Book: The Nelson Touch

The Nelson Touch

The Nelson Touch

Christopher G. Nuttall

Cover by Justine Adams

All Comments Welcome!

Cover Blurb

Ark Royal – the Royal Navy’s outdated space carrier – has won a smashing victory against the enigmatic aliens, capturing one of their starships and returning to Earth.  Now, Admiral Theodore Smith and his crew are assigned to command a fleet charged with making a deep-penetration raid into alien territory, a fleet made up of carriers from four different nations.

But with a crewman who isn't what he seems, untested pilots and international friction – and a new and dangerous alien plan - can Ted and his crew survive their mission ... or will they die, alone and unremarked, hundreds of light years from home?


To everyone who emailed me and asked for Book II.

Have fun!


Author’s Note

The Nelson Touch is Book II in the Ark Royal series, following on from Ark Royal.  A free sample of Book I can be downloaded from my website ( and then purchased from Amazon.

Historically speaking, this book starts roughly six months after the conclusion of Ark Royal.

If you liked this book, feel free to join my facebook page, discussion forum or simply drop me an email.



Cover Blurb


Author’s Note


Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Sixteen

Chapter Seventeen

Chapter Eighteen

Chapter Nineteen

Chapter Twenty

Chapter Twenty-One

Chapter Twenty-Two

Chapter Twenty-Three

Chapter Twenty-Four

Chapter Twenty-Five

Chapter Twenty-Six

Chapter Twenty-Seven

Chapter Twenty-Eight

Chapter Twenty-Nine

Chapter Thirty

Chapter Thirty-One

Chapter Thirty-Two

Chapter Thirty-Three

Chapter Thirty-Four

Chapter Thirty-Five

Chapter Thirty-Six

Chapter Thirty-Seven

Chapter Thirty-Eight

Chapter Thirty-Nine

Chapter Forty

Preview of Schooled in Magic

Chapter One


From: Commodore Timothy O’Neal

To: Admiral Sir Thomas Hanover, First Space Lord


It has been eleven months since the attack on Vera Cruz both introduced the human race to the existence of aliens and started the First Interstellar War.  Since then, we have learned a great deal about our enemy and how he responds to our weapons and tactics.  In particular, the capture of an alien battlecruiser by Ark Royal was very helpful.

Most of my study group’s recommendations are included in the detailed report, but there are certain issues I wished to bring to your attention personally.  In particular, I must caution you against assuming anything about our foe.  We are still faced with an enigma wrapped in a mystery wrapped in a riddle; we know nothing about his internal command structure, internal politics or – most importantly of all – just why he chose to start the war.  Our attempts to crack the captured computer system have yielded no data that might allow us to build up a picture of how our foe thinks.  All we have are deductions from his actions.

They clearly took some time to study us and gear their forces to take advantages of our weaknesses.  The plasma cannon system alone devastated our formations, allowing them to score a major victory over New Russia that came alarmingly close to shortening the war.  If we hadn't possessed Ark Royal, with armour that made her largely immune to alien weapons, we might well have lost the war within six months.  However, we still lack any insights as to why they actually started the war in the first place.

My team has speculated wildly, using human history as a baseline.  Their government may well be expansionist, bent on conquering or exterminating all other forms of intelligent life.   Or they may view us as a potential threat and see advantages in curbing our own expansion.  Or they may believe that we started the war.  The discovery of artefacts from the long-lost Heinlein on Alien-1 raises a number of uncomfortable questions.  Did the Heinlein Colony mission accidentally start a war with the aliens?

But all of this leads to yet another mystery.  Why don’t they talk to us?  They have not even attempted to demand unconditional surrender, even though it could shorten the war, let alone open up diplomatic channels.  And, so far, every attempt to establish communications with the aliens has ended in failure.

We accept that the aliens have physical problems speaking in human tongues; indeed, that we will have similar problems in trying to pronounce their words.  However, given their obvious skill at technology, it is unlikely that they have any real problems producing equipment that will allow them to bridge the gap.  For that matter, we have no difficulty in doing the same – and yet the alien POWs steadfastly refuse to talk to us.  I have had to dismiss two operatives from the research team for allowing their frustration to impede their professionalism.

In short, we have no way of ending this war, save by outright victory.

Towards that end, sir, I have a few suggestions ...

Chapter One


Admiral Sir Theodore Smith jerked awake in the shuttle’s uncomfortable seat.  Lieutenant Janelle Lopez, his Flag Lieutenant, was looking down at him, an expression of worry crossing her beautiful dark face.  Ted couldn't tell if she was worried about him or the effects on her career of awakening her Admiral from an unsound sleep, but it hardly mattered.  A glance out the porthole showed their destination coming into view.

“I’m awake,” he said, crossly.  His mouth felt like sandpaper and he swallowed, hard.  There were water supplies on the shuttle, but he hadn't bothered to take a drink since they’d departed from Nelson Base.  “Were there any further updates?”

Janelle shook her head, pushing her hair back into her ponytail.  She looked absurdly young for her position, but Ted had insisted on having her assigned to him as a reward for believing in Ark Royal when the Old Lady had been nothing more than a drifting hulk orbiting Earth, nothing more than a reserve for officers and crew the Royal Navy couldn't be bothered to discharge.  Now, with Ark Royal the most important ship in the fleet, the competition for postings to her – and her Admiral’s flag staff – was intense.  But Ted was determined that those who had shown faith would have first choice of slots behind her massive sheets of armour.

He smiled at her tiredly, then turned to peer out of the porthole.  Ark Royal was lit up from prow to stern, shining out in the inky darkness of space like a beacon of hope.  She was ugly – even her fiercest defenders would never call her beautiful – yet there was a quiet elegance to her stubby lines that caught his eye and fired his imagination.  As they came closer, he saw the makeshift sensor blisters, point defence cannons and missile tubes mounted on her hull, ready to defend her from all enemies.  It was ironic, he knew, that the Old Lady had once been considered obsolete.  But with alien starfighters armed with plasma cannons out there, hunting for targets, the only real defence was layers of solid-state armour.  The loss of twelve modern carriers in the First Battle of New Russia had proved that beyond a shadow of a doubt.

“Preparing to land,” the pilot called from the cockpit.  “I believe they’re putting together a ceremony for you, sir.”

Ted groaned, so quietly that only Janelle heard him.  Ceremonies were a very important part of the Royal Navy’s traditions, but they hadn't featured in his life until Ark Royal had received a new lease on life.  Since his promotion to Admiral, he’d been forced to endure more ceremonies, speeches and formal dinners than he'd had to attend in his entire life, prior to the war.  The thought of returning to the Old Lady with such elaborate formality seemed absurd.  And yet he knew there was no choice.  Ark Royal was no longer his command, even though he was her Admiral.  He would be a guest on the ship he still considered to be his own.

He leaned back in his seat as the shuttle entered the landing bay and settled down on the deck.  A faint queasiness ran through his body as the shuttle’s gravity field slowly merged with the carrier’s own gravity field.  Bracing himself, he stood and started to walk towards the hatch.  Outside, he knew, the landing bay would already be closed, with a breathable atmosphere being pumped into the massive compartment.  It was a necessity for the Royal Navy’s ceremonies.

Wouldn't do to have the Admiralty step out into cold vacuum, he thought, snidely.  And until someone invents a forcefield to keep the atmosphere inside the ship, that’s precisely what they would do if they didn't wait to repressurise the bay.

He sucked in a breath as he caught sight of his own reflection.  Somewhere along the way, he’d picked up more than a few white hairs, although his body was as healthy as years of naval food and a forced program of exercise could make it.  The perfectly-tailored Admiral’s uniform still seemed odd on him, after being a starship commander for so long.  His blue eyes looked tired, but bright.  The thought of returning to action was galvanising in a way endless meetings could never be.

There was a faint ding from the airlock controller as it registered the presence of a breathable atmosphere outside, but there was a long pause before it opened.  Ted had to fight down the urge to open the airlock himself and step out into the starship, even though he knew it would ruin the ceremony.  It would be petty and childish, but part of him just wanted to set foot on Ark Royal again, even though she was no longer his command.

The airlock clicked, then hissed open.  Ted took a breath, tasting the indefinable mixture of elements that made up the old carrier’s atmosphere, then stepped out onto the deck.  Outside, the landing bay looked shinier than he remembered, suggesting that Captain Fitzwilliam had made good use of the legions of technicians assigned to Ark Royal in the wake of their return to Earth.  He paused, long enough to salute the Union Jack painted on the far bulkhead, then turned to meet his former XO and current Flag Captain, Captain James Fitzwilliam.

“Admiral Smith,” Captain Fitzwilliam said, as they exchanged salutes.  “Welcome back.”

“Thank you, James,” Ted said, and meant it.  The first time they’d met, Captain Fitzwilliam – a young aristocratic officer – had tried to take command of the carrier out from under Ted’s nose.  Instead, he’d wound up serving as Ted’s XO as Ark Royal went to war.  After a somewhat bumpy start, they’d wound up trusting one another ... and Fitzwilliam had saved both Ted’s life and career.  “It’s good to be back.”

“This is my XO, Commander Amelia Williams,” Fitzwilliam said, nodding to a tall redheaded woman with a stern, almost patrician face.  “She joined us from Victorious.”

Ted nodded, keeping his expression blank.  He’d argued that Commander Keith Farley, his former tactical officer, should be moved up into the XO slot, but the Admiralty had disagreed.  With the new push to construct armoured carriers and battleships that might be able to stand up to the aliens in combat, they wanted as many officers as possible to develop experience with the old-new starships.  He had nothing personal against Commander Williams, but seeing her in place was a reminder that he hadn't won all of the political battles.

“Pleased to meet you,” he said.  “You have some big shoes to fill.”

He pasted a smile on his face.  Whatever else could be said about her, Commander Williams was definitely one of the Royal Navy’s rising stars.  Her career path would probably have led her to carrier command within a couple of years anyway, although command of any other carrier was something of a poisoned chalice under the circumstances.  During the Battle of New Russia, the aliens had gone through modern carriers like knives through butter.

“Thank you, sir,” Fitzwilliam said.  “I believe you know my senior crew?”

Ted smiled, more openly this time, as he nodded to his old subordinates.  Most of them had been dedicated lifers, spending their time in an endless struggle to keep the old carrier up and running when the Admiralty didn't give a damn what happened to her.  They’d learnt more about splicing together components and systems from a dozen separate interstellar powers than anyone else, which had helped when the time came to capture an alien starship and press it into service.  A quarter of his former engineering crew, he knew, had been reassigned to either work on the captured ship or assist the joint defence effort.  It would have been more if he hadn't put his foot down on the matter.  The Old Lady needed her unique engineering crew to remain functional.

“It’s a pleasure to see you all again,” he said.  “And I hope that fame hasn't gone entirely to your heads.”

They smiled back at him, a little ruefully.  No one had paid attention to them when they’d been drifting in orbit, part of the naval reserve no one ever expected to be called into action.  Now, they were not only famous, but rich.  The combined world governments had poured out reward money for the captured alien ship, enough to give even the lowliest crew a sizable bonus.  And the fame had made them heroes.  Not all of them had handled it very well.

He paused long enough to exchange a few words with men who were friends, even if he outranked them, then Fitzwilliam dismissed the greeting party and escorted Ted up through the starship’s long passageways towards the bridge.  As before, Ted couldn't help noticing that the decks looked cleaner than ever before, although the telltale signs of constant maintenance were everywhere.  A number of panels were open, with crewmen working on the starship’s innards or carefully replacing worn components.  Every day, Ted knew, a handful of older components failed.  The Royal Navy’s response to the problem, back in the days Ark Royal had been a frontline carrier, had been to build a massive amount of redundancy into the system.  Modern carriers had fewer maintenance problems ...

His lips twitched, humourlessly.  Modern carriers were also strikingly vulnerable to alien attack.

“We've effectively completed the refit,” Fitzwilliam said, as they stepped through the armoured hatch and into the bridge.  Buried towards the prow of the vessel, it was almost impossible to disable without blowing the entire starship apart.  “I think I can honestly say that the Old Lady has never been in a better state.”

Ted nodded as he surveyed the bridge.  The old consoles had been replaced with gleaming new systems, although they too were already showing signs of wear.  He’d kept up with the readiness reports from the carrier and he’d been pleased to note that Fitzwilliam – and Commander Williams – had maintained his draconian training regime, even while the ship was at rest.  There was no way of knowing, after all, when the much-dreaded attack on the Sol System would materialise.  The Old Lady might have to move from her anchorage and go to war without any real warning.

“I’m glad to hear it,” he said.  The bridge seemed to have something missing.  It took him a long moment before he realised that he was missing the bridge.  The compartment wasn't his any longer.  He looked towards the massive command chair, then kicked himself mentally.  It was Fitzwilliam’s command chair now.  “You didn't change the chair?”

“I thought it was part of history,” Fitzwilliam said.  “And I didn't want to change it.”

Ted nodded, feeling an odd lump in his throat.  The command chair hadn't been replaced since the carrier had last been on active duty.  He’d never felt the urge to replace it – and now, Fitzwilliam was right.  It was part of history.  One way or another, the Old Lady had definitely earned her place in the history books.  But would their writers be humans ... or aliens?  The war was far from over, even if the aliens had been suspiciously quiet for the last three months.  Ted knew the planning staff suspected the aliens were preparing a final offensive.  He tended to agree with them.

He followed Fitzwilliam into the ready room – it had once been Ted’s ready room – and sat down on the sofa.  When he'd been Captain, he’d slept in the room more than once, catching up on his sleep while remaining close to the bridge.  Now, he would have to sleep in the Admiral’s quarters near the CIC ... and he would never command the ship in combat again.  Indeed, even issuing commands to the crew could be construed as infringing on Fitzwilliam’s authority.  His lips twitched, remembering command exercises at the Academy.  They’d been warned, more than once, to try to avoid stepping on one another’s toes.

Fitzwilliam poured tea from a china teapot, then passed the cup over to Ted, who examined it with some interest.  The fine china was probably expensive enough to swallow half of his paycheck for the month, he decided, if it could be replaced at all.  It felt more like an antique than anything mundane – or Royal Navy issue.

“My ... one of my ancestors commanded a ship during the Second World War,” Fitzwilliam explained.  “His wife, who didn't have a very practical turn of mind, sent him this as a present, apparently in the expectation that he would find a use for it.  After he returned home, it was placed into storage.  My uncle thought I might find it useful.”

Ted had to smile.  “And what if it was destroyed?”

“I would presumably have other things to worry about,” Fitzwilliam said.  The younger – much younger – man leaned forward.  “How was Earth?”

“Mostly discussions about the aliens and their technology,” Ted said.  It had rapidly turned into a waste of time, at least for him.  He might have seen the technology in action, he might have a good idea of just how the aliens used it, but he knew nothing about how it actually worked.  The engineers could crack the secrets of the alien battlecruiser, given time, yet Ted himself couldn't help them.  “And speeches to every last part of the world.”

He made a face as he took another sip of tea.  The human race had been on an emotional rollercoaster since the dawn of the war – the First Interstellar War, as some wags were already calling it.  There had been the shock of first contact, the horror and terror after the Battle of New Russia, the delight when Ark Royal had won the first of her victories against the aliens ... the entire population seemed torn between hope and dread.  The future no longer seemed quite so full of promise.

“They gave you one of every medal in the world,” Fitzwilliam said.  “They must like you.”

Ted snorted.  It was an exaggeration, but not by much.  Every spacefaring power on Earth had given him a medal, including several that had never been awarded to foreigners beforehand.  Each award ceremony had forced him to make another speech, followed by answering questions about the Old Lady and the alien battlecruiser, half of which he couldn't answer.  It had almost been enough to drive him back to drink.

No, he told himself, firmly.  Fitzwilliam had risked his career to save Ted from the consequences of his drinking.  Ted would not let that go to waste.  I will not go back to the bottle.

“I think they just wanted someone to show off,” he said.  He placed the cup down on the table, then leaned forward.  “I got the basic engineering reports, of course, but I’d like to hear from you.  Are we ready to return to war?”

Fitzwilliam paused, contemplating his answer.  “I believe so,” he said.  “We have repaired the damaged armour, replaced the destroyed weapons and improved our defences.  We’ve mounted enemy-level plasma cannons on our hull, loaded new bomb-pumped laser missiles into the tubes ... in short, we’re as ready to go as possible.  All we really need are replacement flight crews.”

Ted nodded.  Half of Ark Royal’s surviving pilots had been reassigned, either to the Academy or other carriers that might soon be going into action.  They would be recalled, of course, or replaced, but until they arrived Ark Royal’s striking power would be very limited.  But then, compared to the rest of the fleet, she was practically an armoured colossus.  Her fighters, missiles and mass drivers gave her a striking power no modern carrier could match.

“I believe they will be reassigned here in a week or two,” Ted said.  He smiled, rather dryly.  “The Admiralty has been holding high-level discussions with the rest of the interstellar powers, considering our best course of action now the aliens seem to have been knocked back and taught to fear human weapons.  We may well be going on the offensive.”

Fitzwilliam smiled.  “That would be good,” he said.  “Better to wage war in their systems than ours.”

Ted nodded in agreement.  The aliens had occupied twelve human systems, three of them with large human populations.  Reports from the planetary surface suggested that the aliens were largely ignoring the humans, which was interesting.  They didn't seem inclined to either enslave the humans or exterminate them.  But they had wiped out the population of smaller mining colonies ...

He shrugged.  It was tempting to believe that the aliens were merely biding their time ... or, perhaps, that they’d realised they might not win the war after all and they’d decided not to commit any atrocities.  Or, perhaps, they had their own codes for treating prisoners of war, codes not too different from those followed by humanity.  After all, some human enemies had been downright barbaric to their prisoners.  It made the aliens look surprisingly civilised.

“There will be a ceremony in one week,” he said, changing the subject slightly.  “I believe we will be playing host to the Prime Minister himself, as well as a handful of foreign dignitaries.”

Fitzwilliam looked worried.  Ted didn't blame him.  A serving naval officer would understand that perfection was a hopeless pipe dream, but a politician without any military experience might question an unwashed deck or something else that looked slapdash.  It could ruin an officer’s career, no matter how promising it had seemed before the politicians boarded the ship.  But it couldn't be helped.  If nothing else, they would finally be briefed on whatever operation the joint command had had in mind since Ark Royal returned to the solar system.

“I’d better get on with preparing for their arrival,” Fitzwilliam said.  Politicians couldn't be fed naval rations, even though the crew had to make do with them.  They’d need to get some prepared food from Earth and perhaps hire an extra cook or two.  “Wonderful.”

“It could be worse,” Ted reminded him.  “We went from a laughing stock to the flagship of the fleet.  It's worth having a dinner with politicians to remind us that we’re no longer a joke.”

Fitzwilliam hesitated, then nodded in agreement.

Ted smiled.  “And how is Commander Williams shaping up?”

“I think I understand how you must have felt,” Fitzwilliam confessed.  “She’s brilliant, very capable ... and ambitious as hell.”

“A common failing,” Ted observed, dryly.  “But can she handle the job?”

“I believe so,” Fitzwilliam said.  “She isn't another Farley.”

“Good,” Ted said.  Abraham Farley had somehow managed to become XO of a carrier without revealing the soft panicky centre at his core.  But when there had been a nasty accident and he'd inherited command, he’d panicked and almost lost the entire starship.  “I think you should be fine.  But keep an eye on her anyway.  No one reveals what they are until they are truly tested.”

Chapter Two

“Getting what you want,” Captain James Montrose Fitzwilliam’s mother had once told him, “comes with a price.  You get what you want.”

It hadn't made any sense to James at the time.  Like most children, he’d liked the idea of getting what he wanted.  Sweets or chocolate when he was a young boy, a role in the school play or promotion in the Combined Cadet Force when he was older ... when he’d wanted something, he’d worked towards getting it.  But now, with the full weight of command settling around his shoulders, he understood precisely what his mother had meant.  He was solely responsible for Ark Royal and her crew.  If anything happened to his ship, he would bear full responsibility.

He stood and watched as the two shuttles settled down in the landing bay, one by one, feeling tension gripping at his heart.  He’d grown up in the aristocracy, he had plenty of experience dealing with men who’d inherited or earned their titles, yet he was also very aware that the aristocracy talked.  A mistake someone like Admiral Smith could shrug off would haunt James for the rest of his life.  But then, the aristocracy was supposed to be a cut above the common man.  The British Aristocracy had come far too close to extinction during the troubles and it had no intention of repeating the experience.

A dull thump echoed through the hull as the second shuttle landed, followed by a dull hiss that indicated the landing bay was being pressurised.  James waited until it was safe, then nodded to his small party and led the way into the landing bay.  They’d been told to keep the reception low-key, but that was relative.  There was no way a visit from the Prime Minister of Great Britain, the Vice President of the United States and several senior military officers could go completely unremarked.

James sucked in a breath as a handful of close-protection specialists poured out of the shuttle, glancing around as if they expected assassins to be hiding in the rear of the landing bay.  Not that he blamed them for being paranoid, he decided; world leaders were among the most important terrorist targets in the world, while the aliens themselves would certainly consider them legal targets.  His lips quirked in droll amusement at the thought.  If the aliens came after Ark Royal and her cargo of politicians, the close-protection specialists would be damn near useless.

He straightened up as the Prime Minister stepped out, followed by the Vice President.  Prime Minister Gordon Bryce was a tall, strikingly handsome man, something that would have impressed James more if he hadn't known that the politician had had his face carefully engineered to produce just the right impression on the voting public.  Behind him, Vice President Louis Mayo had the same basic idea, although it was clear that he’d blurred racial traits to make himself a man for all men.  The idealistic part of James wondered why people bothered with racism – in any form – when changing one’s skin colour was as easy as cutting one’s hair.  His more cynical side suspected that humans had never really needed an excuse to pick on other humans.

“Welcome onboard, Prime Minister,” he said, taking a step forward.  At least Bryce was a strong supporter of the military.  The opposition had been calling for cuts in the long-term expansion program for decades.  They’d gone remarkably quiet since Vera Cruz.  “And you, Mr. Vice President.”

“Louis is fine,” the Vice President said.  He had a relaxed air of informality that didn't fool James for a moment.  No one reached an elected position of such high authority without having a very sharp mind and a commendable degree of ruthlessness.  “I confess I’m very interested to see your ship.”

James smiled.  Ark Royal wasn't the oldest ship still in active service, but she was definitely the oldest starship operated by a major interstellar power.  She might have been outdated, she might have been as manoeuvrable as a wallowing pig, yet she had stood up to the aliens when every modern carrier that had tried to fight them had been ripped apart within seconds.  And she was pretty much unique.  The two American carriers that had been on a par with her had been scrapped long ago.

“I would be delighted to offer you a tour,” he replied.  “If you would like to follow me?”

He gave them the sanitized tour, giving them a brief tour of the ship without showing them anything particularly sensitive.  The politicians didn't seem to notice, although they asked a number of questions that James did his best to answer.  A couple of them related to the hit new series about reporters on carriers, something that made James want to roll his eyes in horror.  Clearly, now their tour of alien-controlled space was over, the reporters who’d shipped on Ark Royal were telling everyone at home how brave they’d been.

“I haven't watched an episode,” he admitted.  He had no plans to do so either, not if he could avoid it.  The last movie he’d watched that purported to show the Royal Navy in action had made so many errors that he’d snickered his way through the show.  “But I’m sure it helped encourage recruiting for the Royal Navy.”

They wound up in the Officer’s Mess, where the cooks had prepared a small meal.  There, they were joined by Admiral Smith and two of his staff, who briefly engaged the politicians in conversation while James took a moment to relax and curse the uniform designer under his breath.  It seemed to be a law of nature that dress uniforms were always uncomfortable as hell, particularly when someone could not afford to show discomfort.  When he was First Space Lord, James promised himself, he would have the uniform designed to be comfortable first and foremost.  Looking snappy could come second.

“I was surprised that you offered no alcohol,” one of the Prime Minister’s staffers said, as the overly-long meal came to an end.  “The Navy isn't dry, is it?”

“It's a gesture of respect to our American cousins,” James lied, smoothly.  It was true enough that the Americans banned alcohol on their starships – they probably had as many problems with illicit stills as the British – but the truth was different.  He didn't want to risk encouraging Admiral Smith to start drinking again.  “Besides, we will need clear heads for the briefing.”

“A sensible thought,” the First Space Lord agreed.  He lifted his glass of non-alcoholic wine from Mars and cleared his throat.  “Ladies and gentlemen, the King!”

There was a brief mutter as the toast was echoed, then the First Space Lord put his glass on the table and leaned forward.  “If you don’t mind,” he said, “time is pressing.”

“Certainly,” the Prime Minister said.  “Should we repair to the briefing room?”

James nodded, issued orders for the Officer’s Mess to be cleared, then led the way into the large briefing compartment.  It had seemed too large at first; now, with Ark Royal effectively the most important starship in the navy, it was too small to host everyone who might have to attend a briefing.  But there was enough room for the Prime Minister and his party.

The First Space Lord cleared his throat as soon as everyone had found a seat.  “As you know, the war appears to have stalemated,” he said, briskly.  “The aliens have made no attempt to expand their positions within human space, while we have been rather unsuccessful at liberating any of the star systems they have occupied.  We do not believe that this period of uneasy peace will endure.”

James nodded in agreement.  Humanity had been caught by surprise when the aliens first attacked, but that surprise was long gone.  Every major interstellar power was converting its industry to produce supplies for the war, while working out shared protocols for combined operations against the common foe.  If nothing else, the alien invasion had done wonders for humanity’s unity and technological development.  There were even rumours that the human race was on the verge of a colossal breakthrough in gravity-manipulation technology.

“Furthermore, attempts to open diplomatic relationships with the aliens have failed,” the First Space Lord continued.  “We know nothing about the alien society, from how they’re governed to what they want ... and why the war actually started.  In short, we appear committed to fighting to the bitter end.”

Admiral Smith leaned forward.  “There has been no progress with the alien prisoners?”

“None,” the First Space Lord said.  “Oh, the scientists tell me they’re making progress on unlocking their biology, but we haven’t been able to talk to them at all.  We can't tell if they’re deliberately refusing to talk or if we’re simply not getting the message across to them.”

He paused.  “Since your cruise through the New Russia system, we’ve kept pinging spy probes into the system to keep an eye on the aliens,” he continued.  “They have discovered that the aliens are massing a sizable force near the planet, including fifteen carriers and a number of ships of unknown capabilities.  Intelligence believes that the aliens intend to drive on Earth.  I don’t need to tell you, I think, that losing Earth would prove disastrous.”

James nodded.  Earth held roughly sixty percent of humanity’s industrial base.  Losing it would shorten the war significantly.  Worse, perhaps, it would also make it harder for the various human colonies to coordinate their actions with one another.  The aliens would be able to deal with them, one by one, after they recovered from taking Earth.

The First Space Lord looked around the room.  “The Earth Defence Command has been considering the problem,” he said.  “It believes that the only way to deal with the threat is to go on the offensive and strike into alien space directly.  We can force them to react to us for a change.”

James met Admiral Smith’s eyes.  They’d been in alien-controlled space, but they knew next to nothing about its internal layout, let alone the location of the alien industrial nodes and their homeworld.  And it was impossible to escape the feeling that the aliens knew everything about humanity’s star systems.  Their assault on humanity had neatly isolated a number of smaller colonies and taken New Russia out of the game.

“Lieutenant Phipps will brief you,” the First Space Lord concluded.

Lieutenant Harold Phipps stood up and took control of the display system.  He was a surprisingly young man, but there was a definite hint of intelligence in his eyes.  James guessed that Phipps had shown a talent for intelligence work in the Academy and had been fast-tracked into either Naval Intelligence or MI6.  James disliked intelligence officers on principle, but he resolved to give Phipps a chance to prove himself.  Besides, it wasn’t as if they had much else to go on.

“My department has been taking the lead on analysing the computers on the alien starship you captured,” Phipps said, bluntly.  “It has been an incredibly frustrating experience.  Parts of the system are badly damaged, probably through an attempted core purge, while other parts are completely incompatible with our technology.  Recovering data has been a long slow process.”

James snorted.  “We managed to get their drive to work,” he pointed out.

“Their starship drive technology is advanced, but it isn't that different from our own,” Phipps explained.  “The basic principles are the same as ours, merely ... expanded a little.  Their computers, on the other hand, are very different.  Most of our attempts to read their computer cores have resulted in failure or output we are unable to understand.  We believe that they actually use a holographic matrix rather than ...”

The First Space Lord cleared his throat, loudly.

Phipps looked embarrassed.  “Sorry,” he apologised.  “I get too enthusiastic at times.”

He paused, then went on.  “Two weeks ago, we had a breakthrough,” he said.  “We managed to pull some navigational data out of the computer, then compare it to our own database of stellar locations and projected tramlines.  What we ended up with, I believe, is a chart of tramlines linking alien space together.”

Admiral Smith coughed.  “You believe?”

“It matches up with our projections,” Phipps explained.  “And some of the navigational data is definitely linked to human space.  We don't know if they obtained the data from the Heinlein Colony or they ran projections comparable to ours, but we believe we now have an idea of the layout of their territory.”

He keyed a switch.  A holographic starchart appeared in front of them.  “This is Alien-1,” Phipps said, “where the first set of POWs were captured.  As you can see, the tramlines follow Ark Royal’s course as she retreated from the system, then captured the alien battlecruiser here.  But other tramlines lead further into alien space.  In particular, this system caught our attention.”

James blinked in surprise.  The star, if the projections were accurate, held nine tramlines leading to other stars.  Unless the alien economy was significantly different from humanity’s – and nothing they’d seen suggested that was true – the system would be vitally important to the aliens.  After all, Britannia held five tramlines and collecting transit fees made up a healthy percentage of the British Government’s revenue.

“It is our belief that this system represents a major alien settlement, at the very least,” Phipps continued.  “Even if it didn't, it would still be vitally important to them.  Blocking the system and destroying whatever settlements are there would be a major strike against them.”

“I understand,” Admiral Smith said.  “You want us to attack the system.”

He sounded irked.  It took James a moment to realise that his commanding officer hadn't been in the loop until now.  The staff at Nelson Base had done the preliminary planning without bothering to alert the officer who would be commanding the mission.  It was, at the very least, thoughtless and stupid.  He made a mental note to raise the issue with his uncle as soon as possible, then looked up at the display.  If the aliens truly ruled all that territory, he decided, they controlled territory over nine times the size of humanity’s territory.  The implications were downright alarming.

The Prime Minister smiled.  “It will be a joint operation,” he said.  “But you will be in command.”

“Yes,” the First Space Lord said.  “We have opened high-level discussions with various interstellar powers.  The Americans” – he nodded to the Vice President – “have already agreed to make a major commitment.  We expect both the French and the Chinese to make commitments of their own.  The Russians ... are tapped out by the war.  It is unlikely they will produce more than a token contribution.”

“They lost half of their industry when New Russia fell,” Admiral Smith commented.  “It is unlikely they will agree to risk their remaining forces.”

“Indeed,” the First Space Lord said.  He nodded towards the display.  “The objective is simple; take the enemy system, if possible.  You will have a major ground-pounding element attached to the fleet.  If not, rip the industries apart and then fall back as quickly as you can, before the aliens manage to mousetrap you.  We imagine they will be very unhappy to see you in their rear.”

Admiral Smith frowned.  “I have a question,” he said.  “How do you intend us to get there without fighting our way through successive alien-held systems?”

James held his breath.  The question had occurred to him too.

“We have been able to reconfigure the FTL drives on modern starships to make use of alien tramlines,” the First Space Lord said.  “Ark Royal herself will have a ... system attached to her that will allow the same capability.  Instead of proceeding through known tramlines, you will proceed in a roundabout course that shouldn't take you anywhere near an economically viable system.”

Admiral Smith and James exchanged glances.  It was true enough that some systems were just useless for anything other than transit points, but the aliens would almost certainly picket them anyway, just to make sure no one tried to sneak in through the backdoor.  Humanity might have been caught by surprise by the alien FTL technology, yet the aliens wouldn't make the same mistake themselves.  Come to think of it, he knew, quite a few such systems were settled by outcast groups that wanted nothing to do with the rest of humanity.  The aliens might have similar groups in their territory.

“It does have its risks,” the First Space Lord conceded.  “But this might be our best chance to hit the enemy right where it hurts.”

He paused, then nodded to the Prime Minister.  “The fleet will be assembled over the next fortnight,” he said.  “Once the fleet is ready, we can launch the operation at once.”

“We will need to train and exercise together,” Admiral Smith said.  “Even now, there are differences in our operational protocols.  We can’t afford a communications breakdown in the heat of battle.”

“You’ll have all the time you want,” the Prime Minister said.  “I don’t think I need to tell you, any of you, that this is immensely important.  We cannot afford a defeat.”

James nodded, silently admiring the man’s nerve.  Sending even a small number of carriers to take the offensive risked denuding the defences of Earth.  If the operation failed, or the aliens mounted their own offensive before they realised that Ark Royal was in their rear, it could get very sticky.  He had a feeling that quite a few politicians had argued for an attack on New Russia instead.  But, at best, that would only liberate the planet.  It wouldn't threaten the alien homeworlds.

“We won’t let you down,” Admiral Smith said.  James knew him well enough to tell that he wasn't as confident as he sounded.  Even if everything went according to plan the operation would still be very tricky to pull off successfully.  “Does the operation have a name?”

The First Space Lord smiled.  “Operation Nelson,” he said.  “I thought it was fitting.”

Chapter Three

“They look so young,” Squadron Commander Rose Labara muttered.

Wing Commander Kurt Schneider couldn't disagree as he watched the trainees filing into the hall.  A handful were older, merchant crewmen who had volunteered for service with the Royal Navy, but the remainder looked as though they should still be in school.  He knew, intellectually, that the youngest of them were eighteen years old, yet his mind refused to grasp it.  The boys looked barely old enough to shave, the girls looked as though they should be more interested in dresses and makeup than flying starfighters against the enemies of humanity.

He shook his head, feeling old.  His son was seventeen and planning to join the Royal Navy next year; his daughter was only a couple of years younger.  Kurt himself was old enough to have fathered most of the trainees; he’d steered them through the compressed training sessions, knowing that many of them would be dead before the end of the year.  The Royal Navy had lost a third of its pre-war pilots in the war, including many Kurt had known personally.  There was no reason to believe that it would improve in the years to come.

Oh, they’d learned a great deal about their enemy, he knew.  They knew how the aliens fought, they knew how to counter alien tactics and technology ... and yet there was still a quiet nagging doubt.  The aliens had proven themselves to be cunning and deadly foes.  Kurt suspected their recent inactivity was not through caution, but a desire to make sure they held the advantage once again before they started their advance on Earth.  When they came, and they would, many of the young men and women in front of him would die.

He cast his eyes over the trainees sitting in the front row, the trainees who had scored the highest in simulation flying.  Sonny, a young man with an unerring knack for pulling off impossible shots; David, a merchant crewman who made up in experience what he lacked in polish; Sandra, a young girl with a flair that impressed even Rose ... and Charles Augustus, a young man with a permanent scowl on his face, yet possessing remarkable determination to crash through the course and win his flight wings.  He’d earned them, Kurt conceded, and yet there was something about Augustus’s attitude that bothered him.  Despite being his superior, he still knew almost nothing about the young man.

Rose elbowed him.  “It's time,” she said.  “Go speak to them, sir.”

Kurt nodded and stepped up onto the stage.  Five hundred pairs of eyes peered at him as he cleared his throat, wishing – once again – that he was better at giving speeches.  The trainees didn't know it, but the ceremony they’d earned had been cut short, just like the rest of their training.  They deserved better, he knew, yet they wouldn't get it.  There were few resources available to mark their graduation in the midst of a war.

The Queen came to my graduation, he thought, sourly.  But there are no Royals here.

“Three months ago, you entered the Academy,” he said.  Over two thousand prospective pilots had entered the academy; three-fourths of them had washed out.  He wasn't sure if he should be relieved the compressed system was still excluding the unsuitable or worried that they were expelling pilots who would overcome their flaws, given time.  “Now, you have qualified as pilots.  Your assignments to carriers or orbital support bases are already being selected for you.”

A low ripple ran through the gathered trainees.  They’d been told, in no uncertain terms, that they wouldn't be true pilots until they graduated.  Now, with the course almost over, they could look forward to having their wings pinned to their uniforms and call themselves pilots.

“But you are still very young, very inexperienced,” Kurt continued.  “You have not had the recommended number of hours in actual starfighters, no matter how many hours you have spent in the simulators.  You have faced thousands of simulated aliens, yet you have faced no real danger during your training.  And you have missed out on countless elements of the pre-war training program, everything from naval protocol to naval history.

“You will be assigned to units commanded by officers who have had all of that,” he explained.  “They will also have had considerable experience with actually risking their lives in combat against the aliens.  You would be well advised to learn from them, all of you, and not think that you are immortal and invincible.  Because, I assure you, the aliens will happily take advantage of any overconfidence you happen to show.

“You have all done well,” he added.  “Your presence here proves that, as I think you know.  But you have a long way to go.”

He smiled at them.  “Enough of that, for the moment,” he concluded.  “If the first row would like to form an orderly line ...?”

Rose passed him the bag as the front row lined up, producing a ragged line that looked alarmingly unprofessional. Kurt sighed inwardly – standards were definitely slipping – and then opened the bag, revealing the first set of flying wings.  His own set were prominently mounted on his shoulder, a memento of his days in the Academy.  No matter what happened, he knew, they could not be legally taken from him.  Ideally, they would be passed down to his children after he died.

“Form a proper line,” Kurt said, in some irritation.  “And try to remember to salute your senior officers when you meet them.”

He sighed at the thought.  Military protocol, no matter what the civilians thought, was important.  It helped to build up both discipline and comradeship between officers and enlisted crewmen.  But the new pilots were very hazy on the finer points of protocol.  A number of them had had to practice saluting for weeks before they had it down to a fine art, while their responses were often wrong or badly out of place.  They meant well, he knew, but they were going to have a rough time of it.  At least the discipline problems had been weeded out early in the training period.

“Congratulations,” he said, as Sonny stepped up to Kurt.  He pinned the wings to Sonny’s shoulder, then shook the young man’s hand.  “I believe your assignment is waiting for you.”

Sonny’s eyes went wide.  “A carrier?”

“Wait and see,” Kurt said.  Ideally, he would have preferred not to send any of the trainees to a carrier, not when they lacked true experience.  But no one had bothered to ask his opinion, nor would it have mattered in any case.  The Royal Navy was desperately short of pilots.  “I think you will serve well, wherever you go.”

The next few pilots passed without a hitch, then Augustus arrived.  Kurt pinned the wings to his shoulder, then blinked in surprise as Augustus leaned forward to whisper in his ear.  “I earned this, didn't I?”

Kurt eyed him, puzzled.  “You passed the course,” he said, dryly.  Augustus was an odd young man, definitely.  He had a chip on his shoulder, yet Kurt had never seen anyone more driven to succeed.  “You earned your wings through your own efforts.”

Augustus smiled openly – the first time Kurt had ever seen such an undisguised expression on his face – and almost skipped off the stage, back to the rear of the compartment.  Kurt watched him go, then turned to the next trainee and carefully pinned her wings on her shoulder, putting Augustus out of his mind.  He would be his commanding officer’s problem, Kurt knew.  However, he was confident that Augustus would do well, even if he did lack spit and polish.

It took nearly two hours to pin the wings on all of the new pilots, but he wouldn't have passed the duty on to anyone else, even if they’d offered him a million pounds.  Finally, it was over, leaving a roomful of newly-minted pilots staring at him.  Judging by their expressions, they weren't in the mood for a long speech.  Kurt smiled as he cleared his throat.  He wasn't in any mood for a long speech either.

“Congratulations,” he said.  “I believe that you have been cleared for three days of leave prior to departing for your assignments.  As someone old enough to be your father” – there were some nervous titters from the pilots – “I should warn you that Luna is full of pitfalls, ready to snare unwary young idiots.  If you should happen to be planning a jaunt to Sin City, I suggest you make damn sure you can get back to the Academy if necessary.  And I strongly suggest you check their health certificates before you get into bed with anyone.”

He had to smile at some of the guilty looks.  Sin City was a semi-independent state, dedicated to drinking, gambling and prostitution.  There were few laws and even fewer morals, ensuring that anyone who went there with an open mind was rapidly enjoying whatever pleasure he wanted.  Kurt had been once, as a young pilot, and enjoyed himself more than he cared to admit.  Now, as a father of two, he would prefer to watch as Sin City burned.  But he couldn't deny his pilots the right to choose their own entertainment.

“I would also suggest that you make sure you are not late to your first assignments,” he added.  “It would make a very bad impression on your first commander – and while your records here are sealed, your active duty records are not.”

He paused.  “Good luck, all of you,” he said.  “Dismissed!”

The pilots cheered, then stampeded out of the room.  Kurt rolled his eyes – yep, they were definitely planning to visit Sin City – and then turned to look at the terminal Rose held out to him.  After a moment, he pressed his thumb against the scanner, certifying that five hundred new pilots had just graduated.  For the moment, his duties at the Academy had come to an end.

“We short-changed them, sir,” Rose said.  On duty, she was always professional.  “They deserved a bigger ceremony.”

“I know,” Kurt said, recalling his earlier thoughts.  Pre-war ceremonies had been something to see, even for enlisted crewmen.  Senior officers made an effort to attend, either as participants or just silent observers.  But now ... now, it was just him and his team of training officers.  No senior officer had even attempted to attend.  “It couldn’t be helped.”

He gave her a sidelong look, feeling his breath catch in his throat.  She was beautiful, even with her blonde hair cut short.  Their affair might have been born in tension and the shared certainty of death, but it had endured even after their return to Earth.  He felt guilty, sometimes, yet he couldn't stop himself from touching her.  His wife’s face had faded in his memory.

Rose seemed unaware of his thoughts, thankfully.  “Do you think we’ll be assigned to the next training cycle?”

“I hope not,” Kurt said.  He’d split their time between training prospective pilots and training other instructors from the major interstellar powers, sharing the lessons of war with them.  They’d improved remarkably over the last two months.  “I’ve applied to go back to war.”

The thought caused him another pang of guilt.  He’d accepted the assignment to the Luna Academy without a fight because it would have brought him closer to his family.  But his wife had declined to move to the moon, citing the dangers of alien bombardment, leaving him as isolated as he’d been in deep space.  He’d barely been able to see them once or twice since his assignment had begun.  The only advantage was that he could record messages for them and receive replies within the same day.

“Me too,” Rose admitted.  She paused.  “Was I as bad as some of these trainees?”

Kurt shrugged as he led her away from the hall and headed down towards Officer Country, where they slept when they weren't supervising the barracks.  “I haven't seen your training records,” he reminded her.  “Were you as bad as the idiot who managed to block the toilet and force us to have it fixed?  Or the one who decided to play pranks on the occupants of the other barracks?  Or the one who ...”

Rose giggled.  “I was just an overachiever,” she said.  “But I had six months to straighten out and fly right.”

“Good for you,” Kurt said.  By the time Rose had entered the Academy, he remembered with yet another pang of guilt, he'd already left active service.  She wasn't quite young enough to be his daughter, but she was alarmingly close to it.  “And you did well with the trainees too.”

“Thank you,” Rose said.  “I don’t think I was quite that hard to handle when I was a trainee.”

Kurt laughed as he stopped outside the hatch leading into his quarters.  “When I was eighteen,” he quoted, “my dad was a moron who knew nothing.  But when I was twenty-one ... golly!  It was astonishing how smart the old man had become.”

He sobered as he led her into the chamber.  Life in barracks was never easy, but it was often worse for female trainees.  There was almost no privacy at all, while the shared washing facilities took some getting used to.  Indeed, a quarter of the trainees who had been evicted in the first week had been booted out for ogling their female comrades.  It was a regular shock to politicians, when they found out that men and women were living together, but there was no choice.  Quarters on starships, even the mighty fleet carriers, were no larger.  Rose had done well in helping new trainees to grow used to their surroundings.  By now, most of the trainees were thoroughly professional.

It’s that stupid movie’s fault, he thought, rolling his eyes.  They just couldn't make a realistic movie, could they?  No, the main character had to have muscles on his muscles ... and his female co-lead had to wear a uniform so tight she couldn't breathe.

His terminal bleeped as he sat down, so he pulled it over as Rose poured them both a glass of wine.  He’d expected a message from his daughter – she was actually doing better in school, now they’d hired a nanny – but instead it was his orders.  He hesitated, unsure if he wanted to read them, then cursed his own stupidity as he opened the file and read through the brief message.

“I’m being sent back to Ark Royal as Commander Air Group,” he said, relieved.  Requesting a change of assignment was always hazardous, even though he was one of the few officers with experience at fighting the aliens.  The Royal Navy had plenty of places to send officers who had displeased the bureaucracy in some way.  “And just as CAG this time.”

“So you won’t be flying,” Rose said, regretfully.  “I always thought it kept you closer to us.”

“I’ll try and sneak in as many hours as I can,” Kurt said.  The pace of combat was often shockingly swift.  It was quite possible that the CAG would be reduced to a spectator while his pilots fought and died to protect their starship.  “There will be new fighters too, it seems.  And bombers.”

“Curious,” Rose said.  “Do you think that means they’ve improved the torpedo systems?”

Kurt shrugged.  The pre-war bombers hadn't been designed to face alien plasma weaponry and the one attempt to test pre-war doctrine against the aliens had resulted in a horrific failure.  Their torpedoes were simply not capable of breaking through enemy point defence systems, even if they fired a massive salvo.  But now, if the system had been improved ...

“We’ll find out, I guess,” he said, reviewing the message again.  “I’ve got two days of leave on Earth, then I have orders to report to Ark Royal prior to the arrival of new pilots.  And apparently I’m expected to brush up on international relations too.”

Rose gave him a puzzled look.  “International relations?”

“That's what it says,” Kurt said, swinging the terminal round so she could see the message.  “But not much else.”

“They probably want us to go into battle with allies,” Rose suggested, after a moment.  “The Royal Navy can't bear the brunt of offensive operations on its own.”

Kurt nodded, sourly.  The loss of two modern carriers at New Russia had cost the Royal Navy dearly.  Given that it took at least three years to build a modern carrier – and longer, if they wanted to add heavy armour – those ships would not be replaced any time soon.  If humanity wanted to go on the offensive, it would have to be a joint operation.

He took a sip of his wine.  “And your own orders?”

“Probably waiting for me,” Rose said.  “I’ll look at them later, afterwards.”

She put the glass down and leaned forward to kiss his lips.  Kurt hesitated, tasting the wine on her lips, then kissed her back.  Part of him cursed himself angrily – what had started as a fling before certain death had become something more – while the rest of him urged that he move forward as fast as possible.  His hand reached up to feel her breast, straining against her uniform.  Slowly, he undid the zippers, allowing them to spring free ...

Afterwards, when she had showered and left, he felt torn in two.  He felt deeply for her, yet he also felt deeply for his children.  How could he hurt them by having an affair?  At best, there would be a divorce; at worst, a long bitter court case.  And he might well lose his career in the crossfire.

You’re a fucking idiot, he told himself, as he scrambled to his feet and headed towards the shower.  You should never have gotten involved with her.

But now, he knew, he could never bring himself to break it up.

A moment later, his terminal bleeped.  It was a message from Rose, informing him that she had been assigned back to Ark Royal too.  Kurt stared at it with mixed emotions, then turned and stepped into the shower.  Perhaps cold water would make him feel better.

“Yep,” he muttered out loud.  “Definitely a fucking idiot.”

Chapter Four

“I couldn't help noticing,” Ted said, as he stepped into the First Space Lord’s groundside office, “that London seems to be darker these days.”

The First Space Lord nodded as they shook hands, then waved Ted and Fitzwilliam to chairs facing his desk.  “Between the war and the government’s emigration policy,” he said, “the city has lost quite a bit of its population.  People are thinking that they might be safer well away from large cities.”

Ted nodded.  The government, which owned the entire Britannia System, had been offering very generous settlement grants to prospective emigrants.  If they chose to take the government’s offer, they would be assigned land on Britannia to develop how they chose or a homestead among the asteroid belts.  The policy, he knew, had helped swell the new colony world’s population remarkably.  In the long run, the projections suggested, Britannia would expand rapidly.  The planet’s birthrate was already considerably higher than its founding country’s birthrate.

Probably end up with another revolution on our hands, he thought, cynically.  Britannia already had representation in the Houses of Parliament – there was no point in repeating the mistakes that helped start the American Revolution – but some of its settlers wanted more autonomy.  But they already had more than anywhere else in Britain, being so isolated from the mainstream.

He pushed the thought aside as the First Space Lord placed his fingertips together.  “You’ll be pleased to know that we have a rough idea of Task Force Nelson’s size and composition,” he said.  “Apart from Ark Royal herself, the Royal Navy will be providing two modified bulk freighters that will serve as escort carriers.  Each one can carry and support a squadron of starfighters, giving you some additional punch.  There will also be nine frigates that will provide an escort for the fleet.

“In addition, the Americans have volunteered three carriers, while the French and Japanese are providing one apiece.  The Americans will also be providing the lion’s share of the ground combat element.  This means, I'm afraid, that they’ve demanded the right to nominate both your deputy and the ground combat commander.  Under the circumstances, we can’t really argue.”

“They’re providing three carriers,” Ted mused.  “I’m surprised they didn't demand overall command as well.”

“Luckily for us, you’re a hero in America,” the First Space Lord said, dryly.  “And both the Chinese and Japanese refused to serve under American command.  I doubt the French were too enthusiastic about serving under our command, but they’re bringing only one carrier to the party.”

Ted wasn't surprised.  While Britannia and Washington were on the other side of Earth from New Russia, New France and Edo were both closer to the front lines.  Cutting loose a carrier apiece had to have worried their defence planners, even if they did want to make the joint defence of humanity’s space work.  Battles had been won or lost before, based on the presence or absence of a single ship.

“So we’ll have six carriers,” Ted mused.

“The Americans and Chinese are both sending twelve frigates,” the First Space Lord added.  “In addition, there will be a large transport element for the ground troops and the fleet train.  You should be capable of sustaining your operations for close to a year before returning to human space.”

“Assuming there’s any human space left to return to,” Ted said, darkly.  “Where do we stand on new weapons and starships?”

“We’ve finally managed to get a design worked out for a battleship,” the First Space Lord said, “one armed to the teeth with mass drivers and missile tubes.  But we’re looking at around two years before the first one can enter service.  By then, we should have standardized technology throughout human space, allowing our ships and components to become interchangeable.  As for modified carriers ...”

He shrugged.  “Building another Ark Royal seems a waste of time,” he added.  “But we have a plan for a carrier that combines the best of Ark with the modern designs.  Still, we’re looking at two to three years before we have a working model.  We’re sheathing the modern carriers in armour in the hopes of providing some additional protection.”

“That will be interesting to watch,” Ted mused.  “How well does it work?”

“It should give them some protection,” the First Space Lord said.  “But it hasn't really been tested in combat.”

“Nor were the modern carriers,” Ted pointed out.  The designs had looked good, on paper, and he had to admit that they were faster and more capable than Ark Royal.  But their lack of armour had doomed them when the aliens had attacked.  “And starfighters?”

“We’re finalising a unified starfighter class for humanity’s starships,” the First Space Lord informed him.  “The best of British, American and Japanese technology, combined with everything we’ve learned about our enemies in months of war.  Ideally, we should be able to operate from other carriers and vice versa once the starfighters enter service.”

Ted nodded.  Some components and supplies from different nations were compatible, but others couldn't be forced to work together for love or money.  An American carrier might not be able to handle British starfighters and vice versa.  If that problem could be fixed, the number of deployable carriers would rise rather sharply.  He made a mental note to ensure that supplies were passed around, particularly French or Japanese supplies.  It wouldn't do to lose the starfighters if they lost the carriers.

“The good news is that we finally have a working plasma system of our own,” the First Space Lord added.  “But you can read about that in your briefing notes.”

“I hope it doesn't have the same problems as the alien systems,” Ted said.  Fitzwilliam had already briefed him on the new systems – and their limitations.  “We used EMP to disable them, once upon a time.”

“It does,” the First Space Lord confirmed grimly.  “We won’t be switching completely to plasma weapons, even if we could afford it.  We’ll be keeping both old and new systems for quite some time.”

He leaned back in his chair.  “I have every faith in you, Admiral Smith, to handle the international aspects of the mission without problems,” he said.  “We cannot afford to lose this war.”

Ted couldn't disagree.  The one conflict humanity had engaged in after the discovery of the tramlines had been brief, with nothing more than a few shots fired before the diplomats had sorted out a peace treaty.  Now, humanity faced a foe with unknown motives, but the evidence suggested that – at best – the aliens intended to deny space to the human race.  And, at worst, they might have extermination in mind.

“Yes, sir,” he said.  He, Fitzwilliam and Lieutenant Lopez had gone over the intelligence summaries with a very critical eye.  They hadn't been able to find anything that disproved the suggestion that the multi-tramline nexus would be important to the aliens.  But there was a difference between knowing the base was there and being able to reach it.  “We won’t let you down.”

He wondered, suddenly, just how many doubts the First Space Lord had about him personally.  There was no denying that he’d been a drunkard, or that he still felt the urge to take a drink from time to time.  Medical treatment had helped with that, of course, removing the addiction that had driven him forwards – and so had the fact he’d found something useful to do with his life.  But there was a vast difference between commanding an old carrier and a fleet of six carriers, only one of them British.  How tempted had the Admiralty been, he asked himself, to suggest to the Americans that there would be no resistance if they demanded command of the operation?

“I'm glad to hear it,” the First Space Lord said.  He paused, then leaned forward.  “There are, however, political issues involved.  Local political issues.”

Ted exchanged glances with Fitzwilliam, who looked blank.  On one hand, this war had few political issues; the aliens weren't inclined to talk, so it was kill or be killed.  But, on the other hand, support for the war depended on local politics, both in Britain and all over the world.  If the general population believed the war was lost ...

The First Space Lord smiled, humourlessly.  “Have you been following the debate in the online forums?”

“No,” Ted said.  Earth’s datanet didn't even reach to the moon, let alone Ark Royal’s current anchorage.  Even when he'd been on Earth, he’d had no time to browse the forums.  “What sort of debate?”

Fitzwilliam cleared his throat.  “The one about Prince Henry?

“Indeed,” the First Space Lord said.

He met Ted’s eyes.  “Prince Henry has ... for want of a better word ... pushed his way into the accelerated starfighter training program,” he said.  “It was always his ambition to become a starfighter pilot, continuing the proud tradition of the younger scions of the Royal Family serving in the military.  However, when it was agreed that he could attend the Academy, there wasn't actually a war on.”

Ted blinked in surprise.  “We didn't start running the accelerated training program until after the war had started,” he said.  “How ...?”

“There were ... political issues,” the First Space Lord conceded.  He spread out his hands, grimly.  “Put bluntly, Admiral, there is a strong feeling among the general public that the Royal Family should take part in the war.  At the same time, with the position of the Prince ... uncertain, quite a few officers were resistant to placing him in actual danger.  In the end, he effectively forced Buckingham Palace to give him a chance to train under an assumed name.”

Ted had spent far too much of his career on Ark Royal, but he knew something of the tangled politics surrounding the Prince.  Prince Henry was the firstborn son of King Charles IV, but he wasn't the firstborn child.  Technically, being born male jumped him ahead of his sister in the line of succession.  The law was ancient, but it had never actually been taken off the books.  Traditionalists insisted that Prince Henry was the first in line to the throne.  On the other hand, it was the 23rd Century.  Why should the Prince succeed his father when he was not the firstborn child?

“What a mess,” he said.  “How did he force the Palace to concede the point?”

“He threatened to publically abdicate his position,” the First Space Lord said.  “I do not believe he enjoyed a very happy childhood.”

“No,” Fitzwilliam agreed.  “He would have no privacy at all, would he?”

“There have been scandals,” the First Space Lord agreed.  “Nothing major, nothing we would hold against anyone else, but in his position ... well, it makes the monarchy look bad.”

Ted frowned.  “As interesting as this is,” he said, “what does it actually have to do with us?”

The First Space Lord looked embarrassed.  “The Prince has managed to get himself assigned to Ark Royal,” he explained.  “Still under a false name ...”

Ted stared at him.  “Sir,” he said, “you do realise there’s a very good chance that we may lose him?”

“I know,” the First Space Lord confessed.  “But we are in a very poor position.”

“No, we’re not,” Ted said, firmly.  “He’s an officer in the Royal Navy.  His job is to follow orders.  Assign him to a home defence squadron, if he must fly starfighters, either here or on Britannia.  And, if he makes a fuss about it, tell him we can send him to an isolated mining camp instead.”

“It isn't that simple,” Fitzwilliam said.  He looked up at the First Space Lord.  “Is it?”

“No,” the First Space Lord said.  He produced a sheet of papers and passed them over to Ted, who flicked through them carefully.  “His scores at the Academy were very good – and, as he was under a false name, there was no risk of favouritism.  I believe his training instructors included a few of your former crewmen.  There are no grounds for denying him an assignment to a carrier that won’t stink when they are dragged out into the public eye.  And I am damn sure, Admiral, that they will be dragged out.  The media will make sure of it.”

“Operational security,” Ted muttered.  The scores were very good.  Poor marks for discipline, he noted, but nothing bad enough to merit being booted out of the training program.  “Tell them we don’t give out personnel details and leave it at that, sir.”

“It won’t work, not for the Prince,” the First Space Lord said.  He sighed.  “You know, I believe, just how close the monarchy and the aristocracy came to being legislated out of existence.  Right now, the Royal Family cannot afford to look like they’re shirking their share of the military burden.  Perhaps, if he'd started when he’d intended to start, it wouldn't be such a problem.  Now, even if we rated him as such a high performer we could justify assigning him to a training slot, Ted, it would look very bad.  There would be questions asked in the Houses of Parliament – both Houses of Parliament.”

He shrugged.  “I can't see the remainder of the aristocracy taking it lightly either,” he added.  “People like Captain Fitzwilliam” – he indicated the Captain with one hand – “take the same risks as everyone else in the Royal Navy.  Aristocratic rank sometimes serves as an entree, but it isn't allowed to take someone further than they deserve.  But this ... it could undermine the monarchy itself.”

“But if we put him on Ark Royal,” Ted noted, “we run the risk of losing the heir to the throne.  There is no way we could protect him if the aliens came swarming, sir.”

The First Space Lord sighed, again.  “Then we have a solution to the problem of just which of the King’s children will inherit the throne,” he said, coldly.  “Between the Prince’s determination to do something useful with his life, something he earned on his own merits, and the political problems involved in preventing him from serving on the front lines, we have been backed into a corner.  The Prince must serve on Ark Royal.”

Ted managed – somehow – to keep from muttering something uncomplimentary under his breath.  The tradition of aristocrats changing their features and assuming false names to serve in the military was relatively new, but it made sure that the training officers and drill instructors didn't know their charges were anything other than common recruits.  Anything they earned, they earned on their own merits.  And if they got booted out, no one raised a fuss.  There were plenty of places to exile unworthy aristocrats too.

But losing the Prince, even if he wasn't supposed to know the Prince was serving under his command, would be more than a little embarrassing.  No doubt the politicians, having created the problem in the first place, would swoop down like vultures, trying hard to place the blame on the sitting government.  In turn, the government would blame the Royal Navy – and Ted, the officer who had been in command at the time.  There was no way he could see it working out well, yet he knew there was no way out, short of resigning his commission.  And he couldn't bring himself to do that, not when the Navy was his life.

“Fine,” he said.  He knew his tone was disrespectful and didn't really care.  “But he won’t get any special treatment.”

“I believe that is what he wants,” the First Space Lord said, mildly.  “No special treatment at all.”

He paused for a long moment.  “I understand how you feel about this,” he added.  “And I will try to minimise any ... interference from other parties.”

Ted nodded, sourly.

“One good thing from all of this,” the First Space Lord added.  “You can bar reporters from Ark Royal.”

“Good,” Ted said, remembering the reporters he’d been saddled with during the first advance into alien-held space.  The best of them had had some experience as an embed, fortunately, but the others had been idiots.  He was still mildly surprised none of them had actually managed to kill themselves during the voyage.  “Can I bar them from the entire operation?”

“I believe there may be some American embeds on the American carriers,” the First Space Lord said.  “But you don’t have to say anything to them if you don’t want to.”

“An excellent bribe,” Ted said, lightly.

“I know exactly how you feel,” the First Space Lord said.  “I’ve tried to find the Prince an assignment that looks dangerous, but with very little real danger.  I found nothing that would pass muster with the media, let alone their tame military experts.  There’s no politically acceptable alternative.”

“I understand,” Ted said.  He looked at Fitzwilliam, then back at the First Space Lord.  “If he wants to be anonymous, that’s precisely what he will get.  His identity will not be disclosed any further.”

“Good,” the First Space Lord said.

He smiled, changing the subject.  “I believe the remainder of your fleet will assemble by the end of the week,” he said.  “I will expect a full report after you meet with your new subordinates.”

“Yes, sir,” Ted said.  At least his new subordinates wouldn't be princes in disguise.  “I’ll keep you informed.”

He paused.  “Are there any other surprises for me?”

“None,” the First Space Lord said.  “You can go see your family, if you wish, or enjoy a brief walk around London before you return to your ship.  I believe there are some people waiting to see you, Captain Fitzwilliam.  You should talk to them before you go for a wander yourself.”

Ted scowled, catching the underlying subtext.  The First Space Lord hadn't said it out loud, but the conclusion was very clear.  It might be his last chance to see London before he died.

Maybe I’ll go take a look at Buckingham Palace, he thought.  He’d been there twice since his return to Earth, both times for award ceremonies he would have preferred to avoid.  See what the Prince is trying to escape.

Chapter Five

It was a curious aspect of British Governance, James reflected, that backroom deals often took place before either the media or the public caught wind of them.  Given the complicated balance of power between the monarchy, the aristocracy and the democratically-elected government, all parties tried hard to avoid putting any public strain on the system and tended to come to compromise agreements before making the debate public.  The system had come close to collapse more than once, but since the troubles it had steered Britain through some very rough waters indeed.

He smiled as he stepped into the private room and caught sight of his Uncle Winchester, seated in a chair and studying the menu.  The older man had been a great inspiration to him in his youth; he’d served in the Royal Navy, then gone onwards into the government.  Even now, his mind was as sharp as ever.  Perhaps, James considered, too sharp.  His uncle had put him in a very awkward spot when James had been assigned to Ark Royal.

“Ah, James,” Winchester said.  “Take a seat, please, and order something for yourself.  My treat.”

James obeyed, picking up the menu and running his eye down the list of meals.  None of them, he noted, had a price tag attached, a sure sign that they were staggeringly expensive.  But then, the club principally catered to aristocrats, wealthy businessmen who would be invited into the aristocracy sooner or later and government ministers.  It was unlikely in the extreme that someone would enter its hallowed halls without the ability to barely notice the price.

“Steak and chips would be fine,” he said, making his selection.  A waitress appeared out of a side door, took their orders and faded away again.  James watched her go – the short skirt she wore showed off her legs to best advantage – then turned to look at his uncle.  “What?”

“You really should think about getting married,” Winchester said.  “Those genes you have need to be passed on to the next generation.”

James flushed, helplessly.  Once, the aristocracy had tried to marry other aristocrats and ended up with countless problems caused by inbreeding.  Now, there was a definite push for aristocrats to marry commoners – successful commoners – and bring new blood into the ruling class.  It had worked, James had to admit, although it sometimes caused problems for the commoners.  Few of them were used to living within the goldfish bowl of the aristocracy.

“I have no one in mind,” he said, tightly.  “And my duties do not give me time to meet women.”

“Take a day off and go to the next Palace reception,” Winchester suggested.  “There’s always a few girls there making their entry into society.”

“I don't have time,” James said.  “There’s more work in managing a carrier than civilians seem to understand.”

Winchester snorted  “Aren’t you glad you didn't manage to take Ark Royal from Captain Smith?”

James flushed, again.  His uncle was fond of allowing him to make mistakes – and then pointing them out, afterwards.  Trying to unseat Captain Smith had been a mistake, one mitigated only by the fact he’d failed.  If he had commanded the carrier during the first battles, James suspected, the results would have been far less favourable to the human race.  They might have come alarmingly close to losing the war.

“Yes,” he said, tightly.

“Good,” Winchester said.  “You really need to learn from your mistakes, Captain.”

“Yes, sir,” James said.

The waitress returned, carrying two plates of food.  James averted his eyes as she bent over to place them on the table, then curtseyed and retreated back through the side door.  Uncle Winchester chuckled, then motioned for James to start eating.  His own dinner, a Lancashire Hot Pot, steamed as he cut his way inside and started to pull out the meat.  James smiled, remembering formal dinners at the manor house.  Uncle Winchester was rarely welcome because he was an eccentric eater, yet too aristocratic to be told off by James’s mother.

“Which leads to another point,” Uncle Winchester said, between bites.  “I want you to continue your observation of Admiral Smith.”

James felt cold ice congeal around his heart.  The Admiralty had worried about leaving Ark Royal in Captain Smith’s hands, knowing him to be a drunkard.  James had been given orders to relieve the Captain of command if he believed it to be necessary, something that could easily have killed his career as well as the career of the commanding officer he’d betrayed.  Even if his career survived – and he knew that his actions might have been judged to be mutiny by a court martial – he would never have been trusted again by his fellow officers.  And, in truth, he might have ignored his orders.

But if I’d relieved the Captain of command, he thought, we would never have escaped the trap.

James knew, without false modesty, that he'd done very well at the Academy.  And yet he would never have thought of trying to board and storm an alien starship.  Instead, he would probably have fought to the bitter end, knowing that it would be futile.  Captain Smith had thought of a way out, then implemented it and carried the plan through to the end.  He thoroughly deserved his promotion.

“No,” he said, flatly.

Winchester looked up at him, surprised.  “No?”

“No, sir,” James said.  He braced himself, then carried on.  “There is no evidence that the Captain – the Admiral – has returned to drink.  He has more than proved himself a good commanding officer, as I believe the Old Lady’s war record indicates.  I don’t think he deserves to have his Flag Captain spying on him.”

He paused, remembering Commander Williams.  Had she been sent to spy on James?  A year ago, he would have sneered at the thought.  The Royal Navy didn't betray its own.  And yet, now, he knew it was a possibility.  Commander Williams had practically been forced on him by the Admiralty.

“I do not think that you’re the one who should be making those judgements,” Uncle Winchester said.  James blinked, then remembered that his Uncle was still talking about him spying on Admiral Smith.  “The Admiralty is still very concerned.”

James glowered down at his steak, stabbing it as if the piece of meat had done him a personal injury.  “The Admiralty saw fit to give him command of a multinational task force composed of six full-sized carriers,” he snapped.  “If they had concerns, they could have promoted him up into a groundside office where he wouldn't have had to do more than make ceremonial appearances and review parades.”

“Politics,” Winchester observed, lightly.  “Admiral Smith has earned a large number of supporters who don’t, I’m afraid, seem to know anything about his drinking habits.”

James had his doubts.  The Royal Navy had worked closely with both the French and Americans in the past, sharing personnel files with both powers.  Even if they hadn't, James knew for a fact that the Royal Navy kept files on foreign officers who might be of interest and he rather assumed that the other interstellar powers did the same.  On the other hand, Admiral Smith hadn’t been remotely important until Ark Royal had suddenly become the last best hope of humanity.  It was quite possible that foreign powers knew next to nothing about him.

He shook his head.  “I’m sure the media will fill in the gaps,” he said, although he had his doubts about that too.  The media representations of the Battle of New Russia had left him wondering if he’d been there at all, even though he knew perfectly well that he'd been in the CIC during the fighting.  “Or their spy services, for that matter.”

“No doubt,” Winchester said.  “But we would really prefer it if you kept an eye on the Admiral for us.”

James met his eyes.  “No,” he said, again.  “I do not believe it is justified, sir.”

His uncle gave him the long hard look that, as a child, had been a warning that there was punishment coming if he didn't straighten up and fly right.  James swallowed, reminded himself that he was an adult, and refused to lower his eyes.  As intimidating as his uncle could be, James was hardly a child any longer and he refused to further betray a commanding officer he had come to respect.

“You could be wrong,” Winchester said.  “Can we afford to trust your judgement?”

“Yes,” James said.

“You tried to take command of a starship you were unprepared to command,” his uncle reminded him.  “Does that indicate your judgement is flawless?”

James felt his temper flare.  “I believe you were caught in the haystacks with a girl barely a third of your age,” he snapped.  It had been quite the scandal at the time, although as Uncle Winchester had shown no hint of remorse or even concern it had faded quickly.  “Does that indicate your judgement is flawless?”

His uncle smiled.  “Point taken,” he said.  “I will respect your judgement.”

He leaned forward.  “But we cannot afford to lose the alliance,” he added.  “Please, keep an eye on things.”

James met his eyes.  “Did you assign Commander Williams to keep an eye on me?”

“No,” Winchester said.  “I believe Thomas” – the First Space Lord – “wanted to make sure that there were other commanding officers for Ark Royal and her forthcoming sisters waiting in the wings.  You’ll probably have quite a few other officers passing through your hands in the coming months, James.  Try to make sure they know what they’re doing.”

He paused.  “She is pretty and smart,” he added.  “You could do worse.”

James glowered at him.  “She's not a woman, damn it,” he snapped.  “She’s my XO.”

“How true,” Winchester agreed.  “But I was serious about urging you to consider marriage.”

“Oh,” James said.

His uncle switched subjects suddenly, in the manner that had always irked James’s mother whenever he came to tea.  “I believe you have been told about your ... unexpected crewmember?”

“You mean the Prince,” James said, in no mood for games.  He took a bite of his steak, then scowled at his uncle.  “We were told today.  I would have preferred more warning.”

“So would we,” Winchester said.  “The whole affair is quite ill-timed, particularly with the legal issues over the succession.”

James sighed.  In 2013, the succession laws had been rewritten to state that the firstborn child, male or female, would inherit the throne.  But in 2030, during the troubles, the laws had been dismissed as the work of senseless liberals by the sitting Prime Minister and returned to the pre-2013 state, along with many others.  James remembered history lessons where historians debated if the Prime Minister had been right or if he’d thrown out the baby along with the bathwater.  It was hard to argue against the claim that England’s Queens, on the whole, had done better than England’s Kings.  But reaction had been the order of the day back during the troubles.  Even now, historians still had problems coming to terms with everything that had happened back then.

“Princess Elizabeth is the first girl to be born first since 2030, James,” Winchester said.  “I believe there were quiet accusations of sex-selection at the time, although I don't think that anything was proved one way or the other.  Now ... the question of succession has been reopened once again.”

He shook his head.  “In many ways, Elizabeth would make a better Queen than Henry would make a King,” he added.  “She’s more ... restrained than her younger brother.”

“And he’s signed himself up with the navy,” James muttered.  “And no one knew who he was?”

“The Academy Commandant knew,” Winchester said.  “I don’t believe anyone else knew who he was, not after his features had been altered.  But it was still a major risk.”

James felt an odd quiver of respect.  He’d never bothered to change his name; he'd entered the Academy and risen through the ranks as a known scion of the aristocracy.  In some cases, it had helped; in others, his superiors had pushed him harder just to check that he’d actually earned his position through merit, rather than being promoted by someone trying to curry favour with the aristocracy.  But the Prince had gone into the Academy as just another pilot trainee.  Whatever he’d earned, he’d earned it fairly.

“He deserved it, I guess,” James said.  Maybe he should have gone the same route.  “But we cannot afford to keep him out of action.”

“I expect you to keep an eye on him too,” Winchester said.  “And I will be expecting regular reports.”

James sighed, but nodded.

“I have a question,” he said.  “How do you plan to keep this from the media?”

“We have issued Security Notices to the media, in the event of someone leaking the secret,” Winchester said.  “There were some plans to have the Prince move publically through the Academy, but he flatly refused to cooperate.  Now ... well, at least we will be able to tell everyone after the fact that the Prince did serve in combat.  It isn't ideal, but it’s the only way he would accept.”

James rolled his eyes.  Several decades ago, a Prince had simply walked away from his title, pointing out that the constant media scrutiny and harassment made it impossible to live a decent life.  He’d never asked to be a Prince, nor to be a role model.  Instead, he’d resigned his position and simply vanished.  As far as anyone knew, the media had never tracked him down to his new home.  The most likely speculation, he recalled, was that the Prince had gone into the military or survey service and vanished into the ranks.  But no one really knew for sure.

But the Royal Family had barely survived the scandal.  The last thing they wanted was a repeat of the same incident.  God alone knew where the pieces would fall.

“I’ll keep an eye on him,” he said.  The aristocracy was full of young men of both talent and a firm belief in their own entitlement.  James had to admit he’d been one of them.  “But I’m not going to take him in hand, uncle.”

Winchester reached into his jacket and produced a creamy white envelope.  “Your orders,” he said, flipping the envelope over to show the stamp on the back.  “In the event of real trouble, you are to remove the Prince from active duty and ship him back home to Earth.”

James narrowed his eyes.  “Real trouble?”

“Anything you think justifies his separation from your ship,” Winchester said.  He passed James the envelope.  “And good luck.”

“Thank you,” James said, sourly.  “Tell me something, Uncle.  Why wasn't the Admiral kept abreast of the planning process?”

“Too much debate over how we should proceed,” Winchester admitted.  “It was decided to keep it restricted until we had a workable plan ready to go.”


Hyde Park was surprisingly empty for a hot summer day, Ted discovered, as he walked along the path towards Buckingham Palace.  There were only a handful of mothers escorting their children through the park and a couple of hopeful buskers, no one else.  By the time he reached the gates of the Palace, he was starting to wonder if someone had evacuated the city or extended the school year.

