Book: Patriotic Treason

Patriotic Treason


(Martial Law: Book One)

Christopher G. Nuttall

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Title Page

Part I: Ensign


Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Interlude One

Part II: Lieutenant

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

Interlude Two

Part III: First Lieutenant

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

Interlude Three

Part IV: Captain

Chapter Thirty-Four

Chapter Thirty-Five

Chapter Thirty-Six

Chapter Thirty-Seven

Chapter Thirty-Eight

Chapter Thirty-Nine

Interlude Four

Part V: Generalissimo

Chapter Forty

Appendix One: The Treaty of Unity

Part I: Ensign


From: An Unbiased History of the United Nations. Williamson, Mike. Baen Historical Press, Heinlein, 2555.

We have seen in the preceding chapters how the factors of improved access to space, growing ethnic and international conflict and endless Wrecker attacks led to the exodus of human industry to the solar system, where safety could be guaranteed. The construction of the first orbital towers, the development of fusion power and – not coincidentally – ever-harsher regulations on Earth ensured that the space-based communities would lose most of their loyalty to Earth. The development of the Jump Drive by Professor Kratman in 2156 merely cemented that trend.

The first viable extra-solar colony world was discovered in 2157 and settled under the auspices of the UN. The land was shared out among interested groups who could afford space on the first colony ships – and the vast bribes paid to various UN bureaucrats – and those who were victims of ‘historical oppression.’ The result, for reasons that will be examined later, was a catastrophe of the first order. The next seventeen worlds to be settled by the human race were established by various nation-states – America, Britain, China, France, Russia and many others – and immigration quotas were firmly centred on those who could fit in. Although this policy was regarded – not entirely without reason – as racist, the UN was unable to counter it, as national armed forces were still a significant power. Other worlds, including Heinlein, Balboa and Williamson’s World, were settled according to a political ideal, or by corporate interests. By 2200, there were nearly one hundred and eighty worlds settled by the human race, with an ever-growing sphere of exploration and secret settlement.

The unintended consequence of this development was that it allowed the UN to consolidate its power on Earth and, later, throughout the solar system. There had always been a trend towards transnational institutions and this only accelerated as nationalists or patriots emigrated from their countries to newer pastures. As the UN tightened its grip, the United Nations Peace Force became the dominant military power of the world and national armed forces were either disarmed or encouraged to depart to the outer worlds. The growing social collapse over much of Earth – and resentment among the so-called Third World for years of semi-imaginary offences committed by the richer nations – only encouraged further emigration. In short, the UN’s bid for global power had succeeded itself to death. It had inherited a still-breathing corpse.

This was not immediately appreciated by the UN General Assembly, or the bureaucrats, who were by that time the real rulers of the planet. It became staggeringly clear when attempts to settle newer worlds based on past historical grievances tended to fail spectacularly. Worse, Earth’s production system was falling apart – by now, the planet was completely dependent on imported goods from the solar system – and the planet’s population was eating itself to death. The UN had either driven away or killed the men and women who could have solved the problems, and compounded their crimes by making it impossible for new ones to appear.

It was a problem that required a firm grasp of reality and ruthless measures to survive, all of which were politically impossible. Instead, the UN looked for another answer. It had always claimed jurisdiction over the extra-solar planets, the bureaucrats reasoned, and surely it was right for them to aid Earth in her hour of greatest need. The one element of the UN that had continued to work fairly well, insofar as anything worked fairly well, was the military arm, which had been confronted with endless rebellions on Earth against UN authority. The Generals drew up a plan, dispatched the fleet, and sat back, fully expecting victory and loot for Earth’s starved economy.

The plan didn’t go exactly as they had predicted.

In fact, it went spectacularly wrong.

The outer worlds didn’t recognise the authority of the UN. Many of their parents and grandparents had fled the UN’s growing control over their lives. They had built their new worlds for themselves, not for the UN to loot. The resistance started almost at once and, while the UNPF was extremely powerful, rapidly became impossible to suppress quickly. The UN found itself caught up in an insurrection on a galactic scale. Victory was as distant as ever.

It was into this world that John Walker was born.

Chapter One

The principle requirement for an officer serving in the UNPF is political reliability; i.e. he or she is fully aware of and dedicated to the UN’s official purpose. The courses at the Peace Academy (Space Studies) are therefore largely dedicated to political indoctrination sessions, often at the expense of competency. UNPF cadets and trainees, therefore, are often brutally unprepared for the hazards of space service. At least a fifth of newly-minted Ensigns die within the first year of their active service.

-Thomas Anderson. An Unbiased Look at the UNPF. Baen Historical Press, 2500.

“Look at her,” Ensign Roger Williamson said. “Isn’t she magnificent?”

I couldn’t help, but agree. Even docked at Orbit Seven, the largest UNPF space station orbiting Luna, UNS Jacques Delors was an impressive sight. Two hundred meters long, shaped rather like a child’s dream starship, it was painted the bright white and blue colours of the United Nations Peace Force. It bristled with weapons and sensor modules and gave the impression, somehow, of being new. We knew, of course, that it was over ten years old, but it didn’t look it. I stared, trying to drink in all the details of my new posting, the first since I – we – had graduated the Peace Academy.

“She is,” I breathed, awed. The starship just took my breath away. I glanced down at my watch-terminal and allowed myself a moment of relief. We were only seven minutes late, hardly worth worrying about. We could stay and stare at the starship for several more minutes before we walked down the docking tube and boarded her formally. “The images didn’t do her justice.”

“You never said a truer word, John,” Roger said. “Muna, what do you think?”

“I think I’m glad to have made it through the Academy,” Muna said, flatly. Ensign Muna Mohammad, for reasons I never fully understood, had almost failed the Academy and nearly been sent home in disgrace. “I also think that we should hurry up and board her.”

Roger snorted. “There’s no need to rush,” he assured her. “The Captain won’t leave us behind, I’m sure.”

Ensign Rolf Lommerde coughed. “For those of us who do not have highly-placed relations,” he said, “it is rather less easy to be sure of our own safety.”

“I know,” Roger said, seriously. He was an alright type really, despite his family’s connections in the vast UN bureaucracy that ran the United Nations. He’d certainly never traded on them to get better treatment from our instructors back at the Academy. “Sally? Ellen? Should we go…?”

“Yeah,” Ellen said. She picked up her carryall with a sigh. “We want to make a good impression, don’t we?”

Roger led the way down to the docking tube, which was guarded by a pair of armed and armoured Marines. I studied them with interest as Roger explained who we were; their armour, I had been assured, could stand off either bullets or laser beams. They both looked tough and scarred from the wars; indeed, it took me several minutes to realise that one of them was actually female. I wouldn’t have dared try to chat her up in a bar, had I known that she was a Marine. The Marines had a reputation for being utterly unforgiving in a fight.

“You may pass,” one of the Marines said, finally. He seemed to exchange a glance with his comrade. When he spoke, it was in a grave voice that somehow seemed to hold a vast amount of amusement. “I hope you enjoy your time on the ship.”

I didn’t understand why, but I could have sworn I felt a chill run down my neck as he spoke. Roger ignored it, if he noticed it, and led us down the long docking tube towards the starship’s main airlock. I felt myself tensing again and not just because of the fact we were about to set foot on a starship for the first time. The docking tubes were supposed to be perfectly safe, but I had heard whispers of accidents that had left unprotected victims dumped into space, killed almost instantly before they could save themselves. The course on surviving in a vacuum at the Academy had been almost painfully blunt.

“This assumes that you will be near a set of emergency supplies,” Instructor Patel had informed us, glaring around the class with his single eye. No one knew how he’d lost the other one. “If not, you’re dead. Bend over and kiss your ass goodbye.”

We hadn’t taken the time to study the diagrams of the starship that had been included with our orders, but we weren’t surprised when the docking tube opened into a small reception area, with a single UN flag at the rear of the chamber. I barely noticed it. All of my attention was taken, at once, by the woman waiting for us at the end of the docking tube. I took one look at her and knew, exactly, what the Marines had found so funny. They’d known that the dragon was waiting for us.

“And what time,” she demanded, “do you call this?”

She looked tough. She might have been attractive when she had been younger, but years of living and working in space had evidently taken a toll. I met her blue eyes for a long moment and then found myself looking away. I couldn’t bear to look at her. She was looking at us as if we were something she’d scraped off her shoes, or perhaps a mess a dog had left on her clean floors...and no one had ever looked at us like that before. I felt about a centimetre tall, perhaps smaller. I hadn’t felt so small since my grandfather had caught me with a girl I’d known when I’d been fourteen.

“Ah…1309,” Roger stammered. He was clearly as caught out as I was. “We were ordered to report onboard and…”

“You were ordered to report onboard at 1300,” the woman said. Her voice suddenly became a commanding bark. “Stand to attention, now!”

We jumped and tried hastily to form a line, standing to attention. It took us nearly a minute to get into position. We hadn’t practiced it since the first week at the Academy, two years ago. I cursed our mistake under my breath, not daring to speak aloud; we should have practiced more. Standing to attention means standing absolutely still and I was suddenly very shaky on my feet.

“That is pathetic,” the woman said. She glared at Ellen, who was the first in line. “That’s a dress uniform, isn’t it?” Ellen nodded, too terrified to speak. “Answer me when I ask you a direct question, Ensign!”

“Yes…ah, Lieutenant,” Ellen said. “It’s a dress uniform with…”

“A simple yes is sufficient,” the Lieutenant thundered. “Why are you not wearing a jacket? Why do you have a stain on your shirt?”

Ellen gulped twice. “Because I didn’t wash the shirt, Lieutenant,” she explained, looking as if she was staring into the face of Medusa herself. “I didn’t have the time…”

“You should have made the time,” the Lieutenant informed her. She looked Ellen up and down, and then dismissed her with one flick of her eyebrows. “One demerit for untidiness while wearing a dress uniform. A second demerit for not taking care of your issued uniform.”

She paused and glared at us. “The dress uniform is a sacred uniform,” she informed us. We’d been told that at the Academy, but it somehow hadn’t sunk in. “You wear the dress uniform, you represent the honour of the Peace Force itself. You” – she pointed a long finger at Roger – “what is that?”

“My coming-of-age badge,” Roger said. It was a silver talisman that had been presented to him on his sixteenth birthday, just before he had joined the Academy as a cadet. “It’s from my…”

“Get rid of it,” the Lieutenant snapped. She eyed him up and down icily. “The dress uniform is worn according to regulations and there are no additions, understand?”

“Yes, Lieutenant,” Roger said. He looked pale, but at least he managed to keep his voice steady. “I understand.”

“You,” the Lieutenant said, pointing to Muna. “What is that?”

“My headscarf,” Muna said, somehow standing her ground. Like most people from a very religious background, Muna had permission to wear a symbol of her religion, even if she didn’t want to wear it. It was blue and went surprisingly well with the dress uniform, but the Lieutenant wasn't impressed.

“You put someone else in danger wearing that thing, you get put in front of the Captain’s desk,” she thundered. I was starting to think that thundering was all that she did. “I…suggest that you wear it only as part of your dress uniform, understand?”

Her gaze locked onto me. I’d felt less threatened back when I’d been trying to escape the neighbourhood gangs and bullies back home. “Your shirt isn’t tucked into your trousers,” she informed me, her eyes never leaving mine. “Your hair is also longer than regulation length. Have it cut on your next off-duty period, understand?”

“Yes, Lieutenant,” I said. I wouldn’t have dared object. The Academy hadn’t cared about hair length or many other things, but it was clear that things were slightly different here. This was a real starship, when all was said and done. “I understand.”

“Excellent,” the Lieutenant said, sardonically, when she had finished. All of us had earned at least two demerits. “I see that we have a right set of geniuses here. Every year, without fail, the quality of Academy graduates grows worse and worse. Every year, I find myself having to teach young men and women who are unworthy of Cadet Rank how to survive on a starship.” Her gaze moved from face to face. “The worst that can happen to you at the Academy is being expelled for gross misconduct. The worst that can happen to you here is that you get your silly ass killed, understand? If you’re really unlucky, you’ll take the rest of us with you.”

She stood back and smiled thinly. “Attention to detail is the first thing they should have taught you at the Academy,” she added. “You may find all of these little rituals silly and wasteful, but they help to keep your lives safe. If you have a problem with any of them, you may leave the ship now. Are there any takers?”

There weren’t. None of us were stupid enough to take her up on her offer. We had all joined the UNPF to explore the galaxy, not to spend the rest of our lives flying desks on Luna Base, or Mars, or one of the other UNPF bases scattered around the ever-expanding human sphere. Even if the Lieutenant was a Medusa and the Captain was the Devil himself, we would have stayed on the ship. Nothing would have induced us to leave.

“Good,” the Lieutenant said, finally. “Perhaps we can make something of you yet.” She pointed one long finger towards the UN flag. “I believe that you have forgotten something…?”

As one, we turned and saluted the flag. “Good,” she said, again. “At ease.”

We relaxed, just slightly. None of us dared slouch. “My name is Lieutenant Deborah Hatchet, First Lieutenant Deborah Hatchet,” she said. The name fitted her perfectly, I decided. As the First Lieutenant, she was effectively the second-in-command of the starship. “You will address me as Lieutenant, nothing else. I am, for my sins, the officer charged with breaking you down and rebuilding you into useful and productive crewmembers. Work with me, listen and learn from me, and you will go far in the Peace Force. Don’t listen to me and you will probably end up being discharged at the end of your first five-year term, assuming I let you live.”

I winced. It might have been a joke, but I wouldn’t have placed money on it. “You are the lowest of the low on this ship,” she continued. “You may believe that as Ensigns, Commissioned Officers, you have the right to issue commands to crewmen and others not in the chain of command. You will earn that right in time, but for now, listen carefully and learn. The Academy did not prepare you for life on a starship. When you understand just how unprepared you are, you will also understand why.”

She stepped back. “If you have problems, you bring them to me. If you have questions or issues, don’t hesitate to ask. I will be far more annoyed with you if you don’t understand something and you don’t ask than if you do ask, understand?”

“Yes, Lieutenant,” we chorused. My feelings were confused now and I suspected that the others were in the same boat. I think I understood the subtext, but the Academy had told us that we were mature adults…and officers. The Lieutenant was telling us something different.

The Lieutenant smiled. “You don’t, yet,” she said. “Now, stand to attention.”

On cue, the hatch hissed open and a man wearing a Crewman’s uniform stepped through. “Captain on the deck,” he announced. His voice wasn't loud, but it carried. I heard him easily and forced myself to straighten even further. The Lieutenant, I realised suddenly, had also stood to attention.

The Captain stepped through the hatch and studied us appraisingly. He reminded me a little of my grandfather, I realised, but he was definitely younger and fitter. He was scarred, like the Lieutenant, by experience, but he held himself firm and showed no sign of weakness. His dark hair was tinged with flickers of white, but his face showed no hint of doubt that he was in charge. I was impressed right from the start. He had command presence, all right. I had wondered who could command the Lieutenant, but now I knew. The Crewman, standing slightly behind the Captain, seemed to fade out in my mind. The Captain absorbed all of my attention.

He wore a simple white dress uniform – commanding officers were the only ones allowed to wear white uniforms – with gold braid and a line of service pins marking time spent in the UNPF. I counted them mentally and was astonished to realise that the Captain had spent nearly fifty years in the service. He must have taken a formidable doze of anti-aging drugs, despite the cost, and I felt a flicker of anger. If the drugs hadn’t been reserved for ‘socially useful’ people, my grandfather might have remained alive longer, long enough to see me don the uniform myself.

“At ease,” he said, finally. His voice was calm and very composed. I had the impression that he never lost his temper, or even raised his voice. “I am Captain Harriman. Welcome onboard my ship. The UNS Jacques Delors has a long and proud history and I expect each and every one of you to comport yourselves in a manner befitting that history. I also expect you to give the ship and crew one hundred percent of your time and attention. You volunteered for the UNPF and it has invested considerable resources in each of you. You will spend the first years of your career repaying it for your training, as…worthless as much of it was.”

He looked around the compartment and I lowered my eyes. I couldn’t face his gaze. “We are under orders to cruise out to Terra Nova and then to Albion as part of a general anti-piracy patrol,” the Captain continued. “We will be beginning an extensive period of training for you as soon as we have departed Orbit Seven and entered Jump Space. By the time we reach Terra Nova, I want all of you to be confirmed qualified to operate any of the consoles on the bridge. Those of you who had problems at the Academy will be given remedial training. You will qualify.”

I had no doubt of it. Somehow, the thought of disappointing the Captain was more than I could bear. “The Lieutenant and the Senior Crew Chief will see to your immediate training,” the Captain concluded. “I expect, however, to see you all on the bridge for departure.”

He nodded to the Senior Crew Chief, turned, and walked back through the hatch, which hissed shut behind him. “Stand at ease,” the Lieutenant barked. We relaxed, somehow. None of us quite dared to breathe. “This is Senior Crew Chief Markus Wilhelm, the senior Crewman onboard this vessel. He will show you to your quarters.”

Her gaze swept over us again. “Tell me something,” she said. One finger pointed at Ellen. “How many demerits have you all earned today?”

“Fourteen,” she said, rapidly adding them up in her head. “That’s…ah…”

“No need to break them down,” the Lieutenant said, dryly. “How did you work them off at the Academy?”

“Exercise, Lieutenant,” Ellen said. I nodded. In theory, twenty demerits meant a more severe punishment, but I had never heard of one actually being carried out. There had even been Cadets with far more demerits who had never worked them all off. Somehow, I was sure that it was going to be different here. “We had to work out for at least an hour in the gym under supervision.”

“Very good,” the Lieutenant said. Ellen blushed slightly. “You will discover that things are different here. A demerit is worked off by hard and embarrassing duties, including cleaning the ship’s toilets with a toothbrush, and you will do it. If you earn more than five without working them off, you will be disciplined firmly. The golden rule on this ship is simple. Don’t fuck about, understand?”

She didn’t wait for our answers. “Markus, show them to their quarters,” she ordered. Her voice darkened slightly. “I believe that the Political Officer will want to speak to them later and we don’t wish to disappoint him, do we?”

“No, Lieutenant,” the Senior Chief Crewman said. He smiled at us and I found myself liking him instinctively. He had a very trustworthy face, although I wasn’t blind to the muscles showing under his uniform. “Follow me.”

Chapter Two

The reasoning behind the demand for political reliability is simple. The UN relies on its officers and men carrying out orders without question, as questioning officers might question the very value of the UN itself, or the nature of the war they are forced to fight on the UN’s behalf. Therefore, every care is taken to ensure that not only are the officers and men exposed to UN propaganda regularly, but that they are also watched carefully for subversive leanings. This is the task of the Political Officers.

-Thomas Anderson. An Unbiased Look at the UNPF. Baen Historical Press, 2500.

“My God,” Roger said, after we’d been shown into our quarters and informed that we would be expected on the bridge at 1400. “These quarters are small!”

I laughed dryly. “Are you going to go and complain?”

“Not really,” Roger said. His demerits would take him time and effort to work off. We’d been given so many between us that the toilets were probably going to be permanently spotless until we reached Terra Nova. “Maybe Sally should do it. She only got two demerits.”

“Fuck you,” Sally said, annoyed. “We’ve got twenty-one minutes until we’re expected on the bridge. Choose your bunks now, please.”

I looked around. There were eight bunks and only seven Ensigns. We might get someone else assigned to the ship, but I rather doubted it. We’d been ordered to report as a group and no one else had turned up. The cabin was barely large enough for us all to share and as for privacy…forget it. There were only two showers, a handful of drawers for our private possessions, and a small terminal. I tapped it absently and it lit up with a diagram of the ship.

“I’ll take this one,” Roger said, picking a high bunk. I shrugged and picked the one next to him. I didn’t really care if I got the higher or lower bunks, but it was the principle of the thing. “Who’s going to be First Ensign?”

We looked at each other. Traditionally, the First Ensign – or the First Lieutenant – was the officer who had held that rank the longest. Lieutenant Hatchet’s service pins had suggested that she’d been a Lieutenant for at least seven years, surprisingly long. She should have been promoted to Captain or rotated out of the zone years ago. We, on the other hand, had received our commissions together and we had all served an equal amount of time. It might have been barely two days, but even so, we were matched. There was no obvious First Ensign.

“Sally probably has the best claim,” Muna said, from her bunk. She was already stripping down to put on her standard uniform. I carefully didn’t look at her. “She’s the only one who didn’t earn so many demerits.”

“Yeah, but that’s not tradition,” Roger said. I rolled my eyes. It was evident that Roger was angling for the post himself, and equally evident that Muna and Sally were against it. I didn’t know why. As far as I knew, we all got on fairly well, even though we came from very different backgrounds. “Tradition says…”

“Tradition says that we need someone who has served longer than the others,” Sally pointed out. “Remind me; which of us has a fair claim to serving longer than the others?”

“No one,” I said. “Why don’t we just pull straws for it?”

“John, that’s not going to work,” Roger said. “We might as well play cards for it.”

“Not bloody likely,” Rolf said, from his bunk. “I’ve seen you pulling an ace from your sleeve before.”

“Enough,” I said, tightly. “None of us has a real claim to the position. If we cannot elect someone, then we need to go to the First Lieutenant and ask her to rule on the subject. Does anyone have more than two votes?”

There was a brief argument, which concluded with Sally and Roger having two votes each, me having another two, and Muna having the last one on her own. “I nominate Sally for the moment,” I said. “I dare say that we’ll have a clear First Ensign soon enough with the Lieutenant, right?”

“True,” Roger agreed. One of the more significant punishments was retroactive beaching for a short period of time, effectively wiping out someone’s service record. A man who had served for ten years might end up having legally served only eight – and therefore was no longer senior to nine-year officers. I had no doubt that the Lieutenant would be quite happy to use the punishment if she felt we deserved it. If she carried on, we’d end up being legally children, or unborn babies. “Shall we get dressed?”

I nodded, stripped myself, and pulled on my standard uniform. Unlike the dress uniform, it could be dirtied without incurring any penalties, although I doubted that the First Lieutenant would allow us to pass without at least a sharp reprimand. I checked myself in the mirror and was relieved to see that I looked reasonably neat and tidy. Roger made a great show of removing his talisman; Muna removed her headscarf without saying a word. Her dark eyes were unreadable. I opened my carryall and transferred the remaining clothing and equipment into the drawer. It was unlocked, but by long convention no one apart from the Captain could demand it opened. I trusted my fellow Ensigns. Besides, there was nothing valuable in my drawer.

“Remember to keep the room tidy,” Sally said, calmly. As First Ensign pro tem, she was responsible for ensuring that we took care of our quarters and drawing up the cleaning rota. It would be one of her tasks in the immediate future. “Ellen, put that bra away. We don’t want to see it.”

“We do,” Roger said, innocently. Sally fixed him with a look that would have made a rampaging tiger back down. “Sorry.”

“So you should be,” Sally said. The laws against sexual discrimination prohibited any awareness of differences between male and female cadets. I had often though that that particular regulation was stupid – I couldn’t help being aware of their femininity – but parts of it made sense. Sexual relationships between cadets and ensigns were forbidden. “Now, shall we go?”

We made one final check of our appearance and allowed her to lead us from our cabin up towards the bridge. It was my first time on a real starship and I gazed around me with interest, drinking in the sights with open wonder. The noise of the starship’s engines as they built up the immense power reserves needed to trigger the Jump Drive seemed to be singing in my ears. It was something out of my dreams. We passed a handful of crewmen who looked at us oddly, perhaps envying us our smart uniforms and career prospects, before we stepped onto the bridge. The First Lieutenant inspected us carefully – no demerits this time, thank goodness – before presenting us to the Captain.

The bridge itself was something of a disappointment. I had expected something out of the latest movie, showing a glistening place of magical technology. Instead, there were a handful of consoles and a single chair in the centre of the room. I felt my gaze linger on the chair, and the man seated in it, for a long moment. The Captain’s chair was only for the Captain. It was a serious offence for anyone else to sit in it.

“Captain,” an officer I didn’t recognise said, “we have received clearance to depart from Orbit Seven.”

“Finally,” the Captain said. He didn’t sound happy, but UNPF regulations were firm on the subject of disengaging from orbital stations. “Ensign Walker, would you care to take the conn?”

Me? I thought. It took me a moment to realise that I was even being addressed, or that the Captain knew my name. “Yes, sir,” I said, trying desperately to remember the procedure from the Academy. I had never docked anything larger than a Flitter or Bug in real life. I’d done well on simulations, but…I swallowed my nervousness and leaned forward. “Pilot, confirm that we have disengaged from the locks.”

“Not confirmed,” the pilot said calmly, although there was an undertone of nervousness in his voice. He knew just how badly I could fuck this up, all right. “We are still locked to the station.”

I cursed my mistake silently. “Confirm that the docking tube has been evacuated and depressurised,” I ordered. I could hear my heartbeat thundering away in my ears. I was sure that everyone could hear it, right across the bridge. “Disengage from locks and order the station to retract the tube.”

The display altered slightly. “Tube retracted, sir,” the pilot said. The starship was now flying free. “The station confirms that we are cleared to depart.”

“Bring up the drive field and manoeuvre us away from the station,” I ordered, searching my memory desperately. “Clear two hundred thousand kilometres from the station, and then prepare to bring up the Jump Drive.”

“Aye, sir,” the pilot said. I could feel a faint thrumming though the deck as the starship slowly moved away from the station. The drive field was pushing us towards the jump coordinate. “Target star?”

“Terra Nova,” I said, firmly. The Captain had said that we were going there first. I also expected that he would countermand me if we were going elsewhere. “Select jump coordinates as appropriate.”

“Very good,” the Captain said, warmly. I flushed. “Still…how many waypoints do you think we will need?”

I hesitated and finally took refuge in the regulations. “UNPF regulations state that starships must have at least four waypoints between Earth and the destination star,” I answered, carefully. “Five, sir?”

“Four will be sufficient,” the Captain said. He keyed his console. “Engineering, this is the Captain. Clear the Jump Drive for activation in…”

He looked up at me. “Fifty seconds,” I said, automatically. I’d been watching the display as we moved further away from Orbit Seven.

“Fifty seconds,” the Captain confirmed. He had to be aware of the sweat trickling down my back. “You have the conn, Ensign.”

“Yes, sir,” I gulped. I wanted to flee the bridge and hide. “Pilot, bring up the Jump Drive and engage in…three…two…one…now!”

The screens went black as the drive triggered and we vanished inside the artificial wormhole. “Secure from departure stations,” I ordered, automatically. “Estimated time of arrival at first waypoint; seven days.”

“Acceptable,” the Captain said, calmly. I flushed again. “You were given the conn, Ensign. Not issuing the orders would have been unacceptable. I relieve you.”

“I stand relieved,” I said, formally. The Captain nodded to the First Lieutenant. “Lieutenant Hatchet will take you to meet with the Political Officer now.”

“Yes, sir,” Lieutenant Hatchet said. “Follow me.”

“You did reasonably well,” she said, as soon as we were outside the bridge and walking down the corridor. We paused to allow a pair of crewmen to walk past carrying a large box of spares between them. “You could have been sent to the Captain’s Mast for forgetting to depressurise the tube, or forgetting to clear enough space between us and the station before opening the wormhole, but on the whole…good work.”

She smiled at me. It completely transformed her face. “Thank you, Lieutenant,” I stammered. I hadn’t realised how much I’d forgotten after the brief course at the Academy. “May I ask a question?”

“Of course,” she said. “I may decline to answer.”

“Why did the Captain talk to Engineering instead of me?” I asked. “I don’t mind, but…”

She laughed. “The Engineer would not have started the power-up sequence for anyone less than the lawful Captain,” she explained. “You’ll see more of it when we start you on the drills later this afternoon, but for the moment, only the Captain has the clearance to issue certain orders. You’ll hear more about those later.”

We stopped outside a large hatch. “This is the Political Officer’s quarters,” she said. I felt my insides clench before she issued her warning. “Behave yourselves.”

The hatch slid open, revealing a cabin that was much larger and more luxurious than our shared cabin, or perhaps even the Captain’s cabin. I looked inside and my first thought was wondering just what the Political Officer did with all the space. It was decorated in a fashion that surprised and disgusted me, with a handful of nude images on the bulkheads and a drinks cabinet placed in a prominent position. The Political Officer himself was seated behind a desk that looked rather out of place on the starship, but as we entered he came to his feet and smiled at us. I found myself distrusting the man on sight.

“Enter, enter,” he said, waving us to a comfortable sofa that had seen better days. It looked large enough to hold more than seven Ensigns without difficultly. “No need to stand to attention here, my dears; we’re all friends here. Take a seat, please. Would you like something to drink?”

I shook my head. None of us, even Roger, had the self-confidence to ask for a drink. The Political Officer looked far too well-fed, and polished, to be trusted. He was overweight and surprisingly unkempt, wearing civilian clothes on a very military starship. The string of medals he wore on his jacket clashed oddly with the civilian outfit. I didn’t know what half of the medals were, but I doubted that he had any right to wear them.

“Welcome onboard the UNS Jacques Delors,” he said. His voice was light and effeminate. “I would have greeted you at the hatch, but the Captain insisted on me seeing you after we’d entered the wormhole and shipped out for Terra Nova. I hope that you weren’t too disappointed to miss me there? The Political Officer is quite an important figure on the starship, my dears, even if I am not in the chain of command. You can talk to me about anything, anything at all.”

He took a chair himself and leaned back in it absently. I wasn't sure what to make of the performance – and yes, I was sure that it was a performance – but I saw no reason to change my first impression. He seemed to be trying to be friendly, yet disconcerting, and I had the feeling that telling him anything would be a really bad idea. The Political Officers at the Academy had been boring people with stuffed shirts, testing us endlessly on our political opinions, but this one was different.

“No?” He asked. “Well, we’ll get down to business. I am Jason Montgomerie, Political Officer to this ship. My task is to ensure that you understand the political implications of the work the Peace Force does and assist you to remove any doubts or hesitations you might have. You have to understand the rational behind your work to give your lives meaning, you see, and you have to understand that it is all worthwhile.

“The UN was founded originally to bring peace and tranquillity to the Earth, which was suffering under the endless curse of war spread by rogue nations and societies,” he continued. I’d heard this all before, but I knew better than to be lulled into complacency. “It took years to move from being little more than a talking shop to develop the framework of international law – later interplanetary law – that governs the human race today. The Rules of War, the Code of Behaviour and the various protocols governing interplanetary trade all grew out of those early works. The UN was resisted mightily by nationalists who wanted to reserve the right to butcher thousands with crude weapons and threaten the very future of the human race, but slowly it grew into a mighty edifice.

“And yet, enemies of the UN continued to threaten its existence, to make profits for themselves at the expense of the remainder of the human race,” he said, his voice rising. He believed what he was saying. “The asteroid miners insisted on selling their ore at prices the market would bear, not what the poor could afford to pay, despite the attempts by progressive forces to intervene. The development of the Jump Drive only made those problems worse. The Enemies of Progress took resources that should belong to the entire human race and used them to found new colonies, teaching their children that the UN was evil and its dream of a united humanity nothing, but an attempt to suppress them. Would you believe that many of them banned Free Speech regarding the UN?”

I felt myself shivering slightly and hoped that he couldn’t sense it. I’d seen the UN’s idea of Free Speech before, back when I’d been at school. A young teenage boy - a wiseass, true, but very smart with it – had questioned the UN’s policy on race and racism. His speech had been moving and quite effective, but the day afterwards…he hadn’t shown up at school. If the teachers had known what had happened to him, they never told their pupils…and we all drew the lesson. Free Speech was dangerous to the health. I’d been told that restrictions existed to prevent the spread of racial hatred and bad ideas, but…he’d just been a boy!

“Our task,” Jason Montgomerie continued, lumping himself in with us, “is to prevent the Enemies of Progress from preventing the unification of the human race. We can and will do anything that is required to prevent them from deserting the human race in its hour of greatest need. You will learn, as we go on, that they have sacrificed their rights because of their insistence on placing themselves in front of the rest of humanity…”

He went on for hours. By the time he had finished, we were all headachy and confused. Lieutenant Hatchet, surprisingly, allowed us to go back to our cabin and sleep, instead of taking us to start drilling. We all needed our rest.

The day afterwards, we began drilling in earnest.

Chapter Three

The UN would prefer to deny it, but there are far more complicated issues regarding pirates and piracy than it allows its people to recognise. The pirates that appeared in the wake of the UN’s first attempt to assert its authority over the outer worlds were driven by a mixture of motivations, ranging from revenge to greed and the desire to set up new independent colonies. Despite the UN’s claims, there are hundreds of pirates known to be at large…and, owing to the difficulties of intercepting them, they may be at large for years to come.

-Thomas Anderson. An Unbiased Look at the UNPF. Baen Historical Press, 2500.

“Ensign,” the Captain said, “prepare to take us out of the wormhole.”

I found myself tensing, again. I had practiced the manoeuvre endlessly in the simulators, under far worse conditions, but this was real. The memory of some of the more spectacular failures, where a single moment of inattention had cost me the simulated ship, lingered in my mind. I couldn’t help, but be aware that the Captain probably remembered them too. I had earned those demerits the hard way.

“Yes, sir,” I said, running my hand over the console. In theory, there’s no point in manning the bridge while the starship is in the wormhole, but the Captain insisted on having all stations manned at all times. We’d learned quickly that there was no such thing as enough practice and simulations. The First Lieutenant had drummed it into our heads often enough. “I have the Jump Drive online and ready to open the terminus.”

I didn’t understand the theory behind the Jump Drive – few people did, according to Lieutenant Hatchet – but we had practised enough so that I understood the practicalities of the wormhole it generated. It formed a link between our departure point and arrival point, but it also created a whole separate universe, containing nothing, but the starship. We had to open the wormhole terminus at the far end to escape. No one was quite sure what would happen if we didn’t, but no one felt that it was worth the risk of trying to find out.

“Excellent,” the Captain said, leaning back in his chair. I wasn’t fooled. I had respected the Captain from the start and the month since we had joined his crew hadn’t altered that opinion. He was watching me like a hawk. “Confirm arrival point.”

I winced inwardly. This was the tricky part. “Arrival point…confirmed,” I said, carefully. The Jump Drive was many things, but accurate it was not. “Terminus point confirmed as preset destination to within seven million kilometres.”

“Let’s see, shall we?” The Captain said. “Helm, take us out of Jump Drive.”

My display altered slightly as the wormhole terminus blossomed open in front of us, revealing stars for the first time in a week. The Captain’s course had given us four chances to practice egress from the wormhole, but this was the first time we had opened a wormhole in an inhabited star system. The UN safety regulations insisted that all wormholes had to be preset to locations within range of explored stars, but the stars we had used as waypoints were uninhabited. If something had gone wrong, we would have been stranded light years from any possible rescue.

“Sensors, confirm clear space,” the Captain ordered. The odds were astronomically against us coming out near another starship, or a planet, but he wanted to be sure. “Communications, transmit our IFF to System Command and inform them that we require a local space information download.”

“All sensors read clear, sir,” Muna said, from her position. “No contacts within active sensor range.”

The Captain keyed his armrest console. “All stations, stand down from emergence alert,” he ordered, calmly. There was no need, in theory, to go to emergence alert either, but the Captain ran a tight ship. The last week had included hundreds of drills, ranging from standard hull breach drills to counter-boarding drills. “Communications?”

“Signal sent, sir,” Roger said. We were several light minutes from the planet, so there wouldn’t be a reply quickly unless there was a starship or sublight spacecraft closer to our position. “No response as yet.”

“I thought not,” the Captain said, dryly. Roger flushed, slightly. The Captain didn’t shout, or lose his temper, but his tone spoke volumes. Roger had pointed out something that Captain had known for longer than Roger been alive. “Engineering?”

“Jump Drive powering down now,” Engineer Ivan Druzhkov said, his faint Russian accent echoing through the communications link. He was a gloomy fellow most of the time, except when he was working with his beloved engines. He also had a surprisingly large collection of model railway locomotives he’d built himself in his spare time. “The drive field is online and ready.”

“Good,” the Captain said. “Ensign Walker; plot us a course to Terra Nova and take us there, standard speed.”

“Aye, sir,” I said. I had already plotted out the course while Muna and Roger were going through their own motions, knowing that the Captain would ask for it. I hoped – prayed – that he was keeping a careful eye on it. I’d once accidentally rammed a planet during the simulations. Lieutenant Hatchet had been scathing. “Course laid in.”

The starship seemed to shiver slightly as she built up speed, heading towards the planet. It would take hours to reach Terra Nova in normal space, unless the Captain decided to open a wormhole to reach the planet quicker, but he didn’t seem to mind. There was no rush, apparently. The display was filling up now as passive sensors started to pick up hundreds of beacons right across the solar system, from small mining craft to massive bridge ships linking Terra Nova with the handful of colonies on the other worlds in the system. I had to remind myself that there was a time-delay in all of the reports. A spaceship could be light minutes from where the display insisted it was. The planet itself, of course, was surrounded with enough icons to form a small galaxy. Any colony world would have a growing space industry…

I frowned as some of the beacons resolved into IFF signals. There were a handful of other starships in the system, along with sublight gunboats and support craft, and most of them were hanging in orbit around Terra Nova. I couldn’t understand what I was seeing. I’d heard from Lieutenant Hatchet and the Senior Chief how desperately short of starships we were, so why were so many on station around Terra Nova? The mystery only deepened when I realised that the space stations were largely UN-built, instead of local construction…and that the Peace Force seemed to be controlling them. It was odd. Terra Nova didn’t even have a space cable, let alone an orbital tower. If was as if they didn’t want any connection with space at all.

Muna’s console bleeped an alarm. “Captain,” she said, “I’m picking up a distress signal, from the freighter Diamond’s Revenge.”

I looked up at the main display. A new icon had flashed into existence. “They’re reporting that they are under attack,” she said. “They’re requesting help.”

“Ensign Walker, bring up the Jump Drive and take us there,” the Captain ordered. I’d been caught by surprise and found myself struggling to plot out the course. The computers are supposed to assist us in working out the wormhole coordinates, but I’d already discovered that their help was strictly limited. “Open the wormhole.”

“Yes, sir,” I said, bracing for the inevitable reprimand. We’d all had a shot at being First Ensign since we’d boarded the starship, as we’d earned reprimands and demerits from the senior crew. I wasn't going to be wearing the silver star again anytime soon. “Wormhole opening…now.”

This time, there was no point in standing down from Jump Alert. “All hands, this is the Captain,” the Captain said, as the wormhole closed behind us. It would be mere seconds before we reached my destination coordinates. I desperately hoped that they were close enough to the pirate ship to bring it to battle. If we were unlucky, they might not even be in the same star system. “All hands to battle stations, I repeat, all hands to battle stations.”

I found myself tensing again as the alarm sounded through the ship. “Wormhole opening now, sir,” I said, as the wormhole loomed open in front of us. I stared at the display, willing the numbers to match up. “Emerging…”

“Bring up the drive field and plot an intercept course,” the Captain said, as if he didn’t have the slightest doubt of my ability to do as he wanted. I watched the display and tried not to sigh too heavily in relief when I realised that the numbers matched up, if not quite perfectly. “All weapons crews to their stations; load missile and torpedo tubes.”

The pirate ship and its prey blinked into existence on my display and I angled the starship’s course towards them. The pirate had clearly been planning on subduing and boarding his prey before its distress call could reach Terra Nova and the starships orbiting the planet. They hadn’t expected us to arrive in the system – from what the Senior Chief had said, that might have been because most starships arrived overdue as a matter of routine – in time to intervene either. It had been sheer luck.

“Steady as you bear,” the Captain ordered, calmly. I half-expected him to order me to give up the helm to the Pilot, who had just arrived on the bridge, but the Captain seemed quite happy with the situation. I hoped his faith in me wasn't misplaced. “Ensign Mohammad, open up a direct communications link, if you please.”

“Link open, standard intership communications frequency,” Muna said. She sounded briskly competent, at least. I felt as if I were a steaming puddle of sweat. “Sir?”

“This is Captain Harriman of the Jacques Delors,” the Captain said. His voice was so firm and intimidating that I would have surrendered on the spot, had I been the pirate. “You are ordered to halt your assault on the Diamond’s Revenge and prepare to be boarded. If you refuse to follow orders, we will engage with deadly force.”

There was no reply. I opened another window on my display and followed the action carefully. The pirate was being careful not to damage his prey too much – it would have destroyed his target – but he didn’t seem to be retreating from the engagement. He could have opened a wormhole and escaped – he had to have a proper starship, or the UN starships in the system would have hunted him down by now – but instead he seemed to hesitate. I pulled open the starship’s database, searching for a match, but only found a handful of details. The starship’s origin was unknown.

