains spend their days on the surface.”

“There's supposed to be a note in the database every time a component is requisitioned from naval stockpiles and sent to a starship,” the XO said. “Right now, only a hundred or so requisitions have been made over the last four months.”

“That’s absurd,” Kat said. Lightning alone had made over five hundred requisitions since she’d taken command. “A superdreadnaught should have” – she tried to work it out in her head – “at least a thousand a month.”

The XO gave her a cold smile. “Or they’re not doing any maintenance,” he said. “Naval components are tough, but standing orders are to replace them long before they reach their expiry date. If they’re not being replaced regularly ...”

Davidson cleared his throat. “This is starting to look like more than incompetence,” he said, grimly. “This is starting to look like outright treason.”

The XO blinked. “Are you suggesting Admiral Morrison is in the pay of the Theocracy?”

“Someone should have reported this up the chain of command,” Davidson said. He tapped off points on his fingers as he spoke. “There’s a duty – a legal duty – for Marine officers to report superiors who are grossly incompetent. Naval officers ... well, someone might well have tried to blow a whistle by now.”

“Fran did,” the XO said, quietly. “So did others.”

“And those reports haven’t reached the Admiralty,” Davidson said. “I certainly wasn't told more than rumours when I received my orders – and there should have been a full briefing from Marine Intelligence. This smacks of outright treason.”

Kat considered it, slowly. It was possible, she had to admit, but it didn't seem likely. The Admiral could have surrendered the planet to the Theocracy by now, if he’d been working for them directly. A few careful orders prior to attack and 7th Fleet would be utterly incapable of defending itself. Why would the Theocracy play a waiting game when the chances of their agent being exposed would only grow stronger with each passing day? Someone would eventually get a message to the Admiralty ...

“Admiral Morrison is the blue-eyed boy of a number of politicians,” she said finally, remembering her father’s files. “They put him in position in the hopes of preventing any further ... adventurism.”

“This is madness,” Davidson said. “His political backers can’t save him from a shitstorm of that magnitude.”

“I don’t think they give a damn about his career,” Kat said. “All they care about is ensuring we don’t blunder into a war.”

“As opposed to having one rammed down our throats when the Theocracy comes over the border,” Davidson said, dryly. “Are they out of their minds?”

Kat shrugged. Reality was a flexible concept if one happened to be as wealthy and powerful as the highest families on Tyre. Wealth insulated them from the cold equations of everyday life. Indeed, no matter how much money they spent, it was unlikely they could ever bankrupt themselves. But some problems couldn't be bought off by money.

She had a feeling, when the investigation finally took place, that they wouldn't discover a vast over-arching conspiracy. Instead, they’d discover a thousand tiny decisions that made sense, individually, but added up to disaster. She could understand Admiral Morrison wanting to avoid provocation, she could understand the shipping companies wanting to avoid a rise in insurance rates, she could understand officers not wanting to blight their careers, she could understand bureaucratic supply officers not wanting to give up their supplies ...

Or was it a conspiracy after all? It seemed absurdly paranoid. A conspiracy on that scale would be either unworkable or unstoppable. She knew how hard it was to keep even a small organisation a secret. And yet even paranoids had enemies.

“I will write the report,” she said. “We’re scheduled to leave in four days, escorting the convoy to the border. I’ll transmit it just before we leave.”

Davidson frowned. “I can't say I’m happy with doing this in such an ... underhand manner,” he confessed. “Is it right?”

Kat hesitated. Davidson had always been honourable. It was one of the things she'd loved about him. But he preferred to do things in a direct manner, if possible, rather than sneak around behind his superior’s back.

“I don’t see that we have any choice,” the XO said. “If we file a report through channels, it will go missing somewhere along the way.”

“I agree,” Kat said, simply. “We can't take the chance.”

“I will write a formal report for Marine HQ,” Davidson said. “Can you send it with your message?”

“Yes,” Kat said. Her father might try to use what she’d sent for political advantage. If the report went to Marine HQ too, it would be harder for him to suppress it. “And I’ll also suggest reinforcements be sent before anything else happens.”

She dismissed them both, then sat back in her chair, feeling very old. Part of her hated the idea of sneaking on a senior officer – and that, she knew, was precisely what she was doing, no matter how she tried to disguise it. Admiral Morrison wore the same uniform and yet she was conspiring against him. But she knew there was no choice. 7th Fleet’s condition crew worse every day.

Slowly, she reached for her private terminal and started to write.
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