He paused outside the gates, looking up at the Palace, then turned his gaze to the monuments erected outside the Palace.  One of them listed every serviceman and woman killed in the war against the aliens, headed by the commanding officers of the two British carriers that had been destroyed at New Russia.  Another listed casualties from earlier wars, ranging from the First World War to the Second Falklands War and the Mars Dispute.  The latter had been surprisingly brutal, but the diplomats had managed to prevent it spilling right out of control.  Later, when Terra Nova had been discovered, another war had threatened ... and then the diplomats had agreed to share settlement rights.

His lips quirked in bitter amusement as he turned and started to walk towards the monorail, then stopped and flagged down an electric taxi.  London’s black cabs were traditional, even if they weren't powered by petrol any longer.  The cabbie stuck out a head and asked where he was going, then motioned for Ted to climb in the back.  Ted settled down into the seat as the taxi hummed into life, heading back towards Heathrow Spaceport.  His shuttle was waiting for him there.

He smiled to himself as he caught sight of a large poster, exhorting the population to KEEP CALM AND CARRY ON.  They’d been popular since the dawn of the troubles – the design dated all the way back to the Second World War – but it was rare to see them in such numbers.  Another poster reminded the population that loose lips sank ships, although Ted doubted it mattered.  As far as anyone had been able to tell, the aliens had never managed to establish a spy ring within humanity’s settled star systems.  But it was something Ted would have done, if he’d been on the other side ...

“Kids these days,” the cabbie muttered, as a line of schoolchildren ran across the road.  They were wearing blue uniforms, with trousers or skirts that reached down to their ankles.  “They all want to die, I tell you.”

Ted shrugged.  He’d made more than a few speeches at various schools, during his time on Earth, and he had to admit that plenty of kids wanted to join the navy, now there was a war on.  But it would be years before the oldest of them could join, unless conscription became a very real possibility.  Until then, they would just have to study hard and join the various campaigns to help with the war effort.  Most of the campaigns, Ted suspected, were worse than useless

He smiled.  Somehow, he doubted soldiers and spacers in training would appreciate schoolchildren coming to sing while they trained.  But knitted clothes would probably be welcome ...

“There’s a war on,” he said, instead.  The government departments responsible for monitoring public sentiment had noted that people were growing less and less inclined to prepare for the future, a future that might be suddenly terminated by the aliens.  “They’re just trying to live while they can.”

Chapter Six

Kurt scrambled off the train, paused long enough to help an elderly woman who had been chatting to him for the last hour after spying his uniform, then headed down towards the ticket barrier.  The ticket inspector took one look at his uniform and waved him through without even bothering to check his ticket, making Kurt smile inwardly.  Who would have thought he could avoid paying for a ticket just by wearing his uniform?

Outside, he looked around for the family car and saw ... nothing.  There were dozens of mums and dads and children running around – more than normal, suggesting that those who could avoid it had relocated themselves away from the city – but no sign of his wife.  Or of his children and the nanny, for that matter.  He hesitated, knowing they could be late, then reached for his terminal and switched it to the civilian network.  There was no message from any of them.

He paused, then tapped their number into the terminal.  There was a long pause, then the phone started to ring.  It was several minutes before it was picked up, giving Kurt just enough time to worry.  He loved his children and his imagination provided far too many unpleasant possibilities that could have happened to them.

It was Penny, his daughter, who answered.  “Hello?”

“Penny,” Kurt said, relaxing slightly.  “I’m at the train station.  Is your mother on the way?”

“I don’t think so,” Penny said.  She sounded surprised to hear from him.  “Dad, I didn't even know you were coming home.”

Kurt felt cold water pouring down his spine.  “Well, I am,” he said.  He’d sent Molly a message telling her he was coming home for a brief period of leave.  “I’ll try to call her, then get a taxi if she doesn't answer.”

Worried, he tapped in Molly’s number.  There was no answer.  He hesitated, cold suspicion running through his mind, then switched off the Caller ID and tried again.  This time, he received an automated message stating that Molly’s number didn't accept callers without Caller ID.  Unsurprised – Molly had been harassed as a younger girl and never quite gotten over it – but annoyed, he turned and started to walk towards the taxis.  The cabbie he found chatted aimlessly as they drove out into the suburbs, where his family lived.

He paid the cabbie and stepped out of the cab, then paused as the door burst open to reveal Penny.  She practically ran down the garden path to give him a hug, then remembered she was supposed to be a sulky teenager and let go quickly.  Kurt patted her on the back, then inspected her hair.  She'd dyed it white and black, creating a striking look that, combined with her clothes, reminded him far too much of some of the girls from Sin City.  But at least she still looked fresh-faced.

“Come on inside,” she urged, quickly.  “I put the kettle on.”

Inside, the house felt almost empty.  Kurt couldn't help feeling worried as Penny pottered about making tea, even though it was a great improvement on her behaviour before he’d gone to war.  He’d read the reports from the expensive private school – thankfully, his share of the prize money ensured he wouldn't have to take his kids out of school – and noted a very definitive improvement in both her marks and her conduct.  Clearly, the new nanny was making a great impression on his daughter.  But where was Molly?

“Percy is at the Combined Cadet Force,” Penny explained, as she put a mug of tea in front of him.  “They’re actually talking about forwarding his records to Sandhurst.”

“He’ll hate that,” Kurt predicted.  The last he’d heard, Percy had his heart set on flying starfighters, just like his dad.  But competition for slots in the Academy, even now, was still fierce.  It would be at least another year before the facilities were significantly expanded, allowing them to take in far more trainees.  “But I’m glad to hear he has other prospects.”

Penny nodded, then sat down facing him.  “I was hoping to talk about my own future,” she said.  “There’s an offer open for students to go to a French Finishing School.”

Kurt bit down on a laugh.  “I thought you hated French,” he said.  “You certainly picked quite enough fights with the teacher.”

His daughter flushed.  “It’s Gayle,” she said.  “She actually taught me how to put the words together, rather than telling everyone that ‘the pen of my aunt is in the garden.’”

“Good for her,” Kurt said.  He leaned forward.  “And do you think we can afford it?”

Penny hesitated.  “You’re rich,” she said, finally.  “And I ...”

“Money is not to be wasted,” Kurt said, firmly.  “And do you need a finishing school?”

He saw the rebellious look in her eyes and sighed, inwardly.  He’d been a moderately successful investment banker, but he’d been nowhere near as wealthy as some of the other parents who sent their kids to private school.  Percy and Penny had been confronted by children whose parents could afford to give them vast amounts of pocket money per week, enough to enjoy the latest designer clothes or electronic toys and games.  He understood just how badly they resented being poor, at times ... but he wasn't about to waste money, just so they could keep up with their classmates.  It helped that he simply didn't have the money.

“It’s a great opportunity,” Penny muttered.

“To do what?”  Kurt asked.  “What do you want to be when you ... get out of school?”

Penny hesitated.  “I keep having different ideas,” she admitted.  “I wanted to be a doctor, then a vet, then I thought about trying to study the aliens ... you could get me into a study course, couldn't you?”

Kurt rather doubted it.  “You might be better off with being a doctor,” he said.  “There’s always work for doctors.”

He leaned forward.  “I imagine your career advisers have talked to you about the requirements?”

Penny nodded, sullenly.  “They say I may have to retake some exams,” she said.  “And that I’ll have to work very hard.  But I’m not even sure it’s what I want to do.”

“That could be a problem,” Kurt agreed, dryly.  He smiled at his daughter.  “Look, it’s the start of the summer holidays.  I’ll have a word with a doctor I know and ask if she’ll let you observe her work for a few days.  Or there are emergency clinics that are always keen on volunteer manpower.  I don't know how much they’d let you do, but they might let you volunteer for a few weeks.  If you like it, I will pay for you to train as a doctor.”

He paused, significantly.  “And if you don’t like it,” he added, “at least you’ll know before you spend five years of study learning the ropes.”

Penny nodded, again.  “Yes, dad,” she said.  “But ...”

She broke off as the door opened, revealing Percy.  Kurt came to his feet as his son stepped into the kitchen, dripping mud on the floor.  Percy had always been big, but now he had more muscles than Kurt remembered and looked disgustingly healthy.  And he looked very good in uniform too.  Clearly, Kurt decided, the CCF was doing wonders for his son. Behind Percy, Gayle stepped into the room.  The young lady looked surprised to see Kurt.

“Dad,” Percy said.  “I thought you were still on the moon.”

“I have a couple of days leave,” Kurt said.  “And so I thought I’d come see you two.”

He chatted about nothing with his children for a while, then sent Penny upstairs as Gayle started complaining about the mess on the floor.  Percy sighed, then reached for the mop and started to clean up the mud, getting more mud on the floor as he moved.  Kurt glowered at him, then told his son to undress and take a shower before he tried to clean the floor.  Leaving him alone, he led Gayle into the next room and closed the door firmly behind them.

“I told Molly I was coming,” he said.  He hadn't wanted to talk about his wife with the kids, but he had no such qualms with Gayle.  “Where is she?”

Gayle looked embarrassed.  “She went out early this morning,” she said, “leaving me to get the kids off to school.  I haven't seen her since.”

Kurt stared at her.  “You’ve been here all day?”

“I’ve been here for the last six months,” Gayle said.  “She gave me a room, a list of chores and a few other duties, then let me get on with it.  I've been cooking, cleaning and tutoring the kids.”

Kurt sucked in his breath.  He hadn't realised just how much time Gayle had spent with the kids.  Had Molly spent any time with them at all?

“I'm sorry,” he mumbled.  Molly had always wanted to have a live-in maid, but they’d never been able to afford it.  She too resented being poorer than most of the families who sent their kids to private school.  “I didn’t mean ...”

“I get paid well,” Gayle assured him.  “And I don’t really have a family to live with ...”

Kurt nodded, told her to make sure Percy did a good job of cleaning up the mess, then walked upstairs and entered his office.  Once, he’d worked from home two days a week; now, the room had been left untouched for months.  Molly had to have told Gayle to leave it alone, he decided, as he saw the dust lying on top of his desk.  Sitting down in front of it, he opened the computer terminal and pressed his thumb against the scanner.  A moment later, he was looking at their joint account.

“Shit,” he breathed.  Molly was spending money as if it was going out of fashion.  He’d once thought the prize money would last the rest of his life.  Now, it was clear that over half of it was gone.  But what had she been buying?  A check of the spending pattern revealed that she’d spent most of the money on clothes.  “What the hell is she doing?”

He skimmed through the list of items, wondering just when and where she’d worn a bright silk dress, a set of incredibly expensive pieces of underwear or a bikini that seemed to cost enough to feed the entire family for a week.  He’d certainly never seen her in such underwear ... was she having an affair?  The thought outraged him for a long chilling moment, then he laughed at himself.  How could he possibly complain about her having an affair when he was having an affair?

But she could have been caught at any time, he thought, dully.  What if the kids found out the truth?

He stared down at the computer, miserably.  Their relationship had been falling apart for years, he saw now, long before he’d been taken away.  They hadn't had sex in months before he’d been recalled to war, then they’d had sex only once before he'd been reassigned to the Luna Academy.  But he’d had sex with Rose more times than he could count.  The spice of fucking someone he knew he shouldn't even be thinking of fucking, paired with the certainty of death, had spurred him onwards.  Every time he tried to think of Molly, naked and willing, he saw Rose instead.

Carefully, he closed the computer and headed out the door, locking the room behind him.  Outside, he could hear the sound of Penny chatting on the phone to her friends, while Gayle – downstairs – was lecturing Percy on the value of thinking before doing something as stupid as walking into a clean house with muddy clothes.  Kurt had to smile at her threat to turn the hose on him next time, washing him down thoroughly before he stepped foot into the house and scattered mud everywhere.  Kurt’s father had made the same threat, years ago.  He hadn't actually done it.

It was nearly four hours before Molly finally arrived home.  By then, Kurt had managed to have a man-to-man chat with Percy, a more peaceful discussion with Penny and speak to Gayle about how his children had been behaving.  Penny had, apparently, fought quite a bit with the nanny at first, then settled down and started to learn.  Percy had been buying books and videos on starfighter training and studying them frantically.  Kurt could only hope that he picked up enough to realise that he knew nothing when – if – he entered the Academy.

“I want you to take them both out tonight,” he’d said to Gayle, when they’d finished talking.  “Take them bowling, then go watch a movie or something that will keep them out for a long time.”

Gayle didn't argue.  In a way, that was a more worrying sign than anything else.

“Molly,” he said, when his wife closed the door behind her.  “We need to talk.”

Molly scowled at him.  She had always had a fiery temper and some of their arguments had been shockingly loud.  “Why?”

Kurt braced himself  “For a start,” he said, “why didn't you tell the kids I was coming?”

“I thought it was tomorrow,” Molly said, sullenly.

“I told you it was today,” Kurt said, feeling his temper flare.  When had he started hating his wife?  “If you couldn't come and pick me up at the station, all you had to do was tell me and I would have taken a taxi home.  But you didn't have to leave the kids unaware I was coming.”

He took a breath.  “And what about the money you’ve been spending?”

“It's my money,” Molly snapped.  “I have a right to spend it how I like!”

“Yes, we agreed we would share the joint account,” Kurt said, trying to keep an icy grip on his temper.  “But you’ve been spending money on expensive clothes, expensive handbags, expensive ... underwear!  What the fuck have you been doing?”

“I’ve been enjoying having money for the first time in years,” Molly thundered.  She drew herself up to her full height and glared at him.  “Why should I not spend it as I please?”

“Because we have to think about the future,” Kurt snapped back.  He took a long breath.  “Penny will be in schooling for at least another three years; longer, if she wants to train as a doctor.  We might have to pay for that training if she can’t win a scholarship.  Percy might change his mind about what he wants to do with his life!  And what happens if we run out of money because you’ve been spending it on overpriced clothes?”

“All of my friends buy such clothes,” Molly said, sharply.  “Why the hell shouldn't I?”

“Because your friends are married to rich aristocrats, high-priced lawyers and corporate CEOs,” Kurt said.  “The amount of money I got as my share of the prize fund is barely a month’s wages for them.  But we won’t get another windfall like that, Molly, while they earn the same amount of money each month!  We cannot afford to spend like rich men and women!”

He took a breath.  “And I don't understand some of your choices,” he added.  “Are you having an affair?”

Molly stared at him for a long moment, then exploded with rage.  “Are you daring to suggest that I would have an affair with someone?”

Kurt glared back at her. “Why the hell have you been avoiding me?  I call from the moon; you’re never there!  I send messages; you reply late, if at all.  I’ve spent more time talking to Gayle than I’ve spent talking to you in the past three months.  You knew I was coming today and yet you fucked off somewhere else while I had to take a taxi home and surprise my daughter!  Why didn't you even tell them I was coming?”

“I was busy,” Molly shouted.

“Doing what?”  Kurt shouted back.  “What the hell have you been doing that keeps you from talking to your goddamned husband?”

Molly grabbed for a vase and held it up, threateningly.  Kurt reached for a plate, then stopped himself before his fingers closed around the fine china.  They’d picked the christening plates for their children, years ago.  He wasn't going to destroy them just because he’d had a fight with his wife.  And yet ... what was she doing?

It was worse, he realised mutely, than an affair.  If she’d been honest, he would have been honest too ... but it was clear she no longer cared about him or their future.  All she cared about was her chance to join High Society – or what passed for it in their hometown – without worrying about anything else.  But it was unsustainable.  The prize money would run out and then Molly would be dependent on the kindness of strangers.  Her job – and his - didn't pay enough to maintain her lifestyle.

“Do what you wish,” he said, suddenly feeling very tired.  “I will put half of the money into reserve accounts for the kids.  They will complete their schooling, no matter what you do with the rest of the money.  And you can stay in this house as long as you like, provided you let the kids stay here too.  I’ll even keep sending you and them money.”

He took a breath.  “It’s obvious you don’t give a shit any longer,” he added.  “You can keep the remaining money; do what you like with it.  But when you run out of cash to maintain your new lifestyle, I hope your lover will pick up the tab.  Because I damn well can't and won’t.”

“Get out,” Molly hissed.

Kurt gave her a long look.  How had their relationship failed so badly?  Was it his fault for not earning enough to satisfy her or her fault for not accepting what he was?  Or was it his fault for going to war and leaving her alone?  In the end, it didn't matter.

He picked up his coat and walked out of the door.  There were trains running back to London at all hours of the day.  He’d be able to get to the spaceport, then start his journey to his next posting.  Or maybe he should speak to the kids first, let them know what had happened and why.  But what could he tell them?

Nothing, he thought, numbly.  The anger had faded away, to be replaced by a numbness that dampened his soul.  Nothing at all.

Chapter Seven

“Impressive sight, isn't it?”

Ted nodded as Fitzwilliam stepped up behind him and stared out of the observation blister.  It was rare to see so many warships gathered in one place, close enough to allow them to be seen with the naked eye.  Even now, with running lights shining out in the inky darkness of space, the more distant ships were harder to tell apart from the glowing stars.  He resisted the urge to consult the computer, which could have identified the ships for him instantly; instead, he merely watched as shuttles appeared out of the darkness and flew towards the landing bay.

“Very impressive,” he said.  “But also very fragile.”

The three American carriers were among the largest in the known universe, he knew.  They were easily twice the size of Ark Royal, studded with launching bays, missile tubes and sensor blisters.  But, unlike the Old Lady, their armour was terrifyingly thin; they’d never been designed to serve as battleships as well as carriers.  The aliens had shown them just how dangerous the design was when they’d destroyed several American carriers at New Russia, along with two British ships.

Behind them, the French and Japanese carriers looked more conventional.  The Japanese, in particular, had concentrated on a reliable design they could mass-produce, while the French had cooperated with the Royal Navy in designing their ships and it showed.  Indeed, apart from a non-standard weapons configuration, Napoleon could easily have passed for a British modern carrier.  But she had the same thin armour as the Japanese ship and her British counterparts.  The ablative armour that had been hastily fitted to her hull was untested outside simulations.  It was alarmingly possible, Ted knew, that a close-range engagement with the aliens would be a repeat of the Battle of New Russia, with Ark Royal the only survivor.

He closed his eyes in pain for a long moment, then looked past the carriers towards the two American Marine Expeditionary Ships.  They were larger than any transports the Royal Marines had produced, although the British Commonwealth had never seriously considered the possibility of having to invade a densely-populated planet.  Prior to Vera Cruz, Ted knew, the existence of the giant Marine Expeditionary Ships had provoked amusement and paranoia among the other powers.  Were the Americans planning an imperialistic war?  But now, Ted knew, they had good reason to be grateful for American paranoia.

Or, he asked himself, did they know the aliens were out there?

It was the old mystery, one that had occupied the minds of both conspiracy theorists and serious thinkers.  Over the past thirty years, the major interstellar powers had built up their forces, despite no real threat of a war.  Admittedly, there had been a brief dispute between America and China that could have turned into a major shooting war, but it had blown up out of nowhere.  Maybe they’d all been a little paranoid after that confrontation ... or maybe the governments had known there was an unknown alien race out there, watching humanity.  But humanity’s most advanced ships had proven no match for the aliens ...

He pushed the thought aside, irritated.  There was no point in wasting his time on conspiracy theories.  The truth would come out in the end, he was sure, perhaps after everyone involved was safely dead.  Besides, it was much more likely that the human race had been preparing for war with other humans.  If they’d known about aliens, he suspected, the gentleman’s agreement banning mass drivers would have been quietly ignored.

His communicator buzzed.  “Admiral,” Lopez said, “they’re ready for you.”

Ted nodded, then looked over at Fitzwilliam.  “Here we go,” he said.  “Let’s see if we can get off on a good foot.”

There were no politicians or reporters in the group he’d invited to Ark Royal, so formal greeting ceremonies had been kept to a minimum.  No one seemed to have complained as they were escorted through the ship to the main briefing room, even though not everyone had been invited.  The only frigate commander to be welcomed onboard was the Chinese officer, who commanded the entire Chinese squadron.  There just wasn't room for the remaining frigate commanders to attend in person.

He ran into Lieutenant Lopez outside the room, who gave his dress uniform a brief once-over, brushed a speck of lint off his jacket and then pronounced it satisfactory.  Ted sighed, remembering the days when he’d stood watch on the bridge wearing only uniform trousers and a shirt, then stepped through the hatch.  The officers sitting at the table rose to their feet as he entered.

“Please, be seated,” Ted said.  He couldn’t help noticing that the officers had sorted themselves out by country, without exchanging more than a few words.  That would have to change.  “Thank you all for coming.”

He took his seat at the head of the table, then allowed his gaze to move from face to face, matching them to the names in the files.  Admiral Stanley Shallcross, Deputy Commander, looked brisk and efficient, his teeth pearly white against his dark skin.  Beside him, wearing combat battledress, was Major General Roger Ross, a heavyset man with a reputation for winning against impossible odds.  The United States Marine Corps had sent their best and brightest to the fight, Ted knew.  They’d practiced forced landings on a planetary surface more than anyone else.  And they called Ross the Rhino.

Further down the table, Capitaine de vaisseau Paul-Henri Bellerose and Captain Atsuko looked ill-at-ease to be sitting together, while Captain Wang Lei looked fairly isolated, even though he was their equal in rank.  Ted wasn't too surprised.  The Chinese officer was not only an unknown, he commanded a frigate rather than a carrier.  But the Chinese reluctance to commit a carrier to the multinational force had been impossible to overcome, no matter what the diplomats said.  They didn't trust the Americans enough to place a carrier anywhere near a fleet the Americans might command.

Ted sighed, inwardly.  It would be hard enough fighting the aliens.  He didn't need political warfare as well.

Beside their respective commanders, there were a handful of officers; carrier commanders, flag lieutenants and one Chinese woman wearing an unmarked uniform.  Ted guessed she was the political commissioner, although it was equally possible she was the Captain’s assistant or woman.  There were plenty of rumours about the freedom granted to Chinese officers by their government, although those freedoms were offered as bribes to keep them loyal, or so Ted had heard.  Or maybe they were just exaggerations.  The only place he’d visited where the exaggerations hadn't been anything of the sort was Sin City.

“Gentlemen,” he said, silently relieved that English was still the official tongue for spacefaring operations.  Both Americans and British Commonwealth citizens spoke it and, between them, they made almost a third of the population off-world.  The children born on interplanetary and interstellar settlements were taught English along with their mother tongue.  “Welcome to Task Force Nelson.”

He paused, trying to gauge their reaction, then continued.  “Our mission is both simple and very complex.  Simple, because the objective is clear enough; complex, because we are going to be diving into unknown space and attempting to occupy or destroy an alien-held star system behind the front lines.  If we succeed, we should knock them back on their heels and buy time for humanity to produce more starships and weapons of war.

“If we lose, it could shorten the war.

“You have all read your briefing packets, I assume,” he said.  “Do you have any questions before we proceed?”

“Just one,” the French Captain said.  “How sure are we of the data pulled from the alien systems?”

Ted looked over at Lieutenant Phipps, who had been assigned to Ark Royal until the task force actually departed.  “We are as sure of it as we can be,” Phipps said.  “We considered the possibility of misinformation or misinterpretation, but we believe the probability to be very low.  What we have managed to check, through gravimetric surveys, has held water.”

“Right,” Ross said.  “Do we know anything about the defences on the far end?”

“Nothing,” Ted said.  “We may break through their defence walls and emerge in an undefended region of space or we may discover the star system is heavily defended.  There is literally no way to check until we actually reach the system.”

He sighed.  Basic theory suggested that the aliens wouldn't have bothered to fortify their inner systems, but one look at the human sphere disproved that theory.  The major settled worlds all had their own defences, while a quite staggering amount of firepower had been gathered around Earth.  Even if the aliens didn't have their own national subgroups, it was unlikely that they’d completely ruled out the prospect of an attack on their homeworld, wherever it was.  It was presumably shown on the charts they’d pulled from the alien battlecruiser, but there had been nothing to identify it.

“There is a considerable amount of risk associated with this operation,” he admitted.  “But all war is risk.”

There was a long pause.  “We will not survive this operation,” he added, “unless we work together.  From now until the day we leave, we will run simulations and even live fire exercises, testing ourselves against the best we know the aliens can provide – and worse.  We will streamline our procedures for issuing orders, carrying out combat manoeuvres and everything else we need to do to act as a single entity.  I expect each and every one of you to work together to ensure we survive this operation.

“I have the authority, granted by your countries, to relieve any of you who proves a barrier to working together,” he warned.  “And I will not hesitate to use it, because more is riding on this operation than human pride.  If we lose this operation, the human race could very easily lose the war and the fate of New Russia will fall on Earth and all of our settled worlds.”

He took a long breath.  He did have such authority, but he knew that using it would kick off a political shitstorm.  No matter the justice of his actions, someone would complain and the alliance would stagger.  As irritating as the thought was, he might have to help cover it up afterwards rather than let it fester and poison the diplomatic agreements reached by the various governments.

“If any of you have a problem with this,” he concluded, “I’m sorry.  But there’s no alternative.”

He waited to see if anyone would speak, but heard nothing.  “Good,” he said.  he keyed a switch, activating the holographic display.  A star chart appeared in front of them, human tramlines in green, alien tramlines in red.  He couldn't help noticing that the aliens had several routes they could take into human space that would allow them to outflank most of the defenders, if they chose to take them.  “Our ships have been modified to allow us to use the alien tramlines, which will give us a considerable advantage over the old drives.”

It also ensured that there was no hope of rescue, at least until the rest of humanity’s various fleets were outfitted with the new drive, but he kept that thought to himself.  They’d probably have thought of it for themselves in any case.  None of them were political appointees, if their files were to be believed.  They were all experienced officers.  It was impossible to imagine they didn't know the odds stacked against them.

“We will proceed through the seven star systems marked on the chart,” he continued.  “Five of them are largely worthless, we believe, but two of them may well be settled by the aliens and thus they will probably have sensor networks watching over them.  Ideally, we will avoid all contact with the aliens as we progress through those systems, but it may be impossible to avoid detection.  If we are detected, we will have to fight our way through and hope we successfully prevent the aliens from sending a warning.  That will not be easy.”

There were nods.  Post-battle analysis of Ark Royal’s escape from New Russia had proved that the aliens stationed courier boats, smaller than anything humanity had been able to produce, near the tramlines.  It wasn't quite a method of sending signals faster than light, Ted knew, but it was alarmingly close to one.  Given enough time to prepare, the aliens could intercept the human ships as they came through the tramline, launching missiles and starfighters before the humans even realised they were there.

“I would prefer not to make a fighting entry into our target system,” Ted admitted.  “If it is unavoidable, we will – of course – launch the operation if we believe it has a valid chance of success.  If not ... we will try to survey several other alien systems before we retreat back to human space.  However, that runs the risk of being trapped again – and I doubt the aliens will allow us to capture a second starship.”

He smiled at the thought.  No one in their right mind would have expected a boarding operation in the middle of interstellar war, but he’d been desperate and it had worked.  But the aliens wouldn't make the same mistake twice.  In their place, he'd stand-off and batter the human fleet to pieces with long-range fighter strikes.  It would make it harder for the mass drivers to score a hit on the alien ships.

“Once we secure the orbitals, we will land troops,” he concluded, looking over at Ross.  “Ideally, we should be able to sweep the surface for anything useful as well as set up defences to make it harder for the aliens to push us back out.  However, again, if the situation on the ground is too complex, we will retreat rather than push too far into the system.”

“My men know the score,” Ross informed him, gravely.  “We can hold the planet’s surface indefinitely.”

Ted had his doubts about it.  Everything they knew about the aliens suggested that water was their normal environment, which raised the question of just why they’d started the war in the first place.  If they’d lived in the seas and humanity had claimed the land, there was no reason why the two races couldn't have shared countless uninhabited worlds.  But maybe there was some other reason behind the war.

“We anticipate that most of the alien settlements will be below the water,” Ted said.  “Do you have a plan to deal with them?”

“I have combat suits designed for underwater operations,” Ross confirmed.  “However, I would prefer to avoid underwater engagements if possible.  It will depend on the situation we find when we arrive.”

Ted nodded.  Ross had a reputation for winning, but he was clearly not as bull-headed as his nickname suggested.

“Good,” he said.  He looked around at his subordinates.  “Should we be attacked by overwhelming force, we will withdraw.  There’s no point in trying to hold the system indefinitely if the aliens have the power to throw us out.  And we have no way of knowing how long it will take them to assemble the forces to do it.”

He paused, then tapped the console again.  “We start training tomorrow,” he said.  “Right now, I want to distribute war stocks so starfighters from one country can land and deploy from carriers belonging to another country.  I know this will be a pain for the supply officers” – there were some muted chuckles – “but it will help us ensure that the maximum number of starfighters are kept operational.  Once we have all our pilots onboard, we will start exercising in earnest; I don’t want to see any problems when we finally start the operation.

“Frigates will be assigned to both protect our flanks and scout out enemy territory,” he continued.  “Drills for frigate commanders will be focused around stealth and combined point defence operations.  The boffins believe we can get our datanets to work together; we’d better make damn sure of that before we depart.  You’ve all seen how the aliens prefer to launch their attacks, how they like to swarm their targets, and I don’t feel like testing the new armour too closely.  I want to make sure that we take down as many alien starfighters as possible before they get into firing range.  The modified sensors should help with tracking the stealthy bastards.”

There was a long pause.  “I’ll be speaking with each of you individually over the next few days,” Ted concluded.  “Until then, I expect you to raise any problems either through the datanet or by calling me directly.  I imagine there will be quite a few bumps along the road as we get used to working together.  But we must hang together or hang separately.”

He smiled, suddenly.  “My cooks have prepared a meal for us,” he added.  “I would be honoured if you would join me in the Officer’s Mess.”

The dinner went better than he'd expected, even though there was no alcohol.  Most of the officers seemed competent, although there was some friction between the Chinese Captain and his American counterpart.  Ted managed to defuse it with some pointed reminders of the shared danger, then found himself chatting to Ross.

“Call me Rhino,” Ross said.  “Everyone does.”

Ted had to smile.  “I’ll keep that in mind,” he said.  “And how are your men coping with the situation?”

“They’re very excited,” Ross said.  He was practically rubbing his hands together with glee.  “Do you realise that this is the first opposed landing the Corps has planned for centuries?  We can't wait to see how well our doctrine holds against a real enemy.”

“The naval doctrine didn't stand up at all,” Ted reminded him.  “We lost twelve carriers finding that out the hard way.”

“Only way to learn, sometimes,” Ross said.  He looked down at the deck for a long moment, then back up at Ted.  “Sometimes, you just have to learn the hard way.”

Chapter Eight

“So,” Rose said.  “Do you want to tell me about it?”

Kurt looked up at her, naked and lovely under the compartment’s lighting.  He’d called her into his office as soon as he arrived on Ark Royal, intending to talk to her, but the sight had spurred him to make love to her instead.  She’d been willing ... and, afterwards, he felt better than he’d been since leaving Molly and the kids behind. But it still hurt, deep inside.

“I don't know what’s got into her,” Kurt admitted, finally.  “She ... just stopped caring about me.  Is she having an affair?”

Rose lifted an eyebrow.  “Remind me,” she said.  “Which of you started fucking someone else first?”

Kurt flushed.  “That’s not the same,” he protested.  “I ...”

“I’d say it was precisely the same,” Rose countered.  She leaned down and poked him just above his groin.  “You and she, assuming she is having an affair, are both fucking people outside your marriage.  Or is strenuous horizontal exercise now an approved form of pilot bonding in the Royal Navy?”

“You know what I mean,” Kurt said.  “She could at least have told me!”

Rose met his eyes.  “Have you told her about me?”

She saw the answer in his face and pressed onwards.  “You are in no position to bitch and moan about your wife opening her legs for someone else,” she said.  “I don’t think the law recognises any difference between male infidelity and female infidelity.  You could separate, now, and neither of you would be penalised.  But you have to think of the kids.”

Kurt stared at her.  “When did you become  the mature one?”

“When it became clear that you were too obsessed with your own pain to think rationally,” Rose snapped.  “But tell me.  Do you actually know she’s having an affair?”

“She bought a ton of expensive underwear,” Kurt said.  He couldn't think of any other explanation for her purchases.  “Why would she buy that unless she wanted to show off for someone?”

“When I was fifteen, I saved my pocket money for several weeks to buy some lingerie from Edinburgh Stars,” Rose said.  “They were intensely fashionable at the time, even if they weren't very practical.  I wore them under my trousers or skirts for months until they fell to pieces and no one, not even my sisters, knew I had them.  There was no boyfriend, no one I wanted to impress; I just wanted the feeling of having them.”

Kurt felt his eyes narrow.  “Are you saying that Molly wants to just ... possess them?”

Rose sighed.  “From what you’ve told me,” she said, as she rolled off him and sat upright, “you and Molly didn't have very much money to spare while you were trapped in civilian life.”

Kurt nodded, impatiently.

“So I imagine Molly got used to spending within strict limits,” Rose continued.  “I imagine she knew, too, just how important staying within those limits actually was, as your family could not afford to get into debt.  But I would bet good money that she saw the adverts, or spent time browsing the stores, and wanted.  And then you suddenly came into a shitload of money from the alien ship.”

She shrugged.  “So Molly can suddenly buy all the pretty things she wants,” she added.  “I guess she went a little crazy and bought far too much.”

“She did,” Kurt said.  “But ...”

Rose reached over and poked him again, then stood up.  “You need to have a proper conversation with her,” she said.  “If she really is having an affair, you can get a legal separation and share custody of the kids, seeing you’re both equally guilty.  If not ... well, you’d better work out what the hell you actually want from her.”

She strode off into the shower compartment, her naked ass gleaming under the light.  Kurt hesitated, wishing he understood his own feelings.  Rose was right; whatever Molly was doing, he was having an affair.  And yet ... he found himself torn between two conflicting feelings.  He no longer liked Molly, he thought, but he still cared about her – and he certainly cared about the children.  It was all a terrible ghastly mess.

But she started being standoffish long before we came into money, he thought, as he pulled himself to his feet.  Maybe she was having an affair even then.

He sighed, remembering what Father O’Brian had told him the night before his wedding day.  Marriage was a lifetime commitment, yet with extended lifespans it was harder and harder to hold a marriage together forever.  Couples tended to become partners rather than lovers, raising the children while seeking affairs and excitement outside the homes.  The Church disapproved, of course, as did many other major religions, but they could do nothing to stop it.  For better or worse, society had changed beyond measure since the days the Church commanded and men obeyed.

Bracing himself, he followed Rose into the shower.  Hot water ran down her body, washing away all traces of their lovemaking, but he couldn't help being tantalised by her breasts.  Two children and a life working at a desk had allowed Molly to put on weight; Rose was trim, muscular and far more adventurous.  He almost reached for her before she caught his eye and shook her head, firmly.  Kurt opened his mouth to object, then remembered that they were meant to be greeting the new pilots as they arrived on Ark Royal.  They couldn't afford to waste any more time.

He showered quickly, then dried himself and pulled on his working uniform.  He'd given some thought to meeting the newcomers in his dress blues, but decided that would be just showing off – and besides, the dress uniform was hideously uncomfortable.  Stepping out of the shower, he discovered that Rose had already left, probably heading down to the pilot barracks.  Fortunately, with so few pilots on the carrier, it was unlikely that anyone would notice where she’d been.

We’ll have to be more careful in future, he thought, as he checked his appearance in the mirror.  There will be a full complement of pilots once again – and a new XO looking to make her mark on the ship.

He picked up his terminal, slotted it to his belt, then sighed as he saw the pistol lying beside it.  Captain Fitzwilliam had ordered his crewmembers to carry loaded weapons at all times – and to recertify themselves on the firing range if they hadn't fired a weapon since the Academy.  Kurt was torn between considering it paranoia or a wise precaution; the humans had boarded an alien craft, logically the aliens might try to do the same to them.  Sighing again, he buckled the weapon to his belt and silently resolved to spend more time in the shooting ranges himself.  It would be embarrassing if he was outshot by the new pilots.

Shaking his head, he walked through the hatch and down towards the starboard landing bay.  He was just in time to see the first shuttle make its way into the bay and settle down on the deck, followed rapidly by two more.  Tradition dictated that all pilots had to arrive on their carriers via shuttle, rather than flying their own Spitfires or Hurricanes to their new assignments.  Kurt suspected there was some reason for the tradition, but several hours of searching through the archives had revealed no reason that made sense.  The cynical part of his mind wondered if the original reason was still valid.

Rose entered the compartment, followed by the five other Wing Commanders.  Kurt turned to them and nodded, fighting down a sudden surge of envy.  They would be commanding their squadrons in combat, while he would be trapped in the CIC, watching helplessly as the young men and women under his command risked their lives.  It was the best job in the Royal Navy.  He silently promised himself that he would take a starfighter out more than once, perhaps allowing each of the Wing Commanders a chance to serve as CAG.  It would be good for their careers, if not their desire to stay in a cockpit.

“I’ve shared out the experienced pilots among you,” Kurt informed them, as the final shuttle landed neatly on the deck.  “I expect you to train hard until the rooks are up to scratch – and don’t make stupid mistakes.”

“Yes, sir,” Wing Commander Paton said.  The others, including Rose, nodded in droll agreement.  Rooks – the Royal Navy’s slang for new pilots – made stupid mistakes all the time, even after six months at the Academy.  These newcomers had only had three months of intensive training before being deemed qualified pilots.  “We’ll ride them hard.”

The airlock dinged, announcing that it was now safe to enter the landing bay.  Kurt led the way into the vast compartment, then keyed his terminal.  The shuttle hatches opened, revealing a mob of young men and women spilling out onto the deck.  Some of them he recognised, others had been in other training courses and he’d never seen them before.  Up close, they all looked disturbingly fresh-faced and young.  Behind them, there were a handful of older pilots moving at a more sedate pace.  They’d seen carriers before and saw no need to stare.

Kurt put his fingers in his mouth and whistled.  “Line up in squadrons,” he snapped.  He’d done better than that on his first assignment.  “Rooks to the front; older pilots to the rear.”

He concealed his amusement at their expressions.  Every single starfighter pilot believed himself – or herself – to be the best starfighter pilot in the galaxy.  They didn't like having their status as newcomers rubbed in their face, any more than Kurt himself had enjoyed it when he was a rook himself.  But there was no choice.  They had to learn just how little they knew before they actually went into combat.

It should have taken less than a minute for the lines to form.  Instead, it took almost five minutes ... and it would have been longer if the older pilots hadn't taken charge and started pushing or pulling the rooks into line.  Kurt sighed inwardly, remembering some of the exercises he’d done when he’d been a trainee himself.  This bunch wouldn't have a hope of sorting themselves out by alphabetical order, if the order was given.  And they were likely to wind up on charges for failing to salute a superior officer.

“That was disgraceful,” Kurt said, when they were finally assembled in ragged lines.  It was a damn good thing, he told himself, that the Royal Marines weren't around to watch.  “Parts of your training might have been cut, but there's no excuse for not sorting yourselves out.”

He paused.  “For those of you who don’t know me,” he continued, “my name is Kurt Schneider, Commander Air Group.  My job is to command the starfighters and bombers assigned to the carrier, which includes getting you rooks into shape before we encounter the aliens.  Believe me, I don’t care about what sort of hot shit you consider yourself to be – and you can be damn sure that the aliens don’t care either.  Pilots far more experienced than you have been blown out of space by the aliens, sometimes before they even knew they were under attack.

“These” – he paused to indicate Rose and the others – “are the Wing Commanders, the officers in command of the squadrons you’ll serve in.  Like me, they have all faced the aliens in combat and know their tricks, so I suggest you learn from their experience.  They will hammer you into shape, if necessary, to make sure you fit in.  And if you have real problems fitting in, you will be relieved and sent back to Earth.  We have no time to coddle people here.  Do you understand me?”

There was a ragged chorus of assent.  Kurt gazed over the pilots, noting how some of them seemed to have quailed under his speech and others looked resentful.  The only one who looked almost happy was Charles Augustus.  Indeed, the young man looked pleased.  Kurt eyed him suspiciously – pilots were known for being great jokers and playing pranks on their superiors was a common trait during peacetime – then put the matter out of his mind.  There was much else that needed to be said.

“The older pilots amongst you also have experience, so they will be serving as subordinate commanders,” Kurt continued.  “I suggest you learn from their experience too, because it is far easier to learn from someone else’s experience than learning it the hard way.  I do not want to hear any quibbles about pilot equality, not now.  Experience will serve as the basis of seniority.”

He paused, significantly.  In theory, Flight Lieutenants were equals, regardless of experience; in practice, he’d just thrown that convention out of the airlock.  But there was no way he was going to abandon the chance to have more experienced pilots assist with the training, no matter their ranks.  They needed all the help they could get.

“You may have heard rumours about operational deployments,” Kurt concluded.  He’d heard the rumours himself, although nothing had been officially confirmed.  But it was pretty obvious that a task force consisting of six full-sized carriers wasn't going to be patrolling the rear of human space.  “This is not a pleasure cruise.  Any of you who act like you’re on a luxury liner to Jupiter will regret it.”

He paused, again.  “Which leads to one final point,” he added.  “I assume you all brought your duffels?”

The rooks raised their bags.  Kurt smiled; Royal Navy regulations only allowed pilots one medium-sized bag, which had to carry their clothing as well as anything else they wished to bring with them.  His training had included a session on how best to pack their bags, but the rooks had largely missed out on that piece of vital information.  He'd bet good money that half of the rooks hadn't packed their spare uniforms, or stuffed the bags full of chocolate or pornographic materials.  Or, rather more worryingly, drugs or electronic simulators.  The latter two could get a pilot dishonourably discharged from the service, if he didn't manage to get himself killed first.

“You should have been provided with a list of what you were expected to bring,” Kurt said, dryly.  “If you haven’t brought any of it, you can obtain the missing items from the supply officer – but I’m afraid the costs will be coming out of your salary, as the items in question were supplied by the Royal Navy.  I suggest you do that today, as we will be inspecting your possessions tomorrow.  Which” – he paused, drawing the moment out as long as possible – “leads to the next point.

“There are items that are firmly on the banned list,” he warned.  “You have until the end of today to get rid of them, no questions asked.  The list itself is on the datanet.  If you are caught with any of them afterwards, you will be fined, docked in rank – which is a little pointless at the moment – assigned to punishment duties or the brig ... or dishonourably discharged from the navy.  You’ve all done very well to reach so far so quickly.  It would be a crying shame if you lost it right now.”

He smiled at their expressions.  Whatever happened in Sin City stayed in Sin City – that much was well-known – but it was quite possible to buy items that were legally banned just about everywhere else in the lunar settlement.  Pornography wasn't technically banned, but drugs, simulators and other devices were forbidden.  But pilots, always seeking thrills, had probably decided to risk their careers to buy something they shouldn’t.  He just hoped they had the sense to get rid of anything incriminating before the inspections began.  Someone stupid enough not to do so was probably addicted already.

“That’s the end of my speech,” he said.  “Wing Commander Labara?”

Rose stepped forward.  “When I call your name,” she said, “assemble behind me.”

She ran through eleven names, three of them belonging to experienced pilots.  The rooks, some of them looking noticeably paler than they’d looked when they’d boarded the ship, followed orders, then followed her out of the compartment.  Charles Augustus still showed no sign of anything, but pleasure.  Kurt narrowed his eyes, watched them go – they hadn't learned to march in step, clearly – and then turned back as the other Wing Commanders went through the lists.  Finally, all of the pilots were assigned to a specific squadron and on their way to the barracks.  After the Academy, they’d probably find the barracks something of an improvement.

He made his way back to his office and started to work his way through the reports, waiting to see who would call him first.  Brief updates started to blink up on his terminal within moments, informing him that several rooks had forgotten various important items and would have to order them from the supply officer.  Kurt rolled his eyes when he saw that, as always, they’d forgotten pieces of their uniforms or even their underwear.  How the hell did someone manage to forget navy-issue underpants or bras?

You were that young too, once, he reminded himself.  He’d forgotten his uniform jacket, which had cost him a large chunk of his salary.  And you had the full six months of intensive training.

Putting the thought aside, he pulled up the planned training schedules and cast his eye down them.  There would be a couple of days for his squadrons to get used to their new starfighters, then they would start training with American, Japanese and French pilots.  It would be interesting, to say the least.  No matter what the Admiral might have said about working together, national rivalry would play a major role in the coming mock battles.

But they won’t be mock when we meet the aliens, he told himself, sharply.  By then, we have to learn to work together or die together.

Chapter Nine

Major Charles Parnell couldn't help but be impressed by USS Chesty Puller.  Like most military warships she was as ugly as hell, yet that hardly mattered.  She was designed to take thousands of American Marines into the teeth of enemy fire, land them on hostile ground and provide fire support to them until the enemy were firmly suppressed.  Indeed, she made the transport ships used by the Royal Marines look tiny, although Charles wasn't entirely sure she was a great idea.  Her armour might be heavier than the armour protecting modern carriers, but it was nowhere near as heavy as Ark Royal’s.

“Welcome to my ship,” Major General Ross called.  “It's been a long time.”

Charles smiled and shook hands firmly with the Rhino.  They’d met years ago, back during a joint operation in the Horn of Africa, yet another butcher and bolt.  The Rhino had impressed him, once he’d overcome the bombast and realised there was a fine mind hidden under the heavyset expression.  And he’d been quite happy to forget nationalism and work with others to hunt down terrorists, kidnappers and wreckers.

“It has indeed,” he said.  “And now they’re sending you to war against aliens.”

“Hell of a thing,” the Rhino agreed.  “None of us ever really planned for it.”

He waved a hand, indicating the colossal landing bay.  Countless Marines and support staff moved from shuttle to shuttle, inspecting their loads or checking their drives.  Others ran in circles around the bay, getting what exercise they could.  Charles couldn’t help the flicker of envy – a ship dedicated to the Royal Marines would have been very helpful – but he still had his doubts about the concept.

“But you can see we’ve been adapting,” the Rhino boomed.  “You see Mons Meg over there?”

Charles followed his gaze.  A large weapon – it looked big enough to be a self-propelled gun – was mounted on tracks.  As he watched, a handful of Marines carefully manoeuvred it into a shuttle, taking extreme care.

“It looks as though they expect the weapon to blow up at any moment,” he said.

“They do,” the Rhino said.  “That’s one of the first strategic plasma cannons designed and produced for the Corps.  It's actually capable of engaging targets in low orbit from the ground, which should make life interesting for anyone trying to land on the planet.  But the plasma containment field is very far from perfect.”

Charles snorted.  “I bet the health and safety lot loved it!”

“Oh, they did,” the Rhino sneered.  “They actually wanted to forbid its deployment to the Corps until we actually managed to improve the containment system.  But they were overruled, because there’s a war underway and we need every advantage we can get.  We’ve also got plasma cannons for deployment to replace antitank missiles and HVMs, but nothing man-portable just yet.  We don't know how the aliens do it.”

Charles nodded, remembering the alien weapons they’d captured from Alien-1 and the battlecruiser.  They’d shot bursts of superheated plasma, enough to ensure a kill even if they only brushed their human targets.  But humanity couldn't duplicate the handheld weapons, not yet.  It made him wonder just what else the aliens might have up their sleeves, if their technology was so much more advanced.  Humanity was catching up, but would it catch up in time?

The Rhino snorted, again.  “In any case, I will be leading the assault down to the ground, assuming there actually is an assault,” he said.  “Once we take the ground, we will set up defences and wait for the aliens to come to us.  We’ll give them quite a few nasty surprises when they do.  If the fleet has to leave, we can still hold the planet.”

“They’ll just fry you from orbit,” Charles protested.  Standard doctrine insisted that whoever ruled the high orbitals ruled the planet.  It was certainly true that wrecker bases in the failed states in Africa and the Middle East were obliterated without warning, either by American or European military forces.  “You’ll lose everyone.”

“Hardly,” the Rhino said.  He nodded towards a handful of other plasma cannons.  “We should be able to hold out for a time.”

He shrugged, mightily.  “It all depends on the exact situation, of course,” he added.  “At worst, we’ll merely loot their settlements and then fall back.”

Charles nodded.  They’d been briefed extensively on the importance of recovering alien books as well as computers, something that might help the scientists unlock the secrets behind how the aliens communicated.  The alien computers might have yielded some data, but nothing that would allow humans to actually talk to them.  He’d been told that if they recovered something that served as a key to unlock the alien language there would be promotions all around.  The scientists had to be getting desperate.

Maybe they think the aliens are just misunderstood, he thought.  And they want to prove it before it’s too late.

“Their settlements may well be underwater,” Charles said.  The aliens on Alien-1 had certainly been based underwater – and it was clear the aliens didn't need to surface to breathe.  “Can you handle that?”

“We have over two thousand armoured Marines,” the Rhino assured him.  “We can certainly probe into their underwater domains, even if we can’t hold them permanently.  But I’m rather hoping there will be a large underwater population.”

Charles blinked.  “You are?”

“There might well be civilians there too,” the Rhino said.  “Perhaps they can actually talk to us.”

“Maybe,” Charles said.  The aliens they’d captured might have been military personnel – or they might have been civilian scientists.  Without any way to actually talk to them it was impossible to tell.  “But we should be very careful.  So far, the aliens have largely refrained from atrocities.”

“True,” the Rhino said.  He looked pensive for a long moment.  “What does it say about us, Charles, when a bunch of aliens are more honourable foes than half of humanity?”

“They’re pragmatic,” Charles said.  “They go after our worlds, we go after their worlds and both races lose billions of people.  But if they win the war, they can commit genocide afterwards at leisure – or simply keep us trapped on the ground.  Maybe they just don’t want us expanding any further, so they started the war.”

The Rhino shrugged and slapped him on the back.  “It doesn’t matter why they started the war,” he said.  “All that matters is winning it.”

He paused, then produced a sheet of paper from his belt.  “Now, training schedules,” he said, briskly.  “The Russians and Chinese have sent ground forces, as have the French.  You’ll be taking part in the briefings, I assume?”

Charles nodded.  As one of the few officers to actually set foot on an alien world, his insights would be invaluable.  But they’d never seen a major alien world.  The intelligence officers had warred over the question of just how many defences the aliens would construct around a world they had to defend.  Would they have major ground-based plasma cannons, capable of engaging ships in orbit, or would they prefer to station weapons in orbit?  There were strong cases for both arguments and everywhere in between.

“It will be my pleasure,” Charles said.  He was looking forward to working with the Rhino again, even though he’d never met the other commanding officers.  “Shall we go?”


“So you forgot your uniform trousers and one of your bras,” Kurt said.  The rook – a pilot who reminded him uncomfortably of Penny – flushed bright red.  “You’ll be pleased to know that the supply officer can and will provide, but your salary is deducted one hundred pounds to pay for it.”

The pilot winced as the other rooks sniggered.  Kurt felt a flicker of sympathy which he ruthlessly suppressed.  Attention to detail was important in flying – a pilot who forgot her uniform one day might forget to check her weapons and flying systems before launch the next.  One hundred pounds was steep – the Royal Navy had a very good deal with its suppliers – but it would teach her a lesson.  Besides, the remainder would be poured into the squadron R&R fund.

He turned his attention to the next pilot, who’d been snickering uncontrollably.  “Perhaps you would like to explain, rook, precisely why you failed to pack both of your shirts?”

The rook stopped laughing.  “I ...”

“Let me guess,” Kurt said, cutting him off.  “You thought you could avoid wearing a shirt and pack something else instead?”

He sighed.  The excuse had been popular during his training and probably dated far further back than the human race had been flying in space.  But it was still stupid.

“You’ll be charged seventy-five pounds,” Kurt informed him, sternly.  “And what did you pack in their place?”

“Nothing,” the rook said.  “I ...”

Kurt glowered at him, then allowed his voice to become mocking.  “You didn't even manage to smuggle a naughty outfit onboard?”

He moved onto Charles Augustus, who was standing beside his bunk, and checked the terminal.  Augustus didn't seem to have reported anything to the supply officer, which suggested he’d actually managed to pack his bag properly or he’d tried to avoid reporting anything missing in the hopes it would be missed in the inspection.  Kurt motioned for the young man to open his bag, then checked everything against the master list.  Nothing seemed to be missing, nor was there anything illicit.  It was suspiciously perfect.

“You seem to have managed to pack,” Kurt growled.  “And how did you do it without being taught?”

“I asked one of the older pilots,” Augustus said.  He held Kurt’s eyes without flinching, which was interesting.  No matter how confident pilots were, rooks rarely stood up to their superiors.  “He taught me how to do it, then warned me to be careful I didn't miss anything.”

“Good for him,” Kurt said.

He moved on to the next pilot, then the next.  Three more were missing essential items, two of them had brought other items of clothing with them, despite being told it was against regulations.  He could see the impulse to bring sexy underwear, even though relations between pilots in the same squadrons were strictly forbidden, but what sort of idiot would feel that a complete set of civilian clothes were suitable?  They were hardly going to attend a coming-out ball in the heart of London.

“Well,” he said, when the inspection was finally finished.  “This doesn't bode well for the future, does it?”

He allowed himself to glare at the pilots who’d had to request items from the supply officer, then sighed out loud.  “You need to learn to pay close attention to detail,” he said.  “I suggest, very strongly, that you learn.”

Turning, he marched out of the compartment, leaving Wing Commander Paton to lecture the pilots who'd slipped up, badly.  Outside, he met Rose and Commander Amelia Williams, who nodded shortly to him.  He wasn't quite sure what to make of the XO, but she seemed competent and didn't seem inclined to mess around with his responsibilities.  That alone was enough to endear her to him.

“We found only a small amount of illicit goods,” Amelia said.  “Either they didn't have the opportunity to find much at Sin City or they had more sense than we expected.”

“That’s a relief,” Kurt said, as he followed them into a small room.  It was also odd.  The last time he’d been to Sin City, he’d had to avoid the attentions of hundreds of sellers, all of whom seemed to think he had money to burn.  “Anything particularly dangerous?”

“Just this,” Rose said, picking up a headband from the table.  “We don’t know who it belonged to.”

Kurt sighed as he took it.  The headband directly simulated the pleasure centres in a person’s brain, allowing them to forget their troubles in a wash of orgasmic pleasure.  It was definitely safer than drugs, legal or illegal, and it had few physical effects, but the mental addiction could be impossible to break.  Once, he’d tried it as a teenager, then thrown it away in horror at just what it had done.  A few more doses, he knew, and he would have done anything for another one.  The last he’d heard, the girlfriend who had introduced him to the experience had been sent to a mental hospital.  She could easily be dead by now.

“We’ll know if someone is addicted soon enough,” he said.  Symptoms would appear within a day or so, hopefully before they actually tried to fly a starfighter.  It would play merry hell with his training schedule if they had to force everyone to wait until someone either showed signs of withdrawal or nothing happened within two to three days.  “Maybe they didn't have time to become addicted.”

He sighed.  The last group of pilots might have included some of the dregs of the service, but at least they hadn't been complete newcomers.

“We’ll have to hope,” he said.  “What else did we find?”

He cast an eye over the small pile.  There were several small bottles of alcohol – they’d go into the R&R collection – a small handful of unidentified pills that had to be illicit drugs and a number of datachips.  Probably pornography, Kurt decided, and probably something not entirely acceptable in polite company.  He picked up the chip, toyed with inspecting it, then dropped it into the disposer.  Moments later, the drugs and all of the datachips had been destroyed.

“Check the bottles, then put them in the shared stockpile,” he ordered Rose.  “As long as these are the only problems we should be fine.”

“I can't say I’m impressed,” the XO said.  “There should be punishment duties at the very least.”

Kurt eyed her, stung.  “Commander,” he said, “these are young and stupid rooks, not experienced pilots.  Mistakes – and attempts to parse out the limits of the rules – are fairly standard for them.”

“Between them,” the XO said, “they have been forced to pay out over a thousand pounds, merely to replace items of clothing they forgot to bring.  I don't think it bodes well for discipline.”

The hell of it, Kurt knew, was that he agreed with her.  It didn't bode well for discipline, particularly in the cramped confines of a carrier’s pilot barracks.  But, at the same time, he knew that most of the newcomers had barely enough training to get through the intensive course.  They’d certainly not been taught anything past piloting, perhaps in the hopes they’d pick it up while on deployment, and it showed.  By God, it showed.

“They have only had three months of training, Commander,” he said, carefully.  “I believe we will have plenty of time to teach them how to comport themselves as proper crewmen as well as pilots.”

“I hope you’re right,” the XO said.  “Have you completed the inspections?”

Kurt nodded, once.

“The Captain wishes to speak with you, as soon as convenient,” the XO said.  “I suggest you go now.”

“Yes, Commander,” Kurt said.  He’d been in the Navy long enough to know that when the Captain called, you went at once, unless there was a genuinely life-threatening emergency underway.  And there wasn't one now.  “I’ll go see him at once.”


James was working his way through yet another set of paperwork when the hatch buzzed, informing him that someone was waiting outside.  He hit the switch to open the hatch, then pushed the handful of terminals to one side as Wing Commander Schneider entered the small compartment.  The Wing Commander looked tired, even though he'd had several days of leave between his last assignment and the return to Ark Royal.  But there was no time to consider the problem now.

“I’m sorry for summoning you,” he said, as he motioned for the CAG to sit down.  He was gloomily aware that his voice sounded awkward.  “But there is a topic I have to discuss.”

“Yes, sir,” Schneider said, sitting down.

James frowned.  The CAG sounded ... guilty.  Perhaps he thought James was going to blame him for the poor inspection results, particularly as Schneider had been one of the instructors at the Academy.  But James had no intention of throwing the blame around so unpleasantly, not when he remembered being a young and stupid graduate himself.  He’d had some wild times in Sin City too.

“You have a pilot assigned to your command,” James said, carefully.  He wished he could just tell Schneider the truth, but it would make it harder for him to give a honest answer.  “I believe you also taught him at the Academy.  His name is Charles Augustus.”

Schneider looked puzzled, yet oddly relieved.  “Sir?”

“I need to know your impressions of him,” James said.  “What do you make of him?”

He cursed, inwardly, as Schneider considered.  The CAG was far from stupid – and it was rare for a starship’s commanding officer to take any interest in a single junior crewman, unless the crewman had done something very good or very bad.  He would deduce that there was some reason for the interest and do ... what?  The Royal Navy was generally very good at preventing predators from rising to positions of power, but there had been some failures ...

“He’s certainly capable,” Schneider said, finally.  “Smart, motivated, rarely makes the same mistake twice ... and one of the very few not to forget anything when the rooks were shipped from the Academy to the Old Lady.  But he has a chip on his shoulder about something, sir, and I don't know about what.  His file is curiously light.”

James groaned, inwardly.  A light file suggested a false name; indeed, a complete false identity.  And that meant that people very high up in the Admiralty had signed off on creating the identify for Charles Augustus.  It wouldn't be hard to deduce his true identity from the simple lack of many other prospective candidates.

“I expect you to keep an eye on him,” James said, finally.  “But you are not to discuss this with him at all.  Do you understand me?”

“Yes, sir,” Schneider said.  “Can I discuss it with the Wing Commanders?”

“His, perhaps,” James said.  “No one else.  No one else at all.”

Chapter Ten

“The new bombers seem to be working well,” Ted observed.  On the display, they were launching their torpedoes a safe distance from the enemy starships.  “But they’re still threatened by enemy weapons.”

“Yes, sir,” Lopez said.  She glanced down at her terminal.  “They do give us some additional striking power.”

Ted nodded.  The missiles the bombers had once carried had been replaced by EMP-pulsars and bomb-pumped laser warheads.  Humanity had produced hundreds of nukes a year even before the war, using them to push asteroids towards their destinations or heating up a pair of very cold worlds.  Now, they were used – once again – as weapons of war.  But Ted had a feeling that they were going to need many more nukes than humanity could produce before the war came to an end.

He sucked in his breath as the simulated aliens realised they were under attack and returned fire, spilling out tens of thousands of plasma bolts in the hope of wiping out the missiles before they made contact.  Most of them missed completely, but the aliens were pumping out so much sheer firepower that it hardly mattered.  One by one, the missiles winked out of existence, leaving only a couple to detonate and send laser bursts burning into the alien hull.

“We may need to launch pulsars first,” he said.  “EMP screws up their plasma weapons, we know.”

He sighed.  Humanity had adapted, reacted and overcome ... but what were the aliens doing, only a handful of jumps away?  The absence of any major attack since Ark Royal had returned home suggested they were planning something, even though some peaceniks dared to hope that the aliens had decided to sue for peace, now they’d taken a bloody nose.  But the two attempts to make contact had ended in tragedy when the aliens had blown both of the peace ships out of space.  Either they’d seen the transmissions as a challenge to do battle or they’d simply not been interested in talking.

Shaking his head, he turned to look at his Flag Lieutenant.  “Draw up a plan for more overall exercises,” he ordered.  “We need to prepare to adapt to new realities.”

He looked back at the display, just in time to see a flight of alien starfighters materialise from nowhere and fall on one of the American carriers like wolves on a flock of sheep.  The Americans fought back savagely – this time, their armour could soak up alien fire – but it wasn't enough.  As soon as parts of the armour failed, the aliens concentrated their fire and blew their way right into the hull.  Moments later, it was all over; the aliens scattered as the American carrier blew apart into flaming debris.

“We’ll also need to keep half our starfighters back for defence,” Ted observed. The Americans had weakened their fighter cover and paid the price.  “Pity we can't simply reconfigure the interior too.”

“Yes, sir,” Lopez agreed.

Ted looked down at the live feed from the umpires, who were monitoring the exercise from afar.  The various national units had learned to work together, even though they were still a little shaky in places, but it hadn't really mattered.  No matter what they did, there was no evading the fact that five out of six carriers – seven out of eight, if the smaller carriers were included – were hellishly vulnerable.  They’d just have to pray the aliens didn't mount a serious attack.  If there had been time to build more heavily armoured ships ...

“The armour did hold up longer than expected,” Lopez said.  “It’s a promising sign.”

“And what happens,” Ted asked reasonably, “when the aliens start producing better weapons?  We already know they have a mid-range plasma gun.  They might just improve the weapons their starfighters carry and then we’d be in real trouble.”

He sighed.  “But we don’t have any other cards to play,” he added.  “All we can do is keep working on the simulations and hope that the aliens don’t come up with any other surprises.”

“Yes, sir,” Lopez said.

Ted was still mulling over the problems when he summoned his senior officers to a conference, two hours later.  This time, most of them attended via hologram, reluctant to leave their ships for even a few short hours.  Ted didn't really blame them.  The aliens might launch an attack on Sol at any time, whereupon the fleet would be expected to go into battle as part of Earth’s defence force.  There was no way to know if the aliens had the Sol System under observation, but Ted wouldn't have bet against it.  Humanity did it’s best to keep an eye on the New Russia system too.

“Our carriers are still strikingly vulnerable,” he said, once they had reviewed the results of the previous set of exercises.  “We’re going to have to hold back nearly two-thirds of our starfighters to provide cover – and use drones to create false targets for the aliens.  Even so, it’s going to be a major headache for us.”

It would be worse than that, he knew.  If the aliens just came at them, without any regard for losses, the lightly-armoured carriers would be wiped out in one single pass.  After that, the aliens would just concentrate their attacks on Ark Royal until the Old Lady was battered into scrap.  It would happen, sooner or later, despite her armour.  Or the aliens would come up with something new.  He gritted his teeth at the thought.

“Then we have to keep them focused on their own defence,” Captain Bellerose said.  “If we remain hidden, we might manage to get a striking force into attack range without being detected.”

“Perhaps,” Ted said, “but we don't know just how capable the alien sensors actually are.”

“Then maybe we should reconsider the operation,” Captain Atsuko said.  The Japanese officer looked uncomfortable as all eyes swung to him.  “We agreed to take risks to win the war, or at least knock the aliens back on their heels, but not outright suicide.”

Ted concealed his private amusement.  Japanese tactics in their wars had often been alarmingly close to suicide.  Maybe they’d learnt something from two bloody defeats ... or maybe they were merely concerned about losing one of their carriers.  Edo might well be targeted by the aliens if they decided that Earth was too heavily defended to be worth attacking, at least until humanity had been weakened considerably.  The Japanese couldn't afford to lose a carrier for nothing.

“The operation is not suicide,” the Rhino boomed.  “It is merely very dangerous.  I don't think any of us believed otherwise.”

Ted tapped on the table before the others could start taking sides.  “We will continue to review our tactics,” he said.  “In particular, we will work on forcing our pilots to work together ...”


“It could have been worse,” Kurt said.  “And we learned a great deal from our failures.”

He sighed, knowing that none of his superiors would be impressed.  The rooks had learned the basics, true, but they hadn't mastered the tricks experienced pilots had learned through actual combat.  Most of the rooks had been killed, either through poor flight discipline or alien stealth.  Fortunately, it had all been simulated.  But he hadn’t hesitated to make it clear to the pilots that they couldn't afford such losses in a real battle.

“It could have been worse,” Admiral Smith repeated.  “What did you learn from your failures?”

“The rooks learnt that they needed more practice,” Kurt said.  “We put them up against the American Black Knights, sir; the Americans wiped the deck with them, even though they were badly outnumbered.  I think there won’t be so much grumbling in future about endless exercises.”

He sighed, again.  It had been five days since the rooks had arrived and he’d spent far too much of his time monitoring their exercises, lecturing them on their flaws and waiting grimly for the first actual fatality.  Somehow, he doubted the aliens would be the first to kill one of the rooks.  It was much more likely that their inexperience would get one of them killed first, no matter what precautions he took.

“Keep working on them,” the Admiral ordered.  “The Admiralty has been urging us to leave as soon as reasonably possible.”

Kurt swallowed.  He hated to admit failure, but it might save lives.  The rooks didn't deserve to die when some of them had the makings of very good pilots.  “Sir,” he said, “the rooks will not be ready for quite some time.  Is there no way we can request more experienced pilots from the Earth Defence Force?”

“The Admiralty doesn't want to give any of them up,” the Admiral said.  “Under the circumstances, it’s hard to blame them.”

“I know,” Kurt said.  He’d been briefed on Operation Nelson two days after the rooks had arrived.  Since then, he and his Wing Commanders had worked them so hard that several of the rooks had dreamed of flying starfighters in their bunks.  But if nothing else, they were just too tired to have many discipline problems away from the cockpits.  “But it’s going to get a large number of pilots killed.”

“Keep working on them,” the Admiral ordered.  “We don’t want to lose any time for training before we leave.”

“Understood,” Kurt said.  “When do you want to leave?”

“A week, no longer,” Admiral Smith said.  “After that, I have a feeling the Admiralty will order us out anyway.”

“I’ll go back to training,” Kurt said.  He half-rose to his feet.  “With your permission?”

Admiral Smith nodded.  “Keep me informed,” he said.  “And watch everyone carefully.”

Kurt stood and retreated through the hatch.


“He’s right, Admiral,” James said.  “We are in a worse position, training-wise, than we were before we headed to New Russia.”

Admiral Smith nodded, suddenly looking much more tired.  “It can’t be helped,” he said, bitterly.  “Everything we see at New Russia suggests the aliens are trying to build up overwhelming force and then come straight at Earth.  They might well win, too, and if that happens we’re in deep trouble.  If we can knock them off balance, just for a few short months, it might make the difference between victory and defeat.”

James scowled.  He’d made an effort to catch up on international politics after chatting with his Uncle Winchester and he’d come to the conclusion that several nations didn't want the British to hog all the glory.  Or, for that matter, they didn't want the aliens to take the time they needed to prepare themselves and attack Earth.  Or ... that they merely wanted the war to end before it destroyed the economy.  Striking deep behind enemy lines would hopefully scare hell out of the aliens, perhaps even bring them to the negotiation table.  And maybe it would even shorten the war.

He remembered some of the classified documents he’d accessed through the fleet’s datanet and felt his scowl deepening.  No one had really expected to have to move to a wartime footing and the contingency plans, such as they were, had proved largely inadequate.  British industry – and American, French, Chinese and Russian – had worked miracles, yet much more was needed to keep the human race in the war.  Matters weren't helped by the urgent need to share technology, design a shared class of carriers and battleships and a hundred other problems, each one needing to be massaged carefully into submission.  There were quite a few people who would prefer the war to come to an end, sooner rather than later.

I’m one of them, he thought, bitterly.  But the bastards won't even talk to us.

“If,” he said.  “Admiral, there's one hell of a lot of work to do.”

“No arguments there,” Admiral Smith said.  He paused, then smiled.  “How are you enjoying command?”

James hesitated.  “It’s a huge responsibility,” he said.  “But I will cope with it, sir.”

“I hope so,” Admiral Smith said.  “And our royal passenger?”

“Seems to be among the better rooks,” James said.  “I read his file, then reviewed his progress in the training simulators.  He definitely has talent, Admiral; he’d probably go far if he wasn't a prince.  But, at the same time, he’s got a temper and a massive chip on his shoulder.  That will get him into deep trouble one day, sir.”

“Almost certainly,” Admiral Smith agreed.  “If he’d gone through the normal course, he would either have been forced to straighten up by one of the upperclassmen or would have been regretfully sent back to civilian life.  Hell, his attitude would make him an ideal Marine, once the chip was hammered off his shoulder.  But he’s through the course and talented enough to be worth saving.  If we can save him.”

James remembered his childhood and winced, remembering precisely what sort of little boy he’d been until his father had hammered some sense into his head – and the First Space Lord had chosen to deny his manipulations.  His sense of entitlement hadn’t been fully abandoned until he’d realised just how close he’d flown to absolute disaster.  In hindsight, he couldn't help wondering if his family and the aristocracy had given him enough rope so he could hang himself with it.

“I can speak to him,” he said, softly.  He could certainly muster a lecture for the young man who might be King.  “Or I can bring Amelia and Commander Schneider into the secret.  One of them could help to keep him in line ...”

“No,” the Admiral said.  He sounded firm enough that James decided it wasn't worth trying to change his mind.  “We don’t want to share the secret any wider than strictly necessary, James.  The more people who know, the greater the chance of rumours leaking out.”

“We should be telling everyone,” James said, tiredly.  “Let them all see that Prince Henry is on the front lines.”

He shook his head.  “But then the Opposition would accuse the Government of trying to create a martyr,” he added.  “Or of using Prince Henry for propaganda.  Or of trying to pander to the people who think aristocracies are inherently evil.”

“It would also make it impossible for the prince to have anything resembling a normal life,” Smith said, quietly.  “You know how crawling some people can become, don’t you?”

James flushed, embarrassed.  “Yes, sir,” he said, quietly.  His career had included quite a bit of nepotism.  “But Prince Henry won’t have any real power, even if he becomes the King.”

“A word in the right set of ears can be quite effective,” Admiral Smith pointed out.  “And not everyone really grasps how little formal power the monarchy has, even today.”

He met James’s eyes.  “If worst comes to worst,” he said, “you can have a long chat with him and make him realise that if he wants to have his career, he has to damn well live up to it.  And if that fails ... well, there’s always the brig.”


“I read up on Prince Henry after this bombshell was dropped in our laps,” Admiral Smith said, darkly.  “I have a certain amount of sympathy for his position, but not enough to overlook any major disciplinary problems.  And I’m damned if I’m risking lives just to let him play at being a starfighter pilot.  He had his chance to walk away and blew it.”

James nodded.  Traditionally, after the first month of military training, recruits were offered the chance to leave.  Prince Henry – Charles Augustus, he reminded himself sharply – had chosen to stay.  He could take the consequences of his decision.

Admiral Smith stood.  “I’ll discuss the remainder of the training schedule with the rest of the officers,” he said.  “Thankfully, none of them seem to want to stand on ceremony.  Once we’re done, I think we’ll set our departure date as one week from now, as the Admiralty wants.  And pray they don’t want us to leave sooner.”

“Understood,” James said.  He changed the subject, slightly.  “The drive modifications have been completed, at least.”

He winced at the thought.  It would be hard for the aliens to burn through Ark Royal’s armour, but they would have no difficulty shooting off the modified drive systems which would allow the carrier to use the alien tramlines.  Once they were gone, Ark Royal would be stranded deep within alien-controlled territory, dependent on searching out human-usable tramlines to escape.  Somehow, he doubted the aliens would let them escape a second time.

“Let us hope that some of the promise really comes true,” Smith agreed.  “If they do, the universe will change completely.”

James smiled.  The human race had never really realised that the tramlines could be manipulated, but the aliens had developed their own systems for doing just that.  Now that an alien drive system was in human hands, they were already talking about ways to improve on the alien tech, even perhaps manipulating a tramline so anyone coming down it arrived at a preset point.  That alone, he knew, would change the face of modern warfare.  Knowing precisely where the enemy would materialise would be a colossal advantage.

“I could use some of those promises,” he said.  If they came up with something the aliens had missed, it would give them a very bloody nose.  “But, for the moment, we have to play with what we have right now.”

The Admiral nodded, then walked towards the hatch and slipped out of the cabin.  James felt an odd mix of wistfulness and guilt; once, his cabin had belonged to the Admiral.  And he, like Prince Henry, had tried to get into Smith’s position through family connections.  But the Prince had tried to hide his identity.  It spoke well of him.  James hadn't come to realise the dangers in having so many connection until he was much older.

Poor bastard, he thought.  He was honestly unsure which of the two he meant; himself ... or Prince Henry.  But at least he’s trying more than I ever did.

With that, he picked up the terminal and went back to his paperwork.

Chapter Eleven

“So you’re ready to depart,” the First Space Lord said.

“More or less,” Ted agreed, trying to project confidence.  A week of intensive exercises had managed to get the new pilots into fighting trim, although they were still a little rough around the edges.  Ted still dreaded the first encounter with the aliens, knowing that they would slaughter hundreds of his pilots, along with the capital ships if they got too close.  “We should be ready to go now.”

He sighed.  He’d known there was a great deal of organising in any fleet deployment, but Ark Royal’s cruise to New Russia had been simplicity itself, compared to deploying six carriers, assorted smaller frigates, Marine transports and fifty freighters.  Ted was uncomfortably aware that losing more than a handful of the freighters could doom their mission, or leave them helplessly exposed to alien attack.  If the aliens realised their weakness and targeted the freighters specifically, Ted would have no choice but to withdraw.