Perhaps its an alien ship, I thought, before realising that I was being silly. The UN hadn’t encountered any form of intelligent alien life since mankind’s first steps into space. The Senior Chief had taken a gruesome delight in telling us some of the wilder spacer stories, but none of us believed them. Alien contact would have been the sensation of the millennium.

“No response, sir,” Muna said. She seemed to hesitate. “I’m sure they can hear us, sir; they’re just choosing not to reply.”

“Understood,” the Captain said. “Attempt to raise the freighter and assess their situation.” He looked over at the tactical console. “Lieutenant Hatchet, fire a warning shot.”

“Aye, sir,” Lieutenant Hatchet said. It hadn’t surprised us to discover that she was the ranking tactical officer as well as the First Lieutenant. Mere Ensigns were not allowed to touch the tactical console except under strict supervision. “Missile away, sir.”

The starship shook slightly as the missile launched, racing towards the enemy ship at a speed no human could stand, even with the most advanced compensators in the galaxy. The missiles weren't as bad a threat as the space operas made them out to be – anyone could see them coming and point defence lasers could take them out pretty quickly – but they drew a line in the sand. The pirate would have to know, now, that the Captain was serious. I found myself making a mental bet. Would they take out the missile with their point defence, assuming they had any point defence, or would they allow it to pass them and detonate harmlessly a few thousand kilometres from their position?

“Enemy ship has engaged the missile,” Lieutenant Hatchet said, a moment later. I watched as the missile icon vanished from the display. “They have destroyed the missile.”

“Helm, close to engagement range,” the Captain ordered. “Lieutenant Hatchet, you are authorised to engage with lasers at will.”

“Aye, sir,” I said. We had been moving directly towards the pirate ship, but now I ramped up the drive and pushed us forward on a collusion course. The pirate would have to be blind to miss our approach now and if they didn’t move, they would be rammed, unless we altered course ourselves. I hadn’t realised how slow and stately space combat actually was until I’d spent hours in the simulators. “Five minutes to prime engagement range.”

The pirate ship seemed to alter course slightly, spinning away from its prey. “They’ve seen us,” Roger exclaimed. “They’ve locked on.”

“Report,” the Captain said. There was a hint of reproof in his tone. “Calmly, if possible.”

Roger sounded embarrassed and I didn’t blame him. He’d probably earned a demerit at least for that unprofessional report. “They just swept us with targeting sensors, sir,” Roger said, carefully. “They’re locking on to us with their fire control.”

“Charge point defence lasers, prepare to engage,” the Captain said, calmly. “Lieutenant…”

“Opening fire, sir,” Lieutenant Hatchet said. The lights dimmed slightly as the starship’s power was diverted towards the laser cannons. The pirate drive field would interdict as much as possible, but a constant bombardment would eventually overload the drive field and send the starship out of control. “Enemy ship is engaging with missiles. Point defence systems online and engaging enemy forces at will.”

I watched as two missiles launched from the pirate ship. The sight puzzled me for a moment. Was it my imagination, or were the pirate missiles moving faster than the standard missiles we carried? They were still picked off by the point defence, but it was apparent that the missiles were heavily armoured against laser fire. One of them got far too close before it was burned to nothing. I saw the Captain exchange a long glance with Lieutenant Hatchet, their faces unreadable, before she redoubled her efforts and continued to burn away at the pirate ship.

“Stay with him,” the Captain ordered, as the pirate ship continued to move away. I kept us right on his tail, despite a growing number of missiles being fired at us. I wondered why the Captain wasn't ordering us to engage with our own missiles, or torpedoes, but there was little point. The pirate point defence seemed as capable as our own. Its drive field seemed to be radiating energy as our lasers bit into it, but it wasn't stopping. “Ah…”

I saw the wormhole blossom into existence around the pirate ship. A moment later, it was gone.

“Secure from battle stations,” the Captain said. If he were angry, he hid it well. “Master Sergeant, prepare a team to board the freighter and attempt to locate whatever the pirates were after. Everyone else, good work.”

I glowed. Praise from the Captain was rare. “Ensigns, you are dismissed,” the Captain said. “Report to the Senior Chief for further duties.”

The next hour was largely uneventful. The Senior Chief, as always, had a vast number of tasks that needed doing whenever someone could be spared and I found myself working with Sally on the starship’s main shuttle. I’d flown shuttles back at the Academy, but I hadn’t had a chance to fly once since I’d boarded the starship, even in simulation. I was dimly aware that the Captain would be going down to the surface when we finally made orbit and I rather hoped he’d chose me as his pilot. It was unlikely – flying the shuttles was the Pilot’s other task – but I could dream, couldn’t I? Besides, I’d heard good things about Terra Nova.

“Good enough,” the Senior Chief said, finally. We were, as Ensigns, allowed to refer to him by his first name, but none of us quite dared. “We don’t want the Captain to be put out by the condition of his shuttle, do we?”

“No, Senior Chief,” we said, together. A Senior Chief couldn’t be called ‘sir’ – he’d made that point clear the first time he'd had us as a group – but what else could we call him? His task – bossing the various crewmen around – wasn't an easy one, even though no one in their right mind would have picked a fight with him. He'd once disciplined a drunken crewman by giving him a black eye and a sound thrashing. The crewmen might have called us ‘babies’ when they thought we couldn’t hear, but they wouldn’t dare defy the Senior Chief.

“Of course not,” the Senior Chief agreed. His voice lightened slightly. “It is particularly important when the Captain has decided that the Ensigns who were on the bridge are to accompany him to the surface. You wouldn’t want to be the person responsible for the mess, would you?”

“Lucky you,” Sally said, without heat. If she hadn’t been tired, she would probably have said a great deal more, perhaps even a discussion of my parentage. “Senior Chief, why is the planet called Terra Nova anyway?”

“Officially, because it was the first planet we discovered,” the Senior Chief said. He laughed, as if he were laughing at a very private joke. “Or perhaps it was just a case of someone lacking in imagination at the right time. That said…do you know what the inhabitants call it?”

We shook our heads.

He smiled, with the air of one imparting a great secret.

“Hell,” he said.

Chapter Four

The causes of the Terra Nova disaster – although the UN refuses to admit to this day that it was a disaster – are many, but the simplest cause of all remains unspoken. The UN attempted to ensure that every ethnic group on Earth received a ‘fair’ patch of ground on the new world. This might not have led to disaster, if the UN hadn’t then insisted that all groups were to be forced together on one continent, as, according to the latest political-science theories, they would form into a new community. This might have worked…if the UN hadn’t then taken steps to prevent, quite unintentionally, such a community from forming. It took twenty years to develop Terra Nova…

The war started the following year.

-Thomas Anderson. An Unbiased Look at the UNPF. Baen Historical Press, 2500.

The Captain didn’t allow me to fly the shuttle, but I was able to sit up front with the Pilot and watch as we descended through the atmosphere of Terra Nova. It reminded me of travelling up from Earth on the orbital tower, back when I had been accepted into the Academy, but descending in a shuttle was somehow more exciting. Terra Nova looked a lot like Earth – it had the same mixture of green land and blue seas – but it was lacking the clouds of pollution that infested Earth’s upper atmosphere. The Political Officer had waxed lyrical about how pristine Terra Nova had been before humanity had landed on it, and how it was still a paradise, without the wrecking effects of capitalist terrorists.

Despite his words, I was actually looking forward to visiting the planet, although I was starting to realise that anything that was described in such glowing terms probably had a nasty sting in the tail. It was a lesson the Senior Chief had hammered into our heads repeatedly, starting with a lesson on space helmet safety that had included retch gas seeping through ‘sealed’ spacesuits and dozens of others since. The promises the manufactory people had made, the Senior Chief had warned us, could never be taken at face value. Checking and rechecking the inventory was part of our duties as Ensigns. Nothing could be left unaccounted for, even the merest item.

“That’s Landing City,” the Pilot said, as we continued to fly down the coastline. The city spilled out over the land ahead of us, somehow subtly different from any city on Earth. It took me a moment to realise what was missing. There were no towering mega-skyscrapers, each one holding thousands of people in a self-contained environment, but merely smaller blocky buildings. They all looked to have been turned out at the same manufacturer’s complex and they probably had been. I recalled reading that most colony worlds developed their own housing style pretty quickly, but the core city always kept the original settlement design. I couldn’t understand why. It looked pretty ugly from high overhead. “Do you know how many Landing Cities there are in the entire galaxy?”

I shook my head. “One hundred and seven,” the Pilot informed me, with a grin. He wasn't – technically – in the chain of command, but we’d been taught that it was wise to listen to all of the department heads. They knew their own specialities and not much else, according to the official statements, but they’d been in space longer than any of us Ensigns had been alive. “Humans are not known for their imagination, eh?”

“No,” I agreed, as two silvery shapes shot past us. “What are they?”

“Fighter jets intercepting us and escorting us to the spaceport,” the Pilot said, checking his display. “The damned flyboys haven’t bothered to check in with us yet, either. They’re damn lucky I didn’t have my lasers on a hair trigger.”

The radio buzzed an inquisitive statement. “Shuttle One, UNS Jacques Delors,” the Pilot said. I lifted an eyebrow in his direction. I didn’t understand how he’d made sense out of that racket. “We are landing at the main spaceport, over.”

There was another burst of talking from the radio. “Understood,” the pilot said. “Altering course now to compensate.”

He grinned at me as the shuttle yawed through a long curve that took it around the city. “They’re going to escort us down to the spaceport,” he said. “It seems they’re having some trouble down there and perhaps we’ll need some help from them.”

I stared as the fighters closed in around us. They were crude aircraft, but the missiles and bombs they carried under their wings were clearly deadly. I couldn’t understand why they were carrying so many weapons. Even if there was trouble down on the planet below, the enemy couldn’t have any aircraft, could they? Enemy? The Political Officer had told us that the world was peaceful and tranquil.

“Here we are,” the pilot said, as we floated down towards the spaceport. It was a massive complex, surrounded by heavy defences and crammed with aircraft. I hadn’t seen anything so large since I’d left Earth. Even the Academy Flight Ground had been smaller than the massive airfield. “Coming into land…now!”

We touched the ground with scarcely a bump. “The Captain will want to see you now,” the pilot prompted, as the ground crew appeared from all around us. Some of them were pushing small fuel tanks, others were clearly soldiers, wearing standard UNPF urban combat outfits. The sight of them sent a chill down my spine. Was it really so important that the shuttle was guarded with armed men in the middle of the compound? “Have fun.”

I nodded. “Thank you,” I said. I had wondered if the Pilot harboured a grudge over my work on the helm console, but he didn’t seem concerned. I hadn’t placed myself there anyway. “It was a good flight.”

The noise struck us as soon as we opened the hatches and filed out. It was a deafening cacophony of aircraft engines, heavy vehicles and not a little shooting, somewhere off in the distance. The air was warm and oppressive, smelling of vehicle flumes and burning fires. I found myself staring wide-eyed at the spaceport, taking in the heavy combat aircraft and the hundreds of helicopters that seemed to be coming and going all the time. They weren't dinky little civilian-model helicopters either, but dark-painted military aircraft, laden down with missiles and guns. I was starting to realise that Terra Nova was far from peaceful.

I looked back at the five Marines and realised that they shared my views. They weren't standing at ease like the rest of us, even the Captain, but were holding their weapons so that they could open fire quickly on any target that presented itself. I had always found the Marines a little intimidating – the Captain was the only one who was authorised to issue them orders, despite their presence on the starship – but I was glad to have them along. I had the feeling that we were going to need them.

“Captain Harriman?” A man detached himself from the general mob surrounding the shuttle and came over to the Captain. He reminded me – to my shame – of the picture we’d cut when we’d first boarded the Jacques Delors. He held himself as if he didn’t know how to stand to attention, or as if he didn’t know how to use the rifle he had slung over one shoulder. His uniform was too clean and pressed to be real. “I’m Colonel Hoskins, military rep. The Governor has requested the pleasure of your company at Government House.”

I saw the Captain’s lips thin and felt a moment’s pity for the Colonel. “I was informed that the reception would be at the spaceport,” he said, tightly. There was an undertone in his voice I didn’t like, or understand. “I trust that you have provided us with sufficient transport and an escort?”

“Of course, sir,” the Colonel said. I couldn’t understand how he was still on his feet. If the Captain had spoken to me like that, I would have probably died of shock. It would have been kinder to shout at us. “Right this way…ah, your Marines can leave their weapons here…”

His voice trailed off as he saw the Captain’s expression, and the way the Marines were fingering their weapons. “But there will be no need for that,” he added, quickly. “I’m sure that everything will be fine.”

He led us across the airfield, chattering away to the Captain as if they were old friends, although he never seemed to say anything of any real substance. We were left walking behind them, with the Marines spread out around us, allowing us to take in the airport as we walked. I wasn't impressed by the rows of soldiers all around us, marching around as if they were permanently in a hurry. Compared to the Marines, I was starting to realise, most of them were barely trained. They might have looked intimidating to some, but I was surprised to realise that they didn’t intimidate me.

I looked over at Roger and risked a whisper. “How many troops are assigned to this planet?”

Roger looked at the Captain’s back and answered, equally quietly. “The files say around five hundred thousand,” he muttered back. “It could be a lot more.”

“Here you are,” Colonel Hoskins said, as if he’d discovered them personally. “You escort and transport awaits.”

I couldn’t believe my eyes. The Captain deserved a limo, at the very least. Instead, we were looking at a pair of armoured trucks, surrounded by a set of armoured cars and troop transports. There had to be at least seventy soldiers there…and yet, somehow I wasn't reassured at all. The trucks looked older than I was; the soldiers looked bored and completely unconcerned by their mission. It didn’t, I decided, bode well for the reassurances that the planet was safe.

Another flight of helicopters flew overhead as Colonel Hoskins invited us into the vehicles. The Captain, the Master Sergeant and two armed Marines went into one of the vehicles; myself, Roger, Muna and the remaining Marines went into the other vehicle. I couldn’t help, but wince when I smelled the inside of the truck; I had a nasty feeling that it was normally used for transporting pigs, or prisoners. If I had left a compartment on the ship smelling like that, the First Lieutenant would have probably beaten us black and blue. I didn’t want to think about what the Captain would have said about it. The best thing that could be said for the vehicle was that it had no windows. I didn’t want to look outside.

The engine coughed to life, releasing a vaguely-unpleasant smell into the rear, and the vehicle started to move. I found myself tensing as it rattled back and forth, leaving us all completely confused. They could have been taking us anywhere. I pulled out my terminal and started to open a link with the ship, but it seemed that the local communications network wasn't open for mere Ensigns. The local communications node refused access.

“Try using the emergency code,” Roger suggested. I tried, but the local net continued to refuse access. He looked up at the lead Marine. “Can you reach the ship?”

“The local Marine net is still active,” the Marine said. It took me a moment to realise that she was female. The body armour she wore covered up all traces of her breasts. I didn’t know what she looked like under the mask and, somehow, I didn’t want to know. “There’s enough data there to keep us going for a while…”

The entire truck rang like a bell. “Gunshot,” one of the Marines said. I wanted to cringe inside, but somehow I managed to control myself. I had never been in a gunfight before, but I’d seen hundreds on video, late-night entertainments where the villain had used a gun to inflict nightmares. A single shot could kill easily, or so we had been told. A moment later, a handful of other shots bounced off the armour and the truck lurched violently.

“Why aren’t we shooting back?” Roger asked, plaintively. “What about the soldiers escorting us?”

“Their hands are tied by the ROE,” the lead Marine said. There was a curiously dismissive tone to her voice. “They’re not allowed to shoot back unless their lives are in real danger.”

An explosion, not too far away, made the entire vehicle shake. I heard more gunshots in the distance, but I couldn’t tell who was firing. The video heroes could tell the difference between one weapon and another by sound alone, but they all sounded the same to me. I hoped – prayed – that we weren't the targets of the assault, but somehow I felt otherwise. The enemy, whoever they were, had turned out to welcome us to Terra Nova in force. The truck kept moving rapidly and then…

It crashed to a halt as another explosion shook it. I heard shattering sounds from the front cab and knew that the crew were dead. “Out, out now,” the Marine barked. Muna hesitated and the Marine caught her arm, pushing her rapidly towards the rear. I followed her, stumbling slightly, as the Marines jumped out first, their weapons already out and seeking targets. I couldn’t understand how they were taking it all so calmly. I was on the verge of panic until the Marine cuffed my head. “Keep down, damn you!”

The noise was much louder outside the truck. We were caught in a crossfire coming from buildings on either side of us, with gunners pouring down fire towards the trucks. Half of the soldiers seemed to be dead already, their bodies draped over their burning vehicles or lying torn and broken on the ground. The Marines didn’t hesitate. Moving in perfect concert, they lifted their weapons and returned fire savagely, spending bullets like water. A handful of gunners fell out of the windows as the bullets tore through their flesh; others targeted the Marines and attempted to overwhelm them. The remaining soldiers, who had been pinned down under heavy fire, were attempting to counterattack or retreat, but neither seemed possible. The road was blocked at both ends.

Hoskins must have been working for them, I thought, angrily. The thought seemed unlikely, but even I could see that we’d driven right into a planned ambush. The enemy, whoever they were, had had the time to set up perfectly and they’d killed…they might have killed the Captain! The thought spurred me to action, despite my terror, and I started to crawl around the remains of the truck. If the Captain was alive, it was my duty to go to him; if he were dead, it was my duty to take care of the bodies. I hadn’t understood some of the muttered comments the Marines had made before now, but I saw now that those on the ground were very different to those who served in space. They didn’t understand us and we didn’t understand them.

The firing seemed to intensify, joined by a CRUMP, CRUMP, CRUMP sound that, moments later, was followed by explosions all around us. It seemed as if we were caught in the midst of a civil war, or perhaps half the city was trying to get at us and hitting their own side in all the confusion. I felt sweat trickling down my back as I crawled forward, stopping only when I saw the small group of soldiers in front of me, firing into the buildings. It saved my life. A handful of grenades tumbled down amongst them and shredded them in the explosions. Blood and gore splattered over me.

Dark shapes burst out of the buildings, firing as they came. A handful fell, a dozen, but the remainder kept running, pressing their advantage. I tried to crawl backwards, but it was too late; one of them had seen me. He pointed his weapon at me, leered down the barrel of his gun, and smiled. I froze. I should have gone for the laser pistol on my belt, but somehow I couldn’t move. He held me hypnotized. I felt a warm trickle running down my leg, a moment before his head exploded as one of the Marines picked him off with a single shot. The Marine was past me in a moment, firing single shots into the group, wiping them all out. A moment later, we were in the clear.

“Stay down,” he hissed, as a new sound rent the air. I could hear the sound of mighty blades tearing through the air. “Stay down…”

The first helicopter swooped down, firing missiles into the buildings on both sides of the road. The others followed, bombarding enemy positions with missiles and gunfire, while thousands of soldiers in heavy armoured vehicles appeared at both ends of the street. The enemy forces faded away and vanished into the surrounding streets. It was over.

“Get into the trucks,” I heard the Captain order. I had never been so glad to hear someone’s voice in all my life, even if I had wet myself from fear. I thought of presenting myself to the Governor like that and had to fight to suppress a giggle. Now the fear was wearing off, I was just happy to be alive. “Move, now!”

The armoured truck was, thankfully, cooler than the outside. The Captain followed us in, with the Master Sergeant bringing up the rear. A moment later, the truck moved off. Apart from a handful of bullets pinging off the armour, the remainder of the trip was uneventful. Judging from the smell, I wasn't the only one who had wet myself either.

“I want them all started on weapons training tomorrow,” the Captain ordered. It was the first time I’d heard him sounding angry. The Master Sergeant seemed equally angry, although his anger seemed directed at the soldiers on the outside. “If this is going to happen again…”

It didn’t on that trip, but the memory stayed with me for the rest of my life.

Chapter Five

The UN’s position on weapons training and private gun ownership is, as always, presented as something its not. Citing safety fears and concerns over criminal use of weapons, the UN bans ownership of weapons, and places severe limits on those who would be expected to use weapons in the performance of their duties. It is not unknown for a person to spend their entire career in the UNPF and never fire a shot in anger, or even in training. Civilians are simply forbidden to use weapons; somehow, this does not affect criminal activity. The murder rate in Earth’s cities is shockingly high.

The real reason, of course, is simple. A disarmed population, one that has been trained to be scared of weapons, is one that is unable to revolt.

-Thomas Anderson. An Unbiased Look at the UNPF. Baen Historical Press, 2500.

“All right, pay attention,” the Master Sergeant bellowed. He had the kind of voice that seemed to echo through space, even if sound itself couldn’t travel through a vacuum. “This is Basic Weapons Handling for Dummies! When you came into this cabin, you knew nothing about weapons! When you leave, you will know enough to use a weapon in self-defence or as you are directed by senior officers! Anyone who fucks about in this course will be taken outside and soundly beaten. Do you understand me?”

“Yes, sir,” we said. Master Sergeant Erwin Herzog was not the type of person anyone would easily defy. He was a short grizzly sparkplug, but we’d all seen him exercising and none of those muscles were the result of cosmetic surgery. I’d also seen him practicing with his fellow Marines and knew just how tough he was. If he called me out, I knew I wouldn’t even be able to land a punch.

“I am a Sergeant,” he snapped. “You will address me as Sergeant! I work for a living. I once tried out for officer status, but I was disadvantaged. My parents were married!”

He glared around at us impartially. “First model, the standard-issue UN Model Seven Laser Pistol,” he announced, picking up the pistol and waving it under our noses. “Fires a beam of laser light capable of burning through flesh and light armour. Powered by a single power cell emplaced in the hilt. Designed by a gay sausage sucker and used only by little girls and girly men. What is wrong with this weapon?”

I winced under his tone. The Model Seven looked like something out of a science-fiction movie, one of the endless videos produced about the UNPF and its services to Peace along the frontier. The weapon looked cool, but in the Master Sergeant’s hand, it began to look almost like a toy. It might well have been a toy in a previous incarnation. One of my former friends at school had actually had a set of contraband toy guns.

“I don’t know, Sir…ah, Sergeant,” Roger said, finally. “It kills people, doesn’t it?”

“Yeah, it kills,” Herzog agreed, slowly. “It kills an opponent who is not smart enough to wear heavy armour, but it kills. Never underestimate just how stupid an enemy soldier can be. At the same time, never underestimate the scale of your own mistakes, or just how ignorant you actually are.” He glared at Roger. “What is wrong with this weapon?”

He carried on without waiting for Roger to answer. “There are two things wrong with this piece of shit,” he thundered. “The first thing is that it’s fragile. Slam it to the ground and it will break! The second thing is that the power pack” – he opened the hilt of the pistol and removed the small cell from the weapon – “cannot hold a charge more than a week, if that. If you charge this weapon on Monday, you will be unable to fire it on Sunday. That could be unpleasant.”

Sally spoke into the silence. “Sergeant,” she said, carefully, “why can’t the weapon hold a charge that long?”

“Because some penny-pinching asshole in the Department of Supply decided that it would be cheaper to purchase these shitty power packs from one manufacturer than spend additional money on power packs that actually work,” Herzog informed her. “That asshole probably got a promotion for his stroke of genius, but we on the front lines have to pay the price. Those of you who went down to the surface of the world below will know now that we’re at war. The assholes back home do not believe it in their bones. They are quite happy to give us shit like this to save a few billion credits.”

He threw the pistol to the deck hard enough to make me wince. “You’ll see this again and again in your careers,” he added, icily. “Those of you who have been working off their demerits by doing the replacement work will have realised that all of the components on this ship have around half the lifespan we were promised. The soldiers down on the ground are meant to be able to communicate with one another with ease. Naturally, half the radios don’t link into the other half, which is why the ambush went off so well. The bastard in charge didn’t know that the convoy was under attack until it was almost too late.”

I shivered, remembering the brief…incident. The Captain hadn’t said anything to us about it, even during the brief pointless ceremony at Government House, but on the way back we’d been escorted by hundreds of soldiers. We’d also seen something of the city. It looked like a war zone…no, it was a war zone. The various factions fighting it out for control had somehow managed to learn the route of the convoy and plan an ambush in advance. They’d almost killed all of us.

“This is something a little different,” Herzog snapped, holding up a second weapon. Unlike the laser pistol, it was made of dark metal and gleamed in his hand. “This is as Standard-Issue Marine Automatic Pistol, based on a design hundreds of years old. It fires a clip of nine bullets” – he opened the weapon to reveal the clip stored inside the gun – “and is fucking difficult to fuck up, although knowing most spacer babies you’ll manage it somehow! You shoot someone with this, they’re going to be dead or seriously injured, if you hit them. The one advantage of the laser pistol is that it fires a beam in a straight line. This weapon…you jerk when you fire and you’ll miss.”

He looked from face to face, and then finally pushed the weapon, hilt first, at Roger. “Take it,” he ordered, nodding towards a target set up at the rear of the room. “Hit that target now and you’ll lose a demerit.”

Roger didn’t hesitate. He swung around, pointed the weapon towards the target, and pulled the trigger. It clicked, uselessly.

“First lesson of shooting,” Herzog said. He laughed as he held up his hand. “Never – ever – take anyone’s word about a weapon being loaded, or not. You can’t trust anyone, even me. The next person to make that mistake will be cleaning Marine Country until its completely spotless.”

“I didn’t see you do that,” Roger said, astonished. I hadn’t seen Herzog palm the clip either. “How did you…?”

“I’ll tell you one day,” Herzog promised. “It’s a very old trick. Now” – he took back the weapon and inserted the clip – “point and fire again.”

Roger checked the weapon this time, pointed and fired. It clicked again. “You also have to take the safety off,” Herzog explained, dryly. He demonstrated quickly. “The morons in charge of security at any surface base will probably make a fuss about you carrying a weapon, regardless of the regulations in effect. Always keep the safety on unless you want to use the weapon to kill someone, or to practice shooting. Take care of the weapon and it will take care of you.”

He smiled. “Now, shoot!”

The bang was much louder than I’d expected. “Ouch,” Roger said, with a hiss of pain. The gun had jerked in his hand. “I hit the target…”

“You hit the outer ring,” Herzog said. His tone wasn't quite mocking. “My old grandmother could shoot better than you.” He took back the weapon and passed it to Muna, who checked it carefully, earning herself an approving look in the process. “Your turn.”

An hour later, we had all had a turn firing the pistol and learning how to use it. Herzog made it clear. It wasn't just shooting that was important, but cleaning and preparing the weapon for use. Once we’d all been issued a pistol – although Herzog did warn us that we might not be allowed to keep them in the long run – we were told that they would be inspected regularly. A single weapon in bad condition would mean two demerits.

“In your free time, come here and practice shooting,” Herzog ordered, finally. We groaned. We barely had any free time on the ship. The First Lieutenant and the Senior Chief kept us working from dawn till dusk. I had never realised that I could be so grateful for sleep until they’d started to put us to work. The Academy had been far more routine, with hours allocated for the different courses well in advance, and none of us had been really challenged. “Now…”

He opened a box and revealed a third weapon. I’d seen something like it before, carried by the soldiers down on Terra Nova, but this one was gleaming. “Standard-Issue UN Assault Rifle, Mark Nine,” Herzog informed us. “These weapons are issued, without fail, to both Marines and Infantry troops down in the mud. Why is that?”

I hesitated, and then took a guess. “To allow compatibility?”

“Correct,” Herzog bellowed. “I can use their weapons; they can use ours. We can use their supplies; they can use ours, if they need them. The Infantry doesn’t know what it is like to be a Marine, but they know that they can use our weapons, if they need to do so. When you have all qualified with the pistol, we will move on to the rifle and qualify you on that as well.”

He glanced at his chronometer and smiled thinly. “Times up for the day,” he said, with a faint leer. It was an expression that promised pain…and lots of it. “Unarmed combat practice tomorrow, same time, same place.”

I didn’t – quite – groan again, but unarmed combat against trained Marines was a humiliating experience. I had a handful of lessons back at the Academy, but I hadn’t realised just how much more the Marines got, to say nothing of their constant practice against each other. The Doctor was forever complaining about repairing various Marines after sparring matches had broken bones and inflicted smaller injuries. We’d landed blows…but I was very aware that we’d been allowed to land those blows. The Marines were so controlled that they could absorb our blows without lashing back and knocking us out.

The next week went very slowly. The Captain had us running interception drills on the handful of freighters orbiting Terra Nova, or trying to set up exercises with some of the other starships. I spent some of my off-duty time reading about Terra Nova’s history in the ship’s library, but I found nothing to explain the ambush, or what I was coming to realise was incessant warfare. I asked Lieutenant Hatchet for an explanation, but she clammed up and assigned me other duties until I got the message. There were some questions I couldn’t ask even her.

“Perhaps they’re fighting over religion and the UN is caught in the middle,” Muna said, her dark eyes hooded. I knew little about her origins, apart from the fact that her presence at the Academy hadn’t been universally popular. I couldn’t understand why. She was good company, if sometimes shy and reserved. “Or perhaps they’re fighting against the UN itself. There were people back home who hated the UN and wanted to destroy all the peacekeepers…”

She shook her head. “The UN was the only force keeping the warring tribes apart,” she added. I realised, suddenly, that she could never go home again. The UNPF was her home now. “If it had withdrawn, they would have wiped each other out, but that didn’t stop them mounting attacks.”

“Perhaps,” Roger agreed. He seemed to hesitate. His family connections should have ensured that he had access to more information than anyone else, but on the starship he was cut off from anyone who might have shared information with him. “Or perhaps there’s something else going on. Were they shooting at us, or was it just a target of opportunity?”

I shrugged. “Would they have known or cared who we were?” I asked. It didn’t seem very possible, somehow. “How many Ensigns graduate from the Academy each year?”

Sally snorted. “Perhaps they were so scared when they heard that you three were on your way they decided to set up an ambush to welcome you,” she said. “They might even have intended to put your heads on poles…”

“Don’t even joke about that,” Muna said, sharply. The pain in her voice brought us up short. “It isn’t even remotely funny.”

There was an uncomfortable silence. “They might have wanted the Captain,” I suggested, finally. “Whoever they are…killing a starship Captain would have given them a serious victory.”

“But a victory for whom?” Rolf asked.

We had no answer.

At the end of the second week, the Captain ordered us to set course for Albion, a world only thirty light years from Terra Nova. I’d been expecting some kind of farewell from the planet, but apart from a brief inspection by the Port Admiral commanding the observation squadron there was nothing, not even a goodbye signal. If the Captain felt the lack, he didn’t show it, merely ordering the Pilot to open the wormhole and take us out of the system. I had hoped that I’d be on the helm again, but after the brief encounter with the pirate ship the Captain had decided that the Pilot would handle all manoeuvres in an inhabited solar system. I didn’t mind. I’d had plenty of time to practice in simulators and somehow it felt more real after I’d flown the ship into battle.

There was not, of course, any chance to slack off during the voyage. Lieutenant Hatchet kept us working hard, hammering new skills and disciplines into our heads even as we struggled to master automatic weapons and unarmed combat. I spent several hours per day on the tactical console, learning to master the system, even though I doubted I’d be allowed to use it until I reached Lieutenant, if I ever did. I was starting to realise – no, I’d realised it long ago – that I had been unprepared for duty when I’d boarded the ship and without the extra training, I would probably have been killed long ago.

“But Lieutenant,” I said, one day, “I won’t be allowed to use this console until after I reach Lieutenant…”

“If the ship is attacked, and all the Lieutenants are killed, do you think that the Captain will decide not to continue to return fire?” Lieutenant Hatchet asked, dryly. I flushed. It had been a pretty stupid question. “If I am out of the loop for any reason, the next in line will take over and continue to operate the console. If the senior crew was wiped out, you would be in command of the vessel…”

And God help her, I thought. I had wanted command of my own, one day, but I knew now that I wasn't even remotely prepared for command. The Engineer or the Pilot would be far more qualified for the position, but regulations were inflexible. The Department Heads were not in the chain of command, any more than the non-commissioned crewmen were, while the merest Ensign was. I’d need years before I knew half of what the Captain knew about running a starship. The punishment duty Lieutenant Hatchet had assigned me once, helping her with the paperwork, had rubbed that in as well. I had had no idea just how much paperwork was involved in operating the starship.

It might not make any difference, of course. The Space Opera videos that I’d absorbed back when I’d been a child, when the UNPF patrolled the galaxy and everything was well with the universe, had suggested that a heavily-damaged starship would be able to limp back home eventually. It hadn’t taken long for me to lose that impression. A hit that took out the bridge and most of the senior crew would almost certainly destroy the ship completely. The bridge was the most well-protected compartment on the ship, but a nuclear warhead – officially banned, but it was an open secret that some pirate ships possessed them, along with UNPF ships – would vaporise the entire vessel.

“Once you’ve finished with the tactical console for the day, go on to the shuttlebay,” Lieutenant Hatchet ordered, finally. I didn’t relax. The shuttle training simulators had been designed by a sadist who was far more devious than the person who dreamed up the Academy simulators. The Pilot had been needed on Terra Nova after all. “The Captain wants you all checked out on the shuttles before we arrive at Albion. You may be needed to operate on detached duty.”

I took the risk and asked her. “Lieutenant,” I asked, “is Albion going to be as dangerous as Terra Nova?”

Lieutenant Hatchet looked me right in the eye. “I have no idea what you’re talking about,” she said, blandly. I blinked in surprise, but realised just what she meant. It wasn't something we could talk about in the open. “Everyone knows that Terra Nova is a peaceful world and any rumours to the contrary are malicious propaganda spread by the enemies of peace and harmony.”

I got the message and shut up.

Two weeks later, we arrived at Albion.

Chapter Six

The relationship between the UNPF and the various independent freighters is a complex one. Official UN policy is that independent freighters are dangerous and therefore all freighters should be operated under UN supervision as part of a shipping cartel. This is accomplished by endless bureaucratic regulation that makes the lives of independent freighter crews much harder. Regardless, independent freighters make up a critical part of the galactic economy and, because of the regulations, tend to be strong supporters of independence movements. The UNPF therefore harasses them where possible.

-Thomas Anderson. An Unbiased Look at the UNPF. Baen Historical Press, 2500.

Albion was settled thirty years after the invention of the Jump Drive by a forward party from a nation called England, one that I hadn’t even heard of until I’d read the briefing notes on the planet. England had been absorbed into the Pan-European Federation centuries ago, after the nationalists had left to live on various other planets. I had learned, by now, to take everything in the briefing notes with a great deal of salt, but even so, it was apparent that Albion was doing much better than Terra Nova. The system was crammed with sublight spacecraft mining the asteroids and moving between the outer planets, while the handful of UN craft seemed badly outnumbered. I didn’t know if there was a garrison on the surface at all – the briefing notes had been vague on the exact political status of Albion – but it certainly seemed peaceful. Of course, Terra Nova had also looked peaceful from high above.

“Penny for your thoughts, sir?”

I looked over at Marine Corporal Alice Hayden and had to fight to repress an embarrassed grin. Alice was two years older than me and looked tough enough to take on a gorilla and win. I had sparred with her on the mat and she’d held back…and she had still won. I wouldn’t have dared to pick a fight with her over anything…and I was supposed to be the one in command. The shuttle was an independent ship at the moment and, to all intents and purposes, I was the Captain.

“I was just thinking about how peaceful it is out here,” I said, ruefully. I might have been the senior officer on the shuttle, but everyone else had far more experience than I had. The Senior Chief had warned me to listen to the others and learn from their mistakes. It was, apparently, cheaper than making my own. “There’s no one shooting at us, there’s no one even shouting at us…”

Alice laughed. “In space,” she announced dramatically, “no one can hear you scream.”

I rolled my eyes. It was a kind of unofficial motto for the Marines and they never lost a chance to work it into their words. It was true, of course, but it didn’t make me any happier. There were dozens of vessels in orbit around Albion and anything could be happening on any of them. The UNPF had a remit to prevent smuggling, but there just weren’t enough starships to enforce it properly. There was little point in smuggling anything into Albion – the system could provide everything its inhabitants might want – but there was plenty worth smuggling out of the system. The UNPF had been warned to watch for high-tech cargos and other illegal consignments.

“I know,” I said. I was always a little shy around Alice. She scared the crap out of me. She was the type of woman who would go walking through dark alleyways, confident that the night held nothing more dangerous than her. If I hadn’t known her reputation, I might even have asked her out on a date; Marines weren’t in the same chain of command. “It’s just beautiful.”

“You’ll also have a much greater chance of appreciating it in the future if you get on with the patrol,” Alice said, dryly. I nodded reluctantly. I might be senior officer on the shuttle, but that was only as long as I obeyed the Captain’s orders. “Which ship do you want to board?”

I looked down at the live feed from System Command. A handful of freighters had already been inspected by the local UN detachment and marked as clear. A couple more had immunity from inspection and had to be left alone. That left seventeen freighters in orbit that needed to be inspected. The smallest of them made our starship look tiny. It was going to be a long day.

“That one,” I said, finally. I pointed to the icon representing a massive bulk freighter. The manifest claimed that it was transporting vital farming machinery to Amish, something that made little sense until I recalled that Amish was a low-tech world with a thriving trade in illegal technology. The people who had founded the planet had wanted a life free of the corrupting influence of technology, but some of the settlers had disagreed when they’d finally discovered just what a low-tech life was like. The crew of the freighter would stand to make a huge profit if they delivered to the right people. “I’m taking us in now.”

The smaller the craft, the faster it could build up acceleration. I triggered the drive field and swooped down towards the freighter, transmitting our IFF signal ahead of us. By law, we had to keep a safe distance from any other craft while performing an intercept, but I skirted the border as close as I dared. Flying the shuttle was different to flying an ordinary aircraft. I could do things in a shuttle that would be impossible in a jet aircraft. I could even turn on a credit piece.

“They’re acknowledging,” Alice said. I allowed myself a moment of relief. We were legally authorised to inspect any starship, but the independent freighter crews tended to dislike us encroaching on their territory. It wasn't unknown for shuttle crews to suffer accidents. In theory, all of the freighters were unarmed; in practice, there were dozens of interesting tricks freighter crews could pull to give them some teeth. The Captain would avenge our deaths, unless the freighter made it clear before the starship could intercept, but that wouldn’t save our lives. “They’re demanding a full copy of our authorisations.”

“Send it,” I ordered. The Senior Chief had warned me about that too. We harass them, they harass us…and the winner is the one who keeps his cool. “Order them to open a docking port for us and signal location.”

“Done,” Alice said. A new icon blinked into existence on my display. “They’ve opened a port, sir.”

I nodded. By law, all starships have to have compatible equipment, but I wouldn’t have put it past a freighter crew to tamper with it in some way to make docking harder, particularly as it wasn't something I could charge them for. Freighters operate close to the margins and it wasn't unknown for them to have maintenance problems that couldn’t be handled outside a shipyard. I slowed the shuttle, carefully matched course and speed, and linked the two ships together. A moment later, we were docked.

“Matching pressure now,” Crewman Frederick Jones said. He was a big hulking man who didn’t look as if he could be intimidated by anyone short of the Senior Chief. I had the impression that he was the real escort for me, as well as the real inspector. What did I know about searching a starship? I’d barely had a chance to inspect the diagrams of the freighter. “Hatches opening.”

I reached for my cap and set it on my head. “Come on,” I said. “Let’s go meet the neighbours.”

The freighter captain and two of his crew were waiting for us as we stepped out of the airlock. The captain reminded me of Captain Harriman, except he had a long beard – forbidden to UNPF naval officers – and a slight paunch. His expression was carefully controlled, but I was sure that I could sense an underlying anger and concern. The Senior Chief had briefed me carefully and warned me to ignore anything apart from actual smuggling, but the Captain wouldn’t know that. A proper examination of his ship would probably end up with his licence being confiscated on the grounds his ship was unfit to fly. The other two crewmen didn’t bother to hide their disdain.

“Welcome onboard my ship,” the Captain said, calmly. “I am Captain Scott, master of the Underlying Liberty, out of Williamson’s World. I also have a cleared window to depart in an hour, so I suggest that we move along with it.”

“Yes, sir,” I said, and then caught myself. He reminded me so much of my Captain that obedience was automatic. “Ah, we can clear a later window if necessary, but I’m sure it won’t be. May I see your manifest?”

The Captain nodded to one of his crewmen, who passed me a datapad. I pulled out my terminal and compared it briefly to the manifest System Command had sent me. It was largely identical, although two crewmen on the original list were missing, replaced with new names and faces.

“They decided that they would prefer another ship,” the Captain explained, when I asked. “There’s no shortage of berths around here for qualified crewmen and some other Captain made them an offer. I had to take on two more to replace them.”

“I see,” I said, puzzled. “Didn’t they sign a contract to work for you for several years?”

He smiled at my naivety. “Not in the real world,” he said, dryly. “A senior crewman can earn far more by advancing up the ladder owning to his experience, not to his political connections. No crewman would accept such a contract unless they were really desperate and probably unsuited for the job. This isn’t Earth, you know.”

I flushed slightly. “No, sir,” I agreed. On Earth, it was extremely difficult to get rid of an employee unless there was clear proof of criminal activity. The UN had finally granted the workers all the rights they’d sought since time out of mind. Things were definitely different outside the Solar System. “I’ll need to inspect the newcomers cards…”

“They have already been cleared by System Command,” the Captain said, still calmly. I wondered if he was mocking me slightly, but his face was still blank. “I can have copies fired over to your starship if you like, but System Command handled it for us.”

“Good,” I said. This was not going according to plan. “I believe we’ll start with the bridge, if you don’t mind…?”

The Captain probably did mind, but he led us down a long corridor, chattering away as if we were welcome guests. The interior corridors were surprisingly clean and tidy – I had been expecting something darker and unpleasant – and decorated with children’s scribbles. The Underlying Liberty was a family-owned ship, I remembered from the manifest; they had special licences to carry children and even give them education onboard the vessel. I envied them. I hadn’t known just how ignorant I was, despite the Academy, until I’d boarded the Jacques Delors. The bridge was neat and tidy, but compared to our bridge it looked primitive, with several consoles merged together and two of them open for inspection. I peered inside, just to be through, but I honestly couldn’t have told a working console from a useless unit. The Engineer probably could have, but he wasn't with us.

“I’ve got two of the kids working on the console,” Captain Scott explained, much to my astonishment. That contravened several safety regulations, but the Senior Chief’s warning hung in my mind and I disregarded it. I’d have to make a report to the Captain, but there was little point in harassing anyone now. “They’re learning how to carry out repairs without spare components.”

“Impressive,” I said, and meant it. We’d been taught that when a component becomes faulty, it has to be replaced. We didn’t know how to open a component and repair it if there were no spares available. It was no wonder that the First Lieutenant had so much paperwork to do. A missing component at the wrong time could doom the entire vessel and crew. “We need to inspect the cargo holds as well, and then we’ll leave you to your window.”

The Captain took us down a set of stairs – no intership cars for a freighter – and into the main cargo hold. It was a massive modular structure – normally, the freighter would simply unload them all in orbit, rather than trying to land – packed with cargo crates. A handful had been sealed by UN authority and I left those alone, but we opened up a couple more and checked them against the manifest. I wouldn’t have known a piece of farming gear from a cargo of illegal weapons, but the Marines seemed calm and the Captain didn’t look nervous.

“It all seems fine,” I said, finally. I had the legal authority to insist on a full search, but there were no grounds for it and the Captain would be annoyed with me. I’d be cleaning toilets for the next month with a toothbrush. “Thank you for your time.”

“You’re welcome,” Captain Scott said. I knew he didn’t mean it, but I accepted it graciously. “I hope to see you again sometime.”

We were back onboard the shuttle and heading away from the freighter before I realised what he meant.

“We’re picking up an order from System Command,” Alice said, suddenly. “They want us to inspect this freighter here.”

I blinked. The small freighter was pulling away from the planet. I checked the log and it had an open window to depart, but I took the shuttle after it anyway. System Command probably had a reason for it. There was no reason why the freighter couldn’t continue its journey after we’d inspected it, either. The concept of opening a departure window had been outdated centuries ago.

“Hail them,” I ordered. “Tell them to heave to and prepare to be boarded.”

“Done,” Alice said. The freighter’s drive seemed to increase in power. “There is no response.”

I stared. The freighter was trying to outrun us. They didn’t have a hope…unless they managed to reach a safe distance from the planet’s gravity well, where they could open a wormhole and vanish. I ran through the calculations quickly. If they managed to stay ahead of us for three more minutes, they could wormhole out and we’d never see them again. What the hell were they carrying that was so important?

“It must be illegal weapons,” Alice murmured. “What else could it be?”

I wanted the Captain to give me orders, but even if I called the Jacques Delors directly and asked for orders, the Captain would tell me that I was in command. He’d given me the responsibility and I couldn’t shirk it. It would have been easy to hesitate long enough to let the freighter go, but I remembered the battle on Terra Nova and shuddered. I wasn’t going to let more illegal weapons loose if I could help it.

“Pursuit course,” I said, engaging the drive. The shuttle leapt forward as if it had been stung by a bee. Under such orders, I could ignore most safety regulations and I took a hellish delight in skimming closer to another freighter. “Alice, charge weapons; prepare to engage.”

“Aye, sir,” Alice said. I was astonished that there was no sarcasm in her tone. She seemed confident that I could handle the task without prodding. “Lasers ready, sir; shields deployed.”

I nodded. On the face of it, we were engaging a behemoth, but the freighter couldn’t hope to outrun us, or even destroy us if we were careful. I looked down at the manifest from System Command and frowned. It didn’t list any weapons at all, but that proved nothing.

“Transmit a sterner warning,” I ordered, still puzzled. They might escape, but not without us taking a bite out of them. Maybe I was being foolish, but I wasn’t going to allow them to escape so easily, whatever they were smuggling. “Tell them to stand down their drives at once or we open fire.”

“Signal sent,” Alice said. There was a long pause. I was starting to wonder if I would have to fire into the vessel, or perhaps try to force-board them, before the drive field flickered out of existence. “They’re standing down their drives now.”

“I don’t understand,” I muttered, wishing – again – that I could consult the Captain. I tapped a key, sending a full data download to the Jacques Delors, but the Captain probably wouldn’t issue any different orders. The ball was still in my court. “Prepare to dock.”

The mystery was solved the moment we stepped onboard the small freighter, weapons ready. The Captain was surrounded by a group of unregistered men, their faces tired and desperate, pleading for mercy. I didn’t understand until we took their biometrics and compared them to System Command’s download; they were all listed as wanted criminals. Somehow, the Captain had managed to move over two hundred criminals onto his ship to transport them out of the system. I sent a signal to System Command, asking for reinforcements and a crew for the ship, and then searched the remainder of the vessel. We found several women and children, hidden away in various sealed compartments, but none of them were on the wanted list. I wondered if they were kidnap victims, but they seemed unhappy to see us. One attractive blonde even tried to kick a Marine in the groin.

Once the reinforcements had arrived and formally arrested the criminals, who offered no resistance, we returned to the Jacques Delors and I made a full report. The Captain listened quietly, without interrupting, but he wasn't pleased. I could tell that he wasn't pleased, even though he seemed unconcerned and even gave me a note of commendation for my file. There was just…a slow anger burning away in his eyes…

And I honestly didn’t understand why. What had I done?

Chapter Seven

Officially, the UN is a representative democracy, with everyone having a vote. In practice, it is run by a ‘political class’ and controlled by literally millions of bureaucrats. Although there is a certain pretence of elections and democracy, the senior personages are always from the same class and outside candidates are defeated by a complicated political selection process. Any political party must have the approval of the UN General Assembly to operate…and, naturally, no party is granted this approval without being firmly wedded to the status quo. The system is, quite simply, beyond reform. It is worth noting that of the last seven Secretary-Generals, three of them attempted to reform the bureaucracy…and ended up dying under mysterious circumstances.

-Thomas Anderson. An Unbiased Look at the UNPF. Baen Historical Press, 2500.

“I thought I’d find you here,” the Senior Chief said. “How are you feeling?”

I shrugged. I had been sitting in the observation blister for the last twenty minutes, watching the stars. We didn’t get much free time on the starship – that was for leave, or so Lieutenant Hatchet had informed us – but what little we had, I tended to spend in the blister. There was just something about looking at the unblinking stars that put the entire universe in perspective.

“Lousy,” I growled finally, too tired to care about how I spoke to him. “What did I do wrong?”

If the Senior Chief was offended by my tone, he didn’t show it. “What makes you think you did something wrong?”

“The Captain wasn't happy with me,” I said. I felt as if I had failed him, but I couldn’t understand how, or why. “What did I do wrong?”

“Nothing,” the Senior Chief said. He came fully into the blister and closed the hatch behind him with an audible thump. “You did nothing wrong, John. That’s the problem. You followed orders and regulations to the letter.”

I had the odd feeling that I was being mocked. “And yet…why was the Captain unhappy with me?” I demanded. “Tell me!”

The Senior Chief smiled. “That might take some time to explain,” he said, seriously. “Tell me something. When you and your fellow Ensigns came onboard this ship, were you prepared for the experience?”

I remembered our disgraceful showing with a wince. “No,” I admitted. In hindsight, we’d all been foolish. We should definitely have been on time, wearing proper dress uniforms. “We were a disgrace.”

“How true,” the Senior Chief agreed. “Even after you looked the part, were you actually ready to play the part? Were you really qualified to be Ensigns?”

“No,” I admitted. We’d been badly ill-prepared for the position. I hadn’t known how ignorant we actually were until we found ourselves struggling to survive our first cruise. There were some Ensigns, according to Lieutenant Hatchet, who never managed to make it that far and ended up killing themselves through a simple mistake.

“No,” the Senior Chief agreed. “Tell me something. Do you know why you weren’t prepared?”

I hesitated. “No,” I admitted finally. “The Academy never prepared us for the role.”

“Oh, it taught you a lot, but it didn’t always teach you the right things,” the Senior Chief said. He seemed to be dancing around the question, but I controlled my frustration. The answers would come in time. “Tell me something else. How well did you do at school?”

“Pretty well,” I said, stung. “I got good grades...”

“Yes, I suppose you did,” the Senior Chief agreed. “Tell me one final thing. How many of your classmates got good grades?”

The moment of realisation hit me like a hammer. “Son of a bitch!”

“Quite,” the Senior Chief agreed. “Everyone got good grades. Everyone got good prizes and rewards for their work, regardless of how much, or how little, they were actually worth. The teachers taught you your rights, but not your responsibilities…and not what you needed to actually get a good job. You were taught nothing about science, or technology, or politics, sometimes through oversight and sometimes through deliberate planning.

“And, of course, there was no discipline.”

I shuddered, remembering the first weeks at school. The teachers taught and had nothing to do with us otherwise. The children ran the school and formed gangs that waged war on each other, or the teachers. Some used drugs and became criminals very quickly, others drunk themselves to death or killed themselves, just to escape the nightmare. I might have been one of them if my life had been different, one of millions of semi-illiterate thugs roaming the city, terrorising the civilians. If I hadn’t made it into the Academy, it would have been a dead-end job or a life on permanent welfare, or maybe even the infantry.

And that had been one of the good schools.

“You have never been under real discipline until you boarded this ship,” the Senior Chief said. “The experts say that giving a child proper discipline hampers their development. The experts say that encouraging competition only fosters resentments and bitter hatreds. The experts say that penalising children for their own failures is unfair. The experts say…”

He broke off. “Tell me something,” he said, again. “If I told you to repair the Jump Drive, could you do it?”

“No,” I said, flatly. I was starting to have an idea of where this was going. “I wouldn’t even know where to begin.”

“Nor would I,” the Senior Chief admitted. “The Engineer could, I suspect, attempt it if there was no other choice. His assignment here suggests that he couldn’t do it. If he were one of the few people who really understood the Jump Drive, he’d be on Mars or Titan, working on research. Could you build a helicopter? Could you build a Marine Assault Rifle? A shuttle? A computer? Could you even tell me how one works?”

“No,” I said, reluctantly. “But why…?”

“Bear with me a moment,” the Senior Chief said. “The Education System down on Earth is designed to promote equality. It succeeds spreading an equality of ignorance. For every man who understands how something works, there are a million people who might as well be peasants, sleepwalking through an age of wonder with their eyes screwed closed, never taught to understand the world around them. The reason Earth’s cities are decaying is because there are too few people who understand the problem and are working to fix them. You were one of the lucky ones.”

He looked at me for a long moment. “Your friend Muna came from an area where women are kept under strict religious law, despite the UN’s high-minded rhetoric, because those self-same experts have convinced the UN that intervening to prevent human rights from being violated is a human rights breach in itself,” he said. “How lucky she was to have even a hope of escaping! How lucky she was that she found a UN officer who actually saw to it that she was sent to Luna Base and the Academy there! How lucky she was that the UN didn’t send her back the moment one of the bastards who claimed to own her complained about his rights being violated!”

I was genuinely shocked. “But the Bill of Human Rights…”

“Ink on paper,” the Senior Chief snapped. “You must have realised by now that the UN’s version of events has some holes in it. You’d be better off assuming that everything in the files is a lie and working from there.”

I stared at him, and then looked back at the stars. I hadn’t known that it was that bad in other parts of the world. I had just wanted to escape the slum that had been waiting for me since I had been born. If I had known…what could I have done? The Senior Chief was right. Helplessness had been bred into us from Day One.

“The result of their system is that inquiring minds are generally squashed quickly,” the Senior Chief said. “The really smart people left and emigrated to the colonies centuries ago, back before the UN clamped down on emigration. The ones who were left were so few in number that any advance was mainly a matter of luck, rather than judgement. They are rarer than gold, and yet the UN works them to death, because there are too few of them to waste. There are billions of people on welfare to be fed, somehow.”

He looked over at me. “The UN tried to square this circle by decreeing that the colonies would supply manpower to Earth to help fix the problems they had caused,” he added. “They don’t want brute force manpower – they have plenty of that in people like you – but scientists and theorists who might be able to make the next breakthrough that will prevent Earth from starving. The UN garrison here put out an order for two hundred qualified people to report to the spaceport for shipping to Earth. They decided they wanted to escape…”

I understood. “Until I caught them,” I said, shaking my head. It all came crashing down suddenly. “What did I do?”

“Oh, nothing much,” the Senior Chief said. “You merely condemned two hundred people unlucky enough to be smart and trained to use those smarts to a lifetime working to reform a system that is well past reform. Congratulations, John. You’ve ruined hundreds of lives.”

He couldn’t have hurt me worse if he’d punched me in the nose. “I didn’t mean to do it,” I protested. “I was only following orders…”

The Senior Chief snorted. “Do you think that that makes any difference?”

His voice softened. “You don’t know how lucky you are to be onboard this ship,” he explained. “There are far worse ships, commanded by UN zealots, who can get away with anything. This ship is the best ship in the fleet and don’t you forget it. The Captain won’t hold you responsible for your little fuck-up. You were only following orders.”

I felt my temper flare. “Why was he so angry with me, then?”

“Because the Captain might have known what was going on and chose to turn a blind eye,” the Senior Chief explained. “The System Command sent him the intercept request first and he turned it down on a point of order. They then sent it to you and made you carry out the interception. You didn’t know it, but they were placing you in a really bad position. Luckily…the refugees didn’t open fire.”

He smiled thinly. “Tell me something,” he added. “Do you think that two hundred, or two thousand, or even two hundred thousand people would make any difference to Earth?”

“No,” I said, remembering irregular power supplies and the tainted, odd-tasting water, that we’d been forced to drink. Entire districts had been blacked out for weeks on end. “I didn’t know what I was doing.”

“No, you didn’t,” the Senior Chief said. He hesitated. “The Captain knew it as well, hence his willingness to let them go. I shouldn’t be telling you this, but I think you need to know. You were damned whatever happened, but you’re going to get a commendation and probably a promotion to Lieutenant when we return to Earth. You’re a hero! You stopped the colonies from hoarding some of their knowledge capital instead of sharing it out equally.”

“I don’t feel like a hero,” I said, numbly. “I feel like a bastard.”

“So you should,” the Senior Chief said. “Did you ever think to wonder why the Captain was given you Ensigns specifically?”

“Us?” I asked. “I just thought we’d been assigned to the ship as normal.”

“Normally, one to three Academy graduates would join a pair of Ensigns who had already served on the ship and had seniority,” the Senior Chief said. “The Captain was given seven totally green Ensigns because his enemies wanted to embarrass him and perhaps cost him his command. You see, the Captain obtained his post through political connections and then let the side down a bit by actually being good at his job. There are ships where the Captain is a frightened man, scared of his own crew, and ships that are run by tyrants. On this ship…raw Ensigns become men.”

He looked down at his hands for a moment. “There’s a power struggle going on back home,” he said. “One side wants to try to come to terms with the colonies and reform the system from within. The other side wants to fight it out till the bitter end. The Captain was supposed to be a member of the latter faction, but effectively changed his allegiance. They can’t get rid of him without looking like idiots, but they’ll be watching and waiting for a chance to stick a knife in his back. There are times when I wonder if he’s going to go rogue, but he’s got too much of a sense of duty to accept that.”

“I’m sorry,” I said, helplessly. “I didn’t know.”

“No, you didn’t,” the Senior Chief said. There was no condemnation in his voice. “You couldn’t know what they were doing, or why. It wasn’t your fault.”

“I’ll refuse the promotion,” I said, suddenly. “I’ll stay here and…”

“No, you won’t,” the Senior Chief said. “You’ll accept the promotion and the probable transfer. This ship has a full complement of Lieutenants, so you’ll end up being transferred, and you’ll go there and remember what I told you. It’ll serve you well in later life.”

“Why?” I asked. “What’s the point?”

“Earth is on the end of a very long supply line,” the Senior Chief said. “It cannot feed itself for very long. When the system finally falls apart, we’ll still be here. The galaxy needs us.”

“As what?” I demanded. I was too angry to care any longer. “Kidnappers and thieves?”

The Senior Chief smiled. “Maybe more than that,” he said. “There are worlds out there that are far less peaceful than Terra Nova, and worlds that would cheerfully attack their neighbours if they were given half a chance. There are groups on Earth that would commit genocide if we allowed them to try. The Peace Force can’t keep a peace that doesn’t exist, but we can try and stop it from getting out of hand. If not…”

His eyes met mine for a long moment. “It’s quite possible to wipe out the entire population on a planet, you know,” he said, slowly. “We might be all that stands between the human race and destruction.”

“Yes, sir,” I said, without thinking. He shrugged and let it past, even though I suspected he saw it as something of an insult. “What about…”

I broke off, and then took the plunge. “What is really going on back on Terra Nova?”

The Senior Chief shrugged. “Back when the Jump Drive was first invented, no one knew how many worlds there were out there waiting to be claimed, so when Terra Nova was discovered, everyone wanted in. There were hundreds of nations or factions who wanted to set up their own colony world. The UN ended up arbitrating between the factions and used it as a chance to push forward their own position. To cut a long story short, they moved out tens of thousands in the first year, with berths shared out on an equal basis.

“The sociologists believed that a new culture would form in the melting pot,” he continued. “They might have been right if there had been pressure to make people melt together, but they also forbade the use of such pressure. It wasn't such a problem in the first few years, but when the hard work of making the planet liveable was completed, everyone looked at each other and realised how different they were. It didn’t help that hundreds of other planets had been discovered and claimed by different nations, which meant that Terra Nova was suddenly a backwater. There were even people starting to leave. To add to the chaos, the UN decided that prisoners should be exiled to Terra Nova and dumped among the general population. They included thousands of rebels and radicals…

“To cut a long story short, civil unrest began quickly and mutated into civil war,” he concluded. “The UN decided to put a stop to this and moved in a few companies of infantry. On a ship, that’s enough manpower to subdue a battleship’s crew easily. On a planet, it’s tiny. The peacekeepers rapidly found themselves under attack by the rebels, or insurgents, or whatever you want to call them and ended up trying to defend themselves instead of keeping the peace. Reinforcements were poured in, but the UN desperately needed a political victory, so there was no attempt to crush the enemy decisively. It didn’t help that the diplomats kept getting their wires crossed so that different factions in the UN would back different factions on the planet.”

He sighed. “And it all went downhill from there,” he said. “Do you think that the forces you saw on the planet can put the genie of ethnic conflict back in the bottle?”

I shook my head. I hadn’t seen much of the infantry down on the surface, but there had been an undeniable…sloppiness to their arrangements. “Probably not, no,” the Senior Chief agreed. “The UN breaks things and when it does, it’s our task to keep the peace, somehow.”

He grinned at me. “You’re one day older, kid,” he said. “Welcome to the real world.”

I didn’t know what to say. I’d been taught all my life that ethnic groups could get along fine, but I’d seen plenty to suggest otherwise, even though there had been no way to express it. Back home, whites and blacks, Chinese and Native American and others had all gone around in their own groups. The religious sects had kept themselves separate from us non-believers, or fought us whenever they saw a chance. The schools had told us that racism had been eradicated, but it had been alive and well on the city streets.

“Thanks,” I said, dryly. “What do I do now?”

“You remember what I told you,” he said. “It’ll keep you alive.”

Chapter Eight

The UNPF promotion system, put simply, is a mess. Officers are promoted after what is supposed to be a careful reading of their service record, followed by interviews with their commanding officers, but it is quite common for complete incompetents to be promoted to quite senior positions. Every service record must praise the officer to the skies. A single blemish in the wrong place can utterly destroy a career. The political officers assigned to starships, rather than commanding officers, make the final recommendations. These are almost always acted upon. Competence is a leaf when weighed against the stone of political reliability.

-Thomas Anderson. An Unbiased Look at the UNPF. Baen Historical Press, 2500.

“So,” Jason Montgomerie said, over a cup of synthesised coffee, “how do you feel about your first year on active service?”

I tensed, despite myself. It had been a year since I had boarded the Jacques Delors for the first time and in some ways I wished I had never known what it would be like to serve on a starship. There hadn’t been another interception of people trying to escape the UN’s insatiable demands for their service, but there had been enough other incidents to leave me in no doubt what I served. Part of me was tempted to tell the Political Officer the truth, knowing that I would never be allowed to serve on a starship again, but the rest of me held fast. I didn’t dare speak the truth.

“I think it went fairly well,” I said, carefully. I’d seen the Political Officer from time to time – we were meant to have regular indoctrination sessions as young officers, but most of them had been skipped under the pressure of the starship’s patrol route – but never on my own. Up close, he looked more of a harmless sot than anything else, like one of the Persons of No Residence from home. They drank to forget their woes. It had occurred to me, not for the first time, that Jason Montgomerie might have more in common with them than either would have cared to admit. “It was an adventure, sir.”

My enthusiasm wasn’t quite feigned. The Senior Chief had been right. I had never been fully tested until I’d boarded the starship and discovered that the universe didn’t care how politically reliable you were. I hadn’t been worthy to wear Ensign’s rank, or even a Crewman’s uniform, but now I felt much more confident in myself. The Senior Chief, the Marines and even the Captain himself had taught me far more than the Academy, even if I hadn’t ended up First Ensign. That honour had gone to Roger and, despite his family connections, I had to admit that he’d earned it.

“Excellent,” the Political Officer said. He took another sip of his own coffee. I caught a whiff of the smell and realised that it was spiked with something else. There was supposed to be only one still on board – under the care of the Senior Chief – but I wouldn’t have been surprised to discover that there was another one. The Political Officer drank far more than anyone else. “And your adventure with the fleeing criminals? How do you feel about that?”

I kept my face blank. “I felt as if I’d caught fugitives from justice,” I said, untruthfully. I still wanted to throw up every time I thought of it. The mere thought of what I’d been party to, if only by accident…it was disgusting. The Senior Chief had briefed me carefully, however; I was to pretend to be delighted at my own work. “They fled lawful orders from Earth and had to be detained.”

“Of course,” the Political Officer agreed. He smiled down into his coffee for a long moment. “And your own career has benefited because of it. Your name is on the list for promotion at the end of this voyage.”

I blinked. The Senior Chief had hinted at the possibility, but it hadn’t really sunk in, not when I still felt like an incompetent jackass half the time. I’d learned more about how the Peace Force really worked than when I’d been a young Cadet, but I couldn’t quite believe that the Promotion Board would consider me a serious prospect for higher rank. Roger, perhaps, or Muna…but not me.

“Ah…thank you, sir,” I said, tightly. The Senior Chief had made one thing very clear. If promotion was being offered, I was not to decline it. They would never offer to promote me again. “May I ask why…?”

“Certainly,” the Political Officer said. “The reports from the Lieutenants have all been very favourable about you, John. You have mastered the requirements of an Ensign’s role and studied the basic requirements for a Lieutenant, including logistics and crew support. They were very impressed with you. You may never make a Security Officer, or a Doctor, but you’re certainly on the command track.”

His eyes narrowed slightly. “Unless, of course, you don’t want it?”

“I do,” I said, quickly. I wanted to be a commanding officer, like Captain Harriman, not a pen-pusher on a base somewhere or a Lieutenant who would never rise above Lieutenant. I’d met both types now on the cruise, and on the handful of bases we had been allowed shore leave – thankfully, none as bad as Terra Nova – and I didn’t want to be either. A Lieutenant without career prospects became embittered very quickly. “Sir, I’m flattered that…”

“Think nothing of it,” the Political Officer said, waving one hand in the air dismissively. My promotion clearly meant nothing to him. “A Harriman-trained officer is always welcome on the other starships and you come with the Captain’s recommendation. You’ve really reached the limits of what you can do on this ship, my dear John. Unless the Promotion Board sees fit to reverse the decision, you’re going to become a Lieutenant within a week.”

The thought didn’t give me as much pleasure as I would have liked. It wasn't UNPF policy that crewmen should serve on the same starship for their entire lives, certainly not junior officers like me. The Jacques Delors had become home for me, and the other Ensigns, but if we were promoted, we’d be reassigned to other starships. I had thought that that was to give us a chance to experience life on other ships and carry out a wide variety of duties, but the Senior Chief had explained that the real purpose was to stop us developing enduring friendships. I didn’t understand why, but in any case…there could only be one Captain on the Jacques Delors.

“Thank you, sir,” I said, seriously. I felt conflicted, but proud, even though I suspected that I had few grounds for that pride. “I’ll try and make the Captain proud of me.”

The Jacques Delors had returned to the Solar System three days ago, but instead of travelling through a wormhole directly to Earth, the Captain had decided to take us on a brief sweep through the outer planets before we returned home. The popular conception of the outermost reaches of the solar system had it ringed with clouds of dust and comets, but while there were hundreds of comets, there was nothing that posed a serious threat to the starship. There were videos that suggested that any starship racing through the asteroid belt would certainly crash into an asteroid – with huge loss of life if the asteroid was a populated one – but that wouldn’t happen unless someone intended it to happen. Even so, it would be tricky…

It was another day before I was called into the Captain’s office and I was surprised to discover that Roger and Muna were already there. They looked at me, puzzled, and I realised that they were as surprised to see me as I was to see them. The Captain’s office was tiny, compared to some of the classrooms at the Academy, but it was massive compared to our wardroom. It was neat and tidy, but there were a handful of pictures on the bulkheads. The image of the current Secretary-General was pretty much obligatory, but the other images were different. A dark-haired girl, smiling into the camera, and a pair of children. The thought of the Captain having a family surprised me, even though I knew now that he was in his late forties, and I felt an odd flash of guilt for prying into his private life in such a manner.

We straightened to attention as the Captain strode in. There was no longer any nonsense about having forgotten how to stand to attention, or salute; indeed, I wished that I had had the foresight to put on my dress uniform instead of basic ship’s outfit. Roger looked even worse – he’d been in the Engineering Section when the summons had arrived and he was covered in oil stains – and Muna looked tired. It would have been her sleeping time, I remembered. It had to have been important for the Captain to summon anyone from their bunk. He wasn't an inconsiderate sadist, unlike some instructors I could name.

“At ease,” he ordered, tightly. There was an expression in his face I couldn’t recognise at first…and then I realised that it was pride. “We will be docking at Orbit Nine in two days, as you know. The Jacques Delors will be replenishing her supplies there and preparing to embark on another patrol, unless Admiral Hoover decides that he requires the presence of another cruiser. You three, however, will not be remaining on this ship.”

I tensed, despite myself, before he smiled. “The Promotions Board has accepted my recommendation and accepted that the three of you will be promoted to Lieutenant,” he continued. He held up a hand before any of us could speak, as if we would have dared. We’d probably all been warned in advance – I knew that I had – but it hadn’t been real until the Captain had confirmed it. “Do not question this, or wonder why you were chosen when others, seemingly better qualified, were passed over in your favour. Accept this and make me proud of you when you take your posts on your next starship.”

Muna let out a quiet noise and I suspect that I joined her. None of us wanted to leave. “I do understand,” the Captain said, and in that moment he sounded much older and tired, too tired, than any of us had heard him before. “There is nothing quite like the starship you served on first, unless it’s your first command. You might just want to decline this promotion, or perhaps even request that you replace one of the Lieutenants on this starship, but that cannot be granted. The UNPF is going to need young men and women like you in positions of responsibility. I would not have pushed for your promotion if I didn’t feel that you could handle it.

“You all had a taste of a Lieutenant’s duties,” he added, “but you will discover that you never even scratched the surface. It depends on where you go after this ship, but you may discover that you will have harder work to do than you have ever faced before, or perhaps you’ll find that you are unable to face up to the challenge. I think that you can handle it. Do you want to try and prove me wrong?”

“No, sir,” we said, together. I was confused and conflicted, excited and terrified, all at the same time. I couldn’t have explained it, but somehow I was rooted to the spot, unable to move.

“Good,” the Captain said. He picked a folder up from his desk. “Roger Williamson?”

“Yes, sir?” Roger said.

“By the power vested in me as Captain of this vessel and the United Nations General Assembly, I hereby promote you to Lieutenant,” the Captain said. He stepped up to Roger and carefully removed the Ensign’s rank bars he wore, replacing them with a silver pair of stars. A moment later, he pulled away the pins Roger wore to mark his time in grade; as a Lieutenant, his seniority would return to zero. He was the most junior Lieutenant in the service. “Muna Mohammad?”

“Yes, sir?” Muna said.

“By the power vested in me as Captain of this vessel and the United Nations General Assembly, I hereby promote you to Lieutenant,” the Captain said. He altered her rank bars as well and then turned to me. “John Walker?”

I was as tense as a bridegroom on his big day, but the Captain didn’t seem to notice. I barely felt his touch as he removed my rank bars and replaced them with something new. I felt as if I could walk on air, all of a sudden; I was no longer an Ensign!

“You will be spending the last two days in your Wardroom, I’m afraid,” the Captain said. His lips twitched into a faint smile. “I should warn you not to use your new rank too much in the first few days, until you get used to it. You’re not secure in your rank until you set foot on your next ship.”

I understood the subtext. If we bullied the other Ensigns – the Ensigns, now – we might be demoted on the spot. I wasn't sure if the Captain had the power to do that, but I wouldn’t have bet against it. We left the Captain’s cabin with our orders and didn’t burst into cheers until we were well away from Officer Country. It was absurd, in a way, but I felt silly wearing my new rank bars. They didn’t feel quite real, yet.

Roger opened his orders and peered at them. “Kofi Annan,” he said. “A battleship. What about you two?”

“Lover,” Muna said, puzzled. She frowned at her orders. “That’s not a standard name, is it?”

“It could be a specialist research platform,” Roger suggested. “John?”

“Devastator,” I said, almost as puzzled as Muna. “A Monitor. What’s a Monitor?”

Roger laughed at me. “It’s a planet-bombarding ship,” he said, amused. “They’re supposed to be a new class of ship; they only entered service a few years ago. No one likes to talk about them, for some reason.”

“I see,” I said, finally. We had reached the Observation Blister. “I’ll catch up with you later, all right?”

They waved goodbye and I stepped into the blister. The Senior Chief was standing there, waiting for me. “John,” he said, gravely. “Congratulations.”

I scowled at him. “Do I deserve them?”

“Perhaps,” the Senior Chief said. He waved a hand towards the unblinking stars. “Do you think that they care for a second if you deserve what you get or not?”

I touched the new rank badge. “They’re sending me to a Monitor,” I said, bemused. “What did I do to deserve that?”

“Caught that shipload of information hoarders,” the Senior Chief said. “You have seen the newscasts, haven’t you?”

“I haven’t had the time,” I replied, crossly. I was sick of playing games, yet I was sure that any attempt to use my new authority would be futile. The Senior Chief had known me as a lowly Ensign, barely worth the oxygen needed to keep me alive. “What have they been saying?”

“You’re their golden boy,” the Senior Chief said. He grinned, humourlessly. “You’ve been their poster child for the face of the United Nations, you know. You’ve got the right attitude to make it ahead in the service too…”

“I didn’t mean to,” I protested. “Chief, I didn’t…”

“So you said,” the Senior Chief said. “And, as I keep telling you, reality is what they make it. By now, you – and every other young officer who did something like it themselves – has had their past rewritten to make you heroes. You’ll be whatever they want you to be. The media will see to that.”

“I don’t know what to do,” I admitted. I touched the silver bars on my shoulder. “Did I earn these?”

“You played the game their way, quite by accident,” the Senior Chief agreed. “You must have realised by now that your ignorance is one of their weapons.”

I nodded. “And, the Senior Chief continued, “if you have the rank, you’ll be well placed to help others in the same position. Years from now, perhaps, you’ll be consoling the younger generation of officers. They’re going to need you, aren’t they?”

“Yes,” I admitted, grimly. “Thank you for everything.”

“I haven’t finished,” the Senior Chief said. He reached into one pocket and pulled out a small golden badge, shaped like the Jacques Delors. “Do you know what this is?”

“An icon,” I said, puzzled. “Why…?”

“Here,” he said, passing it to me. “You may have noticed that the Peace Force doesn’t really care for traditions at all, but this one even the Political Officers can’t ban. A memento of your first starship…and perhaps something else.”

He held up the badge and showed me the tiny computer chip built into the underside. “There are those of us who try to keep the system from screwing up our lives and that of everyone else,” he said. I felt a numb burst of shock. “You wouldn’t be seeing this if I didn’t feel that you were trustworthy. The Brotherhood would kill the pair of us if they felt that they had a security breech. Take it.”

I took it, staring down at the golden shape. “Why…how?”

The Senior Chief grinned. “Take it to a terminal, one disconnected from the main starship’s computer, and use it,” he said. “You’ll find it very useful indeed. If you want to drop me a message…well, did you know that there’s a regulation that all electronic messages have to be a particular length?”

I understood. Anything could be hidden in the right place.

“Thank you,” I said, surprised. “I’ll be careful with it.”

“Make sure you are,” the Senior Chief warned. “Now…what are you going to be doing on your week of shore leave?”

“I’m going to go home,” I said, seriously. “It’s been three years since I set foot on Earth.”

The Senior Chief frowned. “Good luck,” he said. “Earth is not quite what it used to be.”

Chapter Nine

It is difficult for anyone to comprehend the state of Earth under the UN. The once-great cities are crumbling away into dust. The lives of the ordinary citizens are controlled by thousands of bureaucratic laws and regulations that attempt to dictate every aspect of their lives. Crime is permanently on the increase and law and order is a joke – indeed, the criminals have more rights than their victims. Unemployment, always the curse of history, stands at 70% and rising, worldwide. The tragic irony of the UN’s attempts to legislate a perfect state into existence is that it has, with the best will in the world, created a nightmare.

-Thomas Anderson. An Unbiased Look at the UNPF. Baen Historical Press, 2500.

I had forgotten what Earth felt like, but I was reminded the moment I stepped off the shuttle from Orbit Nine onto the North American Orbital Tower. The two security guards – armed with nothing more intimidating than stunners – insisted on frisking me twice before reluctantly allowing me passage to the surface. The orbital tower itself was showing signs of decay – it was over two hundred years old and the paint was fading away, along with most of the machinery – and I couldn’t understand why a team of engineers hadn’t been assigned to fixing it. If we had left the Wardroom in a comparable state, the Captain would have had us all on punishment duty for the next month, but here…no one seemed to care.

It wasn't a particularly reassuring thought, I realised, as I took my seat on the elevator. I had forgotten how much everything cost as well and I was immensely grateful for the foresight that had convinced me to bring my UNPF credit card as well as a handful of paper money. Very few people used paper money these days – the odds of being mugged and robbed were too high – but the bartender was glad to have it. I purchased a small sandwich and a drink and discovered, very quickly, that the meat in the sandwich had probably been slightly unhealthy. There was no point in complaining – the customer was never right – and I put the rest of it aside. My drink was flat, but at least it didn’t taste funny. The ride down the orbital tower took hours and I tried to sleep, but I couldn’t because of the music several of my fellow travellers were playing. I hadn’t caught up on the latest music since I had gone to the Academy and there was definitely nothing to recommend it; the undertones of rebellion in the music seemed to suggest a definitely hopeless slant. I couldn’t understand why the singer hadn’t been banned yet, but perhaps it was just another example of what the Senior Chief had called harmless rebellion.

“People need to let off steam from time to time,” he’d explained, during one of our long discussions. “The UN is very good at identifying something they can do without causing real problems for the state.”

I studied my fellow travellers with some interest, although most of them were minding their own business with an intensity that surprised me. We’d been taught to help out our fellow Ensigns if they needed help, but few people on Earth would lift a finger to help someone else unless there was something in it for them. The vast majority of them seemed to be businessmen with interests in space, but others seemed to be nothing more than thugs, or perhaps even a handful of colonists visiting the mother world. Somehow, I suspected that when they got home, they’d be telling them how much better Terra Nova was than Earth…and they might even be right. It had been too long since I’d set foot on the planet.

A group of young women were chattering away and I eyed them with interest. Spacers developed new standards of beauty after a year away from accessible women and they were beautiful by any standard I cared to name, but the giggles! They giggled about everything, from the worlds they’d visited on the Grand Sneer – whatever that was – to the servants they had tormented down on the ground. I couldn’t understand why they were on the orbital tower at first, and then it dawned on me. The girls were slumming it with the rest of the population. The dank smell of urine touched my nostrils and I grimaced, but the girls only giggled louder. They were touching real life, but not in any way that could get them hurt. Even the most unpleasant gang of thugs would think twice about hurting girls from the upper class. It wasn't as if they were just common or garden citizens. There would be consequences if they were harmed in any way.

The capsule finally hit the ground and I allowed myself a sign of relief. It really wasn’t that different from an elevator. It could have drawn thousands of tourists who wanted to see outside, but there were safety regulations that prevented the capsules from having any viewing ports. I didn’t understand it. Modern materials could keep the passengers safe and people didn’t have to look out if they didn’t want to, but the beauecrats had triumphed again. I was on the verge of composing a letter explaining just how foolish this was – and how much money could be made from selling the ride as a tourist attraction - but I knew it was pointless. Safety came first. It was something that had been hammered into our heads from early life.

“This way to the exit, please,” someone was shouting. The doors were hissing open and I caught my first whiff of Earth. It stank even worse than I remembered, the sour smell of automobiles, machinery and thousands upon thousands of human beings. The population of Earth, according to official figures, was dropping every year, but the Senior Chief said otherwise and I believed him. The Welfare State provided food for each new child that came along and there had been a massive population explosion. “Follow me to the exit.”

They didn’t just let us out onto the planet, of course. That would have been efficient. Instead, there was a long passage through a handful of overworked security guards – I was searched again, not particularly well – before we were allowed out onto the concourse. I looked back at the orbital tower, stretching away into the sky, and felt a moment of dizziness that I tried hard to suppress. I had seen more impressive sights out in space, but the tower was something special. It had been built in a very different age.

I wanted to take a taxi, but I knew better than to make any conspicuous display of wealth, so I walked down to the railroad station and boarded a train to my home city. I had been brought up in Albuquerque since I had been very young and I hadn’t seen anything of the rest of the planet. I’d seen more of Terra Nova than I had of Earth. The UN kept telling us all about the fantastic improvements it had made in defending the Earth’s biosphere, but if that were the case, why was the air so polluted? I didn’t want to think about what was powering the train, but it seemed to move all right, even though it was packed. I dreaded to imagine what would happen if I had been a pregnant woman. No one cared on Earth.

It wasn't easy, but I pushed the thought aside and thought about my family instead. I’d sent several messages to my parents, telling them that I would be coming home for a visit, but they hadn’t replied. I found that worrying, but Mom had never been one to learn how to use a communications terminal properly. She knew nothing – and I had known nothing, until I boarded the Jacques Delors – about how the terminal really worked. It was quite possible that one of the many computer filters built in to prevent the spread of hate speech had eaten her messages, although I hoped not. Sending more than a handful of hateful messages – as defined by the filters – meant a mandatory class on avoiding hate speech. One of my friends from school had had to sit through one and he’d never been quite the same since.