“The politicians are keen for you to depart now,” the First Space Lord said.  His image flickered slightly as he spoke.  “They keep looking at the latest reports from New Russia and fretting about what’s likely to be coming straight at Earth.”

“Maybe we should launch a spoiling attack,” Ted said.

“It would be right into the teeth of a large enemy fleet,” the First Space Lord reminded him.  Ted guessed there had been hundreds of arguments over the last few weeks, discussing the wisdom of each and every plan to launch a counterattack.  “And even if it succeeded, it would be very costly.”

“True,” Ted agreed.  If the aliens attacked Earth, they would be in for a series of unpleasant surprises.  There were thousands of starfighters guarding the planet, along with mass drives, orbital weapons stations and nearly half of humanity’s remaining carriers and frigates.  And, the longer the aliens delayed, the stronger the defenders would become.  “But letting them pick the time and place of attack is also dangerous.”

The First Space Lord nodded.  “I expect you to succeed, Ted,” he said, suddenly.  “The human race needs another victory, desperately.”

“I understand,” Ted said.  “We won’t let you down.”

“Just consider yourself lucky you don’t have any reporters on your ship,” the First Space Lord reminded him.  “At least that’s one hassle you won’t have to handle.”

“I know,” Ted said.  He knew the importance of good relations with the media – the PR officers had beaten it into his head more than once – but he preferred to have relations with them at a distance.  Having reporters on the flagship was a recipe for trouble, if not outright disaster.  “The Americans are welcome to them.”

“They’ll also take all the credit,” the First Space Lord countered.  “Not, in the end, that it will matter if we lose the war.  The alien historians will probably sneer at how poorly we organised our defence.”

Ted nodded.  At least military officers had enough in common that they could work together, despite serving different nations.  Politicians seemed torn between supporting the common defence and weakening it, depending on who was assigned to hold command.  And then there were the politicians who were more interested in their own advancement than defending the human race.  Some of them even saw the unified defence command as a chance to claw even more power for themselves out of their governments.

“Good luck, Ted,” the First Space Lord concluded.  “And watch your back.  The aliens won’t hesitate to stick a knife in it.”

“Yes, sir,” Ted said.  They’d be passing though uncharted and unsurveyed space, space that could play host to alien fleets or defence stations that would be completely undetectable as long as the aliens took a few basic precautions.  An alien fleet could pick them up, shadow them and attack from the rear when they were entering the alien star system.  “We will be very careful.”

“And some officers might stab your back too,” the First Space Lord added.  “You do have political enemies, Ted.”

“Idiots,” Ted muttered.  He’d lucked into command, first of the one starship that could actually stand up to the aliens and then of the deep strike fleet.  Quite a few officers, in and out of the Royal Navy, were already muttering that he’d been promoted too far, too fast.  But then, he’d spent enough time in grade to be automatically promoted to Commodore when the time came, even though he'd spent all his time on one ship.  “Don’t they know there’s a war on?”

“And you have the most prestigious command in the navy,” the First Space Lord said.  “To glory you steer – if you return, alive.”

He shrugged.  “Try not to fuck up too obviously,” he added.  “Goodbye.”

The image vanished.  Ted let out a sigh, wishing he dared take a drink, then stood and walked towards the hatch.  Like the Captain’s Ready Room, the Admiral’s private office was positioned right next to his post, the Combat Information Centre.  Outside, he nodded to the pair of Marines on guard duty and stepped through the hatch into the CIC.  It had been frantically reconfigured in the wake of Ark Royal’s return to Earth, with a handful of newer systems coexisting oddly with the older systems that made up the bulk of the carrier’s network.  Getting everything to work together had been a major chore.

At least we had all the assistance we needed this time, Ted thought, as he stepped up to the holographic display.  The last time we did any major refit, we had to bribe civilian contractors to help us.

He studied the display for a long moment.  The six carriers were spread out, escorted by their frigates and the ever-present Combat Space Patrol.  Behind them, surrounded by two additional squadrons of frigates, were the transports and supply ships.  They’d be hidden under the best stealth systems humanity could produce when they left explored space, Ted knew, although he had his doubts about their ability to remain hidden indefinitely.  Not for the first time, he cursed the lack of hard intelligence on some alien capabilities.  If their stealth systems were staggeringly advanced, what about their sensor networks?  They’d have a better idea of what they were looking for than human researchers.

“Contact the fleet,” he ordered, without taking his eyes off the display.  “Inform them that we will depart for the tramline in two hours.”

“Aye, sir,” Lieutenant Lopez said.

Ted eyed the display for a long moment, then turned and walked to his command chair.  The CIC was starting to fill with crewmen, almost all complete newcomers to Ark Royal.  Ted couldn't help thinking that he’d lost something with his promotion, even though he’d had no reason to complain about the newcomers.  The sense of trust and camaraderie that had bound Ark Royal’s pre-war crew together had faded with the influx of outsiders.

He keyed a switch.  “James,” he said, when Fitzwilliam’s head appeared in the display.  “Are we ready for departure?”

“Yes, sir,” Fitzwilliam said.  “The fleet is fully at your command.”

Ted nodded.  It was hard, so hard, not to pretend he was still the commanding officer of Ark Royal, even after spending more time than he cared to think about on Earth.  But she was Fitzwilliam’s ship now, and Fitzwilliam had a new XO to supervise.  Ted’s former XO didn't need him peering over his shoulder while he tried to master his new command.  Maybe the months on Earth had been a blessing in disguise.  Nothing irritated a Captain more than having an Admiral take matters into his own hands that were rightfully the Captain’s.

“Excellent,” he said.  He felt a dull quiver running through the ship as the main drive came online, ready for departure.  The damaged components from their desperate running battle had been replaced, even though some of the older systems had been completely irreplaceable.  “Then let us hope for a willing foe and sea room.”


It was funny, Kurt decided, as he entered his office and shut the hatch firmly behind him, just how much the carrier had become home.  The barracks were far from comfortable, there was very little privacy and he had to keep his affair with Rose under wraps, but it still felt more welcoming than his home on Earth.  But maybe it wasn't surprising.  There was a simplicity, a rightness, about the military life that was missing on Earth.  As an investment banker, he'd been called upon to compromise his morals more than once.  But as CAG, he wasn't required to lie or cheat to keep his job.

The thought made him grit his teeth, remembering just how much he hated his old job, now he'd tasted being a military officer again.  His boss hadn’t been as bad as some – Kurt had heard horror stories about some of the more aggressive bankers out there – but he had insisted that Kurt keep his mouth shut about certain matters.  Maybe he’d meant well, when an honest answer would probably have cost Kurt his job, yet it hadn't felt right.  Being in the military was so much simpler than being a civilian.

He winced as he sat down, wondering, once again, what he would do after the war.  As a military officer, he'd been given treatments that would keep him fit and relatively healthy for years to come, but he was damned if he wanted to go back to the bank.  And yet, he would certainly have to support his children, unless they managed to land high-paying jobs for themselves.  Maybe he could find a posting on a civilian interstellar freighter.  Former military officers were often headhunted by interstellar corporations, particularly those with experience of operations in deep space.  And Rose could come with him, if she didn't want to stay in the military.  It was rare for a starfighter pilot to remain in active service longer than five years ...

That may change, he thought, dryly.  We all signed up for the duration of war, if war broke out on our watch.

Bracing himself, he pressed his fingertips against the terminal’s sensor and accessed the mailbox.  Inside, there were a handful of messages from both Percy and Penny ... but nothing at all from Molly.  A message from an unknown address revealed itself to be from Gayle, who seemed to be worried about how the kids were coping with the new situation.  Kurt cursed his lack of foresight – he could have asked the nanny to keep an eye on Molly for him – then scanned the message quickly.  Both of Kurt’s children were worried about how their parents had fought, even though they hadn't been there.  Kurt guessed that Molly had given them her version of the story first.

Carefully, he opened the message from Penny and read it, quickly.  His daughter didn't seem to know what was actually going on, but she did want to see her father again.  Percy seemed a little more perceptive, yet even he wasn't sure what was happening.  Kurt nodded in bitter understanding.  Children – even teenagers – were often unaware of emotional undercurrents between their parents, even if they knew about such things in the abstract.  He wondered, absently, if their school had ever discussed separation with them, then pushed the thought to one side.  There was no time to fret over it, not now.  The fleet was due to depart in less than an hour.

He sighed, again.  They were close enough to Earth to hold a conversation, if Molly had wanted to talk to him.  He hesitated, then started to tap in her contact code before stopping himself.  The last thing he wanted was another shouting match, not now.  But what the hell was she thinking?

You wanted to make sure your kids had the best possible schooling, he thought, coldly.  It wasn't as if he’d disagreed with Molly’s ambitions for her children.  But, by doing so, you brought her into contact with people who could spend money like water and never miss it.

He cancelled the call, tiredly.  He’d never really felt poor, but then he'd had a good job, beautiful kids and a nice house.  He didn't need fancy clothes, luxury food or long holidays somewhere it was always sunny.  But Molly clearly felt otherwise; she’d wanted luxury, even though she’d known she could never have it.  Until she could ...

Or was she simply separated from me a long time ago?  The thought was a bitter one, but it had to be faced.  Starfighter pilots rarely married while on active service, like most junior crewmen.  Molly had never had to deal with a long enforced separation.  Had she discovered, when he'd been called back to war, that she needed someone in her life?  Or was his paranoia simply getting the better of him.

“Record V-Mail,” he ordered.  There was a chirp from the console as the camera activated, recording the message.  “Molly.

“I don’t want to rehash our argument,” he said, carefully.  It was funny how he could always find the right words to chew out a pilot, but not to talk to his wife.  “But we do need to think about the future.  If you have found someone else, I don’t mind; we’re both old enough, I think, to handle a separation.  I ...”

He hesitated, again.  Should he mention Rose?

“I won’t stand in your way if you want a separation,” he said, deciding it would be better not to give Molly more ammunition.  “But I do worry about the children.  We agreed to raise them together, to bring them up until they became adults, and we must honour that agreement, no matter what we feel about each other.  I know, most of the burden in the past year has fallen on you.  But I still care deeply about them ... and about you.”

But it was a lie, he knew.  He knew he should care about Molly, but there was nothing in his heart apart from a cold dead emptiness.  They’d been lovers, they’d built a family together, yet the combination of his absences and the prize money had ripped them apart and forced her into the arms of another man.  Or was he still being paranoid?  Just because he was having an affair didn't mean that his wife was also having an affair ...

“We need to be honest with each other,” he said, slowly.  But he wasn't being honest, was he?  “When I return to the solar system, we will sit down somewhere neutral and talk, openly, about the future.  I will make arrangements for you to have some of my salary, to help take care of the kids – and even to take care of yourself.  All I ask in return is that we talk openly and that we don’t hurt the kids.”

But how could it not hurt the kids?  Both Penny and Percy were teenagers, never the most stable of people.  They’d both wonder, even if they didn't admit it, if they were responsible for separating their parents.  Maybe Molly, as angry as she’d been with him, had already blamed everything on her husband.  Or maybe Gayle had tried to explain parental rows and separations and the kids had picked up completely the wrong idea.  Or ...

“Take care of them,” he concluded.  “And take care of yourself, too.  I ...”

He wanted to say he loved her.  But the words wouldn't form on his tongue.

“I’ll see you when I get back,” he said.  “Goodbye.”

He ended the recording, reviewed it, then transmitted the message to Earth, where it would enter the planetary datanet.  Once it was gone, he recorded messages for both Percy and Penny, telling them to behave and reassuring them that it wasn't their fault.  After a moment, he recorded a message for Gayle too, asking her to keep looking after the kids.  Molly was likely to become unbearable for a while – Kurt remembered her raging when she’d been pregnant for the first time – and Gayle, unlike the kids, could simply leave.  It would be hard to blame her too.

“I’m sorry,” he said, quietly.  “I’m so sorry.”

But there was no way he could change the past, not now.  All he could do was try to steer his way through the coming storm ... and keep his children safe.  That was all that mattered.


“All systems report ready, sir,” the helmsman said.

“Thank you,” James said.  He stood on the bridge, looking up at the display.  “Take us out.”

Ark Royal quivered slightly as her main drives activated, pushing her forward through the inky darkness of space.  James sat down in his command chair and kept an eye on the status display as the starship picked up speed, struggling to keep up with the other five carriers.  As large as they were, their lack of armour give them a higher rate of acceleration than Ark Royal could hope to match.  But then, the older carrier might move like a wallowing pig, but she could survive blows that would rip the newer carriers apart.

“All systems are working within acceptable parameters,” Alan Anderson said.  “I’m surprised.”

“I’m not,” James said.  Anderson was hardly a conventional engineer, but there was no one more innovative than him in any space navy.  He’d actually managed to splice an alien drive system into humanity’s control systems and get it to work properly.  After that, ensuring that human-designed components worked together was child’s play.  “You’re brilliant.”

“Thank you, sir,” Anderson said.  “Should I get on with installing the chocolate shower in your quarters now?”

James smirked.  Beside him, Commander Williams looked shocked.  She wasn't used to Anderson’s brand of humour yet.  James had taken some time to get used to it himself.

“Actually, I’d like a Jacuzzi with chocolate pudding,” he said.  “And maybe a large waterbed.”

He chuckled, then sat back in his command chair.  “Keep an eye on the fusion cores,” he said, after a moment.  “I don’t want them deciding to have problems while we’re so far from Earth.”

Chapter Twelve

“Jump,” Fitzwilliam ordered.

Ted braced himself as Ark Royal’s Puller Drive activated, jumping her down the gravity tramline to Terra Nova.  There was a faint feeling of unease, then a shock that was beyond description, then nothing at all.  But, on the display, the stars had changed.  They had hopped 10.5 light years in a split second.

“Launch probes,” he ordered.  Terra Nova was supposed to be safe, but the divided world was on the direct route to New Russia.  The aliens would be fools if they didn't have the system under covert observation.  “I want to know if there is anything nearby.”

The seconds ticked away as the remaining ships in the fleet came through, one by one, their sensors and weapons already active.  Ted doubted the aliens had managed to get a battlefleet alarmingly close to Earth without being detected, but he had no intention of skimping on tactical precautions.  If nothing else, skimping on precautions was a dangerous habit when the universe was suddenly a great deal less safe than it had been a year ago.  But then, it was quite clear that the aliens had spent years observing humanity.  They’d certainly tailored their attack fleets to match and overwhelm humanity’s active duty ships.

Good thing they didn't take you seriously, old girl, he thought, rubbing the command chair affectionately.  Or they would have taken us out too.

“Space appears to be clear,” the sensor officer said, finally.  “No traces of any active starships or spacecraft until the asteroid belt, sir.”

Ted nodded, although he knew not to take that for granted.  A single starship, it’s drives and sensors stepped down to the bare minimum, would be almost completely undetectable.  The aliens could have a ship within a few thousand kilometres of the human fleet, if they were prepared to take the risk of being detected by a radar sweep.  But the odds against detection were still staggeringly high, while the radar sweep would be picked up by passive sensors right across the star system.

“Probably smugglers or illicit miners,” Lopez said.  She sounded more than a little amused at the concept, which made sense.  Her grandfather had grown up on such a colony.  “The system still hasn't managed to sort out mining rights.”

Ted nodded.  The star systems held by the major powers belonged to them, at least once they had assembled the firepower to enforce their claims if necessary.  But Terra Nova, a perpetually divided world, had no unified defence force, let alone an authority that could speak for the entire planet.  There was nothing to stop miners from poking through the asteroid belt for anything interesting, or squatters to set up their own colonies far from the planet’s atmosphere.  But, compared to the growing industry of Sol, Washington or Britannia, the asteroid belt was almost completely undeveloped.  Terra Nova, close enough to Earth to take in hundreds of thousands of prospective settlers, was fast becoming a galactic backwater.

“Send our IFF to the blocking force,” he said.  A handful of frigates, mainly from the smaller powers, had been stationed in the system to watch for any large-scale alien intrusion.  “And copy it to the planet.  We may as well try to avoid a diplomatic incident.”

He settled back in his command chair and reviewed the reports.  All ships had jumped safely, he noted, without any major problems.  Good ... but the real test would come when they tried using the alien-derived systems.  Fortunately, Terra Nova had a tramline that would suffice for their first experiment.  And, with so little development in the system outside the planet itself, there was no real chance of being observed as they tested the tramline.

“Picking up a response from the blocking force,” Lopez said, after seventeen minutes had ticked by.  “They wish us luck.”

“Good,” Ted said.  He finished looking through the reports, then turned his attention back to the display.  “Take us towards the preset coordinates.”

He watched, grimly, as the fleet settled into motion, the frigates fanning out ahead as they searched for prospective targets.  If there was an alien scout watching them, Ted suspected the enemy CO would try to sneak close to the fleet, just to get some hard readings on ship numbers and capabilities.  The frigates would try to discourage such tricks, although Ted had few illusions about their long-term effectiveness.  Given a sufficiently careful commander – if the enemy had commanding officers as humanity used the term – they could probably get close without being detected.

“We just picked up several separate signals from the planet in quick succession,” Lopez reported, breaking into his thoughts.  “Two of them invite you and your staff to dinner, three more demand payment for using the tramline and one orders us to turn back and leave the system.”

Ted rolled his eyes.  Terra Nova simply didn't have the firepower to enforce its claim to the tramlines, nor could it force the fleet to retreat.  Besides, if they had tried, it would have drawn the ire of all major spacefaring powers.  Terra Nova was not in any position to be allowed to block access to its tramlines, not when three major worlds needed access to remain in touch with Earth.

That might change, he thought.  If the alien drive is duplicated in large quantities, we would no longer be so dependent on tramlines we thought fixed.

He smiled at the thought, remembering some of the delighted raving from military and civilian scientists who’d studied the alien drive.  They’d told him that the aliens were geniuses for understanding the implications of tramlines ... and yet, that their technology didn’t seem to go far enough.  Indeed, given enough time, they might even be able to produce tramlines on demand.  Ted suspected that it would be years before it became possible, but if it did ... it would revolutionise interstellar transport.

Lopez cleared her throat.  “Will there be a response?”

“No,” Ted said.  It wasn't Royal Navy policy to respond to absurd demands.  Besides, he had a feeling it was just posturing and nothing else.  Terra Nova’s various governments would have to be insane to start a conflict with the rest of humanity in the middle of an interstellar war.  “Just log their transmissions in the ship’s log.”

“Yes, sir,” Lopez said.  She paused.  “The CAG is requesting permission to continue training exercises.”

Ted hesitated.  He would have preferred to keep his starfighters ready to launch, just in case the aliens did show up, rather than recall training flights and rearming them under fire.  The aliens might not realise that the human starfighters weren't armed with live weapons, but they’d certainly take advantage of it once they realised the truth.

But they did need to keep exercising the starfighter squadrons.  And there was no substitute for actual flight experience.

“One squadron only,” he said, finally.  “The remainder are to stay at combat readiness.”

“Aye, sir,” Lopez said.

“And contact the other carriers,” Ted added.  “If they want to launch a squadron of their own for exercises, we will be happy to accommodate them.”


“Ten dollars says the Black Knights kick ass once again,” the Rhino said, from where he was standing next to the display.  “Overpaid pretty-boys they might be, but they know their stuff.”

“Pity they’re not going up against the Few,” Charles countered, tightly.  The Rhino had been quietly ragging on the Royal Navy’s pilots since the first humiliating defeat.  But then, the new pilots were trainees and the Black Knights were an experienced squadron.  It would have been more worrying if the trainees had won their first battle.  “Or one of the squadrons we had before we returned to Earth.”

The Rhino shrugged.  “We were all young once,” he said.  “I trust you’ve had a chance to examine the deployment plan?”

Charles smiled.  Calling it a deployment plan was an exaggeration; there were simply too many variables for true planning.  The Rhino’s plan was, at best, a handful of half-formed objectives.  But then, the various ground forces committed to Operation Nelson were trained to adapt and overcome unexpected surprises.  They’d give the aliens a very hard time indeed, if it came down to fighting on the ground.

“It’s chancy,” he said, “but it should work as long as the politicians don’t get their hands on it.”

The Rhino smirked.  “Or the fleet officers?”

“Admiral Smith never questioned my plans,” Charles said.  “But, to be fair, we didn't have a major deployment of ground troops, just a couple of hundred Royal Marines.”

He looked down at the deployment plan and sighed, inwardly.  Jumping into an unknown situation was always dangerous, all the more so when the enemy was alien, had responses that didn't seem quite human and possessed advanced technology.  But there was no way to gather much information in advance.  The Rhino intended to shoot stealthed probes ahead of the fleet, yet they knew the limitations on the systems.  It was quite possible that they’d find out about the alien defences and combat force deployments when they crashed into the planet’s atmosphere.

Or maybe they will just go underwater and assume we can't follow them, Charles thought.  It might be the best thing they could do.

He looked up at the Rhino.  There were few occupations these days, not when punitive strikes were considered more effective than trying to rebuild a foreign country from scratch, but the Royal Marines had worked hard to keep their knowledge base up to date.  It was hard occupying a country full of humans, yet he was sure it would be worse if they tried occupying an alien world.  They couldn't even tell the aliens to behave themselves!

“We should probably try to avoid alien cities as much as possible,” he said.  “That’s what they did on New Russia.”

“We still need to get our intelligence,” the Rhino replied.  “There’s no way we can afford to avoid the alien cities.”

Charles winced, but nodded.  He knew the Rhino was right.


“No ships within detection range,” the sensor officer reported.  “I can't even pick up any illicit settlements.”

“That would defeat the purpose of such settlements,” James said, dryly.  He keyed his console, calling Anderson.  “Engineering?”

“The modified system is online,” Anderson said.  “But I can't vouch for it behaving itself indefinitely.  The whole system is a jury-rigged kludge built by civilians.”

“Understood,” James said.  “I have every faith in you.”

The thought made him glare down at the display.  He’d objected, strongly, when he'd taken a careful look at the planned route towards enemy territory.  There would be at least one star system that was completely inaccessible by human tramlines, ensuring that Ark Royal would be stranded if her jury-rigged systems failed.  And, perhaps, the other ships too.  But the Admiral had been adamant.  The aliens wouldn't place so much importance on picketing a system they believed to be more inaccessible than Alien-1, where Ark Royal had visited on her previous cruise.  James couldn't argue with the logic, he knew, but being so isolated still worried him.

He keyed his console.  “Admiral?”

“The fleet’s ready to follow War Hog,” Admiral Smith said.  “We’ll go first, once the frigate confirms there's no welcoming committee.”

James nodded.  It was unlikely in the extreme that the aliens had managed to put a blocking force together, but he had to admit that they’d managed to surprise human starships as they came out of the tramlines before.  If the frigate didn't return, the whole mission would have to be reconsidered.

“We’re ready, sir,” he said.  “Wish them luck from us.”


Ted sucked in a breath, then looked over at Lopez.  She looked back at him, sweat shining on her dark forehead.  Ted couldn't blame her.  Jumping into an unknown star system had always been tricky, even before the aliens had attacked Vera Cruz ... and now, they were using a drive modified using principles humanity didn't fully understand.  His imagination provided far too many ways the experiment could go horribly wrong.

“Order War Hog to jump,” he commanded.

The tramline was a light red on the display, a warning that alien starships could emerge from it at any time.  He watched as the frigate crawled towards the tramline, activated her drive and vanished, then waited, silently counting away the seconds.  There should be two minutes, minimum, before the ship could return.  More, perhaps, if the ship needed to evade incoming fire or adjust her position.  If the tramline wasn't entirely stable, or there had been a fluctuation in the drive, the ship might have been tossed out at speed or on a completely random vector.  Or, worst of all, their drive might have burned out, leaving them stranded on the far side of the tramline.

“Two minutes,” Lopez said.

Ted braced himself, knowing that he would have to order a second frigate through the tramline if War Hog didn't return.  He couldn't risk a larger ship, not even Ark Royal or the two small escort carriers.  And what would he do, he asked himself, if they couldn't get through the tramline or neither of the frigates returned?  Go back to Earth with their tails between their legs?

There was a ping from the display.  “War Hog has returned, sir,” Lopez said.  “She’s undamaged.”

“Good,” Ted said, relieved.  If they’d lost the frigate ... he pushed the thought aside, annoyed with himself.  “Send me a copy of her data.”

He glanced down at his console as the live feed streamed into view.  The analysts would go over it in cynical detail, but all that mattered, right now, was that the frigate had made transit safely and that there were no traces of any enemy presence in the system.  Nor was there much of anything, he saw; the star seemed to have nothing more than a handful of cosmic dust and debris orbiting at a distance.  There were certainly no planets that might have attracted settlers.

“The system appears to be empty,” he said, opening a link to the command network.  “However, we will proceed under stealth, on the assumption that the system is picketed, as we head towards the second tramline.  Should we detect any traces of alien presence, we will – of course – attempt to avoid contact.”

He paused.  “We will proceed through the tramline in the planned order,” he continued.  He saw no reason to make any changes, not now.  “I will see you on the far side.”

Closing the channel, he looked up at the display.  “James, take us through the tramline,” he ordered.  “And then prepare to launch starfighters if necessary.”

He settled back in his command chair as the starship advanced towards the tramline.  There should be no sense of anything until they actually triggered the drive, yet he was sure he felt something as the carrier crossed the limit and entered the tramline.  He looked over at the timer and braced himself, then felt the jump as the carrier hopped from one system to another in a split second.  The display blanked, then started to display the take from the passive sensors.  As far as they could tell, the fleet was the only intelligent life for light years.

A star system no human has seen before today, Ted thought, awed.  It wasn’t an important system, hardly worth the effort of visiting ... and yet it was completely new.  History probably wouldn't consider it as important as the first visit to Terra Nova, yet it was something that couldn't be taken from his crew.  He smiled as he considered the other advantages.  And it has a tramline that skips past the front lines.

One by one, the fleet passed through the tramline and assembled at the RV point.  Ted checked the records carefully, then sighed in relief as it became clear that the entire fleet had passed though safely.  He issued a handful of orders, waited for the fleet to shake itself down into a rough formation, then settled back in his command chair.  They’d take two days to reach the next tramline, at least on the course he’d preset, but there was no need to speed up.  If the aliens were watching the system, they’d be looking for anyone trying to cross the system at speed.

“Take us towards the next tramline,” he ordered.  “Alpha crews can rest; Beta crews are to watch for any signs of trouble, any at all.”

“Aye, sir,” Fitzwilliam said.  There was a hint of irritation in his tone, a droll reminder that Ted was stepping on his toes.  “We’ll get what rest we can, sir.”

Ted looked down at the deck, embarrassed.  “Please do,” he said, trying to apologise silently.  “And inform me if anything changes.”

Fitzwilliam glanced at his display.  “We could detail a frigate to take a look at the asteroids here,” he said, after a moment.  “They could play host to an alien settlement.”

“They could,” Ted agreed.  There were quite a few human settlements in otherwise useless star systems, settlements established by people who just wanted to be left alone.  For all they knew, the aliens had people who felt the same way too.  Part of him wanted to check, just to be sure, but there was too high a chance the frigate would be noticed.  “But I don’t want to run any risk of detection.”

“Understood,” Fitzwilliam said.  He changed the subject, carefully.  “Admiral, please make sure you get some rest.”

Ted scowled.  He would have preferred never to leave the CIC, at least until they returned to Earth.  But he knew it was impossible, no matter what stimulants he took.  He’d just grow more and more exhausted until he started snapping at officers, or collapsed or the ship’s doctor relieved him of command.

“I’ll be in my office,” he said.  At least he’d had the foresight to have a comfortable bed installed in one corner of the compartment, even if it was a little undignified.  “And make sure you get some rest too.”

“I will,” Fitzwilliam promised.

Ted smiled.  No doubt Commander Williams would make sure of it.

Chapter Thirteen

“People are getting a little short-tempered, sir,” Rose observed.  “The rooks aren't used to this sort of stress.”

Kurt sighed, inwardly.  He rather wished he’d been able to invite Rose alone, rather than Rose and the other Wing Commanders.  They could have found their own way to relieve stress.  But there had been no real alternative to inviting them all.

“They’ll have to get used to it,” he said.  Three months of intensive training wasn't enough to prepare the rooks for being separated completely from Earth.  They'd have enough problems learning to live without the datanet or a few days of leave at Sin City without adding in any others.  “We can’t go back just because they feel uncomfortable.”

It was hard to blame them, really, he knew.  The fleet was crawling through a system that might – or might not – have a strong alien presence.  Not knowing was worse, in a way, than picking up a swarm of incoming alien fighters.  The latter, at least, would give them something to hit.  Instead, they just had to pray the system was unoccupied and keep practicing every hour they could in the simulators.  If nothing else, he had to concede, the rooks had improved remarkably since the Admiral had explained their mission.

“Of course not,” Paton agreed.  “But we really need to find something else for them to do.”

Rose leaned forward.  “Like what?”

“Maybe get them exercising with the Royal Marines,” Paton suggested.  His brother was a Royal Marine.  “Or get them some more time in the entertainment suites.”

“There’ll be a mutiny,” Kurt predicted, dryly.  “The rest of the crew would rise in revolt and the Captain would chop off my balls.  There isn't enough time in the suites anyway.”

“True,” Rose agreed.  “They’re booked solid for the next three weeks.”

Kurt rolled his eyes.  There were only two entertainment suites on Ark Royal, a legacy of the day when she’d had only a skeleton crew.  Now, they were booked up for weeks and the rest of the crew was getting restless.  But there weren't many other means to entertain themselves, apart from portable terminals and the prospect of a relationship with someone outside their chain of command.

We're not really giving them time to mingle with the rest of the crew, he thought.  Maybe we should do something about that too.

“We could organise a game of football,” Kurt said, after a moment.  “Or basketball.  It might keep them busy ...”

Rose’s communicator buzzed.  She looked down at it in surprise, then keyed the switch.  “Go ahead.”

“This is O’Neil,” a voice said.  “There’s been a fight in the barracks.”

Rose stood.  “If you’ll excuse me,” she said, and headed for the hatch.  “This will need to be handled at once.”

Kurt followed her.  He had a nasty feeling he knew precisely who had been involved in the fight.  Wondering just what was so important about the young pilot, he allowed Rose to lead him into the Alpha Squadron barracks and saw two pilots lying on the ground, one with O’Neil sitting on him.  It was definitely Charles Augustus, Kurt realised, as he saw the young man.  His face was almost as red as his hair.  The other pilot was Ken North, one of the more boisterous types, who was currently nursing a black eye.

Rose’s gaze moved from one to the other.  “And why,” she demanded coldly, “were you fighting in the barracks?”

The two fighters looked embarrassed, but declined to answer.

O’Neil stood, carefully.  “I believe they were having a disagreement over the most recent simulated battle,” he said.  “The argument grew louder, then they were throwing punches.”

Rose and Kurt exchanged looks.  Arguments were one thing, fighting – and sexual relations – were quite another.  A fight could take one of the pilots out of the cockpit, weakening the overall squadron.  And the bad feelings they caused could be just as bad, particularly when the rest of the pilots started to take sides.

“On your feet, gentlemen,” Kurt snapped.  Normally, he would have handled the matter himself or left it in Rose’s hands, but he had a feeling there was something political hidden from view.  One of his comrades from his first squadron had turned out to be the Duke of New Glasgow’s youngest son, who’d kept his identity a secret.  “I think both of you would benefit from a chat in private.”

Ordering Augustus to remain in the side room, he dragged North into his office and glared at him until he snapped to something resembling attention.  Making a mental note to work on their salutes as well as their flying skills, Kurt took a long breath and demanded to know, acidly, just what had happened to start the fight.

“We were ... discussing the simulation,” North said, after a long moment.  “It went badly because of him.  And then ...”

Kurt leaned forward.  “The discussion went badly too?”

“Yes, sir,” North said, after another pause.  “He threw a punch at me.”

“I .. see,” Kurt said, drawing out the two words long enough to make North eye him fearfully.  “I do not expect to see my pilots fighting when we are in the middle of a war.”

North, thankfully, had enough sense not to argue.  “Now, if you feel there is a problem with another pilot, you take it to the Wing Commander or me,” Kurt continued.  “Pilots are a prideful breed.  The last thing you do is rub his face in his own screw-up.  That’s my job.”

He met North’s eyes.  “If I catch you doing anything like this again, I’ll dock your salary,” he added.  “Go.”

North left, looking both relieved and furious.  Kurt sighed, then tried to decide what to do next.  Any normal pilot could be chewed out at leisure, but Augustus ... just who the hell was he?  Kurt hesitated, then tapped a note for the Captain and then went to call Augustus into his office.  The Captain could decide if anything else needed to be done.

“Augustus,” he said, when Augustus had straightened to attention.  Oddly, his pose more suited a Royal Marine than a pilot.  But his file hadn't implied that he'd joined the Marines, only to be rejected or dismissed.  “Why exactly did you throw a punch at your fellow pilot?”

Augustus met his eyes.  That too was odd; Kurt had had real problems meeting his Wing Commander’s eyes, back when he’d been a rook himself.  And the thought of someone like the Captain taking a personal interest in him would have been horrifying.  But Augustus seemed to have no problems facing someone who could damn his career with a single carefully-written report.

“He called me a glory-seeker, sir,” Augustus said.  “And said I was to blame for losing the battle.”

Kurt frowned.  Augustus was clearly used to concealing his thoughts and emotions, far more than Percy had ever managed, but there was something there ... abruptly,  Kurt realised that Augustus believed that North had been right.  And yet he’d thrown a punch at the other pilot.

“I see,” Kurt said.  “And was he correct?”

Augustus didn't show any emotion on his face, but Kurt saw a faint trace of ... something pass through his body.  “He might have been, sir.”

“He might have been,” Kurt repeated.  “I reviewed the battle personally.  You flew out of formation, despite orders to hold the line.”

“Yes, sir,” Augustus said. “The target was too tempting.”

“Yes,” Kurt agreed.  “The target was meant to be tempting.  It was intended to break up your formation and it succeeded perfectly.  You leaving formation caused enough chaos for the aliens to take advantage of it and get their starfighters into attack range.  North was correct, wasn't he?  Your actions cost us the battle.”

Augustus bit his lip.  “Yes, sir,” he said.  “It was my fault.”

“Normally, I would see if you repeated the same mistake,” Kurt said.  “These simulations are intended to allow you to make mistakes without disastrous consequences.  In some cases, they are actually designed to encourage you to make mistakes, to act without thinking and see the results of your carelessness.  But I cannot tolerate you fighting with your fellow pilots, Mr. Augustus.  Verbal disagreement is one thing, physical damage quite another.”

He met the young man's eyes.  This time, Augustus seemed to have difficulty staring back at him.  “You will be docked one week’s pay, Mr. Augustus, and you will spend some time assisting the maintenance crew cleaning the landing decks.  And you will apologise to Mr. North.”

Augustus looked sullen, but nodded.  “Yes, sir.”

Kurt sighed.  The young man's emotions were odd.  Percy would probably have raged over the unfairness of it all, Penny would probably have sulked, but Augustus seemed torn between maturity and a childishness more suited to a preteen than an seventeen-year-old.

“I will be reporting this incident to the XO,” Kurt continued.  “I would advise you to remain out of trouble in future.”

He looked down at his terminal as a message blinked up.  “And that might just have become impossible,” he added.  “You’re ordered to report to the Captain, at once.”

Augustus looked, for the first time, openly shaken.  “Will ... will he fire me?”

“I think he’ll probably yell at you for an hour,” Kurt said.  A pilot or junior crewman who attracted the Captain’s attention was in deep shit.  “I suggest you actually listen to him.”

He watched Augustus leave his office, then tapped the terminal, requesting an appointment with the Captain at his earliest convenience.  Whatever was going on, he wanted an explanation before it blew up in his face.  And he couldn't escape the morbid feeling that an explosion was precisely what was about to occur.


James had privately expected to meet with Prince Henry at some point, no matter how determined the younger man was to succeed on his own merits.  The file he’d read had made it very clear that the Prince had a chip on his shoulder the size of the carrier, which practically guaranteed that he would be in trouble sooner or later.  Perhaps, James had told himself, they could head off any trouble before it turned into a major problem.  Judging by the incident in the barracks, it was quite possible he was wrong.

He nodded in approval as the Prince marched into his cabin and saluted, smartly.  One of his bodyguards had been a Royal Marine, James recalled from his readings, probably the person who had put the idea of joining the military into the Prince’s head.  He couldn’t help wondering why the Prince hadn't gone into the Marines, then decided that someone had probably reasoned that flying starfighters would be safer.  It was probably a sign that no one had known about the aliens until Vera Cruz.

“Stand at ease,” James ordered.  The CAG had already chewed out the Prince; perhaps, instead of yelling at him, James could give some good advice.  “Precisely what were you thinking?”


James held onto his temper with an effort.  “Let's not bullshit around,” he snapped.  The office was soundproofed, fortunately.  “You are Prince Henry, perhaps the first in line to the throne.  I am perfectly aware of both your true identity and your brains.  What the fuck were you thinking?”

“I wasn't thinking at all,” the Prince said, woodenly.  Clearly, the CAG had already hammered his failure into his head.  “I was just angry.”

James lifted his eyebrows.  “At what?”

The Prince sagged.  “At a very accurate comment made by someone I thought was an idiot,” he confessed.  “It was my mistake that cost us the battle.”

“I see,” James said.  He’d taken the time to review the simulation before calling the Prince to his office.  North’s pithy observation had been largely correct.  “And why did you make the mistake?”

“I saw an opportunity and took it,” the Prince said.  “I was wrong.”

“So you were,” James agreed, dryly.  “But I suggest, for the moment, that you focus on why you made that mistake.  Or should I tell you all about it?”

The Prince said nothing, so James continued.

“I reviewed the files carefully,” James said.  “Every starfighter pilot builds up a vast file while they're in training, including constant evaluations of their developing skills and personalities.  As you can imagine, you received more scrutiny than most.”

“I won’t ever get away from it,” the Prince said.  “Will I?”

He stared down at the deck, sullenly.  “I never asked to be a prince!  Everything I get is the result of favouritism, every time I screw up its a world-class disaster.  I ...”

“Apart from one officer, there was no one at the Academy who knew who you were,” James pointed out, smoothly.  “Everything you earned, you earned through being yourself.”

“But not in my own name,” the Prince said.  “Who the hell is Charles Augustus anyway?”

“You,” James said.  He sighed; despite himself, he understood the Prince far too well.  There were aristocrats with very real power, both overt and covert, yet the Royal Family possessed little power.  The Prince had few compensations for the endless scrutiny his life drew from the media.  In fact, James would have argued he had nothing that made enduring the scrutiny worthwhile.  “You earned your rank, Charles.”

The Prince looked up at him.  “Did I?  Or did someone put in a good word on my behalf?”

“You earned it yourself,” James said.  “I checked your reports personally.  You earned everything you got.”

He sighed.  “But it’s pretty damn obvious that you’re walking around with a goddamn chip on your shoulder,” he continued.  “That fight could easily have been worse – and I think you know it.  The Royal Navy isn't the place for glory hogs or people to prove themselves through lone wolf acts.  It’s the place for men and women to work together to be the sword and shield of the British Commonwealth.  I don’t have room on my ship for people who want to take their anger and frustration out on their fellow pilots and crewmembers.  Nor do I view the idea of someone like that taking the throne with any enthusiasm.”

The Prince glared.  “You know I will have no real power,” he said.  “I won’t have anything at all, but fine clothes and a gilded cage.  She’s welcome to it.”

He shook his head.  “I just want to fade away into the Navy and vanish.”

“And how,” James asked, “do you plan to do that if you keep causing disciplinary incidents?”

He slapped the desk, making the Prince jump.  “You’re not the first person on this ship to think that your problems are the worst in the universe,” he snapped.  “And you’re certainly doing much better than I did at your age.”

“Because of my family,” the Prince said.

“Because of you,” James said.  “Get this through your head right now.  You earned your rank, you earned your place on this ship and you earned your chance to get killed by the aliens.  I tell you, right now, that you earned everything you got since you entered the Academy.

“But, if you keep going like this, you will also earn your court martial and dishonourable discharge,” he added.  “And I won’t save you from the consequences of your own actions.”

He met the younger man's eyes, silently daring him to look away.  “Man up, get back down to the barracks, apologise to your wingman and earn the medals and plaudits that would be on offer for any other starfighter pilot who survives a dangerous mission into enemy-held territory.  Or” – he reached for the traditional sheet of paper – “you can write out your resignation now and save time.  I’ll put you in a spare room for the rest of the operation, then you can go back home to Buckingham Palace and tell your father it was too damn hard to actually earn anything for yourself.”

The Prince coloured.  “Sir ...”

“Your choice, Mr. Augustus,” James said, evenly.  “Be Mr. Augustus, be the pilot you can be, or be the person who crawled home.  I don't care which you pick, as long as you choose quickly and stick to it.”

“I’ll be Mr. Augustus,” the Prince said.  “And I will earn everything for myself.”

James smiled.  “You don’t see,” he said, quietly.  “You’ve done that ever since you entered the Academy.”

He paused.  “And one other thing?”

The Prince looked up, expectantly.

“You were ... very undisciplined when you spoke to me just now,” James said.  “Very impolite, very rude ... any other Captain would have you up on charges by now, I suspect.”

He leaned forward.  “There won’t be a second chance,” he added.  “Go.”

The Prince left.  James watched him go, then reached for his terminal.  He would need to speak with the Admiral, then tell the CAG something.  The man already knew that Charles Augustus wasn't all he seemed; it wouldn’t be long, James suspected, before he guessed the truth.  A few days with the ship’s files and he’d be able to pick out a number of prospective aristocrats who might have good reasons to hide their identities.  Prince Henry would be on top of the list.

Poor bastard, James thought.  No matter what he did, Prince Henry could never escape his birthright – and the curse that came with it.  But out here he can carve out a life for himself.

“Admiral,” he said, “there have been developments.  I need to speak with you at once.”

“Understood,” the Admiral said.  There was a pause as he checked their location, halfway from one tramline to the other. “I’m on my way.”

James rubbed his eyes.  Had he caused Uncle Winchester so many problems?  Probably not, he decided.  Winchester had been on Earth, not a starship.  And James hadn't been trying to hide his identity.  He'd had no compunctions about using his birth to secure a place in the Royal Navy.

That’s why you like the Prince, a voice at the back of his head said.  He isn't trying to use his title and connections to gain rank.

And, James knew, the voice was right.

Chapter Fourteen

It was hard, almost impossible, to get any privacy on a starship, even one the size of a fleet carrier.  Henry had been shocked when he’d discovered just how little privacy he and his fellow recruits had, even though he’d managed to hide his reaction before anyone had noticed.  Learning to ignore certain activities – or naked female recruits – had been part of his training as much as learning how to fly a starfighter.

But there were a few places where someone could go and be assured of a little privacy, if one didn't have any immediate duties.  Henry had walked into the observation blister, settled down on the uncomfortable chair and started to stare up at the stars, feeling a surge of conflicting emotions running through his mind.  The Captain had been right; here, light years from Earth, the Palace and the hordes of reporters, he could be his own man.  But he also wanted to prove that he could be his own man.

Moving out of formation had been a mistake, but socking North had also been a mistake; he’d understood that from the moment he’d been forced to face the CAG.  And yet North’s accusations of glory-seeking had stung, because they’d been accurate.  Henry hated to admit it, but North had been right.  He was desperate to acquire glory on his own merits.

The Captain hadn’t grown up in Buckingham Palace.  Aristocrat or not, he couldn’t even begin to understand the stresses and strains endured by the Royal Family.  Henry had learned, from a very early age, that anything he did was likely to be plastered across the datanets, with snide and downright unpleasant commentary attached from thousands of people who thought they knew better than the King and Queen.  His parents had been blasted for everything from letting Henry play outside in the cold to taking him on vacation to expensive places, some of which had even been free of media interference.  They just couldn't please everyone.

It wouldn't have been that bad, Henry had told himself, if it hadn't been for the Palace’s PR staff.  They thought the Royal Family could please everyone and, if they responded to each and every little complaint, they would eventually achieve a 100% approval rating.  Henry had learned, rapidly, that they were chasing an illusion, but that didn't stop them telling him what he should and should not do.  And he wasn't allowed to tell them where to go.  His father, in one of his few unguarded moments, had confessed that he’d had the same problem when he was a boy.

Henry sighed, feeling hot tears burning the corner of his eyes.  His father had withdrawn into the kindly persona, the kindly constitutional monarch, so deeply that it was hard to see him as anything other than a soulless puppet.  The Queen had withdrawn too, making a handful of appearances and otherwise staying in her rooms, while Henry’s older sister seemed to have embraced following in her footsteps.  Henry loved Elizabeth, yet he didn't understand why she allowed the courtiers to treat her as a doll, one they could dress as how they saw fit.  And yet, even she had had bad moments, when footage of her first love affair was broadcast around the world.  Who else had that sort of attention from the media?

He’d considered running away, more than once.  He’d considered suicide, to the point where even his parents had noticed something was badly wrong.  He’d considered simply following in the footsteps of an earlier prince and surrendering his titles.  And, finally, it had taken a mixture of threats and promises to get into the Academy.  Henry knew he’d trodden on hundreds of toes and simply didn't give a damn.  All he wanted was a chance to prove himself.

And he had it, he knew now.  But he’d fucked up badly.

And you were punished as a normal rook, his thoughts insisted.  But normal rooks aren't yelled at by the Captain personally.

He stared up at the stars, burning endlessly in the darkness of space.  His schooling had been shared out between headmasters who were sycophants and headmasters who believed, probably correctly, that their royal charge needed more discipline in his life.  He’d verged from being given awards and honours he hadn't earned to being harassed and punished for things he hadn't done. But now ... he’d thoroughly deserved both the lecture and the punishment the CAG had assigned.  He could have learned from his experience instead of starting a fight.

There was a click behind him as the hatch opened.  Henry turned, wondering who else had come to seek out some privacy, and saw a dark-skinned girl, maybe a year or two older than himself.  She was wearing a Lieutenant’s uniform – he couldn't help noticing that it fitted her perfectly, revealing the shape of firm breasts – without a starship insignia.  One of the Admiral’s staffers, he decided.  He couldn't help wondering if she’d been chosen for her looks rather than her competence.

“Hi,” he said, nervously.  Talking to women had never been easy for him, not when he’d been Prince Henry.  But Charles Augustus didn't have that burden.  “Do you want the blister?”

“I just came to sit down and think,” the Lieutenant said.  She held out a hand.  “I’m Janelle, Janelle Lopez.”

“Charles Augustus,” Henry said.  Once, it had been hard to make sure he never told anyone his true name.  He'd worried endlessly over accidentally saying Henry and someone putting two and two together.  Now, it was almost second nature.  “Pleased to meet you.”

She smiled.  Henry couldn't help noticing that she had a lovely smile.

“Pleased to meet you too,” she said, as she sat down and looked up at the stars.  “You’d think they’d move, wouldn't you?”

“We’re not moving fast enough for the stars to move obviously,” Henry said.  “Even the fastest ship in the fleet couldn't move that fast, I think.”

“Maybe the Magellan sees the effects of moving close to the speed of light,” Lopez said.  “I wonder, sometimes, what they will think when they reach their destination.”

Henry had to smile.  The Magellan had been the first attempt at sending a starship out of the Solar System.  It was really nothing more than a hollowed out asteroid, a generation ship aimed at the star system that had later become Terra Nova, when the tramlines had been discovered.  Who knew what would happen in the meantime on an asteroid starship that was effectively a city in its own right?

“I don't think they’re moving that fast,” he said.  He’d read about the project once, when he'd been looking for ways to escape.  The best drive technology of the time had been able to do wasn’t good enough to come close to the speed of light.  It still wasn't.  “But I wonder what they will make of Terra Nova.”

“They’d probably be shocked,” Lopez said.  “And probably not a little horrified.”

Henry nodded in agreement, then changed the subject.  “Why are you here?”

“Just fretting over my inability to get the Admiral to honour his social commitments,” Lopez said.  “You?”

“Just brooding,” Henry said, truthfully.  He wasn't quite sure what to make of her.  Did she know who he was?  The CAG clearly hadn’t known anything, but the Admiral’s aide might well have picked up on something.  “I got into trouble with my superior.”

“You don’t seem to be in the brig,” Lopez observed.  “It could be worse.”

Henry had to smile.  “Yeah,” he agreed.  “It could be.”

He looked back at the stars, silently resolving to forget glory-seeking and, instead, to concentrate on being the best pilot he could be.  North had been right – he ground his teeth in sudden irritation as he recalled that he would have to apologise to the other pilot – but he wouldn't have a chance to complain in future.  Henry silently promised himself it wouldn't happen again.

“And I have to apologise,” he added.  “I hate apologising.”

Lopez lifted her eyebrows.  “Why?”

Henry knew the answer to that, but he also knew he couldn't tell her.  He’d been forced to apologise since he was a child, time and time again, for offending people who had heard an inaccurate story about something he’d done and started squawking.  Once, he hadn't known why they'd been offended, merely that it had been his fault.  Later, he’d realised that they wanted to force him to grovel as a power play.  And none of them had given a shit about the real person behind the royal title.

He clenched his fists so hard they hurt.  Beatings would have been kinder, he knew; he’d have preferred to be beaten then endure the mocking condescension of people who saw him as nothing more than a symbol.  Instead, he'd been subjected to a form of abuse that had left scars on his soul.  If he’d had any prospect of inheriting any real power, he would have hung on grimly and executed his tormentors the day he took the throne.  Instead, he’d tried to find a way out.  Elizabeth could have the throne.  She was older than him ... and besides, she’d make a better monarch.  Queens called Elizabeth had a very good record.

Lopez coughed.  “Are you alright?”

Henry looked down at his hands, then slowly unclenched them.  “I’m sorry,” he said.  “I ...”

“You said you hated apologising,” Lopez said.  “I asked why?”

Henry sighed.  “My ... family blamed me for everything,” he said.  “I had to apologise for everything, even when it wasn't my fault.”

Lopez met his eyes.  “My brother was the same,” she said.  “He got the blame for a lot of my mischief.  Dad never quite twigged that a girl could be just as naughty as a boy.”

Henry gave her an odd look.  “Where did you grow up?”

“My family were immigrants,” Lopez said.  “My father never quite fitted in anywhere.”

She cleared her throat.  “Whatever happened now,” she added, “was it your fault?”

“Yes,” Henry said, flatly.

“So what’s wrong with apologising for it?”  She asked.  “Or with learning from your mistakes?”

“Nothing,” Henry admitted.  He wasn't Prince Henry, not here.  He was Charles Augustus, a young pilot from a determinedly middle-class background.  “Nothing at all.”

He smiled, feeling oddly better.  Charles Augustus was little more than a set of notations in a file, a character who would require a great deal of development before he could be called anything more than one-dimensional.  Anyone who took a close look at the file would soon recognise it was little more than a cover, one intended to hide a greater truth.  A foreign spy inserted into the Royal Navy would have a more detailed file ...

And yet Charles Augustus felt real.  It was Prince Henry who felt like the fake.

“Thank you,” he said.  He swallowed, suddenly, as he stood.  “Will ... will I see you again?”

Lopez blinked in surprise, then smiled.  “I’ll be around,” she said.  “We can chat any time you want.”

Henry nodded to her, then stepped through the hatch.  He had no idea if she knew who he was or not and he didn't much care.  All that mattered, perhaps, was that he had someone to talk to who didn't seem impressed by his title – if, of course, she knew he had a title.  And she was pretty.  Prince Henry couldn't give a girl a look without having the papers speculating about an imminent marriage, but Charles Augustus could make a fool of himself with the ladies if he wanted.  Sin City had been quite an education.

Smiling, he made his way back towards the barracks.  It was time to swallow his pride and apologise.


“Let me see if I’ve got this straight,” Kurt said.  He knew he sounded shocked and he didn't really care.  “Charles Augustus is actually Prince Henry – in disguise.”

“Yes,” Admiral Smith said, simply.  “And you will keep this a secret.”

“His immediate superior will have to be told,” Kurt said.  “There were already some questions about why Mr. Augustus was summoned to the Captain’s presence.”

“Tell them that I saw fit to deal with the first major disciplinary problem personally,” the Captain said.  “It should suffice, I think.”

“It will not,” the XO countered.  She looked angry.  It dawned on Kurt that she too had been kept in the dark.  “Are there any other surprises on this ship?  Or is the Captain of the Roosevelt actually the First Son?  Or ...”

The Admiral held up a hand.  “It was a surprise to me too, when I was briefed on it,” he said, flatly.  “The decision was taken to restrict the information as much as possible.”

“But I should have been told,” the XO said.  “This could have affected my position.”

“The information was held on a strict need-to-know basis,” the Admiral said.  He looked directly at Kurt.  “What would you have done if you’d known, while you were putting him through training?”

Kurt frowned.  “I would have tried to give him the same training as everyone else,” he said.  “Whatever else can be said about him, he is a reasonably competent pilot.  All he needs is seasoning and he’s been picking that up since he was assigned here.”

“But evidently not enough of it,” the XO snarled.  “Captain, this is a major problem.  What happens when this comes out?”

Kurt understood.  It would look as though Prince Henry had been allowed to get away with it or had been given excessive punishment.  Either one would make the navy look bad.  But he hadn't known Augustus was Prince Henry when he’d assigned the punishment.  He'd just wanted to make damn sure the incident wasn't repeated.  North could easily have been injured severely – or injured the Prince himself.

“The incident will be sealed,” the Admiral said, firmly.  “The files on it will be redacted, once we return to Nelson Base.  They will only be opened for public consumption after everyone involved is safely dead.”

“That isn't a reliable solution,” the XO said.  “Something could leak, sir.”

“Then we deal with it when it does,” the Admiral said.  He looked over at Kurt, sternly.  “You may share this information, in strictest confidence, with his Wing Commander.  Make it clear to her that if there is any leak, it will be career-wrecking.  No one else is to know.”

He paused, suddenly looking much older.  “I understand that many of you feel personally offended at being left out of the loop,” he added.  “However, there was no alternative.”

Kurt looked down at the deck.  Berating a normal pilot was one thing; berating the heir to the throne was quite another.  The King might have little formal power, but a word or two in the right ear could also be career-wrecking.  He understood both the XO’s anger and the Admiral’s argument, even though he tended to sympathise with her.  Her career could be destroyed if Prince Henry decided he hated her.

Hell, he thought.  My career might have already been damaged.  What would Molly make of that?

He knew what she’d think of him having the prince under his command.  She’d expect him to befriend the prince, to use him as a contact to promote the family ... even though it would be utterly inappropriate.  And she would be horrified to hear that he’d disciplined the prince, even though he needed discipline.  She’d be terrified at the thought of his retaliation.

The Admiral was right, he knew.  They had to keep the secret as closely as possible.

“Yes, sir,” he said, when the Admiral looked at him.  “It will go no further than Rose.”

“Make sure of it,” the Admiral warned.  He looked around the room.  “We will be entering the next system in four hours.  By then, I want the Alpha shift to be well-rested and ready for anything.”

Kurt nodded.  They had no way of knowing what awaited them on the other side of the tramline.  It could be anything from an alien-held system to another largely useless star and a handful of asteroids.  Or it could even be a third intelligent race.  The thought was surprisingly welcoming.  What if there were other aliens, friendlier than the first aliens, out there?  Aliens who might just talk to humanity rather than start a war?

“I believe half of my pilots are currently sleeping,” he said.  He’d have a few sharp words with the Wing Commanders if they weren't.  “They should be ready to take to their cockpits, if necessary.”

The Admiral smiled.  “My aide is insistent that I host a dinner party,” he added.  He looked oddly reluctant to do any such thing.  “You are all, naturally, invited to attend.”

That wasn't an invitation, Kurt knew.  It was a command.

“Yes, sir,” he said, simply.  “I assume it’s for the other commanding officers?”

“Most of them, yes,” the Admiral said.  He didn't sound pleased.  “I’d prefer not to host any form of dinner, not now, but we finally have some time to do it.”

Kurt couldn't disagree with the logic.  They’d spent far too much time just rushing around, trying to get the fleet ready for departure.  There had been no time for social events.  It was odd to think of having one in unknown space, where the aliens might be lurking in the darkness, but it would give the various commanding officers a chance to meet and get to know each other a little better.

“And let’s hope that we aren’t attacked while everyone is here,” the XO said.

“We won’t host the dinner unless the next system is clear,” the Admiral said, firmly.  He looked over at Kurt.  “Try to organise some get-togethers for pilots too.  We may as well try to make sure it isn't just the commanders who meet and chat.”

“The Japanese aren't so willing to socialise, outside battle,” Kurt said.  “But the French and Americans would certainly come to the party.”

“Good,” the Admiral said.  “Just make sure we’re not caught on the hop.”

Chapter Fifteen

“Another boring system,” Admiral Stanley Shallcross said.  “I'm starting to think we’re lost.”

Ted had to smile.  They'd crossed through the tramline, every weapon and sensor primed for attack, only to discover that the new system was almost as useless as the previous system.  The only moment of interest had come when they’d located a planet roughly the size of Luna, but a careful – if long-distance – investigation had revealed no trace of alien settlements.  Ted had conceded, reluctantly, that the aliens only used the system as a transit point, if they used it as anything at all.  But, with three tramlines going though the system, it was unlikely that they’d completely ignored it.

We'd picket the system if we had it, he thought, even if we didn't settle the planet.  Why didn't the aliens picket the system?

He pushed the thought out of his head and concentrated on socialising.  It wasn't something he was very good at, even when he’d been a Captain; his career had been largely centred around Ark Royal and no one had ever invited him to any social events.  Now, he found it hard to understand why they were even necessary, to the point Lopez had had to argue for hours before he'd reluctantly agreed to host the dinner.  She’d pointed out, quite reasonably, that he should be meeting with his subordinates in informal session to help build up a rapport with them.  And that it would be good for international relations.

“I don’t think we’re lost,” he said.  “We just don’t know where we are.”

The American laughed and downed his glass of juice.  Ted had been insistent on one thing; alcohol was not to be served, no matter the lax regulations when senior officers were concerned.  So far, no one had complained, which was interesting.  The last time he’d heard about a multinational gathering on a carrier, back before the war, a large amount of expensive alcohol had been drunk.

“But enough about the war,” Shallcross added.  “We should talk about something else tonight.”

Ted looked across the compartment.  Lieutenant Lopez had outdone herself, first in sourcing the food and drinks, then in arranging the decorations so the compartment looked both large enough to hold everyone while also being comfortable.  Two-thirds of Ted’s subordinate commanding officers chatted away, learning more about their fellows with each word.  Ted just wished he was as good at chatting to strangers as some of his subordinates.  It was hard to hold a conversation with anyone new.

“Tell me about yourself,” he said, after a moment.  He’d read the file the Americans had provided, but it had clearly been sanitized.  “Why did you join the navy?”

“My father was a soldier from a family of soldiers,” Shallcross said.  “So I joined the navy in teenage rebellion.  I meant to go into the SEALS, but it turned out I had a knack for commanding starships and I was told it would be better if I stayed in the command track.”

Ted had to smile.  “You don’t seem to have done badly,” he said.  “Command of two carriers, then a battle squadron ... that’s nothing to sniff at, is it?”

“I like to think so,” Shallcross said.  “But my father still thinks I sit on the bridge, sipping my tea, while the groundpounders pound ground.”

Ted lifted an eyebrow.  “Tea?”

“Apparently, naval officers are too effeminate to drink coffee,” Shallcross said.  He shrugged, expressively.  “My father was a very odd man.  Went out to Washington as soon as we were all old enough to leave home, built a log cabin and settled in for the long haul.  Last I heard, he was organising hunting and crossing swords with the elected mayor of the nearest community.”

“Better than my father,” Ted said.  “He died when I was a child.”

He felt oddly morbid for a long moment.  It had never really dawned on him until after he’d sobered up that he was now older than his father had been when he’d died.  His father had had three kids and a moderately successful career.  Ted’s career had stalled until his ship had suddenly become important again and he’d never married, or had children.  It was something he’d never really wanted for himself.

But a drunkard wouldn't make a good father, he reminded himself.  And who would want to marry one?

“Looks like a disagreement over there,” Shallcross said, breaking into his thoughts.  “You want to break it up?”

Ted followed his gaze.  One of the American Captains was arm-wrestling the French Captain, with several other officers placing bets.  It didn't look as though they were in danger of actually hurting themselves, he decided, so he shook his head.  Besides, everyone needed to blow off a little steam from time to time.

“Maybe not,” he said, finally.  He wanted to run back to his quarters and hide.  “But we should go talk to others.”

Shallcross nodded.  “I’ll go speak to Captain Atsuko,” he said.  “He does seem oddly timorous for a Japanese officer.”

“Maybe he’s just careful,” Ted said.  He saw the French Captain getting up and smiled to himself.  “I’ll go speak to Captain Bellerose.”

The French officer gave him a wide smile as he approached.  “Admiral,” he said.  His voice, oddly, seemed more accented than usual.  “A glorious victory for the forces of France.”

“You won, then,” Ted said.  “Well done.”

“Could have been worse,” Bellerose said.  He grinned, suggesting he wasn't entirely serious.  “We were talking about pistols at dawn.”

Ted rolled his eyes.  “And what happened, precisely?”

“We were having a discussion about the latest sports reports,” Bellerose said.  “There were accusations of cheating.  Everything went downhill from there.”

Ted sighed.  He rarely bothered to follow sports, but he hadn't been able to avoid hearing about the scandal.  Several athletes had been accused of using illicit enhancement, manipulating a little-known loophole that forbade direct enhancement, but allowed pre-birth genetic modification.  The scandal had rapidly become a criminal investigation after it had been suggested that the parents had been paid to have the children genetically enhanced, just so they could be recruited later by sporting clubs.  He couldn't recall the outcome, but there had been a lot of bad feeling at the time.

“Maybe better to forget about it out here,” he said.  “We’re a long way from sporting matches.”

“True,” the Frenchman agreed.  He produced a small bottle from his pocket, splashed some liquid into his fruit juice, then drank with obvious relish.  “But it was a slur against our honour.”

“Stupid,” Ted said.  “How are you coping with the exercises?”

“Pretty well, all things considered,” Bellerose said.  “But we won't really know until we encounter the aliens.”

Ted couldn’t disagree.  They’d exercised constantly, but most of their exercises had been carried out in the simulator.  There was simply too large a chance that the aliens had developed something new, something that would upset all their planning.  Ted had worked through all the possibilities he and his crew could think of, but the aliens had invented too many surprises before for him to take the prospect lightly.

“But my ship and crew will fight in the best tradition,” Bellerose assured him.  He gave Ted a wink.  “Even if we do have to speak your barbaric tongue.”

Ted snorted.  “English seems to have won the battle for supremacy,” he pointed out.  “Is there a planet, apart from Earth, that doesn't have just about everyone speak English?”

“It is a matter of some concern,” Bellerose said, quietly.  “When will this cultural imperialism end?”

“Maybe we will all blur into one culture,” Ted said, after a moment.  “Or maybe we will just start to separate out once again, now we have dozens of separate settled worlds.”

He looked down at the deck, remembering aspects of a very old debate.  The troubles had resulted in the reassertion of a British identity, but how much of it was truly traditional and how much was idealised?  Britannia itself had been careful to restrict settlement rights to people who were ethnically British, yet how could such barriers work when it was hard to define what made a Briton?  How much of British society these days was actually derived from American cultural influence?

But he knew it was worse for Europe and the rest of the world.  It had been America and Britain that had led the human race into space, particularly after the brief confrontation between Japan and the United States.  English culture predominated outside Earth’s atmosphere; it was only since the first colonies had been established that different cultures had started to establish themselves away from Earth.  And yet, how many of those cultures were still what they’d once been?  It was impossible to give any precise answer.

Our culture works because it works, he thought.  Poor maintenance had doomed quite a few asteroid settlements, where the cold equations of space overrode everything else.  But other cultures might reassert themselves on a planet’s surface.

“Some of us do worry about what will happen on Earth,” Bellerose admitted.  “When those who consider themselves true heirs go to space, what happens to the rest of the planet?”

Ted gave him a sharp look.  Was that a reference to Prince Henry?  Or was it a perfectly innocent comment that would have passed him by, if he hadn't been worried about his royal crewman?

“I don't know,” he said, carefully.  “What do you mean?”

“A third of the planet’s surface is barbaric,” Bellerose commented.  “The remainder has been forced to work together, while sending settlers to alien worlds.  Will Earth slowly merge into one planetary government – or collapse into chaos?  And, if there is one government, what happens to the colonies?”

“I think there’s no shortage of books or movies exploring that issue,” Ted said, after a moment.  He’d watched quite a few movies about interstellar rebellions while he was a child, most of which – he knew now – were only worth watching for the actresses.  Having a pretty girl lying on top of a tank while wearing nothing more than earrings made up for a lot.  “But I don’t see humanity uniting any time soon.”

Bellerose smiled.  “We’re not very good at that, are we?”

Ted shook his head.  It was ironic, he knew, that most of the interstellar powers hadn't trusted each other with mass drivers.  If they had, the Battle of New Russia might not have been such a curbstomp.  Now, of course, everyone and his grandmother was trying to build mass drivers and use them to defend Earth against the aliens.  Afterwards ... somehow, he doubted those weapons would go away.

“But we’re working on it,” he said.  He caught sight of a pair of commanding officers who seemed to be getting closer to one another than he would have expected.  “We’re working on it.”

He let Bellerose go to chat to one of the Americans, while he made his way over to the Chinese officer.  Captain Wang Lei looked about as uncomfortable as Ted felt, standing in one corner of the room and holding a glass of clear water as though it was a weapon.  Ted smiled at him and received a nod in return, then leaned against the bulkhead tiredly, trying to decide how best to open the discussion.  Of all of the officers assigned to the task force, he knew least about Wang Lei.  The Chinese Government hadn't been very forthcoming about any of its officers.

“Your crews did well in the last exercise,” he said, figuring it was as good a way as any to start.  “You saved two carriers from certain destruction.”

“At the cost of four of our ships,” Wang Lei said.  His voice was flat, utterly emotionless.  “I don’t count that a victory.”

Ted had to admit he agreed.  Standard tactical doctrine insisted that frigates, which could be built in vast numbers relatively quickly, were expendable, certainly when compared to the expensive carriers.  Indeed, given the existence of mass drivers, tacticians had been questioning the viability of carriers long before the aliens had arrived to hammer the point home.  But frigates couldn't handle every mission themselves, while starfighters simply couldn't operate far from their bases.  The carriers were both desperately needed and white elephants.

“But you did well,” he said, softly.  “If you do as well as that when the time comes to fight, I will be pleased.”

Wang Lei, for the first time, showed a hint of emotion.  “The government will disagree,” he said.  “Losing ships in combat is not considered a good thing.”

Ted winced.  The Chinese Government was completely impenetrable to outsiders – the précis he’d read hadn't been able to decide if it was a dictatorship, a single-party state or a semi-democracy – but it definitely had one thing in common with the British Government.  Losing a starship, no matter the situation, was something that had to be investigated thoroughly, just to make sure the commanding officer wasn't at fault.  He'd answered quite enough questions about the lost frigates during their last mission to know that such an experience could be unendurable.

“Losing the whole fleet would be worse,” Ted said.  “But governments can be very unreasonable at times.”

The thought made him roll his eyes.  He hadn't been involved in the negotiations, but he’d heard there had been some real disagreements over the rules of engagement as well as the fleet’s command structure.  If the Royal Navy had been bigger – much bigger – it would have been very tempting to insist that only British ships were dispatched to attack the aliens.  But then, he understood the other problem too.  Losing ships was bad enough, but losing them under someone else’s command was worse.  No wonder the Chinese had been reluctant to commit a carrier to the fleet.

“They can,” the Chinese officer agreed.  He smiled, suddenly.  “But what do you think of the war?”

Ted hesitated, then did his best to answer.  “I think we have to win, or at least force them to talk to us,” he said.  “They certainly should be able to talk to us.”

Wang Lei shrugged.  “I once had to spend time in Bahrain as part of a liaison mission,” he said.  “They were dependent on us for their protection, yet their treatment of us seemed unaccountably rude until we realised that they were honouring their customs, rather than our own.  Holding long dinners, never raising serious topics, seeking consensus on how best to proceed ... it was how they acted, rather than us.  Sometimes they lied to our faces because they wanted to save their own face.”

He smiled, rather dryly.  “Perhaps, for all we know, the aliens need to be hammered before they will talk to us.”

“Perhaps,” Ted agreed.

Wang Lei nodded towards the Japanese officer.  “In both of the wars between Japan and America, the Japanese had to have their faces ground in their defeat before they surrendered,” he said.  “They had to have their defeat made very clear to them.  The aliens might be the same.”

It sounded possible, Ted had to admit.  But, at the same time, how could a race reach interstellar space with an attitude that made it impossible to accept defeat until it was pushed right to the brink of extinction?  Japan’s casualties towards the end of the Second World War, both civilian and military, had been horrific, utterly beyond his comprehension.  If the Americans had had to invade, as well as dropping additional nukes and perhaps even bioweapons, the survival of the Japanese as a people would have been in doubt.  Their entire culture would have been destroyed beyond repair.

The Chinese officer leaned forward.  “Humanity has several different ways of looking at warfare,” he added.  “For all we know, a starship commanded by a rogue officer fired on an alien ship and started the war.”

Babylon 5,” Ted recognised.  British intelligence officers had dug through countless novels, movies and television programs, looking for ideas.  Some of them had even proved workable in real life.  “Or perhaps it was Doctor Who.”

“It doesn't matter,” Wang Lei said.  “The aliens might well be so completely alien that we cannot understand why they’re so angry at us.  In that case, all we can do is fight until the threat has been destroyed.  And everything else simply doesn't matter.”

“I know,” Ted said.

He nodded politely to Wang Lei, then stepped away from him, feeling an odd moment of pity as another Chinese officer made a beeline towards Wang Lei.  The woman was pretty enough, in an odd kind of way, but it was clear she was his supervisor, even though she was formally his subordinate.  A political commissioner ... Ted shook his head, tiredly.  Even during the worst of the troubles, when the very survival of Britain had been called into question, there had never been any political commissioners.  But the Chinese had kept the very old custom.

How, he asked himself, can anyone command when someone else is looking over his shoulder?

He could see, he supposed, the need to keep an eye on the officer’s political leanings.  But how could they trust an untrained officer with the authority to override the Captain’s decision at the worst possible time?  It was madness!

“Admiral,” Captain Fitzwilliam said.  “I trust you are enjoying the party?”

Ted glowered at him.  Fitzwilliam seemed to be handling himself perfectly, chatting to everyone and trying to make sure that no one was left out.  It was part and parcel of growing up as an aristocrat ... he sighed, then shook his head, wishing for a drink.  He wasn't cut out to be a sociable commander.

“I wonder if it’s too late to rule by fear,” he muttered, just loudly enough for Fitzwilliam to hear.  “I am no good at these events.”

Fitzwilliam nodded.  Ted eyed him, sharply.

“My brother was just the same once,” he said.  “Mother used to make him go anyway, just to force him to get over it.  And it worked.  Besides, it’s just another form of combat.”

“Without the danger of getting blown up,” Ted said.  “I could really get to dislike it.”

“Diplomacy,” Fitzwilliam said.  “It's important to make others feel appreciated.”

Chapter Sixteen

“Admiral,” Lopez said.  “War Hog is ready to make transit.”

Ted nodded.  The tramline that led towards the target system was dead ahead of them, seemingly unobserved.  He had his doubts, but there was no evidence to suggest they’d been detected, merely an edgy feeling at the back of his mind.  And that could easily have been the remains of his irritation at the party.

“Order her to jump as soon as possible,” he ordered, sitting back in his command chair.  The odds were still strikingly against them having been detected.  “And then to follow standard procedure.”

He watched, as emotionlessly as possible, as the starship vanished from the display and silently counted down the seconds until she re-emerged.  This tramline should be compatible with standard human technology, he knew; the aliens would have no pressing reason not to keep an eye on it.  But would they believe it to be out of humanity’s reach?  There was no way to know for sure.

It was nearly nine minutes before War Hog reappeared.  “Priority signal, Admiral,” Lopez said.  “They detected definite traces of alien settlements.”

Ted sucked in his breath.  He’d expected it, sooner or later, but it was still a shock.  “Pass the data to the analysts, then share it with the other ships,” he ordered.  “Was there any sign they were detected?”

“Negative,” Lopez said.  “The fleet’s requesting orders, sir.”

“Order them to stand by,” Ted said.  “We may need to rethink our approach.”

He keyed his console, accessing the data from the frigate.  At such a distance, there was relatively little, but there were definite signs of alien presence.  One nexus of radio signals, coming from a planet well out of visual range; several others, including a handful that probably came from starships in transit.  And, he noted, three tramlines, including the one he’d probed.  The system might not be of supreme importance to the aliens – there was no gas giant for mining, unless it was on the other side of the star – but the tramlines alone would give the system value.

“The planet's in the life-bearing zone,” one of the analysts offered.  “The aliens might well have settled it.”

“Almost certainly,” Ted agreed.  Apart from small independent asteroid settlements, most humans preferred to live on planetary surfaces rather than starships or asteroids.  If nothing else, a life support failure wouldn't mean immediate death.  “But how heavily is it defended?”

He shook his head.  There was no way the question could be answered, not now.  And they’d expected to run into an alien settlement or two along the way.

“We will proceed through the tramline, then steer our way towards Tramline Two,” he ordered.  “If possible, we will avoid all contact with alien ships.”

“Aye, sir,” Lopez said.  She paused.  “Intelligence will want a look at that planet, assuming it is a habitable world.”