I didn’t dare sleep on the train – too many of my fellow passengers looked desperate enough to steal what little I had on me – and so I watched as the massive habitation malls of Albuquerque came into view. They’d been built at least a hundred years ago, I’d been told, each one capable of housing thousands of people in reasonable comfort at the time. They weren't now. The vast majority of them were effectively governed by petty criminals and corrupt policemen. No wonder that the people wanted to escape the cesspool, whatever it took. It had taken me to Luna Base and the Academy.

It looks worse than I remember, I thought, as I stepped off the train. The railroad station had actually been linked to the underground system for reasons that I’m sure had made sense at the time, but now no one with any brains would go into them for fear of his life. When I’d been younger, we had used to run through them on a dare, before being exposed to more adult pleasures like drugs and girls. A handful of my female classmates had become prostates before even reaching the legal Age of Consent, just to keep their boyfriends (and pimps) happy. Others had cheerfully rolled their clients for money. I was tempted to walk through the tunnels anyway, for old time’s sake, but it wouldn’t have been wise. I walked through the streets instead.

My family had always lived in Harrison Ford Mall, named for someone who had otherwise been removed from history. I’d looked him up once on the Internet and found nothing, although the deeper levels of the net had suggested a movie career. It towered ahead of me as I walked through the grin streets, noting with disapproval how much litter had simply been dumped there, but as I drew closer, it became apparent that something was seriously wrong. Half of the Mall was a burned out ruin, populated only by louts and drunkards. The remainder looked deserted.

I stopped and stared, helplessly. Where were they? I wanted to run forward and search the entire mall, but even as I moved forward I knew it was a fool’s errand. The whole mall should have been torn down and rebuilt, but instead…it had just been abandoned. What had happened, I asked myself desperately; where was my family? What had happened…?

I felt two fingers sneaking into my pockets and caught them, hard enough to hurt. I turned to see a young boy, barely nine years old if that, staring up at me. He might have been handsome under other circumstances, but one of his eyes was missing, replaced by a cloth patch. He opened his mouth to scream and I squeezed harder. I wasn’t going to let him off lightly.

“All right,” I said, picking him up effortlessly. He weighed barely anything. I knew how his life would go in the future. He’d die, soon enough, or be sold to a pimp to satisfy the really unpleasant set of customers. “If you scream, I’ll snap your neck, understand?” He nodded, terrified. No one would have stood up to him before. The odds were that he was giving some of his loot to a more senior gang. “What happened to this place?”

He stared at me. “I don’t know,” he said. I started to squeeze harder. “There was a fire and the place burned down and everyone was killed…”

“That’s impossible,” I said, shocked. There had been tens of thousands of people in the mall. There were also fire-suppressing systems and…

I cursed. What was I thinking? This wasn't the Jacques Delors, with Captain Harriman and the Senior Chief and the Engineer and the rest of the crew. This was Albuquerque, a city in the Pan-American Union, controlled by people who didn’t care what happened to their citizens. The brightly-coloured posters on the wall advertising the wonders and glories of the People’s Progressive Party, the National Socialist Workers Party and the Communist League of Freedom meant nothing. The real rulers of the city were not chosen in anything so droll as an election…

The little thief wiggled free and ran. I let him go, knowing what it must have been like for anyone caught in the blaze. If I’d stayed, maybe…no, that was foolish. Once the fire had started, it would have spread quickly, particularly if the systems had failed completely. If I had been there, I would have died with the others of my family…

The bastards didn’t bother to even tell me, I thought, angrily. There had been some updates from Earth, but none of them had been addressed to me, nor had they discussed disasters like a fire that killed tens of thousands. The media wouldn’t have mentioned it at all. No one on Earth, apart from those in Albuquerque, would have known about the fire; they certainly wouldn’t have realised that it could have been prevented, if proper maintenance had been undertaken. Suddenly, everything fell into perspective; the men and women I’d recovered from the freighter were needed here, because Earth no longer produced competent minds! I hadn’t understood just what the Senior Chief had meant, until now.

“There he is,” someone shouted. I turned slightly to see the little thief. He wasn't alone either. “I told you he was here.”

A gang, I realised. There were only four of them, but they swaggered along as if they owned the place, and, in many ways, they did. They wore red shirts, the better to mark themselves as members of the Bloody Blades, and carried metal sticks on their backs. They wouldn’t have any firearms, of course, or energy weapons, but they were quite intimidating enough to the average citizen. I knew what I was meant to do; run, throwing my wallet on the ground behind me, but somehow I no longer cared. I watched them swaggering closer and I realised, with a flicker of delighted amusement, that they didn’t have the slightest idea of what they were doing.

And then I recognised one of them. “Hello, Jase,” I said, calmly. He’d been a bully back at school, despite the best attempts of the teachers, and somehow I wasn't surprised to discover that he’d joined a Gang. There were thousands upon thousands of kids like him; too under-qualified to get a job or go to the Academy, too smart or cowardly to be attracted to the Infantry, and otherwise without prospects. They wandered the streets, extorting what they could and dealing in drugs and prostitutes. My family were dead…and he had survived? “Journey’s end in lovers meetings, as they say?”

Jase leered at me. I don’t know if he recognised me or not. “Here’s how it’s going to be,” he said, dramatically. The idiot was trying to pose, of all things! “You give us everything, including the clothes on your back, and we’ll let you off with a few broken bones. If not, we’ll take them from you and hang you to show them that the Bloody Blades are…”

I punched him, right in the nose. I’d been training with Marines, not ignorant thugs, and it showed. I would never have dared do anything like that to a Marine – I was woefully aware that I had telegraphed my own movement too clearly – but Jase was taken completely by surprise. He went over backwards, already out of it, and two other gang members stepped forward. They seemed to be moving in slow motion; one started to draw back his fist for a punch, while the other began to take his stick off his back, but they were already too late. I smacked the first right in the throat and sent him to the ground choking, and then kicked the second right in the groin. He folded up, screaming in pain, and I took the opportunity to relieve him of his stick. I turned to face the fourth gang member and was unsurprised to see him heading the other way as fast as he could. The gangs rarely had to fight someone who was willing and able to stand up to them and, like most cowards, they broke easily. For the first time since I set foot on Earth, I almost felt happy, even though the Master Sergeant would have torn me a new asshole for exposing myself like that. It almost took some of the pain of losing my family away.

“Run,” I said, to the kid. He was staring at me in stark terror. I could almost read his thoughts – his protectors and masters had been exposed as frauds and cowards – but I didn’t care. I could have broken his neck with ease and we both knew it. “Just run.”

He ran. I turned back to Jase and his two cronies. The one I’d kicked in the groin was still moaning and I brought the stick down on his head, knocking him out. After the kick, it probably came as something of a relief. The other two wouldn’t present any further problem, but I knocked them out anyway, before relieving them of their possessions. Let the police think that it had just been a mugging, although both they and I knew differently. It hardly mattered.

I strode away from the bodies and walked back into the crowd. I’d learned how to hide when I was very young and by the time I had reached the station I had made a handful of minor changes in my appearance, dumping my jumper and replacing it with a shirt. The cameras wouldn’t recognise me if they saw me, but just to be sure I blended with the crowds until I returned to the orbital tower and returned to orbit.

I would never set foot on Earth again.

Interlude One

From: The Never-Ending War. Stirling, SM. Underground Press, Earth.

To understand the scale of the problems facing the UN, it is necessary to know something of the background to the colonies. Put simply, the vast majority of colonies were founded by groups who were opposed, for various reasons, to the UN’s concept of a single government for humanity. These ranged from nationalist colonies to religious and social groups, all intent on building their own paradise. Although the groups were very different, they found common cause in opposition to the UN.

Very few of the colonies managed to construct their own space-based industry and shipyards before the UN decided to move in and effectively occupy all of the colonies. The net result was that resistance in space was minimal and tended to consist of what the UN was pleased to call piracy. To them, it seemed to signal a certain victory over the forces opposed to them. They were wrong.

To put it simply, and acknowledging in advance that the analogy is a limited one, the UNPF is engaged in a counter-insurgency campaign on a galactic scale. Of three hundred human-settled worlds, over two hundred and thirty have a major UNPF presence, ranging from a small garrison to a considerable fighting force. Despite Earth’s firm commitment to the war, they cannot claim to control more ground than they hold at any one time, and only the absolute control of orbital space surrounding many of the worlds prevents their total defeat. The UN, therefore, is trapped in a classic insurrection problem. They cannot win and they cannot be beaten.

An insurrection can be defeated by making political concessions, or reshaping the defeated nation, or even the complete extermination of the native population. The UN is incapable of using any method, simply because of the goals of the war. It is not enough to take and hold territory, but it must also put the colonies to work on behalf of Earth, a step that the colonists naturally find objectionable. (Not least, it should be added, because even if the UN managed to crush all resistance without further delay, it would only slow the inevitable decline and fall.) There are no political concessions that could be made without undermining the very basis of the war itself. The colonists would want a real say in their affairs, if not complete independence, and the UN would find that unacceptable. There is no hope of a negotiated peace.

Destroying the colonists, or altering their societies, would only ensure that the UN would be unable to exploit them for its own purposes.

This is not fully understood on Earth. The UN Media paints a constantly upbeat view of the war, claiming that vast tracts of land are taken and enemy forces are constantly decimated (a careful analysis would reveal that the UNPF had, according to the media, wiped out the entire colonist population several times over), which makes it difficult to accept that there is a serious problem. The forces garrisoning various worlds are often undermanned and short of supplies, something that the local rebels are very aware of, and frequently find themselves on the verge of defeat. Only orbital bombardment prevents the loss of many worlds to insurgent forces. The logistic problems inherent in servicing as many garrisons as the UN possesses only make the problems much worse. In short, the UN is unable to win and the insurgents are unable to push them off their worlds. The war has stalemated.

[Professor Stirling and a handful of his students were arrested for subversive activities two weeks after the above book was published, tried for spreading hate speech and anti-unionist propaganda and sentenced to a penal colony on Mars.]

Part II: Lieutenant

Chapter Ten

The UN is fond of claiming that it does not want to practice war, either against the colonists or anyone else, but the reality is different. While the vast majority of the UNPF starships are capable of civilian as well as military applications, a handful of starships have no purpose other than the military one. Those starships are generally concealed behind a façade of lies and misrepresentation, all of which conceals the fact that the UN, supposedly peaceful, requires the services of starships capable of destroying whole planets.

-Thomas Anderson. An Unbiased Look at the UNPF. Baen Historical Press, 2500.

UNS Jacques Delors had been beautiful, even to an untrained eye. UNS Devastator was ugly as sin. I found myself staring at her through the docking tube and wondered just what the designer had been thinking. She looked blocky and dark, studded with sensors and weapons, a blunt instrument among shining knives. The designer had been in no doubt what the starship was actually designed to do and, in an unusual burst of honesty, had designed the starship to fit the role. I knew that if I lived on a planet, the last thing I would want to see was Devastator in my skies.

I checked my reflection in the glass and walked the rest of the way down to the airlock. This time, I was determined, there would be no embarrassing mistakes. I was a Lieutenant now, as hard as it was to believe, and I couldn’t afford to alienate my new commanding officer. I wasn't even sure if the Captain would come to meet me personally – it didn’t seem likely, somehow – but when I stepped through the airlock, I came face to face with an attractive blond woman, wearing a uniform like mine. I checked her service pins automatically. She’d been a Lieutenant for three years.

“Welcome onboard the Devastator,” she said, in a surprisingly soft voice. She had an odd accent I didn’t recognise. “Lieutenant Walker?”

“Yes, Lieutenant,” I said. With that length of service, I guessed that she was probably the First Lieutenant and therefore the Captain’s confident and second-in-command. “Permission to come onboard?”

“Granted,” she said. She waited for me to finish saluting the flag before continuing. “I’m Lieutenant Anna Ossipavo, First Lieutenant. The Captain is quite eager to see you, John, so please come with me.”

I doubted that the Captain was really eager to see me, but I followed her through the starship’s passages and corridors anyway, noting how the monitor was considerably larger than my old vessel. Captain Harriman had been able to reach any point on his ship within minutes, but the monitor was much larger; I wondered if the starship actually had intership cars. The starship might even have been large enough to survive hits that could have knocked the Jacques Delors out of commission. It wasn't something I felt inclined to test. If the Senior Chief had been right, the UNPF wasn’t getting starships in anything like the numbers it required.

“That will be your cabin there,” Anna said, pointing to an unmarked door as we entered Officer Country. I wasn't too surprised to see that it was just at the border between Officer Country and the remainder of the ship: I was still a very junior Lieutenant. “We’ll move your possessions there after you’ve spoken with the Captain and he’s welcomed you onboard formally.”

“Thank you,” I said, slightly nervously. I’d heard only a few rumours about Captain Shalenko, but few of them had been good. He might not have been listed among the Captains it was generally safer to commit suicide than to serve under, but that didn’t mean that he was one of the good people. I was tempted to ask Anna about him, but I doubted she’d tell me anything. She was probably loyal to him if she was his First Lieutenant. “I’ve only got this duffel bag.”

“Really?” Anna asked, lightly. “You’re a Lieutenant now. You’re entitled to two duffel bags.”

She smiled to show that it was a joke and pressed her hand against a panel beside a hatch, which lit up at her touch. “Sir, it’s Anna,” she said. “I’ve brought the new Lieutenant.”

“Thank you,” a gravely voice said. The hatch hissed open slowly. “Come on in, the pair of you.”

Captain Shalenko was sitting at his desk, studying a terminal, but he closed it down and swung around to face us as we entered. He was an impressive man – at a guess, he was actually younger than Captain Harriman – with short grey hair and a stern face. It was probably the result of cosmetic surgery, I decided, in a moment of disrespect. I hadn’t seen a chin that strong since the last time I’d watched the video pictures. He was tall, I realised as he stood up, and strong, perhaps even stronger than me. It was quite possible that he, too, trained with the Marines. His blue eyes studied me for a long moment, before flickering over to Anna and dismissing her with a nod. She nodded back and left the cabin, leaving us alone together. I had the uncomfortable sensation that I’d been thrown to the lions.

“So, you’re Percival’s latest find,” Captain Shalenko said, gravely. His voice had the same accent as Anna’s, but I still couldn’t place it. I was so surprised to hear Captain Harriman referred to as Percival that I didn’t have time to think about it. “I understand that I have you to thank for some of the workers on my ship. Without them, we might not have met our departure date in time to join the invasion.”

Invasion? I wondered. I didn’t dare ask. I hadn’t wanted the reminder that I’d captured people whose only crime was refusing to be sent to Earth to help maintain a crumbling society, but I couldn’t say that to him. If they’d worked on the Devastator, my life was in their hands…and it wasn't a particularly reassuring thought. They had good grounds to hate me and the rest of the crew.

The Captain straightened up suddenly. “I am Captain Aleksandr Borisovich Shalenko,” he announced, as if I should know the name. I didn’t. “I am the commanding officer of this starship. There is one rule on this ship and that is that what I say goes, understand?”

“Yes, sir,” I said. I wasn't sure where this was going, but I knew the right answer. It struck me as odd – most Captains reported to their Political Officers, at least for some of their duties – but who was I to question?

“Good,” Captain Shalenko said. “You’ll find that our duties are quite different to those of a common cruiser. You, as the newest Lieutenant, will be trained to operate every one of our systems, just in case we lose another Lieutenant on detached duty. You will also stand watch – under supervision for the first couple of weeks – and handle logistics.”

“Logistics, sir?” I asked, surprised. I’d had some experience on my old ship with logistics, but I hadn’t expected to be placed in charge of them on the Devastator.

“Yes,” Shalenko said. There wasn't an inch of give in his voice. “You will learn to handle logistics so that we are well-supplied for the coming operation. It is something that requires a Lieutenant and my previous logistics officer was promoted at the end of the last cruise. I expect that you will be on my ship for at least two years, John.”

His voice darkened slightly. “These are hard times for the United Nations,” he added. “We will be called upon to serve in whatever capacity we can manage. I expect that you will do your duty to spread peace and civilisation throughout the galaxy. You are an officer in the finest space force in existence and I expect you to live up to it, or I will have your resignation. Do you understand me?”

Captain Shalenko, I realised suddenly, was a fanatic. “Yes, sir,” I said. A resignation onboard ship would be meaningless if we were in the wormhole, but it would be quite possible to eject someone into space if they irritated the Captain too much. “I’ve seen Terra Nova firsthand, sir…”

“They should just scorch that damned planet and start all over again,” Captain Shalenko snapped, angrily. “We have the whip hand and we don’t use it, because of people back home who don’t understand what the real situation is in deep space. They don’t understand and they don’t care and all we can do is pick up the pieces afterwards. No matter what we offered to give them, they will keep fighting until we can pound it into their heads that fighting never gets anyone anywhere.”

He glared at me, daring me to disagree. I didn’t, but I did wonder – would Jase and his friends have learned anything from the beating I gave them, only four days ago? I might even have shown the civilians on the ground that resistance wasn’t futile, although it might not matter in the long run. The state, I was starting to understand, wouldn’t want a grassroots movement for change; hell, they relied upon the scrum of the streets to keep people in their place. If they rose up against the gangs, the police would probably end up stopping them with extreme violence. It wouldn’t do to have people trying to change the way they lived…

“Anna will show you to your cabin and then give you access to the logistics system,” Captain Shalenko concluded, as if he had never spoken at all. “If the data-constipated bureaucrats give you a hard time, refer them to me personally and I’ll deal with them. We need everything we can get and I don’t care how much they whine about the costs, or how badly it will screw up their budgets. We need to be fully provisioned before the main body of the fleet starts working up. We’ve been first ready for a long time and I don’t intend to stop now, even if I have to break in a new logistics officer.”

He raised his voice. “Dismissed!”

I saluted again, turned, and marched with parade ground precision out of the hatch and back into Officer Country. I had barely noticed how large his cabin had been, or how decorated it had been, with a handful of truly disturbing images lining the bulkheads. Anna smiled at me as the hatch slid closed and favoured me with a wink, but I wasn't sure how to respond. It had been too long since I had been with a woman. I hadn’t even visited one of the brothels on Orbit Nine.

Or perhaps she was just being friendly.

“You survived, I see,” she said, with a wink. I nodded in understanding. Captain Shalenko was a very different person to Captain Harriman. He was far more of a tyrant…and a fanatic to boot. “How are you feeling?”

“Enthusiastic,” I said, dryly. She smiled knowingly at me. “He said that I was to become the new logistics officer?”

“You poor bastard,” Anna said, as she turned to lead me down the corridor. “You do know why that’s the junior lieutenant’s billet?” I shook my head. “There’s a fortnight until we are scheduled to depart from this station and you’ll need every second – quite literally – to get what the Captain wants out here. The bastards at the supply dumps have never served on a starship themselves and they will question everything, even including oxygen tanks and spacesuits. We’re supposed to get everything we need, but don’t be too surprised if you end up having to call in the Captain and get him to pull strings.”

She smiled again, rather tightly. “Consider it a rite of passage, John,” she added. “If you can survive the accountants who want to make sure that we don’t take more than we absolutely need, you’ll survive anything, even the Captain in one of his rages.”

“Yes…ah, Anna,” I said, slightly unnerved. I hadn’t counted on becoming the logistics officer so quickly. Hell, I hadn’t counted on it at all. “When will I be on watch?”

“You’re a keen one, aren’t you?” Anna said, dryly. I couldn’t tell if she approved or not, but somehow I doubted it. “The day is divided into eight watches of three hours each and they all require a senior officer on duty. A bit of a waste of time when we’d docked, if you ask me, but the Captain insists on it. You’ll get the 1200-1500 slot tomorrow, with the Captain or me watching over your shoulder, and then we’ll put you on a regular slot once we’re sure of your ability. The Captain likes to shake things up from time to time so you’ll discover that your slot will keep changing.”

“Thank you,” I said, doubtfully.

“Don’t worry about it,” Anna said. “Nothing much ever happens at the docks. It gets much more exiting when we’re in hostile space.”

“Yes,” I agreed. “He mentioned something about an invasion…?”

“You’ll hear all about that later,” Anna assured me. We stopped outside my cabin and she motioned for me to press my hand against the sensor. The hatch hissed open and we stepped inside. “This is your cabin, John. I’d suggest that you got settled in, and then started working through the logistics papers one by one. I’ll send Kitty to help you out in a couple of hours. She was assisting Lieutenant Chi with the logistics duties before Chi was promoted to Commander and assigned to one of the bases orbiting Mars.”

She walked out the hatch and it hissed closed behind her. I let her go, staring around my new cabin. It was smaller than the old wardroom we’d shared, but it was all mine! It was barely large enough to swing a cat, but it was all for me. I didn’t have to share it with anyone. I hadn’t realised how much I’d loathed the wardroom until I’d been given a cabin of my own. I spent nearly thirty minutes just exploring all the hidden drawers and unpacking my duffel bag before opening the terminal and logging on to the ship’s computer. As a Lieutenant, I had more access than as an Ensign, but certain details were still closed to me. I thought, briefly, of the icon the Senior Chief had given me and winced. I’d spent two days on Orbit Nine examining it and if I had dared to hook it up to a shared terminal…

“Maybe not,” I said aloud, and brought up the logistics files. I’d seen them before with Lieutenant Hatchet, but the Devastator required far more supplies than any mere light cruiser. Food and drink were obvious, as were a goodly number of spare parts – the Engineer had complained bitterly about shortages on the Jacques Delors – but others were more confusing, the more so because they didn’t come with an explanation, other than that the Captain wanted them for his ship. What, I wondered, were KEW capsules, or buckshot containers, or even maser tuners? In total, the Captain was requisitioning over a thousand different items…and that was being conservative.

I opened the direct link to the Supply Department on Orbit Nine and placed the orders. I hoped that they would just agree at once and send the items over to the ship, but I knew better. It wasn't an hour before a message came back, reluctantly granting a quarter of what I’d asked for…and querying the rest. It was just absurd. Every starship in the UNPF needed a reserve supply of oxygen, just in case the life support systems broke down, but they were demanding to know why we needed it. What did they think I was going to do? Steal the oxygen and sell it on the black market? I was still staring at the message in numb disbelief when the hatch chimed.

“Come in,” I called, absently, keying the hatch.

“You must be John,” a rich female voice said. I turned to see a redheaded woman wearing a Lieutenant’s uniform, smiling at me. She was utterly beautiful. I couldn’t help, but notice her. If she’d lived down on Earth, she would probably have been raped by the gangs by now, unless she had connections. I’d seen it happen far too often. “How are you?”

“Swamped,” I said, finding my voice. This had to be Kitty. “I don’t even know where to begin?”

“I had the same reaction,” she admitted, with a grin. She extended a hand and I took it automatically. “Lieutenant Kitty Hanover.”

“John Walker,” I said, seriously. It was an effort to drag my mind back to the problem of logistics, but somehow I managed it. It helped that I didn’t want to look like a fool on my first day. “How the hell do I answer these stupid questions?”

Kitty leaned over my shoulder and smiled thinly. “Oh, that’s Cecil,” she said. I stared at her in puzzlement. “He’s one of the staff officers in the Supply Department. I tried to charm him once, but it turned out that he was homosexual and wasn't interested in my charms.” She chuckled, leaving me to reflect on his insanity. “He’s a right royal prick, so just copy and paste the answers from last year.”

She tapped keys on the terminal and brought up the document. I was starting to see why Lieutenant Chi had been so keen to leave. He’d written massive essays on the subject of why the Devastator required so much from the supply department. They didn’t even come from Earth, I realised, as a bell began to sound in my mind. The supplies all came from the asteroid belt and the industrial habitats there.

“They’ll question most of it again, so repeat what you said in sharper tones,” she added. “Don’t worry, you have a fortnight. Just keep bombarding them until they give in. If they don’t give in, tell the Captain the day before we depart. He’ll tear them a new asshole.”

“Thanks,” I said, seriously.

“You’re welcome,” Kitty said. “Now, do you want a tour of the ship or not?”

Chapter Eleven

The UN claims to maintain an independent media reporting factual information from the entire human sphere. Nothing could be further from the truth. The UN censors the media through a series of laws designed to surprises hate speech, unpleasant language and anything that anyone might find offensive. The net result is that journalists in the UN-controlled media are effectively shrills for the regime, telling the masses that they have never had it so good, while branding enemies of the state as everything from paedophiles to crooks. The colonists, in particular, come in for heavy media bashing, accused of everything from stealing Earth’s resources to refusing to return Earth’s property. Independent journalists simply don’t last very long in the system.

-Thomas Anderson. An Unbiased Look at the UNPF. Baen Historical Press, 2500.

If there was one thing that Captain Harriman and Captain Shalenko had in common, it was a shared desire to see that their starships were always in the best condition possible, regardless of the circumstances. The Devastator’s Engineer found that there were no objections to obtaining the most expensive spare parts ever, while the starship’s crew and senior officers found themselves working endlessly on keeping the starship in good shape. I had heard of starships where essential maintenance was deferred endlessly, risking hundreds of lives, but the Devastator wasn't one of them. Captain Shalenko wouldn’t have allowed it.

Life as a Lieutenant was very different to life as an Ensign, but it had its compensations. Apart from the cabin and the joyous opportunity to be alone for a while, it had additional duties and responsibilities. I had never been more than a little responsible on my old ship and I had always known that I was under supervision. That wasn't true on the Devastator. I was expected to take charge of myself and ask for help if I needed it, not watched by senior officers terrified that I would make a serious mistake and crash the ship into an asteroid. It wasn't likely to happen, but from what the Senior Chief had told me, it was quite possible for a new Ensign to make every mistake in the book. We were kept under very close supervision.

And I also grew to hate the logistics personnel back on Orbit Nine, or scattered around the Solar System. The speed of light delay imposed on radio traffic kept me from screaming at them, but they seemed to take an unholy delight in slowing my requests for supplies, or new equipment. They never seemed to run out of excuses for refusing our requests and when we finally managed to convince them to send us the items, we often discovered that it was late. The Engineer discovered that a shipment of spare parts was shoddy and chewed me out for it, leaving me to pass on his displeasure to the bureaucrats. Apparently the spare parts had passed the checking process back on the industrial asteroid, but when the Engineer had checked them, they hadn’t passed even a simple check. He hadn’t been happy and had had to counter-sign more requests and demands for immediate delivery.

It didn’t help that other starships were cannoning up as well. The Captain hadn’t said anything else about a possible invasion, but it was becoming increasingly clear that the UNPF Headquarters was forming up a task force for operations outside the solar system. Nineteen starships, the most formidable force gathered for quite some time, were being assembled near Orbit Nine, each one trying to get their inventories filled before they departed. It might have moved quicker if I’d sent the Marines to shoot a few bureaucrats, but Kitty had told me that there were always more where they came from. The UNPF could have built an orbital tower reaching all the way to Mars with the paperwork. After barely a week of dealing with the bureaucrats, I was ready to slam my fist through the terminal and choke the life out of them. They just didn’t understand.

“Of course they don’t understand,” Kitty said, when I complained to her. She might have had a few months on me, seniority-wise, but we had become friends. I liked to think that we might become something more – there was no regulation against dating someone in the same rank and grade as yourself – but so far it hadn’t happened. “Show me the bureaucrat who served on a starship, even for a day, and I’ll buy you a five-course meal at Finnegan’s Wake.”

I snorted. “No bet,” I said. I already knew what I would find. “That animal doesn’t exist.”

“Quite,” Kitty agreed. She sat up suddenly and smiled. “There are still five days until we depart, John, so if you can’t get anything in three more days, report to the Captain.”

I scowled. I didn’t want to report to the Captain and admit that I had failed, even though I had managed to get my hands on most of the wanted list. I’d taken to checking everything carefully with the help of a pair of Ensigns – it seemed impossible that I had ever been that young – just in case of something else going wrong, but so far I’d found nothing. Somehow, it wasn’t reassuring. The Engineer had shown me just how many things could look normal…and then break down at just the wrong moment. If the wormhole generator broke down…well, it was a long flight to the nearest inhabited planet at sublight speed.

But I might have no choice. “I understand,” I said. I felt utterly snowed under by logistics alone. “Does it get any easier when the ship’s away from Earth?”

My terminal buzzed. “Lieutenant Walker, report to the Political Officer at once,” it squawked. “I repeat, Lieutenant Walker, report to the Political Officer at once.”

“At a guess, I’d say no,” Kitty said, dryly. I laughed, nervously. I hadn’t met the Political Officer yet and didn’t know what she was like. “Don’t worry, you will get used to it.”

Political Officer Ellen Nakamura was a strange blend of Japanese and European features. She was blond, with a tall willowy body, yet her face was more typically Japanese with faintly slanted eyes. She would have been beautiful if she hadn’t looked, constantly, as if she smelt something vaguely unpleasant in the air. Unlike Jason Montgomerie, she looked terrifyingly efficient and dangerous; she even wore a pistol at her belt. I was less impressed by that than I might have been without the Marine training sessions, but even so…it was a sign of grace and favour. Only the Captain was allowed to carry a pistol on his ship normally.

“Welcome aboard, Lieutenant,” she said, somehow managing to convey the impression that she was smelling me in the air. Her eyes flickered once over my body and then focused in on my face. It was disconcerting. I had never met a woman who didn’t blink before. “I have not had the time to meet with you before and I do trust that I am not keeping you from anything important.”

“No, thank you,” I said, carefully. She was keeping me from writing yet another abusive message to the Supply Department, but I knew better than to say that. Ellen was clearly a very different kettle of fish to anyone else. Besides, I wasn't expected on watch for another three hours and really should have been trying to catch a nap.

“Good, good,” Ellen said. Her voice was vaguely seductive, but her body language was all wrong, as if she were a blunt instrument measuring its target. “I have heard great things about you, John. I do hope that the tales haven’t grown in the telling.”

I said nothing. I was vaguely aware that Captain Harriman and Jason Montgomerie had written glowing testimonials about my abilities, but that was something that every candidate for promotion had to have. It wasn't enough to be average: I had to constantly set the standard for everyone else…and walk on water besides. If they had tried to promote all six of us at once, the Promotions Board would have probably gotten very confused when they read the sworn statements.

“And you caught the men and women who were attempting to slip away from us,” she added. Her gaze suddenly sharpened and bore into my eyes. “How do you feel about that?”

I answered carefully, only to discover that it was only the first part of a searching interrogation covering everything from my early life at school to my shore leave. I worried at first if she knew anything about what I’d done on Earth, but as she wore on, I realised that even if she did know, she didn’t care. Jase and his friends were nothing to her, so far beneath her notice that she didn’t even know they existed. I could guess at her background. The odds were that she came from a family like Roger’s and had been born to her position.

“You’re going to fit in here well,” she concluded, finally. I hoped that she was wrong; the hints about the Devastator’s missions had been worrying enough, but I was stuck. The only purpose the ship seemed designed for was to bombard targets on the ground. “Do you like the media?”

“The media?” I asked, puzzled. “I haven’t had time to watch anything since I came onboard the ship.”

She smiled. The media spent most of its time pumping out programs intended to keep the lower classes tranquil, mainly boring stories about perfect people in perfect lives. The propaganda for the UNPF had at least been entertaining, although it had shied away from the suggestion that anything like violence might be involved somewhere. The remainder of the media had mainly carried stories about how great life was on the colonies under the UN…and how stupid a handful of rogue colonists were being in resisting the UN’s paternal oversight. I couldn’t say that I was a fan of the media. I’d hardly had the time to become a fan.

“We are going to be playing host to a number of reporters,” Ellen said, smiling openly for the first time. It was still rather disconcerting. “Among your other duties, you will play host to them and serve as their…first port of call. Give them whatever they want, within reason. They’re very important people.”

I felt cold even before she took me down to the airlock to introduce me. The reporters looked worse than we had done back when we had boarded the Jacques Delors. Two of them looked as if they were going to be sick, despite the artificial gravity, and the others looked worse. I could see the thoughts flickering through their heads; they had barely been on the ship a few seconds and they already couldn’t wait to get back to the ground.

“Welcome onboard the Devastator,” Ellen trilled, spreading her arms wide and accepting a kiss from a dark man who was so overweight that zero gravity would only have been an asset. Ellen sounded as if she were sucking up to them and, I realised suddenly, they were responding to it. Four men, three women…all reporters. I noticed that they’d dumped a collection of bags outside the airlock in the docking tube – a serious breech of regulations – and scowled inwardly. I’d have to get some crewmen to help me move their luggage to their cabins. “You’ve in the staterooms in Officer Country – John, if you’ll bring up the rear, please?”

She led them through the corridors and I was grateful that she’d put me at the rear. It was all I could do to avoid bursting out into laughter. Two of the girls – no, female reporters; reporters aren’t human – wore high heels and were clearly having problems walking on the deck. If they fell over, the dirty part of my mind commented, they would expose everything they had in those tight dresses. I saw crewmen turning to stare as they passed, with the more adroit among them concealing smiles. They knew, as I did, just how badly the reporters had prepared for their voyage. I wouldn’t have bet on them packing a spacesuit, even though regulations insisted that all passengers had to have their own pressure suits in case of emergencies. The four men weren’t much better. The fatty seemed to be having real problems manoeuvring his bulk through the passageways. Almost everyone who served on a starship was slim – exercise was also mandated by regulations – and the corridors hadn’t been designed for his bulk.

“Here you are,” Ellen said, finally, opening the hatch for them to enter the stateroom. I hadn’t realised that Devastator had so many crew quarters, although I suspected that the designers had probably had something else in mind. The cabins in the stateroom would have suited forty Cadets or Ensigns. I doubted that even an Admiral on a battleship would have such accommodation.

“It’s too small,” one of the women said. She had a nasal voice that made me detest her right from the start, a high-pitched whine that might have been more suited to a dog whistle. She hobbled around on her high heels, the better to glare at Ellen. “We were promised the best quarters on the ship.”

“There are the best quarters on the ship,” Ellen said. She didn’t look hassled in the slightest, despite staring into a face that showed the signs of too much cosmetic surgery. It might have looked good on the videos, but face to face it was appalling. “They were designed for an Admiral and his staff, more than suitable for you.”

She smiled at the men and I watched them melt under her smile. “And if you have any further questions, Lieutenant Walker will be glad to handle them,” she continued. My thoughts were unprintable. “I have to return to help the Captain make the final preparations to depart.”

I watched as she swept out, having thrown me to creatures that were worse than lions. “This is our manifesto,” one of the male reporters said, thrusting a sheet of paper into my hands. I was surprised that they didn’t use datapads, but perhaps reporters were exempt from the strict limits on how much paper people could use. It was a valuable resource, after all. “I expect that all of it will be here or I will be forced to talk to Admiral Hoover, a very dear friend of mine.”

“Certainly, sir,” I said. I actually suspected that Admiral Hoover had never heard of him, but I didn’t want to risk finding out the hard way. I scanned the sheet of paper quickly, shaking my head. It seemed that some of the reporters had supporting staff who would be travelling on a converted assault carrier, but some of their supplies were travelling with us. It was an odd list too, odder than some of the Captain’s requests; they had alcohol and hard drugs. “I’ll see to it at once, shall I?”

“And be back here quickly,” one of the women added. She gave me a smile that had absolutely no humour in it whatsoever. “We will have more tasks for you.”

I slipped outside and used my terminal to call the crewmen who were in the pool, waiting for someone to give them orders. I told them to pick up the luggage that the reporters had left out in the airlock and transport it to their quarters. I guessed that the reporters would be spending the entire trip stoned out of their minds. I just hoped they wouldn’t start selling it to the crew. Once I had finished issuing orders, I went back inside, only to discover that an argument was going on.

“The food on these ships is terrible,” another female reporter snapped. She wore a dress that showed off all of her breasts, apart from her nipples, but somehow I couldn’t find her attractive. “I want you to ensure that we get the best food from quality dealers.”

“I shall do my best,” I promised. Everyone on the ship, apart from the Captain, was supposed to eat in the mess with the rest of the crew. I’d have to check with Anna if the reporters were allowed to eat in their own stateroom. I couldn’t see the Captain agreeing, but it didn’t seem fair to expose the rest of the crew to the seven reporters and their endless complaints. “And…”

There was another deluge of complaints. I wished that the Academy had taught more diplomacy, instead of just Non-Violent Conflict Resolution, but Gandhi himself would have sworn off non-violence after meeting the reporters. When I’d been chewed out on the Jacques Delors, I had thoroughly deserved it. The reporters seemed to expect me to have more authority than the Captain and the ability to snap my fingers and make things happen. That didn’t work, even on a properly-run starship.

“That crewman was leering at me,” one of the women – the one exposing her breasts – protested, when the crewmen finally delivered the luggage and left. Her voice rose to a pitch that hurt my ears. “I demand you have him punished at once!”

It looked to me as if I should ask the Ship’s Doctor to check his eyes, or perhaps his sanity, instead, but I didn’t say that out loud. “I shall see to it,” I promised. Some kind of reward seemed to be in order. “Do you want a tour of the vessel once you have finished unpacking?”

It was nearly an hour before I could escape and report back to Ellen that the reporters had started to settle into the stateroom. She seemed pleased about it, although I still didn’t understand why we were putting up with them in the first place. Why couldn’t they have travelled on an assault carrier along with their support staff?

But a good thing did come out of it. I had forgotten all about the logistics bureaucrats. When I returned to that task, it was almost a relief.

Chapter Twelve

Heinlein was founded by a group of colonists intent on developing a society based on the teachings of Robert Anson Heinlein (banned on Earth since the UN took control), particularly those exposed in Starship Troopers. Heinlein, unlike Earth or many other worlds, only granted the electoral franchise to military veterans, who signed up for a two-year period of service in the military. Although the system wasn't perfect, it did lead to the development of a society that stood in stark contrast to the UN, which granted a meaningless vote to every citizen. This meant that Heinlein, along with the purchased vote system of Williamson’s World and the Dual Monarchy of Nova Britannia, was a threat to the UN by the mere fact of its existence.

-Thomas Anderson. An Unbiased Look at the UNPF. Baen Historical Press, 2500.

“You did well,” Captain Shalenko said, gravely. “I only needed to intervene once.”

I nodded, too tired to speak. I’d finally managed to convince the Supply Department that we actually needed the items on the Captain’s list – all, but one. I’d kept playing the game until one day before our departure date, but then I’d had to admit defeat and ask the Captain to handle it. I don’t know what he said to the Supply Department, but suddenly all the obstacles melted away and we got everything we wanted, quickly. It almost made working with the reporters worthwhile.

“As a special reward,” the Captain continued, “you are to escort Miss Johnston with us when we go onboard Admiral Hoover’s flagship for the briefing.”

I blinked. “Captain…is that wise?”

“The Admiral wants a reporter there for the briefing,” Captain Shalenko said. He didn’t chew me out for my remark, which I took to mean that he privately questioned the Admiral’s wisdom as well. “You will find her and bring her to the Captain’s Boat for 1400.”

“Aye, sir,” I said, and went to the reporters stateroom. They had already exhausted most of the pleasures on the starship – which were few and far between – and had been driving me crazy with their incessant demands. Two of the reporters seemed to have fallen out with the other five and weren’t speaking to them, while the other five seemed to be drafting the victory proclamation already. Given that no one on the starship, but them, seemed to know the fleet’s target, I couldn’t help, but wonder if they were being premature.

But I had to admit that Lillian Johnston was the best of a bad bunch. She wore tight clothes that revealed everything while showing nothing, but she actually seemed to have a brain in her head. It just wasn't one that was focused on surviving in space. She’d already asked me a whole series of silly questions – she even asked me if she could go outside the starship without a spacesuit – and I didn’t want to read any of her work. It actually turned out, when I questioned her, that she was actually paid to present the news, rather than dig it up. The Admiral might have been smarter than I’d thought. She certainly wouldn’t notice anything amiss.

“The Captain wants me to come?” She asked, for all the world as if she got requests like that every day. “I’d love to, darling.”

I managed to duck the other reporters, who were shouting demands that they be allowed to come as well, and led her out of the stateroom. I saw her nose tighten slightly as she took in the lower decks, obviously comparing it to a pleasure liner she’d travelled on years ago. I’d already heard enough about the White Swan to feel that I knew it perfectly, apparently, the crew were respectful and the food was divine. It never seemed to cross their minds that the passenger liner was designed for the idle rich and that real starships were much more cramped. If half of what they said was true, the liner had to be making a loss with each passage.

“This is the Captain’s Boat,” I explained, when we reached the shuttlebay. Unlike a more workable shuttle, or tug, the Captain’s Boat looked surprisingly pretty. I’d heard that they were actually constructed somewhere on one of the colonies, which wasn't something to put my mind at rest. The engineers had been all over it, but a competent engineer could have probably rigged the boat to blow at will. “She can hold nine passengers in reasonable comfort.”

“This isn’t comfort, darling,” Lillian trilled, as soon as she saw the interior of the tiny ship. “This is barely large enough to swing a cat.”

“It was large enough for four First Lieutenants,” the Captain said, gravely. Anna followed him into the boat and took the helm. “We were on shore leave at Tropicana and decided to see how many First Lieutenants we could fit into the ship.”

I swallowed the bait. “But, sir…surely you could have fitted in five more…”

“Oh, at that point we ran out of First Lieutenants,” Captain Shalenko said, with a flickering grin. “We had to make up the difference with some of the locals.” He winked at me. “Not quite regulation, but close enough for government work.”

I blushed. “Yes, sir,” I agreed. “Close enough.”

Anna was a skilled pilot, I realised, as we flew out of the shuttlebay and orientated ourselves on Orbit Nine, before racing past it to the battleship looming up in the distance. It was large enough to be visible with the naked eye almost before we passed Orbit Nine, a single white craft that seemed to dominate the surrounding area. It was surprisingly elegant, in a way, shaped like a long oval. The drive blisters at the rear seemed only to mar its perfection.

“She’s beautiful,” I breathed. Suddenly, I envied Roger and his service on a battleship. “Sir, why don’t we have more like her?”

Captain Shalenko snorted. “She cost the same price as ten light cruisers and took five years to build,” he said. “If old Admiral Picard hadn’t wanted a proper flagship, she and her twins wouldn’t have been built at all. She handles like a wallowing elephant and is the easiest target this side of a planet. We should have built the cruisers instead and then we would have had more flexibility. Instead…”

Lillian spoke into the silence. “Do you think that she’s not beautiful?”

“Beauty only takes a person so far,” Captain Shalenko said, crossly. I caught his gaze and winced inwardly. “If she wasn't such a big target, I might admire the designers, but as it is…she’s nothing more than a glorified pleasure yacht for the Admiral and his staff. If she gets hit and taken out of action, the entire fleet will be decapitated.”

“Coming in to dock now,” Anna said, breaking into the conversation. “The Command Deck has cleared Docking Twelve for us.”

“Closer to the conference room,” the Captain commented, as we swept closer. “They must be in a hurry.”

As we came in to dock, I realised that a dozen other shuttles and smaller craft were also docked to the battleship, studding her white hull like so many limpets. The Captain had mentioned that it was a briefing, but I hadn’t realised that it was for so many officers and men. It looked as if every starship in Earth’s solar system had sent representatives. We docked, with nary a bump, and I smiled inwardly. If nothing else, I was looking forward to seeing the interior of the battleship.

“Welcome onboard the Kofi Annan,” a very familiar voice said. It was Roger, wearing his dress uniform. I was surprised by how much I missed him and the others. I was also surprised that I hadn’t been ordered to get into my own dress uniform, but perhaps the Captain hadn’t cared. “I am to escort you to the conference room.”

“Of course,” Captain Shalenko said. “Lead on.”

I wanted to exchange comments with Roger, but we both had to be businesslike. The starship’s corridors were almost completely empty, apart from a handful of officers wearing more braid than I ever expected to be wearing in my lifetime. I saw seven Captains, two Commodores and the Port Admiral; Roger and I, of course, were beneath their notice. Captain Shalenko exchanged comments with a few of his contemporaries, while I lurked behind him and tried not to be noticed. It took nearly ten minutes to get into the conference room…and it was heaving. There were nearly two hundred people in the compartment.

“Take Lillian and go to the rear,” Captain Shalenko ordered, tightly. Roger had vanished into the crowd, perhaps to round up some more strays. “Report back to me once we’re dismissed.”

“Admiral on the deck,” a voice cracked out. The entire room rose, apart from the reporters, who looked unimpressed. Lillian was far from the only reporter in the room and I found myself wondering why the Admiral had wanted her. Some of the reporters actually looked intelligent.

“At least,” Admiral Hoover said, gravely. His voice seemed to hang in the air. I realised that he was using a sound-effect producer to be heard throughout the room. “You may be seated.”

I found myself studying the Admiral as the room sat down. He wore a white uniform covered in enough gold braid to feed a thousand starving families. His uniform seemed to distract from his face, which was slightly overweight; he was, in fat, a surprisingly fat man. His uniform, I saw after a moment, was carefully tailored to avoid showing his bulk. It had probably cost him more than I made in a year.

“This task force has been gathered together in accordance with UN Resolution #46537,” the Admiral said, without preamble. Now I could hear him properly, it sounded as if he had something caught in his throat. Despite himself, I wasn't particularly impressed with what I saw. “By order of the United Nations General Assembly, summoned as of two months ago, we are empowered to do whatever is necessary to restore the Heinlein System to the jurisdiction of united humanity and punish those who have chosen to rebel against the system. Gordon?”

Another man stood up. He wore only a black jumpsuit, but I fancied that I had made him at once. He was an intelligence officer. “Heinlein’s government was fundamentally opposed to the United Nations and the Rights of Man ever since it was founded two hundred and forty years ago,” he said. He had a droll factual voice that wouldn’t have been out of place on a librarian or a teacher. “In accordance with various United Nations resolutions, a Peace Force garrison was moved into the system to begin the process of bringing Heinlein fully into the United Nations. Their mission has not been altogether successful.”

He paused. “Heinlein’s corrupt government restricts the franchise in a distinctly fascist manner,” he continued. “The local leadership, deeply unpopular with many of the planet’s residents, had no motive to assist us in bringing Heinlein into the United Nations and manufactured crisis after crisis to slow the process down. Eventually, there was a major confrontation between the garrison and the local authorities and the garrison was forced to retreat to the spaceport. As of last report, they were under permanent siege and were not expecting to hold out until relieved.”

I scowled. There was no way to send a signal faster than the speed of light. The only way to send messages from star to star was to transport it on a starship, and starships were always in short supply. If the last report was a month old, it was quite possible that the garrison had either been taken by storm or starved out already, or would fall before we arrived to save it. I also wasn't sure if I believed everything he was saying. The Senior Chief, wherever he was now, had warned me that the higher ranks always lied to their juniors, and somehow I suspected that the garrison hadn’t behaved itself. There was no way to know.

“We have links with various friendly parties down on the planet’s surface,” Gordon concluded. “Our mission is to liberate the planet from their corrupt government, install a new government and complete the task of bringing Heinlein into the United Nations. Ideally, we also want to preserve the considerable orbital and asteroid belt infrastructure that the inhabitants have built up. Admiral?”

“Thank you,” Admiral Hoover said. He gazed around the room. “Heinlein possesses a considerable deep-space industry and various installations that may be used to develop weapons. It is also possible that they are one of the major sources for equipment and weapons for the rebel factions, including pirates and freebooters. It is therefore likely that our entry into the system will be opposed, but only on the level of converted freighters and small gunships. Heinlein never developed a space fleet of its own.”

“Are we sure of that?” Someone said, from the rear of the room. I realised with a moment of amusement that it was one of the reporters. “I was on the Balkans Campaign and they had all kinds of weapons and tech they weren't supposed to have.”

“Intelligence checked everything in their records before the garrison was established,” Gordon said, tightly. I had the feeling that that reporter wasn't going to be coming with us any longer. “They produced several dozen freighters, but mainly concentrated on mining ships for the asteroids and the gas giants. They have not produced any warships, although weapons are a very real possibility.”

I felt cold. I hadn’t forgotten the pirate we’d encountered back at Terra Nova, over a year ago. It had taken the Senior Chief to point it out to me, but it was clear that the pirate ship had risked itself in combat against a cruiser, without actually having to do anything of the sort. The Senior Chief had concluded that the pirate was actually a raider, showing off weapons that were more advanced than anything in the UN’s arsenal. It had been the one thing he couldn’t understand. Why had the raiders shown off their weapons…for nothing? They could have saved them for an unpleasant surprise later.

Admiral Hoover took centre stage again. “The fleet will depart tomorrow at 1300 precisely,” he said. I felt a faint murmuring passing through the audience. Most UN ships and units would be unable to make that time, and so the Admiral would probably be planning to leave later, which in turn meant that they had no incentive to be on time. “We will proceed as a group to the Heinlein system and rendezvous one light year from their star. Coordinates will be transmitted later. When the fleet has linked up again, we will advance at once into their system and secure the low orbitals.”

He paused, apparently inviting comment. None came. “Once we have secured the orbitals, we will start landing troops at once, concentrating on their largest cities,” he continued. “Once the cities have been secured, Infantry units will advance into the countryside and suppress rebels and insurgents there, before we begin working with friendly forces on the ground. After the locals see that our forces are capable of defeating the corrupt government, they will ally with us and the remaining insurgents will be rapidly weeded out.

“In addition, Marine units will seize their largest orbital installations and production plants. Once secure, those plants will be turned over to supporting the invasion and producing items needed to pay Earth for the liberation mission. I anticipate no real difficulty in carrying out the invasion, so once the troops have been landed, the majority of our fleet can be dispersed for other duties, leaving a light observation squadron and, of course, the Devastator in the system.”

There was a pause. “Any questions?”

“Yes,” someone said. I was surprised to see a Marine Major General sitting in the front row. Marines normally had little to do with matters outside their sphere. “Just how long do you expect the invasion and occupation to take?”

“I expect that major combat operations will be completed within the first month,” Admiral Hoover said. “We should be able to pull out most of the infantry within the next year or so, depending on local conditions. The locals will see that we are resolute and firm in our determination to convince them to share what they have with all of humanity. We have a paternal oversight role to consider…”

“I suspect it will take much longer,” the Major General said. “I was actually involved in a joint operation with Heinlein reservists and they were damned good. It will not be ended quickly…”

“Thank you,” Admiral Hoover said, tightly. His voice became harsh and unbending. I knew what he was going to say before he spoke. “If I had wanted your opinion, I would have asked for it.”

I scowled, despite myself. I’d learned that the Marines were far from stupid back when I’d been training with them. Overall, I’d trust a Marine’s opinion rather more than the Admiral’s…and, now that it had been pointed out to me, it was clear that the Admiral was being very optimistic. The war could drag on forever.

It struck me, then, that we were going to invade another planet. We were going to bring them war and devastation in the hope that they would become more like us. I remembered what I’d seen on Earth and shuddered again. Whatever Heinlein was like – and I didn’t even know where the name came from – it could hardly be worse than Earth, could it? Somehow, I doubted it. Even Terra Nova was a paradise compared to Earth.

But what could I do?

I mulled it over as we were dismissed and I reported to Captain Shalenko, but the answer was all-too-clear. There was nothing I could do about it. History was on the march and I was nothing, but a helpless spectator. All I could do was watch, and wait.

Chapter Thirteen

The logistics of interstellar travel are, despite the best efforts of the UN, inflexible. Some items – foodstuffs, for example – cannot be transported economically under almost any conditions. The cost of transporting the food to another star would make it the most expensive food in the galaxy, particularly that almost every settled world grows enough food to feed itself. It is therefore clear that shipping anything apart from specialised items is not a economical proposition. This has a baleful effect on military operations as well. Any UNPF operation would exist on the end of a long supply line with massive time delays. It would literally take months to request reinforcements and months longer for them to arrive.

-Thomas Anderson. An Unbiased Look at the UNPF. Baen Historical Press, 2500.

“Captain, the remaining starships have finally logged in,” Lieutenant Marya Jadwiga said, from her position on the bridge. “They’re signalling that they’re ready to go.”

“Finally,” Captain Shalenko hissed. I didn’t blame him for being frustrated. The Devastator had been ready to go at 1300, as we had been ordered, but the other ships hadn’t been anything like ready. I was silently grateful for the time I’d spent on logistics. It was becoming increasingly clear that the other ships hadn’t spent anything like as much time on it…and the Admiral had been chewing the walls. It was now 1500 and we were barely ready to go. “Lieutenant Walker, please take our guests to the observation blister.”

“Aye, sir,” I said, tiredly. The last thing I wanted to do was talk to the reporters, but orders were orders. Besides, the sight of a wormhole opening at close range would be enough to shut them up for a while, I hoped. “I’ll get right on it.”

The reporters, I was amazed to discover, had dressed up in their finery for the trip to the observation blister. I tried very hard not to laugh as I escorted them through the passageways – some crewmen were rather less discriminating – and took them into the observation blister. Space – and the sight of Earth, visible as a blue-green sphere in the distance – still took my breath away, but the reporters didn’t seem impressed. They’d probably seen it often enough that it was no longer a wonder to them, although I couldn’t understand why. It had never stopped being a wonder for me.

“Tell me something,” Frank Wong said. Wong seemed to be the senior reporter, insofar as there was such a thing. “When are we actually departing? I was told to expect you at 1300.”

I wasn’t going to explain all the problems to him. “There were delays,” I said, reluctantly. There was no point in elaborating. “I believe, however, that we will depart in a few moments. It really is a fantastic view.”

“He’s trying to distract us,” Mytych Milan insisted. I had never been able to untangle where he’d come from originally, but he was a reporter through and through. From what I had been able to gather, he was under the impression that he was an investigative reporter, out to gather dirt that could be used to make the UNPF look bad. I doubted that he’d be long with us either. “We could be…”

“Stuck in the stateroom with nothing to do, but drink and fuck,” Frank Wong snapped back, angrily. I was pleased to see that he had some sense, although in their place, I’d have been brushing up on my studies. There was always something to do on the ship. “Watch and learn. It’s your first trip out of the Solar System, isn’t it?”

“Now hear this,” the Captain’s voice said, echoing through the starship. “We are ready to jump. I repeat, we are ready to jump. The wormhole will be opened in two minutes…mark.”

“Watch,” I said, softly. This sight, too, never lost its power to thrill. “You won’t regret it.”

Ahead of us, the light from the stars seemed to twist suddenly into a shimmering ball of light, which expanded rapidly into an open mouth, a rent in the fabric of space and time. The funnel grew larger, rapidly blurring through the colours of the rainbow, and seemed to rush at us. A moment later, we were inside the wormhole and flying towards our destination. The lights vanished and we seemed to be inside nothing, but darkness.

“My god,” Mytych Milan said, stunned. “It…what was that?”

“That was a wormhole,” I said, dryly. I’d feared that the reporters would throw up – it wasn't uncommon for first-timers – but they seemed to be holding themselves together. Two of them looked pale and wan, but the others seemed fine. “Heinlein is forty light years away, after all. That’s a months journey even with wormholes.”

“I never even thought about it like that,” Lillian said. “What happened to the lights?”

I took the opportunity to lecture them. “Technically speaking, we’re inside a private universe at the moment,” I explained. It wasn't entirely accurate, but so few people understood the Jump Drive that it was a worthwhile analogy. “There are no stars or other sources of light here, so there’s nothing, but darkness.”

“What about the other ships?” Frank Wong asked. “Why can’t we see them?”

“They’re not in our wormhole,” I said. “We’re all in separate universes of our own.”

They still seemed subdued when I escorted them back to their stateroom, apart from Frank Wong, who caught my arm and pulled me to one side. He didn’t know how lucky he was. The Marines had taught me what to do with someone who caught hold of me with unpleasant intentions. I could have broken his arm quite easily.

“You know that Ensign you had helping us yesterday,” he asked, with a leer. “What would it take to have her sharing my bunk for a night?”

I couldn’t help it. I just stared at him. Ensign Gomez was beautiful, with delicate Hispanic features and a warm smile that seemed to light up the room, but I couldn’t believe what I’d heard. She was on her first cruise as an Ensign – she’d graduated from the class after mine, back at the Academy – and she was hard to think ill of, even though I tried. It was the job of a Lieutenant to toughen up the Ensigns. Had I ever been that young?

“You won’t even think about it,” I hissed, angrily. It was all I could do not to knock his teeth down his throat, but the Captain would have been annoyed. I didn’t want to think about his reaction to this incident. “She’s an officer on this ship and not someone you can hire, understand?”

Frank was either too stupid or too sure of himself to back down quickly. “When I was on the old Panama, the Captain sent two young Ensigns to share my bunk,” he said, his voice hardening. “You will send her to me or…”

“No,” I said, flatly. I believed him – there were Captains who would quite happily do that, even though regulations forbade it – but this wasn't the Panama. “If you touch her without her permission, I will beat hell out of you, understand?”

He wilted, perhaps finally sensing that I was serious. “I have powerful friends,” he called after me, his voice shaking. “You’ll regret this…”

The hatch cut him off and I stormed away, shaking with rage. How dare he ask me to send him an Ensign for the night? It was quite possible that Ensign Gomez wasn't as innocent as she looked – she’d grown up in Ciudad Barranquilla, one of the worst cities on Earth – but even so, how dare he treat me as a pimp, or a procurer? I wasn't going to allow him to bully me like that, even if it cost me my career. I was still raging when I reported to Anna and made a full confession. I had to know where Captain Shalenko stood on such incidents.

“I shouldn’t worry about it,” Anna said, once I’d explained everything. “The Captain will put him through a bulkhead if he tries anything like that on one of his crew.”

“Thanks,” I said, more relieved than I cared to admit. “I just…”

“It won’t be the last time,” Anna warned, slowly. “That kind of people will always treat us in the Peace Force as second-class citizens. We’re the ones who were foolish enough to sign our lives away, after all.”

I nodded slowly. The Peace Force recruiting office claimed that most recruits enjoyed a high standard of living, and excellent job prospects after retirement, but they were lying, of course. The Academy had been hard enough and the starships had been primitive for the newly-minted Ensigns; I dreaded to think what life on some of the research colonies or military bases was like. Afterwards…well, it wasn't uncommon to set veterans on the streets, begging for money. A handful had even been burned to death by the gangs.

“But if it happens again, report it at once,” she added. “I’d better have a few words with the Ensigns as well. We can’t forbid the bastards from chatting up the Ensigns, but we can promise them that if they do get…taken against their wills, they will be supported. The Captain won’t take that lightly.”

“Thank you,” I said, again. “You’ve put my mind at rest.”

“Mine isn’t,” Anna said, with a grin. “You’re on watch in thirty minutes. Go grab a cup of tea or coffee from the mess before you go on watch, or the Captain will throw you off the bridge for being distracted.”

I nodded and left her cabin.

The days wore on slowly, falling into a routine. I stood my watches – with the Captain or Anna watching me, at first – and learned more about the Devastator and her capabilities. Captain Shalenko insisted that we all be trained in operating every console on both the bridge and the Combat Information Centre – the Devastator had both, as did the Kofi Annan – just in case one of the regular officers was wounded. I hadn’t realised just how capable the Devastator actually was until I worked through the tactical simulations. We could strike and blow up an infantry unit on the surface below and never cause any collateral damage. We could dominate an entire planet from orbit. I began to understand, in a way, why the Admiral was so confident. He had weapons that no insurgents could hope to match.

And yet, I wondered in the dead of night, if that were the case, why was Terra Nova still a running sore?

“Because the weapons are only useful if they find a target,” Kitty explained, one night. We had taken to spending most of our off-duty time together, mainly playing chess or watching videos. One of the videos on the computer had been a documentary entitled The Liberation of Heinlein, which had apparently been produced before the fleet had departed to invade the target world. It seemed to be nothing, but poorly-cobbled together propaganda, without any mention of either violence or political upheaval. “How do you sort out an insurgent from a loyal citizen?”

I blinked at her, almost missing her attempt to fork my king and queen. “That’s against the Laws of War,” I protested, horrified. I’d only seen a pirate ship before…and then I remembered the ambush on Terra Nova. I hadn’t really had a chance to take in the details, but had they been wearing uniforms. “They can’t do that, can they?”

Kitty snorted. “I do wonder what he saw in you,” she said, dryly. “If a Law of War only benefits one side, why should the other one follow it?”

I nodded in reluctant understanding. “And so they hide among the people?”

“More or less,” Kitty agreed. “I bet you dinner somewhere expensive, perhaps on our next shore leave, that we’ll take the high orbitals all right, and then find ourselves trapped in a long insurgency, again. The Captain won’t permit random bombardment of the planet and even if he did, it wouldn’t solve the problem. We might never break the planet entirely.”

“No bet,” I said, without hesitation. Kitty was almost certainly right. “I don’t understand, then. Why was the Admiral so confident of victory?”

Kitty smiled. “How many Infantrymen are there in the troop transports?”

“Two hundred thousand,” I said, automatically. The troop transports were among the largest ships in the fleet, converted colonist-carriers. The UN preached that Earth’s population problem would be solved by exporting the population to the colonies, but even I knew that the logistics would never work. We might be able to export maybe two million a year, perhaps more if we really worked at it, but in that time the population would grow again. “I don’t understand…”

“They’re the dregs of society,” Kitty said, seriously. “The Admiral wouldn’t care in the slightest if half of them died to bring Heinlein back into the United Nations. Why should he? They’re pulled off the streets, given just enough training to make them dangerous, and then sent out to occupy resentful planets. Most of them will never be able to claim the patch of land the UN promises them in exchange for their services.”

She paused and moved a pawn forward. “I don’t know about the enemy, John,” she said, “but by God they frighten me.”

I lifted an eyebrow at her choice of words. Religion had no place in the UN’s brave new world, or so we had been told. It was illegal to discriminate against any particular religion, but practicing any religion was not encouraged. Muna had been allowed to keep her scarf for some reason, but she’d received no other encouragement. It simply wasn't allowed.

“They’re hated on every world,” Kitty added, grimly. “Whatever hope there was that the worlds might come into the UN voluntarily, they destroy, just by behaving like complete bastards, looting, raping and murdering wherever they go. They’re not Marines, John; remember that. They’re monsters in UN uniforms.”

She reached out and touched my icon the Senior Chief had given me. “Welcome to the Brotherhood,” she said. I felt my heartbeat racing suddenly. “The best we can do is try to prevent our honour from being tarnished any further.”

“You’re in the Brotherhood?” I asked, astonished. I hadn’t even given any through to who else might be in the Brotherhood, although I would have bet good money that Captain Harriman was a Brother, and Captain Shalenko was not. “How did you know about me…?”

“Ask me no questions and I’ll tell you no lies,” Kitty said, her green eyes very serious. I caught her meaning and nodded. The Security Department wouldn’t hesitate to subject us both to intensive interrogation if they realised that we were members of what they would regard as a subversive group. “You’re young, but the word was passed along to keep an eye on you. You’re not the first to have doubts.”

I stared at her. “Kitty…what happens if we get caught?”

Kitty shrugged. “How many members of the Brotherhood do you know?” She held up a hand before I could answer. “I doubt you know more than three at most – don’t tell me – and you won’t encounter many others face to face. What you don’t know can’t be forced from you. I only told you now because you need to know that you’re not alone.”

A nasty thought crossed my mind. “Kitty…how do we know that the Brotherhood is real?” I asked. “What if it’s secretly run by the Security Department?”

“They’d have rounded us all up by now,” Kitty said. “I suspect that they do have some idea we exist, but they’re not really capable of rooting us all out, for various reasons. Several…ah, friends went silent last year and I think that they did get caught, but they weren’t able to betray the rest of us.” She shook her head. “We’ll talk more about that later. Checkmate.”

I looked down at the board. She’d won, all right. “Neat,” I said, admiringly. I’d played Chess in the Academy team and declined an offer to play for the big leagues. Kitty made me look like a newcomer. “Why can’t we do something?”

“Like what?” Kitty asked, seriously. “What is going to happen to Heinlein is going to happen and there is nothing we can do to stop it? Look” – she continued, catching my expression – “suppose that you have Brotherhood cells on all of the starships. What would we do with them? How could we coordinate our actions openly and take the ships, knowing that everything would be so confused…and what if Heinlein attacks?”

“I see,” I said, but Kitty wasn't finished.

“The Admiral was convinced that Heinlein has no warships,” Kitty continued. “I suspect that they will have a few surprises waiting for us. They have to know that the United Nations won’t let their defiance pass. The last thing we need is a struggle for power when the fleet is under attack. Besides, who can we trust?”

I nodded, reluctantly. Everyone knew about the dangers of informers in the ranks, men and women who would betray their comrades to the UN Security Department for money, or power, or even under threat of blackmail. Who could we trust? We’d probably end up shooting at each other.

“We’ll talk more later,” Kitty said, standing up. “Get some sleep. You’re going to need it tomorrow.”

I couldn’t sleep very well that night, or the night afterwards. I kept working the problem, trying to find a solution, but Kitty was right. There was nothing we could do to prevent the invasion from taking place, leaving us all as unwilling participants in the UN’s plan. I thought, seriously, about deserting, but where would I go? Earth would hardly welcome me now. Three weeks later, when we arrived at Heinlein, I was still no closer to a solution.

The Admiral had claimed that victory would be easy.

Need I mention that it was nothing of the sort?

Chapter Fourteen

The UN claims to be expert in space combat, but the truth is that few are truly expert in space combat. The pre-space dreams of clashes between vast fleets of space dreadnaughts have not materialised. It is rare for any armed encounter between the UNPF and the pirates to involve more than two vessels, or indeed to end in anything, but a draw. True space combat is more theoretical than anything else. The UNPF’s failure to understand that this was a weakness cost it heavily in some of the main campaigns of the war.

-Thomas Anderson. An Unbiased Look at the UNPF. Baen Historical Press, 2500.

“Wormhole exit in fifty seconds, sir,” the Pilot said. “All systems are standing by.”

“Excellent,” Captain Shalenko said. He, at least, wasn't trusting his ship to a green Ensign when we entered a war zone. “All hands, this is the Captain. Battle stations. I say again, battle stations.”

I checked the duplicate tactical console quickly, confirming that I was locked out of the system – unless something happened to Anna. I doubted that it would matter that much – if Anna was taken out, the entire ship would probably be lost – but the Great God Regulations demanded my presence. At least the reporters weren’t on the bridge. The Captain had insisted that they remain in their stateroom until the system was secure and none of them, even Frank, had dared to argue.

“Systems ready, sir,” I said, when the Captain checked with me. If everything went to plan, I’d be nothing, but a helpless observer.

“Emergence,” the Pilot said. The wormhole twisted open in front of us and new stars started to shine through onto the ship. “We have emerged in the Heinlein System, sir.”

Captain Shalenko didn’t smile. “Confirm location,” he ordered. “Communications, link us up with the other starships.”

“Location confirmed,” the Pilot said. I checked myself and he was right. “We have emerged within two decimal places of our target coordinate.”

“The other starships are checking in now,” Kitty said, from her console. “Ah…not all of them have emerged in the correct locations.”

“Signal the Admiral, inform him of our status, and request orders,” the Captain said, a hint of frustration in his tone. I understood his feelings. If the remainder of the fleet had arrived in the correct locations, the Devastator would have been well-protected by the cruisers. As it were, we were dangerously exposed to anyone out there with weapons and bad intentions. “Tactical, bring up the main sensors and sweep local space. Report at once if you detect anything out of the ordinary.”

The Heinlein System took on shape and form on the main display. It was a fairly mundane system, as systems went; three rocky planets, two gas giants and one life-bearing world. Heinlein itself rated a 92% on the Planetary Scale – 92% like Earth – which made it habitable enough to support the human race without major terraforming efforts. The inhabitants probably wouldn’t want to move. By now, despite UN regulations, they had probably adapted the planet completely to their specifications. I winced when the scale of industrial activity became apparent. Heinlein was the most industrialised system I’d seen, short of Earth itself. The asteroid belts swarmed with miners and industrial stations.

I remembered what the Senior Chief had said about the UN needing to conscript trained workers from the colonies and shivered, despite myself. Heinlein didn’t seem to pay homage to the UN’s rules and, despite that, had somehow developed a vast industry. There had to be millions of trained workers the UN could kidnap and take back to Earth to turn into slaves, despite the dangers of trusting an industrial plant to conscript workers. Would it not be easier, I wondered, to train new workers on Earth?

“The fleet has finally responded, sir,” Kitty said. “The Admiral is ordering the fleet to form up on the flagship and has designated a spot for us.”

“Pilot, move us into position,” Captain Shalenko ordered, tightly. “Tactical, link into the fleet datanet, but remain alert.”

Twenty minutes later, the fleet was finally moving towards Heinlein. The Admiral had ordered us to emerge from the wormholes at roughly an hour from the planet, even though we could have emerged a lot closer, perhaps even in orbit around the planet. I hadn’t understood at the time, but I understood now. If we’d emerged in range of the planet’s defences in such a chaotic state, we’d have been turkeys in a turkey shoot. I was surprised that we hadn’t been attacked upon emergence anyway, but perhaps Heinlein was conserving its strength. Who knew what had happened since the last report had reached Earth?

“The Admiral is trying to contact the garrison, but there’s no response,” Kitty said, into the growing tension. I almost wanted the attack to begin, just to get on with it. The tension was almost worse than the battle. “The isn’t even any chatter from the planet’s surface.”

“They must have been wiped out,” the Captain growled. He didn’t sound surprised. I’d learned enough about supply problems to understand how the garrison must have felt. They’d been trapped and then starved out, or perhaps forced to expend all their ammunition…and then defeated. It would have been fairly easy without any orbital bombardment system overhead. “I wonder if…”

“The Admiral is signalling the planet,” Kitty added. “Captain, would you like to hear it?”

The Captain nodded. “This is Admiral Hoover, Commanding Officer of Task Force 17,” the Admiral’s voice said. He sounded as if he were trying to be strong and resolute. It didn’t sound that convincing. “You are hereby ordered to comply with the terms of the UN resolutions concerning your planet and stand down all your defences, permitting my forces to occupy the planet’s surface. If you refuse to comply, we are authorised to use deadly force.”

“Well?” The Captain said, into the silence. It would take nearly seven minutes for the signal to reach Heinlein and another seven for the reply, if any. “Is there any response?”

“No, sir,” Kitty said. “I’m still not picking up anything from the planet at all.”

“That’s ridiculous,” Captain Shalenko said, tightly. “A planet with nearly a billion humans on must produce some radio chatter.”

Kitty looked flustered for the first time in my experience. “The briefing notes suggested that they had created a landline infrastructure for most of their communications traffic,” she said. “They may choose to limit their radio communications to prevent us from picking them up.”

“Good thinking,” the Captain said, grudgingly. “Try and see if the asteroid belts are producing…”

“Emergence,” Anna snapped, as red icons flashed into existence. “Five starships, unknown configuration, closing fast!”

“Stand by all weapons and defensive systems,” the Captain ordered, swinging his chair around to stare at the main display. Five blood-red icons were moving towards the green icons of the fleet with obviously hostile intent. “Point defence is cleared to engage incoming missiles. I repeat, point defence is cleared to engage incoming missiles.”

“I’m picking up targeting sensor emissions from the unknowns,” Anna said, as red-green sweeps of energy crossed the display. “They’re locking on…and firing.”

I blanched. No UN ship, short of a battleship, could have fired such a volley in one broadside, or turn so quickly and launch a second broadside. The fleet’s point defence systems were already locking onto the incoming missiles and torpedoes, burning them out of existence, but there were so many of them. I knew that some ships were going to be lost…

“The Admiral is authorising us to return fire,” Kitty said. “The cruisers are engaging now.”

The cruisers opened fire, but the newcomers, instead of closing for a standard engagement, vanished back down their wormholes and disappeared. The Captain swore a mighty curse in a language I didn’t recognise, but I understood. The Heinlein starships – if that was what they were – had tricked the cruisers into firing off expensive missiles, for nothing. The swarm of incoming missiles were striking home now; I saw a cruiser stagger, before somehow resuming its course and speed. The drive field had saved the crew, barely.

“Emergence,” Anna said, again. This time, only three starships appeared, shot their missiles, and vanished again. Lasers and other energy weapons raged out towards their prey, but seemed to have no effect. “Captain, they’re targeting the troop transports specifically.”

“Understood,” the Captain said. His gaze flickered to the display and he swore again. This time, I didn’t understand why. “Kitty, raise the Admiral and warn him of the threat to the transports. If we lose them, we may as well go home and abandon the entire mission.”

I saw what he meant, suddenly. The UN simply couldn’t afford to replace any lost starships and the troop transports, among the largest ships in the Peace Force, simply couldn’t be replaced quickly. It took years to build them, years that Heinlein could use to make itself all the more impregnable, or even take the offensive. I saw the UN’s dilemma clearly for the first time. If it took the boot off the colonies, the colonies would very rapidly out-produce it and eventually destroy the Peace Force. If it kept the boot on, it would find it very hard to maintain the tempo of operations. No wonder they were touting Terra Nova as a success! If the UN pulled out tomorrow, so what? Terra Nova wouldn’t be building starships anytime soon.

“The Admiral is warning the cruisers to continue to cover the flagship,” Kitty reported. “There is no explanation attached to the orders.”

Captain Shalenko said nothing, but I could guess what he was thinking. Coward.

“Continue to maintain watch,” he ordered, finally. “Engage any hostile missiles that come within range, regardless of their targets.”

“Aye, sir,” Kitty said. “Enemy starships have retreated again.”

“They won’t do anything else,” Captain Shalenko predicted. “Just by doing what they are, they’re tearing us apart.”

The next hour wore on slowly. Exactly as the Captain had predicted, the Heinlein starships kept jumping in and our, firing off their missiles and vanishing again before anyone could shoot back at them. Their only saving grace was that they didn’t have time to run proper targeting solutions, although it didn’t seem to matter that much. A cruiser was destroyed and another seriously damaged, left behind the rest of the starships. Somehow, I doubted that it would remain intact for much longer without the protection of the entire fleet. The battleship came in for particular targeting along with the troop transports, but our luck held. The Admiral survived the attacks and his ship remained intact. Somehow, I wasn't sure if that were a good thing or not.

“I’m now picking up sensor sweeps from satellites in Heinlein’s orbit,” Anna said. “I think they’re armed platforms and perhaps gunships. The Admiral is clearing us to engage anything hostile, but anything non-hostile is to be left strictly alone.”

“The Admiral wants the satellite network intact,” the Captain growled. “It’s probably rigged to transmit information to insurgents on the ground…and he wants it intact to save money.”

I would have liked to disagree with him, but how could it? The massive sphere of Heinlein on the display was blinking up more and more red icons, including some on the ground that appeared to be planetary defence centres fully equal to some of the fortresses the UN had built on Earth, back when it seemed that war with the colonies was likely. If they were anything like the ones on Earth, they would have been formidable threats at one time, but considerably less useful against an active drive field. That suggested that Heinlein had probably updated the systems to confront us.

“Anna, mark the location of the ground-based stations and mark them for later attention,” the Captain ordered. “Kitty, pass the data on to the Admiral and request permission to engage.”

“Yes, sir,” Kitty said. “The Admiral is responding; the fleet is preparing to force its way into orbit…”

“Yes,” Anna said, in delight. “We got one!”

A dull cheer ran through the bridge. One of the Heinlein starships had miscalculated finally and emerged far too close to another UN starship, which had opened fire at once without waiting for instructions. Before the Heinlein starship could wormhole out again, it had been bracketed and rapidly blown apart into an expanding cloud of plasma. I felt the exultation as well, even shared it completely. It was harder to remember that the Heinlein starships were only defending their health and home when they were trying to kill me, and Kitty, and the remainder of the crew.

“Signal the skipper with my congratulations,” the Captain ordered, a thin smile crossing his face. “If we can take out the other four ships, this will be much easier.”

“Captain, freighters and other starships are departing the planet’s orbit,” Kitty said. “The Admiral is detaching cruisers to halt them until they can be searched.”

Captain Shalenko muttered another curse under his breath. “They’re traps,” he predicted, grimly. “They could have left at any time, so why do they wait until we’re right on top of them?”

He keyed his console and opened a direct link to the Admiral. I only heard his side of the conversation, but from his face, the Admiral wasn't proving receptive to his advice. I hoped that his career wouldn’t suffer because of it, although if that Kitty said was true, Captain Shalenko was someone else who had obtained his position through connections. The Admiral might find it hard to discipline him.

“John, stand by to take the point defence,” Anna said, suddenly. The skies above Heinlein were coming to life as the defences rumbled into operation. Several of them had been so well-stealthed that we hadn’t even realised they were there until they brought up their active sensors. “I’ll have to handle the planet-side operations myself.”

The console came to life in front of me and I checked it rapidly. We’d fired hundreds of laser pulses in the last hour and had actually drained the laser capacitors quite badly. Anna had solved the problem by linking the laser banks to the main fusion plant, but that was draining power from other parts of the ship. The reporters, I realised suddenly, might be in darkness. It probably wouldn’t matter. As much as I despised them, they would at least be alive to complain. The experience might even do them good.

I ran through the systems as the planet’s defences opened fire. Some of them were standard missiles that had been left in orbit only to be triggered when the orders came, others were much nastier, including a missile that split apart into several other missiles just before it entered laser range. I couldn’t hope to handle it myself; I could just set priorities and allow the computers to handle the rest of it. If they failed to take out a missile in time, the Devastator might be destroyed along with the remainder of the fleet.

“The Admiral is recalling the cruisers,” Kitty said. “Captain…”

She broke off. Where the cruiser Michael Galloway had been, there was now nothing, but an expanding cloud of debris. The cruiser had been closing to intercept one of the escaping freighters and the Captain on the freighter had suddenly tripped the self-destruct system. They had to have loaded a dozen nukes onto the freighter to get that effect, I realised suddenly; the cruiser hadn’t stood a chance.

“They should have stood off and fired into the drive if necessary,” the Captain grated, angrily. I shared his frustration. “Anna, take down the planetary defence systems on the ground, now!”

The planet was firing on us itself. They’d installed massive laser cannons, each one far more powerful than anything we could mount on a starship, trusting them to sweep space clear of invading starships. How had they done it so fast? I found myself wondering. How could they have prepared all this in a mere two months? Anna fired back, launching Kinetic Energy Weapons down towards the ground-based defences, only to see some of her KEWs burned out of space by the lasers. The remainder of the fleet was clearing local space of orbiting defences, but as long as the ground-based systems remained intact, we couldn’t hope to support infantrymen on the ground.

“Got one,” Anna said. A red icon vanished from the display. I didn’t want to think about what that meant on the ground. The installation would have been devastated, but what about the surrounding countryside? Had the Heinlein defenders installed their weapons well away from the civilian population, or had they emplaced them right in the midst of their towns and cities? The death toll might be horrendous already. It would only get worse when the troops started to land. If half the rumours and stories I’d heard about Heinlein were true, it was going to be a nightmare. “We’re clearing the way forward.”

I nodded to myself. The Devastator was designed for bombarding the surface of a planet. No matter what the defenders did, they couldn’t prevent Anna from unloading hundreds of KEWs onto the surface, devastating defence installations and government centres. Their starships, which seemed to have retreated, should have targeted us first. They might have crippled the entire invasion…

No, I realised. Admiral Hoover would have pushed on regardless. I had the feeling that nothing short of death would deter him from his mission, even if it cost him the entire fleet. Failure would be punished at home; success, even costly success, would be feted. The cruisers and the battleship could bombard the planet if they had to, even if they didn’t carry the same weapons as the Devastator. They could still take the planet. They would still take the planet.

And orbital space was clear.

“The Admiral is signalling to the fleet,” Kitty said. There was something in her voice that brought me up cold. “Land the landing force!”

Chapter Fifteen

The UN possesses what it regards as the perfect ground combat doctrine. Put simply, it involves seizing control of the utilities (power, food, water, etc) and then using it to control and coerce the enemy population. The doctrine was designed, however, for worlds where the enemy were barely equipped and often unarmed. It couldn’t fit a world where the enemy was often better armed than the UN’s forces. This should not have been a surprise. When the UN invaded Heinlein, there was little in either side’s arsenal that would have been unfamiliar to an officer from an earlier, pre-space age.

-Thomas Anderson. An Unbiased Look at the UNPF. Baen Historical Press, 2500.

The display sparked with new icons as the first wave of shuttles launched from the troop transports, heading down towards the surface. Heinlein, at least, hadn’t named its capital Landing City or some variant on the theme; the capital city, Lazarus, was actually smaller than most capital cities. If the data could be believed, Heinlein’s population was spread out all over the planet, rather than being concentrated in a handful of cities. I was no expert in ground combat tactics, but it struck me that occupying the entire planet would take years, and far more infantrymen than we had.

“Move us into position to cover them,” the Captain ordered, as the shuttles flew down towards the ground. “Anna, target and destroy anything that attempts to impede them. We must have that spaceport intact.”