“We can launch a spread of drones to observe the planet,” Ted said.  It would be risky, but the odds against one of the drones being detected were staggeringly high.  “And then have the information beamed back to us through a chain of remote platforms.”

He leaned back in his chair, trying to project an air of calm competence.

“Order the fleet to begin transit,” he added.  “I want us all through the tramline without a single betraying emission.”


It was odd, Kurt decided, how space could go from being warm and friendly to hostile in a split second.  He felt ice crawling up and down his spine as soon as the carrier jumped through the tramline, appearing within a system ruled by humanity’s alien foes.  Part of him wanted to forget stealth, climb into a cockpit himself and lead the charge towards the alien planet, the rest of him knew that was an incredibly bad idea.  The alien world didn't seem to be that important, not in the great scheme of things.  An attack would only alert the aliens that the fleet was on its way.

He forced himself to relax, cursing his promotion under his breath.  There was no real rise in salary – he’d been drawing a CAG’s pay ever since his assignment to Ark Royal – but he was isolated from the battle.  If – when – his pilots were launched into combat, he would be left behind, watching helplessly as they faced the aliens for the very first time.  The rooks wouldn't be completely unsupervised, but if the battle turned into a melee they'd be utterly dependent on their own skills.  It was hard to coordinate a battle from the safety of the carrier.

Not that the other CAGs feel that way, he thought.  He’d been able to chat with them, although none of them had really wanted to leave their pilots completely unsupervised.  They think their carriers are just sitting ducks.

He took another look at the display, then tried to read one of the reports on his terminal that demanded his immediate attention.  It was hard to concentrate, so he eventually closed the report and tried to focus on the display.  A stream of updates was flowing into the system from the drones as they probed their way further into the system, but nothing had appeared that really demanded his attention.  The alien world – and it was definitely settled by the aliens, judging by the observed ships in orbit – was largely undefended.  It didn't look as though the aliens had bothered to establish a proper defence grid, let alone orbital battlestations or automated platforms.

“We should be sweeping the place for clues,” he muttered to himself.  He wanted, so desperately he could almost touch it, to be in a cockpit.  To be somewhere, anywhere, else.  “Or seeing what we might encounter along the way.”

Bitterly, he put the thought out of his mind.  All he could do was watch.  And wait.


Henry felt sweat trickling down his back as he sat in the cockpit, both praying for the signal to launch and the command to stand down.  He’d stood watch before, ready to be hurled into space at the first sign of trouble, yet this was different.  Outside, the aliens swarmed through the star system, perhaps already vaguely aware that they were not alone.  His hands felt clammy as he rested them against his knees, so clammy that he couldn't help worrying about his hand slipping when he was launched into space.  Cold icy fear ran through his mind as he waited.

He’d never really been scared before, not ever.  There had been no serious consequences in his life, such as it was; there had never been any real danger of death.  Even his first time in a starfighter hadn't been terrifying, even though the starfighter had proved immensely tricky to handle.  He'd never really been afraid, not like some of the other trainees, who had approached the craft with nervous eyes and terrified faces.  There had never seemed any real danger ... and flying in space brought its own kind of freedom.

But now ... he could die.  Never mind the possible consequences of his death – it was hard to take them seriously when he was so powerless – or the effect it would have on his family, it was quite possible that the aliens could kill him.  At least there would be no malice in it, he considered, or the naked hatred some commoners had shown towards the Royal Family, unaware that he would have gleefully swapped places with them any day.  The aliens wouldn't want to kill him because he was Prince Henry.  They’d just want to kill him for being human.

Somehow, the thought made him feel better.

It was odd, he considered, how apologising to North had made him feel better too.  Perhaps it was because he knew he’d done something stupid, perhaps it was the certain knowledge that it was Charles Augustus rather than Prince Henry who was being punished, but it didn't matter.  All that mattered was that it hadn't been a forced apology for something he hadn't done or meant to do or someone easily offended had been offended by.  And North had accepted it and that was the end of the whole affair.

Not quite, he reminded himself.  You still have to clean the decks.

The thought made him smile.  It was not a pleasant job – and the other pilots had been very droll when they’d explained why it wasn't a pleasant job – but it was something he deserved to have to do.  Not that he could explain that to them, of course.  They’d think he was insane and, perhaps, they’d be right.  But it hardly mattered.

Carefully, he relaxed back into his seat, bracing himself.  If the call came, he would be ready.


“That’s a curious settlement,” the Rhino observed.  “Reminds me of an alien Venice.”

Charles examined the live feed from the drones, thoughtfully.  The detail was pathetic compared to images from satellites in low orbit, but enough had come through to allow them to study the alien city in some detail.  It looked like it was half-submerged in water, with aliens swimming through the streets and canals; there were almost no structures on the planet’s land surface at all.  The alien buildings were strange, to human eyes, yet there was something about them that seemed almost familiar.  It took him a long moment to realise that he was looking at structures shaped like frozen water.

“They may be reminding themselves of their origins,” the Rhino speculated.  “Or the buildings may actually be ice.”

Charles shrugged.  The aliens looked ... very alien, but there was something remarkably human about the way they thronged through their city.  Was he looking at alien soldiers, hastening to defensive positions, or civilians living their daily lives, without thought of war?  On Earth, despite the war, life went on.  Was it the same for the aliens?

“Maybe,” he said.  “But we won’t be landing here, will we?”

“Probably not until after the war,” the Rhino said.  His face twisted into a smile.  “There’s little here to interest us.”

“What a waste,” Charles mused.  There was so much unused land on the planet’s surface.  A quick alliance between humans and aliens could have resulted in  a shared world and perhaps even a shared culture.  Or the aliens could have had the sea and the humans could have had the land.  But instead both races were committed to war.  “We could use this planet.”

The Rhino shrugged, expressively.  “Do you remember all the worries people had after Eden?”

“No,” Charles said.  There were times when the Rhino just grated on him.  “I wasn't alive at the time.  And nor were you.”

“The Corps remembers,” the Rhino said, unabashed.  “Eden seemed perfect until they actually landed on the surface.”

Charles nodded.  Eden had been discovered shortly after Terra Nova, before the dispute over settlement rights could get violent.  The world had seemed perfect, but when the shuttles had landed they'd discovered that the planet’s biochemistry was completely incompatible with human crops.  Everything they tried to get to take root in the soil died, without exception.  It had worried humanity when the truth had finally leaked out; the scientists might be delighted, but Terra Nova was still the only habitable world humanity had discovered.  War had threatened until several more habitable worlds had been located.

The Rhino sighed.  “On average, how many star systems do we know that have an Earth-like world?”

“Twenty-two, not counting the alien worlds,” Charles said.  “Thirty-one if you count the worlds we plan to terraform.”

“Precisely,” the Rhino said.  “And out of how many stars?”

“One hundred and seven,” Charles said.  “You think there are limits, don’t you?”

“Perhaps,” the Rhino said.  “But if there are relatively few habitable worlds, and we are competing for the same ones, the war might have been inevitable in any case.”

“We could share,” Charles said.

“Would you be happy with alien spacecraft passing through the defences at all hours?”  The Rhino asked.  “We might not be able to share a planet without coming to some agreement over political power-sharing.  Or mutual defence.”

He smiled.  “And we can’t come to any agreements until they actually talk to us,” he added.  “So we have to punch them in the face hard enough to get them to pay attention.”


“Captain,” Commander Keith Farley said, “I’m picking up two drive signatures, directly ahead of us.”

James muttered a curse under his breath as two red icons popped into existence on the display.  “Are they looking for us?”

“I don’t think so,” Farley said.  “We might well have picked them up first.”

“True,” James agreed.  “Warn the Admiral, then prepare for evasive manoeuvres.”

There was a long pause.  “Bring the fleet to a halt,” Admiral Smith ordered.  “We want to remain as stealthy as possible.”

“All stop,” James ordered.  “I say again, all stop.”

A dull quiver ran through the starship as she cut her drives, reducing her emissions to almost nothing as she continued onwards on a ballistic course.  James braced himself as the alien craft picked up speed, one heading almost directly towards the fleet, the other heading back towards the inner system.  If the first alien craft continued on its course, it would eventually pass right through the human fleet ...

He keyed his console.  “Admiral,” he said.  “Is this a wild coincidence or did they get a sniff of us when we passed through the tramline?”

“It shouldn't have been possible for them to know where we would emerge,” Admiral Smith said.  “But if they did pick up on us, they might have started scattering pickets along the potential courses to the other tramline.”

Cold logic, James knew, suggested it was no coincidence.  The aliens might follow the human practice of holding exercises in deep space, well away from prying eyes, but the odds against their exercise interacting with the fleet’s course were staggeringly high.  It was much more likely that the aliens had picked them up, perhaps in the previous system, and covertly tracked the fleet while preparing a warm reception.

He ran through the tactical situation in his mind.  Unless the alien craft had a new weapons system that was a complete game-changer, the fleet could destroy it easily.  Ark Royal’s mass drivers would make mincemeat out of her.  But did the aliens have reinforcements on the way?  If they had a solid lock on the fleet, they’d definitely prefer to engage the humans well away from any planets that might become collateral damage.  In their place, James would have done the same.

“Lock mass drivers on target,” Admiral Smith ordered.  There was a long pause as he issued orders to the rest of the fleet.  “I want them to see Ark Royal and Ark Royal alone.”

James blinked in surprise, then understood.  The Old Lady was the only known ship capable of standing up to the aliens.  If they hadn't managed to get a solid count of human starships, they might figure that Ark Royal was alone, or perhaps with only a handful of frigates as escort.  There was no way to know if the deception was successful, but it might be worth the effort.

“Aye, sir,” he said.  “Commander Farley?”

“Mass driver locked on target, sir,” Farley said.

James nodded.  The alien craft was on a predicable course, which would probably change when – if – the aliens realised just what they were flying into.  But, for the moment, she was a sitting duck.

“Fire,” James ordered.

There was nothing particularly clever about mass drivers, he knew, or anything particularly subtle.  They were nothing more than chunks of rock accelerated to immensely high speeds and fired towards their targets on ballistic trajectories.  If they were detected, it was easy to dodge or deflect them, which was at least partly why the weapons had gone out of fashion before the aliens had arrived.  The other reason, James suspected, for keeping them sidelined simply no longer applied.

The alien icon vanished.

“Direct hit,” Farley said.  “Target destroyed.”

“Good,” James said.  Ark Royal might survive a single hit, but none of the other ships had a hope of avoiding destruction if they were hit with alien mass drivers.  He was mildly surprised the enemy hadn't already started to deploy their own weapons.  “Admiral?”

“Take us towards the tramline, best possible stealth speed,” Admiral Smith ordered.  “The cat is firmly out of the bag now.”

“Yes, sir,” James agreed.  Even if the alien craft hadn't really detected anything suspicious, even assuming that she hadn't managed to get off a distress signal, it wouldn't be long before the aliens realised that something was wrong.  “Should we consider retreat?”

“No,” the Admiral said.  “We can’t give the aliens time to fortify this approach route.”

James nodded, remembering the recovered data.  There was only one more star system between the task force and her destination.  The aliens would have to assume the worst and move quickly to reinforce their defences.  If the mission was to succeed, they had to keep moving and hope they broke into the enemy system before it was too late.

“Understood,” he said.  “Admiral ...”

He broke off as another alarm sounded.  “Captain,” Farley said, “three more alien starships just came into detection range.  One of them is very definitely a carrier.  The other two appear to be battlecruisers.”

We were detected, James realised.  There was no way this wasn't an ambush, if not a perfectly executed one.  The aliens had managed to get very lucky.  But when?  And how much did they actually see?

“They must have only seen one or two of the carriers,” Admiral Smith mused.  “Maybe they didn't see Ark Royal after all.”

“Yes, sir,” James agreed.  One carrier was hardly enough to deal with the Old Lady, let alone five other carriers.  Unless, of course, the aliens had something new up their sleeves, something unanticipated.  “Request permission to engage the enemy.”

“Granted,” Admiral Smith said.  “Give them hell.”

James smiled.  “Launch fighters,” he ordered.  “Prepare to open fire.”

Chapter Seventeen

“Launch fighters!  I say again, launch fighters!”

Henry had barely a moment to snap awake before the automated systems triggered, launching his fighter out of the tube and into open space.  The inky darkness of space surrounded him, sending a tingle down his spine before he looked down at his display.  Ahead of them, three large alien capital ships were heading towards the fleet, one of them very definitely a carrier already launching fighters.  He shivered as he realised, to his horror, that this was real.  For the first time in his life, he could die.

At least I’ll die as Charles Augustus, he thought, as the fighters fanned out.  Alpha Squadron was on attack duty, followed by Beta and Gamma, while the remaining three were covering the carriers.  Behind them, a stream of American fighters followed, escorting a wing of bombers.  The aliens, for once, would be badly outnumbered.

“Cover the bombers as they engage,” the CAG ordered, as the aliens rapidly converged on the human fighters.  “Don’t panic; remember your training and stay in formation.”

Henry flushed at the reminder, then keyed the switch to bring his weapons online.  One pilot squawked in alarm as his plasma cannons refused to boot up, but Henry had no such problems ... at least for the moment.  The briefings had warned them, several times, that the plasma cannons could overheat and explode, taking the starfighter with them.  So far, the techs had no idea how the aliens had solved the problem of not blowing up when they overused their weapons.  The pilots had privately joked that the aliens had pissed on them to keep the weapons cool.

The two forces closed with terrifying speed.  One moment, the humans were safely apart from the aliens, the next the two forces were dogfighting through space.  Henry threw his starfighter into a series of evasive ducks and dives, then fired on an alien craft as it came into view.  He missed; the alien evaded his fire with a flip that seemed almost contemptuous, then fired back with a stream of plasma pulses of his own.  Henry flipped his weapons to automatic fire – it seemed unmanly, somehow – and then concentrated on remaining alive and well.  Behind him, a stream of alien fighters were rapidly converging on Ark Royal.

“Leave the CSP to cover the carrier,” the CAG reminded them.  “Deal with the alien carrier.”

The alien CSP rose to meet them as the human fighters and bombers converged on the alien carrier.  It wasn't that different from a human ship, Henry noted somewhat regretfully, remembering some of the starships from science-fiction movies.  Giant metal cubes, bird-shaped starships, even squid-like ships ... instead, the alien ship could almost have passed for human, at least at a distance.  But no one could have mistaken the drives or the endless rows of plasma cannons as anything but alien.

“Hit,” North shouted.  “I got the bastard!”

Henry smiled, torn between pleasure and a sense of jealously.  North would be insufferable in the barracks when they finally got home.  A moment later, an alien starfighter fell into his weapons range and died before its pilot had a chance to realise he’d screwed up.  Henry found himself staring at the display for a long moment, realising that he’d just taken his first life, then he pushed it aside – angrily – as they closed in on the alien ship.  The carrier and its two escorts were frantically filling space with plasma fire, making it very difficult to enter attack range.

Or, rather, pre-war attack range, Henry thought.  The aliens had shaped their weapons and tactics to take advantage of humanity’s weaknesses.  Humanity had studied the results of the first battles and done the same.  Now, we see just how well we worked.

“Lock weapons on target,” the bomber CO ordered.  “Fire!”

Henry watched as each of the bombers launched two torpedoes, aimed directly towards the alien carrier.  Between the British and American craft, there were over a hundred torpedoes closing in on their target.  The aliens responded at once, plasma fire sweeping half of the torpedoes from space, but it was too late.  One by one, the bomb-pumped lasers detonated,. Sending ravening beams of pure fury towards the alien craft.  She might have been larger than Ark Royal, but her armour was much weaker.  Moments after the first blast ripped into her hull, a series of explosions blew her into radioactive plasma.

“Scratch one flattop,” an American voice howled.

Henry joined in the cheers that ran through the communications network, feeling an odd sense of relief overcoming him.  They’d faced the aliens and won ... but the moment of distraction almost killed him.  Without their carrier, the alien starfighters had no hope of escape, so they turned on the humans with savage suicidal intensity.  He picked off one of the aliens, then watched in horror as two human starfighters vanished in quick succession.  Behind them, both of the alien battlecruisers were trying to retreat ...


Ted allowed himself a cold smile as the alien carrier exploded into a fireball, scattering debris through space.  It was good to have the advantage for once, good to hand out a beating to a foe who clearly hadn't realised just how strong the task force actually was.  Even given the alien technological advantages, sending one carrier up against six was suicide.  But now the battlecruisers were starting to retreat ...

“Order the bombers to take out the battlecruisers,” Ted ordered.  The alien ships were altering course randomly, clearly aware of the danger of human mass drivers.  Ark Royal was firing anyway, launching streams of solid projectiles through space, but Ted wasn't hopeful.  They were just too far from the alien ships to guarantee a hit.  “I don't want them escaping to trouble us later.”

Lopez looked up from her console.  “Sir, two-thirds of the bombers fired all their shots at the carrier.”

Ted scowled, but understood.  Given the sheer effectiveness of the alien point defence – not to mention the certainty that their fighters would target the human bombers when they realised there was a very definite threat – throwing everything they had at the alien ship was the only reasonable course of action.  But it had made it more likely that the two battlecruisers would escape.  Their acceleration rate was far superior to anything humanity had, even the frigates.

“Order the ones that still have missiles to close and engage,” he said.  “The remainder are to fall back and rearm.”

“Incoming fighters,” another lieutenant snapped.  “They’re converging on us and Washington."

Ted opened his mouth to order the point defence to engage, then stopped himself.  It was Captain Fitzwilliam’s job to fight his ship, not Ted’s.  He couldn't allow himself to become distracted from the larger picture by trying to take command of the carrier.  Besides, they couldn't allow a disagreement over who was in command during a battle.

Instead, he forced himself to watch as the bombers closed in on their targets.


“Incoming enemy fighters,” Farley reported.  “They’re targeting us specifically.”

James nodded.  The aliens should have learned, by now, that they couldn't damage the Old Lady’s hull with their plasma weapons, merely destroy her sensor blisters and weapons tubes by blasting them right off her hull.  But it was a valid tactic, crippling the carrier ... and besides, they could also intercept her fighters as they returned to the barn.

“The point defence is to engage as soon as they enter range,” he ordered.  So far, the battle had gone humanity’s way, but that might be about to change.  A single solid strafing run on one of the other carriers would almost certainly blow her apart.  “And warn the CAG to prepare to dispatch a squadron to support our allies.”

He braced himself as the aliens closed in, ducking and weaving as they came.  They’d been surprised, he suspected, when they’d seen that humanity, too, had plasma weapons, but they’d definitely adapted quickly.  Not, in the end, that it mattered.  Four alien craft died rapidly before the others opened fire, blasting their shots right into the carrier’s hull.

“Nineteen blisters destroyed,” Farley reported, grimly.  “No internal damage.”

James narrowed his eyes.  The aliens had to know Ark Royal by now; it wasn't as if she was identical to any other carrier in service.  At the very least, they had to know they were facing a carrier of the same class as the Old Lady.  And yet they were using a tactic they knew would fail.  It made no sense.  Surely, they'd do better if they fell on the other carriers ...

“Detail the CSP to force them back,” he said.  Maybe it was a mistake, but he couldn't leave the aliens to get on with whatever the hell they were doing.  Half of any surprise, Admiral Webster had said, was misinterpreting what one was seeing.  “And then ...”

A dull tremor ran through the ship.  “Report!”

“One of them rammed the hull, sir,” Anderson said.  “Damage control teams are on their way.”

“Better make it quick,” James said, as the alien fighters concentrated, then launched themselves down towards the chink in the carrier’s armour.  Oddly, he felt a moment of sympathy for the alien pilot.  He’d sacrificed his life to give his buddies a chance at taking out the carrier.  “The aliens certainly intend to take advantage.”

The CSP arrived seconds later, scattering the alien pilots.  James let out a sigh of relief as the aliens fell back, then blasted their way through the entire formation before turning back to engage Napoleon.  The French CSP intercepted them and took out four alien starfighters before the remaining fighters broke off and headed back towards Ark Royal.  Behind them, Yamato and Lincoln’s fighters chased them, firing every time they got a clear shot.

“Their tactics make no sense,” he muttered.  “They could have taken out one of the thin-skinned carriers if they’d tried.”

He contemplated it for a long second.  The aliens weren't stupid, so there had to be a reason behind their seeming insanity.  But what?  Was it possible, he asked himself, that they were facing the alien version of the Territorial Army, but in space?  Civilian soldiers, called up in time of warfare ... or maybe the aliens had just not attached any great importance to defending this part of space.  If they’d thought it couldn't be attacked, they wouldn't have bothered to station front-line units to defend it.  Maybe they’d put the carrier and two battlecruisers in the system to exercise and prepare for war.

But he would still have expected them to be more careful.

On the display, one of the alien battlecruisers vanished.


“Target Two is down,” Paton said.  “Swing around to cover the bombers as they engage Target Three.”

Henry smiled, then concentrated as the remaining alien fighters closed in on the bombers, firing savagely towards their targets.  He snapped off a shot at the aliens, then followed the rest of the squadron forward as the American fliers attacked from the rear.  The aliens didn't hesitate; they gunned their own engines and charged at the British starfighters, blasting past them at terrifying speed.  Two more starfighters vanished, one without any clear explanation, as Henry yanked his starfighter around and raced in hot pursuit.  But it was already too late.

“Shit,” he breathed, as the aliens passed through the bomber formation.  The bombers didn't stand a chance.  One by one, they were picked off before the aliens turned and followed the battlecruiser into the inky darkness of space.  He had the unmistakable feeling that the aliens had flipped them the bird before departing, fast enough to make pursuit useless.  “They got away.”

“Not yet,” Paton said.  “The French are on the way.”

“Oh,” North muttered.  “Stopped holding back, have they?”

“That will do,” Paton snapped.  “Cover them as they go into action.”

Henry found himself smiling, coldly, as the aliens responded to the new threat.  They’d thought they’d escaped, but now ... the French closed in, slipping into firing position as the alien starfighters turned and raced to engage them.  Absently, Henry wondered just how long they could remain in space without recharging their drives and life support, even if they didn't have to replace their expended weapons.  No one had managed to take an alien starfighter intact.

He fired a shot at one of the alien starfighters, then watched as the French launched their torpedoes in one glorious salvo.  The battlecruiser turned slightly, pouring point defence fire towards the missiles, but it couldn't hope to take them all out.  Five missiles made it into engagement range and detonated, sending more laser beams lashing into her hull.  Somehow, absurdly, the battlecruiser remained intact.  Instead of exploding, she turned back and kept crawling away from the task force.

“Wow,” someone breathed.  “That's one tough little ship.”

“Coming apart now,” North observed.  “She’s dead for sure.”

Henry watched, shaking his head in awe, as the alien battlecruiser disintegrated.  It was no longer an enemy now, just another starship fighting for survival – and losing.  Moments later, something exploded, shattering the entire ship into countless pieces.  The remaining alien starfighters turned and hurled themselves at the human ships.  They killed five before the last of them was picked off and killed.

“We won,” North said.  He sounded awed – and tired.  “We won!”

“Yeah, you did,” the CAG said.  “Well done, all of you.”

He paused.  “The CSP is to remain on guard duty,” he added.  “The remainder of you are to return to the barn at once.”

Henry nodded and glanced down at his display.  Alpha Squadron had been lucky, he realised; they'd only lost one pilot.  But he'd known her since he’d entered the Academy.  Bitterly, he found himself torn between grief and a tiredness so complete that he could barely keep his eyes open.  He reached for the injector tab and shot stimulant into his bloodstream, even though he knew he’d pay for it later.  It would be worse than a hangover, but he didn’t dare fall asleep in the cockpit.  His starfighter would never make it home.

There will be time to mourn later, he promised himself.  And I survived.  And I did well.


“The damage is already being repaired,” Captain Fitzwilliam said.  “But it could have been a great deal worse.”

“It could have,” Ted decided.  The task force’s first major battle ... it was a good thing they’d had the enemy so badly outnumbered, he knew, because the battle had revealed a number of problems that had to be handled before they faced a stronger enemy force.  “But we survived.”

He glanced at his watch.  The entire battle had lasted no longer than fifteen minutes, from first detection to the destruction of the second battlecruiser.  As always, it felt as though it had taken hours, if not days, to win the fight.  The rooks were going to have real problems adjusting when they returned to the ship, he knew.  No matter how good the simulators had become, they never quite matched actual combat.  The awareness that one could die at any moment was lacking.

“Yes, sir,” Fitzwilliam said.  He paused, looking down at his display.  “Their tactics made no sense.”

Ted shook his head.  “I think they made a great deal of sense,” he said.  “Their cruise through our formation let them get solid data on just how many ships we have.”

He winced.  The aliens had clearly underestimated the task force rather badly.  Unless they could produce carriers far quicker than any human power, they’d just lost a carrier for nothing, apart from a handful of human starfighters.  It was no trade, he knew, which suggested the aliens hadn't realised what they were facing until it was too late to back out.  And they’d definitely tried to retreat once they’d realised what they were actually facing ...

“So we have to assume they forwarded word to a reception committee further up the chain,” he said.  The aliens would have forces assembled at nodal positions, assuming their doctrine matched humanity’s on that point.  Those forces would either defend Ted’s target or advance to intercept Ted and his fleet before it could reach the targeted system.  “We can no longer hope the aliens don’t know we’re coming.”

“Yes, sir,” Fitzwilliam said, once he’d worked through the logic.  “Those poor brave stupid bastards.  They gave up their chance to take out a carrier in exchange for intelligence.”

Ted shrugged.  “So it would seem,” he said.  He leaned forward, feeling tiredness threatening to creep over him and drag him down into sleep.  “We will continue towards our target, I think.  The alternative is to concede defeat now and fall back towards Terra Nova.”

He noticed Lieutenant Lopez looking alarmed and quirked an eyebrow at her.  “Yes?”

“You’ll need to discuss it with the Council of War, sir,” she warned.  “It's in the contingency plans.”

“Bugger,” Ted said.  He was too tired to say anything worse.  “We wouldn't have this problem if we’d just used British ships.”

“Yes, sir,” she agreed.

Ted nodded.  “I’ll talk to the other Captains,” he said.  “Until then, we will proceed.”

“Yes, sir,” Fitzwilliam said.  “Do you want to continue to use stealth?”

Ted considered it.  The aliens had a rough idea of where they were – now – and could probably extrapolate a rough idea of where the task force would emerge from the tramline into its target system.  Losing stealth would allow them to move faster, but also allow the aliens time to prepare a reception committee in just the right place to catch them as they jumped through the tramline.

“Yes,” he said.  “We have no idea what might be ahead of us, after all.”

He looked back at Lopez.  “Set up the conference call,” he ordered.  He noted she looked as haggard as he felt, unsurprisingly.  She’d been on duty for hours before the alert sounded.  “And then get some rest yourself.  You’re going to be very busy later today.”

“Yes, sir,” she said.

Chapter Eighteen

It was nearly an hour before Henry was able to get away from the barracks and make his way to the observation blister.  His thoughts and emotions were so jumbled that he hadn't been sure what to think or say; they’d won the battle, they'd given the aliens a defeat they wouldn't forget in a hurry ... and yet Samantha was dead, along with four others he didn't know as well.  It didn't seem worth it, somehow.

The memories of their shared training were bitter now.  Samantha had been one hell of a joker, playing pranks on the other training groups after she’d been lectured, quite sharply, on the dangers of playing pranks on her comrades.  And she’d been sweet and funny ... if they hadn't been warned, in no uncertain terms, of the bar on relationships between pilots, he might have tried to court her.  But it would have floundered when she discovered the truth, he was sure.  She hadn't had a personality that could tolerate being trapped in the goldfish bowl of Buckingham Palace.

He stepped through the hatch and closed it ... and realised he wasn't alone.  Someone – Janelle, he realised – was lying on the deck, staring up at the stars.  She looked hauntingly beautiful compared to some of his comrades, although nowhere near as striking as some of the women from Sin City.  The training officers had warned them that some of those women were on semi-legal contracts from the Third World, but it had been hard to care.  All the pilots had really been concerned about was sowing their wild oats before they returned to active duty.

“I’m sorry,” he said, as she looked over at him.  “I didn't mean to disturb you.”

“It’s all right,” she said, sitting up and brushing her hair out of her eyes.  “I just came here to relax.”

Henry nodded, then found a seat and sat down, staring up at the stars.  They looked peaceful and utterly unmoving ... it was strange to realise that he’d just fought a savage battle amongst them, against aliens who would happily have killed him if they’d had a chance.  But the aliens didn't give a damn about him personally, he knew.  They had never shown any interest in human societies.  It wouldn't matter to them that they’d come far too close to killing one of the heirs to the British crown.

But his own thoughts still tormented him.

She reached over and put a hand on his shoulder.  “Do you want to talk about it?”

Henry hesitated.  He’d looked her up on the fleet’s database and discovered she was the Admiral’s Flag Lieutenant.  It had been impossible, with Augustus’s level of clearance, to discover if she had really earned the job or if the Admiral wanted her around for less savoury reasons, but she clearly held his trust.  Had he asked her to keep an eye on him, he wondered, or was their acquaintance just a coincidence?  In her own way, she was probably as isolated as he would be, if he served under his true name.

“I’m not sure,” he said.  Confessing to any sort of weakness in front of his fellow pilots would be fatal, he knew.  At the very least, they’d mock him relentlessly for weeks.  “Should I talk about it?”

A Flag Lieutenant was in an odd position, he recalled from his studies.  On one hand, she was her commander’s assistant, confidante and general gofer; on the other, she was still a lieutenant and badly outranked by most of the people she had to deal with on a regular basis.  And her very closeness to the Admiral would make it difficult for her to make friends amongst the rest of the crew, particularly now that two-thirds of the crew hadn't served on the Old Lady until after her return to Earth.  It was possible, quite possible, that all she wanted was a friend.

But it was also possible that she’d picked up on something and deduced the truth.

“It sometimes helps,” Janelle said, after a long moment.  “And I won’t tell anyone, unless it presents a threat to the ship’s security.”

Henry snorted, then returned his gaze to the stars.  “I killed today,” he said.  “Four aliens died at my hands.  I know they would have killed me first, but I still feel ... awkward about what I did.”

Janelle considered it.  “They would have killed you,” she said, seriously.  “And they would have killed everyone else on the ship if they had managed to break through the armour.”

“True,” Henry agreed.  Word in the barracks was that one of the aliens had rammed the carrier, just to clear a hole in the armour for his comrades.  The human pilots hadn't been able to decide if the alien had been a brave ... well, alien or just an idiot.  “But I still feel odd.”

“I haven't killed anyone directly,” Janelle said.  “But I was on the Old Lady from before we were sent out to war.  I have probably contributed to thousands of alien deaths, even if I didn't push the trigger.”

She paused, significantly.  “But I don’t let it bother me,” she added.  “Because, in the end, the aliens themselves have decided that there can be only one.”

Henry nodded, slowly.  Before he’d gone to the Academy, his father – in an attempt to dissuade him – had told him about the several attempts to send diplomats to talk to the aliens face-to-face.  They’d all failed; the aliens had waited until the human ships entered firing range, then blown them away.  Later attempts to broadcast signals from a safe distance had been completely pointless.  The aliens had simply not bothered to respond.

If they can respond, Henry thought, sourly.  The human race had devised countless means for opening communications with an alien race, but they’d never been tested until now.  Maybe even the simplest signal was too human-centric to be of interest to the aliens.  Or maybe they just wanted to establish their superiority before opening communications and dictating terms.

“I know that,” he said, petulantly.  “But why doesn't it make me feel better?”

“Because you’re not a sociopath,” Janelle said.  “You have a heart; you can think and feel and be empathic, even towards aliens.  But you also have to understand that the aliens are bent on our destruction, at least as far as we can tell.”

Henry looked down at her.  “Are you always this serious?”

“I've been known to crack a bad joke or two,” Janelle said.  She smiled, suddenly.  It was like looking right into the sun.  “But right now I don’t feel like being funny.”

Henry swallowed as she stood and paced over to the transparent canopy.  “My grandfather was born on an asteroid,” she said.  “He used to say that it was just a matter of time before we encountered another intelligent race, because he believed that life in space was just better than life on Earth.  But he went back to Earth and never returned to space.”

“People have been saying that for years,” Henry said.  “But there's just something about a planet which is truly reassuring.”

Janelle smiled.  “True enough,” she agreed.  “But space does offer more room for expansion.”

She looked serious for a long moment.  “They made me study the tramlines in the Academy,” she said.  “I believe they wanted me to become a survey officer.”

Henry felt a sudden stab of envy.  Survey officers not only had an autonomy that even a Royal Navy Captain couldn't enjoy, they also spent years away from Earth at a time.  He’d seriously considered applying to join the Survey Corps, only to be told that Prince Henry, even in disguise, would not be considered a suitable candidate for political reasons.  And Janelle had simply rejected the honour of expanding humanity’s borders?

“We’re still in a relatively tiny area of space,” Janelle said, “and we have already encountered one other alien race.  For all we know, there might be many more intelligent races within only a few hundred light years of our worlds.”

“Or trapped in a system without tramlines,” Henry said.  But there had been at least one attempt to launch an STL colony ship.  Rumour had it that several more had been dispatched without any form of official notification.  “Or unable to develop technology of their own.”

“True,” Janelle agreed.  She turned and motioned for him to come and join her.  “This is the dawning of a whole new age of humanity.”

“And we’re at war with the first alien race we encountered,” Henry said, dryly.  He stood next to her, suddenly very aware of her perfume.  It was so light that he wondered, for a long moment, if he was simply imagining it.  “I don’t think that’s a good start.”

“No, it isn't,” Janelle said.  “But you never know what else might be up there.”

She looked at him and smiled.  Henry hesitated, then opened his mouth.  “Would you ... would you like to catch a movie sometime?”

Janelle looked at him for a long moment.  It dawned on Henry in a moment of complete and total mortification that he’d made a complete fool of himself.  There were entertainment complexes on the ship, true, but most of them were for more than two people.  The remainder were intended for more intimate activities than watching a movie.  He cringed inwardly, praying silently for the deck to swallow him whole or for his heart to stop beating.  He’d screwed up badly.

“I think I’d like that,” she said.  “But it might have to wait until after we reach our destination.”

Henry almost sagged in relief.  He knew what some of the cruder pilots would say – their advice on getting into female panties had been bragging, rather than anything practical – but he didn't just want to get into bed with her.  He’d be lying if he told himself he wasn't attracted to her, yet she was clearly intelligent and capable.  She could be much more than just another fling, not that he'd been allowed many of them.  Even his casual encounters while he’d been Prince Henry had been carefully planned.  And many of the details had ended up in the media anyway.

“I understand,” he said.  “I can wait.”

She smiled at him.  “So can I,” she said.  It took Henry a moment to realise he was being teased.  “But maybe not for very long.”

Henry had to laugh.  Being a prince made it hard to meet girls.  He’d met girls who wanted to brag they’d slept with a prince, girls who were reluctant to even talk with him for fear the media would notice, girls who thought he had a reputation and refused to even look at him ... and he hadn't met many girls as Charles Augustus.  The women at Sin City had wanted to strip him of his funds, not develop an intimate relationship.  Some of the conversation from the older pilots, afterwards, had been very illuminating.

“Thank you,” he said, and meant it.

Janelle gave him an odd look, then turned back to the canopy and stared out into the stars.


“That could hardly have gone better,” Rose said.

Kurt smiled as she rolled off him and lay down on the deck.  She'd come to his office as soon as she’d put her pilots to bed, then practically dragged him down and climbed on top of him, her fingers hastily unbuttoning his uniform.  Kurt hadn't had any time for foreplay, but judging from the noises she’d made it hadn't mattered.  Like so many others, Rose found being in combat and surviving exciting.

“It did have its moments,” he agreed.  He would have loved to stay beside her for hours, perhaps gently rubbing and kissing her breasts in preparation for a second round, but time wasn't on their side.  Maybe, when they returned to Earth, they could take a holiday somewhere away from everyone else.  “Or did you mean the sex?”

Rose poked him as he sat upright and stumbled towards the shower.  “I meant the battle,” she said.  “We had the advantage and never let go of it.”

“True,” Kurt agreed.  He stepped into the shower and turned the tap, allowing warm water to cascade down into the basin.  Behind him, Rose stepped into the shower too and hugged him, her bare breasts pushing against his back.  “But we also lost the advantage of surprise.”

Rose snickered.  “I believe it’s your job to worry about it,” she said.  “I merely care for my pilots.”

Kurt sobered.  Ark Royal had taken serious losses in pilots during their first mission, but this promised to be worse.  They were jumping right into the heart of enemy territory, after all, and the enemy had already managed to damage the carrier.  Who knew what else they could do, given a few days to prepare a warm reception?  There were just too many possibilities.

“Speaking of which,” he said in a casual tone he knew wouldn't fool her, “how are they coping with Woodrow’s death?”

“They liked her,” Rose said.  She started to scrub his back, her fingers reaching down to stroke his buttocks.  “Poor kids.  They have to get close to each other, they have to rely on each other, yet ... they take it badly when they lose their fellow pilots.”

“I know,” Kurt said.  It took time to develop the strange mixture of affection, respect and dispassion that allowed the squadrons to remain effective, after losing several pilots in combat.  He’d often considered trying to split up the squadrons in the hope it would make it easier to slot a pilot from one into another, but he had a feeling it would just reduce overall effectiveness.  “Very poor kids.”

He sighed.  “Make sure you sleep with them tonight ...”

Rose pinched his bottom, hard.

“That wasn't what I meant,” Kurt said, turning to face her and reaching for the scrubber.  “You need to keep an eye on them to make sure they don't crack up under losing their first comrade – and friend.”

“I know,” Rose said.  She stuck out her tongue.  “But it was so easy to take advantage of it.”

Kurt rolled his eyes, then sobered.  If the squadrons had had a greater percentage of veterans, men and women who would take losing their fellows in their stride, he would have felt happier about them.  But, as it was, the rooks had just lost their first friend and comrade to the aliens.  And there would be more to come.

“Take care of them,” he said, as he washed her back, then manipulated the shower to cleanse his body of soap.  “Don’t give them any chance to brood, not now.  Once they’re awake ...”

Rose grinned.  “More exercises?”

“More exercises,” Kurt said.  “Keep them busy, keep them occupied, keep them thinking about the future rather than the past.  Hell, if you have to, kick someone out of the large entertainment suite and force the pilots to watch a movie together.”

“Perhaps not some of the movies they brought with them,” Rose said.  “Do you know what some of them brought on their personal terminals?”

“I can guess,” Kurt said.  It was a matter of a few seconds to download an entire collection of porn from the lunar datanet.  Hell, there were always rumours of secret caches of porn hidden away on the military network, no matter how many WebHeads were gainfully employed keeping the military systems free of porn.  He’d always believed that the rumours were meant to encourage the WebHeads to keep inspecting the older parts of the database.  “I think they’d prefer something a little less ... interesting.”

Rose smirked again as she followed him out of the shower.  “Or exciting?”

“Yes, please,” he said.  He watched as she dressed, finding it oddly exciting.  Rose taking off her clothes was obviously arousing, but why did he find her dressing to be almost as interesting?  There was no time to think about it now.  “Maybe something cartoonish.”

“They’re pilots, not little kids,” Rose pointed out.  She buttoned up her jacket, then glanced at her reflection in the terminal.  “I think they’d prefer a science-fantasy to a cartoon meant for kids.”

“Oh?”  Kurt asked.  “Who was it who forced me to endure all five remakes of Kung Fu Panda?”

Rose gave him the finger, then slipped out of the hatch.

Kurt chuckled as the hatch slid closed, then turned to his terminal and brought up the records of the battle.  The analysts would clearly be ploughing through them for years to come, looking at every last aspect of the fight, but he wasn't searching for alien weaknesses.  He just wanted to know how Prince Henry had performed.

“Not too bad, for someone without any combat experience at all,” he considered.  The Prince hadn't switched to automatic fire as quickly as he should have done – Rose would have to point it out to him – but other than that he’d done well.  And he'd picked off four alien fighters.  There were pilots among the rooks who hadn't managed to hit any.  “Not too bad at all.”

He sighed, wondering just what the Captain had said to the Prince.  It had forced Kurt to make some awkward explanations, including one that would get him into trouble with the Captain if he ever heard it.  The suggestion that he was still finding his way wouldn't go down well with Captain Fitzwilliam.  Or, for that matter, with his XO.  She'd been quite annoyed to discover that the Captain and Admiral Smith had withheld Prince Henry’s presence on the ship from him.

His terminal pinged.  “Meeting in thirty minutes,” the XO said.  Her voice brooked no dissent.  “Your presence is requested.”

“Understood,” Kurt said.  He looked down at the terminal.  There should be just enough time to complete a basic analysis of the engagement.  Both the Captain and the Admiral would be very interested to hear it.  “I’ll be there.”

Chapter Nineteen

“This system is clearly more useful to the aliens than the last,” Ted said.  He looked up at the display, showing dozens of alien ships moving between three tramlines.  There might be almost nothing in the system apart from the tramlines, but that alone made the system worthwhile.  “And our target is here.”

“Assuming, of course, that the intelligence officers are correct,” Captain Atsuko said, pessimistically.  “If the system is largely useless ...”

“The attack on our ships proves that we have found something,” Shallcross snapped.  “We must proceed, now.  The aliens are no doubt already scrambling to reinforce their defences.”

“Almost certainly,” Ted agreed.  He tapped the display.  “They have had enough time, I think, to get a signal through to Target One.  We must assume that they know we’re coming.”

He scowled.  He’d feared encountering an alien fleet in this system, but they’d seen nothing apart from a handful of freighters or freighter-like vessels.  If their drive systems hadn't matched the signatures from Alien-1, he might have wondered if they’d stumbled into someone else’s star system.  The freighters showed no evident concern about a marauding alien battlefleet within the system.

All they’d have to do is turn off their drives and go dark, he thought.  We’d never be able to find them even if we were inclined to try.

“Then the advantage of surprise is lost,” Captain Atsuko said.  “We should withdraw, now.”

“We have not come all this way to withdraw,” Bellerose snapped.  The Frenchman’s image seemed to splutter with indignation.  “Right now, we are behind enemy lines.  Even if we pull out successfully, without encountering any other threats, the aliens will have all the time in the world to prepare a warm reception for the next fleet heading their way.  We have to move now!”

“I agree,” Shallcross added.  “This isn't the time to turn back, Admiral.”

Ted saw both sides of the argument.  They had a wonderful opportunity to knock the aliens back on their heels, if they managed to get to Target One in time.  But, on the other hand, they had been detected ... and they’d been very lucky that the aliens who’d sighted them hadn't realised the full size of the fleet until it was too late.  Target One would have, at best, nine hours before the fleet arrived ... longer, of course, if the aliens managed to delay Ted’s passage through the single remaining star system.  If the aliens managed to put a substantially greater force in the system before they arrived, the task force could be chopped apart by overwhelming numbers.

But the Royal Navy hadn't earned its reputation by backing down when the odds looked too dangerous to proceed, particularly when there was no strong evidence that the odds were badly against them.

“No, it isn't,” he said, quietly.  “We have to proceed.”

He looked from face to face for a long moment, then back at the display.  “The aliens will, I hope, assume that we don’t know which tramline leads to Target One,” he said.  “I want to dispatch one squadron of frigates to head directly to Tramline Two, escorted by a number of drones that will pretend to be our ships.  The aliens were fooled by drones before; we can test them again, should the enemy enter this system in force.  In the meantime, the remainder of the fleet will head towards Tramline Three, following a slightly elliptical course.  We can at least try to hide our course as much as possible.”

“Too many unknowns,” Fitzwilliam muttered, too quietly for anyone but Ted to hear.

“Once we enter Target One,” Ted continued, “we can draw up a plan of attack.”

He paused.  “I understand the risk we’re taking here,” he added.  He wasn't surprised that at least one of his subordinates had doubts about the wisdom of their planned course.  “But we are short of options.  There is no time to probe Target One long enough to sniff out every last trace of enemy presence.  We have to move fast.”

“Yes, sir,” Shallcross said.  “We have enough firepower to make the aliens regret tangling with us.”

Ted nodded.  “Good luck to us all,” he said.  “Dismissed.”

He watched until all the images had vanished, then turned to look at Fitzwilliam.  “Too many unknowns?”

“Yes, sir,” Fitzwilliam said.  “Did the aliens track us leaving the last system?  If so, they know roughly where we arrived in this system.  What are they going to do about it?  Are they going to be fooled by our diversionary operation or are they going to refuse to take the bait, if they suspect it is bait?  Or will they just refuse to take it anyway?”

Ted nodded.  If the aliens knew that humanity knew that Target One was a very important system, they were unlikely to move any defences away from it.  But even if they didn’t know that the humans knew, they were still unlikely to weaken the system’s defences, not when the humans could easily take it into their heads to explore Tramline Three as well as Tramline Two.  Far too much depended on just too many unknowns.  What sort of reinforcements, he asked himself, could the aliens expect and from where?  They might have an idea, now, of how the tramlines bound alien-ruled space together, but they still knew almost nothing about the alien society itself.  Where did they consider important enough to be defended at all costs?

“We have little choice,” he admitted.  “We need to proceed now.”

“We’re as ready as we will ever be,” Fitzwilliam confirmed.  “All we have to do is get across the system and through the tramline before they send reinforcements after us.”

“Yes,” Ted agreed.  A thought struck him and he looked over at Lopez.  “Detach two frigates with orders to move ahead and probe the tramline.  I want as much intelligence as possible before the main body of the fleet arrives.”

“Aye, sir,” Lopez said.

“With your permission, Admiral, I will get back to supervising my crew,” Fitzwilliam said.

Ted nodded, never taking his eyes off the display.  The aliens were still apparently unaware of the human presence, although it would take time for them to notice the decoy fleet.  But if someone in the previous system had sent a warning ... he shook his head, bitterly.  Fitzwilliam was right, he knew.  There were just too many unknowns.


“We found a few chunks of debris, but not much,” Anderson said.  “Our best guess is that the alien overloaded his plasma cannons before ramming the hull.”

James nodded.  Ark Royal’s solid state armour was a bitch to remove if repair work was necessary, he knew; it was one of the reasons why modern carriers were much more lightly armoured.  It might have saved the carrier’s life – and the lives of all her crew – but it was also a major problem to repair.

Beside him, Commander Amelia Williams looked annoyed.  “I assume it can't be repaired without a spacedock?”

“Not completely, no,” Anderson said.  “We’d really need to take off the entire segment of armour, which would mean cutting a large chunk of the hull loose, then replacing it with another piece of armour.  Until very recently, they didn't make it like that anymore.”

James gave him a sharp look.  “But what can you do now?”

“We’re rigging up additional armour – lighter armour – to seal the gash and provide a limited amount of protection,” Anderson said.  “However, I’d prefer to abandon this section of the ship altogether, sir; I couldn't offer any guarantees about how well the replacement would hold when the ship comes under attack.  The wankers might know where the hull is weak and target it directly.”

“Or simply ram a few more ships into our hull,” James muttered.  It was a recurring nightmare, although he’d figured the aliens would prefer to ram the landing bays or launch tubes, rather than the armour itself.  On the other hand, he couldn't deny that it had been effective.  “Do whatever you can do in the time we have left.”

“Yes, sir,” Anderson said.

Amelia walked with him as they left Anderson and his repair crews to get on with it.  “We’ve replaced most of the damaged blisters from our spares,” Amelia said.  “But they’ll do it again, won’t they?”

“Blow them off the hull?”  James asked.  “They’ve discovered the tactic works, so they’ll do it again and again.  We don’t really have many other options.”

He smiled.  At least the techs had finally managed to replace most of Ark Royal’s older sensor systems with newer ones.  There were far fewer problems in integrating their systems with the rest of the Royal Navy’s, let alone foreign systems.  But it was still a minor headache for the engineers.

Given time, we’ll have everything standardised, he thought.  He'd seen some of the five year plans for humanity’s next few generations of combat starships.  And something interesting and unique will go out of the universe forever.

“I suppose not,” the XO said.  She said nothing else until they entered Officer Country.  “And our ... guest?”

“Our pilot,” James said, flatly.  “He appears to be doing fine.  Other than that, I’m not paying close attention.  He doesn't need the scrutiny.”

She looked surprised.  James understood; if something happened to Prince Henry, the fact he was serving under a false name wouldn't be taken into account by the inevitable enquiry.  The senior crew of Ark Royal could expect to spend years answering questions on Earth, no matter what had happened.  He couldn't blame the XO for being worried about her career, all the more so as she hadn't known what was going on until Admiral Smith had briefed her personally.  She’d been walking on a political minefield without ever knowing it.

Which was the point, James thought, morbidly.  Who would treat him normally if they knew the truth?

“Take the bridge,” he said, before she could ask any more questions.  “I have to tour the ship.”

“Aye, sir,” Amelia said.  She still didn't sound happy.  “And make sure you get some rest too.”

James snorted.  “We're in a system with dozens of alien freighters moving from tramline to tramline,” he said.  “The next one, unless intelligence has really dropped the ball, will lead us right into a major alien system.  I doubt there will be any rest for me.”


Ted sat in his command chair, watching the display as the probes slowly signalled their findings back to the fleet.  The aliens didn't seem to have anything in the system, certainly nothing large enough to show up on the sensors, apart from a steady stream of freighters.  It was humbling – and worrying – to realise that few human systems had quite the same level of activity.  He couldn't help wondering if the aliens truly did have a far larger industrial base than humanity,

And what does that mean for us, he asked himself, if they do?

Human history repeated the same lesson, over and over again.  Victory went to the side that combined the will to win with staggering levels of firepower.  When one side had the will and the other had the firepower, it tended to end badly.  The aliens presumably had the will to win, so why hadn't they produced a far larger war fleet?  Or were they fighting multiple wars of conquest simultaneously?  It seemed absurd, yet there were just too many things about the aliens that didn't quite add up.

“You should sleep, Admiral,” Lieutenant Lopez said.  “We won’t cross the tramline for another seven hours.”

Ted looked towards the decoy fleet, heading towards Tramline Two and making its presence very noticeable.  A number of alien ships had gone dark when they’d picked it up, which Ted found oddly reassuring.  At least it was a predicable reaction.  But who knew what the aliens in the next system would do, when they saw the decoys coming their way?  Or the aliens orbiting Target One?

Maybe we should have attacked New Russia instead, he thought.  But we would still have been fighting on our territory.

“I suppose I should,” he said.  “But I wouldn't be able to sleep.”

He felt tired, he knew, almost too tired to sleep.  And yet he knew she was right; he should sleep, if only to ensure that he was refreshed for the battle to come.  If there were seven hours before they reached the tramline, he could sleep for six of them, shower, then return to the CIC in time to take in the data from the frigates he’d sent ahead of the fleet.  He'd certainly feel a great deal better for it, he knew.  It wasn't as if he had years of experience at playing Admiral.

Maybe the Admiralty was right to have their doubts, he thought.  They weren't giving me command of a single ship, or even a squadron, but ships that belonged to several nations.  A disaster would make Britain look very bad, even assuming it didn't cost us the war.

Bracing himself, suddenly feeling very old, he rose to his feet.  “Inform me the moment something changes,” he said.  “No; wake me in five hours, when the first of the frigates should make its return.  I’ll need to see the results as soon as possible.”

“Aye, sir,” Lopez said, quietly.

Ted nodded to her, then stepped through the hatch and walked down to his cabin.  It was odd, given how large and comfortable it was, but he’d barely spent any time inside the compartment since he'd returned to his ship.  No, he reminded himself sharply; James Fitzwilliam’s ship.  Whatever else he was, Admiral of the Fleet, Hero of Earth, he was no longer the commanding officer of Ark Royal.

He’d never been much of a packrat – naval training discouraged any form of hording early on, before a prospective officer could claim a large cabin – but the compartment was almost completely bare.  A large picture of Ark Royal, painted before she was placed into the naval reserve, hung on one bulkhead, a painting of a brown-haired girl hung on another.  Ted had never bothered to figure out who the girl was – the painting had been left there by the last Admiral to fly his flag on Ark Royal, nearly sixty years ago – but he hadn't been able to bear to take it down.  Now, though, it was a reminder that his life was almost as empty as the cabin.

He settled down on the chair and looked around.  There were no traces of family life, nothing to imply that he had anything apart from the carrier herself.  He’d never married, of course; he’d never even had a long-term relationship.  There had been a handful of books in his old cabin, but he’d taken them down to Earth when he'd been recalled and never looked at them again.  And even the ship’s logbook was now placed in Fitzwilliam’s cabin.  It wasn't his any longer either.

You wanted a naval career, he told himself, firmly.  And you got it too.

He knew he should get up, undress and go to bed, but he was too tired to care.  Instead, he just closed his eyes and allowed sleep to take him away from the war.


It felt odd, Kurt knew, to sleep on his own.  Certainly, he hadn't been able to share a compartment with Rose at the Academy, any more than he could do it on Ark Royal, but it still felt strange to have a bed to himself onboard ship.  The soundproofed compartment was utterly quiet, save for the faint hum of the starship’s drives.  There were no snoring from other pilots, no grunts and gasps as his comrades fought for sleep ... nothing at all.  It was somehow very hard to sleep.

Gritting his teeth, he sat upright and swung his legs out of bed.  There was no point in trying to sleep, not when he wasn't sure of why he couldn't sleep.  The mischievous part of his mind hinted he could call Rose for some activities that were not technically permitted by regulations, but he knew it would be foolish and insanely stupid.  Instead, he walked over to his terminal and sat down.  Moments later, he had the last set of messages from the kids up in front of him.  Watching them made him feel strangely guilty, as if he had abandoned them in his heart as well as physically.

There was no choice, he told himself.  I had to go to the war.

It had seemed so simple, once upon a time.  There was no real threat of war, certainly nothing that would force the Royal Navy to recall all of its reservists.  They’d always assumed that any conflict would be restricted to a few exchanges of fire before the diplomats hammered out peace terms.  He’d assumed that he could take the small salary for being in the reserve without ever having to go back to the Royal Navy.

But he’d been wrong.  He had been recalled.  And his relationship with his wife, already rocky, had suffered for it.  How could he blame her, really, for seeking comfort elsewhere when he’d certainly done the same?  But he hadn't thought he’d ever make it home ...

Shaking his head, he opened the reply function and started to record yet another message for the kids.  It would go home with one of the fast frigates, after Target One was attacked and – hopefully – captured.  They’d see him ... and, if he was unlucky, they’d see his final message too.  He'd always thought the damn things were morbid as hell, but he could see the wisdom in recording one.  The kids needed him to tell them he loved them, even after he died.

“I’m sorry,” he muttered, finally.  They were too young, really, to know their parents were separating.  Even if they never formally separated, Kurt knew they’d parted too far to be reconciled.  Maybe it would be better if he died at Target One.  “I'm truly sorry.”

Chapter Twenty

“We were right,” Ted said.

He smiled – the nap had definitely done him good – as Target One appeared on the display in front of him.  Even restricted to passive sensors, the frigates had picked up a considerable amount of data and visual images, revealing that Target One was definitely a heavily-developed star system.  There were cloudscoops orbiting one of the two gas giants, hundreds of spacecraft making their way through the star system and endless streams of radio transmissions from a planet in the centre of the life-bearing zone.  In some ways, it was just as impressive as Earth’s industrial development.

“It could be the alien homeworld,” Lopez mused.  “We might be targeting the source of the war.”

Ted doubted it.  If the captured data could be believed, the aliens – like humanity – had spread out in a rough sphere, which suggested the location of their homeworld.  Target One was closer to Earth than it should have been, if it were the alien homeworld.  But there was no way to know for sure until they checked the planet’s biochemistry against the captured samples of alien DNA.  They might be wrong ...

He turned to look at the images of the other commanders, floating in the CIC.  “We will proceed into the system under the tightest stealth we can manage,” he said.  Coming out of the tramline so far from the target planet the odds of detection were minimal.  But he still had no inclination to take chances.  “We will advance towards the planet, unless the drones reveal a much more interesting target of opportunity, and attack when we enter range.”

Shallcross looked surprised.  “We could wreck their cloudscoops and industrial mining facilities in passing,” he said.  “Or simply target them with mass driver shots.”

“We can do that once the planet is secure,” Ted said.  He recalled the outline plans they’d drawn up while plotting the operation.  “The planet comes first.  If they have sufficient force to beat us off, we’ll launch a hit and run operation instead, blasting their facilities as we withdraw.”

He shook his head.  If Earth was any guide, there would be thousands of facilities that wouldn't be detected unless they searched the system thoroughly.  The cloudscoops, at least, were big obvious targets.  Taking them out would cripple the system economy, although there was no way to know just how badly the system would be crippled.  For all they knew, the aliens had vast hidden stockpiles of fuel or could simply ship it in from another system.  If they’d known more about just how the alien society worked ...

“We will proceed,” he concluded.  “Does anyone have any issues they want to raise?”

Wang Lei leaned forward.  “This system has five tramlines,” he said.  “Do we have time to survey them, even a very brief general survey?”

“We will dispatch frigates once the planet is secure,” Ted said.  The Chinese officer was right, he knew.  They needed to know what was on the other side of the system’s tramlines.  “And if there's something there that might be a target of opportunity, we will take action.”

He looked from face to face, then back at the display.  “We will pass through the tramline in ten minutes.  Good luck to us all.”

The images vanished, one by one.  Ted smiled to himself as the last one popped like a soap bubble, then settled down in his chair.  The entire fleet was ready; he could feel it, an eagerness running through the entire formation.  They wanted to get stuck into an enemy who had attacked humanity without provocation, then steadfastly refused all attempts at negotiation.  And, in the end, they wanted to hurt the aliens as humanity had been hurt.

“Open a channel to the entire fleet,” he ordered, quietly.

Lopez worked her console for a long moment, then looked up at him.  “Channel open, sir.”

“All hands, this is the Admiral,” Ted said.  “In eight minutes, we will proceed through the tramline into the system we have designated Target One.  We now know that the system is a formidable industrial base, one responsible for supporting the attack on human space.  For once, we will carry the war into the very heart of alien territory.”

He paused, choosing his words carefully.  “The aliens attacked us without provocation, as far as we can tell,” he said.  “However, they have refrained from slaughtering civilians or depopulating entire planets.  We will operate on the same principles.  Alien cities will not be destroyed from orbit, alien civilians will be allowed to live; we will not commit any atrocities against their populations that could turn the whole war into an exercise in mutual slaughter.  We will, in short, treat the aliens as we wish to be treated ourselves.

“There are countless military targets in the system,” he added.  “We will destroy them, if we are unable to take them intact or hold the system permanently.  There will be no shortage of industries vital to the alien war effort that we will tear out and destroy.  But we will refrain from atrocities, from anything that could be construed as slaughter.  We will follow the Rules of Engagement, we will give the aliens a chance to evacuate their facilities and save their lives.  Anyone who uses excessive force or kills aliens without due cause will answer to me.

“I understand the urge to just hit back, to hurt the aliens as indiscriminately as they hurt us, but we will rise above it.  We will hold out the prospect of ending the war on good terms, with respect to both sides, rather than endless slaughter.  This will not feel as satisfactory as wanton destruction, but it will be far more effective in the long run.”

He smiled, knowing they couldn't see him.  “Today, we fight as a combined force,” he concluded.  “Humanity’s hopes rest upon us.  We will make them proud.”


James sucked in a breath as Ark Royal made transit, half-expecting to run straight into an ambush.  Instead, nothing greeted them on the far side of the tramline, apart from a torrent of data from the frigates that was promptly fed into the display.  The aliens, it seemed, had definitely been warned of the intruding fleet.  Several starships had lit up their drives and were advancing towards the planet, while a number of civilian freighters – at least, the analysts assumed they were civilians – had gone dark.  Clearly, they expected trouble.

“Impressive,” he muttered, as the feed from the drones appeared in front of him.  Several of them were already plunging towards Target One, relying on the vast emptiness of space to conceal them from detection.  “And alarming.”

The human race had feared an asteroid impact ever since discovering that one had played a significant role in exterminating the dinosaurs.  It had made humanity very nervous about moving asteroids into orbit around Earth, even though it made economic sense to bring the raw materials as close to the industrial nodes as possible.  The aliens, it seemed, didn't share those concerns or maybe they’d just been in space for longer.  There were at least a dozen large asteroids orbiting Target One, four of them definitely spinning habitats.

“Curious,” Farley said, out loud.  “We know they have artificial gravity, so why do they bother spinning the asteroids?”

James shrugged.  “Maybe they prefer to save on the gravity bill,” he said.  Some of humanity’s independent asteroids charged tourists for everything from air and water to gravity.  It probably explained, part of his mind noted, why Sin City was still the premier tourist trap in the Sol System.  “Or maybe they predate artificial gravity and they can't be bothered shutting down the spin.”

He put the thought out of his mind as more and more data flowed into the display.  The alien world was heavily defended, assuming that some of the stations they were looking at were alien counterparts to humanity’s orbital platforms.  Dozens of starfighters moved through space, patrolling the outer edges of the planet’s atmosphere, while four carriers and a dozen smaller ships gathered in high orbit.  They knew about mass drivers now, he reminded himself coldly.  The alien ships were moving in evasive patterns that would make it very difficult to hit them, at least at long range.

“Captain,” Admiral Smith said, as his image appeared in the display.  “The planet remains our primary target, but we will attempt to take out or cripple the mobile forces first.”

“Understood,” James said.  The planet was the ultimate target, but the mobile forces were a serious threat – and they couldn't be replaced quickly, unless the aliens were vastly more capable than anyone suspected.  Taking them out first would hamper the alien ability to respond to the arrival of the fleet.  “Do we divide the fleet as planned?”

“Yes,” Admiral Smith said, shortly.  “The Marines can wait here.  If we succeed in taking the planet’s orbitals, they can move in and secure the surface.”

And if we die, they can beat a retreat, James thought.  Would the aliens realise the Marine transports were missing?  They’d almost certainly picked up the ships in the previous system, even if it had cost them a small fleet.  The Marines will hate having to run.

“The Rhino won’t like that,” he said.  He’d been impressed with the American’s record, even if he didn't show the dignity James had been brought up to expect from senior officers.  “He wants to take them at a run.”

“Slow and steady wins the race,” Admiral Smith said.  He smiled, rather dryly.  “We will proceed as planned.”

James felt the tension rising sharply as the carrier slowly advanced towards the alien formation.  More and more data flowed into the display, confirming their belief that the planet was densely populated; there were at least a hundred cities, all established along the coastlines.  As before, the aliens didn't seem to build anything in the hinterlands, apart from defensive stations.  They hadn't skimped on the defences of Target One.

“We’re assuming that those establishments are plasma cannon foundations,” Farley said, tiredly.  “They’d be able to engage targets in high orbit, given the chance.”

“Then we’d better not give them the chance,” James said.  He switched the display to focus on the alien fleet.  They still seemed unaware of the human presence, although he had to keep reminding himself it could be an act.  There was no way they were ignorant of human starships poking around near their system.  “We can take them out at long range, if necessary.”

Ahead of them, the alien fleet grew clearer on the display as the drones passed through its formation, emitting nothing to betray their presence.  Four carriers alone were a significant threat, James knew, and the presence of smaller alien ships with plasma guns would prevent him and his fleet from entering close range.  But then, at close range, the aliens had the advantage.  It was far better to stand off and hammer the aliens with long-range fighter strikes ...

But at their speed, they can probably force us into a close engagement if they wish, he thought, grimly.  Those ships are faster than ours.

“Twenty minutes to optimal range,” Farley reported.  “They’re still showing no sign of being aware of our presence.”

“Good,” James said.  He felt sweat trickling down his back as he leaned forward.  “Tell the CAG that I want all fighters to launch as soon as the Admiral gives the word ...”

The display flared with sudden red light.  “Shit!”


“They pinged us, sir,” Lopez reported.  “I think we stumbled across a passive warning platform; it just went active long enough to sweep us.”

Ted sucked in a breath.  One of the frigates was already locking weapons on the platform, but the damage was done.  Clearly, the aliens placed more faith in remote platforms than humanity ... and he had to admit it had paid off for them.  The fleet had been detected and the sweep had probably revealed everything the aliens wanted to know about its size and composition.

“Launch fighters,” he ordered.  There was no point in sneaking around any longer.  The aliens knew they were there.  “All mass drivers are to commence firing.”

“Aye, sir,” Lopez said.

“Good,” Ted said.  He settled back in his chair, trying to remain calm.  At this range, the aliens would know they’d detected the human ships within seconds, at best.  And then they’d react.  But what would they do?  “Launch a second set of drones towards the planet.  I want to know just how they’re reacting to us.”


“Launch fighters,” Kurt said.  “I say again, launch fighters!”

The rooks had done well, part of his mind noted, but being bloodied always helped pilots to overcome their last lingering issues.  All six squadrons of starfighters streamed out of their launch tubes without any problems, then shook themselves down into formation without more than a handful of instructions from the Wing Commanders.  Kurt felt a sudden stab of guilt as he thought of Rose, out there risking her life while he was safe in the Fighter Control Centre, then pushed it aside.  If it had been up to him, he’d be out there too.

He turned his attention to the alien carriers and frowned.  The aliens were launching fighters, but instead of angling out to attack the humans at once they were holding their ground and waiting.  Waiting, he asked himself, for what?  Were they weighing the odds of successfully defeating the humans or were they considering something else?

Or were they just bait in a trap?

The alien starfighters spread out, then opened fire on the mass driver projectiles as they flashed towards the alien fleet.  They were alarmingly successful, Kurt noted absently; a handful of projectiles were missed, but none of them struck home.  Perhaps the aliens had just decided not to waste their firepower on harmless projectiles.  Behind the starfighters, however, the alien starships kept altering position.  Clearly, they weren't taking anything for granted.

“Kurt,” Admiral Smith said, as his image appeared in the display.  “The starfighters are to take the offensive and engage the alien craft.”

“Aye, sir,” Kurt said.  He tapped his console, issuing orders.  “It feels good to have the advantage in numbers as well as surprise.”

“Yes,” the Admiral agreed.  “But we shouldn't get overconfident.”


“The aliens are pulling back,” Lopez reported.  “They're declining to engage us.”

Ted wasn't too surprised.  For once, humanity had a colossal advantage and he intended to use it ruthlessly.  The aliens weren't stupid.  It would make far more sense, he knew, for them to pull back and escape, then watch from the edge of the star system or the next tramline for an opportunity to go back on the offensive.  Pitting four carriers up against six was asking for trouble, particularly when humanity held several other advantages too.

But he had no intention of allowing the aliens a chance to escape.  Four carriers ... no one knew how many carriers the aliens had, but he was fairly sure that four carriers would be a significant chunk of their mobile firepower.  Taking them out now, while he had a chance to engage with superior odds, would make it harder for the aliens to retake the system later.  He couldn't allow them to slip past without at least some attempt to take out their ships.

The aliens knew the problem as well as he did, he saw, as their starfighters assembled.  There was nothing subtle about their formation, not now.  They just wanted to intercept the humans and drive them away from the capital ships.  Ted wondered, absently, if the aliens had figured out how to separate the bombers from the fighters, then decided it was unlikely to matter in the long run.  The odds favoured the aliens when it came to shooting down incoming missiles.

“The mass drivers are to keep firing,” he added.  They had no shortage of projectiles – and a few hours near an asteroid would provide all the additional ammunition they needed.  “If we can keep the aliens concentrating on multiple threats, so much the better.”

On the display, the starfighters were rapidly closing in on the alien formation.  Ted couldn't help noticing that the rooks had improved enormously ... carefully, his eyes sought out the icon marking Prince Henry’s starfighter.  He muttered a curse under his breath as he realised that the Prince was going to be in the thick of the fighting once again, then dismissed the thought with some irritation.  The Prince had wanted to be a true pilot.  He'd managed to get his wish – and risk his life in the process.

We should all be that lucky, Ted thought, ruefully.  From what Fitzwilliam had said, he rather liked Prince Henry.  Not everyone gets what they want in life.

He was an aristocrat now; technically, he'd been one from the moment he’d been knighted.  But it was different, he suspected, for someone born into the Royal Family.  They rarely had a chance to do anything, let alone prove themselves.  It was odd; on one hand, the aristocracy headhunted men and women who had proved themselves, while it tended to be less sanguine about letting its children prove themselves.  Or was it just the Royal Family?

“Admiral,” Lopez said, “the orbital stations are launching starfighters.”

Ted nodded, pushing his thoughts aside and switching the display back to examine Target One.  It looked as though the aliens had screwed up,  but he knew better than to take that for granted.  There were no real figures available on just how much endurance their starfighters possessed, yet everyone agreed they had more than human starfighters.  It was quite possible that the aliens thought they could engage the human fleet from the rear while their carriers reversed course and attacked from the front.  And they might be right.

“The CSP is to remain in place,” he ordered, softly.  “If the aliens are trying to pincer us, we'll soon know about it.”

Chapter Twenty-One

“We’ve got them on the run,” North snapped.  “Now we just have to run them down.”

“Don’t get cocky,” the Wing Commander snapped back.  “They’re not panicking, they’re withdrawing in good order.”

Henry couldn't disagree with her.  The alien carriers were retreating – slowly, but surely – and yet their starfighters were carefully positioning themselves to block the human advance.  It suggested they didn't want to pull back too quickly, just avoid contact as long as possible ... but it wouldn't be very long at all.  No carrier could match a starfighter’s rate of acceleration.

“Prepare to engage,” the Wing Commander ordered.  “Concentrate on scattering their formation rather than punching through to the carriers.  Leave them to the bombers.”

“Understood,” Henry said.  The other pilots chimed in seconds later.  “We’re ready.”

He found himself wondering just what the alien commander was thinking.  The slow retreat suggested either a trap or a simple bout of indecision.  If the aliens held their ground, they would be destroyed; if the aliens retreated, their commander would be accused of lacking Moral Fibre.  Did the aliens worry about reputations and suchlike too?  He honestly didn’t know, but it seemed likely.  The alien commander might want to put up a good show for his superiors without actually risking his ships.  But it was already too late for that.

Carefully, he activated the automatic gunner as the alien starfighters lunged towards the human craft, then concentrated on evading incoming fire.  As always, the alien starfighters filled space with countless bolts of deadly plasma, with two human pilots vanishing in tiny explosions because they’d accidentally dodged straight into a streak of light.  He noted one of the alien craft vanishing as his starfighter scored a direct hit, then swooped around as one of the aliens targeted him personally.  Moments later, North picked the alien off and let out a cheer.  Henry grinned and made a mental note to buy North a beer during their next period of shore leave.

“The Japanese are breaking through,” the Wing Commander said.  “Cover them.”

The aliens had made the same observation, Henry realised, as he broke off from his engagement and swooped after the Japanese bombers.  Almost all of their fighters were racing for the bombers, ignoring the human starfighters snapping at their heels.  Seven Japanese bombers were wiped out in quick succession, then the aliens scattered as the human starfighters blew right through them.  Enough Japanese bombers survived to mount an attack run on the closest alien carrier, but only one missile managed to detonate.  Damaged, bleeding plasma, the alien carrier continued to limp away from the battlefield.

“They’re tougher than they look,” an American voice observed.

Henry barely heard him as one of the alien pilots locked on him and opened fire, forcing Henry to throw his craft into a dizzying series of spirals and evasive tricks.  The alien was good, he realised numbly, good enough to almost burn his craft out of space twice.  By the time the alien broke off in search of easier prey, his uniform was completely soaked in sweat.

“Line up on me,” the Wing Commander ordered.  “Another flight of bombers is coming through.”

Henry nodded, then fell into a protective position around the American bombers.  The aliens, depleted slightly, seemed hesitant for a long moment, then swooped down on the bombers, forcing the human fighters to cover them.  Henry picked off one of the alien fighters, then dodged another fighter as the American bombers started to launch their missiles.  Moments later, an alien carrier had been blown into flaming debris.

“That’s two,” an American voice carolled.  “We got the ...”

His voice cut off with a sudden terrible finality.  Henry didn't need to glance at the overall display to realise that the American had been killed, picked off in a moment of carelessness or distraction.  He gritted his teeth as the recall order came in, summoning them back to the carriers.  Like some of the other pilots, he wanted to argue, but there was no time.  Besides, the planet-side fighters were closing in on the human fleet from the rear.  The CSP might well be overwhelmed ...


“The alien starfighters are closing in,” Farley reported.  “They’re going after the American carriers.”

James nodded, unsure if the aliens knew they were targeting Americans or if they were merely going after the biggest ships in the human fleet.  Not, in the end, that it mattered, he knew.  One good strafing run and there would be nothing left of the carrier, but an expanding ball of plasma.  And the human fleet would be seriously dented.

“Order our guns to cover them,” he ordered.

He gritted his teeth as the storm broke over Franklin Roosevelt.  The Americans fought back savagely, surprising the aliens with the plasma cannons attached to the carrier’s hull.  They hadn't expected anything of the sort, James realised, even though they should have been prepared for it.  But it wasn't enough to force the aliens to pull back.  A hundred plasma bolts slammed into the carrier’s hull, burning through her thin armour and blazing through her innards.  James didn't want to imagine what sort of hell her interior had become, knowing that it was only a matter of time before the carrier died.

“Get to the lifepods,” he muttered, urgently.  The Americans might be saved if they abandoned ship.  “Get to the lifepods ...”

The American carrier exploded.  For a moment, the alien craft hung in space – a gesture of respect or contempt; James couldn't decide which – and then went hunting for other targets.  The remaining American  fighters tore into them, followed rapidly by French and British fighters from the CSP.  James let out a sigh of relief as the aliens scattered, then either fell back to the planet or died under vengeful human fire.  But they'd already scored one big victory, he knew.  Five thousand American spacers had just died.

Franklin is gone, sir,” Farley said.  “I’m picking up a handful of lifepods.”

“Detail a SAR team to pick them up,” James ordered.  The aliens didn't make a habit of going after SAR operations, as far as anyone knew, but most of the previous battles hadn't lasted long enough for anyone to find out for sure.  “And then bring them back to the ship.”

He sighed, watching grimly as the alien carriers made their escape.  The two sides had each lost a carrier, with one of the alien carriers badly damaged.  But the aliens were much closer to their reinforcements, everyone assumed, than the human ships.  There was no way to be absolutely sure ...

Bracing himself, he keyed a switch to call the Admiral.  “Admiral,” he said.  “The fighters are returning to the ship.”

“Good,” Admiral Smith said.  “Order them to rearm, then prepare for redeployment.  We have a planet to target.”

“Aye, sir,” James said.


Henry had always been raised to think of carriers as the queens of space.  They were immense warships, even the smallest carrying over two thousand officers and men, seemingly invincible as they prowled through space.  Even hearing about the first Battle of New Russia hadn't really convinced him otherwise, particularly after tactics were adapted and Ark Royal gave the aliens a series of bloody noses.  But now ... an American carrier, the largest in the fleet, had simply been blown into dust.  He couldn't help feeling subdued as he slotted his starfighter into the landing deck and waited for the techs to go to work.

“We’ll get the bastards,” North said, softly.  Even he sounded subdued by the sudden evidence that even a fleet carrier was not invincible.  They'd known about the two British carriers lost at New Russia, but it hadn't been quite real.  It was now.  “For Roosevelt ... and for the others.”

“Yes,” Henry muttered.  “For them all.”

He braced himself as the fighter was dragged through the landing tube, hastily reloaded with new weapons and fuel cells, then slotted into the launch tube.  It didn't look as though they would be shot back out into space at once, much to his relief, but there would be no time to relax.  They’d be going back out soon enough.  Absently, he keyed his way into the datanet and looked through the information gathered by the drones.  Target One supported a vast alien population, perhaps one numbered in the billions.  In fact, one of the analysts had noted, if the aliens had cities that were completely underneath the waves, the population could be a great deal higher than any human world.

It was an odd thought, but Henry had to admit it made a certain kind of sense.  Target One’s oceans covered three-fourths of the planet.  There was no shortage of food in the seas, as he’d learned on one of the few holidays he’d actually had a few days to relax before the reporters showed up to spoil his holiday by writing long articles about how the Prince was shaming himself by fishing in the sea.  If the aliens lived underwater, it was quite possible that they never had to worry about food shortages.  Hell, the oceans still helped feed millions of humans on Earth.  What sort of society would that produce?

“We launch in twenty minutes, unless the aliens attack earlier,” the CAG informed them.  “I suggest you try to relax.”

Easier said than done, Henry thought.  I couldn't relax right now if you paid me.


“We pulled thirty-two crewmen out of the lifepods,” Lopez reported.  “None of the others were recovered.”

Ted nodded, fighting to keep the emotion off his face.  Five thousand men and women had just died on his watch, including a large number of experienced officers.  He hadn't been able to do anything to prevent it from happening, but he had a feeling the board of inquiry would feel differently.  There were just too many civilians who believed they had the right to pass judgement on the military, even though they knew nothing about it.  Ted was a firm believer in civilian control of the military – military-ruled states rarely worked very well – but there was a difference between civilian control and searching for a scapegoat.

“Make sure they’re returned to the American ships, if they don’t want to stay on the Old Lady,” he ordered.  At least Admiral Shallcross hadn't called him for the express purpose of accusing him of deliberately losing an American carrier.  He’d known British officers who would be less understanding.  “Have the fighters rearmed?”

“Yes, sir,” Lopez said.  “They’re currently held at two minutes to complete launch and dispersal.”

Ted nodded.  If they had to suddenly launch their fighters within seconds, they could do it ... if, of course, nothing went wrong.  The Demon Murphy was still alive and well in space, he knew; something always went wrong.  But the trick was to adapt, react and keep going, no matter what happened to impede progress.  Stopping long enough to remove all the element of risk – if possible – invited disaster.

He keyed the display, looking up at Target One.  It hung in front of him, surrounded by a small galaxy of tactical icons.  Some orbital stations were obvious problems, armed to the teeth and protected by starfighters, others were of uncertain capabilities.  He had a feeling that some of the seemingly innocent stations were civilian, rather than military, but it was impossible to be sure.  The problem nagged at his mind as he worked his way through the data the drones had assembled, wishing he could just talk to the aliens.  He could issue warnings, threats and demands for surrender to humans, but how could he say anything to the aliens?

“Call the Marines,” he ordered, as the remaining alien ships kept heading towards Tramline Two, heading – he assumed – towards reinforcements.  “They have some targets to occupy.”

He paused, wondering if the aliens could understand English.  They’d captured a number of teaching machines from Vera Cruz, he knew; they should be able to use them to put together the basics of English, even if they hadn't pulled it from the Heinlein colony.  And yet they seemed completely unable – or unwilling – to talk to humanity.  He found it impossible to believe that the aliens were truly unaware that humanity could talk, or that they couldn't overcome the language barrier.  There hadn't been any attempt to classify the bare bones of English on Vera Cruz.

“Record a message,” he ordered.  “This is the human commander.  We intend to secure the orbital space surrounding your world.  Any station that fires on our forces will be destroyed.  Any station that does not fire on our forces will be occupied, but not destroyed.  We suggest that you remove the civilian population from your orbital facilities.”

“They may not understand, even if they speak English,” Lopez pointed out.  It was her job to point out when he might be making a mistake – or, in this case, dubious assumptions.  “Or they may think we’re asking them to show us which stations are safe to occupy.”

Ted shrugged.  If he’d been facing a human opponent, a standard warning to evacuate the facilities would have been demanded by the ROE.  And, if the enemy hadn't heeded the warning, any deaths would be on their heads, not on his.  But no one really knew if the aliens could speak English.

He smiled, rather coldly.  If the aliens started abandoning their facilities, he knew, it would be evidence that they did understand English.  It would prove that they were ignoring humanity’s attempts at communication.  And that meant ... what?  That they were determined to fight the war to the bitter end anyway or that there was something else going on?

And besides, he was not going to commit any atrocities if they could be avoided.

“Send the message,” he ordered.  He wished, not for the first time, that someone had managed to get the alien POWs to talk.  They’d shown a fortitude human prisoners would have a hard time matching.  Trapped hundreds of light years from their homeworld, captives of a strange alien race, they still said nothing.  It would have been impressive if he’d hadn't been so desperate to actually talk to their superiors.  “Let's see what happens.”

There was no response for nearly ten minutes, then shuttles started to break away from some of the asteroids, heading down towards the planet’s surface.  Ted stared, feeling an odd mixture of relief and fear; there didn't seem to be enough of them to convey everyone down to the surface.  If they’d been human ... he shook his head.  Humans showed enough different patterns of behaviour that it was often difficult to tell what a single human would do in a given situation, yet along a handful of aliens.

“They did understand,” Lopez said.  She sounded astonished, as if she didn't quite believe her own words.  “They knew what we were saying.”

Ted nodded, slowly.  He didn't blame her for being stunned.  The aliens had been silent for so long that some humans had given up hope of being able to talk to them.  But now there was very definite proof that the aliens understood at least one human language.  It opened up all sorts of possibilities.

“Record a second message,” he ordered.  He waited for her nod, then continued.  “This is the human commander.  We would like to speak directly to your leaders.  If you do not open communications within five minutes, we will commence offensive operations.”

He looked over at Lopez.  “Send the message,” he said.  “We’ll give them ten minutes before we start engaging the orbital defences.”

Lopez blinked.  “Ten minutes?”

“They might not understand our time measurement system,” Ted pointed out.  Even explaining minutes, seconds and hours to the aliens would be tricky.  They’d have to show the seconds ticking by, then match them to names ... which the alien timing system could be very different.  For all Ted knew, their version of hours could be three or four human hours long.  “We’ll give them time.”

The minutes ticked by slowly.  There was no response.

Ted let out a long breath.  It would have been nice to have opened proper communications, if only to discuss the planet's surrender.  They could have moved on to other matters of mutual interest, starting with just why the damn war started in the first place.  But, after their telltale response to the first message, the aliens had just fallen silent again.  Now, though, they had a piece of data for the analysts to study.  Who knew – maybe they could find the aliens on the planet’s surface who understood English and speak to them.

But there was no time for that now.

“The Marines are on their way,” he said.  The Rhino wasn't dawdling either, or bothering with stealth.  His ships would reach the fleet in just under an hour.  “Signal the fleet.  It’s time to start clearing the way.”

He paused, gathering himself.  “The known defensive stations are to be engaged with extreme force,” he added.  “Stations that have not revealed any weapons or the willingness to use them are to be left alone, hopefully so they can be boarded.  Any large chunk of debris that might impact the planet's surface is to be smashed before it can enter the planet’s atmosphere.”

It was a risk, he knew.  The orbital stations might all be armed – or they might be rigged to explode when humans forced their way into the stations.  Or, if the alien leadership was trying to drum up support for the war amongst its people, it might have rigged the stations to cause an atrocity, perhaps by knocking one of the asteroids out of orbit.  There was no way to know without taking the risk of triggering any booby traps the aliens might have left behind.   He shook his head; like so many other things when it came to dealing with the aliens, they were facing riddles wrapped in mysteries and enigmas.  If only they could talk!

“Order the fleet to engage,” he said, quietly.

Chapter Twenty-Two

Henry smiled as the starfighter was, once again, catapulted out into interplanetary space, followed rapidly by the remainder of his squadron.  A quick glance at his display showed the alien stations marked in a mixture of red and yellow; red for known threats, yellow for potential threats.  Several of them were launching additional starfighters, dispelling any hopes he might have had that they’d already destroyed the alien starfighters defending the planet.

“Shoot,” North commented.  “There's more of the buggers.”

“More targets,” a grim American voice said.  With Roosevelt gone, the remaining Americans wanted blood.  “You have the ten on the right, I’ll take the hundred on the left ...”

“Stay in formation,” the Wing Commander growled.  “And try to engage the starfighters away from the stations.  Those bastards are probably crammed full of point defence.”

“Understood,” North said.

Henry smiled.  He had a feeling that they were definitely about to earn their pay.  No one – no one human, at least - had assaulted a heavily defended planet, but all the theorists agreed that it would be bloody.  But the aliens had crushed New Russia’s defences with uncompromising brutality.  Humanity might do as well ... or discover that the aliens had their own surprises waiting for attackers.

He pushed the thought aside.  One way or another, they were about to find out.


“Launch decoys,” Ted ordered.  “The frigates are to open fire on my mark.”

“Aye, sir,” Lopez said.  “Decoys launching ... now.”

Ted nodded.  Hopefully, the aliens would suddenly see the human fleet quadruple in size.  They’d know three-fourths of the sensor images were decoys, of course, but it would still be hard for them to separate out the true starships from the illusions, particularly when the missiles went to work.  The alien ability to command and control their defences was about to take a severe beating.

“Order them to stick with Attack Pattern Alpha,” he said, as more and more of the alien active sensor arrays came online.  They would be far more precise than passive sensors, but the human attackers knew where they were now.  “I want all of the alien active sensors targeted for destruction.”

He watched as the alien network slowly revealed itself, then smiled.  “Order the frigates to open fire,” he said.  “I say again, they are to open fire.”

The display suddenly sparked with new icons as the frigates opened fire, volley-firing their missiles towards the planet’s defences.  Moments later, the aliens responded, directing their starfighters into position to intercept the missiles.  But the human starfighters knifed into the alien ships and a series of dogfights began as the they started to knock down the alien craft one by one.  Moments later, the first set of missiles started to detonate, blasting laser beams towards the enemy stations.  Others were knocked down before they had a chance to detonate.

“Sir,” Commander Higgs said.  The analyst sounded tired, but enthusiastic.  “The data is revealing certain patterns.  Among other things, the aliens defending the planet are not as well-trained as the aliens who fought at New Russia and other battles.”

“You think we’ve encountered a reservist unit?”  Ted asked.  He'd thought the same at the previous battle, but he wasn't inclined to assume he was correct.  “Or one unprepared for war?”

“Their training is definitely flawed,” Higgs insisted, calmly.  “They might have taken out a carrier, but they’re outmatched by our pilots.”

“Let us hope you’re right,” Ted said.

He turned and looked back at the display.  Some of the missiles were finding their targets, but others were being knocked down by the enemy defenders.  Their point defence crews were clearly very motivated, Ted thought, with a moment of bitter amusement.  But then, unless alien reactions were far faster than human reactions, they’d probably programmed their computers to handle the guns.  There was no way a human mind could keep up with the incoming missiles, designate targets and engage them before it was too late.

“Keep a sharp eye on the stations that have yet to open fire,” he ordered.  “I want to know if they show the slightest sign of hostility.”

“The first wave of missiles has been completed,” Lopez reported.  “We've damaged a couple of stations, but not enough to cripple the planetary defences.”

Ted swore, inwardly.  He’d expected more than that from the modified missiles, but he’d underestimated the planet’s defences.  They’d crammed more point defence and armour into the stations than he’d expected.  Some of them might be as heavily armoured as Ark Royal herself ...

“Launch the second salvo,” he ordered.  But ship-mounted missiles wouldn't be enough, he knew.  “Then detach half of our remaining bombers to target their stations.  Try to coordinate the strikes so they go in simultaneously.”

“Aye, sir,” Lopez said.

Ted gritted his teeth as the first flight of bombers started to launch from their carriers.  He’d hoped to keep the bombers in reserve, just in case the alien carriers managed to link up with reinforcements and launch an immediate counterattack.  But instead they would have to be committed to the attack on Target One.  He briefly considered adding mass drivers to the fury wracking the skies of Target One, then dismissed the thought with some irritation.  There was too great a risk of accidentally striking the planet’s surface.

If all of our attacks are so difficult, he thought, we might want to consider building additional attack ships.  Or just blockading the worlds and leaving the aliens to rot on the vine.


The alien starfighter came out of nowhere.  Henry had barely a second’s warning before bursts of hot plasma screamed past his fighter and vanished somewhere in the inky darkness of space.  Swearing out loud, even though he knew his mike was on, he yanked the starfighter out of the alien’s path and tried to draw a bead on his opponent.  If the alien hadn’t been distracted by a missile that flashed past his ship, close enough almost to be seen with the naked eye, Henry suspected his career would have come to a very sudden end.  As it was, he managed to line himself up on the alien long enough to blow him into plasma.

He pulled back and fell into formation escorting the bombers as they roared towards their target, one of the larger alien battlestations.  It seemed to be glowing with light on his display as it hurled bolt after bolt of plasma fire towards the incoming ships, a display of fury that would have overloaded any comparable human system.  He felt a moment of envy which rapidly became pity as the bombers launched their missiles towards the alien station.  A handful made it into attack range and detonated.  Moments later, the station shuddered and started to disintegrate.

“Pull back,” the Wing Commander snapped.  “You don't want to be hit by a piece of flying debris.”

Henry nodded and followed the bombers as they retreated, chased by vengeful alien fighters.  Behind them, warnings flashed up in his display as pieces of debris shot in all directions, most of them heading down into the planet's gravity well.  A quick check revealed that most of them would almost certainly burn up in the planet’s atmosphere, although a handful might make it down to the surface.  He doubted having so much debris dumped into the atmosphere would do the planet any good, but at least it wouldn't cause immediate problems.

“The bombers are to return to the carriers to rearm,” the Wing Commander ordered.  “Starfighters are to engage their counterparts.”

Henry nodded and flipped the starfighter over, following North and his comrades as they headed back towards the alien starfighters.  The aliens were fighting with a bitter desperation that almost made up for their poor training – Henry had never appreciated how hard the CAG had made them work until he saw the aliens – but it was hopeless.  One by one, the alien starfighters were burned out of space, followed by their battlestations.

Alerts flashed up in his display.  He evaded automatically, searching for his target.  One of the alien asteroids had started to disintegrate, shattering into a tidal wave of rocky debris that seemed to fly in all directions.  He stared, then glanced at the overall update as other pilots started to fill the airwaves with chatter.  What the hell had happened to the alien asteroid?

“Unknown,” the CAG said, finally.  “No missile went near the asteroid.”

He paused.  “Continue operations.”

Henry nodded and led the charge towards the next alien station.


“They blew it up?”

“Radar reports suggest that the cause of the destruction was internal,” Lopez confirmed.  “As far as the analysts can tell, sir, none of our missiles or starfighters went anywhere near the station.”

Ted nodded.  Was it a warning – the other stations might be rigged to blow too – an accident or an attempt to deny the stations to humanity?  Moments later, he had his answer as the other orbital installations started, one by one, to disintegrate.  He cursed out loud as he realised that the debris would cause very real problems for his landing craft, as well as threatening the planet with nuclear winter.  Billions of tons of dust entering the planetary atmosphere would do it no good at all.

“They blew all the civilian stations,” Lopez said.  She sounded utterly shocked.  “Sir, they just blew them all!”

“Probably didn’t want us getting a look at them,” Ted said.  He wasn't too surprised, even though he had a feeling the alien leaders had just sacrificed thousands of their own people just to hide their secrets.  “They know what we did with the last ship we captured, after all.”

He took a breath.  The remaining orbital battlestations were fighting savagely, but there was no longer any doubt about the outcome.  If only they would surrender!  Ted had strict orders concerning alien POWs, orders he agreed with wholeheartedly.  They certainly wouldn't be mistreated in human custody.  But then, now they had proof that some aliens understood English, they might well be turned into a source of intelligence for the human race.

“Reassign the Marines who would have boarded the stations,” he ordered, flatly.  “There's no point in trying to take them any longer.”

“Aye, sir,” Lopez said.

“Then redirect the bombers to take out the last battlestations,” Ted added.  “Then we can put an end to this.”


Kurt stared down the roster as the bombers hastily returned to Ark Royal and the two makeshift carriers.  All four bomber squadrons had taken a beating, forcing him to reconfigure them on the fly.  Worse, two of them had lost their commanding officers, which meant he would have to promote one of the rooks to CO, transfer a more experienced officer or concentrate the four squadrons into two.  Any of the options would cause real problems as exhausted pilots took their craft out once again to engage the enemy.  But there was no choice.

At least the experienced officers would know how to handle newcomers, he thought, but I hate doing it when we’re in the middle of a battle.

He sighed, rubbing his eyes.  It was hard to really feel the battle deep within Ark Royal’s armoured superstructure.  He wasn't outside in space, with only his skill and daring keeping him safe and well in the face of concentrated enemy attempts to kill him, but inside a starship that had, so far, proved invincible.  But the enemy had already managed to damage the carrier once on the mission ... they’d certainly know how to try again.

And Rose was out there, risking her life.  So was the Prince and all the other rooks.

Kurt cursed under his breath.  Molly had tried to nag him into getting a nice safe job flying a desk, but reservist pilots never really had much choice about their assignments.  Indeed, he knew he’d been lucky to draw assignment to Ark Royal, even though no one had expected the Old Lady to become the effective flagship of the navy and the linchpin of humanity’s defence.  But he would never have been happy flying a desk ... and this, no matter what gloss he tried to put on it, was flying a desk.  The only real danger was the very real prospect of being killed by the aliens.

I need to get back out there, he thought, sourly.  Being CAG as well as a Wing Commander was stressful, but it wasn't as shameful as being a desk jockey.  Whatever it takes, I need to get back out there.

“All right,” he said, keying his console.  “The following pilots are assigned to Bomber Squadron Two ...”

He sighed at the explosion of protests from the remainder of Squadron Four.  It was hard to blame them.  The Royal Navy worked hard to create a sense of unity in squadrons, a sense of belonging ... a sense that would make it hard to fit pilots from one squadron into another.  No doubt a few of the rooks had assumed they would have their chance to take command of the squadron, at least for a few glorious hours.  It would have looked very good on their service records when the Admiralty started handing out medals ...

“Do as I fucking tell you,” he ordered, feeling his temper snap.  “I know you didn't goddamn train together, but you’ll goddamn fight together because if you don't you’ll wind up fucking dead, all right?”

There was silence.  He forced himself to calm down.  Swearing like one of Percy’s friends who’d come home once – Molly had banished him almost at once and forbade Percy from speaking to him again – wouldn't help calm nervous young men and women.

“This is too important for you to be distracted,” he said, quietly.  There was really no time for a long debate.  “Slot into the combined squadrons and do your best.  And remember, your new comrades are not the enemy.  It’s the aliens who are the enemy.”

He closed the channel, then rested his head in his hands.  The rooks had taken far too much of a beating, he knew, and they simply didn't have the experience to come to grips with it.  At least the other powers had sent veteran pilots, thankfully.  The Americans, Japanese and French had done very well.  And the Americans ... he made a mental note to make sure that accommodations were prepared for the surviving pilots from Roosevelt.  The other American carriers were already crammed with pilots and starfighters.

“I’ll get back out there somehow,” he muttered.  “Somehow ...”


The final alien battlestation exploded violently, adding yet more debris to the clouds drifting in orbit around the planet.  Ted watched, grimly, as pieces of space junk plummeted into the planet’s atmosphere, hopefully distracting the alien defenders on the ground from monitoring the human ships.  If there was one advantage to the whole sorry affair, he decided, it was that it was forcing the aliens to reveal the location of their ground-based planetary defence systems.  The plasma cannons would have done some real damage if the humans had tried to land without a clear idea of their location.

“Add them to the lists for targeting,” he ordered, calmly.  “I want them all hammered as soon as we commence the assault.”

“Yes, sir,” Lopez said.

Ted remembered the old arguments about ships versus forts and realised the aliens had written a new chapter.  The ground-based systems were far more powerful than anything they'd seen before, save perhaps for the plasma guns a handful of alien frigates mounted.  A single shot could do real damage to Ark Royal and probably blow a modern carrier into little pieces.  He didn't dare enter orbit until the ground-based weapons were suppressed.

He glanced down at the update from the analysts.  With the battlestations gone, their discussions had devolved into an argument about if the aliens really understood English or if it was just a wild coincidence.  After all, as one analyst was arguing, the aliens were perfectly capable of seeing a vast fleet bearing down on them.  Evacuating the stations might have seemed a sensible idea, all the more so as alien installations across the system were going dark, one by one.  The aliens might not understand English at all!

We’ll see, soon enough, he promised himself.  But how much time do we have?

On the display, the retreating enemy carriers had reached the tramline and vanished.  It was hard to be sure they’d jumped out of the system – in their place, Ted would have left behind a number of watching eyes – but they were definitely well out of engagement range.  They’d be in position, ready and waiting, until alien reinforcements arrived.  At that point, Ted knew, they’d link up with the newcomers and proceed towards the planet.  The humans might not have very long at all.

“Lieutenant,” he said.  “What is the Marine ETA?”

“Twenty-one minutes,” Lopez said.  “General Ross has confirmed that his forces are ready to enter the atmosphere; Major Parnell and his men will be part of the charge.”

“Good,” Ted said.  “Tell him he will have tactical ground and near-space command as soon as he enters deployment range.  The frigates will provide fire support, if necessary.”

“Aye, sir,” Lopez said.

Ted shivered.  They were about to see something new, something unique, unless one counted the alien invasion of New Russia.  But then, the aliens had largely stayed away from human settlements, preferring to establish their own bases on the surface.  Now ... Ted’s forces didn't have that luxury.  They had to investigate the alien cities, just to try to pull what intelligence they could from them.  There were just too many opportunities for disaster for Ted to be entirely comfortable with it.  But there was no choice.

He settled back in his chair and watched, resting his hands on his lap, as the Marine transports slipped into high orbit and started to launch their shuttles.  No matter what happened next, Ted knew, they were committed.

But then, he reminded himself, that had always been true.

Chapter Twenty-Three

When he’d been a child, Major Charles Parnell had read Starship Troopers and fallen in love with the idea of wearing a suit of powered combat armour on the battlefield.  It had been a disappointment, when he'd finally joined the Royal Marines, to discover that battlesuits were so expensive and finicky that they were rarely allowed to use them in combat.  Even the Americans, who had done more research into the concept than anyone else, had their doubts about the value of the suits.  But they did serve well for plunging from orbit and landing on a hostile planet.

He sucked in his breath sharply as the Royal Marines – and American Force Recon Marines – plummeted towards Target One.  Space seemed to be sparkling with light, either from chunks of debris falling into the planet’s atmosphere or enemy fire from the planet below.  Bright warnings flared up in his HUD, only for him to banish them in irritation.  There was no point in tormenting himself with the prospect of being targeted by the enemy.  The suits were tough, tough enough to survive a nuke if there was some distance between them and Ground Zero, but if the aliens zapped him with a plasma cannon designed to take out an orbiting spacecraft he was dead.  None of the Marines had any illusions on that score.

Missiles plummeted past him, wrapped in showers of decoys that would – that should – make it harder for the aliens to pick out the Marines with their sensors.  They’d have to go after the missiles anyway, Charles knew, although no alien cities were being targeted directly.  The planetary defence complexes could be hammered from orbit, if they didn't shoot down the missiles before they reached their targets.  And, once the fleet entered orbit, kinetic strikes would be added to the human arsenal.

He felt a shiver running through the suit as he entered the planet’s atmosphere.  Target One seemed to shift in front of him, moving from a orb hanging in space to something that dominated the horizon ... and then a world falling towards him.  His head spun for a long moment, then he gathered himself.  It had been years since he’d taken his first jump out of an aircraft and parachuted down to Earth, but it still managed to scare him on a very basic level.

It’s all perfectly safe, he reminded himself.  He knew that some of his men had the same fears, even though none of them would ever admit it out loud.  The Royal Marines didn't react well to weakness, particularly ones that might be common.  We’ll hit the ground before we know it.

He saw a missile go screeching past him, followed by sparks of purple light that seemed to dance up from the planet and reach out towards low orbit.  The aliens were firing on the incoming Marines ... he hesitated, then looked back down towards the surface of the planet.  Their colossal planetary defence centre was coming into view, far larger than anything humanity had ever built to protect their world.  It looked as though the aliens had hollowed out a mountain and converted it into a fortress.  The rocky mass surrounding it would give them some extra protection, although it wouldn't be enough to protect the plasma cannons, not when they had to be exposed to open fire ...

The suit blinked up another warning.  Charles closed his eyes as the parachute activated, cutting his speed sharply.  Moments later, he crashed down on the ground and looked around, activating his suit’s active sensors.  The remainder of his unit fell around him, hastily dragging themselves into combat formation.  It wouldn’t be long before the aliens realised they’d actually managed to land on the planet.

Scratch that, he thought, as he saw a line of aliens appear from the direction of the fortress.  They’re already here.

The aliens opened fire with handheld plasma weapons; the humans returned fire with suit-mounted machine guns.  Charles felt a stab of envy as he saw the alien weapons – he wanted something like that, even though they posed an unanticipated threat to his suit – and then concentrated on fighting, leading his men forward against the aliens.  They fought back savagely, but they had clearly been caught by surprise.  The theory that most of the planet’s defenders were actually reservists seemed to hold water.

A brilliant flash of light distracted him for a long second, then he resumed the attack on the fortress, moving towards the main doors with terrifying speed.  The aliens fell back in disarray,  slamming their gates closed and sealing the mountain.  Charles checked the live feed from the orbital monitors – the plasma cannons had been taken out by a direct hit – and then ordered his men to fall back.  There was no need to force their way into the fortress if it was no longer capable of interfering with the landing operations.

The Rhino’s face blinked up in his HUD.  “Congratulations, Major,” he said.  “The enemy fortress has been neutralised.”

Charles nodded, considering the situation.  “They may be impregnable deeper inside the fortress,” he said.  “We can't break through without nukes.”

“Then don’t worry about them,” the Rhino said.  “Concentrate on securing the planned landing sites.”

Charles nodded, signalled his men to leave a detachment monitoring the mountain and then led the remaining forces towards the LZ.  The aliens hadn't built a convenient spaceport, unfortunately, but there was enough flat ground inland to serve as a landing zone for assault shuttles.  Dozens of warnings blinked up in his display as the aliens continued to fight, yet no one troubled his Marines as they swept through the landing zone, looking for unexpected surprises.  Nothing revealed itself.

“The zone is clear,” he said.  “You can start unloading your troops at once.”

The American Marine Corps might not, in his considered opinion, be as tactically flexible as the Royal Marines, but they did bring a vast amount of resources to the party.  Hundreds of shuttles dropped through the atmosphere, a couple falling to alien weapons that had held their fire, waiting for the chance to take a proper shot, and landed in front of Charles and his men.  Moments later, thousands of American Marines had spilled out of their shuttles and started expanding the secure perimeter, followed by tanks and self-propelled guns.  The Americans had planned to secure a landing zone and then expand as quickly as possible.  Charles had to admit that the plan had worked perfectly.

“We have alien detachments moving out of City One,” an American voice said.  “I think they’re soldiers, sir.”

“Good,” the Rhino grunted.  “We’ll meet them outside their city.”

Charles briefly accessed the live feed for himself.  It was clear the aliens were ... uncomfortable away from the water, although they didn't seem as badly impeded as he’d hoped.  Maybe they could endure uncomfortable conditions for quite some time, just like humans.  They didn't seem to have any heavy weapons, although with alien plasma cannons involved it was hard to be sure just what counted as a heavy weapon.  He'd seen them wielding handheld pistols that could burn through a tank’s armour.

He ducked instinctively as something flew overhead, then realised to his embarrassment that it was a pair of American helicopters.  A troop of tanks roared past the Royal Marines, heading towards the alien forces, followed by a line of armoured Marines.  Charles smiled, switched the suit to full power and gave chase.  In the suits, infantry could move fast enough to catch their enemy on the hop.

“They seem to be evacuating the city,” the analyst added.  “They’re sending everyone into the water.”

“Even better,” the Rhino insisted.  “No civilians to get in the way.”

Charles wondered, absently, just how far underwater the aliens could go safely.  There were very definite limits for unprotected humans, even with a portable oxygen supply.  The aliens might be able to swim down to the bottom of the oceans or they might only be able to go a few hundred metres below the surface.  No one knew for sure, if only because no one had managed to get a probe near an underwater city.  It was one of the minor objectives for the entire deployment.

He pushed the thought aside as an explosion billowed up in front of him.  Cursing, he ducked as streaks of light flared out towards the human forces, one of them striking a tank and blasting it into very little pieces.  The humans fell back and waited; moments later, a volley of shells fell from the sky, smashing the alien position.  Charles led the charge forward, only to discover that most of the aliens were dead or retreating in a hurry.  They didn't seem inclined to stand and fight.

Makes sense, he told himself.  They can delay us indefinitely through a series of ambushes, while we have to take the time to clear them, one by one.  It buys time for them to evacuate the city.

“Agreed,” the Rhino said, when he mentioned his theory on the command channel.  “And they’ve already prevented us from leapfrogging their positions and dropping troops into their rear.”

Charles nodded.  Two American helicopters had died in quick succession; the remainder had been pulled back to await developments.  They might have armoured hulls, but they couldn't stand up to plasma weapons fire.  It struck him, suddenly, that that might be why they hadn't seen any signs of an alien air force.  They believed aircraft to be largely useless in modern war.

The march towards the alien city devolved into a series of ambushes, each one costing time to clear.  Thankfully, the aliens didn't seem to have invented IEDs or other insurgent tricks or the battle would have taken much longer.  Instead, they jumped out, opened fire and then fell back rapidly.  They were moving too quickly to be caught by the shells the Rhino would inevitably direct into their position.

“This would be beautiful countryside if the aliens didn't live here,” he muttered.  He couldn't help thinking of a mixture of the English countryside and the rainforests they’d used for training exercises, years ago.  “We could just come to an agreement about sharing planets ...”

The Rhino snorted.  “So people have been saying,” he said, as the Marines reached a large river running down to the sea – and the alien city.  “But we have to get them to talk to us first.”

Charles nodded as the aliens launched another ambush.  The tanks opened fire, tearing through undergrowth and aliens alike, while the armoured infantry ran forwards in hopes of preventing the aliens from retreating.  Charles saw a pair of aliens stumbling right towards him – a shiver ran down his spine as he saw their movements, utterly creepy compared to human movements – and held up his hand, trying to get them to stop.  The aliens lifted their weapons instead, refusing to even try to surrender.  Charles opened fire with bitter regret, wondering just why so many aliens were prepared to die in a futile attempt to slow the human advance.  Were they terrified of humanity?

He put the thought aside as they finally brushed through the last ambush and found themselves staring down at the alien city.  For a moment, it took his breath away; the aliens might be eerie and creepy, but their city looked like something out of a fairytale.  It was a glowing mass of spires, all gleaming as if they were made of ice, while water seemed to run freely through the streets.  Half of them, he realised, were actually canals.  To the aliens, they were as good as roads.  Hell, there were boats on the surface.

“Odd design,” Private Butcher commented.  “Where the hell are the oars – or the outboard motor?”

Charles frowned, using his suit’s sensors to zoom in on the closest boat.  Butcher was right; there were no engines or slots for the oars.  It puzzled him, leaving him wondering if the aliens had used the canals as rapids, then he understood what he was seeing.  The aliens swam under the boat to provide motive power.

“Odd,” Butcher said, when he pointed it out.  “No engines?”

“I guess they like to use muscle power,” Charles said.  “We did when we were sneaking up on Abu Hsian and his gang of merry murderers.”

He cleared his throat, checking the HUD.  The landing forces had spread out, carefully sealing off all land routes to the city.  It would have been more impressive if he hadn't been all too aware that the aliens preferred to swim through the water, allowing them to bring supplies in and out by sea.  The alien city seemed to have captivated everyone, even the Rhino.  There were no suggestions about forcing their way into the city and taking it by storm.

But then, no one is trying to bar our path any longer, he thought, grimly.  They must have given up on trying to hold the city.

“The recon units will advance, carefully,” the Rhino said, finally.  “Report at once if you run into trouble.”

Charles braced himself and led the way into the alien city.  He’d been in the Middle East, China and even Russia, but none of their cities had ever given him such an odd feeling in his bones.  Part of him was still captivated by the alien city, part of him found the whole structure oddly creepy.  Up close, it was easy to tell the city hadn't been built for humans.  There were doors that were simply too small for anyone larger than a kid.  But for an alien, with their immensely flexible bodies, they would be easy to use.

He forced his way into one icy block – the walls did look to be covered with ice, although he had no idea why – and looked around.  There was nothing, apart from a large pool in one corner of the room; when he peered inside, he saw a handful of fish-like creatures swimming in the water.  Pets, he wondered, or a food supply?  It was impossible to tell.  He looked into the next room, remembering all the lectures on how best to search a site for anything the intelligence types would find useful, and saw a handful of plastic sheets on the floor.  When he picked them up, he saw writing on them.

“Good find,” Sergeant Jackson complimented him.

Charles snorted as they walked out of the building.  The alien writing hadn't been deciphered, even though it wasn't the first time they’d recovered samples from an alien base.  For all he knew, they’d picked up the alien counterpart to great literature – or pornography.  The reports had suggested that the aliens were actually nowhere near as sexual as humanity, but Charles was inclined to dismiss that as wishful thinking.  In his view, the mating urge was one of the prime drivers of human civilisation.

But if the aliens reproduce like frogs, he asked himself, would they even have anything like sex?

Inch by inch, the Marines spread through the city, carefully inspecting every last room and compartment.  There was no resistance, not even a single sighting of an alien, merely endless rooms, some of which were filled with incomprehensible machines.  The Marines marked them down for larger removal by the intelligence officers, then passed on to the next section, hunting for signs of where the aliens had gone.  Charles peered out over the ocean, waves lapping against the edges of the city, and knew the answer.  The aliens had gone underwater, where humans couldn't follow.

“Pull back to Base Camp,” the Rhino ordered, finally.  “The follow-up forces can continue the searches.”

Charles nodded, relieved.  It had been hours since they’d landed – and it felt like days.  If it hadn't been for the suit, he would probably have reached the limits of his endurance long ago.  Instead, he led the way back to the Base Camp, which had been established alarmingly close to the city.  A handful of Marines were already pumping water from the nearby river and using it to help set up the base.  Others were working on the damaged tanks.  He removed his suit, detailed Sergeant Jackson to look after the remainder of the Marines, then went looking for his commanding officer.

The Rhino met him in the mobile control centre, which had already been buried under a protective canopy of earth.  he didn't look happy; Charles knew he would have preferred to command from his suit, rather than a vehicle that was a clear target if the enemy managed to parse their way through humanity’s datanet.  But with units from several different countries operating in the field, he couldn't afford any miscommunications.

“Good work,” the Rhino grunted.  “Opposition seems to have faded away entirely.”

Charles nodded, looking at the Blue Force Tracker display.  The humans had secured the coastal cities, having smashed the planetary defence fortresses, but the aliens had largely withdrawn into the waters.  Stalemate, it seemed, at least until the humans could start deploying the underwater probes.  But it would take several days before they felt comfortable enough to start bringing scientists, some civilian, down to the planet’s surface.

“They weren't ready for us,” he said.  “The next time we force a landing on an alien world, sir, it will be a great deal harder.”

“Almost certainly,” the Rhino agreed.  He slapped Charles on the back.  “Go get some sleep, mate.  You’ll be useless to yourself and your men when you’re half-dead on your feet.”

Outside, the sun was already starting to set.  Charles looked towards a glow in the distance, realised to his amusement that a handful of soldiers were smoking, then up towards the sky.  Hundreds of pieces of debris were still tumbling through the atmosphere, leaving fiery trails as they burnt up and vanished.  Beyond, there was no sign of the fleet.  It was still holding station some distance from the planet.

Lucky bastards, he thought.  Night was falling rapidly now, sending chills down his spine.  There was a faint smell in the air, he realised now, that was completely alien.  He had a feeling that he wasn't going to sleep well, no matter how tired he was.  They don’t see the mud on our boots.

With that thought, he headed for the tent and sleep.

Chapter Twenty-Four

“Stand down from Red Alert,” Ted ordered.  “But maintain a full sensor watch at all times.”

“Yes, sir,” Lopez said.  “Do you wish us to enter orbit?”

Ted shook his head.  It would be irritating and inconvenient to the Marines, but entering orbit – particularly when there were still thousands of pieces of debris floating through space – posed too many risks to the fleet.  The aliens might still have plasma weapons hidden on the surface, even if space debris didn't become a threat.  Besides, he wanted room to manoeuvre when the aliens returned to the system in force.

“We’ll stay here, but keep randomising our positions,” he ordered.  Just because the aliens hadn't shown mass drivers yet didn't mean they couldn't produce them.  There was nothing particularly complex about the technology.  “And make sure that we maintain regular CSP around the carriers.”

He looked down at the display, suddenly feeling very tired.  The fleet had shot through nearly its entire supply of loaded missiles, something that would cost them if they had to return to battle within the next few hours.  If they hadn't brought the bombers along, Ted knew, Target One’s defenders would have won the battle, forcing him to either risk deploying mass drivers or withdrawing, conceding defeat.  It wouldn't have set a good precedent for future operations ...

“Yes, sir,” Lopez said.

“And order the resupply officers to begin resupplying the fleet,” Ted continued.  “I want us loaded to the gunwales as quickly as possible.”

He wondered, briefly, what the other commanders were feeling.  The French and Japanese had good reason to be relieved; they’d each lost a carrier at New Russia and the victory at Target One had gone some way towards redeeming their navies.  But then, if Ark Royal hadn't been kept in reserve, the Royal Navy would have been smashed within six months of the war’s start.  And the Americans ... they’d actually lost a carrier.

Ted glanced down at the reports from the SAR teams.  Only a handful of crewmen saved, out of a complement that numbered in the thousands.  It was a serious loss to any of the interstellar powers, he knew; spacers couldn’t be trained as easily as soldiers.  The Royal Navy was already threatening to start conscripting merchant spacers, even though there weren't enough of them either.  They’d probably have to design yet another accelerated training program, he reasoned, with all the problems that would cause.

He’d expected losses, he knew.  God knew he’d lost men and women in combat before; starfighter pilots, the crews of the frigates that had escorted Ark Royal into combat, even a handful of Royal Marines.  But losing so many stung, even if he hadn't known them personally.  And yet, even though he knew it could have been worse, it still nagged at his mind.

“I need to speak to Admiral Shallcross,” he said.  “Establish the link.”

Moments later, Admiral Shallcross’s face appeared in front of him.  “Admiral?”

The American looked tired and worn, Ted decided, at least as tired as Ted felt himself.  The entire fleet needed a rest, he knew, but it was unlikely the aliens would give them much chance to relax.  They might have blown up the orbital installations to prevent the humans from getting their hands on them, yet they had to know that humanity could pull secrets from the groundside cities too.  No, they would take as little time as possible to mount a counterattack.

“I’m sorry for your loss,” Ted said, formally.  There would be no time to hold a fleet-wide ceremony before they returned to Earth, but there was nothing stopping him from expressing his condolences.  “The carrier and her crew fought well and deserved better.”

“I know. Admiral,” Shallcross said.  “But we will have our revenge, in time.”

Ted nodded, feeling oddly relieved that the alien civilians had vanished below the waves.  He had faith in his landing forces to remain disciplined, but he knew all too well just how badly discipline could suffer under the weight of strong emotion.  Civilians had been abused before by soldiers and no amount of later recompense could make up for the damage.  But then, there weren't many humans who would argue the aliens deserved any concern at all.

“We will,” he agreed.  “However, we also need to proceed with the resupply operations as quickly as possible, then start smashing the rest of the system.  Can you handle the fighters from Roosevelt?”

“We would prefer to pass some of them over to you,” Shallcross said.  “Or fly them from Napoleon, if necessary.”

“Speak to her commander; tell him I authorised it if he balks,” Ted said.  He understood why the Frenchman would want to balk – the American pilots wouldn't have been trained to launch from a French carrier – but there was no time to deal with it.  “His pilots can be launched first, I think.”

“That won't please my pilots,” Shallcross said, darkly.  They shared a look of understanding; fighter pilots were trained to be aggressive, to get out into space and start fighting the enemy.  “But they’ll cope with it.”

Ted smiled.  “Good,” he said.  “Once we have completed the resupply operations, we’ll start attacking the other installations within the system.  The frigates can handle that, I think, which will allow us to keep the carriers here.”

“Probably the best course of action,” Shallcross agreed.  “How long do you think we have before they come back?”

“As short as they can make it,” Ted said.  He made a mental note to dispatch other frigates to peek through the other tramlines.  They needed to know what was on the far side before it was too late.  “But we will see, Admiral.  They might have problems working out just what we have in mind.”

He smiled as he closed the connection.  It was unlikely the aliens would leave them in peace long enough to complete the destruction of the system’s facilities, but he could hope.  And, if they did, he could pull the fleet out through Tramline One or attack targets of opportunity along the other Tramlines, depending on just what they found on the far side.

“Admiral,” Lopez said.  “You really need to get some sleep.”

“You keep telling me that,” Ted said.  He shook his head, shortly.  It was her job to tell him when he needed sleep.  “I’ll be in my office.  Wake me the moment – and I mean the moment – something happens.”

He stood, nodded to his officers, and strode out of the CIC.


“We’re reloading the missile tubes now,” Amelia said.  The XO had to be as tired as everyone else, but she didn't seem to have a single hair out of place.  “The missiles were less effective than we had hoped.”

“The aliens had too much time to plot their course and plan an intercept,” James said, rubbing his forehead.  The bomb-pumped lasers had seemed a dream come true, the answer to the problem of getting close enough to the alien ships to do real damage.  But, like all weapons systems, they could be countered by a cunning adversary.  “And they’re too fragile to take even a minor hit without being destroyed.”

He looked down at the report from the analysts.  They’d managed – as always – to produce dozens of pages worth of blather, but the basics were clear.  The missiles were effective, but not effective enough.  Somehow, the lasers needed to be triggered further from the alien ships, which reduced their effectiveness considerably.

“Maybe we need to return to the mass driver concept,” Amelia said.  She looked down at the terminal, then back up at him.  “And just keep throwing projectiles at them.”

James considered it, then smiled as another idea struck him.  “We need to cut down on their reaction time,” he said.  “Maybe we could launch the missiles on a ballistic trajectory, then trigger their drives when they get closer to their targets.”

“We’d need a two-stage missile,” Amelia observed.  “Admiral Webster has been trying to get that concept to work for years.”

“Maybe we could launch the missiles through a mass driver-like system instead,” James said, after a moment’s thought.  “There wouldn't even be a launch flare to warn the aliens ... hell, we can deliberately aim to miss.”

His XO frowned.  “Aim to miss?”

“You can't alter a mass driver projectile’s course in transit,” James pointed out.  “So the aliens have a habit of disregarding projectiles they know are harmless, because they’re not going to go anywhere near their ships.”

“But if the projectile happens to be a missile, it can alter course,” Amelia said, grinning.  It utterly transformed her face.  “And then hit the aliens in the back.”

“Or at least go active long enough to confuse them,” James said.  “Make them work to blow them out of space.”

He smiled, openly.  “I’ll talk to the tactical crews and get them to see how many changes they can make to the programming package,” he said.  “You handle the resupply, then get some rest.  You’ll need it by then.”

Amelia gave him a droll smile.  She’d organised the resupply – at least the Old Lady’s share – with terrifying efficiency.  James had been an XO on two different ships, but he had to admit that Amelia had mastered the required skills far more than he’d ever done.  But then, her file showed no trace of aristocratic connections.  She'd cut her way to the top through sheer guts, determination and unquestionable competence.  James had never seen her push herself so far that she was falling asleep in her chair.  But then, she’d had enough experience of hair-raising deployments to remain calm.

“Yes, sir,” she said.  “And you will need to rest too.”

James sighed.  The Admiral would be having a rest – or at least he damn well should be having a rest – leaving command of the overall fleet in Shallcross’s hands.  But James wasn't inclined to rest while his commanding officer was sleeping, knowing that an experienced officer might have to take command at any moment.  And yet ... the Admiral was no longer the starship’s commander.  Amelia was right to argue that James should rest in a moment of relative peace.  It might come to an end sooner than any of them wished to believe.

“Very well,” he said.  He turned and started to make his way towards Officer Country, then stopped and turned back to face her.  “You’re doing well, Commander.”

“Thank you, sir,” Amelia said.  Her face showed no trace of emotion.  “And so are you, if you will permit me to say so.”

James nodded, then walked away from her.  They hadn't started out very well, he had to admit; he'd been feeling his way into the command chair, while the Admiral had come alarmingly close to treating him as if he was still the Admiral’s XO.  Not that he blamed the Admiral for that, he had to admit.  There was a reason why crewmen who were promoted into command slots were generally transferred to new ships, even though it meant they’d have to grapple with the complexities of a whole new starship as well as ultimate command.  They didn't have to endure the memories and habits of being a subordinate on their starship.

But there was no one else qualified to take over as Ark Royal’s CO, James thought, ruefully.  There was me ... and no one else.  No wonder the Admiralty wanted to expand their officer base a little.

He shook his head.  Admiral Smith had forced him to come to terms with Ark Royal’s oddities as soon as possible.  He, by contrast, had handled too much himself, purely because he was used to doing it.  Silently, he promised himself that he would do better.  Amelia would have her chance to prove herself ... and, to be fair, she was doing an excellent job.  But she still had to deal with the disapproval of some of the crew.

They liked Farley, James thought, sourly.  And who could blame them?  The tactical officer was likeable ... and he'd been first in line for the XO posting.  He’d got the promotion, but not the posting, creating some tensions within the crew.  If Farley hadn't handled the matter professionally, someone might have done something stupid, like playing pranks on the XO.

He shook his head, wondering – yet again – just how Admiral Smith had done it.  He’d kept the crew functional, despite spending half of his time in a bottle.  Somehow, he’d managed to convince the crew to give James a fair chance and redeem himself at the same time.  Maybe he was still feeling his way towards fleet command.  He was still one of the better commanding officers James had known personally.

The Marine at the hatch to Officer Country saluted.  James saluted back, stepped through the hatch and walked towards his cabin.  Amelia was right, he knew.  He did need a rest.

Besides, the aliens might be back at any moment.


The pilots assembled in the exercise chamber, looking rather nervous.  Kurt ran his eyes over them, noting the telltale signs of exhaustion that many of them showed.  Even the older pilots looked tired, unsurprisingly.  They'd all been pushed to the limit by the battle for Target One.

And they'd lost friends in the battle.  He looked towards where the dead pilots should have been, where their friends had closed ranks as if they wanted to deny the simple fact of the missing or dead pilots.  How could he blame them for wanting to pretend that they hadn't lost anyone?  But he knew it was something they would have to come to terms with, sooner rather than later.  The loss of a handful of comrades stung worse than the loss of an entire American carrier.

“You did well,” he said.  He looked towards the bomber pilots, who looked as if they were expecting a lecture on the need to work with their fellows.  “All of you did very well.”

His gaze passed over Charles Augustus, who looked back evenly.  Quite a few mysteries had been solved, Kurt had realised, when he’d learnt the pilot’s true identity.  Prince Henry would be used to facing people with far more power and authority than a mere CAG.  And he’d have a strange mixture of entitlement and an urge to prove himself.  Kurt moved on to the next pilot, noting how North and Prince Henry seemed to have become friends.  Nothing like shared danger to make personal issues meaningless.

Good, he thought, until one of them dies.

He sighed in sympathy.  Pilots were permanently trapped between forming close relationships with their comrades and trying to maintain an emotional distance, knowing that they could lose their comrades at any time.  It was one of the reasons pilots burned out early, why the Royal Navy only allowed them to sign up for three-year hitches, once they’d passed their training course.  Kurt himself had chosen to return to civilian life; others, he knew, had never quite managed to find somewhere to belong.  A distressingly high percentage of former pilots got into trouble very quickly.

It would probably do the Prince good to have a real friend or two.  But it would also be disastrous when North found out the truth.

“The squadrons have already been restructured,” Kurt said.  The pilots didn't quite glare at him, but it looked as though they wanted to do so.  “No, I don't have time for arguments; you’ll go into the new squadrons and love them.  And you will be joined by a handful of American pilots.”

His gaze swept the room.  “Alpha and Beta are to go to the sleep machines and get an hour of sleep,” he ordered.  “The remainder are to wait in the squadron rooms, catching more normal naps if you can, apart from Gamma.  You” – he looked at the Gamma pilots – “will relieve the CSP for an hour.  Any questions?”

North raised a hand.  “Why don’t we all go into the sleep machines?”

Kurt glowered at him.  “As was explained to you at the Academy, and I was there so I know it was explained to you, sleep machines can have unpleasant effects if the user is yanked out of them early,” he said.  “Blinding headaches are among the more pleasant side effects.  If you don’t believe me, you can try yourself when we’re heading back to Earth.  Until then, do as I bloody tell you.”

He caught his breath, annoyed at himself.  He was tired and stressed, but that as no excuse for shouting at his subordinates.  It just made him sound like Captain Bligh.

“The sleep machines may keep the pilots out of combat,” he added, lowering his tone.  “I would prefer not to lose more pilots to sleep than strictly necessary.”

He looked from face to face, then sighed again.  “Dismissed!”

Rose waited for the room to empty, then walked up and gave him a hug, more of compassion than lust.  Kurt relaxed into it for a long moment ... and then remembered where they were.

“We can't hug here,” he said, pulling himself away from her.  “Not here!”

“Pity,” Rose said.  She gave him a daredevil smile.  “You want to do it on that sofa over there?”


Rose giggled.  “You should have seen your face,” she said, as she stepped backwards.  “I was very insulted at your refusal.”

Kurt blinked, then realised he was being teased.  “I don’t think it’s funny, particularly now,” he said.  “They’re going to have to come to terms with reconfiguring the squadrons sooner or later, sadly.  They don’t need more shocks.”

“We are not quite within the forbidden zone any longer,” Rose pointed out.  “And it isn't as if you treat me any differently when others are around.”

“Not quite,” Kurt said.  He wondered, absently just how well that argument would hold up in front of a court martial board, then decided he didn’t want to find out.  “Besides, we both need to sleep.  And I do mean sleep.”

Rose nodded, then slipped out of the compartment.

After a long moment, Kurt followed her.

Chapter Twenty-Five

“You know,” Henry said, “we could go for shore leave.”

North gave him the finger.  “On an alien world?”

Henry had to admit it sounded stupid, but there was something about the idea of an alien world that drew him to it.  As Prince Henry, he had travelled the world, but never as a true tourist.  He’d always had to make speeches, impress the locals and generally sell Britain to them as a prospective partner for ... well, whatever.  Not that it had been a fun job, he remembered, bitterly.  Very few nationalistic world leaders or hard-headed corporate CEOs would be flattered by the arrival of a member of the Royal Family.  But if he’d gone down to Target One, it would have been a visit to somewhere new in his own right.

North snorted.  “I dare you to suggest that to the CAG,” he said.  “He’ll probably boot you out the airlock and tell the Captain that you were too dumb to make sure it was rigged as a decompression chamber before you stepped inside.”

Henry shuddered, remembering decompression training.  It hadn't been a pleasant experience – and it had all hedged on being close to emergency equipment.  “If you don’t have equipment within reach,” the instructors had said, “take one last gasp for breath, then bend over and kiss your ass goodbye.”

“Maybe they’d start using it as a punishment again,” Tammie said.  The dark-skinned pilot rolled over on the sofa and looked up at them.  “You’re certainly stupid enough to deserve it.”

“Nah, too much effort,” North said.  “He’d just boot Charlie-Boy out the nearest airlock.  It’s tradition.”

Henry snorted, remembering his history lessons.  Some of the first independent settlers, either on the moon or on various asteroids, had used near-fatal decompression as a punishment for anything they thought didn't merit the death sentence.  It was banned under British Law, but half of the lunar settlements and most of the independent asteroids hadn't signed any of the international conventions.  Henry couldn't help wondering why anyone would want to live in such a regime, yet he had to admit it had its advantages.  Reporters who probed into private asteroids – where people could live completely anonymously – were stripped naked, drugged and forced to surrender their secrets.  He knew it should horrify him, but reporters were the lowest form of life in the known universe.

“I hate the pair of you,” he said.  Two days of switching between sleep, combat space patrol and waiting in the ready room for something to happen had left scars on all of them.  But at least they’d managed to catch up with their sleep.  “It was just a thought.”

“Sure,” Tammie said.  She sat upright and stretched.  Henry hastily looked away from her unbuttoned jacket.  “It was a stupid thought.  S-T-U-P-I-D.”

“I generally leave spelling to witches,” Henry said.  “No wonder you’re so good at it.”

“There's a squadron in Russia called the Night Witches,” Tammie reminded him, without taking offence.  “They’re all women.”

“Yeah,” North said.  “Weren’t they the ones that released that porn movie?”

“That was a fake,” Tammie sneered.  “And if it hadn't come out of Sin City, I'm sure the Russians would have sued for every penny they could get.”

Henry nodded.  A lot of things, mostly thoroughly illegal, came out of Sin City.  A video showing twelve beautiful girls cavorting in a fake starfighter cockpit was surprisingly tame, compared to some of their other exports.  And it had probably done wonders for recruitment; he’d watched it himself, long before he'd set his heart on flying a starfighter.  Plenty of other would-be pilots had done the same thing.

North smirked.  “I’m sure the Russians loved the publicity ...”

“I’m going for a walk,” Henry said, before their argument could get out of hand.  He’d sometimes wondered if North and Tammie were attracted to one another, despite regulations forbidding any form of intimate relationship between pilots.  “You two have fun, now.”

“Take your communicator,” Tammie called after him.  “You don't want to be caught without it.”

Henry nodded and checked he was still carrying the device on his wrist.  If there was an emergency order to scramble – which seemed unlikely, but one never knew – he’d be in deep shit if he was caught without it.  If he had to run back to the launching tubes ... well, if the aliens didn't kill him the Wing Commander would have a damn good try.  He stepped through a pair of closed hatches – with the entire ship on alert, airlocks had been closed throughout the ship – and walked up towards the observation blister.  Somehow, he wasn't surprised when he stepped through the hatch and saw Janelle sitting inside the blister, staring at the blue-green orb of Target One.

“We’re going to have to come up with a better name for the world,” he said, as he closed the hatch.  The welcoming smile Janelle gave him made his heart spin in his chest.  “Target One sounds so ... awkward.”

“Most worlds have a name in their own language,” Janelle pointed out, as she rose to her feet and gave him a quick hug.  It was a gesture of true physical affection, Henry realised.  In a way, he knew he would treasure it more than any of the more intimate activities he’d indulged in over the years, because it was honest and freely offered.  “We just stick with the English versions for interstellar communications.”

“True,” Henry said, sitting down facing her.  He’d been to France once and offended his hosts by calling New France New France.  It was called something different in French, but his language skills were marginal and he could barely speak a handful of words in other languages.  “What do you think the aliens call it?”

“Wet, perhaps,” Janelle said.  “Maybe they call their homeworld Water.”

It took Henry a moment to understand the joke.  “Like we call our homeworld Earth?”

“Exactly,” Janelle said.  She nodded towards the orb overhead.  “It’s a pretty world, isn't it?  I was looking at the reports from the biologists.  There are plants from three different worlds there already, they think, but human crops could be added quite easily.  We could live there.”

“As long as the aliens didn't kill us,” Henry pointed out.  “Do they really understand English?”

“We don’t know,” Janelle said.  She looked down at the deck, embarrassed.  “No one is quite sure if they understood the Admiral’s warning or if it was just a coincidence.  The Admiral had to speak quite sharply to one of the scientists, with a threat to throw him in the brig if he tried to put any of his ideas into practice.”

Henry looked over at her.  “His ideas?”

“He wanted to force the aliens to talk by making them uncomfortable,” Janelle said.  “His theory was that making them suffer would teach them to talk to us, just so they could tell us to stop.  It isn't the first such proposal, sadly.”

“I heard rumours,” Henry said.  There had been great expectations when the first alien prisoners had been brought back to the solar system.  Everyone had assumed that the communications barrier would soon be broken.  But as time wore on, nothing seemed to have been developed at all.  The aliens had kept their mouths firmly closed.  “But I heard nothing concrete.”

Janelle shook her head, running her hands through her long dark hair.  “The Russians have been pressing for sterner measures since New Russia was invaded,” she said.  “I heard that they even threatened to take the POWs by force and start interrogating them in a Russian complex.”

Henry stared at her.  “Really?”

“It’s hard to tell,” Janelle admitted.  “The Russians are quite fond of issuing threats, but there are times when they’re just making noise and times when they actually mean them.”

“Doing that, now, would destroy the alliance,” Henry pointed out.  “Surely they wouldn't be so damn insane ...”

“I think they’re desperate,” Janelle said.  She looked up at him.  “Much of their space-based industry and investment was concentrated in New Russia.  The losses they took were staggering; we lost a couple of carriers, but they lost a great deal of investment.  I suspect that they’d have had a major financial collapse if the other powers hadn't stepped in to help.”

“I recall,” Henry said.  “I read it on the datanet.”

He felt a twinge of guilt at the lie, even though he had had no choice.  The information hadn't been on the datanet.  It had been one of the many pointless briefings he’d been given, back when they’d been trying to talk him out of joining the Royal Navy as a starfighter pilot.  The Earth's economy was odd, now that there were out-system colonies, but a major financial crash in Russia would probably have done serious damage to everyone else.  Just what the PR staff had expected him to do about it was beyond him.  Dress up in sackcloth and wait for people to start hurling tomatoes?  It wouldn't have been the stupidest idea they came up with either.  Hell, they seemed to believe that a grovelling apology from a royal would turn away wrath.

“And they haven't been able to liberate New Russia either,” Janelle added.  “And even if they did, they would still be in considerable trouble.”

“So they start hunting for desperate measures,” Henry said.  He stood and walked over to the transparent blister, staring out at the stars.  “They’re mad.”

“Sounds that way,” Janelle agreed.  She stepped up behind him.  “I’m sorry for your losses, Charles.”

“Me too,” Henry said.  He’d known several of the dead pilots personally.  Part of him exulted at having survived when others had died, part of him cursed himself for being so damn unfeeling.  The dead pilots had had family and friends, men and women who would miss them now that they were gone ... most of whom didn't even have the slightest idea the pilots were dead.  “Does it get any easier?”

“No,” Janelle said.  “But you do go on, regardless.”

There was something in her voice that caught at him.  “Why?”

“My grandfather used to say that you always had to go on,” Janelle said.  “But he didn’t go on, not really.  He applied for citizenship, got it and never left again.  My father ... was more than a little embarrassed by our heritage.  And I ... I went into the Royal Navy and joined the Old Lady’s crew.”

Henry lifted an eyebrow.  He’d spent months learning to master the expression.  “Why did you join the crew before the war?”

“My grandfather’s ass was saved by the Old Lady,” Janelle said.  She reached out and touched the transparent blister, her fingertips seeming to hang in space against the stars.  “He was one of the first settlers on the New Haven Colony – they wanted to be completely independent from the rest of the universe, particularly Earth.  And then they had a major environmental failure and screamed for help.”

She smiled, but the expression didn't quite touch her eyes.  “It was the Royal Navy who responded,” she said.  “Sticking with the Old Lady when there was a chance to get a slot onboard her seemed a worthwhile use of my career.”

“It must have been one hell of a gamble,” Henry said, mildly impressed.  Serving on Ark Royal, prior to the war, had been a good way to lose any chances of promotion one might have had.  “Or were you just that devoted to the ship?”

“It seemed a good idea at the time,” Janelle admitted.  “And besides, it worked out in the long run.”

Henry couldn't disagree.  Being Flag Lieutenant to the Royal Navy’s most famous Admiral would open a great many doors for Janelle Lopez.  She’d meet many powerful politicians, officers or aristocrats, including Captain Fitzwilliam himself.  If she went into command track after her stint as Flag Lieutenant, her record would ensure she had a shot at commanding a starship of her own.  Or she could continue to shepherd the Admiral’s career and develop a position as the power behind the scenes.  Some of the most effective people in Britain’s Civil Service had done wonders without anyone ever learning their name.

And, quite by accident, she’d struck up a relationship with the Heir to the Throne.

Or was it an accident?  Even if she hadn't been told directly, she might well have been able to deduce the true identity of Charles Augustus.  In hindsight, it was far too obvious; he might as well have stuck with Charles Welsh.  But it had seemed a good idea at the time.

If I ask her, she might lie, he told himself.  And merely asking the question would be far too suspicious if she doesn't know who I am.

Janelle leaned forward.  “Charles?”

Henry hesitated, thinking hard.  “I’m sorry,” he said.  “I was light years away.”

“You certainly looked like it,” Janelle said.  “Penny for your thoughts?”

It hurt to lie, somehow  But he had grown far too used to lying over the years.

“I was thinking of the coming battle,” he said.  “They’re not going to let us just sit here and threaten their planet without a fight.”

“We haven't seen hide or hair of them for two days,” Janelle pointed out.

“That probably means they’re plotting something really bad,” Henry said.  He didn't fear death, not really.  Part of him would almost welcome it; God knew there had been times when he’d considered suicide in the past.  But losing the rest of his friends – and Janelle – would hurt.  “Or gathering a big enough hammer to smash us to pieces with a single blow.”

“Maybe,” Janelle said.  “Why worry about it?”

Henry had to admit she had a point.  “How long do we plan to stay in this system if the aliens don't boot us back out?”

“The Admiral was talking about a month,” Janelle said.  “I believe the researchers were even asking to be allowed to stay behind, if we had to leave in a hurry.  But no one expects to have that much time, really.”

Henry agreed.  Even assuming there were no deployable alien forces closer to Target One than the front lines, the aliens could probably scramble forces to Target One in a handful of days.  And, even when the front lines were some distance from Earth, the human race had never significantly reduced the planet’s defences.  There was just too much chance of the aliens launching a brutal raid on the planet.  Logically, the aliens should feel the same way and race to reinforce Target One as quickly as possible.

“I’d be surprised if they left us in peace for a couple more days,” he said.  “Have we found anything under the waves?”

“The probes have been observing alien cities,” Janelle said.  “Haven’t you seen the pictures?”

Henry shook his head.  “No,” he said.  “Just the planet itself.”

“They look like ... well, farms,” Janelle said.  “But they also looked remarkably strange to human eyes.  In some ways, the aliens may even be hunter-gatherers on a colossal scale, rather than settling down and growing their food like we do.  Makes you wonder, doesn't it, what sort of culture they took to the stars?”

Henry couldn't disagree.  Several different human societies had started to establish bases in space, but only the ones who were flexible – and understood the value of basic maintenance – had been genuinely successful.  Janelle’s Grandfather might have suffered an unfortunate accident, yet quite a few other settlements had suffered accidents because the inhabitants hadn't bothered to replace the life support filters on a regular basis or – in one case – evicted the hired help on the grounds that any of the inhabitants could do the same job and probably better.  The videos taken when American Marines had boarded the asteroid had made everyone who’d seen them sick to their stomach.  Everyone inside had literally suffocated to death.

“They might just move from star system to star system, without ever settling down,” he mused.  “Or they might see us as a potential threat because we block their wandering path.  But we could have bloody come to some agreement if only they would deign to talk to us!”

He looked over at her.  “Are they actually intelligent?”

Janelle frowned, daintily.  “It seems impossible to imagine someone building starships and space stations without some form of intelligence,” she mused.  “And besides, they have tactics and attack plans instead of just charging at their targets and slaughtering madly.”

Henry had hunted when he’d been a younger man.  It wasn't politically correct, which was at least partly why he'd done it.  Chasing through forests on horses, hunting foxes ... he’d been a staunch supporter of the genetic engineers who had wanted to design far more interesting creatures to hunt, before the media had managed to embarrass them into taking their research to Sin City.  But some of the foxes had shown a certain cunning that had sometimes embarrassed the humans chasing them.  A couple had even managed to sneak around and escape their would-be killers.

But they weren't truly intelligent, he knew.

“I don’t know,” he said, finally.  “But it just seems odd that we will never be able to talk to them.”

“We don’t know that,” Janelle said.  She put her hand on his shoulder and spun him around to face her.  “And you don’t have to worry yourself over these matters.”

Henry found himself gazing into her eyes.  His breath caught in his throat.  Part of him wanted to lean forward to kiss her, part of him held back, terrified of her reaction.  And then he pushed the reaction aside and leaned forward anyway.  Their lips met ...

... And, for a long moment, there was nothing in the universe, but her.

“I’m sorry,” he breathed, when he pulled back.  He was suddenly very aware of her breasts pressing against his chest.  His hands twitched, demanding to reach for them.   But was that the right thing to do?  What did normal people do when they’d just kissed a girl?  His life hadn't taught him how to have a normal relationship.  It wasn't something he could ask anyone on the ship.  “I’m ...”

“Don’t be,” she said.  “Just ... just relax.”

Henry smiled and leaned forward to kiss her again.

Chapter Twenty-Six

Captain Tom Cook had few illusions about his command.

HMS Primrose was a warship only by courtesy.  She’d started life as a heavy bulk freighter, one of hundreds designed to transports goods and settlers from Earth to Britannia, then been hastily reconfigured as a light carrier when it had become obvious that the Royal Navy needed more fighter platforms in a hurry.  She was an ugly boxy creation, studded with weapons and sensor blisters, but he cared for her deeply.  There was something about his ship that was solid and reliable.

Once, he’d wanted to protest his assignment to the light carrier.  He’d paid his dues, he’d served in the Navy for years; surely, he was entitled to a shot at commanding one of the modern carriers.  But now, with the aliens targeting the modern carriers specifically, he had good reason to appreciate his command.  If nothing else, it attracted less fire from marauding alien starships.  And the two squadrons of starfighters crammed into her makeshift launching bays gave her a punch that, he hoped, had come as an unpleasant surprise to the aliens.

“Captain,” the tactical officer said, “we have targeted the alien cloudscoops.”

Tom nodded, looking down at the reports from the long-range sensors.  There was nothing particularly special about the alien cloudscoops; as far as the techs could tell, they were effectively identical in concept to humanity’s designs.  They were really just long tubes, hanging down from an orbital station and sucking in HE3 from the gas giant’s atmosphere, which would then be converted into fuel for fusion plants or starship drives.  Oddly, Tom found the sheer conventionality of the system reassuring.  The aliens might have some tricks humanity couldn’t – yet – match, but their technology was based on similar concepts.  They had nothing so advanced, so inexplicable, that it might as well be magic.

“Transmit the warning,” he ordered.

He frowned as the recorded message was beamed towards the alien installations.  The Admiral had insisted, even though the aliens hadn't bothered with any warnings when they’d wiped out everything noticeable in the New Russia system.  If the aliens understood English, he’d pointed out, at least they’d have a chance to evacuate the platforms and save lives.  And if they didn’t, the humans lost nothing.  There was no way the aliens could save the cloudscoops from certain destruction.

“No response,” the tactical officer said.  No dedicated Communications Officer for Primrose!  “They’re not evacuating the platforms, as far as we can tell.”

Tom sighed.  Did that mean that the aliens had no intention of abandoning the platforms, that they didn't understand English or that they were daring the humans to open fire anyway?  He had no way to know ... he shook his head in grim disbelief.  What sort of race would just ignore all attempts to open communications?  Given the panic on Earth after the Battle of New Russia, the aliens could probably have talked the human race into surrender if they’d just tried.  But instead they’d chosen to continue with their advance.

“Open fire,” he ordered.  “Take the platforms out.”

He watched, grimly, as the first set of projectiles were hurled out of the mass drivers and launched down towards the orbiting platforms.  Unlike starships, or even some of the more advanced stations, the platforms were completely immobile; they couldn't hope to evade the incoming projectiles.  He half-expected them to reveal hidden defences, but instead the projectiles just slammed into their targets and smashed them into rubble.  Chunks of debris fell through space, mostly falling towards the gas giant below.  Its gravity would eventually pull in all of the pieces of rubble.

“Targets destroyed,” the tactical officer said.  “I say again, all targets destroyed.”

“Stand down from Red Alert, then take us back to Target One,” Tom ordered.  They’d spent the last day destroying most of the alien installations in the outer reaches of the solar system, although several of them had been placed off-limits by the Admiral.  Tom wasn't sure if that was a good idea or not, but storming a complex on an uninhabitable world was always dangerous.  “Launch an additional shell of recon platforms as we go.  We may see something crawling out of the woodwork.”

He felt another quiver running through his ship as the helmsman took her away from the planet, muttering curses just loudly enough for Tom to hear.  It was hard to blame him, really; Primrose made Ark Royal look elegant when it came to manoeuvring in space.  Her designers had never anticipated that she might have to do anything more complex than dock at an orbital station, let alone evade incoming fire.  Unlike most warships, she would be in deep trouble if anyone fired a mass driver at her from long-range.

“Captain,” the tactical officer said suddenly, “I’m picking up a starship on approach vector.”

Tom leaned forward, snapped awake.  “Alien?”

“I believe so,” the tactical officer said.   “Trajectory suggests she entered the system from Tramline Four.”

“Not that that proves anything,” the helmsman said.

“No,” Tom agreed.  “Sound Red Alert, then launch a probe towards the incoming ship.”

He watched, grimly, as the data started to appear on his display.  One alien starship, midway in size between a frigate and a battlecruiser, heading directly towards Primrose.  It looked like an attack, yet there was something about the alien trajectory that he found oddly reassuring.  He couldn't help thinking that the aliens looked as if they were trying to sneak up to the small carrier, rather than make their approach obvious.  But they had to know they couldn't get within plasma weapons range without being detected.

“Contact the Admiral,” he ordered, although he knew it was futile.  It would take around forty minutes for their message to reach Target One, then another forty minutes for  the Admiral’s reply to reach them.  By then, the whole situation would probably be resolved.  “Inform him that we intend to engage the enemy, if possible.”

He hesitated, looking down at the display and silently calculating odds.  A ship-to-ship engagement would be fatal for Primrose; she’d never been designed to be anything more than a carrier, even if she did have additional layers of armour bolted onto her hull.  No, the only way he could fight was to have his starfighters take the alien craft out before she got into engagement range ... or force her to go pick on someone else.  Given the known capabilities of the alien drives, it was unlikely that he could avoid engagement if the aliens chose to home in on his ship.

“Prepare all starfighters for launch,” he said.  “Standard attack profile; the fighters are to cover the bombers.”

There was a bleep from the tactical console.  “Picking up a second starship, Captain,” the tactical officer said.  “She's following the first starship, trying to catch up with her.”

Tom gave him a puzzled look.  The alien tactics made no sense.  They had to know that sending one ship after another was asking for trouble, even against little Primrose.  Had something gone wrong with their timing?  Or was something else going on?

“Show me,” he ordered.  The display changed.  By his calculation, Enemy One would overrun Primrose in thirty minutes, but Enemy Two would catch up with her in twenty ... maybe the aliens hadn't blundered after all.  But then Enemy One started to pick up speed, narrowing the time between her and Primrose.  “What are they doing?”

The tactical officer looked blank.  “Maybe they’re competing for the honour of taking us out?”

Tom rather doubted it.  The Royal Navy worked hard to have glory-seekers excluded from the upper ranks, although an alarming number of them ended up flying starfighters or commanding small frigates.  Surely the aliens took similar precautions?  Or was he looking at something else, something he didn't yet understand?  Or were the aliens feeling safe enough facing Primrose to allow themselves the luxury of a competition?

“No,” the helmsman said.  “Enemy Two is trying to overrun Enemy One.”

“What?”  Tom demanded.  He looked at the display ... and realised the helmsman was probably right.  Enemy One was on approach vector to Primrose, but Enemy Two was definitely on an attack vector to Enemy One.  They weren't racing to get to Primrose, he saw in astonishment; Enemy Two was trying to head Enemy One off before she reached Primrose.  “What the hell are they doing?”

His intercom buzzed.  “Sir,” the CAG said, “all fighters are ready to launch.”

“Launch fighters,” Tom said, gritting his teeth.  A modern carrier would have had all of its fighters out in space by now.  “Order them to cover the carrier.”

He stared down at the display, torn between several conflicting problems.  If there had only been one enemy starship, he had to send his starfighters to attack it before it entered engagement range and blew his ship into plasma.  But with two enemy ships, one seemingly interested in attacking the other, he wasn't sure what to do.  It might be the first real chance to actually talk to the aliens ... or it might be a trick, one intended to lure the humans into a false sense of security.  There was no way to know without taking a chance ... and if he happened to be wrong, he and his entire crew would die.