“Aye, sir,” Anna said. Now that local space was clear, there was less for me to do, but I watched my console carefully anyway. They might have hidden other stealthed weapons on their moons, or somewhere in orbit among the debris we’d missed. The satellite system the Admiral had been so keen to seize had been destroyed in the crossfire. He wasn't going to be pleased about that. “They’re barely five minutes from parachuting down to the surface.”

I nodded, watching carefully. Earth had its orbital towers, but few other planets had them, not when a space cable or elevator would be sufficient. Heinlein, however, had neither, which meant that the only way to move troops down to the surface rapidly was to use spaceplanes and heavy shuttles, which in turn meant that we had to seize and secure all the spaceports. Heinlein didn’t even seem to have many spaceports, or airports, and losing one of them could be disastrous. The fleet was settling into low orbit now, using lasers to pick off any aircraft in flight to prevent them from engaging the shuttles, but if the spaceport were to be lost…

“They’re going to know that too,” I muttered. The Captain turned to look and me and I flushed, feeling an idiot for speaking out loud. I had no choice, but to explain myself. “They have to know that we need the spaceports as well, sir.”

“Quite right,” the Captain said, gravely. I had the faint impression that he was humouring me, for whatever reason made sense to him. “The garrison may even have lost the spaceport after a battle that would render it nearly useless.”

I frowned. “Then why…?”

“Because it’s not actually that easy to render a spaceport completely non-functional,” the Captain explained, calmly. “The landing pads and runways will still function – its not even easy to mine them without being obvious – and the infantrymen can take them without serious problems, particularly if we provide covering fire from orbit. Once they have the spaceports, we can begin landing the main force and advancing out to seize the cities.”

Unwisely, I pushed it further. “But doctrine says to seize the cities at once,” I protested. “How can we do it at once?”

The Captain grinned. “We can’t,” he said, dryly. “Doctrine says a lot of things that I just impractical, Lieutenant. The task of the people on the ground is to try and keep to doctrine as much as possible, while knowing when to ignore its demands that we do the impossible just to please the beauecrats back home. Our task is to support them and prevent the enemy on the ground from counterattacking before the troops have landed in sufficient strength to defeat any attack. Watch your screens and wait.”

I turned back to my console, relieved. Somehow, talking to the Captain sometimes left me with the sense that I had barely escaped a horrifying death by the skin of my teeth. On impulse, I set the console to inform me if there was anything I needed to deal with and brought up the images from the overhead sensors. The spaceport was a good twenty miles away from the city – no one in their right mind would build a spaceport right on top of a city – but it still looked built-up to me. It was surrounded by hangers for spaceplanes, barracks for crew and servicemen and even a handful of gardens, for reasons that escaped me. It was a massive installation…and, as I looked closer, I could see figures scurrying over the tarmac.

“They have what looks like an infantry unit dug in at the main building,” Anna said, flatly. “I am engaging…”

A moment later, the main building vanished in a massive explosion, just as the first infantrymen began to fall down towards the ground. They hit the ground and formed up, taking fire from two different buildings, which Anna promptly destroyed as well. As the shuttles swooped around and unloaded the second set of paratroopers, the first set started to advance, driving the enemy forces out of the buildings. I watched, fascinated, as the battle raged over the spaceport, with the defenders taking heavy casualties. In lives alone, the Devastator had just paid for herself. Without her, the attackers would have been wiped out before they could secure the landing zone.

“The heavy shuttles are launching now,” Kitty said, from her console. I flicked back to the main display and saw the heavier shuttles racing down towards the ground. Some of them drew fire from handheld weapons, but only one was hit, spiralling down towards the ground and exploding in a massive fireball. I stared in horror – there had been a thousand soldiers crammed into that massive craft – before turning my attention back to the spaceport. Now that the ground had been secured, the infantrymen were spreading out, calling in supporting fire as they needed it. As the heavy shuttles began to disgorge tanks, I realised that we’d actually secured the beachhead.

“Good,” the Captain said, tightly. “Anna, continue to watch the ground carefully and be prepared to offer support the minute they require it. Kitty, does the Admiral have any special orders for us?”

“We’re just to remain in orbit for the moment until they deploy additional orbital bombardment systems,” Kitty said, accessing the fleet database. The Captain didn’t look surprised. Unlike the cruisers, or even the battleship, Devastator was hardly a multi-role starship. The only other thing we were good for was transporting reporters and perhaps specialist troops. The thought reminded me about the reporters and I wondered how they were coping. I hoped that it wasn't well. “The Admiral sends his compliments to your gunnery officers and requests that you stand by to dispatch ground-controllers if necessary.”

“It probably will be necessary,” the Captain said, annoyed. “The infantry on the ground have a habit of calling in fire on targets they barely need to destroy. John, after you have tended to your charges” – it took me a moment to realise that he meant the reporters – “take yourself off the watch list and brush up on how to call in fire from the ground. If someone has to go down, it will probably be you.”

“Thank you, sir,” I said, despite myself. I wanted to set foot on a new world, but I doubted that Heinlein would be any safer than Terra Nova for a long time to come. “I’ll get right on it.”

“No hurry,” the Captain said. “The reporters can wait for another hour or two.”

The next hour seemed to pass very slowly. I hadn’t realised how tense I was until I tried to move, or how tired. Combat seemed to sap the energy from me, even if I wasn’t in any danger any longer, unlike the men and women on the ground. The rapidly-growing infantry force on the ground was moving out now towards the capital city, trying to seal it off before more of the population escaped into the countryside. The orbital imagery suggested that they would lose that particular race. The entire population seemed to be on the move.

I linked into the ground-based communications system and listened as the infantry advanced. There were two bridges between the spaceport and Lazarus and the defenders had dropped both of them into the water. As the infantry milled around, waiting for orders and bridging equipment, the defenders struck again and again, showering them with mortar fire and sniping from a safe distance. The infantry became more trigger-happy as their helicopters advanced overhead, clearing away the defenders until two of them were downed by handheld anti-aircraft missiles. The remaining helicopters promptly fell back and forced the troops to advance on the ground, inch by bloody inch. The bridge was repaired, allowing the infantry to advance…right into another ambush.

The system is more limited than I realised, I thought, angrily. In some ways, it was like a game – spot the ambushers before the ambush was tripped – but with very real consequences. The Heinlein defenders were good, perhaps as good as the Marines, or better. We rarely spotted an ambush until it was too late and as for the mines…by the time the infantry finally reached the city and started to seal it off, there was an entire string of burned-out tanks and IFVs behind them. The commanders on the ground, to judge from their signals, were growing frantic.

“They’re refusing to take prisoners,” one of them protested, in horror. “They just killed and butchered three of my men!”

“Call in an orbital strike,” another – harsher – voice insisted. “Kill them all!”

“Stand ready to deliver strikes on the city,” the Captain ordered, drawing my attention back to the ship. “If the Admiral wants it to fall quickly, he’ll have to order strikes.”

He was wrong. As the infantry pushed into the city, they met no opposition, apart from a handful of civilians who engaged them, as insane as it seemed, with handheld pistols. The infantry went through them like a knife through butter, but even so, they took casualties. The only real resistance occurred at what was supposed to be the Government Centre, which was held by a reinforced infantry company. Eventually, the commander on the ground called in a KEW strike and destroyed the building.

“Stand down from battle stations,” the Captain said. “John, you can go tend to your charges now; Kitty, Anna, pass control over to your seconds. Go get some rest.”

“Captain,” Anna said, “You’re exhausted too. You need some rest as well.”

“Later,” the Captain said. I was surprised that she dared to speak to him like that, but they had served together a long time. “You go get some rest. I’ll join you when Konrad arrives, ok?”

“Yes, sir,” Anna said.

There was no need to turn the secondary tactical console over to another officer, so I locked it and saluted the Captain, before departing the bridge. I had only thought that I was tired before, I realised numbly; I felt as if I wanted to collapse into my bunk and sleep, and yet I also felt horny. I stopped that line of thought when I realised that two of the reporters were on the verge of looking attractive, but still…having survived the battle gave me a charge. I barely thought about the infantrymen on the planet, but their war was only just beginning. I had the feeling that it definitely wasn't going to end quickly for them, or for us. Who knew how long Devastator would be forced to remain in orbit around Heinlein?

“Well?” Frank Wong demanded, as soon as I entered their stateroom. The reporters all looked utterly terrified, although I saw no reason for their terror. They hadn’t seen the enemy starships on the offensive, or the massive planetary defence batteries on the surface. They’d just known that there was a battle going on…and they'd been trapped in their stateroom, almost as prisoners. Perhaps I should have felt a little sorry for them – they wouldn’t have known what was going on and therefore would have only had their imaginations to feed their fears – but I found it hard. They were obnoxious beyond belief. “What happened out there?”

“We won,” I said, flatly. They stared at me for a long moment, and then began snapping off questions, which I answered as best as I could. “Yes, there had been a battle, yes, we’d taken losses, yes, we’d taken the high orbitals, yes, the troops had landed…”

It seemed never-ending. I was grateful beyond words when Ellen Nakamura entered the cabin, giving the reporters her faintly-menacing smile. “The battle is over and the Admiral has proclaimed Heinlein a member state in the United Nations,” she said, and began her own explanation of what had happened. Apart from the detail that a battle had taken place, it didn’t seem to agree with mine on any point, even the fundamentals. She spoke of cheering crowds welcoming the UN infantrymen and hundreds of corrupt government officers being arrested and handed over to the infantry for their own protection. I knew for a fact that none of that had ever happened, but I kept my mouth firmly closed. It wouldn’t gain me anything to dispute her version of events. It was the version of events that would be spread back home and believed by everyone.

“You will all be allowed to go down to the planet soon enough,” she concluded. I felt a brief moment of sympathy for the reporters – the planet was nowhere near as safe as Ellen was promising them – but not much. They would probably end up getting killed on the ground and good riddance. “Lieutenant Walker will see to your requests tomorrow if you wish to go down sooner, but the transport is mainly required for infantry for the next week and we may not be able to fit you in.”

I half-expected a series of demands for immediate transport to the surface, but no one moved. “Let Walker know tomorrow,” Ellen finished. She gave them another half-smile. I watched in astonishment as the reporters responded to it and wondered where the real balance of power lay. “Enjoy your sleep, knowing that it is peaceful because of the valiant efforts of the Peace Force.”

She swept out and I took the opportunity to leave with her, leaving the reporters alone to write their stories. I knew now that none of them would see publication until Ellen and the Admiral’s horde of Political Officers had gone through them and rewritten them at will, just to conform with their own idea of what had happened. I didn’t want to deal with that, but there was no choice. Whatever happened in the weeks and months to come, the truth would be what the UN said it was…at least as far as the rest of the Human Sphere was concerned.

I shook my head slowly and made my way back to my cabin. It was strange to think that no matter how much I had complained about my cabin being tiny – if better than a shared Ensign’s wardroom – I was still comfortable, warm and well-fed. The Captain didn’t skimp on the food and the gallery staff knew better than to try to palm us off with bad ingredients, even though it was hard to work miracles with reprocessed foodstuffs. The soldiers on the ground would be under constant attack, living in their foxholes and desperately trying to stay alive on a planet that hated them. I remembered old friends of mine who had signed up for the infantry, having failed the exams for entering the UNPF Academy, and wondered what had happened to them. Were they down on the planet, struggling to survive, or were they already dead? We hadn’t been encouraged to write letters to friends and relatives in any of the services. I had no way to know.

I lay down on my bunk, trying to get some sleep, when there was a chime at the hatch. Surprised, I opened it, to see Kitty outside. She winked at me as she stepped inside and closed the hatch behind her. She looked good, as always, even though she was wearing a crumpled uniform. There were no dress uniforms when a battle was expected.

“How are you?” She asked, sitting down beside me on the bunk. I caught a whiff of her scent, something slightly flowery, and felt a tingle passing through me. “How did you cope with today?”

I didn’t want to discuss it, but how could I push her away? “It was…strange,” I admitted. I didn’t want to discuss it at all. “It was beautiful and terrible and frightening and exciting…”

Suddenly, I was overwhelmingly aware of just how female she was. I wasn't a virgin – I’d paid one of my classmates for sex back in Albuquerque, when I’d been fourteen and intensely curious about sex – but I’d never had a real partner. Everyone said, back home, that the guy had to be very firm with the girl, but it struck me as a recipe for having my head kicked in. I felt uncomfortable and hoped – prayed – that she couldn’t sense it. She probably could.

“Yeah,” Kitty said. Her voice softened. “It was that for me too, John, and it doesn’t get much better. But you survived and you’re alive…”

She kissed me, hard. After a moment, I kissed her back.

It was the first time we made love.

Chapter Sixteen

UN Regulations on sexual relations between officers in the Peace Force can be summed up simply. They are only permitted between officers of an equal rank, above Ensign, or crewmen in different chains of command. An Ensign is not expected to have sexual relationships while onboard ship, nor is a Captain permitted to sleep with anyone on his vessel. Naturally, the rules are often flouted and ignored. Provided the affair does not hamper the performance of the starship, most commanding officers will ignore any relationships between his crew.

-Thomas Anderson. An Unbiased Look at the UNPF. Baen Historical Press, 2500.

It was three weeks before I was allowed to go down to the surface.

I wasn’t too unhappy about it. Officially, the war was proceeding well, with only a handful of casualties and dozens of towns and cities occupied by the infantry. Unofficially, it was far worse. There were hundreds of engagements every day, with dozens of infantry killed in brief brutal encounters…and the natives were ingenious. The Admiral had allowed some air transport to operate after the invasion – mainly first aid and food supplies – and one of the aircraft had been armed with a shipkiller missile, which it fired at Devastator, high overhead. It came within metres of destroying the entire ship and, after that, there were no more aircraft permitted to fly.

The reporters, at first, had demanded to go down to the ground at once, but as rumours filtered through their grapevine – the Admiral’s pet reporters had been allowed down at once – they started to become much less enthusiastic, choosing instead to write and file stories that drew heavily on the official broadcasts from the Admiral’s office. I’d read some of them while taking them to Ellen for the first check and discovered that they bore little relationship to reality. The reporters knew which side their bread was buttered on, all right.

And my relationship with Kitty continued to grow. I don’t know if the Captain knew about it – he certainly never said anything to us – but Anna knew and never lost an off-duty moment to tease us. On-duty, we were strictly professional and pretended we didn’t know each other. I doubt we fooled the Captain, but from what I gathered, he wouldn’t have said anything unless we acted the fool while on duty. I just hoped the reporters didn’t know. I’d heard that two of them had paid female crewmen for the pleasure of their company for a few nights and I didn’t want to remain Frank Wong about Ensign Gomez. They’d probably try to use it as blackmail information.

Devastator remained in continuous operation and it was a rare day when we fired less than a hundred KEW pellets into the planet, targeting areas identified by the infantry on the ground. We were stationed directly over Lazarus, which left part of the planet free of our interference, although the other starships continued to patrol and bombard the other side of the planet if necessary. I began to see why the Captain had been so determined to load all of our holds with KEW pallets. We had barely been in orbit for a week before we had to reload the first set of launchers. It wouldn’t be long before we would have to resupply from the transports, or even leave for the nearest UNPF base. I just hoped that the planet would be more peaceful then, although I rather doubted it. The death toll just continued to rise.

Eventually, it was decided that our reporters would be permitted to set foot on the surface of the planet, along with myself. Anna had spent part of the time in orbit drilling me on calling in strikes from the surface – the Captain firmly believed that the infantry were calling in strikes they didn’t really need, wasting KEWs that couldn’t be replaced quickly – and insisted that I took the equipment with me. She kept calling it shore leave, but I had the feeling that it wouldn’t be anything like shore leave on Earth, and that had been dangerous enough.

I had my first inkling of danger when the shuttle pilot briefed us on safety precautions. “Remain firmly strapped in at all times,” he ordered, tightly. He’d been a confident young man back when I’d boarded Devastator, but he looked to have aged fifty years overnight. Three weeks of flying to and from a hostile planet seemed to have done that to him. The infantry claimed to have seized vast quantities of weapons, but there were still attacks on our shuttles and aircraft with handheld SAMs “If I sound the alert, prepare for heavy manoeuvring.”

It wasn't something designed to reassure the reporters, who were already half-scared to death, but they complied. The first part of the flight down to the surface was uneventful and I rather missed not having a viewport, but that changed when alarm tones rang through the shuttle and we began to lurch from side to side. I heard the reporters screaming at each other, trying to understand what was going on, and for once I was as ignorant as they were. We might have been under attack, or the pilot might have been extracting revenge for their comments about his ‘poky little shuttle.’ There was no way to know, but as the lurching grew stronger, it was all I could do not to vomit. The reporters weren't so lucky.

“What a mess,” the pilot commented, after we landed. The compartment was in a thoroughly disgusting state. “There are showers in the buildings out there, so you can take them to shower and change while the ground crew mops out the shuttle. It won’t be the first time.”

“Thank you,” I said, sourly. An Ensign who threw up in a shuttle would be expected to clean up the mess, but the reporters didn’t even offer to help. They staggered off the shuttle and practically kissed the ground below their feet. “I’ll make a note of your services and commend you to the Captain.”

Heinlein’s main spaceport looked like hell. The smell hit me as soon as I stepped out of the shuttle, a faint mixture of burning and decaying bodies. The landing field was as packed as the field on Terra Nova, but here there was a tense air that seemed to defy understanding, at first. I heard a distant popping sound and, a moment later, explosions echoed out along the fence. A trio of massive guns positioned at one corner of the airfield swung around automatically and returned fire. A moment later, a flight of attack helicopters followed the gunfire, hunting for targets on the ground.

The buildings around the landing field looked devastated. I remembered with a tinge of guilt how we had blasted them from orbit, clearing the way for the infantry to seize the spaceport; down on the ground, it must have been a nightmare. We stumbled past a line of burned out vehicles, being moved back to the spaceport in accordance with various UN regulations, trying not to breathe in the smell. I doubted that Heinlein had always stunk of rotting bodies. Hadn’t the infantry bothered to dig mass graves and bury them?

“This way,” a headquarters soldier called. I knew he was a headquarters soldier because, as the Master Sergeant had taught me, his uniform was absolutely perfect, despite being in the middle of a war zone. I found myself disliking him on sight. “You can get your showers here and then fresh outfits.”

The shower felt like heaven and I managed to ignore some of the comments from the female reporters – and the rather more disturbing ones from one of the male reporters. Kitty had said that I had a nice ass, but really! I almost felt human again when I donned a new outfit, but that rapidly changed when I realised how much body armour I was being given to wear. The streets were evidently not as safe as the UN had promised. The reporters, for once, weren't blind to the implications either. They protested until the headquarters staff officer informed them that they’d be travelling in the midst of a heavily armed convoy, something that didn’t reassure me in the slightest. I’d been in a heavily armed convoy back on Terra Nova.

This time, to be fair, it was a little better organised. The reporters went into a security truck that was so heavily armoured that I doubted that even a KEW could break it. I went into a different truck, which would at least allow me to take a look at the city as we passed through. As the truck rumbled to life, I heard more explosions in the distance. The insurgents were keeping up the pressure at all times. They also had time on their side. We had to haul all our weapons from Earth or one of the other fleet bases. Their sources of supply were right here on Heinlein.

The countryside was surprisingly neat, but it was marred by the destroyed towns and villages we passed, places where the defenders had tried to use as strongpoints. Eventually, they’d been bombed or blown out of them, leaving a blackened set of ruins on the countryside and thousands more civilians dead. A handful of men and women were wandering through the rubble, looking for survivors perhaps, and some of our escort unleashed a few rounds in their direction. I felt another rising gorge of vomit as a woman, who couldn’t have been older than me, fell to the ground with a hole in her head. I wanted to grab the weapon and shoot the infantryman, but what would have been the point? There were thousands upon thousands where he came from.

“There’s the city,” one of my escorts said. “Get ready to duck if you insist on watching.”

Lazarus was a city? My first impression was that it was a large town. I’d only seen two cities on Earth – I’d gone to Houston for a brief visit to relatives once, back before my father lost his job permanently – and both of them had sprawled out for miles, crammed to bursting with citizens who had no job, no life, and no hope. Lazarus looked like a dream come true; it was comfortable, surprisingly pretty and very open. If it hadn’t been for the handful of blackened buildings and the presence of thousands of UN infantry, it would have been a paradise.

The entire city seemed to be teeming with infantry marching the streets. They didn’t have the same presence as the Marines, but they seemed, instead, to be almost terrified. I saw them watching a pair of girls across the street – wearing outfits that would have been an invitation to rape back on Earth – as if they were scared of the girls. It was uncanny. There wasn't even a wolf whistle. The girls, for their part, completely ignored the soldiers, who looked glad to be ignored.

It changed as we drove into the heart of the city. Here, there were more damaged buildings and soldiers…and prisoners. Hundreds of men and women sat on the grounds, their hands firmly cuffed behind their backs, watched by a handful of heavily-armed soldiers. A pile of guns, larger than any I’d seen in my entire career, had been dumped in one corner of the yard. The prisoners gazed at the infantrymen, their eyes promising bloody vengeance, one day.

“Arrested for possessing illegal weapons,” my escort commented. “We’ve arrested men and women with enough weapons to fight a small civil war on their own.”

I stared. “What’s going to happen to them?”

“The detention camps, probably,” he said. “They’re…just bursting at the seams already. Everyone on this damned planet has guns.” We stopped in the middle of a large courtyard. “Here we are, son; hop off.”

The soldiers on the inner gate, at least, were very alert. They checked my identification carefully and then did the same for the reporters, some of whom protested at the imposition. They were ignored. No one, it seemed, was taking chances. Judging by the sullen resentment of the prisoners and the damage the town – no, city, I kept reminding myself – had taken, it was probably fully justified. A team of staff officers arrived and took charge of the reporters and I found myself alone…

“Hey, John,” a familiar voice called. “What are you doing here, you stupid bastard?”

I turned to see Roger. “An armed escort and two military policemen,” I joked. It was the old Academy definition of a patriotic volunteer. I hadn’t realised, until now, just why we had been taught to believe that. “What are you doing here?”

“Oh, I ended up taking down the Admiral’s zoo of reporters,” Roger said. I winced in sympathy. “Fancy a drink?”

There might have been a war on, but the headquarters staff hadn’t wasted time in seeing to their comforts. There were several large canteens, two bars and a brothel. The latter, I noted, was unmanned. Roger explained that the staff officers had found several women willing to work in them for the first week, and then the women had managed to poison the visitors, somehow.

“They probably did us a favour,” he added, with a hint of his old smile. “The sooner we start fighting this war properly, the better.”

I stared at him over my lemonade. Alcoholic drinks were strictly forbidden on duty and even through my charges had gone off to be lied to – or told the official version of what was going on, which was more or less the same thing – I was still on duty. Roger had ordered a exotic cocktail that looked as if it could glow in the dark, but he hadn’t drunk enough to make him drunk, had he?

“Roger,” I said, slowly, “look what we’ve done to their planet?”

“So?” He asked, taking another sip. I couldn’t believe it. What had happened to the carefree boy I remembered from the Academy, or the first starship we’d served on together? “The war has to be won, John. If they’d decided to be reasonable about it…”

“Why are we even here?” I asked. The wave of guilt bubbled out of my mind. “Heinlein wasn't a threat to us, was it?”

“Oh yes it was,” Roger said. He seemed to hesitate for a long moment. “Look, John, you’re a friend, so I’m going to give you a word of advice. If you’re having doubts, keep your mouth shut about them. It’s not healthy to shoot your mouth off here.”

“Why?” I demanded. “What’s happened to you?”

“I grew up,” Roger admitted. He sighed. “Look…you know about my family, right? Part of the Establishment, control several seats on the UN General Assembly, have interests in most of the industrial concerns…”

I nodded. Roger had never made an issue of it before. He could have been effectively running the Academy with a few words in the right ears, but instead he’d earned his Ensign’s bars the hard way. We’d all respected him for that, even though we had also envied him his position. He would rise far higher than any of us. I couldn’t believe the change that had come over him.

“The Admiral is…well, call him my Uncle,” Roger said. “He chose me specifically for the post on his ship, even promised me a bump-up to First Lieutenant as soon as it could be done…and he talks to me. There’s so much I didn’t know back at the Academy, but the Admiral…he knows it all.”

He paused. “You must have seen Heinlein’s asteroid mining operation and the orbital industries?” He asked. I nodded. I’d seen them on the display as Devastator had passed them to take up position to bombard the planet. “I’ve seen the reports on them. Heinlein, with a smaller industry, was actually on the verge of matching – even exceeding – the entire production levels of Earth.”

“Impossible,” I said. Earth – the solar system – was the most heavily industrialised location in known space. The factories on Earth, Luna, Mars, Jupiter’s moons and hundreds upon hundreds of asteroids…how could Heinlein hope to match and exceed them in barely two hundred years? “Roger…”

“I’ve seen their systems and I’ve seen ours,” Roger said. “They use heavy automation and vastly more advanced technology. Those ships they used against us didn’t come out of nowhere. If they’d had ten more years, perhaps less, they would have been dictating terms to us instead. The Admiral made that clear to me. Their system and ours cannot co-exist. One of us must destroy the other.”

I winced. “Is that why we’re here?”

Roger nodded. “If we can break them down into good little UN citizens, well and good,” he said. “Even if not…we can still prevent them from becoming a major threat to us, just by maintaining an occupation force on their surface and in the high orbitals. Their industry can be used to boost ours. Their people can help us maintain Earth’s systems…”

“Earth’s crumbling systems,” I commented, angrily. “Wouldn’t it be better to train up new engineers of our own?”

“I said that to the Admiral,” Roger said. He shook his head. “My family likes to think that it has influence, even control, but our powers are far more limited than you might think. How can we solve Earth’s problems? If we try to fix them in any other way, we will merely be replaced ourselves. We don’t control the system – no one controls the system.”

I opened my mouth and then bit down hard on what I’d been about to say. “Like I said, don’t go mouthing off,” Roger concluded, standing up. “You have a long career ahead of you. Why waste it for the people on this worthless planet?”

He left, leaving me alone, thinking about what I’d almost said. If the system is broken, or beyond repair, why not destroy the system? Roger would have had to report that, wouldn’t he? As it was, he thought he’d done me a favour.

The hell of it was that I didn’t even know if he was right.

Chapter Seventeen

The UN, despite its claims to be inclusive, multicultural and non-judgemental, must not permit any other system to develop, independent of itself. A successful system based on other principles would stand as an example to the UN’s citizens of a society that worked better than the UN…and force them to ask, if they understood it, why the United Nations could not work so well. It is that line of questioning that the UN must prevent, at all costs. A rebellion on any of the colony worlds could be handled. A rebellion on Earth itself would be lethal.

-Thomas Anderson. An Unbiased Look at the UNPF. Baen Historical Press, 2500.

I met the Specials the next morning.

According to Master Sergeant Erwin Herzog, back on the old Jacques Delors, there were four levels of soldiers in the United Nations. There were the police and their counter-terror units, the infantrymen, the Marines…and the Specials. The Specials, he’d explained, fell somewhere between the Marines – who were trained to operate in space, rather than on the ground – and the infantry. They weren't as incompetent as the infantry – his words – but they were also utterly ruthless. They were trained to defeat the enemy or die trying.

“You must be Walker,” their leader growled. He was as large as Herzog, a giant of a man, covered in tattoos that were strictly non-regulation, but I doubted that anyone dared to complain. I was intimidated already. “I’m Jock. This is Charlie” – a smaller man, carrying a rifle that was larger than he was – “Judy” – a woman who had saved her head, apart from a tiny strip of hair surrounding her dome – “and Dan” – another giant of a man, but clearly oriental in origin, despite the name – “and you’ve been assigned to us. Can you shoot?”

“Yes,” I said, confidently. The Marines had hammered that into me on the Jacques Delors. “I’m qualified with pistol, rifle and laser pistol.”

“Really?” Jock said, managing to express his disbelief without – quite – being offensive. “The last officer who was assigned to us wet himself when we thrust a gun into his hands and died because he didn’t shoot the wanker attacking us in time. Perhaps you’ll last longer…follow me.”

He led us around a set of buildings, forcing me to walk faster to keep up with him, and I was breathing heavily at the end. The four team members didn’t seem to be bothered in the slightest by the pace, bastards. The infantry had set up a shooting range in a large field. It was populated by seven officers, all staff punks in clean uniforms, who stared at us in disbelief when we arrived. Jock marched right up to them, glared into the largest officer’s face, and told them to piss off. I’d never seen headquarters soldiers moving so fast.

“They’ll be still wetting themselves this time tomorrow,” Jock predicted cheerfully. He unslung his rifle and passed to me with one hand, pointing down towards the targets in the distance. “Hit that, now!”

I almost stumbled, but managed to bring the rifle up and fire a single round. The target rang like a bell when I hit it, sending the bullet bouncing off somewhere into the distance. Jock frowned at me and nodded to Dan, who unslung his rifle and fired a shot so quickly that it was a blur. He'd hit the target dead centre.

“Again,” Jock barked. I moved faster this time, somehow. “Again!”

It was an hour later when I’d finally reached something Jock considered barely acceptable. I’d fired off more ammunition than I’d ever used before, even back with the Marines, learning how to use the rifle properly. The Specials had made their point quite well. I’d also had to listen to Jock’s rants on the subject of the infantry and their poor shooting habits. It was a window into a world I didn’t know existed.

“The officers are given a budget for training and they’re also rewarded for spending as little as possible,” he’d explained, angrily. “There are soldiers on the ground here who are firing shots for the first time in their lives. Laser training simulations can’t tell you everything about the weapons, can they? No – but the stupid morons keep getting their men killed because it looks better on the report.”

He turned to lead us out again. “Ah, sir,” I said, “What about…”

“My name is Jock,” Jock snapped. “We’re fighting men, not headquarters morons with shit in their brains. What is it?”

I hesitated. “Shouldn’t we fill out a report…?”

“On the shooting, hell no,” Jock thundered. The others laughed, but I didn’t see the joke. “That’s the other reason officers are so poor. They spend most of their time filling out paperwork and not working with their men. They can’t even rely on the Sergeants to do it because they have to do paperwork as well and its easier not to train at all. I bet you half your wages for this year that half the occupation force will not live to see their wives, girlfriends and whores again.”

“No bet,” I said, finally. Jock’s way of doing things was almost refreshing, even if I did feel like a fish out of water. “What now?”

“Now?” “Jock asked. “Now we get you suited up and ready.”

Our next destination proved to be a massive supply dump, seemingly large enough to house Devastator and another couple of starships like her. Hundreds of supply clerks swarmed around the dump, filling in requisitions and supplying requests – or, if my experience back at Earth was any guide, thinking of extremely good reasons why they shouldn’t honour such requests. The clerks took one look at Jock and collectively winced. I guessed that they'd met him and the rest of the Specials before.

Jock grabbed one hard enough to cause him to drop the paperwork he’d been carrying. “This is an emergency,” he said, so coldly I almost winced in sympathy. “I want this gentleman” – one long finger pointed at me – “outfitted now with Special-grade gear, understand?”

“Yes,” the clerk finally stammered. He looked at me and probably found it something of a relief after Jock. “Your sizes, sir?”

It took nearly thirty minutes to outfit me like the rest of the team, but that was something of a record where the supply departments were concerned. At the end of it all, I was wearing a simple uniform, without any rank badges or insignia, weighed down with dozens of items I knew nothing about. Jock examined me thoroughly, removed half of them and dumped them back on the desk, before leading me back outside. The remaining team members were waiting in a small jeep.

“Keep your rifles at the ready,” Jock ordered, tightly, as Dan revved up the engine. “If we get shot at, I expect you to shoot back without waiting for orders.”

“Of course, boss,” Judy said. Her name, I realised suddenly, was shared with one of the reporters - wherever they were now – but her voice and attitude was very different. I wouldn’t have wanted to run into her in a dark alley. Jase and his merry band of rapists wouldn’t have known what hit them. “We’ll put them off their stroke all right.”

Jock snorted as the jeep raced out of the guarded compound and down the main road. Back on Earth, the roads had been clogged with litter; here, they were clean, apart from a handful of burned-out vehicles. The infantry had imposed a ban on all vehicles right from the start, forbidding the natives to use their personal vehicles – and that was a new concept to me too – unless it was urgent. Apparently, some vehicles had been packed with explosives and driven by their automated systems right into the guarded compounds, or infantry units on patrol. The streets were as dangerous as they ever were.

“Sniper,” Dan hissed. “Judy…”

“I see him,” Judy said. I barely had my rifle in position before she took the shot, sending a young teenager – barely a few years younger than myself – falling to his death. A hail of shots came at us from the windows, but Jock returned fire with his massive weapon and deterred them from coming any closer. “You got anything else for me, Danny Boy?”

“Bitch,” Dan said, with feeling. “No matter how much I give you, you’re never satisfied.”

“Men,” Judy retorted. The banter didn’t stop her from firing off several more rounds towards other insurgents. “If it wasn't for the three or so hours of sex you get out of them each night, what use would they be?”

Jock laughed. “You will keep wearing them out,” he said. He sounded a different person away from the base, more relaxed despite the possibility of insurgent attacks. “Did you ever return that guy you kidnapped and chained to your bed?”

I listened in a state of numb disbelief. At the Academy, speaking like that would have earned demerits, if not outright punishment for hate speech. We were told that hate speech – sexist, racist or any other kind of hate speech – demeaned people, but here they were just bouncing off one another. It didn’t even seem to affect their teamwork, either; Judy saved Dan’s life, despite his words.

“Of course not,” Judy said, with a wink. “He was too good to be allowed back so quickly.”

“He’ll be dead when you get back then,” Charlie said. “You did remember to feed him, right?”

“Best kind of man,” Judy said. She gave him a wink that probably qualified as a lethal assault in its own right. “As long as he can keep it up…”

I tuned them out as we raced into open countryside and studied the terminal in my hand. It was UNPF-issue, but designed for use on the ground. I could have taken a hammer to it and it would still work, according to the specifications. I knew better than to take that too seriously, but I could still practice. Calling in a strike from Devastator wasn't hard, after all. It just required practice and care. Everyone had been warned about the danger of accidentally calling in a strike on their own position.

“Here we are,” Jock said, as he came to a halt outside a small camp. The soldiers on guard looked much more professional than the ones back in the city. Their weapons, and a handful of automated weapons mounted on a small armoured vehicle, tracked us as we approached. Now that the jeep had come to a halt, I could hear explosions in the distance…and heavy shooting. “Don’t those willies look alert?”

Judy snorted behind her hand. “I could take them out in three quick shots, boss,” she commented. “Perhaps we should try to sneak in instead, just for shits and giggles.”

“Damn right,” Charlie agreed. “Boss?”

“Not this time,” Jock said, firmly. This close to the war zone, they were almost professional. “We have to report to the General.”

The guards inspected our papers and took our fingerprints, before grudgingly allowing us to enter the camp. It was crowded with men, like the city, but there was a very real difference. Most of the soldiers here were fighting soldiers and there seemed to be no sign of any luxuries. A handful of local buildings had been converted into barracks and offices, but the General had set up camp in a large tent. I wasn't sure that that was wise, but as I saw the mobile defence units shooting down incoming rounds, it became apparent that it was safer than it seemed, if not by much. Personally, I wished I was in a bunker, or back in orbit.

“Jock,” the General said. He was a bluff man with a heavy beard, carrying a rifle like the remainder of his staff. There were no headquarters soldiers here. “You brought the controller?”

“Here,” Jock said, pushing me forward. “Say hello, controller?”

The General ignored his comment. “We’re advancing now against these towns,” he said, tapping the map on the table. Red arrows lay on the map. It was primitive, compared to the holograms I’d used back on the Devastator, but that might have been the point. No one could hack into a paper map. “I want you to escort our guest to here” – he tapped a location on the map – “and call in strikes as requested by the local commanders.”

“Yes, sir,” Jock said, saluting. It was the first time I’d seen him using anything reassembling proper military protocol. He grinned at me as we walked out of the tent. “We walk from here, punk.”

I groaned. An hour later, I felt worse, even though we hadn’t walked very far. The four Specials had escorted me along smaller roads, avoiding vehicles and soldiers from both sides, until we reached the top of a hill. Dan and Charlie had scouted ahead and found an enemy hide there, which they had promptly cleared with a pair of grenades and some knife work. I ignored the still-bleeding bodies as best as I could and stared down into the valley. There was a medium-sized town below…and the inhabitants were defending it furiously.

“I’m surprised they haven’t been screaming for strikes already,” Jock commented, dryly. I wondered if he were bored. If half the stories I’d heard about the Specials were true, this was tame compared to their more normal missions. “They’re probably cursing the lack of heavy artillery now.”

I watched as explosions seemed to rip through the town without suppressing the enemy forces. “Why are they there?” I asked. “Why aren’t they retreating?”

“They can’t,” Dan supplied, from his position. Charlie and Judy were watching for enemy forces that might wonder what had happened to their spotter. “The General has infantry units in position to block any escape from the town.”

“But who are they?”

“Heinlein had the largest army and army reservists in the entire Human Sphere,” Jock said. “They could be anyone, making a stand because they know that they could bleed us to death here. This entire area was prepared for us and the General had no choice, but to enter it. Hear that?”

I nodded. The sound of mortars firing in the distance kept echoing out, answered by heavier guns from the infantry positions, a long-range duel to suppress each other’s fire. I hoped that none of the enemy had the hill targeted. It would be an absurd way to die after everything else.

“They’ll have everywhere here carefully targeted and marked with a big red circle saying ‘hit this when occupied,’ Jock predicted. “They want to bleed us…”

I looked down at the terminal. A fire request was already coming in. “They want a general shot over the entire town,” I said, in disbelief. They couldn’t demand that, could they? There were regulations against it. “That’s…”

“What’s required,” Jock said, a steely tone in his voice. “Do it.”

I started to object. “Do it,” Jock snapped, again. “How many of our people do you want to die if they storm the town?”

The terminal was heavy in my hand. I keyed it open, placed my finger against the scanner to confirm it was an authorised user, and carefully entered the coordinates, double-checking to ensure that I’d entered the right ones. The link back to Devastator buzzed as the tactical officer – Anna would be on duty, I thought – checked my coordinates against the system, and then confirmed the shot. It was ready on demand.

“Now,” Jock said, coldly. There was something in his voice that promised that failure would not go unpunished. “Place the request.”

I complied, trembling. Up above, a set of KEWs would be being fired from the tubes, targeted precisely on the town. The scatter-shots weren't as precise as the more normal shots, but they would be devastating to the defenders. I found myself counting under my breath. The timer read 00.50 seconds to impact. I should have taken cover, but I had to watch. There was a streak of light in the sky, a thunderous series of explosions that blurred into one roar…and a slap in the face that left me sitting back on the ground, wondering if my sanity had been impaired. The blast wave had knocked me to the ground.

“Wow,” Judy said, somehow appearing behind me and helping me to my feet. “Did the Earth move for you too, honey?”

The hide hadn’t been designed to stand up to such a blast and was collapsing, so Jock and Dan helped the rest of us out of the structure, leaving us to stare towards where the town had been. It was utterly devastated, the more so because there was no fire and little smoke. I saw the infantry advancing rapidly in their armoured vehicles, hoping to wipe out the remaining resistance before they could recover from the pounding. I barely noticed when Jock started to lead me away from the hilltop. I couldn’t wipe the sight from my eyes.

“You did well,” the General said, when we met his advancing convoy. The infantry was no longer being opposed and the only danger was pre-placed mines and explosive devices. The locals, unfortunately for the infantry, were very good at producing them. “The remaining insurgents have retreated and now we’ll go to occupy the town.”

It seemed pointless to me – the town no longer existed, really – but I accepted the offer of a lift. The town once had been neat, designed for a few hundred people at most, but now…now, it was just rubble. The infantry probed through the ruins carefully, finding little to distract them…until they discovered the cellar. They opened it, carefully, and then stumbled back. The smell of death was overpowering.

I couldn’t help myself. I had to look. The cellar had held children, young children, ranging from babies to early teens. They had been hidden from the infantry as they probed the defences, but not from the KEWs. The overpressure had killed them, perhaps, or maybe it was the shock. It didn’t matter. They were dead.

And I had killed them.

Chapter Eighteen

The UN has hundreds of different definition of the term ‘war crime,’ including everything from prisoner mistreatment to causing the deaths of civilians in combat. The sad truth is that, despite the high ideals behind the laws and regulations, the UN is completely unable to enforce the rules on everyone else, nor is it really inclined to enforce them on its own people. The only people charged with war crimes under the UN are people who have incurred powerful political enemies.