“Update the Admiral,” he ordered, although he knew it was pointless.  There was no time to kick the issue upstairs in hopes of receiving orders.  Besides, as a Captain in the Royal Navy, it was his job to be decisive.  “Launch a stealth platform.  I want a full recording available to the Admiral, even if we are killed.”

“Aye, sir,” the tactical officer said.  There was a long pause.  “Captain, I’m picking up a message from Enemy One.”

Tom stared in disbelief.  “What are they saying to us?”

“I think it’s the start of a First Contact Protocol,” the tactical officer said, after a long moment.  “Either they don’t understand English or they’re trying to build up a new protocol for talking to us.”

“I ... see,” Tom said.

He recalled, vaguely, one of the courses he’d had to take at the Academy.  The lecturer had pointed out that English had evolved over the years, not least by stealing ideas and concepts from other languages.  It was the sheer flexibility of English, she’d said, that made it so useful for human development.  But, at the same time, it was so flexible that certain phrases or figures of speech might be different from one place to the next.  A British officer might as well be speaking German at times, when addressing an American officer.  Having a more formal language barrier, she’d concluded, might have made it simpler to realise that there might well be errors in translation.

For aliens, he suspected from a later briefing paper, it would be even worse.  English’s idiosyncrasies, hard enough for humans to follow, would be completely impossible for aliens to understand.  Certain forms of data – mathematics, for instance – might well be universal, yet it would be very difficult to hold an open conversation with one of the aliens.  And, given that the aliens lived underwater for the most part, it was unlikely that any such conversation could be held without a technological bridge being established.

“Send back our own protocol,” he ordered, “and then try to decipher their message.”

He cursed their luck under his breath.  A modern carrier’s analytical staff would have been able to decipher the message, given time, but his ship carried no analysts.  Hell, it would take weeks to build up a common understanding even with formal analysts.  And they didn't have time ...

You’re supposed to be decisive, he reminded himself.  It might well be a trap, but it seemed remarkably pointless.  Luring Primrose’s fighters out of position was hardly worth the effort, not compared to the sheer level of firepower the aliens could throw at them.  And this could be the chance everyone’s been waiting for.

He keyed his console.  “The fighters are to engage Enemy Two,” he ordered.  It was going to be bloody.  He knew, far too well, just how many point defence weapons an enemy starship carried.  “Enemy One is to be watched, but not engaged unless she does something threatening.”

“Aye, sir,” the CAG said.  “Fighters on their way.”

He sounded surprised.  Tom didn't blame him.  If it was a trap, he was giving Enemy One a free shot at his hull.  Not, he had to admit, that the aliens needed it.  They had to know he couldn't avoid engagement, not if they chose to press the issue.  He gritted his teeth again, feeling pain shooting through his gums, then forced himself to relax.  They were committed now.

“Enemy Two is closing into engagement range of Enemy One,” the tactical officer warned.  “I think they’re locking weapons on her hull.”

Tom found himself praying for the first time in a very long life.  His forces were closing in on Enemy Two, but she had enough weapons to hammer Enemy One and fend off his starfighters at the same time.  It was going to turn into a nightmare, he realised grimly; he didn't dare risk taking Primrose closer to either ship.  The starfighters would have to hold the enemy ship off on their own.

At least they don’t seem to have missiles, he told himself.  They don’t seem to have any long-range weapons at all.  Why not?  They’re well within their capabilities.

“Shit,” the tactical officer breathed.  “Enemy Two has opened fire; Enemy One is returning fire.”

Tom sucked in his breath.  The two ships were throwing blasts of plasma at each other, each blast capable of doing real damage to his ship if they struck home.  The aliens didn't seem to have superior armour, he realised numbly; they were inflicting horrific damage on one another, even if they weren't using the super-cannons some of their frigates carried.  But then, if the analysts were correct, those weapons had a very limited range and nothing else.

“Interesting,” the tactical officer mused.  “Their plasma blasts seem to be deteriorating as they reach their hulls.  Some form of countermeasure?”

“Unknown,” Tom said.  It didn't seem to matter.  The aliens were still taking a beating.  “But if they have a way of breaking up the plasma containment field before it reaches its target, I want to know how they do it.”

On the display, his starfighters were closing in on Enemy Two.  The alien didn't bother to wait for them to get into attack range before opening fire, spewing out countless bursts of plasma weapons fire towards them.  Tom winced as two of his fighters vanished in flashes of light, their comrades ignoring the losses and diving into engagement range.

“Picking up a second message from Enemy One,” the tactical officer snapped.  Red lights flared up on the display as he spoke.  “She’s sending us a shitload of data.”

“Store it in a secure dump,” Tom snapped.  Trying to sneak viruses or malware into the enemy’s computer systems was a well-known trick and, if nothing else, Ark Royal’s last operation had proved that some human and alien systems could be spliced together.  Hell, the aliens had certainly captured enough human computers to work out plenty of ways to slip unwanted programs into their systems.  “And then ...”

He broke off as the display changed.  Enemy One seemed to stagger, then blew apart into a colossal fireball.  Moments later, Enemy Two altered course and started heading back towards Tramline Four, rather than attempting to engage Primrose.  Tom watched her go, shrugging off the attempts by his starfighters to slow her down, then sighed bitterly.  Whatever Enemy One had in mind, it was lost forever now ... along with the enemy ship itself.  Unless, of course, the final desperate message could be deciphered ...

“Recall the fighters,” he ordered.  It didn't look as though they were going to succeed in taking down the battlecruiser and he'd already lost seven starfighters in the attempt.  “And then send the Admiral a complete update.  Tell him that we will return to Target One at best possible speed.”

He sat back in his chair, then pulled up the records from the engagement and started to go through them, one by one.  The Admiral might be understanding, but he knew what the REMFs on Earth would do when they saw the records.  They’d probably accuse him of failing to protect Enemy One, even though there had been no way to know that Enemy One might be friendly.  The only real proof they had was the simple fact that one enemy ship had fired on another ... and blown her into flaming debris.  Offhand, Tom couldn't think of a realistic situation where the Royal Navy would sacrifice a modern ship just to bait a trap.

But these guys are alien, he thought.  If there were human cultures that were downright weird to his eyes, how weirder might an alien culture be?  There were human societies that thought nothing of placing form over substance, men over women or even vice versa.  They might have a different idea of what constitutes acceptable losses than we do.

It was a worrying thought.  Losing Roosevelt alone had dented the Admiral’s fleet quite badly, even though most of her starfighters had survived.  She was only an acceptable loss if they inflicted comparable – proportional – damage on the alien fleet.  And there was no way to know if they’d done that ... or if the aliens could absorb all the losses they’d taken so far without wincing.

The Admiral will be the one to decide what to do, he thought, finally.  All I can do is keep my ship ready for operations.

“Keep a sharp eye on the data,” he added.  “If they did try to sneak programs into our computers, I want to know about it before they can do any real damage.”

“Aye, sir,” the tactical officer said.  There would be no argument, not when the dangers were all too clear.  “I won’t do anything with the data until we get it to the fleet.”

Chapter Twenty-Seven

“You know,” Charles remarked, “this is really very creepy.”

The Rhino snorted.  “You wouldn’t be one of those people who think that dolphins are actually intelligent?”

Charles looked down at the dolphins as they were lowered into the water.  They looked normal, apart from the handful of cybernetic linkages visible against their heads, but their behaviour was odd.  Most dolphins were playful, even the ones that had been trained to work beside the Royal Marines or Special Boat Service.  These ... just seemed to hang in the water, waiting for the command to move.  They didn't even splash water towards the humans when they were lowered into the waves.

“They’re not human,” he said.  “I find it ... disturbing.”

He scowled.  He’d seen humans who were more machine than men ... and many other horrors, most of them perpetrated on one human by another.  The Royal Marines were never dispatched to peaceful parts of the world; he’d seen looting, rape and mass slaughter, all horrible beyond imagination.  Seeing dolphins turned into cyber-slaves shouldn't have bothered him, but it did.  And he honestly wasn't sure why.

“Quite a few people do,” the Rhino said.  “But, in the end, they’re not intelligent.”

Charles couldn't disagree with that, he knew, even though it still bothered him.  Human geneticists had been making proposals to uplift dolphins, chimpanzees and gorillas for the last hundred years, ever since genetic manipulation became a viable science.  They’d argued that, if humanity was alone in the universe, there was no harm in creating other forms of intelligent life to stand beside their human creators.  For once, the governments of Earth had acted with complete uniformity and flatly banned the process.  Even Sin City and the rogue asteroid settlements upheld the ban.

But the ban didn't preclude turning animals into cybernetic organisms.

The technology was simple enough, he knew.  A human would see the world through the animal’s senses, feel what the animal felt ... and be able to offer suggestions that were almost always taken as orders.  There were even adventure parks where human children could ride along in an animal’s mind, despite lingering fears about what contact with non-human minds could do.   Given the sheer power of modern VR technology, Charles suspected they had a point.  If he ever had children, he promised himself, he was damned if they were being allowed to use VR until they were at least twenty-one.

But it still bothered him, not least because controlling animals was barely scratching the surface of the technology’s potential.  Someone could plug themselves into another human’s body – there were places in Sin City where a man could be a woman for a few short hours or vice versa – or even control someone, directly, through cybernetic implants.  There were even a handful of asteroid colonies where negative emotions, as defined by the founders, were carefully removed from the minds of the inhabitants.  Where was the free will, Charles had asked himself more than once, if someone could be shocked every time they had a negative thought.  Eventually, they would be brainwashed into compliance – or dead.

“I know,” he said.  “But it only makes it worse.”

On an invisible signal, the dolphins came to life; they swam out, away from the shore, and plunged under the water.  Unlike the drones, Charles knew, they wouldn't really disturb the aliens so badly; indeed, they might mistake the dolphins for native creatures they hadn't actually recorded yet.  If humans were still recording forms of underwater life on Earth, why couldn't the aliens have the same problem on a colony world?  But it still felt wrong.

The Rhino elbowed him as they turned to walk back towards the Forward Operations Base, which had expanded rapidly in the days since their landing.  “If they were human instead,” he said, “like the mermen, would it be better?”

Charles had no answer.  The mermen had altered themselves to the point they could live and work underwater indefinitely, not unlike the aliens themselves.  A few mermen might have been able to open communications, he suspected, but none of them had volunteered to accompany the task force.  He had a private theory – and he knew that some of the researchers shared it, because it had been discussed during his training – that the genetic modifications had done something to their minds.  They were no longer entirely human.

He looked over at a team of Americans setting up a plasma gun and smiled to himself.  If the aliens returned to the planet before the humans were ready to leave, they'd be in for a warm reception.  They now knew, thanks to the alien weapons, that they could engage targets in low orbit without problems ... and, with so much space junk still up there, it would be harder for the aliens to move attack ships into orbit.  But then, the aliens would probably do the same as their human foes and launch marines from a safe distance.  It was a perfectly viable tactic, after all.

The Rhino grunted, then led the way into one of the trailers.  Inside, twelve women sat at consoles, their heads linked to a mesh of cybernetic systems.  Unlike the dolphins, they could disengage their minds at any time, although it might cost the program a dolphin if they did it at the wrong time.  But then, Charles knew just what could happen if an animal died while a human mind was riding it, particularly if there were no filters in place.  The human would go into neural shock and, perhaps, die.

He looked down at the women and shuddered, slightly.  Their faces were hidden behind their helmets, but their bodies were twitching, as if they were swimming alongside the dolphins – and, in their minds, they were.  He couldn't help hearing faint sounds coming from below the helmets, some creepy enough to make him sweat uncomfortably.  The women seemed to verge between being in pain to moaning in pleasure.  Part of him felt as if he was intruding on their privacy just by listening to them.

The Rhino, for once, had nothing to say as he led Charles into the deeper part of the trailer.  A large holographic display hung in front of them, showing the live feed from the dolphins in a manner that looked faintly odd.  Charles pushed his concerns aside as he watched the dolphins swimming deeper and deeper under the waves, probing towards the alien settlement in a casual, almost too casual, manner.

“Interesting,” one of the Americans said.  Charles glanced at him and read the Army Intelligence patch on his shoulder.  “Look at that.”

Charles frowned.  For a moment, there was nothing there, but seabed.  It wasn't until he’d stared at it for a long moment that ... something ... began to take on shape and form.  It looked like a crab ... no, something much larger.  He couldn't help thinking of it as a strange cross between a crab, a slug and a lobster.  But it was far too large to be natural.

“It looks to be mechanical,” the intelligence officer said.  “But it’s just holding position there, as if it were watching for trouble.”

“A tank, perhaps,” the Rhino said.

Charles couldn't disagree.  The aliens seemed to have stationed a number of the strange vehicles below the waves, blocking access from the shore to the underwater settlements.  Did they imagine that humans would send their tanks underwater to hunt them down?  It might make sense, he told himself, to a race that lived under the waves.  He wondered, absently, just what evolutionary path they’d followed.  Humans had crawled out of the waters long before taking on their modern form; the aliens, it seemed, had chosen to establish their factories on the surface, but not to remain there permanently.

“We may never know, unless we manage to talk to them,” the Rhino commented.  He’d listened to Charles’s commentary in silence.  “Maybe they devised ways to use the land before they ever set foot on it, just as we did in space.”

“It would make sense,” Charles agreed.  Humanity had spent years planning the use of space before ever establishing regular flights to orbit.  “But how did they even consider the possibility.”

The Rhino smirked.  “No one would have believed, in the last years of the nineteenth century, that human affairs were being watched from the timeless worlds of space,” he quoted.  “No one could have dreamed that we were being scrutinized as someone with a microscope studies creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water. Few men even considered the possibility of life on other planets.”

He paused for effect.  “And yet, across the gulf of space, minds immeasurably superior to ours regarded this earth with envious eyes, and slowly and surely, they drew their plans against us.”

The War of the Worlds,” Charles said.  “They made us read it in training.”

“Us too,” the Rhino said.  “Although we found it a little disappointing.  What does one do if confronted with a seemingly-unbeatable enemy?  We used to come up with all sorts of alternate endings, ranging from eventually capturing and reverse-engineering their technology to simply carrying out an urban resistance against the bastards.  The heat-rays are impressive, but they can only kill what they see, while the Black Smoke gas could be dispelled with water.”

“Sir,” the intelligence officer said, breaking into the discussion.  “You need to see this.”

Charles looked back at the display and swore out loud.  Aliens, hundreds of aliens, were swimming below the dolphins, never looking up towards the light.  Below them, there were smaller aliens and some very strange creatures.  Charles remembered one of the more pathetic explanations of the Birds and the Bees he’d had at school and had to fight down a laugh, then realised that they were looking at alien children.  They were like tadpoles, he recalled, remembering the speculation he’d heard after their first return to Earth.  The odd forms below the alien adults were children who had yet to grow into their full bodies.

“Tadpoles start out looking a little like sperm,” the Rhino said.  Clearly, he'd been having similar thoughts.  “They grow into frogs over several months.  The aliens, it seems, follow the same basic idea.”

Charles shuddered, remembering some of the less pleasant speculation about how the alien society might have developed.  Humanity’s ideal – one man, one woman, several children – was shaped by biological requirements.  The man impregnated the woman, then fed her and defended her, while she had the children and then raised them.  Human emotions were built around protecting one’s children first and foremost – and, less pleasantly, resisting cuckoos in the nest.  So much about human society had been shaped by the mating urge – and the urge to keep children safe.  But for the aliens it would be very different ...

The alien men ejaculate millions of sperm, he thought, and the alien women launch countless eggs into the water.  Their infant mortality rate must be terrifying – and I bet they don’t give a damn.  Because they don’t have the emotional link between parents and children that we have ...

He shuddered again, contemplating the possibilities.  The aliens lived in a far from friendly environment, even though they were perfectly capable of living underwater indefinitely.  It was easy to imagine creatures comparable to goldfish or even minnows snapping up alien sperm and eating it, perhaps even gobbling up fertilized eggs ... he felt sick and swallowed hard, trying to think about something – anything – else.  The whole concept was disgusting.

And what, he asked himself, would they make of us?

As a child, he'd firmly believed that girls were gross and sex, an act that involved parts of the body he associated with bodily wastes, disgusting beyond imagination.  But, as a teenager, his opinions had changed radically, to the point where he’d spent most of his time plotting to commit the act he'd been so disgusted with, years earlier.  And, even now, he knew he'd be tempted if someone offered him the chance to visit a brothel.  Every damn deployment usually started with someone having to be rousted out of a whorehouse and then yelled at for several hours by the Sergeants for not having been ready to go on command.  Or making a tearful farewell to his wife.

Humans couldn't separate themselves from sex, not completely.  There might be heterosexuals and homosexuals – and perversions that were banned even in Sin City – but they all involved sex.  But, for the aliens, there would be no time being wasted on sexual matters.  Nor would they have any of humanity’s complex and often useless regulations barring sexual contact.  They simply never had sexual contact.  It struck him, suddenly, that an alien king could have a child with a beggar girl and neither of them would ever know about it.

He snickered, suddenly.  “They’re all bastards,” he said.  “Quite literally.  They’re all bastards.”

He watched as the dolphins swam past the alien children and down towards the alien city.  It was a weird structure, reminding him more of coral reefs than anything else, surrounded by countless brightly-coloured fish.  There were few signs of high technology of any sort, apart from a number of sealed boxes of uncertain origin.  One building had an open roof; inside;, several dozen aliens drifted together, either asleep or stunned.  Other aliens seemed to be sleeping wherever they chose, clinging to the reefs or hanging just inside rocky caves.  It was hard to pick out anything that might be shops, government buildings or anything else that would be common in any human city.

“They don’t seem to have any shops,” he observed.  “Or anything we would consider useful.”

“They might not have them,” the intelligence officer pointed out.  “They eat fish, I assume, and there's just too much fish around for them to try to have dedicated fishmongers.  I think they’re actually more flexible than we are when it comes to eating – trying to sell food and drink here would be like trying to charge for oxygen or fresh water.”

“They do, on asteroid settlements,” Charles recalled.  One of his earlier deployments had been to an asteroid where the ruling power had tried to do just that, only to have their settlers rise up in revolt.  “And there were people who wanted to try it on Earth.”

“There’s a limited supply of oxygen or water on an asteroid,” the intelligence officer explained, “and they need scrubbers and recycling plants to keep the system operational, even with the best genetically-engineered grass carpets we can produce.  It’s viable there to charge for oxygen.  On Earth, there’s no point in even trying.”

He looked back at the latest set of images.  “I’d bet good money that the first alien governments were actually communistic in nature,” he added.  “Why not?  There wouldn’t be any real advantages to either tribal or monarchical governments.  Even capitalism would be of limited value in a world where everyone could get food and drink whenever they wanted.”

“If that is true,” the Rhino mused, “how did they ever develop intelligence?”

“They’re probably not naturally top of the food chain,” the intelligence officer said, after a moment.  “Like us, they probably have problems fighting ... well, a sabre-toothed shark one-on-one.  So they develop basic weapons and tactics ... and, somewhere along the line, those tactics become outright intelligence.  And then they discovered they could climb out of the water and go on dry land.  I’d bet good money that their intelligence was just sufficient at that point to allow them to take advantage without actually abandoning their roots.”

“But they have to know we wouldn't be interested in the deep waters,” Charles said.  “Why would they react so badly to us?”

“Maybe they fought a war with another alien race, one based on the land,” the intelligence officer said.  “Or maybe they just suspected the worst when they first encountered humanity.  Our history with other forms of life isn't that good.”

Charles nodded, slowly.  Humanity had saved the whales and dolphins after an extensive cloning program, as well as moving samples from Earth to several other worlds, but countless species had been wiped out entirely.  No one had seen a dodo for hundreds of years and no one ever would, not outside VR productions or movies.  But how would the aliens know what had happened?  It wasn't as if humanity had seen fit to advertise its crimes.

“Which leaves us with a real problem,” the Rhino said.  “Just what happened when the Heinlein Colony encountered the aliens?”

Charles nodded.  If only the aliens could talk!

The Rhino’s communicator buzzed.  He lifted it to his ear and pressed a switch.  “Yes?”

He listened for a long moment.  “I’ll be on my way,” he said, then returned the device to his belt.  “Charles, there is a meeting I have to attend.  Call me if the situation changes.”

Charles nodded, then returned his attention to the display.  The dolphins were swimming over a large assortment of crab-like creatures, apparently corralled in a zoo ... or a farm.  Perhaps the aliens could farm after all.  He watched, then flinched back as an alien face appeared in front of him.  For a long moment, he had the distressing impression that the alien was looking right into the trailer, before remembering that the alien was looking at the dolphin.  It was impossible to read any expressions on the alien’s face.

“Evade,” the intelligence officer ordered.  “I think ...”

The image blurred.  Charles heard a woman’s voice scream from the front of the trailer.

“They killed the dolphin,” the intelligence officer said.  “Shit.”

Charles nodded, then ran into the front compartment.  One of the women was screaming in pain, despite two medics trying to hold her down.  A medic pressed a sedative tab against her neck, but it was several very long moments before it took effect.  The other women hastily snapped on their filters, then urged the dolphins to run.  There was no longer any time to hesitate.  The aliens knew they were being watched.

Shit, Charles thought, as he reached for his communicator.  Bloody buggering shit!

Chapter Twenty-Eight

“You’ve all seen the records,” Ted said, as soon as his subordinate commanders had assembled – via hologram – in the conference room.  “The real question is simple.  Just what the hell is actually going on?”

He looked – again – at the records from Primrose.  “One possible answer is that we are actually dealing with at least two different alien factions,” he continued.  “One of them wants to fight the war to the bitter end, the other is prepared to actually try to talk to us.  But another possible answer is that the whole situation is a trap.”

“It seems odd,” Shallcross said, “to sacrifice one ship and risk another just to lure us into a trap.”

“I know,” Ted said.  Captain Cook’s report had gone over the possibilities in exhaustive detail.  “But these are aliens.  We don’t have the slightest idea of just how they think.”

He looked down at the table, then moved his gaze from face to face.  “Are there any clues, any at all, that the aliens might have internal divisions?”

“Nothing,” Commander Steenblik said.  The Intelligence Corps officer sighed.  “We went through the records from Target One carefully, but we didn't see any telltale signs of divided loyalties or multiple different powers.  I would have expected to see their orbital weapons pointed at their fellow aliens, or targeted at the ground ...”

“It isn't hard to use an orbital weapons platform to bombard the planet below,” the Rhino pointed out.  “But they installed plenty of ground-based weapons.  I don’t think we can assume there were multiple powers occupying the system.”

“Earth does have multiple powers,” Shallcross pointed out.  “For all we know, we've overrun the alien counterpart of Washington or Britannia, not Earth.  This clearly isn't their homeworld.”

Ted had to admit he had a point.  Humanity had Earth and Terra Nova, both ruled by multiple powers, but the other worlds had been shared out among the spacefaring nations.  It was possible, he suspected, that the aliens were utterly unaware of humanity’s national divisions, all the more so as they’d clearly attacked several worlds belonging to different human nations.  If they’d just gone after New Russia, it might have been harder to unite humanity against a common foe.

“Which leads to a simple question,” Ted said.  “What – exactly – is going on?”

Commander Steenblik frowned.  “The data package they sent us is quite definitely an extensive First Contact package,” he said.  “I believe that part of the reason it is such a large package is because of the sheer volume of data they sent us.  They didn't attempt to compress anything, for example, or assume our system could automatically read it.  I think they sent us both a contact package and the manual for reading it.”

He paused.  “However, it might be some time before we understand it well enough to put together a common language,” he added.  “The analysts are still working on it.”

“They came out of Tramline Four,” Captain Fitzwilliam said.  “It’s possible that it leads towards a world controlled by Faction Two.”

“But Faction One was definitely determined to prevent Faction Two from making contact,” Shallcross pointed out.  “We dare not assume that they have complete control over the links from their world to Target One.”

“Faction One might also be vastly more powerful than Faction Two,” Captain Atsuko offered, glumly.  “Faction One blew up a starship without, as far as we know, any provocation.  That would be an outright declaration of war in some cultures.”

Ted nodded.  The attack on the alien starship hadn't been an accident, but a cold-blooded attempt at intercepting and destroying the ship.  There was no way a human diplomat could have smoothed matters enough to avoid war, unless one power was so vastly more powerful than the other that war would be nothing more than suicide.  And that suggested that Faction One was still in control.

Assuming that we’re not misreading what we’re seeing, he reminded himself.  We could be completely wrong – and pushing ourselves into a trap.

“Maybe there is a war going on,” Shallcross suggested.  “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.”

“The enemy of my enemy is my enemy’s enemy, no more, no less,” the Rhino quoted.  “The Seventy Maxims of Maximally Effective Mercenaries.  I love that book.”

“I thought everyone who read it ended up in jail,” Captain Fitzwilliam said.

“I’m fifty,” the Rhino said.  “Plenty of time for me to run afoul of the law somewhere.”

He cleared his throat, loudly.  “I will not pretend to be a diplomat, Admiral, because the last time I tried to be diplomatic I ended up causing a mess.  What I will suggest is that we should be very careful.  Faction Two might have some reason to work with us, but they will almost certainly have an agenda of their own, an agenda that might not match with ours.  We would be well-advised, I feel, to handle the situation with extreme care.”

Ted leaned forward.  “An agenda that won’t match with ours?”

“We know nothing about how the aliens organise themselves,” the Rhino said.  “Faction One might just be ... the High King or something along those lines, with Faction Two intent on overthrowing them and becoming the High King themselves.  Or Faction Two might want to stab Faction One in the back, despite them being embroiled in a war against us.  Or Faction Two might actually be intent on keeping the war going as long as possible, then stabbing both us and Faction One in the back.  Or there might be several different factions.”

He shrugged.  “I’ve been in wars that were effectively civil wars,” he added.  “One side would often try to cosy up to us, then attempt to convince whoever was on the ground that their rivals were actually terrorist fuckers who needed to die.  We were lured into disposing of a set of enemies for them, while we made new enemies for ourselves.  It never pays to leap into the situation without knowing just what’s waiting for us first.”

“I see,” Ted said.  “But this isn't something as simple as a tribal war?”

The Rhino looked at him.  “How do we know that, Admiral?”

Captain Fitzwilliam cleared his throat.  “We could send a squadron of frigates through Tramline Four,” he said.  “There's a world there that probably should be reduced as soon as possible, judging from the energy signature.”

“Frigates alone wouldn't be enough,” Shallcross said.  “We’d need the entire fleet.”

“Except the world might be owned by Faction Two,” Captain Atsuko pointed out.  “We’d just offend them too by attacking their world.”

“We don't know that,” the Rhino said.  “The fleet enters the system and attempts to make contact – at least we know how we can start opening channels now.  If they talk back to us, we can build up a working language fairly quickly.  And if they don't, we can engage the system’s defences and smash its infrastructure.”

Ted frowned.  Target Two – as the analysts had named the world – was definitely an alien industrial node.  Instead of a habitable world, the aliens had set up their operations in orbit around a gas giant, leaving the rest of the system alone.  The drones had already picked up orbital industrial stations, cloudscoops and even a small shipyard.  Fitzwilliam was right, he knew.  Target Two needed to be smashed as quickly as possible.

But what if, he asks himself, it belongs to Faction Two?

He sighed.  An alien power evaluating human space probably couldn't tell the difference between British, American, French and Japanese planets, let alone their starships.  Ark Royal was unique, but the other carriers followed the same basic idea, even if there were differences in size and weapons mix.  It was quite possible that the aliens had never realised that humans had national groupings ... and, if they attacked Faction Two, it was equally possible that the war might get worse.

“We don’t have any other promising target right now,” he said.  He had no idea why the aliens had given them so long to ransack the planet, smash the deep space facilities and perhaps even commit genocide, but he had a bad feeling about it.  “The other tramlines lead to empty systems, as far as we can tell.  Tramline Four is the most promising target.”

“The aliens will know that too,” Fitzwilliam pointed out.  “They could have set an ambush for us.”

“An ambush that relies on us doing precisely what they want us to do,” Captain Bellerose said.  The Frenchman, who had said nothing up to this point, snorted rudely.  “How could they be sure we would use Tramline Four?  Right now, we could simply withdraw through Tramline One, get home and declare victory.  They would be more inclined to block our escape than divide their forces in the hopes of setting an ambush.”

“There simply isn't another promising target,” Fitzwilliam countered.  “We're not here to occupy territory” – the Rhino snorted – “at least not permanently.  Target Two isn't just a promising target, it’s the only one we have.  They would be able to make a very good guess about where we would be going.”

“We can't afford to leave it untouched either,” Shallcross pointed out.  “That’s a facility supplying our enemies with everything they need to wage war on us.  Either we open communications with Faction Two there or we destroy it.  We don’t have any other choice.”

“No,” Ted agreed.  “We will attack Target Two as soon as possible, then swing back here, recover the Marines and pull out completely.  If we manage to make open contact with Faction Two, then we will have some idea of just what is actually going on.”

“Or what they want us to know,” the Rhino said, pessimistically.

Ted nodded.  “In any case, we can't stay here much longer,” he added.  He looked over at the Rhino.  “When we come back, I want your troops and men ready to pull out at once.”

“Yes, sir,” the Rhino said.  “Do you wish to leave the transports here?”

“Yes,” Ted said, after a moment.  “But I want them to go completely dark.”

He looked from face to face, then smiled tightly.  “We’ve learned a great deal today,” he added, softly.  “Perhaps, just perhaps, we’ve also learnt how to make contact with our enemies and actually talk to them.  And who knows where that will lead?”


“Captain,” Amelia said, as James returned to the bridge.  “All systems are fully functional; all weapons tubes have been reloaded.”

“Excellent,” James said, as he took the terminal and glanced down at the report.  “We are to advance on Target Two.”

Amelia smiled as she sat down facing him.  “Very good, sir,” she said.  “And the alien attempt at contact?”

“Remains a mystery,” James admitted.  “We may never know what they had in mind.”

He looked up at the system display, carefully working out angles in his mind.  Four hours, more or less, until they intersected Tramline Four.  Maybe a little longer, if the Admiral wanted to try to avoid appearing at a predicable location.  Or maybe it would seem a waste of effort.  The aliens would have a rough idea where they were going to arrive even if they didn't have Target One’s system under observation.

“You should probably get some rest,” Amelia offered, after a moment.  “They won’t come for us until after we’ve crossed the tramline.”

“I’ve been resting since we fought our way into orbit,” James countered, dryly.  “It’ll look very bad on my service record.”

Amelia smirked.

“Captain,” Lieutenant Commander Daniel Lightbridge said, “we have course directions from the flag. We are to depart, along with the rest of the fleet, in ten minutes.”

“Then set course,” James ordered.

He looked down at the status display as the starship prepared to leave orbit.  The XO had done an excellent job, he had to admit, of keeping his starship ready for war.  As she’d said, all of the Old Lady’s missile tubes were fully loaded, ready to deal out death to any aliens who came into striking distance.  The mass drivers were ready, the point defence systems were online and the damaged blisters had been completely replaced.

Pity there’s no replacement for the lost starfighters, he thought, grimly.  We need to start bringing cross-trained pilots with us.

But he knew the Admiralty would never agree.

Time ticked away slowly as the fleet made its way towards the tramline.  There was no sign of any aliens, although James knew better than to take that for granted.  The aliens could lurk within the system as effectively as any humans, perhaps better.  Their stealth systems were still alarmingly good at long-range.

“Picking up signals from the frigates,” Farley said.  “Local space seems clear on the other side of the tramline.”

“Good,” James said.  He tried to consider just what the aliens would do, assuming they knew the fleet was heading to Target Two.  The probes hadn't located any major alien presence in Target Two’s system, but that meant nothing.  A solar system was just full of places to hide, even an entire fleet.  “Keep a careful eye out for unexpected surprises.”


Ted braced himself as the task force moved through the tramline and jumped five light years into the next system.  The display blanked, then reformatted itself, displaying the system primary, the gas giant the aliens had turned into an industrial node and the live feed from the frigates and drones that had preceded the carriers through the tramline.  There was no sign of anything remotely threatening, apart from the system’s orbital defences.  It worried him, for some reason.  Either they’d forced their way into a place the aliens considered impregnable or they were flying into a trap.

“Launch probes,” he ordered.  “I want a complete sensor shell spread out two light minutes from the fleet.”

“Aye, sir,” Lopez said.  “Drones launching ... now.”

“Order the Chinese to advance towards the planet,” Ted added.  Captain Wang had been petitioning for the job as soon as they’d started to plan the operation, so Ted had agreed, with only a few minor reservations.  If the aliens were plotting an ambush, there was a very good chance the Chinese would accidentally spring it before the carriers put their necks in the noose.  “Remind them that I don’t want any heroics.  I merely want them to survey the outer edge of the alien industrial node.”

He sucked in his breath as the drones raced outwards, eventually confirming that there was nothing within several light minutes of the fleet.  Ted felt cold ice slipping down the back of his spine; something was wrong, but what?  Why hadn't the aliens attempted to block their advance?  Given their speed advantage, they could have landed a few blows then retreated before Ted’s forces caught up with them.  Could it be he was heading towards precisely where they wanted him to go ... or were they distracted elsewhere?

The thought chilled him to the bone.  What if the aliens are attacking Earth right now?

“Transmit the contact package,” he ordered.  There was no point in trying to hide.  They were making enough electronic noise to ensure that they could be detected from right across the star system.  “Let’s see what answer we get.”

“It will be at least half an hour before the message reaches them,” Lopez warned.  “And a full hour before we get any reply.”

If they do reply, Ted thought, grimly.

“Understood,” he said.  There was nothing they could do about the laws of physics, at least until someone came up with a way of sending messages faster than light.  Some of the scientists might talk about creating artificial tramlines, but Ted would believe it when he saw it.  The power it took to expand the tramlines alone was quite significant.  “We will just have to wait.”

He settled back in his chair as the fleet moved away from the tramline, surveying the data as the drones and frigates relayed it back to the analysts.  The planetary system had two gas giants, he realised, although one of them didn't seem to have received much attention from the aliens.  There were still no traces of any life-supporting worlds, which didn't really surprise him.  The aliens seemed to follow the same basic logic as humanity when it came to settling other worlds; they concentrated on the life-supporting planets first, then started to develop the rest of the system.  So far, there was no trace of any alien terraforming program, but that proved nothing.  Their biology would predispose them towards habitable worlds rather than trying to terraform Mars-like worlds that would require the infusion of vast amounts of water.  But there was no shortage of water in space ...

“No response,” Lopez said, when eighty minutes had passed since they’d transmitted the message.  “Not even an uncomprehending response.”

Ted gritted his teeth.  If they were right, the facilities ahead of them might be controlled by Faction Two ... and firing on them would bring Faction Two into the war on the wrong side.  But if they were under Faction One’s control ... there was no way to solve the problem without actually talking to the aliens and the damned creatures refused to talk!

“Continue towards primary target,” he ordered, finally.  “And transmit the standard warning ...”

Contacts,” Lopez snapped.  “Multiple contacts.”

Ted swore out loud as red icons flared into life on the display – no, two groups of red icons.  One directly in front of them, the other on a course that suggested they’d been lurking behind the tramline.  The aliens had set a trap ...

“I don’t understand,” Lopez said, blankly.  “We surveyed that part of space, sir.”

Ted looked down at the display, puzzled.  Lopez was right.  The aliens hadn't been there when the drones passed through that section of space, unless their stealth systems had improved remarkably.  And that meant ... what?

He looked at where the aliens had appeared and knew the answer.  “They set a trap,” he said, grimly.  “And they’re trying to catch us between two fires.”

Chapter Twenty-Nine

In hindsight, Ted realised, as the alien ships closed in, it should have been obvious.  Everyone had known that tramlines didn’t form between planets and the stars they orbited – but then, everyone had also known that it was impossible to extend a tramline.  If the aliens could do one, why not the other?

“They used a tramline between the gas giant and the star,” he realised.  “Jumped their fleet right into prime interception position.”

Lopez blinked at him.  “Sir?”

“If they’ve mastered jumping without a  tramline, we’re dead,” Ted pointed out.  “They could have jumped right into close range and torn us apart before we even knew we were under attack.  Instead ... where they appeared says there has to be a tramline there, even if we didn't expect it to exist.”

He shook his head, dismissing the thought.  The analysts could work on it later, once they got out of the trap.  “Launch probes at both alien fleets,” he ordered.  “I want to know what we’re facing.”

The display updated rapidly.  Both alien fleets included eight large carriers and a number of smaller ships, including several of unknown design.  Ted had to admit they’d timed it very well; if he continued to advance towards the planet, he’d have to fight his way through one force while the other came up behind him.  If he turned and retreated back to the tramline, the same thing would happen, only in reverse.  And, with one enemy fleet blocking his path back to the tramline, he couldn't hope to avoid engagement.

We can't enter the tramline without engaging the fleet, he thought, grimly.  And if we don’t try to enter the tramline, we’ll die here.

“Alter course,” he ordered.  If the enemy could be tempted to merge their fleets into one unit, the tactical problem would become simpler.  But then, if they did, they could just crush his fleet by sheer weight of numbers.  “I want to head away from both fleets.”

He watched, grimly, as the enemy fleet altered course too.  Force One – the fleet between them and the gas giant – started to move in pursuit, while Force Two hunkered down near the tramline.  Ted silently cursed the enemy commander under his breath, knowing just what it meant; whoever they were facing was not someone inclined to make rash moves.  They might be able to beat Force One, but Force Two would still be blocking their escape.  And, given the alien speed advantage, it was unlikely he could smash his way through Force Two before Force One caught up with them.

And even if we did, they’d still be in position to charge after us into the Target One system, he thought.  He shot a wistful look at the display, where Target Two still glowed invitingly, then dismissed the thought.  There was no way they could attack the system now.  We have to beat them both here.

“Force Two is moving,” Lopez said.  “She’s advancing along the tramline.”

Ted nodded, unsurprised.  Force Two would always be between the humans and their only means of escape.  If they set out through interstellar space, it would be years before they reached another star ... and they’d better hope it had a tramline.  And if the drives failed in interstellar space, they’d be stranded for the rest of their lives.  No, that wasn't an option.  But nor was forcing their way back through the tramline ...

“Show me the system’s other tramlines,” he ordered, slowly.  If they were trapped, and it certainly looked that way, it was time to gamble.  “And then compare them to the data we pulled from the alien battlecruiser.”

There was a long pause as Lopez worked her way through the data, then forwarded it to the analysts to check and double-check.  “There's one tramline that leads here,” she said, bringing up the star chart.  “And that star has, we think, a link back to Target One.”

We think, Ted mused.  Tramlines were normally predicable, but there were odd hiccups from time to time.  He vaguely recalled a gravity specialist predicting that the tramline network would sometimes shift configuration from time to time, upsetting all of humanity’s trade networks.  But in over a hundred years of exploration, no tramline had ever been noted to vanish or shift to a different star.  No one really took the threat seriously.

He stared down at the display, calculating the odds.  There was no way of knowing what they’d encounter along the way, or what the aliens would do when they realised that the humans weren't planning to risk engagement with Force Two.  No, Ted shook his head; he had a very good idea of what the aliens would do.  They’d mass their forces and then advance against the human fleet.  Their speed would make it possible to catch up with his fleet sooner rather than later.

Or they’d head back to Target One and wait for us there, he thought.  Cold ice ran down his spine as he realised just how easily the aliens could thwart them.  All they’d have to do was return to Target One and set up an ambush there, which meant ... that he’d have to defeat at least one of the alien forces here before it could ambush them for the second time.

“Alter course,” he ordered, using his fingers to trace out a course on the display.  “Let them come after us, if they dare.”

It was a hell of a risk, he knew.  In order to disable or destroy the alien fleet, he had to tempt them with the prospect of actually crushing his fleet.  And yet, if they refused, he would have to either challenge them directly or take the risk of passing through the other tramline without damaging the alien fleet, which would merely move the decisive battle to Target One.

“Aye, sir,” Lopez said.

Ted sat back in his chair, silently cursing the sheer ... slowness of space battles under his breath.  It would be nearly an hour before Force One entered engagement range, assuming the aliens took the bait, and longer still before he knew if they’d won or lost.  He would have plenty of time for second-guessing himself, or working out possible alternatives to a direct confrontation.  Maybe they could simply break contact completely ...

Unlikely, he thought.  He looked down at the display, thinking hard.  The aliens presumably had a solid lock on his fleet.  They might well have scattered stealth platforms around the tramline, taking advantage of their rough idea of where his fleet would appear.  No, he couldn't hope to break contact easily.  It was much more likely that the aliens would be able to keep tracking him anyway.

“Program some of the drones for multiple images,” he added.  The aliens wouldn't lose their sensor lock, but maybe he could spoof it.  “And stand by to deploy mines.”

It was rare to use mines in space combat.  Normally, the enemy could pick one of any number of approach vectors and mining them all would be staggeringly expensive.  But now, the enemy fleet was advancing on a predicable vector.  They’d run right into the mines, if they were laid properly.

“Aye, sir,” Lopez said.  She paused, inspecting her console.  “The analysts want us to beam the First Contact package to the alien ships.”

Ted snorted.  It was alarmingly clear the aliens had hostile intentions, even if they hadn't been fighting a war for the past year.  Their fleet deployments were intended to trap or destroy the human fleet.  Maybe it was possible to open communications ... but it was also possible that the aliens would use the exchange of signals to try to convince him to stand down, perhaps as a prelude to more formal talks.  And then, when he was helpless, open fire.

But it had to be tried.

“Send the package,” he ordered, reluctantly.

He thought, suddenly, of Prince Henry.  The Prince had wanted to be in danger, he'd wanted to be treated like a normal pilot ... and he’d gotten his wish.  Ted had to smile at the thought, even though he knew it would open a huge can of worms back home.  At least one of them was going to be happy when the aliens finally entered engagement range.

“Nothing, sir,” Lopez said, after twenty minutes had ticked past.  “They didn't respond at all.”

Ted nodded.  He wasn't surprised.


“You’re suiting up?”

Kurt nodded as he zipped up the flight suit, then motioned for Rose to check that he’d sealed it properly.  “We have a spare starfighter without a pilot,” he said, “and the odds are pretty damn bad out there.  I’m needed out there, not in here.”

Rose eyed him for a long moment.  “Are you sure you’re not just trying to get out of the paperwork?”

“Yes,” Kurt said.  He laughed.  She’d heard him complaining about the paperwork more than once over the last month, although half the time he’d used it as an excuse to be in his office, away from prying eyes.  “If we get blown up today, there will be no paperwork ever again.”

He reached for his helmet, checked it carefully, then inspected her suit.  It was impossible to avoid noticing how it fitted against her body, revealing the curve of her breasts, but he forced down the reaction it aroused in him.  It always happened when he was about to go to war, he knew; the sudden erection, the sudden desperate desire to sow his wild oats one final time, even though they both used contraception implants.  Angrily, Kurt forced his eyes down to the deck, then away from her.  They were alone, but not in a private compartment.  He didn't dare get caught doing something that would get them both in very deep shit.

Rose gave him an odd look.  Perhaps she’d caught something of his emotions.

“Don’t worry,” she said, finally.  “We’ve been in bad situations before, sir.”

Kurt nodded.  Ark Royal seemed to have a habit of blundering into bad situations, from the raid on New Russia to the capture of the alien battlecruiser.  He couldn't help noticing the similarities between their current situation and the latter, although he could also see the differences.  This time, the carrier wasn't alone.  There were four other modern carriers with her, each one crammed with the most modern human technology ...

And thin-skinned enough that a single flame on a message forum will burn through their armour, he thought.  If the aliens made one good strafing run, those carriers are dead.

“Yes,” he said.  “And we’ve managed to get out of them too.”

He found himself flushing and looked away, swallowing hard.  He’d known, after the raid on New Russia and their desperate attempt to escape enemy pursuit, that they were dead, that it was only a matter of time before the aliens killed them.  It was why he’d started sleeping with Rose in the first place, knowing that he would never have to face the consequences.  But now ... they’d survived, against all odds.  And if they survived this battle too ...

“I’m sorry,” he muttered, although he wasn't sure what he was apologising for.  Rose had been the one to start things, not him.  Maybe he should have said no.  But then, he’d been attracted to her and he'd known they were about to die.  And now ... he thought suddenly of Molly and wondered, bitterly, just who she was fucking.  If she was fucking anyone ...

Rose glanced around the compartment, then kissed him hard on the lips.  “Don't worry about it,” she said, when they broke contact.  “We have to get out there and defend the ship.  Our personal lives can come later.”

Kurt nodded and watched her walk out of the compartment, twitching her hips in a ludicrously sassy manner.  He snorted, checked his appearance in the mirror, then followed her through the airlocks and into the briefing room.  All of the pilots were gathered there, save for the ones already in their starfighters, waiting for the command to launch.  It was possible, they knew, that the aliens might have a third fleet sneaking round in front of them, ready to ambush the humans when they entered engagement range.

He paused, long enough to try to capture the mood in the room.  Some of the rooks – no, they were hardly rooks any longer – seemed nervous, as if they hadn't expected to be forced against the wall so soon.  The older pilots looked resigned; they, at least, knew how quickly a situation could move from being firmly in control to absolute chaos.  Kurt briefly glanced at Prince Henry, trying not to show any untoward interest, and was relieved to see that the Prince was holding up well.  He'd met some aristocrats who were so used to the idea of the universe bending to their whims that they started to whimper or scream in protest when the universe refused to cooperate.

Good, he thought, dryly.  Maybe he would make a good King after all.

Or maybe not, part of his mind suggested.  The King wasn't meant to do anything, beyond looking good and signing laws put forward by the Prime Minister and his Government.  Some people might enjoy a coddled existence, but Henry – from what he’d seen of the young man – would hate it so much he’d either lash out or try to escape.  Perhaps his sister would be a better choice ... besides, Queens called Elizabeth had a good record.  The same couldn't be said for Kings called Henry.  He honestly had no idea why the Royal Family had chosen that name.

And to think that Molly would want me to suck up to him, he added, silently.  Henry would hate that too, he was sure.  If he’d wanted to be sucked up to, he would have served under his real name.  Brave boy ...

Rose cleared her throat, meaningfully.  Kurt snapped out of his thoughts and walked up to the stand, then glared at his pilots.  There were too many empty chairs, he saw, wishing they could be removed as they were on the modern carriers.  But Ark Royal’s were bolted to the deck.  Not, in the end, that it was anything more than an illusion.  There would be many more empty chairs at the end of the day.

“The enemy thinks they have us bent over a barrel,” he said.  The crude analogy would appeal to them, he knew.  “They’re currently planning to ram something unpleasant right up our buttocks, probably a dildo coated in chilli.”

There were some chuckles.  The atmosphere of doom started to lift, slightly.  Kurt smiled inwardly, then continued.

“We have to stop them,” he said.  “In particular, we will have to keep them off the modern carriers as well as launching antishipping strikes of our own, in unison with the ship-mounted weapons.  Ideally, we want to wreck their carriers and force the rest of their ships to keep their distance.  This will not be easy, but if it was easy, they wouldn't need us.”

He paused.  “This is what we’ve trained for, since the start of the operation,” he continued.  “You will be flying in makeshift formations, operating beside pilots from several separate nations, defending all of us from the aliens.  I expect each and every one of you to do your duty, knowing that everything rests on you.

“Years ago, Britain’s fate rested in the hands of a handful of pilots.  Now, the fate of all of humanity may rest on her starfighters and the brave men and women who fly them.  It will not be easy, it will be costly, but there is no other choice.  Watch your wingmen, fight with your comrades and kick alien butt.”

He took another moment to survey the room.  The next operation, if there was a next operation, would involve more prep time, if he had anything to say about it.  They’d flown endless simulated missions, but not enough real flying beside their international allies.  Most of their experience had come from learning on the job.  In future, he promised himself, the Royal Navy would take the lessons from this deployment and apply them thoroughly.

“Good luck,” he said.  He lifted his helmet.  “I’ll be flying out there beside you, so don’t let me down.”

They looked surprised, even though he was wearing a flight suit and carrying a helmet.  Kurt remembered his own days as a young pilot and understood their feelings; he’d never really believed, emotionally, that his CAG had also been a pilot.  No, the pilots had assured themselves that the CAG didn't really know what it was like to be a pilot.  But they’d been wrong, as he’d discovered later.  The CAG had been a flyer – it was a requirement for the post – but he’d never needed to fly into battle.  Back then, the Royal Navy had never really believed that a war was likely.

Which does raise the question of just how much the world governments knew, Kurt thought, coldly.  It was a question that was still hotly debated.  Did they start the military build-up because of a prospective alien threat?

“Your flight schedules are posted on the datanet,” he concluded.  “Half of you will escort the bombers; half of you will cover the carriers.  If you have to switch roles in a hurry, I’ll let you know.  Try not to fuck up under enemy fire.  That’s always costly.”

The pilots grimaced.  One advantage of the simulators was that they could make mistakes without anything more than public humiliation.  And, as always, they’d made every mistake in the book long before taking a single starfighter out of a launch tube.  But, thankfully, most of them had learned from the experience.

Kurt smiled at their expressions.  “Report to your starfighters,” he ordered, finally.  The pilots would do well, he knew, or die trying.  But far too many of them would die anyway.  “And prepare for launch.”

Chapter Thirty

“Sir,” Lightbridge said, “the Admiral is providing a second set of course changes.”

“Implement them,” James ordered, shortly.  He tracked them on the display, then nodded to himself.  Force One was overtaking them, slowly but surely, but Force Two was still holding position near the tramline.  The Admiral had effectively ensured that they would only have to face Force One.  “Time to interception?”

“Ten minutes to effective starfighter range,” Farley said.

James sucked in his breath.  He hated the waiting, but there was nothing he could do, short of spinning the ship and engaging Force One directly.  Ark Royal was heavily armoured, but she wasn't armoured enough to survive a short-range duel with the alien ships.  He rather doubted that anything human could stand up to alien plasma cannons at short range.  If nothing else, they’d boil the weapons off the Old Lady’s hull, then slowly burn through the solid-state armour and slaughter her crew.

He looked down at the live feed from the launch bay.  The CAG had taken a starfighter, much to James’s irritation, but he had to admit there were few other alternatives.  They needed everyone who could fly a starfighter out there, covering the hull.  Admiral Smith’s half-formed plan might work, James knew, but they would still take terrifying losses.  It was quite possible that one of those losses might include a carrier called Ark Royal.

Once, he'd wanted command so desperately that he’d been prepared to compromise himself to get it.  Now, he felt the weight of command falling around his shoulders ... and found himself praying that he didn't let the Old Lady down.  The ship seemed to hum around him as the enemy crawled closer, preparing themselves to engage the human ships.  It wouldn’t be long now.

“Captain,” Farley said, “the Admiral is ordering us to deploy mines on his mark.”

“Then do so,” James ordered.  It was possible, just possible, that the aliens would get a nasty shock.  Anything that won the human race a few advantages couldn't be discarded lightly, even if some naval officers considered them dishonourable.  But it was also possible that the aliens might see the mines and alter course to avoid them.  “And keep me informed.”


“Deploy mines,” Ted ordered.  “And then start pulsing their sensors with target locks.”

“Aye, sir,” Lopez said.  “Mines are being deployed ... now.”

Ted nodded, watching the display.  The course changes had been risky – the aliens had been able to use them to shorten the distance between the two fleets – but they had achieved Ted’s overall objective.  Force One could engage them, but – with a little bit of luck – they could evade Force Two ... if, of course, they managed to beat Force One.

He watched as the alien fleet crawled closer, heading right towards the invisible minefield.  There was nothing to the mines, save a bomb-pumped laser warhead wrapped in stealth coating, capable of doing serious damage to a starship if it scored a direct hit.  The beautiful simplicity of the system, Ted hoped, would be enough to allow it to work.  If nothing else, it should make the aliens more paranoid about closing in on human ships.

“Mines entering attack range,” Lopez reported.  Red lights flared up on the display.  “I think they’ve been detected!”

“Order them to attack,” Ted said, quietly.

The mines detonated.  Bomb-pumped laser beams lashed out towards the closest targets, the alien frigates and battlecruisers.  Ted watched several of them ripped apart by the minefield, others damaged so badly they had to fall out of formation.  One of the alien carriers was hit, blown into little pieces by several direct hits, but the remainder were completely untouched.

“Sir,” Lopez reported.  “We killed or disabled twelve smaller ships and one carrier.”

She sounded disappointed.  Ted didn't blame her, but the mines hadn't been entirely wasted, not really.  The sheer walls of point defence the aliens could put out against human starfighters had been badly weakened, now their escort ships were gone.  Besides, it had also taught the aliens a lesson.  It was possible, he told himself, that Force One would hang back long enough to allow him to break contact.

“They’re launching starfighters,” Lopez added.  “I think we made them mad.”

“Of course we did,” Ted said, with some amusement.  He paused, silently calculating the time it would take for the alien starfighters to reach his ships, then tapped a switch on his console.  “Launch fighters; I say again, launch fighters.”

He settled back in his command chair and watched, grimly, as new red icons streaked away from the alien ships, heading towards his fleet.  They’d be far too effective against his modern carriers, he knew, and if he were in command of the alien fleet they’d bear the brunt of the attack.  Take out the carriers, take out the starfighter platforms, then wear down the Old Lady and the frigates one by one.  It made an alarming amount of sense.

“Order our CSP to cover the modern carriers too,” he added.  The Old Lady could take a beating from the alien starfighters and keep going.  None of the other carriers had such advantages.  “We don’t want to lose any of them.”

“Aye, sir,” Lopez said.  “Guns are requesting permission to engage.”

Ted hesitated, calculating vectors in his head.  “Mass drivers may engage,” he said, although he was doubtful they’d score any hits.  Mass driver projectiles worked best against unsuspecting targets.  The aliens were clearly sweeping space aggressively, hoping to locate and destroy any remaining mines before they went active and attacked another alien starship or two.  “Missile tubes are to remain locked, for the moment.  We shall wait until the range shortens”

“Picking up new small craft signatures,” Lopez said, suddenly.  “The aliens are launching new craft of unknown configuration.”

Ted gritted his teeth.  New craft meant trouble, if only because he didn't know what to expect from them.  “What does the computer make of them?”

Lopez hesitated, consulting her system as well as relaying the request to the analysts.  “The computer thinks they’re somewhere midway between a shuttle and a starfighter,” she said, puzzled.  “They’re definitely three or four times the size of a standard starfighter.”

“Odd,” Ted mused.  The aliens hadn't built any specialised bomber designs, but then they’d hardly needed to bother.  “Order the CSP to engage them as soon as they come into range.”


Henry gritted his teeth as his starfighter exploded out into the inky darkness of space, then looked down at his display and smiled, grimly.  The aliens had taken a beating, thanks to the mines, but now they were out for blood.  A vast cloud of alien starfighters were bearing down on the fleet, followed by a number of craft the computers refused to identify properly.  Orders came down the line a moment later; his squadron was to engage the alien starfighters, while the CSP held the line in front of the carriers.  Ahead of them, the frigates were already manoeuvring to add their firepower to the fleet’s point defence.

He winced as he saw the frigates – it wasn't uncommon for point defence to engage friendly starfighters in the heat of battle – and then pushed the thought out of his mind as he accelerated towards the alien formation.  His wingmen fell in beside him, their chatter stilled as they contemplated the odds facing them; Henry smiled to himself, then switched his weapons to automatic fire.  There was little time for contemplation of his own mortality, not any longer.  All he wanted to feel was happiness that he’d finally managed to get himself treated as just another pilot.

“Prepare to engage,” Paton ordered.  “Break up their formation, if possible, then scatter the bastards.”

“Understood,” Henry said.  “Here we go ...”

He would have preferred to escort the bombers as they attacked the alien carriers, but orders were orders.  Besides, if they didn't cover the carriers, they’d have no hope of getting home.  Henry might have mixed feelings about that, yet he knew it wasn't fair to the other pilots.  They didn't have to worry about being forced onto the throne when they reached Earth ...

The aliens were suddenly all around them, firing madly towards the human formation.  Henry’s guns opened fire automatically, snapping off shot after shot towards the alien craft, while Henry himself concentrated on staying alive.  An alert flashed up in front of him, noting that a human pilot had actually collided with an alien pilot, destroying both starfighters.  The odds against an actual collision, he'd been told, were staggeringly high, even in the starfighter counterpart to Close-Quarter Battle.  But it didn't really matter, he knew; the dead pilot had at least taken an alien with him ...

Space was suddenly clear as the aliens resumed their charge towards the carriers.  Henry didn't wait for orders; he flipped his starfighter around and gunned the engine, giving chase as quickly as possible.  The aliens ignored the human starfighters snapping at their heels as they closed in on Napoleon and Lincoln, ready to tear two fragile human carriers apart with their weapons.  In response, the Americans and French opened fire with their point defence, trying to scatter the alien formation.  But the aliens refused to be deterred.

Henry barely noticed the French CSP as he swooped down and picked off two alien fighters, just as their comrades opened fire.  Bolts of superheated plasma stabbed deep into the French carrier, but – thankfully – they didn't hit anything that might have started a chain reaction and destroyed the ship.  Instead, the French pilots drove them off, apart from one alien who crashed into the lower hull and exploded.  Henry swallowed hard, then relaxed as it became clear the alien hadn't deliberately intended to commit suicide.  He would have supercharged his plasma containment chambers if he’d meant to become a kamikaze.

He cursed the alien technology under his breath as the next flight of alien craft closed in on the carriers, snapping off shots at the starfighters whenever they had a window, but otherwise ignoring them completely.  They didn't need to rely on bombers, he knew; their starfighters alone were a menace to the human fleet.  He knew that his plasma weapons could do considerable damage, but they lacked the sheer power of the alien weapons ...

“All targets destroyed,” an American voice said.  She sounded incredibly relieved.  “Thank God!”

Henry nodded in agreement.  The American point defence had waited until the aliens had entered their attack runs, then opened fire, pouring a withering hail of plasma fire into the teeth of their formation.  There were no alien survivors, although Henry knew there were plenty more alien pilots attacking the fleet.  Another alert flickered up in his display, warning him that the aliens were closing in on the Japanese carrier.  Grimly, feeling tired already, he yanked on his stick and sent the starfighter racing towards the Japanese ship.

Dear God, he thought, as he realised that several entire squadrons of alien ships had decided to engage YamatoIs this what it’s always going to be like?


Yamato is under heavy attack,” Lopez reported.  “Her commander is requesting assistance.”

“Cut loose three squadrons and dispatch them to assist the Japanese,” Ted ordered, curtly.  The battle had turned into a melee with terrifying speed, no matter how desperately the various fighter controllers tried to handle it.  Starfighter squadrons were breaking up, pilots flew with whatever wingmen they could find and the aliens were pressing the offensive with a grim determination that surprised no one.  “And Napoleon?”

“Some minor damage, but her CO insists that she can still fight and service starfighters,” Lopez said.  “She got lucky, sir.”

“Good for her,” Ted grunted.  Another alien strafing run could smash the entire ship, if the aliens managed to keep their formation together.  “And the mystery craft?”

“Still a mystery,” Lopez said.  “Nine of them have been destroyed, with no apparent ill-effects.”

Ted frowned.  The aliens might be alien, but they weren't stupid.  Nothing they’d done was stupid, even though it didn't always seem to make sense at first.  And that suggested that the aliens had had something in mind for the odd craft.  But what?

He turned towards the overall display.  “And the bombers?”

“Making their attack runs now,” Lopez said.  “But the alien CSP isn't trying to engage them.”

Ted wasn't too surprised.  Alien point defence was alarmingly good, after all.  They might well calculate that they could get away with throwing all of their starfighters at Ted’s fleet, even though it meant giving the human bombers a safe run to engagement range.  He wouldn't have taken the chance, but the aliens – it seemed – thought otherwise.  And it might well pay off for them.

“Keep monitoring the situation,” he ordered.

He felt helpless.  He was the commander of the fleet, with legions of subordinates to follow his orders, yet he felt helpless.  No order he issued could alter the outcome, not now; instead, it would confuse his subordinates at the worst possible time.  All he could do was watch, wait and pray that the human forces emerged victorious once again.

“The bombers have engaged the alien carriers,” Lopez said.  There was a note of heavy satisfaction in her voice.  “Torpedoes inbound ... now.”

Ted switched his display to track the torpedoes.  As always, the moment torpedoes were launched, the aliens switched their point defence to engage them, ignoring the remainder of the starfighters and bombers.  But there were just too many torpedoes for them to take them all down before they entered engagement range and detonated, sending deadly beams of energy towards the alien hulls.  One carrier exploded instantly – Ted guessed the beam must have hit a munitions depot – while four more were badly damaged.  Two more exploded within five minutes while the other two staggered out of formation, spewing plasma and debris into space.

“They’re launching lifepods, I believe,” Lopez said.

“Order the pilots to leave them alone,” Ted said.  They’d never seen the aliens launching lifepods before, but it was fairly clear that the humans wouldn't be remaining in the system long enough to pick up the alien lifepods.  Hell, there might well be no time to pick up human lifepods.  Perhaps the aliens were willing to allow their people the chance to survive if there was a good chance they wouldn't fall into human hands.  “They’re to go after the remaining carriers.”

The alien starfighters seemed to hesitate, then fell on Ark Royal with stunning fury.  Ted wasn't sure if they'd noted that the Old Lady’s CSP had been weakened or if they had identified her as the flagship, but in some ways it was a relief.  They could damage the Old Lady’s weapons or sensors, yet they couldn't get through her armour.  Unless, of course, they were prepared to ram her hull ....

“They've taken out a handful of weapons,” Lopez reported, as the aliens retreated again, back out of point defence range.  At least they’d been taught a healthy respect for humanity’s ingenuity.    “But they didn't even try to break the hull.”

Ted frowned, feeling cold ice crawling down his spine.  What was happening?  What was he missing?  The alien tactics seemed to make no sense – and that meant that there was something he was missing.  But what was it?

“Swing the CSP around to cover our hull,” he ordered, as the aliens reassembled their formation, then started to head back towards the Old Lady.  Whatever they thought they were doing, they seemed to think it was working.  “And ...”

“Torpedoes,” Lopez snapped, interrupting him.  “They’re launching torpedoes!”

Ted stared in surprise.  The aliens had never used anything, but plasma weapons.  It was easy to see why, too.  They burned through most human armour as if it were paper, shattering carriers, armoured combat suits and tanks with easy abandon.  It was bitterly ironic that the only ship humanity had that could stand up to the aliens was ancient, a relic of a bygone age, one that might have been scrapped long ago if there hadn't been a strong political reason to keep her intact.  But now they were launching torpedoes ...

“The point defence is to target those weapons exclusively,” he snarled.  He was treading on Captain Fitzwilliam’s toes, but there was no time.  Humanity had spent months working out how best to duplicate alien weapons systems.  Why wouldn’t the aliens have done the same?  If they knew Ark Royal’s armour was a problem, why not look for a weapon capable of breaking the armour?  “I think those are bomb-pumped lasers.”

Lopez looked at him in surprise.  “Sir?”

Ted glared down at the display.  “We stole their weapon ideas,” he snapped.  In hindsight, it was terrifyingly obvious.  “Why can't they steal ours?”

The aliens were innovative, he knew that for sure.  And they were paranoid over what humanity might have pulled from intact technology ... not entirely without reason.  And there was nothing particularly innovative about bomb-pumped lasers.  The aliens might have captured a working model at New Russia or simply designed the concept themselves, back before they’d developed plasma weapons.  Maybe the delay in reacting to the attack on Target One had been to ensure that squadrons outfitted with the latest weapons were in place to attack Ted’s fleet.

Another thought struck him and he swore.  “The mystery craft are boarding pods,” he added, bitterly.  He’d used Royal Marines to board an alien craft.  Why couldn't the aliens try the same themselves?  “They’re planning to board us!”

He braced himself as the point defence went to work.  Five alien missiles were picked off, nine alien missiles ... but three remained.  Only three ... yet if they were bomb-pumped lasers, one of them would be enough to do serious damage.  It was impossible to tell which sections they were targeting, but it might not matter.  Ted cursed inwardly as the missiles entered engagement range and ...

... Ark Royal shook violently as the laser beams stabbed into her hull.

Chapter Thirty-One

James had barely a second to brace himself before his ship shook violently.  Red icons flared up on the display, then the entire display blanked out as power failed throughout entire sections of the starship.  Panic gibbered at the corner of his mind for a long terrifying second, before the system rebooted itself as the computer network rerouted around the damaged sections.  But the updates from the damaged parts of his ship brought him no relief.

“Major damage,” Anderson’s voice snapped in his head.  “They’ve blown right through our armour in sections ...”

James barely heard him.  “Order the CSP to cover the damaged section,” he ordered, sharply.  Did they even have communications with the starfighters any longer?  “I want the aliens kept away from the gash in our hull.”

He gritted his teeth as more reports flowed into the bridge.  It was sheer luck, he realised, that the aliens hadn't managed to hit something vital, something that would explode under the impact and set off a chain reaction that would have destroyed the carrier.  As it was, she would still have to spend months in the shipyard having her armour replaced and a great many other systems repaired.  Or simply modernised, now they no longer had to worry about removing the armoured hull.  If, of course, they made it home.

“Captain,” the Admiral said, “this may be just the beginning.”

James almost snarled at him.  The aliens had tested a new/old concept and discovered it worked.  They’d be back, all right, with the same weapons humanity believed had rendered carriers like the Old Lady obsolete.  And the Old Lady would die countless light years from home.

“They may be trying to board us,” the Admiral continued.  “They’re going to want to take us by force, if they can.”

“We did it to them,” James said.  Turnabout is fair play, part of his mind whispered.  But Admiral Smith’s demented plan had been the result of sheer desperation.  Were the aliens just as desperate as humanity to put an end to the war?  “I understand, sir.”

“I’m warning Shallcross that he might have to assume tactical command,” the Admiral said.  “But if we can hold out for a while longer, we might win the first part of the engagement.”

James scowled.  They’d given Force One a beating it would never forget, but Force Two was still out there – and completely undamaged.  Maybe the aliens would forget their careful plan and just aim Force Two at the remains of Task Force Nelson.  Combined, the two alien fleets would soon make mincemeat of the human ships.

He pushed the thought aside.  There was no time to worry about it.

“Security alert, all decks,” he ordered.  A check of the display revealed that half of the internal security monitors were gone.  “And get the starfighters to make a visual check of our hull.”


Senior Crewwoman Nancy Cortland picked herself up from the deck and stared around her, convinced – for a long chilling moment – that she was in hell.  A minute ago, or perhaps longer if she’d blacked out, she'd been working in her compartment, helping to maintain the starship’s colossal missile tubes.  Now, the main lights were out, the only source of illumination was the dim emergency lights – half of which seemed to have failed – and, in the distance, she could hear the faint hiss of escaping air.  Somehow, she managed to stagger over to the emergency supplies and retrieve a mask, which she held in one hand as she walked towards the hatch.  Somehow, she wasn't surprised to discover that it was half open.

Outside, the corridors were still dim.  A body lay on the deck, staring up at nothing.  Nancy checked it quickly and identified the corpse as Derek MacDonald, a loud and somewhat overbearing crewman who seemed to challenge every newcomer until they proved themselves worthy of a place on the Old Lady’s crew.  He’d been just as challenging to Nancy until the first battle; in hindsight, she’d learned that he’d been part of the crew when only the dregs of the service were assigned to the ship.

“I’m sorry,” she muttered, as she closed his eyes.  The sound of escaping air was growing louder, although she still seemed to be able to breathe without problems.  “I'm sorry.”

She reached for her communicator as it dawned on her that someone should have tried to contact her and everyone else in the damaged compartment.  But there was no one ... and no missed messages.  Was the entire network down?  Or was she just locked out of the system for some reason?  There was no way to know.  Bracing herself, she rose back to her feet and started to move towards the sound of escaping air.  It was her duty to try to seal the leak, then report in to higher authority.

Ahead of her, the corridors suddenly became mangled and melted, as if someone had blasted a pulse of intense heat through the compartment.  A dozen bodies lay on the deck, some so badly damaged that she couldn't identify them; she shuddered as she realised that there might be others who had been completely vaporised.  She jumped suddenly as she heard someone moving ahead of her in the darkness, then leaned forward, confident that she was about to meet another survivor.  Instead, she found herself looking into the face of an alien.

For a long moment, she refused to believe her eyes.  The ship couldn't have been boarded, could it?  But then the alien lifted a weapon and pointed it right between her eyes.  Nancy froze, smelling – for the first time – a hint of something fishy, then tried to duck back out of sight.  It was too late.  There was a flash of bright green light, then nothing but darkness.


“We’ve definitely got unwanted guests,” James muttered.  The security reports from a handful of crewmen, several of whom hadn’t reported in since, were impossible to misinterpret.  He cursed the timing under his breath.  Half of the Royal Marines who should have been onboard were on Target One, no doubt utterly unaware of the fleet’s desperate struggle for survival.  “Captain, can you and your men handle them?”

“We believe so,” Captain Greenfield assured him.  Technically, he was Royal Marine Reserve, but James hadn't heard any complaints from Major Parnell about Greenfield and his company of reservists.  The Royal Marines worked reservists to the bone just to make sure they were up to scratch when the shit hit the fan.  “But you might want to evacuate the boarded sections, just in case.”

“Understood,” James said.  He cursed again; deliberately or otherwise, the aliens were holding parts of his ship that desperately needed repair.  The only upside was that if the alien starfighters decided to try to pour fire into the gash in the hull, they’d be killing their own people as well as human survivors.  “Get rid of them as quickly as possible.”

“Understood,” Greenfield said.  “We will handle it.”


Captain Luke Greenfield closed the communications link and looked around at his makeshift command post.  No one in their right mind, at least prior to the war, had seriously expected to have to board a starship or counter a boarding party.  But that old certainty had fallen apart, just like so many others, when war had finally broken out.  Right now, his Marines were all that stood between Ark Royal and enemy hands.

And if they’ve brought a nuke with them, he thought grimly, we’re dead anyway.

He glanced down at his terminal, silently thanking God that the Royal Marine radios weren't completely dependent on the ship’s datanet serving as an exchange hub.  In hindsight, that might have been a serious mistake, one that had ensured they had no real intelligence from inside the compromised area.  If there were no more gashes in the hull, he should have the aliens penned up through the establishment of some carefully-positioned checkpoints, but if there were – or the aliens simply used their weapons to burn through the inner hull – the aliens could simply outflank him.  He’d already had to detail too many Bootnecks to guard the bridge, CIC, Main Engineering and other vital sections of the ship.

“Open the hatch,” he ordered.  “We’ll sweep through the hull from one side to the other.”

As soon as the hatch opened, he released the first set of nanotech drones.  The tiny devices, utterly invisible to the naked eye, would sweep for alien intruders, perhaps even kill them if the aliens didn't have their own countermeasures.  They chilled humanity to the bone, not without reason; it was quite likely the aliens felt the same way.  He monitored their progress as he led the first platoon of men into the occupied section, watching for any sign of the aliens.  But he saw nothing.

“Bodies,” one of his men muttered.  “And the air is leaking faster now.”

Luke nodded as he quickly examined the bodies.  It looked as though they'd been smashed against the bulkhead, probably when the bomb-pumped lasers had sliced into the Old Lady’s hull.  There were no bullet wounds or plasma burns that might have suggested the aliens had killed them.  Besides, none of the dead crewmen had drawn their personal weapons.

“They must not have managed to seal the hull,” Luke muttered back.  Standard practice for a forced boarding, insofar as it existed, was to burn through the hull, rather than risk using an airlock.  Normally, the hull would remain sealed afterwards by the presence of the boarding pods, but the aliens had used bomb-pumped lasers to open the way for them.  Chances were that anything they’d done to seal the hull had been insufficient, particularly if the ship’s structural integrity had been weakened.  “Keep your armour closed.”

He scowled inwardly as they slipped into the next compartment, then stopped as they saw motion ahead of them.  Moments later, four crewmen – two wounded – staggered into view, holding their hands in the air.  Luke smiled in relief – at least there was no need to secure the crewmen – and pointed them towards the guarded hatch, then checked the links to the nanotech.  It should have picked up the human survivors, but it hadn't.

“I’ve got an unusually powerful ECM field ahead of us,” one of the techs said, after a long moment.  “It’s pervading the hull, sir.”

“So we can't rely on the nanotech,” Luke muttered.  He briefly considered calling the other ships and requesting support, but abandoned the idea after a moment’s contemplation.  The United States Marines or the French Foreign Legion were good – he’d trained with them while the fleet was preparing to depart – yet they didn't know the interior of Ark Royal as well as his men.  “See if you can get a list of crewmen with weapons experience, then round them up to reinforce us.”

Something moved ahead of them.  This time, a bolt of plasma fire stabbed down towards their position, narrowly missing a Marine’s head.  Luke switched his rifle to automatic and fired a long burst down the corridor, then followed it up with a grenade or two.  The deck shook as the grenades detonated, then the Marines moved forwards rapidly, trying to get to the aliens before they recovered.  But the aliens were clearly dead by the time the humans overran their position.

“Interesting,” Luke said.  Their tactics were odd.  Were they just trying to delay the Old Lady or did they have something else in mind.  “I ...”

“Sir, this is Rigby at Five,” a voice snapped.  “They’re breaking through the guardpost!”

Luke swore under his breath.  The aliens were pushing towards the bridge ... but how did they know where it was?  Ark Royal wasn't a modern carrier ... he cursed again as he understood just what had happened.  The Old Lady was old enough that quite a lot of information about her was available freely.  Given a cursory sweep, the aliens could have picked up enough about her from New Russia to plan their missile strikes perfectly.  They’d certainly done well enough.

“Move a blocking force into play,” Luke ordered.  “We’ll try to take them in the rear.”


Offhand, James couldn't recall any moment in living history when a Royal Navy starship had been boarded by enemy forces.  Hell, the wet navy hadn't lost a ship to a boarding party since the end of the Age of Sail.  But the aliens had managed to set foot on Ark Royal ...

“Commander Williams,” he said formally, “you will prepare to assume command of the ship if the bridge is compromised.”

“Yes, sir,” Amelia said.  “And the Admiral?”

James hesitated.  The CIC wasn't under threat yet, but the aliens would no doubt start to expand outwards once they’d taken the bridge.  It was odd that they didn't seem to be making a charge towards Main Engineering, yet it was quite possible that the aliens had lost the assault teams that were supposed to take the compartment.

“Will move when the CIC comes under attack,” he said, firmly.  “Continue to monitor internal security as long as possible.”


“The last enemy carrier is gone,” Lopez reported.  “She was hit by a mass driver projectile.”

Ted smirked, despite the worry, fear and outright rage clawing at his heart.  The aliens had been too busy evading his starfighters that they’d forgotten the other threat.  Now, with all of Force One’s carriers either destroyed or badly damaged, Force One was falling back in disarray.  But they still had intruders on Ark Royal.

And Force Two is still there, he thought, grimly.  Still there and no doubt trying to decide what to do.

“Prepare the decoy drones,” he ordered.  “I want them ready to launch the moment we are outside their sensor locks.”

“Aye, sir,” Lopez said.  Sweat was pouring down her face, but she’d never looked more beautiful.  Whoever married her, Ted knew, would be a very lucky man.  “We should be able to deploy in thirty minutes.”

“Good,” Ted said.  “Launch a second set of recon probes towards Force Two.  I want to know if they so much as blink.”


Luke felt sweat running down his back as he passed through Guardpost Five, without more than a moment to acknowledge three of his men who’d given their lives for the Old Lady.  The Bootnecks were dead, their bodies raped by plasma fire ... angrily, he promised their ghosts revenge as he kept moving forward, drawn onwards by the sounds of plasma and automatic weapons fire directly ahead of him.

He paused as the alien position came into view.  They weren't very good, he noted, but perhaps it wasn't too surprising.  Their wars were probably fought below the waters, rather than on the surface; hell, maybe they found the surface world more than a little uncomfortable.  He’d read the reports on the alien battlecruiser and, even though it hadn't been filled with water as some analysts had expected, it’s atmosphere was moist enough to cause real problems for the maintenance crews.  The Old Lady’s atmosphere was far drier than anything in Britain, or even on Earth outside a desert.

“Fire,” he ordered.

The aliens barely noticed before the first rounds slammed into their bodies.  Two of them spun around desperately and fired back towards the Marines; the remainder died where they stood, caught between two fires.  Luke braced himself and ran forward as the sound of shooting faded away, checking the alien bodies one by one.  Nothing, he told himself, could survive so many rounds through their most vulnerable sections.  Still, he checked them anyway.  There were quite a few animals who could soak up a great deal of damage and keep going, even without cybernetic modifications.

“I think we killed them,” one of his men said.

“Leave the bodies,” Luke ordered.  They’d have to be removed by the ship’s crewmen, after careful precautions were taken to avoid any biological hazard.  The scientists believed that there was no chance of an alien disease moving into a human host, but there was no point in taking chances.  “We need to get back to their shuttles.”

He led the way back into the damaged section, keeping a careful eye out for any surviving aliens.  But they found nothing until they reached the shuttles themselves, all of which seemed to be completely useless.  Their drives and sensors had been reduced to dust by – he assumed – microscopic self-destruct systems.  The aliens evidently hadn't wanted to take the risk of any more of their technology falling into human hands.

“We’ll sweep the section,” he said.  In hindsight, the alien attack seemed odd, as if they’d been experimenting rather than committing everything to the raid.  There was something about it that didn't make sense.  Had the aliens put it together in a hurry or was there something else they hadn't seen?  “But it appears we got them all.”

“Good,” the Captain said.  “But make sure you check everywhere an alien might be hiding, including the outer hull.”

“Yes, sir,” Luke said.  He did have some experience, after all.  But he couldn't blame the Captain for worrying.  “It will be done.”

There was a click as someone else joined the conversation.  “This is the Admiral,” a new voice said.  “I want you to check for any other surprises the aliens might have left behind.”

“Understood,” Luke said.  He scowled, inwardly.  It wasn't going to be easy.  The ship’s interior had been badly mangled by the lasers.  Something out of place might well be missed completely.  “We’ll start looking now, but we’ll need assistance.”

“I’ll detail crew to assist you,” the Captain said.  He sounded grim, but resolved.  At least he understood the problem, which was more than Luke expected from some senior officers, and wasn't bitching about needing to keep his crew to repair the ship.  “Inform us the moment you find anything.”

“I’ll launch the alien craft into space,” Luke said.  “I don’t think we’ll pull anything useful from them and we don't have time to take them apart.”

“Do so,” the Admiral said.  “And good luck.”

Chapter Thirty-Two

“We have lost sensor locks from the remains of Force One,” Lopez reported.

Ted sighed in relief.  A careful search of the damaged section of the hull had found nothing, apart from dead bodies and plenty of destroyed systems, but he doubted it could be taken completely for granted.  Civilians said the military was anal about making sure that everything was in order, yet it made it easier to spot anything out of place.  Now, with the hull torn open and badly compromised, anything could have been left there in the wreckage.

“Deploy decoy drones,” he ordered, taking a long look at Force Two.  Given the battering his forces had taken, he had few doubts that Force Two could finish them, if the aliens chose to leave their station and drive straight for the human fleet.  But that would open up the risk of the humans managing to evade them and slipping back to the tramline.  “And then recall all fighters.”

He looked down at the display as the fighters slowly returned to their motherships, then settled into the landing bays.  There were over a hundred new radio sources where the alien starships had been, each one – he assumed – an alien lifepod.  If there had been time to pick them up ... he shook his head, dismissing the thought.  Even if there had been time, it would have been far too dangerous.  The aliens might well attempt to resist recovery efforts.

“All fighters have returned to their ships,” Lopez said, after several minutes had passed.  “I confirm we lost roughly a third of our fighters.”

Ted cursed under his breath.  There were spare fighters in the fleet train’s holds, assuming they managed to link back up with the freighters they’d left in Target One, but there were few spare pilots.  The CAG going out to fight might have been against regulations, yet it had been necessary; Ted only wished he had more trained pilots at his disposal.  But the Royal Navy hadn’t been able to produce enough pilots in time.  He made a mental note to raise the issue once again when they returned to Earth, or to invite crewmen to attempt to qualify on the simulators.  It would be better than nothing.

“Understood,” he said.  He paused, studying the display.  “Prepare the ships for switchover ... now.”

“Aye, sir,” Lopez said.  There was a long silence as she worked her console.  “All ships confirm readiness, sir.”

“Good,” Ted said.  “Trigger the drones, then take us into darkness.”

He watched, grimly, as the drones moved ahead of the fleet.  If they were lucky, alien long-range sensors would mistake the drones for the fleet, allowing the fleet itself to alter course and make a long dog-leg towards the system’s second tramline.  And if they weren’t lucky ... Ted had few illusions.  If the aliens detected them trying to race towards the second tramline, they’d either give chase or set up an ambush back in Target One.

“Drones underway,” Lopez confirmed.  “They’re on the planned course.”

Ted nodded, hoping they’d struck the right balance between maintaining their distance from Tramline One without heading too obviously towards Tramline Two.  It was logical, he knew, for his fleet to want to take the time for repairs, particularly now that Ark Royal herself was badly damaged.  The aliens shouldn't see anything unusual in that, he hoped.  They’d be more interested in waiting for reinforcements themselves before pushing the attack against the fleet home.

“Alter course,” he ordered.  “We will proceed towards Tramline Two.”

Grimly, he looked down at the roster of missing or dead crewmen.  Over three hundred crewmen were believed to the dead after the attack on Ark Royal, although only seventy bodies had been pulled from the damaged sections and shipped to the shuttlebay for emergency storage.  The remainder might have been vaporised, tossed into space by the aliens or simply kidnapped.  Ted had his doubts – the sensors hadn't recorded any alien shuttles leaving Ark Royal after they’d boarded her – but there was no way to be sure until all of the bodies were recovered.  Some of them might only be identifiable through DNA testing.

He switched to the list of dead pilots and shook his head, grimly.  Over a dozen pilots were dead, including seven of the bomber pilots, a testament to the sheer determination they’d shown in pressing their attacks against the alien fleet.  The remainder would have to be reconfigured into brand new squadrons, once again, and then sent out to fight when they broke back into Target One.  Ted winced at the thought, but he knew there was no alternative, not when there were over four thousand soldiers on the surface.  He was damned if he was leaving them behind.

They might be able to take care of themselves, the treacherous part of his mind whispered.

Sure, a different part of his mind answered.  Just like Target One was able to take care of itself.

“Course change complete,” Lopez said, breaking into his thoughts.  “There are no signs we’ve been detected, as far as I can tell.”

Ted relaxed, slightly.  There were five hours until they crossed the tramline, assuming the aliens didn't realise what they were doing and move to intercept.  Anything could go wrong in that time, from drive failure to an accidental emission that revealed their location to watching passive sensors.  He knew he wouldn't truly relax until they were through the tramline, yet he had absolutely no idea what was waiting for them in the next system.  It was quite possible that the aliens had placed another blocking force there.

But that would be spreading their forces too thin, he told himself.  If they’d had additional firepower, they should have added it to Force One.

He wished, again, that they knew more about the political and economical geography of alien-held space.  There were star systems humanity had claimed that were heavily defended, with dozens of warships on hand to respond to any emergency, and star systems that were so isolated that it would take weeks to get a military squadron in place, if necessary.  How quickly could the aliens reinforce the threatened sectors?  There was no way to know.

“Keep me informed,” he ordered, as he rose to his feet.  “I want to know the moment anything changes.”


“She served for over seventy years without getting as much as a scratch on her hull,” James said, sardonically.  “I take command and she gets a hole punched through her armour and boarded, all in the same day.”

“Don’t worry,” Amelia said, dryly.  “The blame will be strewn around liberally.  If we’re lucky, it will be spread so thinly that no one will notice.”

James smiled weakly, then resumed his path through the damaged part of his ship.  The engineers had rigged up sheets of armour to ensure that there was no longer any danger of decompression, but he had no illusions about how long they would stand up to alien weapons, if they returned to the attack.  A single plasma bolt would burn through the replacement armour as easily as they burned through modern carriers and frigates.

“We need to move anything explosive out of their firing path,” he said, although he knew it was unlikely they could accomplish anything worth the effort.  “They’ll be targeting the gash in the hull next.”

He shuddered at the thought.  Plasma bolts weren't dangerous just because they burned through modern armour, they were dangerous because they destroyed or detonated everything they encountered.  Post-battle analysis of the defeat at New Russia had confirmed that the plasma bolts had obliterated starfighter launching bays, missile storage depots and even fusion cores before the carriers had exploded.  Even if they didn't hit something explosive enough to do real damage, they would still burn through countless systems and cause endless damage and disruption.  Ark Royal had more internal armour than the rest of the Royal Navy put together, but it wasn't enough to deflect plasma bolts indefinitely.

“I know,” Amelia said.  “And they also took out too many point defence installations.”

James nodded, remembering how the aliens had strafed the hull.  He’d wondered if the pilots simply didn't believe the reports they must have read about his ship’s armour, but instead it had merely been the first part of their plan.  Without the point defence, it had been distressingly easy for the alien missiles to burn through his hull and allow the shuttles to land.

He said nothing as they walked further down the corridor, keeping his thoughts to himself.  He’d seen the carrier during the frantic struggle to get her battle-worthy once again, but this was worse.  Entire sections had been destroyed, or mangled beyond repair; carbon scoring marred even parts of the interior that had otherwise escaped serious damage.  In the long run, he knew, they’d have to replace the entire section.  There were limits to just how much work Anderson and his crew could do on the run.

“I’m sorry, sir,” Amelia said, as they entered a large compartment.  “It wasn't your fault.”

“I was in command,” James said, as he took in the bodies lying on the deck.  “The responsibility is mine.”

The bodies looked odd under the too-bright light.  Most of them were alien – any interesting tech had already been removed – but a handful were human.  He vaguely recognised a couple of crewmen from an inspection tour, back when he'd assumed command, yet the others were unrecognisable.  One crewwoman’s headless body clutched a small doll in her hand.  There was no sign of her missing head.  God alone knew what had happened to her.

“Crewwoman Pankhurst,” Amelia identified her.  “She came from a sect that believed in carrying those dolls, representatives of their lives.  I believe she had to secure a special exemption from the Admiralty before she was allowed to serve.”

James sighed.  Exemptions were rare ... and almost always caused more trouble than they were worth, as the person who had been granted one had to prove themselves to crewmen suspicious of their right to serve on a Royal Navy starship.  There were times when he felt the flowering of strange sects and cults – including a number who had built their own asteroid settlements – was also more trouble than it was worth.  But he did have to admit that they provided a place to go for those who felt as if they didn't belong anywhere else.

“Poor girl,” he said.  “And how was her service?”

“Very good,” Amelia said.  “There were no complaints about her from her superiors.  I believe she was in line for a promotion at the end of the voyage.”

“We can make sure she has a posthumous promotion,” James said, firmly.  It wouldn't help the poor girl any more, but it would ensure her family – if she had a family – received a larger pension.  Besides, the Royal Navy was looking at additional benefits for families who lost members to the war.  “Until then ...”

He looked over at one of the alien bodies.  As always, they looked disconcertingly humanoid and yet utterly inhuman.  He would have preferred something completely inhuman rather than the faint similarities the two races shared.  A faint aroma of rotting fish surrounded the corpse.  He couldn't help wondering why they’d developed so many different skin colours, particularly when they lived under the waters.  Surely, bright skin colour would attract predators ... or were the aliens actually the top of their planet's food chain?

Humanity is at the top of ours and yet there are still creatures out there who try to eat isolated humans, he thought.  Or are the aliens just unconcerned about the dangers?

“Doctor,” he said, addressing one of the medics.  “Is there any biohazard?”

“I do not believe so,” the medic said.  “All of the reports agree that the alien biochemistry is completely different to ours.  But it would be well to keep the bodies on ice until we get back to Earth.”

James nodded.  The last time the Old Lady had carried alien prisoners, every precaution had been taken to ensure that the aliens had no chance to spread germs, deliberately or otherwise, to the human crew.  This time, there had been direct contact between humans and aliens, without any form of protection.  His crew had enhanced immune systems – it was one of the perks of serving in the Royal Navy – but were they enough to cope with an alien disease?  If, indeed, the aliens had something that could spread to human bodies?

“See to it,” he ordered.  “And keep monitoring the crew for any problems.”

“There was no large-scale epidemic on New Russia,” Amelia pointed out, softly.  “The aliens had plenty of contact with humans there.”

James nodded, reluctantly.  Terra Nova had had an epidemic, when several dozen settlers from one of the smaller nations had arrived without going through basic medical checks.  It hadn't been serious, but it had made a great many people very miserable until cures and vaccinations were shipped in from Earth.  After that, the various settlements had become a great deal more careful over health checks before permitting immigration.

But Amelia was right.  The aliens could have spread all kinds of diseases to New Russia’s population by now, even if they hadn't intended to do it deliberately.  It suggested that his crew would be safe.  And yet, how could he take it for granted?

“Move the other bodies to the freezer,” he ordered, shortly.  “We’ll hold a proper ceremony for them when we’re finally on the way home.”

And we identify all of the remaining bodies, he added, silently.  Some of his crewmen were completely gone, something he suspected would raise all sorts of conspiracy theories.  Had the aliens kidnapped them or had the bodies simply been vaporised?  People would be arguing the question for years to come.

“Yes, sir,” the medic said.

They turned and walked out of the hatch, encountering Anderson and a team of engineers.  The Chief Engineer finished issuing orders, then nodded to his Captain as his team headed down the damaged corridor towards the gash in the hull.

“Captain,” he said.  “We were really quite lucky.”

James nodded.  One of the missiles the point defence teams had swatted out of existence had been heading directly for the drive section.  If it had detonated, the Old Lady would have been stranded, utterly at the mercy of the aliens.  Losing one or two fusion cores wouldn't be disastrous – the designers had been firm believers in multiple redundancy – but losing the entire drive section would have crippled the ship beyond repair.  If that had happened, they would have had to fight to the bitter end ... or try to surrender.  He suspected that fighting would have been the better option.

“I know,” he said.  “How quickly can you fix what you can fix?”

“We need to rebuild several parts of the ship’s power grid from scratch,” Anderson said.  “Right now, our power grid is badly stressed; if they hit us again like that, we will be forced back on batteries to power large sections of the ship.  I think ...”

James sighed, but listened carefully.  “Do it,” he said, when Anderson had finished.  “We're still deep in enemy territory.”


Kurt ached dreadfully when he stumbled out of his starfighter and staggered into the ready room.  Behind him, the other pilots looked just as battered, with some of them glancing around for faces they knew they’d never see again.  Kurt stripped off his flight suit as soon as he made it into the compartment, then practically dived into the shower and allowed the water to massage some of the kinks out of his body.  Behind him, the younger pilots did the same.

He wondered, briefly, just how they were coping with the attack on the Old Lady.  They knew – and if they hadn't known before, they sure as hell knew it now – just how vulnerable a single starfighter was to enemy attack.  But the Old Lady had seemed damn near invincible, certainly when compared to the modern carriers  And yet, she’d been attacked and badly damaged.  If the aliens had targeted the launching bays, they would have crippled her ability to continue the fight.

Cursing under his breath, heedless of his dignity, he stumbled out of the shower and grabbed for a towel, rubbing down his body until he was relatively dry.  There were spare flight suits in the wardrobe, just waiting for pilots who needed to dress again, after a shower.  His old one would need to be cleaned before he could wear it again.  Behind him, he caught sight of Rose and shook his head when she met his eyes.  He was too tired to do anything apart from sleep.

But it couldn't be allowed.

“Beta and Charlie Squadrons are to use the sleep machines,” he ordered.  They weren't intact squadrons, not any longer, but there was no point in breaking them up.  He didn't have time to plot out a reconfiguration in any case.  “Alpha and Gamma are to remain on alert.”

He ignored the groans from the rooks.  They didn't realise that the aliens could return to the offensive at any time, once they realised that the fleet was trying to make its escape.  Not that he blamed them, really.  The bigger picture was the Admiral’s responsibility.  Their task was to fight the aliens and stay alive.

“No arguing, not now,” he snapped, tiredly.  He suspected that half of the pilots would fall asleep very quickly, unless they took stimulants.  But the stimulants came with a price tag attached.  “I know; you all feel rotten and you want to sleep.  I don’t blame you.  But we need to remain alert for a couple of hours  Once Beta and Charlie have had their naps, we’ll get some sleep too.”

He staggered over to a cushy armchair and sat down, trying to look reasonably alert.  But he had the feeling it wasn't working.  If the aliens attacked, the task force was in serious trouble ...

Chapter Thirty-Three

“Major,” a voice said.  “Wake up!”

Charles snapped awake instantly, one hand grabbing for the pistol he'd positioned under his makeshift pillow.  It was a precaution that had served him well in the past, although – in theory – the aliens shouldn't have been able to get through the defences surrounding the FOB.  But then, they'd said the same about insurgents in the Middle East.  He looked around and saw one of the Rhino’s aides standing there, looking worried.

“They picked up an emergency signal from the orbiting recon platforms,” the aide said.  “The Rhino demands your immediate presence.”

“Gotcha,” Charles said.  He stood, then picked up his rifle and slung it over his shoulder.  The Rhino had issued strict orders that everyone was to go armed at all times, no exceptions.  It was another sensible precaution, Charles had decided, after months of training together.  “I’m on my way.”

The Rhino was standing in front of a bank of consoles in the emergency command vehicle, smoking a cigar that smelt faintly unpleasant.  Charles saluted quickly, then swore as he saw the red icons on the display.  A handful of large and evidently unfriendly starships were approaching the planet at terrifying speed.

“They came out of Tramline Three,” the Rhino said, without prompting.  “We don’t have a solid lock on them at this distance, but at least one of them is either a carrier or a troopship comparable to ours.”

Charles swore.  “So they’re going to attack us while the fleet’s away,” he said, sourly.  “Is there any word from the Admiral?”

“Nothing,” the Rhino said.  “But I wasn't expecting to hear anything for several days.”

Charles felt cold ice clench around his heart.  If the aliens had launched a counterattack, they presumably had something in mind to deal with the fleet as well as the forces on the ground, perhaps an ambush in the Target Two system.  Or one group of aliens might have launched a counterattack without consulting the others; it wasn't easy to coordinate human attacks across several star systems and everything they’d seen indicated that the aliens had the same problem.

They came out of Tramline Three, he told himself.  But the fleet went through Tramline Four.

“So we prepare to repel attack,” he said, grimly.  “Or can we evacuate in time?”

“Not without being caught on the hop,” the Rhino said.  “Even if we abandoned everything, we’d still have to get the men back to the ships and start running.  And then we’d be caught.”

Charles nodded in understanding.  The transports, even the colossal American ships, were far slower than any of the alien ships.  They’d be overrun and destroyed long before they made it to the tramline.  No, better to fight it out on the ground than be picked off helplessly while trying to flee.

“We’ll stay near the alien cities, apart from the stay-behind teams,” the Rhino added.  “It might deter them from simply smashing us from orbit, once they get control of the high orbitals.”

“They’ll certainly fire on the plasma canons,” Charles warned.  “Their tactics for assaulting a defended planet might just be better than ours.”

“Maybe,” the Rhino said.  “But we will see.”

He looked back down at the console, then up at Charles.  “We expect to be attacked in just under three hours,” he warned.  “And we may be attacked from the water too.”

Charles nodded, slowly.  The aliens, having realised they were under observation, had killed all of the dolphins and destroyed most of the remote spying devices.  Since then, they’d probably been preparing to take part in a counterattack when their forces started to regain the high orbitals.  It was what he would have done, were the situation reversed.

“I’ll deploy my forces,” he said.  “And you’d better do the same.”

“Make sure they’re in full stealth mode,” the Rhino added.  “You don’t want to risk drawing fire from orbit.”

“Understood,” Charles said.

The next two hours passed in a whirlwind of activity as the ground forces prepared for the coming onslaught.  The heavy plasma cannons, prepped for their first combat test, were scattered all over the shoreline, alarmingly close to the water’s edge.  Others were positioned some distance inland, providing additional fire to prevent the aliens from settling into orbit and then launching shuttles or missiles towards the human bases.  American tanks were carefully positioned to provide fire support for the armoured combat suits, although Charles couldn't help noticing that most of them had been placed on automatic.  The tanks simply hadn't coped well with alien weapons.

He found himself looking up into the sky as the sun rose higher, automatically tracking pieces of space debris that were still falling into the planet’s atmosphere.  Absently, he hoped the space debris would make it harder for the aliens to land, although he knew that was nothing more than wishful thinking.  It hadn't prevented the humans from landing either, had it?  But the aliens might have more reason to be concerned about the planet’s biosphere than the human occupiers.

And if they blame us for rendering the planet uninhabitable, he thought coldly, how long will it be before they start doing the same to Earth and the other settled worlds?

He smiled, recalling a family legend.  One of his ancestors had worked as part of the clean-up crews in 2060, sweeping dead satellites and space junk out of Earth’s orbit and transferring them to the smelters on the moon, where they had been turned into something more useful.  He’d left behind a log that Charles had read, as a child; he’d noted that the space junk had simply been too dangerous to leave in place, even though they were part of history.  Now, he couldn't help wondering if the aliens would do the same.  They might start building their own orbital towers, sooner or later.

His radio crackled.  “Enemy ships are picking up speed,” a voice stated.  “They’ll be in orbit in twenty minutes.”

“Understood,” Charles said.  The data from New Russia suggested the aliens couldn't track very low powered transmissions, particularly compressed microbursts, but they’d been warned to be careful anyway.  Radiating anything that might be picked up from orbit was as good as sending a direct message to the aliens, inviting them to kill the humans on the ground.  “We’ll be ready for them.”

He found himself shifting uncomfortably in his suit as he scanned the shoreline.  It looked safe and tranquil, almost as exotic as the beaches he’d enjoyed during a short deployment to Kota Kinabalu, years ago.  There was a shortage of women, both local and tourist, but apart from that the beach was beautiful.  The waves looked surprisingly mild as they washed against the sand, nothing like the waves he’d battled during his training.  But the aliens might be only a few metres away from them, watching from just underneath the water.  All the simulations agreed that it might as well be completely transparent to alien eyes.

“I hate hurrying up and waiting,” someone muttered.

“Quiet,” Charles ordered.  He privately agreed, but they had to maintain communications discipline.  “You’ll wish it was still quiet when the shit hits the fan.”

Alerts flashed up in his HUD as the first alien starships entered orbit, only to come under fire from the plasma cannons on the ground.  For a moment, he thought they could win outright, then realised that the plasma cannons weren't doing as much damage as they had hoped.  The aliens didn't have much better armour than humanity’s, but what they did have was designed to cope with plasma weapons fire rather than anything else.  It suggested, to his eyes, that the aliens might have their own internal wars as well as fights with other races.  Maybe there was a second faction of aliens out there, one more friendly to humanity than the others.

“Enemy ships are falling back,” the Rhino announced.  “But that was only the beginning ...”

New alerts flashed up in the HUD, followed by an explosion in the distance.  Charles swore under his breath as he realised that one of the plasma cannons had been taken out, with no obvious cause.  Moments later, new alerts sounded; the aliens had somehow managed to get a party behind the lines, right in place to launch an attack.  Charles puzzled over it for a long moment, then realised the truth.

“Sir, they used a network of underwater tunnels to get around,” he said.  Once, long ago, he'd gone caving in Wales.  Some of the caves had been partly underwater and downright eerie.  “They might have other settlements we never even thought to look for, under the ground.”

“Not an issue at the moment,” the Rhino said.  “You have incoming.”

Charles nodded as another series of alerts sounded, this time alerting his men to enemy forces advancing up towards the shoreline.  Moments later, a giant mechanical crab-like monstrosity burst out of the water and advanced threateningly towards the Royal Marines.  For a long moment, Charles could only stare at the construct.  It reminded him of some of the attempts to make real AT-ATs, armoured vehicles that walked rather than drove.  But the human race had never managed to make the concept work without creating something terrifyingly vulnerable.  The aliens, on the other hand, had clearly put a great deal more thought into the concept.

It makes sense for them, he realised, as more of the giant machines appeared, their weapons already moving round to target the humans.  Underwater, legs are so much more useful than wheels.

“Fire,” he ordered.

Five missiles lanced out and slammed into the alien machines.  Three of them exploded into towering fireballs, two more were mildly damaged.  The aliens opened fire at the same moment, firing their plasma cannons as if they were machine guns with unlimited bullets.  Charles clung to the ground as blast after blast passed over his head, blazing through the vegetation and setting it alight.  He wondered, as he took aim at one of the advancing monsters with his suit’s missile launcher, if the aliens wouldn't find the fire discomforting.  They needed wetter air than humanity ...

He fired a pair of missiles towards the machine, then swore inwardly as he saw a second troop of vehicles emerging from the waves.  Muttering commands to his men, he called down a volley of fire from the mortar emplacements and ran backwards, relying on the incoming fire to shield his men.  Two suits sent distress calls, seconds before they died; the remainder made it safely to the next trench.  Behind them, the alien vehicles kept moving forwards, slowly but steadily.

“They’re easy to outrun, even without the suits,” he reported.  “We could probably start putting mines in their path now.”

“See to it,” the Rhino ordered.  “Slow them down as much as possible.”

Charles checked the overall situation and gritted his teeth as he realised that it was rapidly spinning out of control.  The aliens had launched attacks directed against every human base, even though they had to have been put together very quickly.  Part of him was mildly impressed.  A human force might not be able to react so quickly when taken by surprise.

He gritted his teeth as a pair of American helicopters flew overhead, unleashing missiles towards the alien vehicles.  The aliens returned fire, trying to swat both the missiles and the helicopters out of the air; Charles bit down another swearword as one of the helicopters exploded in midair, while the other staggered and then plummeted down towards the ground.  It crashed into one of the alien vehicles and exploded, but the alien machine kept moving, although it was clearly damaged.

It’s designed for high-pressure environments, Charles thought, as he motioned for his men to fall back again.  It can shrug off anything, but a direct missile hit.

“Lay mines in its path,” he ordered, separating out his platoon into two groups.  The aliens weren't worried by small arms fire, even machine guns.  Their response was always the same; a withering hail of fire, followed by a slow steady advance towards the next contact.  In human terms, they were too slow to launch a proper blitzkrieg, but Charles was starting to think it didn't matter.  “Slow the bastards down!”

Two American tanks burst out of hiding and charged towards the alien vehicles, firing antitank rounds towards their weaker points.  The aliens, taken by surprise, hesitated long enough to allow the Americans to land several blows before finally returning fire, trying hard to take out the tanks.  One of them was ripped apart by multiple hits; the other managed to flee, crashing wildly from side to side as it was chased by a hail of plasma fire.  The aliens seemed angered; their vehicles picked up speed, even though it was nothing more than a slow crawl by human standards.  New alerts flashed up in the display; Charles glanced at them, then realised that the aliens were reoccupying their city.

I hope the boffins got out in time, he thought.  Half of them had been outright rude to the soldiers – they seemed to believe the military had deliberately started the war – but they didn't deserve to be alien prisoners.  He’d had more than a few nightmares about the humans they’d rescued from the alien POW camp on Alien-1.  And that anyone stupid enough to actually talk to the aliens was dragged out before it was too late.

“Fall back to Point Alpha,” the Rhino ordered.  “Leave as many unpleasant surprises as you can as you move.”

Charles nodded, after taking another look at the display.  The aliens were advancing forward, bringing more and more troops out of the water.  It was clear that the humans could retreat indefinitely, but the aliens would simply overrun the plasma cannon emplacements and then call in fire from orbit.  He hadn't seen anything so strange – and yet so unbeatable – since the no-win situation he’d faced in the simulators.

“We’re on our way,” he said.

The Royal Marines joined the retreat, passing through an emplacement of antitank missiles set up by the French Foreign Legion.  Charles paused long enough to share what they’d learned with the French CO, who looked grimly determined to hold his position as long as possible.  Once they were nearly a kilometre away from the French position, Charles and his men slowed and started to dig another trench for themselves.  They’d try to slow the aliens down while the French made their escape.

It was nearly forty minutes before the crawling alien vehicles encountered the French.  The French had used the time well, Charles had to admit; they’d set up long-range guns as well as antitank rockets and smoke grenades, although the latter didn't seem to slow the aliens down very much, if at all.  Two alien crabs – the term seemed to have become adopted by the defenders – went up in colossal fireballs, the remainder pounded the French position into rubble and kept moving.

“They must have a very high-pressure interior too,” one of the analysts muttered.  Charles barely heard him as he prepared for a stand.  “When they’re penetrated, they explode.”

“Sounds like a bitch I once knew,” someone muttered.  “She really hated it when I took my time.”

Charles ignored the byplay, concentrating instead on calling in fire from the gunners.  Only direct hits seemed to inflict any damage, although one alien crab had come to a halt after a shell had smashed one of its legs.  The aliens seemed to be hesitating, rather than advancing ... and then they unleashed a new weapon of their own.  Charles had only a few seconds to recognise it as a long-range gun before the shell exploded somewhere to the rear.

“They’ve set them up along the beach,” the Rhino observed.  “Our gunners will have to deal with them.”

“They must have stolen the idea from New Russia,” Sergeant Jackson said.

“They probably developed gunpowder on their own,” Charles disagreed.  He honestly couldn't see how the aliens had reached into space without developing gunpowder.  Maybe they’d had projectile weapons themselves, then gave them up when they realised that plasma weapons were much more effective.  But they couldn't use plasma weapons underwater.  “They just kept them in reserve for when they needed them again.”

The alien gunners didn't seem to be very accurate at first, but they learned quickly.  Charles took advantage of the sudden pause to strengthen his position, then plan his retreat to the east of the advancing aliens.  The alien crabs were spreading out now, allowing his men a chance to slip between them and cut them off from the water.  If their guesses about alien psychology were correct, the aliens would react badly to the challenge.  They might even swing around and go after the Marines.

They don’t seem to have thought of battlesuits for themselves, he thought, as the aliens closed in on his position.  Will they be able to operate them if they try?

He pushed the thought aside as the aliens opened fire.  Brilliant streaks of light blazed over his head, then started to narrow down towards their targets.  The Royal Marines returned fire at the same instant, launching five missiles towards the alien crabs.  One exploded so violently it smashed the legs of its neighbour, the others kept moving forward with deadly intent.  Charles sucked in his breath, then barked commands.  As one, the Royal Marines took to their heels and ran east.

“They’re not coming after us,” he said.  The aliens couldn't hope to catch the suits, but he’d expected them to try.  “We’re clear.”

“Then cut them off,” the Rhino said.  “Good luck.”

Charles nodded as the Marines changed course, running back towards the shoreline.  The aliens were uncomfortable on dry land, which offered the chance to make them more uncomfortable.  Warfare was a test of wills as well as technology and weapons; if the aliens believed themselves to be cut off, they might delay their attack on the forward bases.

But if they were wrong, Charles knew, it wouldn't be long before the aliens cleared enough of the plasma cannons to allow the orbital craft to move in for the kill.

Chapter Thirty-Four

“There's one inhabited planet, on the outer edge of the life-bearing zone,” Lopez reported, as they crossed the tramline into the unexplored system.  “There’s definitely an orbital presence, but there doesn't seem to be a major industrial node here.”

Ted wasn't too surprised.  The system didn't seem to have any gas giant, as far as they could tell, and a gas giant was vitally important for large-scale industrialisation.  They probably did have some local industry – unless the alien economy was very different from humanity’s it was probably cheaper to produce some items locally rather than ship it across several star systems – but not a shipyard.  Besides, there didn't seem to be any large-scale defences either.

“Good,” he said.  He wanted – needed – to attack the system, to avenge the ambush and the dead crewmen and the damaged ships in the worst possible way, but he knew better.  The aliens could not be allowed to catch even a sniff of their presence.  “Keep us well away from anything that might detect us.”

“Aye, sir,” Lopez said.  “Do you want to launch recon probes?”

Ted considered it, hastily.  Recon probes were damn near impossible to detect; certainly, the aliens had no greater success at detecting them than humanity.  But even the slightest hint that there was a human fleet in the system could be disastrous.  The aliens didn't seem to be aware that they had slipped through the tramline, but they could still jump back into the Target One system quicker than he, if they had reason to believe they should.

“No,” he said, finally.  “We will restrict ourselves to long-range observations only.”

“Aye, sir,” Lopez said.

He looked down at the list of updates from the rest of the fleet and smiled, grimly.  The aliens had inflicted considerable damage, but all five remaining carriers were still reasonably operational, apart from one that had taken some damage to her landing tubes.  Her fighters had already been shared out among the remaining carriers as her engineering crews struggled to repair the damage.  By the time they returned to Target One, Ted had been assured, they would either have a carrier capable of launching fighters once again or a ship that would need to sneak back to the tramline that headed back to human space.

“There are no traces of alien warships within the system,” Lopez added, ten minutes later.  “I don't even think there’s a major presence away from the settled world.”

“They may have gone dark,” Ted said.  If he'd known there was a marauding enemy fleet in the next system, he would have ordered his forces to go dark too.  “But keep us well away from anything that might detect us.”

He stood and walked towards the hatch, feeling his age pressing down on him.  “Get some rest too,” he added, as the secondary CIC crew filed into the compartment.  “All of you.”

Bracing himself, he walked down to his cabin and stepped into the compartment.  This time, there was no Marine on guard duty.  As soon as the hatch had closed, he sat down on his chair and looked down at the small embedded terminal.  There were at least seven hours before the fleet was in position to slip through the tramline back to Target One.

Seven hours, he thought, coldly.  A great deal can happen in seven hours.


Henry looked down at the flight roster with some dismay.  After the first battle, it seemed that every successive battle was fought with new wingmen, all as unused to him as he was to them.  This time, a pair of French pilots had been assigned to the squadron, both of whom claimed more experience than any of the British rooks.  There had already been several arguments, which had finally been terminated by the CAG and a series of dire threats to have them cleaning the ship’s toilets with their own toothbrushes.  Like the rest of them, Henry had realised, the CAG was right at the limits of his endurance.  The pilots had stopped arguing very quickly after his threats.

Sighing, he walked out of the ready room – checking his communicator carefully – and made his way towards the observation blister.  He felt an odd twinge of surprise when he discovered it was empty, although he knew he was being silly.  He’d half-expected Janelle to be there, waiting for him.  His hand twitched towards his communicator, intending to send her a message, then he pushed the thought aside.  She might well be too busy right now to listen to him.  Instead, he sat down on the bench and stared out at the stars.

He’d done well, he knew, and yet the squadron had been badly hammered.  The aliens had pressed the offensive to the point where they’d actually managed to board Ark Royal, a thought that sent shivers down his spine.  No one had seriously expected anything of the sort before the war ... and, even after Ark Royal had captured an alien craft, no one had expected the aliens to try the same tactic.  His hand dropped to the pistol at his belt, recalling the CAG’s stern instruction for his pilots to practice in the shooting range when they had time, even though none of them were groundpounders.  But the Admiral’s paranoia had been proved to be entirely correct.

Tiredly, he closed his eyes for a long moment.  When he opened them, Janelle was sitting facing him, her long legs almost brushing against his knees.  Henry smiled as soon as he saw her, wondering just why he hadn’t woken up when she entered the compartment.  He’d never had any real privacy back home on Earth, to the point where the slightest sound could jerk him awake.  Maybe it was a good sign, he told himself, that he felt he could trust her enough to fall asleep in front of her.  Someone else might have taken photos of him while he slept and sold them to the tabloids.  Or tried to push him into an incriminating position and then take photographs of him.

“Hi,” she said, with a brilliant smile.  “How are you?”

“Tired,” Henry said.  He snapped awake as he realised he might have slept through his shift and reached for his communicator.  Thankfully, it had only been an hour, not long enough for him to miss his turn in the ready starfighters.  The CAG would probably have murdered him if he’d failed to report for duty, or at the very least ensured there would be no promotion in his immediate future.  “And you?”

“I’ve felt better,” she said.  Up close, it was clear she was tired too.  “This system seems suspiciously harmless.”

Henry nodded.  He knew the feeling.

“So the Admiral told me to take some rest,” she added.  “But I couldn't sleep.”

“I had problems sleeping too,” Henry said.  The sleep machines had always made him feel odd, even though they did replenish his energy reserves.  “And so I came here.”

Janelle smiled at him.  “It’s a good place to come, isn't it,” she said.  “Beautiful, but reasonably private.”

She leaned forward, opening her lips slightly.  Henry leaned towards her and kissed her, gently.  The kiss grew deeper and deeper until she was sitting next to him, without him having the slightest idea of when she'd moved from her chair.  Her lips tasted faintly of summer, probably an engineered perfume.  Royal Navy crewmen were only allowed minimal cosmetics.

“My mother thought it was an advantage to smell nice,” Janelle said, when he broke the kiss and asked.  Despite her dark skin, she flushed with embarrassment.  “She was always more traditional than my father.  And she told me she wouldn't speak to me again if I went into the Royal Navy.”

Henry winced.  He had some relatives like that too, although in his case he was reasonably sure they were more concerned about avoiding a nasty succession crisis than Henry’s own survival.  It had struck him, more than once, that they were wasting their time.  If Henry died in the service, his sister would take the throne and any debate about male primacy would be put off for at least another generation.  There wouldn't be any way to argue, in the immediate aftermath of his father’s death, that Henry should take the throne if Henry was dead.

“I think she was worried about you,” he said.  “Did she keep her word?”

“Well, she keeps moaning and demanding to know when I’m going to leave the Navy and start living,” Janelle said.  “Other than that ... she does talk to me, whenever I can't avoid it.”

“I know the feeling,” Henry said.  He had relatives he was forced to be polite to, whenever there was a formal dinner or some other social event.  And foreign ambassadors, who always seemed as bored as Henry himself felt.  “But at least she hasn't cut you completely out of her life.”

“I don't think my father would let her,” Janelle said.  She pulled him in for another kiss, then hesitated.  “He was always more proud of me than he let on, I think.”

Their lips met, again.  Henry wrapped his arms around her and pulled her close, then started to stroke the edge of her jacket.  She shivered slightly against him, then kissed his lips harder as his touch became more and more intimate.  It was strange, part of his mind realised, the part of him that never fell completely to emotion.  She didn't seem to have any reserve at all, no awareness that making love to him was making love to a prince.  Was this what it was like to make love without reservation?

“Not here,” she muttered, as his fingers started to pry open her uniform jacket.  He’d always wondered – it had been the source of many jokes – why the designers had made the jackets so they could be opened quickly.  “We could get caught.”

Henry felt himself flush.  Just because they’d been alone all the previous times they'd shared in the blister didn't mean they would always be alone.  He drew back for a long moment, feeling oddly disgruntled by her sudden change, then smiled as an idea came to him.

“We could use one of the private suites,” he said, softly.  He felt himself flushing a moment later, torn between embarrassment and horror at his words.  If she didn't want to go any further ... what would she say to him now?  “I ...”

“We could,” she said, with another kiss.  “Let me see.”

She pulled her terminal off her belt and tapped it with her fingers, her hair falling down to surround her dark face.  Henry stared with unabashed interest, wondering how much of her appearance was the result of genetic engineering before deciding he didn't give a damn.  It wasn't something a gentleman asked, in any case; besides, there was quite a bit of genetic engineering in his own family tree.

“One of the rooms is currently available,” she said.  She looked up at him, her brown eyes bright.  “You want to go?”

“If you want to,” Henry stammered, suddenly finding himself tongue-tied.  He was no virgin – assorted crawlers and the womenfolk of Sin City had seen to that – but there was a difference between such prostitutes and a girl who wanted him for himself alone.  “I don’t mind.”

Janelle laughed out loud.  “I’m sure you don’t mind,” she said, as she pulled herself to her feet and held out a hand.  “Check your appearance, then come on.”

Henry smiled and followed her through the ship’s corridors, trying hard to remember what he’d been told about the private suites.  It had been one of the lectures he’d received from Wing Commander Paton, one of the ones he hadn’t paid much attention to at the time.  He honestly hadn't expected to meet someone interested in Charles Augustus, rather than Prince Henry.  The crew could use them for some private fun time – the Wing Commander had used those exact words – provided they didn't break the rules on fraternisation.  As a member of the Admiral’s staff, Janelle wasn't in the prohibited categories.

He watched as she pressed her fingertips against the sensor, opening the hatch, then stepped inside the chamber.  It was large enough to qualify as a luxury cabin, at least on the standards of most military starships, although it was no larger than a cheap hotel room.  One bulkhead was covered with a strict warning about breaking the regulations concerning relationships while onboard ship; the others were gunmetal grey, as bland and boring as possible.  A mirror hung on one bulkhead; behind it, there was a shower and hairdryer.  He smiled as the hatch closed firmly behind them and locked.  It did look like a cheap hotel room.

“I have three hours until I have to go back on shift,” Janelle said.  Now they were alone together in a locked compartment, she sounded almost nervous.  “And yourself?”

Henry checked his watch.  “Four hours before my next active duty shift,” he said.  “If the aliens attack early ...”

He had a sudden mental vision of having to snatch up his clothes and run for his starfighter, probably in his bare feet.  Moments later, he started to giggle.  He’d been told that some pilots had scrambled so quickly that all they’d worn was their flight suits and nothing else, but it was probably against some regulation or another.  Part of the reason one squadron was kept at permanent launch readiness was to buy time for the remaining pilots to dress and sprint to their planes in a more formal manner.  Haste, his instructors had said, bred forgetfulness.

Janelle giggled too.  Perhaps she’d had the same thought.

“Sit down on the bed,” she ordered.  “Please.”

A quaver in her voice betrayed that she was still nervous.  When Henry obeyed, she straddled him and pushed him down until he was lying flat on the mattress.  She started to kiss him, each kiss slowly growing stronger and stronger, then pulled away and started to undo her jacket.  Her bare breasts bounced free, both as perfect as the rest of her.  Henry reached for them and cupped them in his hands, then started to stroke the nipples gently.  She let out a dull moan, shifting awkwardly on top of him.  Sin City had been an education in more ways than one.

“Relax,” Henry whispered, trying hard to keep his desire under control.  He quickly removed his uniform, then his underclothes.  She stared at his nakedness as if she hadn't seen a nude man before, something that seemed more than a little odd.  Even if she was virgin, surely she would have seen porn.  “We have plenty of time.”

Afterwards, they lay together in a pool of shared sweat, smiling tiredly at each other.  It had been her first time, Henry realised; he felt a moment of gratitude for the whores of Sin City, no matter how shameful going there had seemed the first few times.  They’d taught him how to give pleasure as well as how to take it.  It was an expensive service, but worth every penny.  Besides, as North and the others had pointed out, girls liked it when guys made them have a good time too.  It brought them back for more.

He looked over at her, feeling his smile grow wider.  “Was ... was that good for you?”

“It was,” she said.  “I ... thank you.”

“You're welcome,” Henry said.  “You were great too.”

He found himself wondering just what he could do with her, apart from sex.  There were plenty of places they could go on the moon ... but, sooner or later, he would have to tell her the truth.  And then ... who knew what she would say?  Most of the girls who would like the idea of being Queen were the type of girls who shouldn't be allowed anywhere near Buckingham Palace.  A stab of guilt shot through him and he sat upright, suddenly cursing his own desire.  But he’d wanted to be normal, just for once.

“We’d better shower,” Janelle said.  He couldn't tell if she’d picked up on his mood swing or not, but she didn't seem to want to lie down and cuddle any longer.  “You never know what will happen.”

Henry nodded, then stood and walked into the shower.  Surprisingly, the water was suspiciously cool, but he washed himself down anyway as Janelle waited outside.  As soon as he was out of the shower and drying himself, she was inside, washing the sweat from her body as fast as possible.  He wondered, suddenly, if she regretted what they’d done.  But then, one of the more practical pieces of advice his father had given him had been that some girls grew moody and sad after losing their virginity, no matter how much they’d enjoyed the experience.  All the man could do, his father had said, was wait for them to get over it.

But was it a good piece of advice?  Henry had never realised just how warped a royal upbringing was until he’d seen other teenagers, long before he'd decided to go to the Academy.  Could it be that his father was wrong?

He dressed slowly, then watched as Janelle dressed.  She seemed to be moving slowly, without the simple joy of living she'd shown earlier; perhaps, he told himself, she was depressed.  He gave her a hug and a kiss, then held her hand as they walked out of the compartment ... and straight into the XO.

“Commander,” Janelle said.  She sounded startled, even though they hadn't actually been doing anything wrong; she hastily let go of his hand.  “I ...”

“I need to speak with Augustus,” the XO said.  She waited until Janelle had walked through the airlock, then swung around and glared at Henry.  There was something in her furious gaze that made him quail.  The only other person who had looked at him like that was a female relative who had given him riding lessons and threatened to whip him if he ever mistreated one of her beasts.  “The Admiral’s office, now!”

Chapter Thirty-Five

Years ago, Ted had been called out of class and sent to face the headmaster of his school for something that hadn't been his fault.  He'd hated the feeling of being stared at by the old bastard who’d run the school and resolved that if he was ever in the same place, he would treat his students with considerably more respect.  Now, as a grown adult, he understood the old man more than he cared to admit.  It had been his job to maintain a distance between himself and his pupils.  He couldn't serve them by being their friend.

He looked up as Prince Henry was escorted into his office by the XO.  Ted had heard from her while the Prince remained outside, but he found it hard to come to terms with what he’d heard – and what he could do about it.  Going by a strict reading of the regulations, the Prince had done nothing wrong, not when Ted’s Flag Lieutenant and he were in different chains of command.  But morally?  Ted had to admit that he was coldly furious about the whole affair, no matter the legal rights and wrongs.  The Prince would do uncounted damage to Lopez’s future career if the media ever found out.

Or even another officer, Ted thought.  The Royal Navy was hardly free of favouritism or nepotism – the Old Boys Network saw to that – but anyone who might have been tainted with either tended to be tested to the limits by their new commanding officer.  After all, it had been uncontrolled nepotism that had caused some of Britain’s greatest military and political disasters.  It might have its uses, but the government was determined to keep it firmly under control.  If Lopez was believed to have benefited from her relationship with Prince Henry, her next CO might be very suspicious of her until she proved herself.

He studied the Prince for a long moment, trying to gauge his mood.  Unfortunately, growing up in Buckingham Palace had made the Prince a practiced dissembler, at least when he wanted to conceal his emotions.  Captain Fitzwilliam had said the Prince had a chip on his shoulder, but Ted didn't see it, not now.  Or perhaps he’d reached a point where he tried not to give in to the temptation to start screaming and throwing tantrums.  It wasn't something he could ever ask the younger man.

And he is young, Ted reminded himself.  He’s only nineteen years old.

“So tell me,” he said, as the Prince came to a halt in front of his desk and saluted.  “What were you thinking?”

The Prince looked, for a long unguarded moment, remarkably sullen.  “I was thinking that I had a chance at a proper relationship,” he said.  “And I took it.”

Ted met his eyes and held them, firmly.  “Tell me,” he demanded.  “Does she know who you are?”

“I don’t think so,” the Prince said.  His demeanour started to crack.  “Did you tell her?”

“No,” Ted said, shortly.  He’d been careful not to discuss the matter with anyone other than Captain Fitzwilliam, Commander Williams and the CAG.  It was possible that Lopez could have accessed the file belonging to Charles Augustus and realised there was something wrong with it, but it would be a jump from seeing that to recognising that she was dating Prince Henry.  “But that raises another question, doesn’t it?”

Henry pulled himself up to his full height.  “Sir,” he said, “with the greatest of respect, have we broken any regulations?”

Ted glowered at him.  “If you were a normal pilot,” he said, “you would be enduring backbreaking punishment for speaking to a senior officer in such a manner.”

The Prince flushed, brightly.  “It doesn't make the point any less valid,” he said, sullenly.  “I don’t believe that we broke any regulations.”

He was right, Ted knew.  Hell, the aristocracy were encouraged – sometimes quite firmly – to marry anyone but their fellow aristocrats.  There was no reason to suspect Lopez of being disloyal, quite the opposite.  Her background had been firmly scrutinised when Ted had nominated her as his Flag Lieutenant and nothing suspicious had been found, apart from her odd desire to serve on Ark Royal before the carrier became famous.  Given her family history, Ted knew, it was quite understandable.

But morally ... it would cause all sorts of problems.

“You are a Prince of Great Britain,” Ted said, tartly.  “You may, depending on which way the lawmakers actually jump, be the Heir to the British Throne.  Like it or not, anyone you wind up dating is going to draw attention from the media.”

“No one knows I’m here,” Henry said.

Captain Fitzwilliam stepped forward.  “Do you think that will last?”

Henry’s face darkened.  “Sir?”

Fitzwilliam looked oddly grim.  “If you cover yourself in glory, and you have done very well in a quite stressful situation, the Royal Family will take advantage of your success to prove that it is sharing the burden of the war,” he said.  “They have faced far too many charges of sending young men and women to war while staying behind in safety themselves.  Your success will become their success.  And, once they start bragging, they will have to provide details of your false identity to convince the media that they’re actually telling the truth.”

He was right, Ted knew.  The media sometimes took what they were told on faith, but in the long term fact-checkers and researchers inspected every story, just to avoid the embarrassment of discovering that they’d been made fools by someone’s PR department.  If they knew that Charles Augustus and Prince Henry were the same person, they’d pick apart every last part of his career, looking for signs of favouritism or anything else that would reflect badly on the Prince.  And, somewhere along the line, they’d discover that he’d started an affair with the Admiral’s Flag Lieutenant.

Lopez hadn't known to be discreet, Ted suspected, even though she was a naturally careful person.  Someone might well have noticed her and ‘Charles Augustus’ sharing time together, particularly when they weren't in the same section, without any actual reason to spend time together.  That person might tip off the media, once the reporters started handing out money and other rewards for useful insights into the Prince’s life.  And Lopez’s life would be completely ruined.

Ted had no intention of penalising her for a honest mistake; hell, he wasn't even sure it was a mistake.  If the Prince genuinely cared for her, she could do worse; if it was just a fling on both of their parts, it didn't infringe any regulation.  But the media would penalise her, in the guise of making her famous.  Her entire life would be dissected, anyone close to her would be tapped as a source of information and she wouldn't be able to go anywhere without being surrounded by a howling mob of reporters.  It wouldn't fade away either, Ted suspected, even if she did nothing to encourage it.  The media would make her their puppet for years to come.

And they’d tear her life apart, he thought.  Poor girl.

“You don’t have to provide any details,” Henry said.

“The details will come out,” Ted snapped.  He remembered reading one article about his alcoholism that had quoted officers he’d served with before his assignment to Ark Royal.  If he hadn’t been a big hero, with the media aware that the public didn't want to read bad news about him, it would have been a great deal worse.  “And her life will be destroyed.”

The Prince wilted.  Ted felt a moment of relief.  He did care for her.  The cynic in him wondered just how far they would have gone, even if Charles Augustus had been a real person; relationships forged in fire rarely stood the test of time.  But the media wouldn't give a shit.  They’d tear her life apart, looking for salacious detail they could cram into the tabloids, the more compromising the better.  And if she’d taken any ... interesting photographs as a young girl, she could expect to see them blasted across the datanet.

“I’m sorry,” Henry muttered.

“Glad to hear it,” Ted snapped.  Part of him wished the Prince was his son, so he could disperse some fatherly advice.  The rest of him was adamant that he’d better disperse some advice anyway.  “You have some choices to make, young man.”

The Prince looked up, surprised.  No one who knew who he actually was, Ted suspected, had spoken to him in that tone of voice.  But then, it was always difficult to discipline a Prince, particularly when the media was always watching.  If Prince Henry had been sent to bed without supper, the media would have started howling about child abuse.  But then, what was the endless observation from the media?  Beatings would definitely have been kinder.

“If you’re serious about her, and you certainly seem to be, you need to tell her the truth,” Ted said.  “Tell her before we get home, before the media starts scouring the ship for ribald stories about your service.  She has to know what she’s getting into before she actually gets a very nasty surprise.  And if she decides, knowing what happened to some of your other girlfriends, that she doesn't want to stay with you, I suggest you let her go and respect her privacy.”

Henry flushed, again.  Ted didn't blame him.  Anyone, male or female, whose name was romantically linked with one of the Royal Family had the unwanted attentions of the media, tearing his or her life apart.  Princess Elizabeth had actually lost a boyfriend after the media uncovered more than a few uncomfortable facts about his past behaviour, back when he’d been a young boy.  No one deserved that level of scrutiny just because they might be dating the wrong person.

“Yes, sir,” Henry said.  “I didn't mean to cause problems ...”

Ted allowed his anger to show on his face.  “You’re a Prince,” he snapped.  “You knew, perfectly well, what happens to people who date someone from the Royal Family.  At best, you acted in a very poor manner, one that I find despicable.  You want to be normal, you want to be common, but you will never be either.  I think you could have destroyed her life and career, just by not telling her the truth.

“It’s not fair, I know it isn't fair, but it’s what you’ve got.  Deal with it!”

He met the Prince’s eyes.  “I respect what you’re trying to do,” he said.  “I respect your desire to earn awards and plaudits for your achievements, not for an accident of birth.  And you’re doing very well.  But you cannot get away from your birth, Your Highness.  And anyone involved with you will become an object of scrutiny when the truth finally comes out.  Because it will!”

“I know, sir,” the Prince said, lowering his eyes.  “But ...”

Ted sighed.  The Prince seemed to range between mature behaviour and an immaturity that was shocking, at least in someone who was meant to be a responsible naval officer.  But it was understandable, Ted knew.  The Prince had never been allowed to grow and mature at a normal rate.  He'd been expected to be mature at a very early age – or at least to act mature.  It wasn't a surprise that it caused long term problems ...

... But they were problems that couldn't be tolerated on a starship.

“We will discuss this matter further when we escape Target One,” Ted concluded.  There wasn't time to give the Prince a proper lecture, no matter how much he might deserve it.  “And I suggest that you decide how to tell her, soon.  Or I will have to handle it myself.”

Henry looked down at the deck.  “Yes, sir,” he said.

“And you will report for punishment duty during the voyage home,” Ted added.  “You wanted to be normal, didn't you?”

“Yes, sir,” the Prince said.  “But what do I tell her?”

Ted sighed.  No one sane would ask his advice on relationships.  The last true relationship he’d had had been years ago, before he'd climbed into the bottle.  After that, there had just been the occasional visit to Sin City whenever he’d felt the urge for some female company.

“I suggest you tell her the truth,” Ted said.  “And that you grovel one hell of a lot.”

He met the Prince’s eyes, willing him to understand.  “Dismissed.”

“Poor bastard,” Captain Fitzwilliam said, as soon as the hatch had hissed closed behind the Prince.  “Can't ever get a break.”

Ted rounded on him.  “Do you think this is funny?”

Fitzwilliam sobered.  “I sometimes think that we walk backwards into pitfalls with our eyes firmly shut, loudly protesting all the time that that wasn't what we meant to do,” he said.  “I can't fault the Prince for wanting a normal life and normal relationships, but at the same time ...”

He shrugged, expressively.  “Poor bastard.”

Ted scowled.  He understood the Prince’s desire to prove himself to be more than just a title, one granted by an accident of birth, but starting a relationship with anyone would cause its own problems.  And the fact he’d started dating the Admiral’s Flag Lieutenant would stink like the starship’s waste disposal tubes ... and if it didn't now, it sure as hell would by the time the reporters and their editors were done with it.  He wondered, absently, just how long it would be before they started casting nasty aspirations at Lopez herself.  She was certainly in a good position, at least to civilian eyes, to realise who Charles Augustus actually was and set her cap at him.

“Yes, sir,” the XO said.  “Should we take steps to keep them apart?”

“I don’t know,” Ted confessed.  “Do we have any right to do so?”

The hell of it, once again, was that no regulations were actually being broken.  Starfighter pilots who ended up in bed together could expect to be reassigned to different squadrons; command staff who slept together could be dismissed from the service ... but people from different sections were allowed to form relationships.  Given the sheer size of any carrier and the time they spent away from Earth or Britannia, no amount of regulations could hope to prevent relationships from forming.  All they could do was try to ensure that they caused the minimum disruption to the ship and the rest of the crew.

“You’re her boss,” Fitzwilliam pointed out.  “You could keep her busy, at least until we leave Target One behind.”

Ted nodded.  There were two hours before they slipped through the tramline and re-entered the system.  By then, it was quite possible that Force Two had realised the drones were nothing more than decoys and moved back into Target One themselves, hoping to intercept the fleet.  And they would succeed.  The only other way the fleet knew that would take them back to human space involved passing through the front lines.

“I think I will,” he said.  “And you can let Kurt know to keep an eye on him.”


Henry barely noticed his surroundings as he made his way back to the starfighter ready room, caught up in a whirlwind of emotions that threatened to overwhelm him.  Control was one thing he'd learned early, but it was also something that frayed regularly as he came to grips with the reality of his situation.  It just wasn’t fair!  Why should he be treated as a role model for young men and women when all he'd done was choose the right set of parents?  And why should he be condemned for doing something other young men did regularly?  It wasn't fair!

But the Admiral was right, he knew; he’d been selfish.

Bitter self-disgust threatened to overwhelm him as he paused, just outside the hatch.  He’d wanted a normal relationship, he’d wanted a normal life, but he wouldn't get either, no matter what he did.  Even the Royals who had walked away from their titles were still hounded by the media, as if anyone really gave a shit what they did with their lives.  Henry had no illusions any longer about the ravenous monsters men called reporters, subhuman vermin who fed on misery and created it wherever they went.  Janelle’s life would be torn apart, dissected and then broadcast to the entire universe.

And what if she had something in her past that made her ... unsuitable?

It had happened to his sister, Henry knew.  His parents and the Privy Council had put their foot down, after the media had reported the facts to the world.  Elizabeth had sulked for weeks afterwards, refusing to attend to any of her ceremonial duties – and how could he blame her?  Her life had been torn apart because of something the media had discovered.  But was anyone truly without sin?

Henry had few sins in his past, but then he'd always been aware that anything he did would be discovered and used against him.  The ever-present threat of exposure had kept him under control, even as his father had retreated into his regal persona and his mother had become a neurotic mess.  But what might Janelle be hiding in her past?

It might not even be a real sin, he knew.  If she’d had a relationship with another woman, it would be used against her.  After all, the Queen had to be willing and able to bear children.  It was tradition.  Anyone else could sleep with whoever the hell they wanted, at least as long as they were sixteen or older, but not the Royal Family.  They had to pick their partners with extreme – and pointless – care.

He tried to compose a speech to Janelle, to tell her the truth, but found it impossible.  What could he tell her?  Would she think he’d been leading her on?  Or would she become one of the crawling women who wanted to be Queen ... and didn't realise, until it was too late, that it was nothing more than a gilded cage?

Silently, he cursed it all under his breath.  It just wasn't fair.

Chapter Thirty-Six

If she realised that something had happened after the XO had dragged her lover away, Lopez showed no sign of it as she stepped into the CIC and took her seat near the Admiral’s command chair.  Indeed, she looked remarkably happy – and young.  Ted felt a stab of envy, remembering when he’d been that young himself, and then put the thought out of his mind for the moment.  The Prince could talk to her after they escaped Target One, when they would have several days to come to grips with the sudden change in their relationship.  Until then, it could wait.

“The fleet has checked in, sir,” Lopez said.  “They’re standing by.”

“Good,” Ted said.  The damage had been repaired as best as possible, but he was grimly aware that there was a large gash in the Old Lady’s armour – and the other carriers weren't heavily armoured in the first place.  “Order War Hog to make transit.”

He leaned back in his command chair as the frigate vanished from the display.  As far as they could tell, they hadn't been tracked as they’d sneaked through the alien-occupied system, but the aliens had been alarmingly successful in tracking them before.  The analysts had wondered if the aliens, with their far greater understanding of gravity, had a way of monitoring tramlines at a distance, although it seemed impossible.  But then, so much else the aliens had shown to humanity had been deemed impossible.

If they had perfect sensors, like something out of science-fiction, they’d have hunted us down by now, Ted thought, coldly.  They can't be much more advanced over us.

War Hog has returned,” Lopez reported.  “She’s detected hints that Target One is under siege.”

Ted nodded, relieved.  If the aliens had successfully reasserted control over the high orbitals, they would have smashed the Rhino and his forces in short order.  Hell, given how little use they made of the land surface, they could just have rained down projectiles at random, heedless of the damage they were doing.  But if the planet was under siege, there was a chance to retrieve the groundpounders and escape before Force Two made its unwelcome reappearance.

“Take us through the tramline,” he ordered.  “Best possible speed.”

“Aye, sir,” Lopez said.  “Transit in five minutes.”

Ted waited as the display blanked out, then reformatted itself, displaying the familiar sight of Target One.  He braced himself, half-expecting to encounter a welcoming committee even if the frigate had detected nothing, then settled back in his command chair as no enemy ships materialised.  Data started to flow in from the handful of passive recon platforms they’d scattered across the solar system, but it was considerably out of date.  At least the fleet train had survived without detection.

“Order them to remain where they are,” Ted ordered.  By the time they received the message, the fleet would be halfway to Target One.  “The Marine Transports are to prepare to pick up the soldiers as soon as we force our way into orbit.”

“Aye, sir,” Lopez said.

Ted nodded, hastily running through calculations in his mind.  They’d have to take the shortest route to the planet, which shouldn't be a problem as all indications suggested they hadn't been detected.  But once they reached the planet, the aliens would scream for Force Two to come to the rescue.  By his calculations, they would have less than five hours to re-embark the troops ... assuming that Force Two didn't arrive before Ted’s ships entered orbit.  There were too many variables for him to relax comfortably.

He caught himself looking at the back of Lopez’s head as she turned away from him, working her console with grim determination.  The Prince was a lucky man, Ted decided, despite his accident of birth.  Maybe they would be happy together ... angrily, he dismissed the thought.  There was no time to think about it, not when a battle was about to take place.  Instead, he looked down at the reports from the other ships, wondering just how much creative editing had gone into some of them.  If it had been up to him, the damaged ships would have been withdrawn to a shipyard.

But if you don't get out of this system, he reminded himself, there’s no hope of ever returning to a shipyard.

The hours ticked by slowly.  Ted occupied himself with studying the reports from the long-range probes as they neared the planet, picking up and reporting the presence of alien ships keeping their distance from the ground-based plasma weapons.  There was an odd moment of Déjà Vu as he looked at their formation, something that puzzled him until he realised that it was the exact same formation his forces had used, after they’d battered their way into the system and attacked the planet’s defences.  The aliens, it seemed, thought along similar lines to humanity.  It made him wonder why they just couldn't or wouldn’t talk.

“They haven’t cleared the space junk,” Lopez said, in some surprise.  “It's still in orbit.”

“There isn't really time to clear it all,” Ted pointed out.  “They’d need weeks to get most of it headed out of orbit or swept up into a mobile factory.  As long as the bigger pieces are smashed they might not be immediately worried about the rest of it.”

He leaned back in his command chair as they neared the enemy fleet.  Oddly, there were no carriers, merely seven frigate-sized craft and two battlecruisers.  Ted smiled to himself; the aliens might have extremely good point defence, but without fighters of their own they’d have no real cover against his starfighters.  They were about to get thoroughly smashed without even a chance to fight back.

“Launch starfighters at Point Trafalgar,” he ordered, keying the display.  “The CSP is to cover the carriers; the remaining starfighters and bombers are to target the alien ships and take them out as rapidly as possible.”

“Understood,” the CAG said.  “They’ll see us coming the moment we launch starfighters.”

“By then, it shouldn't matter,” Ted said.  He briefly considered trying to engage with mass drivers instead – it should be possible to aim at the alien craft without threatening the planet itself – then dismissed the thought.  They’d need the mass drivers if – when – Force Two arrived in the system.  “Launch starfighters at Point Trafalgar.”

He smiled to himself, tiredly.  The aliens had hammered humanity in a curbstomp battle more than once.  It was time to return the favour.


“Launch fighters,” a voice barked.  “I say again; launch fighters!”

Kurt smiled to himself as he blasted out into the darkness of space, then glanced down at his display.  Thankfully, everyone was following orders, despite the addition of foreign pilots to their squadrons.  The CSP fell back to cover the carriers – the aliens would know they were there, now – while the bombers and the remaining starfighters advanced towards the alien ships.  It became clear, very quickly, that the aliens hadn't had the slightest idea the humans were anywhere near until it was far too late.

“They’re bringing up their drives and weapons,” the sensor tech noted.  “But I think they’re having to flash-wake some of their systems.”

“Good,” Kurt said.  He felt his lips draw back into a cold smile as he contemplated blowing his way through unprepared alien craft.  “Unless it’s a trap, of course.”

The alien commanders clearly seemed to think that discretion was the better part of valour.  As soon as their drives were online, they turned and started to head away from the planet, pouring on all the motive power they could muster.  It would have allowed them to avoid engagement if they’d been facing human starships, but not when facing starfighters.  No starship could match a starfighter for sheer rate of acceleration.

“Target the battlecruisers first,” Kurt ordered, as they closed in on the alien craft.  Their point defence was already firing, although the odds were staggeringly against hitting any of the human craft at extreme range.  On the other hand, it did make holding a steady formation almost impossible.  “Aim for their drive sections.”

See if we can take another ship intact, he thought, coldly.  He smiled, remembering how Molly had spent almost all of his share of the reward from the last battlecruiser they’d captured.  It would definitely bring in more prize money.

“Locked on,” the bomber CO said.  “Torpedoes away.”

As always, the enemy craft switched their point defence to target the torpedoes, giving the bombers a chance to break free.  It wasn't enough to swat down all of the missiles; five of them detonated, four targeted on a single ship.  Riddled with laser beams, the alien craft staggered, then exploded violently.  Her counterpart lost speed rapidly – her drive section must have been badly damaged, but not destroyed – and fell out of formation.  It didn't stop her from firing at the human starfighters as they regrouped and prepared for another attack.

“We could try to board her,” Rose suggested.  “She’s the same class as the last ship we took.”

Kurt considered it for a long moment, then shook his head.  “No,” he said, out loud.  “We don't have the deployable Marines to board her right now – and we couldn't guarantee getting her home.”

The remaining alien frigates left their comrade behind as they raced for the tramline.  Kurt wasn't sure if he was looking at a display of contemptible cowardice or cold common sense, but it didn't really matter.  Ignoring the damaged battlecruiser – the mass drivers could pick her off – he led his squadrons after the other alien craft.  Two American bomber squadrons and one Japanese squadron took out four of them, while the British and French killed the remaining three.  Moments later, a mass driver shot from Ark Royal shattered the damaged alien battlecruiser.

“I’m picking up lifepods, sir,” Rose reported.  “Do you want to detail a SAR team to pick them up?”

“Boot the question up to the Admiral,” Kurt said.  “I don't know if it’s worth the risk.”

He scowled.  If they’d been fighting humans – at least one of the other interstellar powers – there would be a shared understanding of what to do with prisoners.  No French or Russian crew, picked up from a lifepod, would try to fight as soon as they were bought onto a British ship or vice versa.  Indeed, there was an agreement among such powers that POWs were to be treated well.  But the aliens hadn't signed any of the agreements.  Who knew how they would react to seeing humans trying to take them captive?

Rose had a more practical question.  “Can they survive long enough to reach the planet or be recovered by other aliens?”

“I don’t know,” Kurt confessed.  “I just don’t know.”


Lopez turned to face Ted.  “Admiral?”

Ted hesitated.  They’d taken alien captives before, on Alien-1, but that had been on the ground.  Too much could go wrong in space, starting with the aliens overloading their power cells rather than risk falling into human hands.  But what sort of message would it send to the aliens if humans didn't pick up their stranded personnel?

He looked down at the display.  “Can they make it to the planet without assistance?”

There was a pause.  “Unknown,” Lopez said, after checking the records.  “Alien escape pods are not comparable to ours, it would seem.”

Ted ground his teeth.  “Assign a pair of frigates to pick up the lifepods, one by one,” he said.  “Once taken onboard, the aliens are to remain in custody until they can be transferred to the holding facility on Luna.”  He briefly considered dropping the aliens on Target One, but knew it might be condemning them to death.  “They are to be treated with respect, as far as reasonably possible.”

“Understood,” Lopez said.

Ted sighed, inwardly.  It was another complication, one he didn't want.  But there was no choice.

“Establish a direct link with the Rhino,” he added.  “I want to talk to him as soon as possible.”

“Yes, sir,” Lopez said.  “The starfighters and bombers are returning to the carriers now.”

Ted wondered, with a sudden moment of insight, if she’d been monitoring ‘Charles Augustus’ through her console.  It would be quite easy, but it would also get her into very real trouble, just for allowing herself to become distracted.  But it wasn't something he could ask ... sighing again, he made a mental note to check on it, then pushed the thought to the back of his mind.  There were far too many other things to worry about right now.


“Good work,” the CAG said, as the pilots filed back into the ready room.  “Not a single pilot lost.”

Henry nodded, relieved.  The aliens had put up one hell of a wall of point defence, but the humans had kept their distance – and, as always, the aliens had switched to targeting the torpedoes as soon as they were launched.  It had probably come very close to saving his life, more than once.  He sighed as he took his seat and stared down at the deck, bitterly.  Now he was no longer focused on keeping himself alive, he felt himself starting to think about Janelle again.  What the hell was he going to tell her?

“Excuse me,” a voice said.  Henry jerked upright to see the CAG just in front of him, his eyes dark with irritation.  “Is there something, perchance, more interesting than me in the room?”

“No, sir,” Henry said.  His thoughts might have wandered, but he knew the right answer.  “I was just thinking ...”

“Thinking isn't doing,” the CAG snapped.  “Which is fortunate, as otherwise we wouldn't get any work done at all.”

He gave Henry another glare, then moved his attention to the rest of the pilots.  Henry couldn’t help wondering if the CAG knew who he was and what he'd done with the Admiral’s Flag Lieutenant.  But there was no way to know, not now,  He knew he’d been very lucky that no one had noticed him being escorted to the Admiral’s office or there would be countless rumours sweeping through the ship.  Hell, if the rumourmongers realised that he’d been sleeping with the Admiral’s Flag Lieutenant, they’d have some truly awful rumours to spread.  And if that happened ...

Gritting his teeth, he forced himself to concentrate on the CAG.

“You will remain in the ready room at all times,” the CAG said.  “We expect the aliens to reinforce this system as quickly as possible.  You will be responsible for covering our evacuation if the aliens arrived before we make our daring escape.”

Henry nodded in unison with the other pilots.  It might have been aimed at him – non-pilots were not welcome in the ready room – or it might be nothing more than a wise precaution, but he couldn't deny that it was a wise precaution.  The aliens could hop through the tramline from Target Two anytime they liked.

“No sleep in the machines, this time,” the CAG added.  “Take a nap here, if you feel you need it, but don't leave this compartment.  Or there will be murder done.”

He strode over to the corner and sat down, picking up a terminal and starting to flick through it listlessly.  Henry eyed him for a long moment, then reached for a terminal of his own.  He hadn't bothered to write any letters to his family – there was too great a chance of them being intercepted – or a log of his own.  How could he when he had no expectations of privacy?  But he would have liked to write a note to Janelle ... absently, he wondered if the Admiral had said anything to her.  Did he care about her enough to try to protect her from harm?

It's the duty of a senior officer – or an aristocrat, he remembered Duke Winchester saying, once.  You must protect your subordinates, because loyalty is a two-edged sword.  If you are not loyal to them, they will not be loyal to you.