-Thomas Anderson. An Unbiased Look at the UNPF. Baen Historical Press, 2500.

Back at Lazarus, I got very – very – drunk. It didn’t help. My dreams were still full of dead or dying children, slain by my own hand. The bar, intended for UNPF officers off duty, didn’t have anything vile enough to blot out the memories…and I had never been a drunkard. There were millions of drunkards on Earth, drinking endlessly to wash away the numb horror of their existence, and yet…it didn’t help me. I’d killed those children as surely as if I’d killed them myself, one by one. My nightmares tormented me with their faces and their dreams. Whatever the sins of the parents – and, if Roger was to be believed, Heinlein was only guilty of being too successful – why should the children have shared in the punishment? Why had they even been there in the first place?

I tried, hard, to convince myself that the resistance had left them there purposefully, just to trick us into committing war crimes against the civilian population, but somehow it didn’t work. The guilt just kept flowing up and mocking me, reminding me time and time again that I had blood on my hands. I tried illegal drugs and even a visit to the brothel that had been established for the infantry, but nothing worked. When I closed my eyes, I still saw the dead and dying children…

It was almost a relief to be summoned back to the Devastator. The Captain had ordered another pair of Lieutenants to the surface to take over the coordinating role – I don’t know if it was because he knew that I’d killed innocents, or because he wanted other officers with the same experience – and I’d been recalled. I should have gone in one of the armoured buses back to the spaceport, but instead I rode in a jeep. If one of the insurgents decided to take a pot shot at me, I might as well make it easy for them. I didn’t want to live any longer.

Nothing happened on the drive, not even a handful of sniper shots aimed in our general direction. It seemed that Heinlein had decided that I was to stay alive, even though I had committed a crime against innocent civilians. I wasn’t relieved when we finally passed through the ring of steel wrapped around the spaceport – it wasn't enough to prevent the insurgents shelling us from time to time – and boarded the shuttle to return to the ship. The only distraction from my thoughts was a SAM attack on the way back to space, which the shuttle avoided easily. Once in space, we were fairly safe…

But not completely safe. I hadn’t had a proper briefing, but rumours spoke of starships raiding our supply lines and battles against asteroid miners in the asteroid belts. Individually, the miners didn’t have anything like the technology we could bring to bear against them, but as a group they were formidably powerful. The UNPF had lost another starship to the miners and two more had had to retreat back to the nearest fleet base for repairs – it seemed that the Heinlein shipyard personnel weren’t cooperating with the UN. Even if they were, I wouldn’t have trusted them to repair a starship anyway. God alone knew what they could slip onboard if they had a moment.

I reported back onboard, checked my assignments in the duty roster, and then went straight to my cabin. I hadn’t missed the Ensign’s wardroom since I’d boarded the Devastator, but I missed it now. With five others around me, I couldn’t afford to brood for long, but on my own…I tried to sleep, but it wouldn’t come. Even when Kitty came to welcome me back onboard personally, I tried to push her away. How could she even bear to look at me? I couldn’t live with myself!

“It wasn't your fault,” she said, when I had finally confessed. We’d tried to make love, but somehow I found myself impotent. I couldn’t bring myself to do anything so normal as having sex with the girl I loved. Even her mouth couldn’t convince my body to cooperate and rise to the occasion. I couldn’t even play with her without feeling unworthy. “You didn’t know what you were doing, did you?”

“It’s always my fault,” I protested. I’d told her about the escaping conscripts I’d caught when she’d revealed that she was a member of the Brotherhood, but they too still haunted my dreams. Had I condemned them to a life of hell, or had they merely been killed when they reached Earth, just for trying to escape servitude? “I didn’t know what I was doing, but it was my fault!”

“How?” She asked, reasonably. One hand pulled my hand to her naked breast, but I couldn’t respond. “If you didn’t know what you were doing, how is it your fault?”

“I called in the shots,” I protested. “I…”

“And Anna fired the weapons,” Kitty snapped. Her voice grew harder as her face darkened. “Oh, and the Specials protected you so that you could commit murder. And the General launched the attack that led to the use of KEW pellets against a defended town. And the UN General Assembly ordered the invasion in the first place. And the insurgents decided to make a stand where there were children to be killed by the bombardment. And Heinlein refused to comply with the UN Resolution. Who is really to blame?”

“But what’s the point?” I asked, desperately. I pulled my hand off her breast and waved it in front of her. She caught it and returned it to her breast. “There’s blood on my hands.”

“It wasn't your fault,” Kitty repeated, angrily. I saw her face flush with anger, and grief. “Would you like me to beat hell out of you to prove it? Would you like to go visit the Marines and call them vacuum-suckers to their faces? John…it was not your fault!”

I shook my head slowly. No amount of physical pain would atone for what I’d done. “I still feel that I’m to blame,” I said, slowly. My next words were a cry of pain. “Why can’t we do something, Kitty?” I held her eyes. “What’s the Brotherhood for if we can’t do anything to stop this from happening?”

Kitty gave me a humourless smile. “You’ve seen the communications system,” she said, coldly. She’d taught me how to use it two weeks after she’d made contact with me. “Do you think that we could organise a mutiny without someone with big ears catching wind of it?”

That brought me up short. The Brotherhood existed in the fringes of the UNPF computer network, but it was impossible to be really sure to whom you were talking. It was a security measure – I only knew two other Brotherhood members personally – and yet, it made it impossible to coordinate operations. Kitty had suggested, in all seriousness, that the Brotherhood was actually run by officers like Captain Harriman, men too smart to believe the UN’s lies, yet men with a stake in keeping the system.

“No,” I admitted, miserably. If we tried, and failed, we’d spend the rest of our short and miserable lives in a Luna prison. The odds would be hugely against success. I didn’t even know how many members of the Brotherhood were at Heinlein. “But we have to do something.”

“Like what?” Kitty asked, dryly. Her voice became sarcastic as she pushed me away. “Will you use Devastator to bombard our own positions on the surface?”

I flinched at the thought. I hadn’t liked the Infantry, but there were the Specials…and Roger. How could I kill them? She was right. Even if I somehow gained control of the monitor, what could I do with her? The other UNPF starships would blow us out of space if we started bombarding UN positions on the surface.

“I wish…I wish that things could be different,” I said, bitterly. I reached for her and pulled her into my arms. She held me tightly while I sobbed, like a newborn child. “Why can’t we do anything about it?”

It was a day later when I was summoned in front of the Captain. I hadn’t spoken to him alone in weeks, not since I’d passed muster as a watch commander and entrusted with the bridge in the wormhole. He didn’t look happy as he stared at a datapad in front of him. I knew, ahead of time, what it was. It was the only avenue of protest open to me.

“Lieutenant,” he said, gruffly. His face didn’t look welcoming. “What exactly is this nonsense?”

His tone didn’t inspire me, but I pushed on regardless. “My official report on the incident on the surface, sir,” I said, carefully. “It’s also a request that the firing patterns be investigated and the officers on the ground brought before a War Crimes Tribunal.”

Captain Shalenko glared down at the datapad for a long moment. “I can see that,” he said, finally. I’d written the statement in a blaze of white hot anger, but now I was starting to wonder if it had been wasted. “Why do you believe that it was a war crime?”

“Sir…” I hesitated. “Permission to speak freely?”

“Granted,” Captain Shalenko said, icily. “This had better be good.”

I took a breath. “The forces on the ground insisted on a scatter-pattern shot over the local town,” I said. I still didn’t know the town’s name. I’d tried to look it up, but the only notation in the ship’s computer files had been a grid reference. “The entire town was devastated and almost all of the inhabitants killed, including over seventy children in their preteen years. That is a war crime, one committed by forces adhering to the United Nations Declarations on the Laws of War…”

“Don’t cite chapter and verse at me,” the Captain snapped. “Why do you believe that it was a war crime?”

“We killed children,” I said, horrified. “How could they have been insurgents?”

“There are children down on the planet who have proven to be remarkably good shots,” the Captain mused. “I say again, John; why do you believe that…incident to have been a war crime?”

I stared at him, disbelieving. “We killed them,” I said, finally. “I killed them.”

“The Laws of War, as you should know from the Academy, specifically forbid strikes against civilian populations unless authorised by the proper authority,” Captain Shalenko said, calmly. “A civilian population is deemed as one that is not in rebellion against the United Nations. By turning their town into a strongpoint, the insurgents made it a legitimate target under the laws of war. The General commanding was quite within his rights to call for a strike and we had no grounds to refuse.”

He held up a hand before I could speak. “We all have moments where we see the costs of war and think that we have paid far too much,” he said. “We also have moments when we come face to face with the barbarity of the enemy and realise that they have to be stopped, no matter what the cost. The people on the ground chose to use their children as human shields to prevent us from attacking…and, if we had chosen to allow them to deter us, we would have lost far more men in the future. Your complaint will, if you wish, be forwarded, but I am telling you now that it will not be heeded and no action will be taken. There are no grounds to take action.”

“They were children,” I pleaded.

“Nits breed lice,” the Captain said, coldly. “They were growing up exposed to propaganda that would have turned them against us in the next few years, turning them into insurgents themselves and sending them out to kill more of our Infantry. Their parents could have moved them out of the war zone, or even bargained with us to remove them before the fighting began, but instead…they chose to keep them there. What happened was tragic, but it needed to be done.”

“You don’t care,” I said, feeling like a child myself. “Why…”

“You should have learned that at the Academy,” Captain Shalenko said, his voice still cold. “Before the United Nations was established, there were endless wars between nations on Earth over everything from resources to religion. Men did terrifying things to one another because they believed that they could be individuals and put themselves above the remainder of humanity. The great leech nations, nations you may never have heard of, polluted the globe as they raped Earth of her resources. The ideology behind Heinlein even came out of one of those leech nations. The duty of the Peace Force is clear – we have to maintain the peace. It is better that a hundred, a thousand, a million children die on Heinlein, than the consequences of all-out interstellar war. You saw the starships they used to raid the fleet as we advanced. In ten years, they might have been striking at Earth.”

He looked up at me and met my eyes. “They would have been striking at Earth,” he corrected himself. “Their ideology is unrelentingly hostile to the UN. They were building a war fleet in secret and preparing to use it against us. Would you rather your family died on Earth, under a bombardment from Heinlein-based starships, or that people opposed to the UN died on Heinlein?”

My family were dead, I recalled. I’d seen where they’d died, where the safety systems on their mall – no malls on Heinlein, as far as I could tell – had failed, due to carelessness or simple lack of maintenance. Captain Shalenko didn’t know that my family were dead. I doubted that it was even in my file. The Heinlein battlefleet hadn’t killed them on Earth. They had been killed – murdered – by a system that didn’t care what happened to its people. A system that was prepared to expand to other star systems and destroy anyone standing in the way. A system that had made me compliant in its crimes. I was just as guilty as they were.

I also knew the right answer. “I would rather that my enemies died,” I said. It was perfectly truthful, after all. “Sir, I…”

“Enough,” Captain Shalenko said. “I am impressed with your performance so far, so I’m going to do you one favour and delete this…ah, request from the computers and your file. It won’t do your career any good to have this on your record. When the Political Officer sees something like that, the person is normally transferred to an isolated fuelling station or sent back to Earth in disgrace. In exchange, I expect you to carry out your duties without demur. Do you understand me?”

I straightened to attention. “Yes, sir,” I said, sincerely. How could I fight a system I had come to hate when I was outside it? There had to be a way to hurt the UN badly enough to force it to back off from the colonies, somehow. “Thank you, sir.”

“Speak nothing of it,” the Captain ordered. I understood his meaning. He was technically supposed to report anything reassembling political unreliability to the Political Officer. I suspected that having doubts about murdering innocent children would probably count as political unreliability. There was no room for doubt or scruple in the service of the UN. “Now…”

He pulled his terminal round and examined it carefully. “As you are having…issues with working as a forward operations controller, I’m going to assign you to taking over some of Anna’s and Konrad’s duties while they’re working as controllers themselves,” he said, firmly. “I expect them carried out with the same level of competence and dedication they bring to their tasks. I dare say the Specials won’t object, even though Sergeant Ryan filed a note of commendation for you. They’re both working with the Ensigns at the moment and while you are too young for the role, you’ll have to do it.”

“Yes, sir,” I said.

“The reporters are bouncing back and forwards between us and the ground, so you’ll be responsible for them as well,” the Captain said. He looked me in the eye again. “Do you still want to be removed from your position as forward controller?”

“Yes, sir,” I said. I would sooner deal with reporters than kill innocent children again. The reporters, at least, couldn’t be shot. Regulations were such a nuisance at times. “Do you want me to supervise their activities on the planet?”

“Not at present,” the Captain said. “The Admiral’s staff are capable of controlling them and ensuring that they toe the line. You’ll be given some time to check in with them in a week or so, but unless they want to come back onboard, they’ll be out of your hair.”

I remembered just how secure Lazarus was and decided that the reporters would probably be happier filing lies from orbit, even with Heinlein starships jumping in, firing off a few volleys, and vanishing again. The battles in space had stalemated with no side able to claim an advantage. The UN held the local system, but isolated starships were easy prey for the Heinlein raiders. It was a toss-up if I were safer in space or on the ground.

“Thank you, sir,” I said.

“Good,” the Captain said. He gave me a paternal smile. “You are dismissed.”

I saluted, turned about-face, and marched out of the cabin, thinking hard.

Chapter Nineteen

The UN has free speech, in theory. It is a guaranteed right, provided that the speaker does not offend anyone. In practice, critical remarks of any kind are regarded as offensive, as are anti-UN propaganda, honest financial reports, violent images, nationalist tracts and anything else that attracts the eye of the UN censors. The UN bans the works of political writers – to be fair to the system, both Adam Smith and Karl Marx are banned – and even those who attempted to reform society. Charles Dickens and Jerry Pournelle, to name, but two, are among the thousands of writers whose books have been banned from the shelves. Copies now only exist in the Deep Internet and mere possession can send a person to the re-education camps.

-Thomas Anderson. An Unbiased Look at the UNPF. Baen Historical Press, 2500.

The war raged on.

Over the next six months, UN Ground Command declared Lazarus a secure city four times. Every time, something happened within a day of the announcement that put the lie to their words. Admiral Hoover would appear on the communications network, bragging about how the UN had finally secured the planet, only to end up dodging incoming mortar shells. On the third time, someone screwed up and the entire planet was able to see the shells barely miss the Admiral’s podium. It probably encouraged resistance no end.

I remained on the Devastator for most of the time, but I heard plenty from the communications networks – and the Brotherhood. The Infantry were seizing and sweeping through towns in vast numbers, but the insurgents were very good at slipping into the countryside and vanishing. The Infantry were mainly city boys and girls and knew little about the countryside. Heinlein had developed its own set of animals and some of them were very dangerous. Soldiers shied away from harmless snakes only to run into lethal creatures that killed, and were killed. At first, Ground Forces Command attempted to prevent the soldiers from killing the animals, only to discover that it was a set of orders that wouldn’t be obeyed. The soldiers might have been trained to obey orders, but it was amazing how quickly such orders were forgotten when it was their lives at stake. The animals also proved to be inedible – which didn’t stop hungry soldiers from trying to eat them when their supply trucks were hit and left as burned-out ruins.

We fired thousands of strikes against the planetary surface in just those six months. The Captain, at least, had had the foresight to order additional KEWs brought along from Earth in freighters, rather than count on supplies from the asteroid industrial plants. The native workers were determined not to knuckle under so quickly and had started to sabotage their own machines and equipment. I hadn’t understood what I was seeing, until Kitty pointed out that most of the guards had come from the inner cities and malls of Earth and knew less than I did about industrial equipment. The workers could probably run rings around them.

It wasn't much better in deep space. The Heinlein starships were still mounting their hit-and-run raids, each time trying to take out a cruiser or a troop transport starship. I had worked out the logistics behind that myself. If we lost troop transports in unacceptable numbers, we would have to start using freighters, or colonist-carriers. If we started losing those in significant numbers, the war would be on the verge of being lost, all over the Human Sphere. Without the freighters and heavy transports, the UN wouldn’t be able to hold what it had. It certainly couldn’t found new colonies further away from Earth.

“Bastards,” I heard Anna say, at one time. “They could just come out for a fight!”

“That would be stupid of them,” Konrad pointed out, in return. “All they have to do is keep going and they’ll drive us mad. Why should they waste themselves butting their heads against a stone wall when they can undermine it instead?”

The news from the planet seemed to range between the insanely optimistic and the extremely depressing. Another order was being passed banning all contact with Heinlein’s vast array of prostitutes – except they weren't prostitutes, but something else, something honourable in their society I never understood – after a prostitute somehow drugged and killed seven men. Other orders banned drinking in local bars, or eating local food, or even talking to local children. I didn’t understand the motivation behind all the orders, but I knew one thing. Morale was falling right through the deck.

“Perhaps the locals can help,” Anna said, tiredly. “They’re coming out in our favour, right?”

I doubted it. I’d only seen videos of the Heinlein Front for Progressive Unity, but they didn’t strike me as impressive. Their spokesmen talked about the benefits of UN rule, parroting back UN propaganda to the point where I was sure that everyone knew that they were just talking heads. There were real collaborators down on the surface, but some of them ended up dead after their security had slipped – just once – and others had proved to be working for the other side. An arms dump of captured weapons had been betrayed to the insurgents by a collaborator, who’d vanished into the night with his new friends. The war knew no end and the death toll – on both sides – was mounting rapidly. We’d lost over ten thousand, mainly infantry. God alone knew how many they’d lost.

“You’re going to have to check in on the reporters,” the Captain ordered, one day. It was something of a relief. I might not have participated in any more bombardments, but I knew that the day was coming. The Captain had had to sent two of his Lieutenants and three Ensigns to the cruiser Susan Sontag after several of the crew were caught in a rigged asteroid and killed in a massive explosion. Several Captains had just started blasting suspect asteroids from long range, despite official orders against it. “Take some leave after it and check out Lazarus. I want a full report when you return.”

I saluted and took the next shuttle down to the surface. The only change was that this time we were greeted with several SAM weapons, instead of just one. The Heinlein Resistance had obviously been stockpiling them for the invasion and distributed them widely. We lost several helicopters a week, and at least seven heavy shuttles had been shot down. I was lucky – again – and escaped serious injury, although the pilot kept swearing all the time until we hit the surface. I should have written him up for losing his cool under fire, but he had landed us safely, despite that. I doubt I could have done as well.

Heinlein really was a beautiful place, I reflected, as I joined a military convoy leading into Lazarus. It was marred by burned out towns and villages – the Infantry had cleared away every place near the roads leading to the city – but even so, it was beautiful. Earth no longer looked like that, as far as I knew. The planet was so heavily polluted that it was growing increasingly hazardous to life and limb. It was no wonder that the inhabitants were willing to defend it and, judging by the twitchy demeanour of the soldiers, were doing so successfully. None of the Infantry had signed up for an all-out war.

“We found the remains of the last patrol in this area,” the Infantry Captain told me, after I asked. “They’d cut off their balls and stuffed them in their mouths. The girls had knives rammed up their cunts. It’s growing harder to patrol so close to the city and it’s giving them time to bring up new weapons and resupply their people.”

The city looked like a war zone. The vast majority of civilians were now gone, replaced by UN Infantry and endless convoys of supplies being shipped to distant outposts. Even so, the city kept fighting – I heard the sounds of several IEDs as we drove into the expanded secure zone – and it was far from secure. A handful of arrested girls were being raped by a group of Infantry, their screams echoing for miles…and I turned my head and looked away. There was nothing I could do.

“The men need to blow off steam,” the Captain said, seeing my expression. “It doesn’t matter. The bastards will kill us all in the end.”

I should have reported the defeatism, but again, I just couldn’t be bothered. The secure zone looked more like a fortress than ever, covered with gun emplacements and heavy roadblocks. A line of armoured tanks seemed to follow us with their machine guns as we drove past them. It was almost a relief to see Frank Wong and the rest of the reporters. They’d lost weight, I noticed, and they were pale and trembling. The compound, it seemed, was shelled daily. The locals could set up a mortar, fire a few rounds, and then vanish before the Infantry could locate them.

“You have to get us out of here,” Frank insisted, desperately. I was tempted to twit him about his endlessly optimistic statements, but it wasn't the right time. “It won’t be long before they break in and kill us all.”

I looked back at the defences. “I don’t think its that bad,” I said, unable to resist the temptation. He had been a major pain in my ass. “They’re not going to lose so quickly, are they?”

“They broke in last week,” Frank said, seriously. “They killed seven of the officers before they were hunted down by the Infantry. You have to get us out of here.”

I smiled as another flight of helicopters raced overhead, their stubby wings crammed with weapons and sensors, hunting human prey. “I’ll do my best,” I murmured. “I’ll see to it as soon as possible.”

Frank left, heading back towards the bunkers, while I pulled out my terminal and issued the necessary orders. There were plenty of empty shuttles going back to the Devastator, so they could just hitch a lift. I had just finished when another round of shells came crashing into the compound, but only two of them avoided the counter-battery fire and hit the ground. I smiled as the sounds died away and started to walk. The Captain had insisted on a report from the ground, hadn’t he? He'd get his money’s worth.

I wasn't sure where I was going, but I finally encountered what had to be a library. Out of curiosity, I went inside, wondering if there was an insurgent in the library waiting to put an end to me. The lights came on as I entered and my hand fell to my pistol, but nothing leapt out at me. It was an automated system. No one would use anything like it on an Earth city, not when it might put someone else out of work. I looked at the books, lying on the shelves, and felt an eagerness I hadn’t known since Kitty and I had made love for the first time. I’d never set foot in a library until I’d gone to school. There just weren't any back in my hometown.

The next hour passed quickly as I browsed, wonderingly. There were books that shocked me – a sex manual for group orgies and detailed instructions on how to produce a nuclear bomb – and some that surprised me. One discussed, at length, the history of the United Nations and explained many things I hadn’t understood. There had been no grand unification, no final coming-together of the human race, but something far darker. As the colonists had fled to the stars, the UN had quietly taken over Earth and transformed itself into a vast bureaucracy that controlled every aspect of human life. It was a version of history I’d never heard at home…and that, too, was not surprising. The book explained how the UN censored everything, all from the purest of motives, until the human race had no past. There were nations, and people, I’d never heard of in the past, building humanity’s future, a future that had turned sour.

I pushed the book aside, finally, and looked for others. Some of them were fictional stories set in worlds that couldn’t exist, although the UN had always rather approved of fantasy novels. I don’t know why, but everyone knew that dragons, goblins and werewolves didn’t exist. Others were set in dreams of the future, ones created before the tawdry reality of real interstellar logistics and the Jump Drive had settled in. Several hinted at war with intelligent aliens, but we had never even seen signs of alien ruins, let alone massive cube-shaped starships. I doubted that anyone could build a wormhole generator large enough to transport a ship that size. The UN had been looking at a wormhole large enough to take an entire planet, but the power requirements would be literally astronomical.

And there were so many wonders in the library…

Something moved behind me. I spun around, my hand dropping to my pistol. “Can I help you, Citizen?”

I stared. I was looking at a walking mannequin, shaped like a nude woman with astonishingly large breasts. It was almost flawless. Only the eyes gave its real nature away. I couldn’t take my eyes off it. I’d never seen anything like it before. It looked so realistic that I wondered if young men ever tried to have sex with it.

“Ah,” I said, finally. “What are you?”

“I am a Susan Calvin Corporation Mark XII Automated Drone,” she – I couldn’t think of her as an ‘it’, somehow – said. “I am the librarian of this library. Can I help you, sir?”

I couldn’t grasp the implications at first, and then I felt pure rage. While the UN kept its people in crumbling cities and helplessness, the Planet of Heinlein was so rich that they could afford robot librarians! The UN distrusted AI for all kinds of reasons and I wasn't sure that they were wrong, but surely…why couldn’t we have robots too? Or access to this treasure trove of information, or even political freedom? Why did we have to have Political Officers looking over our shoulder all the time? Earth starved, simply because the farms couldn’t produce enough food to feed the planet, while Heinlein…I would guess that life as a beggar on Heinlein was better than life in the inner circle on Earth.

“Yes,” I said, shaking my head. In the darkness, I would have mistaken her for a real woman. I wondered, with a near-giggle, if anyone got electrocuted trying to have sex with her. “Can you show me a good general history of Heinlein?”

“Of course, sir,” the robot said. She walked past me – I was captivated by the swaying of her ass, despite the growing sense of unreality surrounding me – and took a book off the shelves. “Here you are, sir. Is there anything else?”

I hesitated, and then took the plunge. “Do you do electronic texts as well?” I asked. “Something I can use on a UN-standard terminal?”

“Of course,” the robot assured me. “How many different formats would you like?”

I reeled again. The UNPF Academy used electronic texts as a matter of course, but they were so heavily protected that they could only be accessed on the library computers, apparently to prevent someone from copying them and distributing them on the deep Internet. The endless regulations had killed electronic books back on Earth, but here…she could fit an entire library on one terminal.

“UN-standard,” I said, finally. I knew that that would work on an isolated terminal and I doubted that I’d be allowed to take a Heinlein-grade personal computer, or would I? “Do you have electronic readers here?”

“Yes, sir,” the robot said. She leaned forward and this time I couldn’t resist. I reached out and touched her breast. It felt far too real. Her voice sounded real as well. “Please don’t do that, sir.”

“I’m sorry,” I said, absurdly. “Please could you fetch me the reader?”

“Yes, sir,” the robot said. I was astonished. I’d expected a demand for payment, but instead…I was just getting it for free! “What would you like to have loaded onto the reader?”

“Everything you can,” I said. Even a UN-grade terminal had thousands of terabytes worth of data storage capability. I had a feeling that Heinlein would be capable of producing something more capable than the UN. “How much can you fit on?”

“The entire contents of the library database,” the robot said. There was a long moment as she returned behind her desk and pulled out a small reader, before passing it to me. “Enjoy, sir.”

I rolled my eyes and opened the book on Heinlein. It was harder to read than the prior book, simply because I lacked some of the background information that the book’s writer assumed I would have. I still didn’t know who Heinlein had actually been – the book sang his praises, but didn’t say much about him – but it did provide a brief overview of Heinlein itself. The planet had been founded by people who’d believed in Heinlein’s vision – I wasn't sure if they’d been contemporaries of Heinlein or if they’d come later – and had made it come true. It hadn’t all been wine and roses, but if the book was to be believed, it had worked better than the UN.

“Thank you,” I said, finally, and pocketed the reader. It was smaller than anything the UN had produced, which suggested worrying things about their military capabilities, and I could hide it easily. I thought about pointing others towards the library – I didn’t understand why it had been left alone, even – but I knew better. That would eventually bring security down on my head. “I have a lot of reading to do.”

The robot waved at me as I left. “Have a nice evening, sir,” she said. “I hope to see you soon.”

I was still laughing to myself when I boarded the shuttle to return to the Devastator.

Chapter Twenty

The UN’s position on rape is somewhat mixed, depending on the exact circumstances. On one hand, it’s a crime against the victim and all of womankind. On the other, there are times when it is accepted as a legitimate form of social protest, or even part of a working society. A young black man who rapes a white woman has the defence, assuming that he is ever brought to trial, that he is merely avenging slights committed against his race in ages past. A woman from a tribal society can be raped by her husband, after being married off by her father, and the UN regards it as part of their culture and therefore acceptable. The irony is that the UN has created perhaps the most racist community in centuries…and that is not unacceptable. The military principle of divide and conquer remains strong.

-Thomas Anderson. An Unbiased Look at the UNPF. Baen Historical Press, 2500.

The books made fascinating reading each night, I discovered, as I lay in my cabin reading. I’d made the decision to tell Kitty almost as soon as I returned to the ship – I couldn’t have her wondering why I wasn’t interested in her any longer – and we read them together. I swiftly came to realise that reading them all would take my entire life-time, if not much longer. There were thousands upon thousands of books on the reader, most of them banned by the UN. I didn’t understand why at first, until I realised that many of them talked about revolution against legitimate authority. That was exactly the kind of thinking the UN wanted to suppress.

And they were part of humanity’s heritage. The more I wondered about it, the more I wondered why the library hadn’t been looted, or simply destroyed outright. Could it be that the Generals commanding on the ground hadn’t given the library any thought? As far as I knew, no such treasure trove of information existed on Earth…might they have completely missed its significance? Or, perhaps, the building had been off-limits and I simply hadn’t realised. There certainly hadn’t been any guards there to stop me from entering.

Or, perhaps, they wanted the library for themselves. I owned the reader and merely owning it made me feel like I had a privileged insight into humanity, even though very little had actually changed. The Generals might feel the same way, or perhaps they might even be considering using the library themselves, perhaps to advance their own careers. There was no way to know and, as long as no one knew I had the reader, it wouldn’t matter. If someone realised what I had, they’d probably report me, which would mean – at least – the end of my career.

“Then keep it locked at all times,” Kitty said, when I confided my fear to her. “As long as no one has any reason to go searching your baggage, no one will find it.”

The days passed slowly in orbit. The fighting on the ground seemed to fade away for a few weeks – long enough for the Generals to declare victory – and then it resumed with equal or greater violence. The resistance had clearly taken advantage of the pause to rearm and prepare new positions, because Lazarus itself came under heavy attack and the government compound in the secure zone came within an inch of falling. It turned out that the resistance had been using the sewer pipes under the city to gain ingress to pretty much anywhere and finally they risked a mass offensive. The UN only won by the skin of its teeth. The declaration of victory was never mentioned again.

I spent a brief week on one of the orbital stations, watching the native workers. It wasn't a good week. Nothing happened to me personally, but the natives watched us all sullenly and were compelled to explain everything at great length to their Infantry or Marine supervisors. The delays were not inconsiderable. The Infantry came from the inner cities and knew even less than I did about high technology. A set of defective components, when finally traced back to their source, turned out to have failed because the Infantry officers supervising the workers had forbidden them to include a certain chip. Their faces were carefully blank, but I was sure that they were laughing at us inside. It was hard to blame them.

And there were the damned reporters. The Captain had, I decided, found a subtle way to punish me for my attempt to report the war crime. I had already detested the reporters, now I hated them as well, reading their smug articles that bore little relationship to reality. Apparently, a million Heinlein insurgents had died in the last month of fighting, which struck me as rather unlikely. If we had killed as many locals as we claimed to have killed, we’d have exterminated the entire planet’s population several times over. It wouldn’t seem so strange on Earth, where there were billions of civilians living in cramped cities, but here it was just a sick joke. I didn’t even know why they’d been allowed to come on the invasion. They could have made shit up back home and no one there would have known the difference. Perhaps their enemies were hoping that the insurgents would dispose of them. Several reporters had been killed and another couple had been kidnapped for ransom, which had promptly been paid. The reporters were apparently worth more than the infantrymen. No one tried to ransom them.

And then there were the logistics problems. Devastator had been built for long-term operations and, in theory, we could have remained in the Heinlein System permanently, but in practice it wouldn’t work out that well. We needed food, fuel, weapons and other supplies and our sources were limited. After a near-disaster with a locally-produced KEW, we had become dependent upon supplies shipped in from Earth and more loyal systems, if there was such a thing. The Captain wanted me to square the circle without requisitioning more supplies from Earth, but it was impossible. The pre-invasion planners had claimed that we would be able to supply ourselves from Heinlein, but how could we do that when we couldn’t even trust the food? The planners had probably gotten rewarded back home for launching an invasion on the cheap, while we were short of all supplies and starving. I’d heard of infantry units using enemy weapons and ammunition because they were so plentiful.

It was a nightmare that never seemed to end.

I was on Deck Seven when I heard the screaming. Deck Seven was the main residence deck, including the Ensign’s Wardroom and the various sleeping quarters for Marines, Specialist Officers and the crew. Inspecting it regularly was technically part of Anna’s duties, but with her spending much of her time on the surface, the Captain had passed it on to me. It wasn't as much as a punishment as working with the reporters. Unlike some ships I’d heard about, Devastator wasn't commanded by a Captain who didn’t care about conditions in the crew quarters and everything was kept neatly in order. By long tradition, the crewmen bunked with whoever they pleased, but I had to inspect everything, learning where two lovers had become careless. The screaming, however, was unprecedented.

The deck clanged under my feet as I ran through the corridors into a smaller maintenance corridor. The noise grew louder as I turned through the corridor and stopped dead when I entered the supply room. A man had a woman firmly bent over the small workbench and was fucking her from behind. It took me a moment to overcome my horror and realise that Frank Wong was raping Ensign Gomez. Her screams proved that, if nothing else. She struggled, but couldn’t escape. He was too strong for her and she, unlike me, had had no training.

“Let go of her, now!” I snapped, reaching for Frank. Everything moved very quickly. I saw him pull out of her and draw back a fist to hit me, so I punched him in the side of the head. He staggered, but didn’t fall. My fist hurt, so I kicked him in the chest and sent him gasping to the deck. “Ensign, are you all right?”

Two crewmen and a Marine had appeared behind me. Frank was lucky that he was already down and out. Ensign Gomez was popular and their expressions promised bloody vengeance for her treatment. I looked at her and realised that she was shaking, trying to cover herself with the remains of her uniform, and looked away. A moment later, one of the crewmen passed her an overall and she pulled it on gratefully.

“Corporal,” I said, catching myself and remembering that I was supposed to be in charge, “take this piece of shit to the brig and throw him in, then stay on guard. Don’t let him talk to anyone until I’ve had a chance to speak to the Captain.”

“Yes, sir,” the Marine said, and picked Frank up by the collar. “Come along now, you fucker.”

Frank staggered out, half-dragged by the Marine. I watched him go, hoping he’d try to resist, and then turned to Ensign Gomez. She was shaking, holding her hands wrapped around herself, her eyes wide with fear. I touched her shoulder and she flinched back. Frank was luckier than he knew. If he’d still been there, I would have killed him personally.

“It’s all right now,” I said, as softly as I could. “He can’t hurt you any more.”

With a little help, I escorted her to Sickbay and handed her over to Doctor Choudhury. She was a small brown woman with an air of brisk competence and I trusted her completely. The Ship’s Doctor wasn't a commissioned officer, nor was she in the chain of command, and younger officers and crewmen had a tendency to talk to her about their problems. I hoped that Ensign Gomez would talk to the Doctor, even though she would probably have to talk to the Captain later. Frank wasn’t a crewman, worse luck, but a guest with powerful connections. I wished Anna was onboard. It would be so much easier if I could drop it all in her lap.

“She’s not that badly injured, physically,” Doctor Choudhury said, twenty minutes later. She’d taken Ensign Gomez into an examination room, leaving me waiting outside pacing like an expectant father. It was all I could do to remain patient for two minutes. “There are some bruises on her thighs and neck, where he apparently held her, but she’ll recover from that quickly. There are no signs of internal damage, luckily. Mentally…”

Her face twisted bitterly. “Her confidence has been completely destroyed and…well, she’s not in a good state,” she added. “I’d prefer it if she were fighting back, frankly. We don’t have a proper team of psychologists here who could help her recover and…shipboard life is no place for anyone who has been raped like that. She thought the ship was safe.”

“I thought the ship was safe,” I said, bitterly. Rape was very common where I’d grown up, but I hadn’t thought much about it at the time. My sisters had never been raped – or had they been raped after I’d left. I remembered some of the bull sessions we’d had back as teenage men, talking about women and how sometimes you had to push them…had they led to rape? The bile welled up in my mouth and I had to swallow hard to prevent vomiting. “What are you going to do with her?”

Doctor Choudhury looked down at her terminal. “I’ve got her sedated right now,” she said. “I’ve taken samples from her skin and vaginal area and can prove that she definitely had sex with him, but it may come down to his word against hers.”

I stared. “And the screaming? The physical wounds?”

“There are two crewmen down in Engineering who inflict far worse on each other and love it,” Doctor Choudhury said. “I actually had to speak to one of them quite severely about how they were treating each other. I’m sure that some people get their thrills by being beaten with a rattan cane, but they were risking putting one of them here for longer than a day or two.”

“Ouch,” I said, wondering who the couple were, before returning to the important issue. “You can’t swear that she was raped?”

“I can swear that force was used,” Doctor Choudhury said. “I cannot prove that it was rape.”

“Shit,” I said. The last thing I wanted to see was Frank getting away with it. He might well get away with it. I couldn’t recall a single conviction for rape back home, despite thousands of complaints to the police. The police were more likely to dismiss the issue completely. They might even have their fun with the girl themselves. “Is there no proof you can offer?”

Her dark face was all the answer I needed. For a moment, I considered just walking into the brig and strangling Frank myself, but what would have been the point? I’d just have been charged with murder myself, perhaps even a war crime, which would have been ironic beyond belief.

“Thank you, Doctor,” I said. “I’d better go report it to the Captain.”

The trial, such as it was, was a farce. I had forgotten how little power the Captain had over guests on his ship, particularly guests with political connections. The Political Officer served as the presiding judge and allowed Frank to conduct his own defence, facing Ensign Gomez herself. She wasn't allowed a lawyer of any kind, despite UNPF Regulations stipulating that anyone involved in a court martial of any kind needed a lawyer, and it was easy to cast doubt on her testimony. The Doctor had to admit that there was no direct proof that she had been raped and I…I was told, by the Captain, to keep myself out of it. The ending was inevitable. Frank Wong was declared innocent. The only upbeat news was a conversation I overhead between Frank and the Captain, where he warned Frank in no uncertain terms that another rape would mean his instant death. Frank came out of that meeting sporting a black eye.

And Ensign Gomez? She never recovered from her experience, despite all the help that we could give her. At the end of our deployment, she was transferred to a research centre in deep space, well away from anywhere else. I pitied her more than anyone else. She’d once been full of promise, until a bastard with too many political collections had got his hands on her.


The remainder of the deployment – two years, mostly spent in orbit around Heinlein – went slowly. I ended up remaining on the Devastator most of the time – Frank had apparently asked for my removal from the reporter-babying duty – handling the duties of three other Lieutenants. I also spent more time on two other starships, replacing officers who had managed to get themselves transferred, or killed in the line of duty. Actually, one of them had been killed in a local brothel, but it had been recorded as a combat death. Heinlein being Heinlein, it probably was.

I had the faintest glimmerings of a plan before we started to prepare to return to Earth, but even with Kitty’s help, it would have to wait until we had some shore leave to ourselves. We also knew that we might not be together for much longer. I suspected that the Captain would approve my transfer request and Kitty might not be able to go with me, even though she wanted a transfer as well. She was technically senior to me. She might well be sent to another starship. I studied the lists of opening posts and tried to make a good case for us to be sent as a couple, but there were few openings for two lieutenants. There were plenty of possible posts for a single officer – and, of course, they might have been filled before I returned to Earth. Roger even offered to put in a good word for me with the Admiral, but the last thing I wanted was a post on the battleship. It was just too large.

The only peace of good news came in a week before we departed for Earth, having been finally relieved by the Annihilator. Frank, who hadn’t set foot on the starship since someone – not me – had played merry hell with the stateroom’s life support systems, had been finally sent out of Lazarus to report on the countryside and the ‘Heinlein Improvement Project’s’ progress. The insurgents located his convoy and attacked it. No one survived. The infantrymen who finally reached the convoy’s remains reported that someone had cut off his penis and stuffed it up his ass. I couldn’t help, but laugh when I heard the news. Never let them give you to the women…

“Serve the bastard right,” I gloated to Kitty. Ensign Gomez had perked up a little when she heard the news. Anna had convinced the Captain to allow her one of the spare cabins for her bunk, just so she wouldn’t be surrounded by male Ensigns, but it hadn’t helped. We’d even looked for a Rape Trauma Specialist down on Heinlein, but found none. Heinlein seemed to believe that the only good rapist was a dead one. How could I disagree? “I wonder how that’s going to be reported.”

I should have known. The reports claimed that he had been killed after a heroic struggle that killed hundreds of insurgents. I doubted that there was anyone in the system who was impressed with the UN’s propaganda any longer, even the UNPF Generals. No matter what they said, it was always proved spectacularly wrong soon afterwards.

As the ship headed for home, I had to force myself to relax.

Back at Luna Base, the real work would begin.

Chapter Twenty-One

A Lieutenant has more choice of where he serves than an Ensign or newly-minted Lieutenant, but often the choices are very limited. A term of planet-side duty can kill a career as surely as having the wrong political opinions. The political interrogation is often stronger as an officer creeps closer to the ultimate goal – command of a starship, master under God – not that the UN believes in God, of course.