He put the terminal down, cursing his life.  If he wrote a message, it might be intercepted by the media; nothing, no matter how sensitive, was ever completely wiped from military datanets.  The safest place to put a message, he'd been taught, was paper.  Paper, at least, could be destroyed.  But he didn't dare write anything when his fellow pilots might see it.

I'm sorry, he thought, tiredly.  I’m so sorry.


“It's good to see you, Admiral,” the Rhino said.  “We're having a bit of a problem here.”

“So I see,” Ted said.  He knew very little about fighting on the ground, but it looked alarmingly as though the aliens were winning.  But then, they seemed to have infinite reinforcements within easy range.  “I’ll enter orbit in five minutes.  I suggest you start identifying targets for us.”

“Understood,” the Rhino said.  “And thank you.”

Ted nodded, then looked over at Lopez as the connection broke.  “Order the frigates to provide fire support to the forces on the ground,” he commanded.  “Then call the transports and tell them to enter orbit and start recovering the troops ...”

There was a bleep from the sensor console.  “Sir, we just picked up a message from the recon platforms,” Lopez said.  “A large force just entered the system from Target Two.  Force composition matches Force Two, with a handful of additions.”

Ted gritted his teeth.  The aliens had clearly managed to get off a message before they’d been wiped out.  Their old trick of hiding a courier boat near the tramlines seemed to have paid off for them once again.  And they’d ensured that he didn't have time to evacuate the equipment along with the men on the ground.

“Understood,” he said.  “Update the Rhino ... and tell him they’d better hurry.  We may have to leave very quickly.”

“Aye, sir,” Lopez said.

Ted took a long breath.  An idea was starting to work its way through his mind ...

... But would they have time to make it work?

Chapter Thirty-Seven

“Get down!”

Charles threw himself to the ground as the alerts screamed in his ear.  Moments later, the ground shook violently as the first KEW crashed down, only a kilometre from his position.  He used his suit to burrow deeper into the ground as shockwaves passed over his head, then relaxed as stillness returned.  When he pulled himself back to his feet, he found himself looking on a scene from hell.

“I think they got them,” Sergeant Jackson said.

“Yes,” Charles agreed.  He’d been near KEW strikes before, but only one or two isolated weapons used to clear the way for his soldiers.  This, on the other hand, was over a hundred projectiles, each one aimed at an alien vehicle or troop formation.  The alien forces had been completely wrecked, while the vegetation had been flattened or set on fire.  “I think they did.”

“All right,” the Rhino said.  “The aliens have a large fleet inbound, so let’s try not to waste time.  Case Omega is now in effect.  Return to the base and prepare for immediate departure.”

Charles wasn’t surprised.  Under Case Omega, the human troops would abandon most of their equipment on the ground, leaving certain weapons primed to fire at alien starships as they entered orbit.  It wouldn’t take the aliens long to deal with them, but it might just buy the escaping humans some time.  But if there was an alien fleet inbound, it was alarmingly likely that they would have real problems pulling everyone off the ground in time.

“Charles, you and your men are to return to the FOB,” the Rhino said.  “You've been assigned a departure slot already.”

“Let's hope the computer works,” Charles said, as he turned to lead the way across the shattered countryside.  The logistics computer was an American attempt to avoid having to bring a logistics section along with them, but early results had not been encouraging.  Human logistics officers could be convinced that serving units really needed extra supplies; the computer, it seemed, was less capable of understanding mission requirements.  “And that the aliens don’t try to impede our departure.”


“At current rate,” Lopez said, “they will enter engagement range in two hours, forty minutes.”

Ted nodded, very slowly.  The aliens were pushing their drives as far as they could, as if they feared the human troops would lay waste to the planet after they left the surface behind.  He couldn't deny that it was a tempting thought, but all the old arguments against mass genocide still held water.  Besides, there might come a time when humanity and aliens could share the same worlds.  There was no point in destroying a place that might one day include human settlers.

“Unfortunate,” he said.  “How long will it take to load everyone on the transports and start running?”

“Roughly two hours,” Lopez said.  She paused.  “If the logistics computer can be trusted, that is.”

Ted scowled.  Nothing went according to plan, not even the most careful plan devised by a hundred careful planners, who tried to account for every variable.  Something always went wrong.  A shuttle would develop drive problems, a team of soldiers would be caught out of place, the aliens would start firing on the shuttles with previously undetected  antiaircraft weapons ... there were just too many possibilities.  But they had no choice.

He worked his way through the problem, piece by piece.  The aliens would catch up with the fleet and force a battle.  That much was clear.  Or the aliens would head towards Tramline One themselves and block his line of retreat.  That would force him to fight a battle on their terms.  It wasn't something that could be allowed.  Or could it?

“Watch them carefully,” he ordered.  “And see how they react.”

Time ticked by slowly as the first shuttles dropped down to the surface and returned, hauling a number of Marines back to the Marine Transports.  Judging from some of the commentary, they were complaining loudly about being the first to leave, even though there was no time for any real complaints.  Ted let out a private sigh of relief as the Royal Marines were returned to the transports, then placed in the queue for transfer back to Ark Royal.  This time, if the aliens tried to board again, he would have reinforcements on hand to deal with the problem.

“It's proceeding smoothly, without interference,” Lopez said.  “Do you think they’re letting us go?”

Ted shrugged.  “I think they’ve reasoned that it would be easier to take us out in space rather than on the ground,” he said.  “Or maybe their command and control networks were shattered by the bombardment and they're still putting them back together.”

He turned his gaze back to the alien fleet as the drones probed the outer edges of its formation, noting that it was definitely Force Two ... but with a handful of minor additions.  Ted was privately relieved to see that, even though Force Two was far more powerful than he cared to face.  At least it suggested the aliens couldn't produce a whole new fleet in time to be a factor in their escape.

There was a ding from the console.  “Sir,” Lopez said, “they’re altering course.”

Ted nodded, unsurprised.  The aliens had reasoned, correctly, that they couldn't prevent Ted from abandoning and destroying Target One, if he felt like it.  Instead, they were putting themselves between Target One and Tramline One, as he’d anticipated.  But he didn't feel any relief at watching the aliens keeping their distance.  Instead, he knew he would have to force a battle on their terms.

“Tell the fleet to start making preparations to deploy mines,” he ordered.  It had taken an hour to work out how to deploy the mines to best advantage ... and he knew it could fail easily.  But the aliens would have no reason to expect it.  “But we will hold position until the last of the troops have returned to their ships.”

He turned his attention to the display monitoring the situation on the ground, carefully not looking at the near-orbit or deep space displays.  The Rhino hadn't sounded too keen on the idea of ordering an evacuation, but there was no choice, not really.  And besides, they’d learnt a great deal about the aliens, captured tons of pieces of technology for the boffins to look at and forced the aliens to react to humanity for a change.  The mission had been far from a complete waste of time.

“Admiral, Captain Junco sends his compliments and informs you that we now have fifty-two alien prisoners in his hold,” Lopez said, suddenly.  “He wishes to know if you want to return them to the lifepods?”

“No,” Ted said.  Quite apart from the danger of Force Two believing that the humans had rigged the lifepods to blow – a crime against humanity, according to international agreements the aliens hadn't signed – they’d taken the aliens captive now.  “He is to hold them until we can arrange a transfer.”

He looked down at his console for a long moment, then back up at Lopez.  “Have a platoon of Royal Marines dispatched to assist,” he added.  “I don’t want any problems with the prisoners.”

“No, sir,” Lopez agreed.


“That's the last of the Marines off the mudball,” Farley reported.  “The planet is deserted now, apart from the aliens.”

“Excellent,” James said.  He looked up at the icons representing the alien starships, knowing that the Admiral would have no choice but to order an attack.  “And our status?”

“We’re as ready as we will ever be,” the XO confirmed.  “They’re just waiting for us there.”

James nodded.  The aliens held all the cards – or so they thought.  If the human ships charged  their position, there would be a battle on alien terms.  But if the human ships tried to evade, the aliens could just keep themselves between the human ships and the tramline ... or intercept if the humans tried to head for another tramline.  For a  moment, James contemplated trying to return to Target Two, but he knew it would be far too dangerous, not when they knew so little about alien-held space.  Their best bet was to try to beat Force Two before it could tear them apart.

“Back into the fire,” he muttered.  “But we’ve been in tight spots before.”

Amelia gave him a sharp look.  “Anything as bad as this, sir?”

James smiled.  “Last time, it was just us facing a bad-tempered alien battlecruiser,” he said.  “This time ...”

“We’re facing an entire war fleet,” Amelia pointed out.  “I think it’s a little different.”

“No, it isn't,” James said.  “This time, we have a fleet of our own – and we know we can give them a damn good kicking, even if we lose.  So ...”

He smiled, again.  “So we know the aliens will remember us, no matter what happens,” he added.  “And we will make it home.”

Amelia nodded, once.

James understood her worries.  It was a tight spot, but he had faith in Admiral Smith.  A man who could overcome his demons, climb out of the bottle and come up with a tactic for giving the aliens a very nasty surprise was clearly someone to reckon with.  And to think that Uncle Winchester had nagged James to marry!  Someone ought to be trying to marry Admiral Smith to a suitably aristocratic girl before he was too old to sire children.  There was no shortage of girls who might accept a man with such a distinguished war record, even if his pre-war career had been ... odd, to say the least.

He frowned as he remembered the Prince and his ... affair with the Admiral’s Flag Lieutenant.  It would be unpleasant if it became public, no matter what everyone involved happened to think of it – and there would be some very nasty insinuations made by the media and just about everyone else.  But James suspected the Prince hadn't meant anything bad, not really.  Like the younger James himself, he had been more of a thoughtless fool than indulging in deliberate malice.  And yet that would be no consolation when it exploded in his face.

Amelia leaned over.  “Captain?”

“I was distracted for a moment,” James said.  Amelia worried about the effects of the Prince’s affair on her career, which was understandable.  James could be demoted or dismissed, but he couldn't be stripped of his title.  Amelia, on the other hand, could lose everything.  In theory, there was no blame to attach to anyone, as no regulations had been broken.  But in practice, James knew, the world was rarely fair.  “But I won’t be distracted any longer.”

He settled back in his chair as the fleet prepared to leave orbit, checking through the reports from the damaged parts of the ship.  Anderson had cleared everything as much as possible, including rerouting everything from power conduits to datanet nodes, but James had no illusions.  The designers might have included a great deal of interior armour, back when everyone had expected to face nukes on a regular basis, yet it wasn't enough to stand up to a major internal explosion.  A single nuke, detonating inside the ship, would blow the Old Lady into atoms.

“The Admiral has signalled the fleet to depart,” Lightbridge said.  “With your permission?”

“Granted,” James said.  “And prepare to execute the mine-laying operation on the Admiral’s command.”

He looked up sharply as another alert sounded on the console.  “Captain,” Farley reported, “a second alien fleet has just entered the system.”

“Understood,” James said, as new icons appeared on the display, each one representing the rough location of an alien ship.  Thankfully, they were far out of engagement range for the moment.  The time-delay wouldn't matter too much.  “Keep me informed of their movements.”

He nodded to Amelia.  “Maybe this is the worst tight spot after all.”


“Designate this third fleet as Force Three,” Ted ordered, keeping his voice under tight control.  “Do we have a breakdown on its composition?”

“Four carriers, seventeen frigates,” Lopez said, after a long moment.  “There may be others, but they didn't pass close enough to the recon platforms to be detected.”

Ted nodded, grimly.  On its own, Force Three could have been handled, but with Force Two also in the system there was a very real risk of being caught between two fires.  They were committed to a close engagement with Force Two while Force Three came up behind them and stuck a knife in their backs.  It wouldn't be an easy matter to evade both of the fleets ...

“Keep us moving towards Force Two,” he ordered.  They’d have to try to beat Force Two before Force Three caught up with them.  “Are the mine preparations completed?”

“Yes, sir,” Lopez said.  “But they may see the trick coming.”

“Yes, they might,” Ted agreed.  “But I don’t see any other way to even the odds.”

He forced himself to relax as the fleet picked up speed, advancing on Force Two.  The aliens didn't seem inclined to get out of their way, which made sense, or launch their starfighters.  Like Ted himself, the alien commander seemed to want to wait to launch until the last possible moment ... something that irked him, because it suggested they were facing a capable commander.  But any armchair general could have picked that tactic up from reading a book.

Shaking his head, he looked over at Lopez.  “Time to Point Normandy?”

“Fifty minutes,” Lopez said.  “Assuming, sir, that the enemy fleet doesn't change position.”

Ted doubted the aliens would move at all.  They had the human fleet right where they wanted it; they wouldn't want to alter course before they had a chance to close their trap.  Indeed, Ted suspected the only thing that would make them change position was his own course changes ... and only insofar as they could keep themselves between humanity and the tramline.  But he needed them to stay right where they were.

“Let us hope it won’t,” he said.  He briefly considered touring the ship – he'd done it before on the eve of battle – but it would be irresponsible to leave his post with two enemy fleets breathing down their necks.  “All we can do now is wait – and pray.”


“This is the situation,” Kurt said, glaring down at his pilots.  They looked back, their faces grim.  Even the least experienced of them had seen enough war now to be thoroughly sick of battle.  “One enemy force is blocking our way out of this cursed system; another is coming up behind us, intending to bugger us with a rusty chainsaw.  This is a sticky situation.”

He paused, then continued.  “The Admiral has a plan to cripple Force Two,” he continued.  “However, in order to implement that plan, we have to do something that will slow us down, giving Force Three a chance to catch up with us.  We may smash one fleet only to be smashed in turn by the other.  I don’t have to tell you, I suspect, that that would be very bad.”

“No, sir,” Rose called out.  “No one likes being buggered with a rusty chainsaw, sir.  It’s in strict defiance of Royal Navy tradition.  Unless, of course, they’re overcompensating for something.”

There were some chuckles from the pilots, most of whom looked better after Rose had cracked her terrible joke.  Kurt smiled, inwardly.  Most of the young men and women in front of him were about to die – the discrepancy between the alien forces and his own would make sure of it – but at least they’d die with smiles on their faces.

“As soon as the Admiral’s surprise hits them, we will launch,” Kurt continued.  “And then we will hammer them so badly they’ll be blown right into the next system.  Aim your torpedoes carefully, watch your flanks and don’t let them slip past you.  Whatever happens now will depend on you.”

He took a long breath.  “To your planes, ladies and gentlemen,” he concluded, quietly.  He couldn't help wondering how many of them were going to be looking at him after the battle – and how many of them would die.  “See you on the far side.”


“The alien craft are entering deployment range,” Lopez said.  “The mines are ready to deploy.”

“Deploy them,” Ted ordered.  “And warn the crews to be careful.”

He watched, grimly, as mine after mine was launched into space.  Unlike the previous deployment, these mines would continue to follow the same ballistic trajectory as the fleet itself, heading right towards the alien craft.  After a long moment, when all of the mines were in space, Ted issued the next order.

“All stop,” he commanded.  “I say again, all stop.”

Ark Royal quivered violently as her drives went into reverse, cancelling the massive starship’s velocity.  One by one, the fleet slowed to a halt, relative to the alien ships, but the mines kept gliding forwards.  Ted braced himself, expecting the aliens to notice the trick and take countermeasures, but they did nothing.  Perhaps they thought that Ted hadn't noticed Force Three until now ... or perhaps they thought he'd been trying to force them to move and only just realised that he’d failed.  There was no way to know.

“Mines entering attack range in thirty seconds,” Lopez reported.  “They’re drawing on our active sensors, sir, rather than using their own.”

Ted nodded.  One advantage of too-powerful active sensors – they dated back to the time Ark Royal was designed and built – was that they lit up their targets for everyone to see.  The mines didn't need active of their own, not as long as their mothership was close by so they could use their passive sensors to monitor her emissions.  And it helped ensure they weren’t detected.

“Force Three is picking up speed,” Lopez reported.  “She wants to catch us now, I think.”

“Too late,” Ted said.  On the display, the mines had started to detonate.  He’d picked their targets with a calculated ruthlessness that had surprised him, despite knowing what was at stake.  “Far too late.”

Chapter Thirty-Eight

“Five carriers gone, sir,” Lopez reported.  “One more badly damaged.”

“Launch fighters,” Ted snarled.  “All batteries commence firing!”

He watched, grimly, as Force Two withered under his fire, then started to launch its remaining fighters.  The aliens seemed stunned, but they were already collecting themselves – and, behind the humans, Force Three was catching up.  Losing so much speed so rapidly opened the serious risk of being taken from behind.

“Resume course and speed,” Ted ordered, as the starfighters lanced out ahead of his ships.  “I want us to pass through the tramline as soon as possible.”


Kurt barely managed to prevent himself from crying out in delight as he saw just how much damage the alien fleet had taken; the rooks were much less restrained.  A force that might have been able to stop the humans directly had been crippled, badly enough to give the human fleet a fighting chance.  He smiled to himself as he led the starfighters and bombers towards the alien ships, which were starting to scatter.  Their fighters were hastily organising themselves into a formation to cover the retreat.

“We can’t just concentrate on the carriers this time,” Kurt said.  At close range, the alien frigates and battlecruisers were just as dangerous as the carriers and their starfighters.  “I’m designating targets now.  Take them all out as quickly as possible.”

He braced himself as an alien starfighter swooped down on him, then fired off a stream of plasma as he took evasive manoeuvres.  Even facing overwhelming odds, the aliens held the line and tried to beat the humans off, while others slipped past the human starfighters and roared towards the human starships.  Kurt wondered, in a sudden moment of insight, if the aliens had a far larger fleet of carriers than humanity.  They’d certainly been less concerned about losing carriers than the human race.

“Gamma, cover the bombers,” he ordered, as the bombers closed in on their targets.  Alerts flared up in his HUD as several mass driver projectiles shot past, aimed at the alien frigates.  Only one struck home, but it smashed its target into rubble.  The remainder were either blasted into dust by the aliens or simply missed their targets.  “Everyone else, focus on keeping the alien starfighters busy.”

The alien frigate loomed up in front of him on the display, firing endless streams of plasma towards the human fighters.  Kurt saw two of his fighters vanish in quick succession, followed by an American bomber that was struck moments before it could launch its torpedoes, then the fire drained away as the remaining bombers opened fire.  The alien frigate managed to shoot down all, but one of the torpedoes.  But one was enough to destroy the ship.

“Target destroyed,” a Japanese-accented voice said.  “I say again, target destroyed.”

“Good shooting,” Kurt said.  “Now let’s do it again.”


“Incoming starfighters,” Farley warned.  “They’re targeting us and Napoleon.”

“Lock point defence on incoming craft; fire at will,” James ordered.  “I say again, fire at will.”

He braced himself as the alien starfighters swooped down on Ark Royal, shooting continous streams of plasma towards her hull.  As always, sensor blisters and weapons mounts were destroyed, but this time their fire raged towards the weakened section of the hull.  James sucked in his breath as the aliens closed in, then smiled in relief as four alien starfighters were picked off by the point defence before they had a chance to start shooting through the gap in the carrier’s armour.  Anderson had been right, he noted; placing the makeshift point defence weapons near the damaged section had lured the enemy right into the teeth of their guns.

But it wouldn't be enough if the aliens continued their assault.  A dull thump ran through the ship as an alien fighter slammed into the hull, scratching her armour quite badly.  Thankfully, there was no major damage, but if more aliens resorted to suicide tactics the carrier might be in real trouble.  James smirked at the thought, rolling his eyes at the absurdity.  They were in real trouble already.

“We’ve lost multiple sensor blisters,” Anderson muttered, through the communications link.  “If this goes on ...”

“Inform the Admiral,” James ordered.  If Ark Royal lost the ability to see what was happening around her, the Admiral would no longer be able to coordinate the fleet.  Admiral Shallcross would have to assume command at short notice.  But if the aliens realised that the fleet’s Deputy Commander was on a far more vulnerable carrier ...

He pushed the thought aside.  “Scramble damage control teams,” he ordered, as the CSP chased the aliens away.  “We will continue firing as long as possible.”


Ted watched the battle, powerless to affect its outcome any longer.  The starfighters and bombers, combined with long-range mass driver fire, had smashed Force Two, although its remaining starships were fighting to get into plasma weapons range.  At least the aliens didn't seem to have devised any long-range weapons, thankfully.  But then, long-range missiles could be picked off with ease.

“Warn the fighters not to let those frigates enter plasma range,” he ordered.  “And keep the CSP on alert.”

“Aye, sir,” Lopez said.  She paused.  “The alien starfighters are targeting Napoleon.”

Ted scowled down at the display.  Did they think that Ark Royal was still a tough target or did they think they’d already crippled her and intended to cripple or destroy the other carriers?  It didn't matter, he told himself a moment later.  All that mattered was protecting the carriers as long as possible.

“Order the CSP to cut loose a squadron to assist the French,” he ordered.  “We need to drive the aliens away from the carriers ...”

But the aliens, furious or desperate, weren't going to back off so easily.  Ted watched, grimly, as alien starfighter after alien starfighter lanced down towards the French carrier, firing into her hull with cold precision.  Unlike Ark Royal, the French carrier’s armour was insufficient to stand up to the blasts; it was sheer dumb luck the aliens hadn't already managed to destroy her.  As Ted watched, a line of explosions shattered the carrier’s landing bay, crippling her ability to recover starfighters.

“Shit,” he muttered.  “Raise Captain ...”

Napoleon exploded.  Ted watched in growing horror as a series of explosions ripped the carrier apart, scattering pieces of debris through space.  There were no sign of any lifepods; the French hadn't had time to abandon ship, even when they’d realised there was no hope of preserving their vessel any longer.  Ted shuddered – three thousand French crew had been killed in a matter of seconds – and then forced himself to look away.  There was no time to mourn the dead.

“We keep moving,” he ordered, harshly.  If there was any advantage to the whole sorry incident, it was that a number of alien starfighters had been caught in the blast and obliterated.  “We will not let their sacrifice go to waste.”

He looked down at the display, silently calculating vectors.  Force Two had been effectively destroyed, now; there was nothing blocking their escape through the tramline, once they reached it.  But Force Three was launching starfighters, ready to press the offensive.  And if he sent his own starfighters to engage Force Three, he risked being unable to recall them in time to make the jump.  Nothing smaller than a frigate, at least nothing built with human technology, could jump through a tramline.

“The remaining starfighters are to join the CSP,” he ordered.  Recovering starfighters while under fire was one of the hardest operations in the book.  They’d have to bring the starfighters in to the hull and then jump through the tramline, leaving mines behind to discourage the aliens from following immediately.  “And War Hog is to move ahead and make transit.”

Lopez looked over at him, alarmed.  She hadn't considered the possibility of the aliens setting an ambush on the far side of the tramline.  Unlike most jumps, their arrival point would be easy to predict.  Admittedly, the aliens seemed to believe in the KISS principle as much as their human enemies, but how many other chances would they get to catch a human fleet off-guard, disorientated by the jump?  But would they have had a chance to mass a fleet in place to catch them?

“Aye, sir,” she said, finally.  She worked her console for a long moment.  “The frigate is moving ahead of the fleet now, sir.”

Ted nodded.  For a few moments, they had a chance to catch their breath ... but it wouldn't last.  The incoming starfighters would be on them in five minutes, perhaps less.  They’d bore straight through the starfighters and go for the carriers, knowing they’d never have a better chance to inflict crippling losses.  And if they succeeded .... Ted winced, bitterly.  He’d started the operation with six fleet carriers, starships humanity could ill-afford to lose.  Now, two of them were gone and the remainder had all taken damage.  Win or lose, the operation had proved immensely costly.

“Inform me the moment she returns,” he said.  He tried to formulate a contingency plan for the frigate not returning, but came up with nothing.  They’d have no choice; they’d have to turn about and fight to the bitter end.  “And get me a complete damage report from the rest of the fleet.”


“Form up in squadrons,” the CAG ordered.  “Alpha and Beta will engage the enemy at the outer edge; the remainder will cover the carriers themselves.”

Henry nodded.  The few moments of peace had been a blessing, just long enough for the starfighter pilots to reconfigure their squadrons and get back into formation.  There was no longer any real barriers between British, French, American and Japanese pilots; now, they were fighting as a single unit, with pilots flying beside whoever was closest to them.  The French pilots, in particular, were in an evil mood.  They’d lost their carrier, their commanding officer and their friends in a handful of seconds.  Now, they wanted revenge.

He closed his eyes for a long moment, trying to remember the last time a British Prince – or King – had died on the field of battle.  He’d thrilled to stories of his ancestors leading their troops into battle, in days when war was the ultimate test of a king’s character and fitness to rule their country, but it was relatively rare for them to actually die.  Once, he’d thought it was because they were brave and fearless; now, he knew that there had simply been fewer kings than commoners in human history.  Besides, the other side had rarely deliberately killed the king.  It was considered unwise to let the commoners see aristocrats die.  They might have picked up a few ideas.

Silently, he cursed himself for not having had a chance to leave a note for Janelle.  He hadn't even had time to update his will, although that was a moot point for him.  ‘Charles Augustus’ owned nothing – he didn't exist, after all – while most of Henry’s possessions belonged to the monarchy, rather than him personally.  His fellows had scoffed when he’d purchased a handful of books and a personal terminal for himself with his first paycheck, but in truth they were the first things he’d ever owned himself.  Everything else was merely a loan.

But Janelle deserved better than a note.

If I get out of this, he promised himself, I will tell her everything.

The Admiral was right, he knew.  By screwing her, he’d screwed her life.  If she decided she wanted to have nothing more to do with him, he would respect her choice and keep his mouth firmly shut.  And if she accepted him as who he really was ... he looked down, bitterly, at his hands.  The media had destroyed lives and killed people before, merely for marrying into the monarchy.  Janelle was strong, he thought, but was she strong enough?

“Move out,” the CAG ordered.

Henry pushed his thought aside and took his starfighter back into battle.


“The starfighters are engaging the alien starfighters now,” Janelle said.  “Nine minutes until we cross the tramline.”

“Understood,” Ted said.  “Inform the CAG that the starfighters are to be pulled back to the hull in eight minutes precisely.”

He calculated the vectors, once again.  Assuming the aliens could pull the same trick – and he dared not assume otherwise – they’d take at least twenty minutes to give chase through the tramline.  By then, Ted could mine their most likely arrival point and set course for the other tramline.  But would it be enough to stop them?  Somehow, he doubted it.  The aliens could harry him all the way back to Earth if they wanted.

War Hog just returned,” Lopez reported.  “She’s reporting clear space, sir.”

Ted let out a sigh of relief, although he knew not to take anything for granted.  The aliens had staged one ambush during their approach to Target One; they might well try to stage another one, given time to get into position.  But why would they surrender the chance to catch him on the hop?

“Take us through the tramline as soon as we are in position and the starfighters are back,” he ordered.


The alien starfighters loomed up in front of him, diving towards the human ships.  Henry watched dispassionately as two of them died under his fire, then swung his starfighter into an evasive pattern as the aliens turned and returned fire.  A third of their starfighters seemed intent on wiping out the human starfighters while the remainder fell on the carriers, despite withering fire from the point defence frigates.  He cursed sharply as an alien came within a hair’s breadth of killing him outright, then fired back and cursed again as the alien neatly evaded his fire.  The alien was a very skilful pilot.

“Keep covering your fellow pilots,” the CAG ordered.  The battle had turned into a dogfight, with individual pilots challenging individual aliens.  It suited the pilot mentality, Henry realised; the aliens seemed to share it, at least to some degree.  But it wasn't as effective as joint operations.  “And watch the carriers.  You have to cover them.”

Henry nodded as he picked off an alien pilot, then swore as he saw a human starfighter vanish from the display.  He wasn't even sure which country the pilot belonged to, but he fired on his killer and blew him into dust anyway.  Moments later, an American pilot saved him from an alien pilot who had managed to get into firing position; Henry nodded to the American and pulled his craft around in a tight circle, searching for more targets.  Ahead of him, a line of alien starfighters were closing in rapidly on the Japanese carrier.  He reached for his firing key and pressed the stud ...

... And alarms sounded.  Red icons flashed up in front of him.  Henry stared for a split-second – they’d been warned that the plasma containment chamber could overheat, but there had been no reports of it actually happening – and then reached for the ejection lever.  They’d been told, in no uncertain terms, that if the chamber did overheat, they were to abandon ship at once.  There was no way to cool the chamber or eject it before it exploded.

He pulled the lever and exploded outwards into the darkness of space.


Ted hadn't wanted to monitor the young prince more than strictly necessary.  He could understand, more than he cared to admit, just why the prince would want to live a life without his title hanging over his head, but he also had his duty.  In the end, he’d set up a monitoring subroutine to inform him if anything happened to ‘Charles Augustus.’  Now, an alert flashed up in front of him.  Prince Henry’s starfighter had vanished.

It was unlikely, Ted knew, that Prince Henry had survived.  The starfighter jocks were allowed so much liberty because their lives could end in a split second.  Even a glancing blow could prove fatal.  He wanted to hold out hope, both for himself and Lopez, that Prince Henry had survived.  But cold logic told him that it was unlikely.  There was no time to search for any traces of his remains, either.  They had to cross the tramline before Force Three got any closer.

I’m sorry, he thought, although he wasn't sure who he was apologising to.  The King, for losing his son?  Or the First Space Lord, who would have to deal with the enormous shitstorm that would be hurled at the navy as soon as the media realised who had died.  Or Janelle Lopez, who would have her life torn apart by the media ...

“Recall the starfighters,” he ordered harshly.  “And prepare to drop mines.”

“Aye, sir,” Lopez said.  She didn't know yet, Ted realised.  It spoke well of her that she hadn't tried to monitor her lover’s starfighter, even though she definitely had access to the systems that could do it.  “Jump in two minutes.”

Ted watched, grimly, as the aliens fell back.  It puzzled him for a long moment – were they actually letting the humans go? – then he thought he understood.  They were heading back to their own ships in preparation for their own jump.  The battle was far from over.

“All starfighters have linked to the hulls,” Lopez said.  “We’re ready to jump.”

Ted wondered, for a long moment, if their mission would be counted as a success – or a failure.  The aliens had taken a beating, they’d lost numerous ships and even a whole planet, yet in the end they’d booted the humans back out of Target One.  But then, the humans had forced the aliens to react to them for once.  It was worth the risk to make the bastards pause before they resumed their offensive.

But we lost the Prince and two carriers, the pessimistic part of his mind noted.  Was it actually worth the material losses?

“Jump us out,” he ordered, quietly.

Chapter Thirty-Nine

The aliens, somewhat to Ted’s surprise, didn't actually follow them through the tramline.  At first, he suspected the aliens had deduced the presence of the minefield and altered course to avoid it, but as the hours wore on it became clear that the aliens had given up the chase.  Ted ordered his fleet to continue moving towards the next tramline, then called a meeting in his office.  Captain Fitzwilliam, his XO and the CAG were all invited to attend.

“I have reviewed all the records,” the CAG said.  Kurt Schneider looked tired, but it would be a long time before he could sleep.  “The last burst of data we picked up from Prince Henry’s starfighter stated that his plasma containment chamber had started to overheat.  After that ... nothing.”

Ted scowled down at his hands.  “Is there any reason to believe that Prince Henry might still be alive?”

Schneider shook his head.  “I don’t think so,” he said.  “The plasma chambers are known to explode violently when they overheat.  Even if the Prince did manage to eject, he’d be far too close to an exploding starfighter for his own safety.  His flight suit might have been seriously damaged by the explosion.”

Killing him instantly, Ted thought.  Or maybe he triggered his suicide implant.

It was the old nightmare, he knew.  Trapped somewhere in space, the atmosphere slowly running out, without any hope of rescue.  There were no figures for how many spacers had chosen immediate suicide rather than a slow unpleasant death, but he had the feeling that it was alarmingly high.  Quite a few people had died through accidents in the early years of the expansion into space.  He didn't want to think of Prince Henry making that choice, yet every spacer knew it was a possibility.  It was why they were given implants, after all.

“So we lost Prince Henry,” Captain Fitzwilliam said.  “We will be lucky to see space again, sir.”

Ted nodded, grimly.  Even if the Board of Inquiry agreed that the command crew of Ark Royal were personally blameless, they would still be tied up for months, if not years, while the investigation was carried out.  Ted gritted his teeth at the thought, but he knew there was no way to avoid it.  Prince Henry was dead and his death, no matter how unremarked, would have consequences.  And there would have to be a public announcement.

“So,” the XO said.  She ran her hand through her red hair.  “What are we doing here?  Making sure we get our stories straight?”

She sounded bitter.  Ted didn't blame her.  She wasn't the Captain, or the Admiral, nor had she had any involvement in the Prince’s assignment to the carrier, but her career was likely to take a blow anyway.  It would have been different, he knew, if her incompetence or carelessness had got her into trouble, yet she was neither.  She was simply the victim of a decision made far above her level, one that shouldn't have impinged on her at all.

“They will blame us for this,” Schneider observed  “And yet what were we supposed to do?  Cuff him to his bunk and swear blind he was fighting alongside the rest of us?”

Captain Fitzwilliam tapped the table, hard.  “I do not believe that we will be blamed for it, at least not in a serious manner,” he said.  “It is human nature to seek someone to blame, but Prince Henry made his own choices.  He wanted to be someone ... common, someone who earned his position through his own hard work and merit, and he succeeded.  His death came about as a result of his efforts.  I believe it was what he would have wanted.”

Ted glowered at him.  “How can you be so casual about a young man’s life?”

“We all knew, from the day we signed up, that there was a very real prospect of death while undertaking our duties,” Captain Fitzwilliam said, quietly.  “No matter who we were, no matter where we came from, death was a very real possibility.  For the Prince ... his time simply ran out.  He was likable and I will mourn, but I won’t allow it to overwhelm me.”

“If he’d been just another starfighter pilot,” Schneider snapped, “would you have cared?”

“Yes,” Captain Fitzwilliam said, sharply.  “I would have cared.”

Ted nodded, knowing it to be true.  On one hand, a senior officer had to be prepared to send his subordinates to their deaths; on the other hand, the officer couldn't afford to start sacrificing his men lightly, without due consideration.  Captain Fitzwilliam probably didn't know the names of the other pilots on the ship, but he would never take their deaths lightly.

“But there is no blame, unless we wish to assign it to the Prince himself,” Captain Fitzwilliam added.  “We should go home, make a full report and let the Privy Council decide how best to reveal the news to the public.”

The XO leaned forward.  “And Lopez?”

“I will speak to her,” Ted said.  He’d given her some time off after she’d seen the posted lists of dead crew and pilots.  “After that, none of you are to discuss the matter with her or anyone else who doesn't already know about her ... relationship with the Prince.”

“Admiral,” Captain Fitzwilliam said, “there are protocols ...”

“Her life will be destroyed when – if – the media finds out about her relationship with Prince Henry,” Ted said, firmly.  “We will not report their relationship to anyone, but the King himself.  She doesn't deserve to have her life ripped apart and put on public display.”

He paused.  “Besides,” he added, “do the protocols actually apply when she didn't know who she was dating?”

“I don’t know,” Captain Fitzwilliam confessed.  “It is unprecedented.”

“Then we will assume they don't,” Ted said.  Whatever happened to everyone else, it was unlikely his career would survive.  God knew there would be some very nasty allegations about the loss of two fleet carriers.  “That is an order, which you may have in writing if you wish.”

“And what happens,” the XO said quietly, “when it gets out?”

She looked up at Ted, grimly.  “Someone will have seen them together,” she said.  “Someone will have noted that they booked a privacy suite together.  Someone will put two and two together when the media reveals the truth and starts pestering the crew for interviews.  And you know just how much they would offer for a bombshell like this, sir.”

“When it happens, if it happens, we will deal with it then,” Ted said.  She was right, he knew, but Lopez didn't deserve to have her life ripped asunder.  “Until then, not a word to anyone.”

He cleared his throat.  “I expect all of you to go through the records and write up a full report, which will be submitted to the Admiral’s Chest,” he said, referring to his secure datacore.  “After that, we will put the matter to one side until after we return to Earth.  Dismissed.”

He watched them leaving the compartment, then stood and headed out of the hatch himself, down towards the lower sections of Officer Country.  The Admiral’s staff were entitled to cabins, although he'd been careful not to assemble more staffers than he actually needed, unlike some Admirals.  But then, shipboard duty wasn't quite the same as duty on the ground or the Luna Academy.  There, he’d probably need more aids just to keep his appointments calendar.

The hatch in front of him was closed, firmly.  He hesitated – as the Admiral, he had the right to enter his assistant’s cabin whenever he wanted – and then pressed his hand against the buzzer.  There was a long pause, long enough for him to start worrying, then the hatch hissed open, revealing a darkened room.  Ted reached for the light switch and tapped it, bringing up the lights.  Lopez sat on her sofa, staring at nothing.  She barely even seemed to acknowledge his presence.

“Janelle,” he said, quietly.  For a moment, he felt utterly helpless.  Comforting someone who had lost a loved one was never easy, but this was going to be worse.  He had to tell her the truth as well as comfort her, knowing that the truth wouldn't set her free.  “Janelle, we have to talk.”

Lopez looked up, surprised – perhaps – by his use of her first name.  Her eyes were bleary, as if she had been crying.  Ted didn't blame her.  Losing a loved one was always hard.  If it had been up to him, he would give her a week of freedom from her duties and then talk to her.  But somehow he suspected he didn't have the time.  She needed to come to terms with what he intended to tell her.

“Admiral,” she said.  “I ...”

Ted looked her up and down, then sat beside her.  “We have to talk,” he said.  “I'm sorry for your loss, but we have to talk.”

He found himself tongue-tied, again.  “Charles Augustus ... wasn't just Charles Augustus,” he said.  She looked up, sharply.  “He was a bit more than just another starfighter pilot.”

Janelle looked at him.  “Your son?”

Ted shook his head.  Why would anyone assume that Charles Augustus had been his son?  If he had been, he wouldn’t have been allowed to serve under Ted’s command, no matter how many layers there were between him and his father.  But it was far more serious than that ...

“His real name was Henry,” he said, quietly.  “Prince Henry.”

Janelle stiffened beside him.  “No,” she said.  “You’re lying.”

Saying that to an Admiral was grounds for court martial, or at least some thoroughly unpleasant duties, but Ted let it pass.  She was upset, after all, and there were no witnesses.  And he probably wasn't handling it very well.  He might have come to think of her as a daughter of sorts, but he had no real experience in handling children.  There had been no son or daughter in his life.

“I wish I was,” Ted said.  He wouldn’t have played such a joke on anyone for anything, no matter how much he disliked them.  “You must have read his file, when you had a chance.  It was rather thin.”

Janelle twitched, uncomfortably.  “Why ... why didn't he tell me?”

“He wanted a normal life,” Ted confessed.  “I believe he intended to tell you after we successfully escaped Target One, but he never had the chance.”

He paused.  “How did you feel about him?”

“I liked him,” Janelle said.  She started to shake, tears dripping from her eyes.  “But how much of what I saw was a lie?”

“None of it, I believe,” Ted said, trying to comfort her.  “But he didn't tell you about his family.  Or his title.”

He hesitated, then wrapped his arms around her and held her tightly while she cried.  She had cared for Prince Henry, perhaps even loved him, although Ted knew that such relationships, forged in the heat of battle, rarely survived the test of time.  The stress of knowing that death could come at any moment pushed people into bed together, but if they survived they sometimes discovered they’d made a mistake.  And that happened without discovering that one person wasn't quite who they claimed to be.

At least there’s no risk of pregnancy, he thought.  They would both have had implants.

“It will get worse,” Ted said.  “His death will unleash the hounds of hell, otherwise known as the reporters.”

She shuddered.  Like him, she’d seen the reporters who had been embedded with Ark Royal’s crew during their previous mission.  She knew just how awful they could be when they thought the public – or they, at least – had a right to know.  And that had been when she’d been nothing more than a very junior midshipwoman.  What would they be like when she was the lover of the dead prince?

“Don't tell them,” she said.  “Please.”

“I intend to tell no one, apart from the King,” Ted said.  He had a feeling the Prince’s father deserved to know.  Besides, covering it up completely probably wasn’t possible.  “But if they find out ...”

He shook his head.  “It could be very bad.”

“Yes, sir,” Lopez said.

Ted carefully released her and stood.  “Take the next few days off,” he said.  They were still in alien-controlled space, but he suspected she would be useless in the CIC.  “And ...”

He took a breath.  “If you need to talk to someone, you can always talk to me,” he added.  “I’ll always have time for you.”

There would be talk if people noticed, yet there was no choice.  It was rare for an Admiral to talk openly to his subordinate, but there was no one else on the ship she could confide in, not now.  Did she even have friends among the crew?  Most of the people she'd worked with while the carrier had sat in the Naval Reserve were gone now, promoted to other ships.  And as the Admiral’s assistant, she was isolated from the newcomers.

“Thank you, sir,” she said, miserably.

Ted looked at her sadly, then walked out of the cabin.


“You’d think they’d be coming after us with everything they had,” Rose said.

Kurt nodded.  One system had given way to another – the site of the previous ambush – yet the aliens hadn't even tried to bar their way.  Indeed, they’d almost seemed inclined to just let the humans go without further trouble.  The pilots had speculated that the aliens were scared of the fleet – why not, after they’d pounded their way through several alien formations? – but Kurt suspected it was something else.  And, when they found out the truth, he had a nasty feeling they weren’t going to like it.

“Let's not be ungrateful,” he said.  The crew had been working constantly to repair as much as they could of the damaged ships.  If the aliens wanted to give them time to make repairs, the Admiral had said, why not let them?  “We can find other uses for our time.”

Rose snorted.  She lay naked on the deck, happy after a long bout of lovemaking that had cheered them both up after the shock of discovering just how many pilots had been killed in the fighting and the struggle to reintegrate the remaining fighters into a handful of squadrons.  The French pilots, at least, seemed to be fitting in well,  but many of them were badly depressed.  It was hard to blame them after watching Napoleon’s sudden and violent death.

“Yes,” Rose said, as she rolled over and straddled him.  “I suppose we can.”

Afterwards, Kurt remembered his children and wondered, bitterly, what had happened to them.  Had Molly poisoned their minds against him?  Or had she simply left them in the care of the hired help and vanished with ... someone?  Or ... what?  There was no way to know until they reached Earth.  Absently, he wondered just how she would react to discovering that there was no more prize money.  Would she be horrified, knowing that her new lifestyle was hardly sustainable, or would she demand that he continue to finance her anyway?  Or what ...?

“You’re thinking about the future again,” Rose teased.  She leaned down to kiss his lips, then pulled herself off him.  “Don’t.  It’s bad habit.”

“I got it from spending too much time in the Reserve,” Kurt admitted.  “But you should think about the future too.”

“I try to avoid it,” Rose said.  “If I think too much about the future, I might not have a past.”

She was right, Kurt knew.  Starfighter pilots tried to live every day as though it were their last day to live.  For too many of them, since the way had begun, it had been their last day.  If there was trouble in Sin City or one of the more ... sedate places, chances were that there was a starfighter pilot at the bottom of it.  The MPs made allowances.  Sometimes.

“You may not be flying for much longer,” he pointed out.  “What will you do then?”

“This is wartime,” Rose reminded him.  “Do you really expect them to keep the three-year rule now?”

“No,” Kurt said, after a long moment.  “But you’ll burn out, sooner or later.”

Rose stood, her bare breasts bouncing as she moved.  “I’ll just go on like you until I run into a plasma bolt with my name on it,” she said.  “And the future can take care of itself.”

She walked into the washroom.  Kurt watched her go, admiring the muscles in her legs and buttocks, then stood and followed her.  She was right.  They might as well enjoy themselves while they could, because time would run out sooner or later.  And when it did, they would die just as quickly as Prince Henry.


Ted half-expected trouble when they transited back into the Terra Nova star system.  The aliens might have been able to rush a blocking force in place to stop them, even though it was just one transit from Earth.  But instead, there was an alarming shortage of starships – human or alien – in the system.  And the planet itself was emitting almost no radio emissions.  Cold ice ran down his spine as he realised that something had happened while they’d been gone.

“Picking up a signal,” Lopez reported.  She'd insisted on returning to duty two days after their talk, even though he'd been prepared to offer her a longer break.  There was something harsh and cold in her voice, as if something had died in her along with her lover.  Ted worried about her, more than he cared to admit.  “They’re saying ...”

She took a long breath.  “Sir, they’re saying that Earth has been attacked,” she added.  “The aliens were beaten off, but they inflicted huge damage.”

“Take us to the tramline,” Ted ordered.  They’d have to get the full story from the First Space Lord, but it explained why the aliens had taken so long to respond to Operation Nelson.  They’d launched their own operation at the same time!  “Abandon stealth; best possible speed.”

Bitterly, he settled back in his command chair to wait.

Chapter Forty

“Welcome back, Ted,” the First Space Lord said.  “Can I get you a drink?”

“Tea, please,” Ted said.  The urge to take something stronger was almost overpowering, but he knew once he started he might never be able to stop.  Again.  “Thank you, sir.”

The trip from the tramline to Earth had been nightmarish.  A full quarter of the asteroid settlements mankind had created had been destroyed, while Mars and Venus had both been bombarded and the aliens had barely been kept from smashing the cloudscoops orbiting Jupiter and Saturn.  Luna had taken a number of glancing blows – Sin City had been badly damaged, for no apparent reason – and several weapons had fallen on Earth herself.  The general theory was that the aliens had struck Earth by accident, but it was no consolation to the millions who had died or found themselves homeless.

And the losses in starships were almost worse.  Seven carriers, nearly a hundred frigates and dozens of other ships had simply been wiped out.  The aliens, thankfully, hadn’t targeted the shipyards specifically, but they’d done enough damage to cripple humanity’s attempts to rebuild the fleet.  Overall, Ted knew, for all the damage Operation Nelson had done, the aliens might have ensured their eventual victory over the human race.

“I saw your report,” the First Space Lord said, softly.  “You did well, Ted.”

“Not well enough,” Ted grated.  They’d hoped to deal the aliens a decisive blow.  Instead, the aliens had hurt the human race badly.  “And we lost the Prince.”

“His Majesty and the Privy Council have already been informed,” the First Space Lord said.  “I imagine they’ll move quickly to capitalise on Henry’s” – his voice became cold, almost sardonic – “glorious death in battle.  The strikes on Earth caused considerable damage to our morale.”

“There are other considerations,” Ted said, “but none of them are important now.”

“Probably not,” the First Space Lord agreed.  “We honestly don’t know how to proceed.”

Ted sighed.  There was the prospect – a very faint prospect – of locating an alien faction that wasn't bent on a war of genocide.  But, even now, the analysts hadn't been able to determine if the faction genuinely existed or if it was just another attempt to deceive the human race.  Had they been deliberately lured to Target Two or was that just, from the alien point of view, a happy accident?  It was quite possible that the aliens would want to prevent the task force from encountering Faction Two ... assuming, of course, that Faction Two actually existed.  There was no way to say for sure.

But the aliens had knocked humanity back, hard.  How long would it be until they came and finished the job?

Maybe it’s time to start planning an evacuation of the best and brightest of humanity, he thought.  A ragtag fleet of starships making their way from star to star, looking for a new home.

He pushed the thought aside.  It was his duty to stand and fight in the defence of Britannia, Earth and the whole human race.  Others could try to make an escape, if they could.  He would stay and fight.

“There are several promising lines of investigation,” he said.  “And we have new insights into both alien technology and civilisation.”

“If we can call whatever they have a civilisation,” the First Space Lord muttered.

He looked up.  “Ted, you and your crew will have to remain on your ships for the moment,” he added, in a firmer voice.  “There will probably be an inquest into the Prince’s death at some point, but I doubt it will be pointing too many fingers, not now.”

Ted swallowed.  The media had turned him into a hero once and it would do it again, but it was very much a double-edged sword.  If they decided to brand him as the villain instead ... his reputation might not survive, even if his career remained intact.  And God alone knew what would happen when they heard about Prince Henry and Janelle Lopez.  He'd probably find himself painted as the villain in their tragic love affair.

“Yes, sir,” he said, finally.

“During that time, I want you to work out proposals for taking the offensive once again,” the First Space Lord added.  “And for contacting Faction Two, assuming they really exist.”

“Yes, sir,” Ted said, again.

“You’ll probably be also asked to testify in front of American and French inquests,” the First Space Lord warned.  “In that case, I suggest you seek advice from my staff first.  They will be looking for someone to blame for the loss of thousands of crew and a pair of very expensive carriers.”

“I know,” Ted said.  It was hard to escape the feeling he deserved it.  Frigates could be built relatively quickly, but carriers took years to produce.  “I’ll inform you if I get any demands for my presence.”

The First Space Lord nodded and clapped Ted’s shoulder.  “Good man,” he said.  “Whatever else happened, Ted, you and your men did well.  Don’t forget that, please.”

Ted sighed.  They had, he knew, and he had been looking forward to returning home and tallying up the alien fleets and planetary defences they’d destroyed.  But the alien attack on Earth had made a mockery of his plans.  The aliens had been hurt, yet the human race had been hurt worse.  And the Prince was dead.  Britain was likely to end up with political chaos at the worst possible time.

“Yes, sir,” he said.  He finished his tea and stood.  “With your permission, sir, I would like to return to my flagship.”

“Granted,” the First Space Lord said.  “And thank you, once again.”


“They blew up Sin City?”

North sounded shocked.  Kurt couldn't blame him.  Sin City had been part of their lives ever since they'd been accepted into the training program.  Now, the city had been badly damaged, leaving them with nowhere to go when they wanted to enjoy themselves.  But it wasn't the worst of it.

He swore as another message popped up in the buffer.  Several pilots had lost friends and family, either in the desperate fight to defend Earth or down on the ground when the missiles hit.  He’d already steered several pilots to private chambers where they could read the messages, then asked for counselling help for his men.  But it was unlikely that anyone would be sent from Earth to tend to his crewmen.  There were just too many problems on the planet below.

And then he realised that the message was addressed to him, personally.

He hesitated, fearful of what it might say, then downloaded the message into his private terminal and beckoned to Rose.  She came over, puzzled; he showed her the message, then asked her to keep an eye on the remainder of the pilots.  After a long moment, she gave him a hug – even though they weren't in private – and motioned for him to leave the compartment.  Bracing himself, Kurt walked down to his office, locked the hatch and opened the message.

We regret to inform you that your children, Percy and Penelope Schneider, have been transferred to Refugee Camp #19.  Gayle Parkinson has recorded herself as their caretaker-of-note and has remained with them.  Molly Schneider remains missing, location and current status unknown.  If you wish to provide accommodation for your children and their caretaker-of-note, please contact the Refugee Commission or visit Refugee Camp #19 in person, bringing ID and details of their new address.

Kurt let out a sigh of relief, then stared down at the message.  Where the hell was Molly?  What had she been doing when the shit hit the fan?  And what had happened, down on Earth, to drive his children out of their home?

“I need to get down there,” he muttered.  The Admiral had told them that no one would be allowed to go down to Earth, but he could request special permission to go if he tried.  And he had an urgent need to go.  The few broadcasts he’d heard from the planet below had painted the refugee camps as horrific nightmares, crammed full of too many people for comfort.  “They can't stay there.”

He reached for his terminal and called the Admiral.  There would be time to handle everything else later, he told himself, firmly.  His children – and Gayle, who might well have lost her family too – needed him.


Henry opened his eyes.

For a long moment, he thought he was still trapped in a nightmare.  The air felt hot and moist, while the lighting was low, low enough that he could barely make out anything beyond disconcerting shadows in the distance.  He sat upright and discovered that he had been lying on a surface that felt oddly soft, yet eerie to the touch.  It felt almost like touching a piece of human skin.

He swung his legs over the side and stood, then looked down at himself and recoiled in shock as he realised he was naked.  His flight suit was gone, as was his watch, terminal, pistol and everything else he’d carried.  Someone had stripped him completely naked ... he shuddered as memories returned, reminding him that he’d ejected from his starfighter and then ...

... And then what?

For a long moment, he thought he was in hell, but the coldly rational part of his mind dismissed it as unlikely.  Logic suggested that he'd been picked up by a SAR team – and not a human SAR team.  They’d have taken him to a sickbay or placed him in a stasis tube, not moved him to a strange compartment ... he flinched as a shadow ran through the room, then looked upwards.  Something that resembled a giant stingray was gliding through the air over his head.

Understanding clicked.  The aliens had rescued him and transferred him to one of their underwater cities.  He was a prisoner!

Five minutes of exploration revealed the limits of his prison cell.  There was a small dispenser of water and food bars in one corner, a toilet in another ... and a tiny hatch at the other end of the chamber, leading down into the water below.  It looked as though he could just dive into the water and make his escape, but he had a feeling that he was too deep for escape before he ran out of breath.  The aliens had created a devilishly simple prison cell that was utterly inescapable.

He sat back on the bed and waited, watching the fishes swim by overhead.  There was nothing else to do.

It was nearly an hour before he heard splashing from the direction of the hatch and looked towards it.  An alien was climbing out of the water with practiced ease, its bright green skin almost ludicrous in the dim surroundings.  Were the aliens literally colour-blind?  Or didn't they care?  Maybe that made them better than humans ...

Up close, the alien was very alien.  He'd seen their dead bodies, and the POWs taken to the base on the moon, but this alien was alive.  It was roughly human, yet its body quivered constantly as if it were made of jelly.  Its hands were oddly sinuous, thoroughly creepy.  No wonder, he noted, that the aliens were happier underwater.  They simply weren’t adapted to living on dry land.

He held himself still.  There was nowhere to go.

The alien stopped, barely a metre from the bed, and bowed.  And then it produced something metallic from a flap within its skin.  Henry stared, wondering just where the alien had concealed the device.  Its skin, up close, looked far too large for its body, as if it had once been very fat and then slimmed down tremendously.  How much could it conceal there?

Henry winced as he heard a very faint sound, so faint he could barely hear it but it could still hurt his ears.  And then there was a voice.

“We ... greet ... you,” it said.  It came from the device in the alien’s hand.  Its voice, Henry realised suddenly, had to be too high-pitched for human ears.  Given that the aliens lived underwater, that made a certain kind of sense.  “We ... must ... talk.”

End of Book II

A question for my readers.

I do have a planned Book III, but I also have a planned book covering the events on Earth during The Nelson Touch.  Which one would you like to see first?

And now for something rather different … as fantasy and alternate history collide in Schooled In Magic.

Emily is a teenage girl pulled from our world into a world of magic and mystery by a necromancer who intends to sacrifice her to the dark gods. Rescued in the nick of time by an enigmatic sorcerer, she discovers that she possesses magical powers and must go to Whitehall School to learn how to master them. There, she learns the locals believe that she is a "Child of Destiny," someone whose choices might save or damn their world ... a title that earns her both friends and enemies. A stranger in a very strange land, she may never fit into her new world ...

...and the necromancer is still hunting her. If Emily can't stop him, he might bring about the end of days.

Chapter One

“It's time to close, my dear.”

Emily Sanderson nodded reluctantly as the librarian stepped past her seat and headed to the handful of other occupied chairs.  This late at night, only a handful of people remained in the library, either intent on reading or simply because they had nowhere else to go.  The library was small and rarely more than half-full even at the best of times.  Emily loved it because it was her refuge.  She too had nowhere else to go.

She stood and gathered her books, returning them to the trolley for re-shelving.  The librarian was a kindly old man – he’d certainly not asked any questions when the younger Emily had started to read well above her grade level – but he got grumpy when visitors tried to return books to the shelves themselves.  Not that she could really blame him.  Readers had a habit of returning the books to the wrong places, causing mistakes that tended to snowball until the entire shelf was out of order.  And Emily hated to see poor Rupert grumpy.  He was one of the few people she felt she could rely on.

Most teenage girls her age would never crack open a history book, unless they were looking for the answers to some test.  Emily had fallen in love with history from a very early age, taking refuge in it from the trials and tribulations of her life.  Reading about the lives of famous people – their struggles to change the world – made her feel her universe had a past, even if it didn't have a future.  Perhaps she would have made a good historian one day, if she'd known where to start working towards a history degree.  But she already knew she would never find a proper life.  She knew what happened to most graduates these days.  They graduated from college, they celebrated, and then they couldn't find a job.

Her stepfather had certainly made it clear to her, after an endless series of arguments about what she wanted to do with her life, that she would never do anything worthwhile with her life.

“You’ll never amount to anything,” he’d told Emily, one drunken night.  “You won’t even be able to flip burgers at McDonald’s!”

Her mother should never have married again – but she’d been lonely after Emily’s father had vanished from their lives, so long ago that Emily barely remembered him.  Emily’s stepfather – she refused to call him father – had never laid a finger on her, yet he hadn't hesitated to tear down her confidence every chance he could, or to verbally rip her to shreds.  He resented Emily and Emily had no idea why.  She didn't even know why he stayed with a woman he clearly didn't love.

Emily caught sight of her own reflection in one of the windows and winced inwardly.  She didn't really recognize the girl looking back at her.  Long brown hair framed a face too narrow to be classically pretty, with pale skin and dark eyes that looked somehow mournful against her skin.  Her clothes were shapeless, hiding her figure; she rarely bothered with makeup, or indeed any other form of cosmetics, not when there was no point.  They wouldn't improve her life.

Nothing would.

And they might attract unwanted attention too.

The librarian waved to her as she took one last look at the bookshelves and headed for the counter.  “No books today?”

“No, sorry,” Emily said.  She had a library ticket – it said a great deal about her life that it was her most treasured possession – but she’d filled it over the week.  There would be no more books until she returned some old ones.  “I’ll see you tomorrow.”

The familiar sense of despondency and hopelessness fell back over her as she stepped out and walked down the street.  There was no future for her, not even if she went to college; her life would become consumed by a boring job, or an unsatisfactory relationship.  No, the very thought was laughable.  She was neither pretty nor outgoing; indeed, she spent most of her life isolated from her peers.  Even when there were groups that might have attracted her – she did occasionally take part in role-playing games – part of her never wanted to stay with them for very long.  She wanted friendship and companionship and yet she knew she wouldn't know what to do with them if she had either.

In fact, she’d been to a game earlier, before coming to the library.  And she’d left early.

But now she didn't want to go home.  Her stepfather might be there, or he might be out drinking with his buddies, swapping lies about their days.  The former was preferable to the latter, she knew; when he was out drinking, he tended to come home drunk, demanding service from Emily’s mother.  And then he shouted at Emily, or threatened her.

Or looked at her.  That was the worst of all.

She wished to go somewhere – anywhere – other than home.  But there was nowhere else she could go.

Her stomach rumbled, unpleasantly.  She would have to prepare a TV dinner for herself, or perhaps beans on toast.  It was a given that her mother wouldn't cook.  She’d barely bothered to cook for her daughter since Emily had mastered the microwave.  If she hadn't been fed at school, Emily suspected that she would have starved to death by now.

As she trudged home, she realized something with a crystalline clarity that shocked her; she wanted out.  She wanted out of her life, wanted out so badly that she would have left without a backward glance, if only someone made her an offer.

And then she shook herself into sense.  No one had made her an offer and no one would.  Her life was over.  No matter what it looked like on the outside, she knew her life was over.  She was sixteen years old and her life was over.  And yet it felt as if it would never end.

A fatal disease would have been preferable, she thought, morbidly.

The wave of dizziness struck without warning.  Emily screwed her eyes tightly shut as the world spun around her, wondering if she’d drunk something she shouldn't have during the role-playing session with the nerds and geeks.  She had thought that they were too shy to ever spike her drink, but perhaps one of them had brought in alcohol and she’d drunk it by mistake.  The sound of giggling – faint, but unmistakable – echoed in the air as her senses swam.  And then she fell ... or at least it felt like falling, but from where and to what?

And then the strange sensation simply faded away.

When she opened her eyes, she was standing in a very different place.

Emily recoiled in shock.  She was standing in the middle of a stone-walled cell, staring at a door that seemed to be made of solid iron.  Half-convinced she was hallucinating – perhaps it had been something worse than alcohol that she’d drunk, after all – she stumbled forward until her fingers were pressed against the door.  It felt cold and alarmingly real to her senses.  There was no handle in the door, no place for her to try to force the door open and escape.  The room felt depressingly like a prison cell.

Swallowing hard, Emily ran her fingers over the stonework, feeling faint tingles as her fingertips touched the mortar binding the wall together.  It felt like the castles she’d read about, the buildings that had been constructed long before concrete or other modern building materials had enabled the artists to use their imagination properly.  There was a faint sense of age pervading through the stone, as if it was hundreds of years old.  It certainly felt hundreds of years old.

Where was she?

Desperately, Emily looked from wall to wall, seeking a way out of the cell.  But there was nothing, not even a window; the only source of light was a tiny lantern hanging from the ceiling.  There was no bed, no place for her to lay her head; not even a pallet of straw like she’d seen in the historical recreations she’d attended with her drama group.  And how had she come to be here?  Had she been arrested?  Impatiently, she dismissed the thought as silly.  The police wouldn't have put her in a stone cell and they wouldn't have had to spike her drink to arrest her.

A hundred scenarios her mother had warned her about ran though her mind; her captor could be a rapist, a serial killer, or a kidnapper intent on using her to extort money from her parents.  Emily would have laughed at the thought a day ago – her stepfather wouldn't have paid anything to recover her from a kidnapper – but it wasn't so funny now.  What would a kidnapper do when he discovered that he’d kidnapped a worthless girl?

A clatter that came from outside the iron door rang through the cell and Emily looked up sharply.  She would have sworn that the iron door was solid, but all of a sudden a tiny hatch appeared in the metal and a pair of bright red eyes peered in at her.  There was something so utterly inhuman about them that Emily recoiled, convinced that they belonged to a monster.  Or a devil.  There was a second rattle at the door, which then blurred into a set of iron bars, revealing a hooded figure standing outside the cell.  His eyes, half-hidden under his hood, weren’t just red; they were glowing.  The rest of his face was obscured in darkness.

Behind him, there were more stone walls.  A pair of skeletons stood against the wall as if they’d been left there to rot.  Something about them caught Emily’s attention before she saw the first skeleton begin to move, walking forward as if it were still flesh and blood.  The second skeleton turned its head until it was looking directly at Emily, the sightless eye-sockets seeming to peer deeply into her soul.  Emily felt her blood running cold, suddenly convinced, right to the very core of her being, that this was no ordinary kidnapping.  She must be a very long way from home.

“Welcome,” the hooded figure said.  There was something cracked and broken about his voice, almost as if he hadn't spoken for a very long time and had lost the knack.  “You may call me Shadye.”

He spoke his name as if Emily should know it, but it meant nothing to her.  She tried to speak, but discovered that her mouth was so dry that speaking was impossible.

Shadye stepped forward, up against the bars, and studied her thoughtfully.  His red eyes flickered over her body, before meeting her eyes and holding them for a long chilling moment.

Emily forced herself to speak.  All the novels she’d read about kidnapped heroines suggested that she should try to get the kidnapper to see her as a human being – although she was far from convinced that Shadye himself was a human being.  The fantasy books she’d devoured in an attempt to ignore her father’s departure and her mother’s desperate search for a second husband seemed to be mocking her inside her skull.  All of this could be a trick, perhaps a reality TV show, but something in her mind was convinced that what she saw and sensed was real.  But what?  She couldn't have put it into words.

Besides, she couldn't see any TV cameras anywhere.

“How...?”  She broke into coughs and had to swallow, again.  “How did you bring me here?”

Shadye seemed oddly pleased by the question.  “They said that there would be a Child of Destiny who would lead the forces of light against the Harrowing,” he said.  Emily realized suddenly that he wanted to gloat, to show off his own cleverness.  “But I knew that every prophecy has a loophole.  I knew that if I could catch that Child of Destiny before it was her time, I could use her against the cursed Alliance and defeat them utterly.”

Emily felt a sinking sensation in her stomach.  “But I am not that person...”

“No Child of Destiny knows who she is until her time has come,” Shadye informed her.  “But the Faerie know, oh yes they know.  And I called for them to bring me the Child of Destiny and they have brought me you.”  He rubbed his hands together in glee.  “And now I have you in my hands.  The Harrowing will be pleased.”

“Right,” Emily said.  Her, a Child of Destiny?  Only in the literal sense...and she doubted that Shadye would believe her if she tried to explain it.  What did her mother’s name have to do with anything?  She fought desperately for something to say that might distract him.  “And I guess I’m not in Kansas any longer?”

“You are in the Blighted Lands of the Dead, on the southern face of the Craggy Mountains,” Shadye said.  Her words seemed to mean nothing to him, which was more disconcerting than anything else.  “Wherever this Kansas place is, I assure you that it is far away.”

Emily started to answer, and then stopped herself.  “If you don’t know where Kansas is,” she said, trying to keep her growing fear under control, “I really am no longer in Kansas.”

Shadye shrugged, the motion stirring his robe.  Emily frowned as she saw the way the cloth moved over his body, disturbed in a manner she found almost impossible to describe.  She couldn’t see what lay beneath his robe, but there was something about the way he moved that suggested he was no longer entirely human.  A very faint shimmer of light seemed to surround him, half-seen forms flickering in and out of existence ...

Somehow, that was all the more disturbing to her imagination.

This is real, Emily told herself.  It was no longer possible to believe that she was standing in the middle of a TV studio, with hidden cameras recording everything she said and did.  There was something so real about the scene that it terrified her.  Shadye believed that she was the person he’d been searching for and nothing she could say, or do, could convince him otherwise.  She thought of all the fictional heroes she’d known and loved, asking herself what they would do.  But they had the writer on their side.  She had nothing but her own wits.

Shadye snapped his fingers.  The iron bars melted away into dust.

Fresh shock ran through Emily’s body at the impossible sight, but before she could do anything, the skeletons stepped forward and marched into the cell, their eyeless sockets firmly locked on Emily’s face.  She cringed back as the bony hands, so eerie without flesh and blood, caught her shoulders.  The skeletons propelled her forward, no matter how she struggled.  The sorcerer’s servants didn't seem to notice, or care.  Oddly, their bones were held together without touching, as if their flesh was invisible.  Like magic.

“You don't have to do this,” she said, as she was marched out of the cell.  Was she even on Earth any longer?  “I...”

Shadye cackled, a high-pitched sound that chilled her to the bone.  “Your death will bring me all the power I could desire,” he said.  Emily redoubled her struggles, but the skeletons never loosened their grip.  “Why should I let you live when I would remain like this?”

He pulled his hood away from his face in one convulsive motion.  Emily stared, horrified.  Shadye’s skin was pulled so tightly around his skull that she could see the bones underneath, his nose cut away, replaced by a melted mass of burned flesh.  His eyes were burning coals of red light, shining in the darkened chamber, utterly inhuman.  She saw his hand as he lifted it to stroke his hairless chin and winced at the cuts that crisscrossed his flesh.

Emily had seen all sorts of movies, ones where the directors strived to outdo themselves in creating new horrors, but this was different.  This was real.  She took a deep breath and smelled dead flesh in the atmosphere surrounding him.  It was suddenly easy to believe that his body was dying, animated only by his will – and magic.

“There is always a price for power,” Shadye said.  His voice darkened, unpleasantly.  “But there are always ways to escape the price.  And when I offer you to the Harrowing...oh, they will rebuild my burned frame and grant me power eternal.”

He turned and strode off down the corridor, pulling his hood back up to cover his head.  Emily stared at his retreating back, just before the skeletons started to push her down the corridor after him.  Resistance seemed utterly futile, but she struggled anyway, panic giving her extra strength.  Just for a moment, she broke free of their grip and turned to run, but then there was a flash of blue light and her muscles locked, sending her falling to the floor.  No matter how she struggled, she couldn't move anything below the neck.  She watched helplessly as the skeletons picked her up and carried her after Shadye.

The sorcerer started to laugh.  “I told you where you are,” he said, mockingly.  “Even if you escaped my dungeons, where would you go?”

He was right, Emily realized.  She’d never heard of the Craggy Mountains, let alone the Blighted Land of the Dead.  And he had never heard of Kansas.  No matter how she wanted to avoid it, she had to accept the fact that she had somehow been transported from her own world to one where magic worked, where skeletons could be used as servants and an evil sorcerer could sacrifice her for power.  She was utterly alone, ignorant of even something as basic as local geography.

Shadye was right; even if she did escape, where would she go?

They reached a stairwell leading up into the darkness.  Shadye seemed unbothered by the lack of illumination, as did the skeletons, but Emily found it hard to restrain her panic as they climbed onward and upward, while she was unable to see anything.  Her legs bumped against the walls from time to time, the spell binding her holding her body as firmly as ever, just before they finally walked out into the open air.  The ground below their feet was, she realized suddenly, it was ash.  She sniffed and then shuddered at the stench of burned flesh in the air.  In the distance, she caught sight of what had once been a forest.  Now, it looked as if something had killed the trees, leaving their dead remains standing in the midst of the darkness.

“The Necromancer Kings faced the assembled might of the Empire not too far from here,” Shadye said with heavy satisfaction.  He seemed to like the sound of his own voice.  “They say that the skies were black with dragons and terrible lizards as they fought for forty days and forty nights.  In the end, so much magic was released that the land was permanently warped by chaos.  Those who stray into these lands without protection find themselves twisted and transformed into horrors.  Few dare to visit my fortress, even though they believe that they have powers that can match my own.”

Emily found her voice.  “Why did they fight?”

“The Necromancer Kings wished to enjoy their powers without restraint, to create a world where their whims and wishes would be the whole of the law,” Shadye said.  “But the Empire and their wizards believed the necromancers to be an abomination.   The wizards believed that they had won, yet the Harrowing can never be stopped.  All they could do was delay it, for a time.”

He stopped and muttered a series of words under his breath.  There was a brilliant flash of light, bright enough to make Emily squeeze her eyes closed against the glare.  When she reopened her eyes, she saw a large building made out of dark stone right in front of them, as if it had been there all along.  Perhaps it had been invisible, she told herself, taking some measure of comfort from the thought.  If Shadye had needed to hide his dark temple, or whatever it was, it suggested that someone was watching for him.  Maybe he’d been lying when he’d claimed that no one came into the Blighted Lands of the Dead.

The skeletons carried her into an opening that appeared out of nowhere, an instant before her head would have slammed into the stone.  Inside, there was a sense of overpowering vastness, as if the building was much larger than she could comprehend.  The smell of blood assailed her nostrils; a moment later, as she looked around, she saw great waves of red blood washing down the walls and pooling on the ground.  Shadye seemed unbothered by walking through the blood, bowing from time to time towards statues that appeared out of nowhere, only to vanish again when Shadye walked past.  They were disturbing.  Oddly, the ones that looked most human were the most disquieting.  One of them, a stone carving of a handsome man with sharp pointy ears, was impossible to look at directly.  Another, an eldritch horror out of nightmares, seemed almost friendly by contrast.

And yet she couldn't understand why one scared her more than the other.

“There,” Shadye said.  He reached into his robe and produced a sharp black knife, carved from stone, before addressing the skeletons for the first time.  “Place her on the altar.”

The altar was a simple stone block, easily large enough to accommodate her – or any other sacrificial victim.  Emily opened her mouth to protest, but it was futile; the skeletons picked her up and carried her forward with implacable strength.  Somehow, the simple lack of carvings on the altar was even more terrifying than the horrors she could see in the distance.  It struck her, suddenly, that there was no doubt to whom the altar was dedicated.  This place belonged to Satan.  It was a place beyond the sight of God.

She tried to recall the prayers she’d learned as a child, but nothing came to mind.  Instead, she kept trying to struggle, but the force holding her refused to surrender.  The skeletons placed her on the stone and stepped backwards, almost as if they were admiring their work.

“We begin,” Shadye said.  He started to chant as he waved the knife in the air.  Emily couldn't understand a single word, but she felt the gathering power in the chamber, as if someone – or something – was slowly pressing itself into existence.  Brilliant tingles of light danced over her head, slowly fading into a darkness so complete that it sucked up the light.  In the last moments of gloom, she saw new statues – savage-faced angels – appear at the edge of the chamber.

Shadye stopped chanting.  Absolute silence fell, as if unseen watchers were waiting for a final command.  The summoned presence hung on the air, its mere existence twisting reality around it.

Emily saw something within the darkness, a hidden movement that seemed to be only present within the corner of her eye.  A strange lassitude fell over her, as if there was no longer any point in fighting and it was time to accept her fate.  Shadye stepped forward, one hand holding the knife as he raised it up and over Emily’s heart...

...And then, suddenly, there was a brilliant flash of light.  The summoned presence simply vanished.

Shadye bit out a word that was probably a curse and ducked as a bolt of lightning sliced through the air over his head, before smashing into the far wall.  She twisted her neck as another flash of light lit up the chamber, revealing another dark-clad form standing at the far end of the room.  Darkness fell for a second before the third flash of light showed the figure much closer, followed by the monstrous angel statues, which had moved when Emily wasn’t looking.  Her savior?  It was obvious that he didn't want Shadye to have her.

“No,” Shadye snapped.  He lifted his hand, somehow plucked a fireball out of empty air and threw it at the newcomer, who lifted a staff and deflected it into the darkened reaches of the chamber.  There was a deafening explosion as it struck one of the angel statues, which appeared undamaged.  “You will not cheat me!”

A second later, the newcomer tossed a spell of his own.  Shadye vanished in a flash of light.

The spell holding Emily to the altar snapped at the same instant, allowing her to move again.  She sat up, only to see the newcomer race toward her.  Another flash of light revealed that his face was hidden behind a wooden mask.  He reached for her and she drew back, suddenly unsure of what this new man wanted.  Shadye had wanted to sacrifice her.  What would this man want?

“Take my hand if you want to live,” the newcomer said, when Emily balked.  The darkness was flooding in from all sides, pushing in around them as if it were a living thing.  “Come with me or die!”

Emily didn't hesitate any longer.  She took his hand.

And then the dark chamber vanished in a final blinding flash of white light.

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