-Thomas Anderson. An Unbiased Look at the UNPF. Baen Historical Press, 2500.

“Well,” Ellen Nakamura said. “You’ve had an interesting couple of years, haven’t you?”

“Yes,” I said, carefully. Ellen looked as hauntingly beautiful as ever, but I wasn't fooled. She had a razor-sharp mind and full knowledge of everything that had happened on the deployment. I wouldn’t forgive her for sacrificing Ensign Gomez on the alter of political expediency, but I wouldn’t underestimate her either. She could break my career. “I have learned a great deal.”

Ellen laughed gaily. “You definitely have,” she said. “You did well on your deployment to the ground and Captain Jones spoke highly of you during your deployment to his vessel. He actually wanted to offer you a post on his ship, but we decided that your services were still required here.”

That rankled, more than a little. The longer I stayed on the monitor, the greater the chance that I would have to launch or call in another fire mission, directed against the ground. God alone knew how many innocents had been killed on Heinlein, but I would have bet good money that it was well over a million. I hadn’t known that Captain Jones had wanted me – he was short of officers after the insurgent attack – and I would have transferred at once, if he had offered me the chance. Life on a cruiser would have been far more tolerable than life on a monitor. The people I would have killed, at least, would have been trying to kill me.

“But in any case all good things must come to an end,” she said, moving back to the more serious persona. “You are requesting permission to transfer to another starship? Don’t you like it on the Devastator?”

It was an innocent question that had a nasty sting in the tail. I didn’t have the Senior Chief briefing me this time, warning me of what I would face. Saying the wrong thing would wreck my career, but I honestly wasn't sure what I should say. If I confessed to disliking the starship’s purpose, it would get me marked down as a possible subversive, while if I claimed to love it…well, she’d probably know that I was lying.

“I want to get further experience of starship operations,” I explained, finally. It was even true. “The Devastator remains in one system and operates there. I want to serve on a starship that carries out patrols and maybe even explores new star systems.”

“Boldly going where no one has gone before,” Ellen agreed. It was the motto of the UN’s Survey Corps, which examined new planets for human settlement. One of the charges the UN had levelled against Heinlein’s Founding Fathers was that they hadn’t waited for the Survey Corps to clear the planet before settling. The Heinlein books had suggested that the Survey Corps would have delayed classifying the planet until they were bribed into agreement, or tried to place unacceptable conditions on the settlements. I had once thought about joining them, but I hadn’t made it through that section of the Academy. I hadn’t understood why under much later. “I admit that you have the qualifications – now – to try for a position on a survey ship, but you must realise that your experience mandates against it.”

I nodded. “Yes,” I said, slowly. “I was hoping to serve on a anti-piracy patrol vessel or another starship that would be operating along the edge of explored space. I can qualify for that.”

“Indeed you can,” Ellen agreed. She changed tack suddenly. “What did you think of the invasion of Heinlein?”

I shrugged, as artlessly as I could. “I think that they needed to be brought into the UN before their individualistic tendencies led to civil war,” I said. I knew the answer to that one, of course; Ellen lectured on it every fortnight. “Our presence in the system prevents them from turning their guns on one another.”

“Of course,” Ellen agreed. I reflected that they’d turned their guns on the infantry instead, but that proved nothing. It was possible that the UN was right, but if half of the Heinlein guidebooks were to be believed, Heinlein had a far lower level of violent crime than Earth. I suppose that the possibility of being shot dead while committing a crime did add a certain deterrent value. “Once we start settling proper citizens from Earth on the planet, we can drain their violence natures from them and reshape their world.”

“Of course,” I agreed, slowly. I doubted that it would be anything like as easy as she suggested. Heinlein’s system was very embedded into the planet and they were still resisting furiously. I’d heard rumours that the UN had even considered the use of biological or chemical weapons – it was a war crime to even suggest the use of such weapons – in hopes of bring the war to an end before it was too late. The settlers who were being prepared to land on the planet had been put off time and time again. Their transports were needed to supply more soldiers to the planet’s garrisons. “I’m sure that it will work perfectly.”

“But enough of that,” Ellen said, finally. “I have checked, as you know, with the Captain and Anna. The Captain was quite happy to endorse your transfer request, if you chose to make it, but Anna did point out that you would no longer be Junior Lieutenant after this cruise. Two Lieutenants are leaving the ship and their replacements would probably be junior to you. Do you want to risk returning – remaining – to a junior role?”

It actually didn’t matter. My two years as a Lieutenant (Command Line) would remain on my service record until I was either promoted or moved into another department, which would make the end of my career. It was possible that we would get two new green lieutenants, or that both of them would be senior to me. It wasn't as important as it was for the Ensigns, but it made little difference.

“I actually enjoyed my work as a Junior Lieutenant,” I confessed. Ellen hid a smile, not entirely successfully. No one enjoyed being the junior man on the totem pole, even if I did have the Ensigns and enlisted personnel below me. My position meant that I was the first in line for any new tasks the Captain felt like setting. It was why I had been sent down to Heinlein first, or entrusted with the reporters, in the first place. “I would not mind having to do it again.”

“Doubtless,” Ellen murmured. “Your…other qualifications” – she meant my political reliability – “are in order. If you find a suitable berth, you may apply for it. Inform the Captain one day before we reach Orbit Five so that he can find a replacement for you. If you find nothing by then, either stay here or ship yourself to Luna Base and the personnel pool.”

I nodded, hiding my exultation as best as I could. The Devastator was supposed to carry nine Lieutenants at all times. The problems with finding qualified and capable personnel meant that she had only carried seven, including me. The Captain would have to put out a request for an additional Lieutenant to replace me, which might mean that he would have to accept the services of someone who had been beached for good reason. I hoped that he found someone more to his taste. If my political reliability was still unquestioned, that meant that he hadn’t reported my attempt to file a protest.

“You’re a good man,” Ellen said, standing up and dismissing me. “I wish you all the best.”

And what about Ensign Gomez? I thought, but I couldn’t say that to her face. Instead, I shook her hand, saluted her and returned to my quarters.

A day later, we emerged from the wormhole in Earth’s solar system. Unlike my last return to the system, there was no point in cruising around the outer edge of the system, trying to see what might be lurking there in the darkness. The Devastator emerged only two days from Earth at cruising speed and, while we could have come in much closer, the Captain ordered a full check of the entire ship. Two years of hard service had placed a great deal of wear and tear on the systems.

In-between working on the logistics – for the last time, I hoped – I checked the fleet listings from Earth. There were only seven starships in the system at the time, not counting the merchant freighters or the heavy transports, or even the colonist-carriers. One of them sailed past us two hours after we emerged and we exchanged salutes, leaving me to wonder if it actually did any good. The new colony wouldn’t be productive for years to come, at least, even if the UN didn’t screw it up right from the start. I’d read several histories of smaller colonies that made Terra Nova look like a perfect success.

“You should look at this one,” Kitty said, that evening. “The Walter Gallium, a new cruiser, only launched this year. The Captain needs several berths filled before he departs.”

“Maybe,” I agreed, slowly. The freighters and transports always needed officers – they were the least-liked berths in the UNPF – and I could have gotten one of those easily, but that would have killed my career if I’d taken it willingly. Ironically, I’d probably be a freighter Captain within a year, but it would be boring. They went from world to world on a strict schedule and they were completely unarmed. Pirates used them as targets when they located them in deep space. The Heinlein Fleet had hurt us more by hitting the transports than the real starships. “Let’s see…”

The process wasn't quite like a job interview on Earth, where I could send in an application for hundreds of different jobs, simultaneously. In the UNPF, I had to apply for one berth and see what happened before I applied for the next one. I couldn’t have afford to have a Captain angry at me because he’d approved my application, only to discover that I had applied to another Captain as well. I applied for the Walter Gallium, only to discover, an hour later, that the Captain had already filled the berth. It grew to be a depressingly familiar experience over the next few hours. The competition for interstellar berths was fierce. I was starting to think that applying for several posts at once was a low-risk strategy after all.

“Here,” Kitty said, finally. “Look at this one?”

My eyes went wide. Captain Harriman was looking for a new Lieutenant? Why would anyone ever want to leave his ship? I asked Kitty and she laughed.

“Ambition, of course,” she said, dryly. I rolled my eyes, but really – wasn't I being ambitious as well? “Anyone who’s still a Lieutenant after five years probably doesn’t have a hope of making Captain, even if there were more Captain slots open for the aspiring Lieutenant. Why do you think I want to advance?”

I grinned. Kitty had only a year on me. She might have a chance of becoming a Captain herself in a year, if she had a term as First Lieutenant to prove that she could handle a starship. And, of course, if she could convince the UNPF Promotion Board that she was reliable enough to command a starship. Roger would probably make Captain as soon as possible, just because of his family. I hadn’t realised, until Heinlein, just how much of a stake he had in the UN. His family were among the top ten of the system.

“Particularly if Anna doesn’t want to leave,” I agreed. Anna would probably wind up inheriting Devastator if something happened to the Captain. It was a reasonable way to run for command, unless the Promotion Board decided to assign another commander to the monitor. A newly-minted Captain would outrank her, regardless of her length of service. “I’m going to apply for this post, if you don’t mind…”

“I don’t want a cruiser,” Kitty said, firmly. “I’m applying for the battleship openings.”

The next few hours went by slowly. We both went on duty and joined the crewmen and junior officers checking each nook and cranny. I went through the supply workroom where Frank had raped Ensign Gomez and made sure that it was unmarked, without even a trace of what had happened there. Perhaps I was being silly, but somehow the pain and shock had faded away, leaving only a dull memory. The poor girl had been scarred for life…and no one cared. Even the Captain had only been able to give Frank Wong a black eye. The insurgents had done more for her than any of us. I made endless lists of components that needed replaced for my successor, although part of my mind was already resigned to remaining on Devastator for another cruise. I wasn't sure, but it was possible that even a transport would be preferable. I didn’t want to kill more innocents.

“I got it,” Kitty said, calling my terminal directly. I’d never heard her so happy in my life. “Captain Hafiz sends his compliments and welcomes me onboard Trygve Lie, in Earth Orbit. I’ll be Second Lieutenant!”

“Congratulations,” I said, as I walked back to the cabin. I was happy for her, and yet…part of my mind was devastated at losing her to another ship. We could exchange letters via the Brotherhood communications network, but it wouldn’t be quite the same. I’d known that one day we would part – it was inevitable, given our careers – but it still hurt. “One step down from First Lieutenant, right?”

“Oh, I’m sure I can knife my opponent in the back,” Kitty agreed, with a laugh. I had to agree with her. The Second Lieutenant had ample opportunity to embarrass his or her nominal superior. It was quite likely that their Captain wouldn’t tolerate open warfare, but subtle manoeuvring was fairly common. “Have you received anything yet?”

I checked my terminal, but shook my head. “Nothing,” I said. It was traditional to get back to the applicant as soon as possible, but it was possible that Captain Harriman was busy, or couldn’t be bothered contacting me. My imagination could invent all kinds of possible scenarios. “When does he want you onboard?”

“Next week,” Kitty said, slowly, reading through the data packet. The battleship was newly commissioned, it seemed, having taken five years to build. I wasn't blind to the implications. The UN was having problems maintaining its construction program. I wondered, suddenly, how many workers had been conscripted from planets like Heinlein. “I’ll have four days at Luna City, unless I choose to report to barracks, etcetera, etcetera.”

She looked nervous, suddenly. “Will you join me there, if you can get leave?”

“The locals will hate me,” I predicted. Luna City was notorious for its facilities for spacemen. It included hundreds of bars, dozens of brothels and numberless gambling dens. A crewman might take his service bonus in one day and emerge with enough money to retire, but it was far more likely that he would end up completely broke by the end of the day. It was also a known gangland habitat, operated by one of the most notorious criminal gangs in space. The Outfit kept it all running smoothly, but woe betide the health inspector who took a close look at the eateries there. “You turning up with competition on your arm.”

“Twit,” Kitty said. She elbowed me hard enough to hurt. “Get that uniform off, mister.”

She pulled me down on top of her and into her. I pushed deep inside her, feeling closer to her than ever before, and started to move. I was moving faster and faster when my terminal bleeped, announcing an incoming message.

“If you stop now,” Kitty panted, “I’ll cut off your fucking balls.”

I couldn’t have stopped if she’d told me to stop. I kept moving, feeling the orgasm building up inside of me, until it burst out and we came together. She shuddered endlessly under me, gasping out loud, until we finally subsidised.

“You’re magnificent,” I breathed. It was true. Naked and dishevelled, her long red hair hanging down over her breasts, she was beautiful beyond words. I wanted her so much it hurt. “I wish…let’s get married, now.”

“You’re being silly,” she said, after kissing me. I felt rejected, even though I knew better. Lieutenants couldn’t get married until they were assigned to a permanent station. It was almost worth doing just for her. “We can’t get married and you know it.”

I pulled myself off her and sat up, reaching for my terminal and opening the message. I had to read it twice to confirm that I had read it properly. It offered me the post of Lieutenant on the old Jacques Delors, under Captain Harriman. I yelled aloud in delight and threw myself at her. It was nearly another hour before she picked up the terminal and thumbed through it herself. I didn’t begrudge her the chance to look at it. If nothing else, we could compare postings.

“John,” she said, carefully, “have you read this bit here?”

I checked. It was the list of service periods for the four other Lieutenants. I blinked again. “That can’t be right,” I said, puzzled. None of them had a service period over a year. “What happened to Lieutenant Hatchet?”

“I don’t know,” Kitty said, “but reading this…you’re First Lieutenant. You will be the second-in-command of the entire ship.”

Chapter Twenty-Two

Officially, the UNPF bans personnel associations of any kind, apart from those funded and operated by political officers. Unofficially, there are hundreds of little groups within the UNPF, mostly involving classmates at the Academy or officers who have shared a term of service together, or a common interest. The UNPF Chess Club has over two thousand members and organises tournaments as often as it can. The vast majority of such personnel associations are harmless and the UN has learned to turn a blind eye. Even so, some of them have operated against the UNPF and UN interests.

-Thomas Anderson. An Unbiased Look at the UNPF. Baen Historical Press, 2500.

It had been nearly three years since I had set foot in Luna City, but little had changed. The massive dome covering the Sea of Tranquillity still allowed the unblinking stars to glare down on a scene of debauchery that would have shocked the early Romans. I had fond memories of my visits to Luna City while I’d been at the Academy and, looking around, I could see other Cadets staring around, wondering if they dared seek entrance to some of the strip bars or brothels the Outfit ran. Others walked hand in hand with girls they’d picked up, enjoying their company before taking them back to their hotel rooms to complete the bargain, or even not waiting that long. I saw, in a dark corner, a Cadet making out with a woman who looked old enough to be his mother. He wasn't the only one either. Luna City had very little in the way of laws.

I’d read two versions of how Luna City and the Lunar Authority came into existence. One, the version I’d been taught back at the Academy, had had the United Nations running the entire Lunar settlement program from the beginning, carefully settling the moon so that everyone had a share in the resources there. The other version, the one I’d read in the Heinlein books, suggested that the moon had been settled from different nations, eventually united into a government that then fell under the sway of the United Nations. The Luna-born were largely trapped. Unlike me, or anyone from Earth, they couldn’t survive for long in a high-gravity environment. There were some asteroids that had Luna-standard gravity, but they were rare.

In theory, Luna City was responsible to the Lunar Authority, but in practice it tended to go its own way. I hadn’t understood why the UN hadn’t done something about it until I’d studied it more carefully. Luna City had nothing worth the taking and provided an excellent distraction for the cadets on their off-duty hours. They could take the monorail from the Academy and be in Luna City in a couple of hours, then spend a week in some prostitute’s bed. The Outfit kept the entire place under very strict control. It might have been a den of scum and villainy, but the Cadets were fairly safe in Luna City. The last thing the Outfit wanted was to do anything that the UN might feel obliged to take notice of, or react to. A missing Cadet would be a serious problem for them. Luna City was, in effect, a grey colony in the solar system.

I smiled to myself as I passed a set of Japanese-looking girls wearing nothing, but translucent underwear. The thought of seeking their company – and they would be willing, if I paid them enough – was attractive, but I had another destination. I gave the girls a wink and passed onwards, trying to ignore their perfume as best as I could. I’d seen Cadets lose themselves completely in the fleshpots of Luna City, or accidentally overdosing themselves on something they were sold in a bar, and I couldn’t afford the distraction. I passed the Hub bar, where many Cadets used to go for drinks, and smiled again, remembering the many good times I’d had there. The hotel loomed up in front of me and I paused. Did I dare go through with it? It would be so easy to make a single mistake and lose everything.

The interior of the hotel was surprisingly low-key, but then, the Casa Carola had always prided itself on a more upscale clientele than the more average hotel in Luna City. The receptionist, wearing a modest outfit instead of the more spectacular lunar outfits, smiled at me and asked where I was going. When I answered, she pointed me towards the right room, without even checking my ID. That had astonished me when I’d first visited – on Earth, you couldn’t go a week without an ID Card – but now it was a relief. I didn’t want anyone having a record of who’d joined me.

“Hey, John,” Lieutenant Rolf Lommerde shouted. “Long time no see!”

I smiled back at him and the others in the room. We’d all shared classes together at the Academy and we’d agreed, when we graduated and were assigned to different starships, that we would keep in touch. I’d had to be careful who I invited – several of my classmates hadn’t made Lieutenant yet and I couldn’t socialise with them – but it was good to see them again. I was just glad that Roger was still back at the Heinlein System. I didn’t dare invite him.

We spent the first hour chatting about old times, sharing Academy yarns and tall stories about what we’d been doing on our first starships. Rolf, of course, had served with me back on my first starship, but Lieutenant Darryl Farnan had been posted to a survey ship and told lies – at least I think they were lies – about discovering the remains of an alien civilisation on a distant world. Lieutenant Bruno Lombardi had a fantastic story about a team of blonde swimmers from New Scandinavia, a vat of custard and the Captain’s daughter. Halfway through the tale, I realised that I didn’t believe a word of it…and it didn’t matter. I had almost forgotten what it was like to laugh.

“And in the end, they slept with everyone on the ship,” Bruno finished. “They formed a circle and bent over and we all fucked them, moving from woman to woman, trying to see who could last the longest.” He paused. “It was me, of course.”

“Of course,” Lieutenant Kady Jones said. “Never mind that you were voted ‘Mr Quick Finish’ at the Academy.”

Bruno flushed. “Who told you about that?”

I listened, without saying much, as the stories grew taller and more unbelievable. One claimed that his Captain had slept with every female on his ship, half the males and some of their pets. Another was more serious and talked about a Captain who had been killed in the line of duty, or a Political Officer who had overridden the Captain on his own ship. I’d expected some degree of bitching, but this was more than I had expected. What had happened to the young officers who had had such high hopes and dreams?

Reality, I thought, and leaned forward.

“I asked you here for a reason,” I said. “I don’t want to get anyone involved against their will, but I must ask for a pledge of secrecy. If you repeat anything you hear here, it will have the most unpleasant repercussions.”

“Let me guess,” Bruno said. “You’ve gotten the Captain’s daughter pregnant and he’s now sending you on missions wearing a red shirt.”

I scowled. It was an old joke. Officers who wore red shirts in the line of duty had been deemed expendable. No one wore a red shirt – UN duty uniforms were blue – but the joke was still passed on from rank to rank. I didn’t know where it originally came from; it was probably inherited from one of the national armed forces that had been integrated into the UNPF.

“No,” I said. “It was on Heinlein…”

I outlined everything that had happened on the planet, sparing them nothing, but the secret of the library. That was something I wanted to keep to myself until I knew who could be trusted, or not. I told them about the occupation, about the reporters and about how they lied endlessly about what was going on down on the surface. I finished with recounting the strike on the town and the hundreds of dead children, slain by my hand. I even confessed that I had attempted to file a protest, only to have it withdrawn.

“I don’t think you meant to do it,” Kady said, finally. She was young and blonde, with faintly-vulnerable features. She and Bruno had been an item back at the Academy and I wondered, absently, if they were still together. “It wasn't your fault.”

“It was our fault,” I said. “The UNPF invaded their world and…”

I stumbled through an explanation of how wealthy and pleasant Heinlein was, compared to the Earth we’d escaped. The society was wealthy, crime and social deprivation seemed to be at an all-time low, very different from Earth. The planet had been more advanced than Earth in many ways – I remembered the robot librarian and smiled inwardly – and it hadn’t been a threat. We – the United Nations – had made it a threat, simply by invading. It was our fault.

“The newscasts keep claiming that Heinlein was building a war fleet to bomb Earth into radioactive rubble,” Lieutenant Christopher John Roach pointed out, when I’d finished. He didn’t sound unbelieving, just concerned. “Do you think that we might have seen their defensive fleet pointed at us one day?”

“I doubt it,” I said. I wasn't sure if that were true enough. If I lived in the malls without a hope of escape, I’d be praying for merciful liberation, or even death. If Heinlein had bombed Earth…but they hadn’t bombed Earth. The newscasts kept claiming that we’d gotten our retaliation in first, but how could one retaliate against something that had never happened? “Their society wasn't set up to launch an offensive war.”

I leaned forward. “And then there were the workers we conscripted from Albion and other planets,” I added. “How much right do we have to take them away from health and home just to put them to work for the UN?

“And even that isn’t the final issue,” I concluded. “Tell me something. Do you think that we – the United Nations – can win this war?”

There was a long pause. “I used to work on Devastator’s logistics,” I explained. I’d deduced how basic economics worked before the Heinlein texts had placed everything in a kind of context. “It’s becoming harder to obtain basic supplies, let alone items we desperately need to run starships. It now takes years to build a starship when it once took months. The freighters are overworked by the demands of the war and…well, I saw one of them burn out its drives because it hadn’t been in a shipyard for repairs. How long will it be before we don’t have a transport fleet left?”

I pushed the point forward. “The resistance in space knows that as well as we do,” I continued. “They’re targeting freighters and troop transports, rather than tangling with our cruisers and battleships. Freighters are effectively defenceless, so we have to cut loose starships to escort them, which spreads our starships critically thin. If we have to cut down on supplies to occupied worlds, we will start losing garrisons and eventually start losing control of entire planets. How long can we continue fighting this war?”

“I did logistics as well,” Kady admitted. “My most optimistic estimate would be ten years, assuming that no new invasions were mounted.”

“They probably will be mounted,” Lieutenant Kevin Sartin offered. “I’ve been hearing rumblings about both Williamson’s World and Iceberg being targeted for occupation. Williamson’s World is suspected of supplying aid and comfort to Heinlein, among other worlds, and is a known source of illegal starship components. It’s quite possible that they are supplying Heinlein’s resistance fleet through a black colony…”

“And how long will they have to prepare for the invasion?” I asked, coldly. “We lost a handful of ships in the first month of invading Heinlein. How many will we lose in another invasion?”

“How many soldiers will we lose on the ground?” Marine Lieutenant Alison Brooks asked gravely. She’d been a Cadet who’d transferred to the Marines and I’d been in two minds about inviting her, but we would need help from the Marines. “The big brains back home are going to fight the war to the last infantryman, or the last starship crewman.”

“All right,” Bruno snapped, rubbing one dark arm in front of his face. “I take your point. We’re going to lose the war, right?”

“Yes,” I said, flatly.

“That’s nonsense,” Ellen protested. “What about nuclear weapons…?”

“Turning Heinlein into a radioactive wasteland won’t help save the UN,” I said. “I’ve done the maths carefully. Assuming that we get no further conscript workers from the colonies, we’re looking at a complete social collapse within thirty years – at best. It may well come sooner if a successive failure chain starts moving; hell, it may be moving already.”

I saw their expressions. A failure chain began when one component failed, and in failing, caused another component to fail, which caused yet another component to fail… We’d been taught a rhyme about it at the Academy. “For want of a nail,” I quoted, and ran through the entire rhyme. “And even if we manage to fix one problem, we’re still going to have others, hundreds of them. I doubt that the collapse can be averted for long.”

“They must know this,” Kevin protested. “Why aren’t they doing anything about it?”

“They don’t care, or they can’t do anything,” Allison said. “Look, the people who issue our orders cannot change much about how the system works. They need to cut spending drastically and they can’t do that without destabilising everything, so they try to take as much tax money as possible…and that puts businesses out of work, which only increases the burden on social spending.”

She smiled at our expressions. “I had to spend a year down on Earth,” she explained. “I learned more than I wanted to learn about how the system really worked.”

“I see,” Bruno said. “Very well, John; the floor is yours. Why have you called us all here?”

I took a breath. I was about to commit myself…no, I was committed. I owed it to the dead children of Heinlein and poor Ensign Gomez to commit myself. If I were to be arrested and tried for treason, at least no one would be able to say that I hadn’t tried.

“This cannot go on,” I said. “I cannot – I will not – serve as the enforcer for idiotic beauecrats intent on raping the colonies to keep Earth alive one more day. I want to stop it, dead in its tracks.” It was hard to say, but there was no choice. “I want to plan a mutiny.”

“It sounds like you want to mount a coup,” Alison observed. She didn’t seem angry, just curious. “Do you think that you could run the government better than the government?”

That, I decided, went without saying, but I had humbler objectives. “I want to take the fleet,” I said. “If we could seize control of the jump-capable forces in the solar system and their supporting elements, we could pick up the remainder of the fleet as individual starships return to Earth. If we held the fleet, the UN would be trapped on Earth and the colonies would mop up the garrisons.”

“There’d be a slaughter,” Alison pointed out.

“They’re…Infantry,” Bruno snapped. “They don’t deserve our sympathy!”

“There are units that are actually quite capable,” Alison said, coldly. “I have worked with them on occasion. Do they all deserve to die?”

“They don’t have to die,” I said, carefully. I needed her cooperation desperately. “We can force the colonies to allow the garrisons to leave peacefully…”

“And where will they go?” Kevin asked. “Earth, perhaps…or Botany?”

“I don’t know,” I admitted.

Kady frowned from her position. “Tell me something,” she said. “The fleet needs supplied – you know that as well as I do. How do we get the supplies we need to keep the fleet operating without Earth?”

“The supplies don’t come from Earth,” I said, seriously. I’d seen it back when I’d been assigned to Devastator’s logistics. “They come from the asteroid industrial plants and stations there; they’re just shipped back to the Supply Department on Earth. The fuel for the shuttles and the fusion plants comes from Jupiter and the cloud-scoops there. Everything, but the crewmen themselves comes from somewhere other than Earth. We don’t need Earth to supply the fleet!”

“Assuming they will cooperate,” Bruno said, grimly.

“They will,” Alison said. “I took a tour out there last year. The rock rats hate the UN with all of their considerable fervour. Half of the staff on those stations are conscripts from worlds like Heinlein and really don’t want to be there. The remainder just want to live in peace without the UN’s impossible demands. They keep having nasty accidents that somehow never get reported.”

The discussion ranged backwards and forwards, but at the end of it, we had a plan. “Thank you all for coming,” I concluded. “Is there anyone here – now – who wants to back out?”

“No,” Bruno said. No one stepped forward. “What now?”

“Now?” I asked. I produced a set of datachips. If they’d been Brotherhood members, it would have been easier, but there was no way to know if they were Brotherhood. No wonder no one had managed to use the Brotherhood as an instrument of rebellion. “These have instructions on how to encode a message through the communications system. We’ll stay in touch and lay our plans.”

“It’ll take years,” Alison agreed. “If we all recruit a handful of others…”

“Quite,” I said. “Remember, keep these to yourself and don’t share them with anyone. Now, this is how we’ll keep in touch.”

Two hours later, I returned to my hotel, grinning from ear to ear. Anyone who saw me probably suspected I’d just been with a woman and I was content to let them believe that. One way or the other, the die had been firmly cast. There was no turning back. I felt so alive.

Interlude Two

From: The Never-Ending War. Stirling, SM. Underground Press, Earth.

But who are the enemy?

The United Nations did not, at first, admit the existence of an enemy. That would have put the lie of their claims that they were beloved and ‘only’ at war against corrupt government officials and others who opposed the UN’s commitment for liberty and benevolent government for all. Indeed, despite various advances in weapons science deployed by the colonies – and other forces – the UN Intelligence Division (a contradiction in terms, if ever there was one) was unwilling to admit the existence of such weapons, as that would have made a mockery of the UN’s claims to be the most advanced society that ever existed, or ever would exist.

It would be easy to say that the enemy was everyone, and there would definitely be some truth in that statement. It would be more accurate to say that the UN’s main enemies, outside the independence-minded colonies, were hidden black colonies, wreckers (terrorist groups) and even renegade UNPF officers. The threat was multisided and seemingly limitless. No matter how many successful invasions – if only for a given value of successful – the UN mounted, no matter how many black colonies were encountered and destroyed, the hydra simply grew more heads. The UN sought the creature’s heart, to rip it out and tear it to shreds, but there was no such thing. The enemy had no head.

This should not have been surprising. Even during the first expansion into space, there were groups that sought to set up their own colonies and hide from the remainder of humanity. Some of them were religious communities intending to remain apart from infidels – see the Mormon Asteroid Colony, which became New Salt Lake City, for details – while others belonged to weirder fringe groups, including rogue criminal gangs and terrorists. The invention of the jump drive and the first expansion into interstellar space only strengthened this trend. As Earth became increasingly inhospitable to freethinkers and non-conformists, the vast reaches of space beckoned and the emigration began. Largely unknown to Earth – still dominated by nationalist governments at the time – thousands upon thousands of unregistered citizens were moving outside their control.

Some of these groups – the Mormons, in particular – founded planetary settlements, with or without the consent of the UN. Others found isolated stars without habitable planets and used their dead worlds as a base, fairly confident that the UN would not waste time trying to examine the systems thoroughly enough to locate the hidden colonies. The official wave of expansion pushed a more secretive wave of expansion in front of it, creating hidden populations with no reason to love the UN. Many of them, therefore, turned to supporting the UN’s enemies. Only the secrecy that is an inherent requirement for any black colony prevented the creation of a major threat to the UN.

The UNPF, therefore, found itself tasked with charting and patrolling the Beyond – as it came to be called. It forced them to divert desperately needed ships on courses that would keep them out of contact for months, perhaps even years. It was not surprising, therefore, that a few ships chose to rebel, or even died out among the stars, their passing unmarked by the UN until years later.

The enemy could be anywhere.

Part III: First Lieutenant

Chapter Twenty-Three

The First Lieutenant is one of the most important officers on a starship and stands between the Captain and his subordinates. The First Lieutenant is expected to handle personnel issues, keep the starship in working order, oversee maintenance and generally take as much of the weight off the Captain’s shoulders as possible. While there are Captains who take a far more hands on attitude to their commands than the above may suggest, the Captain should be able to rely on his First Lieutenant completely. A disloyal First Lieutenant can tear a ship apart.

-Thomas Anderson. An Unbiased Look at the UNPF. Baen Historical Press, 2500.

“She doesn’t look any different,” I said. I couldn’t keep the wonder out of my voice. “She looks as beautiful as ever.”

“She sure does,” the Pilot agreed. He was the same Pilot who had served on the Jacques Delors for my first cruise, but that wasn't uncommon. Pilots needed to be very familiar with their starships and were rarely transferred unless there was a desperate need for their services elsewhere. Even so, a Pilot who was a rated expert with one starship might be no more than a more standard helmsman in another. “You really missed yourself with the engagement against the pirates at Robinson’s World.”

He grinned as the shuttle started to glide down towards the shuttlebay. “Now that was some fancy flying, sir,” he added. “The Captain was delighted with us all.”

I fought down a tinge of envy. It was much easier to hate pirates than innocents caught up in the midst of a ground war, when the UN had invaded their planet. Some pirates were raiders trying to take out as much of our shipping as possible. Others, the nastier kind, were complete sociopath-type people. They wanted to loot transports and kill or enslave as many people as possible. It seemed impossible that they would survive for long, but there was a thriving black market in starship components and there were certainly plenty of recruits. The people trying to flee the conscription program had every incentive to sign up with the pirates.

“Nice and easy,” the Pilot said, as the shuttle drifted neatly into the docking bay. There was a faint thud as the craft settled to the hard metal deck. An instant later, the doors started to slide closed as the crew started to pump in the atmosphere. The entire process had taken place in a vacuum. The Pilot saw my puzzlement and hastened to explain. “The Captain decided that we should practice operations in vacuum, so the bay force field was deactivated.”

“I see,” I said. Despite everything, I still felt eager to set foot back where I belonged. “When can I leave the shuttle?”

A green light flickered on over the airlock. “Now,” the Pilot said. “I’ll have a crewman take your bags to your quarters.”

Every starship smells different, but smelling the Jacques Delors was like returning home. There was a faint hint of oil and machinery, the aroma of two hundred men and women living far too close together…and I loved it. The shuttlebay, I was relieved to see, was still neat and tidy. Our second shuttle still sat on the other side of the bay, but now it was joined by a colourful Marine Landing Craft, its blocky shape covered with a painting of a shark’s jaw. I wondered, for a moment, why we had such a craft, before remembering what had happened on Terra Nova. The Captain had to be feeling a little paranoid. The Marines used to claim that they could be in their landing craft and on the surface within ten minutes of the call…and we might need them. The Quick Reaction Force on Heinlein hadn’t moved very quickly at all.

“Welcome back, sir,” a crewman said. He wasn't familiar to me, but crewmen transferred frequently. A crewman generally served two-to-five year terms in the UNPF, with a guaranteed settlement right for a new colony as a reward. It was very rare for a crewman to make the jump to commissioned officer status, although it did happen on occasion. “The Senior Chief will be right with you.”

“Thank you,” I said, gravely. I caught myself straightening my uniform before remembering that the Senior Chief wouldn’t be impressed by my dress blues. The Captain, on the other hand, might understand when I presented myself in my finery. The Great God Tradition dictated, as always, how we should act. “I’ll wait for him here.”

The Senior Chief looked older than I remembered, but his face was still merry and he winked at me as soon as he saw me. I held out my hand and then found myself giving him a bear hug. He hugged me back, hard enough to hurt, and then insisted on taking my bag, passing it to the crewman.

“It’s good to see you again, son,” he said, seriously. “I told you that you’d go far.”

“You did,” I agreed. I didn’t want to have any serious conversations in front of a crewman I didn’t know. “What’s been happening on the ship?”

“Only a few patrols and some excitement when pirates decided to attack a colony world and its settlements,” the Senior Chief said. He steered me towards the corridor and I allowed him to lead me up towards Officer Country. “I hear that you’ve been making quite a name for yourself.”

I frowned. What was he referring to? “I like to think so,” I said, carefully. “Chief…what happened to Lieutenant Hatchet?”

“She was well over five years in grade,” the Senior Chief reminded me. I winced. I could pretty much fill in the rest myself. “Eventually the Captain and the Political Officer ran out of delaying tactics and the beauecrats reassigned her to a research station orbiting Titan or somewhere. One of the many places where they send their failures, son, so bear that in mind. I think she applied to serve on a freighter afterwards and was snapped up by one of their Captains.”

“Shit,” I said, with feeling. Part of me – the part that looked forward to being First Lieutenant – was glad she’d gone. The remainder wished her well. She had been a role model for me during my first cruise and I had missed her on the Devastator. “And the others?”

“Half of the Ensigns left, as you know,” the Senior Chief said. “The Pilot, Engineer, Doctor and Marine Sergeant are still the same. The Engineer has been getting crankier recently because he believes that we’ve been cheated on priority for new components. He might even be right. Treat him with some care.”

“I will,” I promised. “And the Captain?”

The Senior Chief caught my arm. “Holding on,” he said, softly. I remembered what he’d told me two years ago and winced. “Be careful with him and don’t try to stab him in the back. I won’t stand for it.”

“Me neither,” I promised him. We had reached Officer Country, passing the two Marines on guard. On some starships, their presence was a vital necessity, but on Captain Harriman’s ship, it was merely a waste of resources. The senior officers weren't at war with the lower decks. We pushed the door buzzer and, after a moment, hatch hissed open. “I’ll chat to you later.”

Captain Harriman looked older, somehow, than he had when we’d first met. His face was as mature as ever – the regeneration therapies, only available to people with extremely good connections, had done a good job – but there were new lines embedded within his skin. Somehow, his hair gave the impression of turning grey, even though it seemed perfectly black. He looked up as I entered and I was shocked when I saw his eyes. They were old and very tired. The pressures of his role were bearing down on him.

“Lieutenant John Walker reporting for duty, sir,” I said. I had straightened to attention automatically. Lieutenant Hatchet had hammered that into my head during the first month on the vessel. Now I pulled a perfect salute, more out of respect for him personally than the rank. I would have died for him.

“Welcome onboard,” the Captain said. His voice, too, was tired. He sounded like a man on the verge of death somehow, even though there was some of the old strength there. I wished, suddenly, that I were Lieutenant Hatchet. She would have known what to do. I felt as if I were nothing, but a helpless observer. “I trust that you had a pleasant week at Luna City, John?”

I flushed, slightly. I’d spent the week making contacts with people I’d known and trying to sound them out about their feelings for the regime. It hadn’t been easy and I was grimly aware that if someone talked to the wrong person, or reported me to the security forces, I was dead. The planning hadn’t even reached the operational stages yet and wouldn’t realistically, for several years. The best we could do was plan and try to position ourselves for action in the future.

“Yes, sir,” I said. I had never lied to the Captain before, but there was little choice. “I spent most of it in the Video Lounge and then Madame Olga’s Place.”

The Captain smiled faintly. “The Video Lounge?” He asked, dryly. “Why there?”

“I like to play computer games,” I admitted. It was hard telling a lie to him, but I had used to visit back when I’d been in the Academy. There were aspects of Academy training that could be applied to computer games, although some of them were puzzles or strange adventures, rather than action and adventure. There was one featuring a small blue mutant hedgehog I’d used to love. “It’s not something you can do on a starship.”

“Against regulations,” the Captain agreed. He grinned suddenly, seeming years younger for a long heartbreaking moment. “And is Madame Olga the same as ever?”

“Ah…I wasn't too concerned with her,” I said, frantically. Madame Olga ran one of the more upscale brothels in Luna City and had been around as long as anyone could remember. “I just wanted a girl and…”

I trailed off. The Captain seemed to recognise my embarrassment. “I used to know her when I was younger,” he admitted. “She was quite a beauty in her day.”

“Yes, sir,” I agreed. I had the vague feeling that I was being teased. The imagination couldn’t cope with the idea of the Captain as a young man. It seemed more likely that he had sprung into existence on the bridge. “Some of her girls were almost beauties…”

The Captain laughed at my discomfort. “They always were,” he said. “However” – he shook his head slowly – “we have other matters to talk about, even though it would be nicer to talk about girls. Do you understand that you will be First Lieutenant on this vessel?”

He paused. “At ease, by the way,” he added. “You’re a Lieutenant now. You’re allowed to relax slightly in the presence of your Captain.”

“I understood that to be the case,” I said. “I was sorry to hear that Lieutenant Hatchet had left this ship.”

“Command has seen fit to grace me with several green Ensigns and Lieutenants again,” the Captain said, tiredly. “I’m relieved to see you – I approved your transfer despite some pressure from other quarters – because you were already familiar with Lieutenant Hatchet’s methods for breaking in new Ensigns. That will be your job as well as the other duties that come with the position.”

“Yes, sir,” I said. I had forgotten that detail – I remembered what we’d been like as Ensigns and shuddered – but there was no getting out of it now. “She taught me how to deal with them, sir.”

“And of course you will remember what it was like to be young and unformed yourself,” the Captain continued. He straightened up himself and looked into my eyes. It was almost like he had returned to his old personality. “You are not just to be another Lieutenant on this vessel, John. As First Lieutenant, you are expected to be my tactical alter ego, advising me and, if necessary, disagreeing with me. You won’t find it easy, so let me assure you from the start that you may speak freely to me at all times.”

“I never saw Lieutenant Hatchet disagreeing with you,” I said, puzzled. “I don’t recall that at all.”

“Lieutenant Hatchet spoke to me in private about any doubts or issues she had,” the Captain explained. “You were never meant to hear anything that could cast doubt on my authority, or wisdom. Jason” – it took me a moment to realise that he meant the Political Officer – “would do the same. You’ll have to learn, John, but I’m sure that you can do it.

“We spent the last cruise patrolling and watching for pirates and we will be doing the same on this cruise,” he continued. “We’re supposed to be escorting several freighters to Botany – they may be targeted by wreckers, but not by common pirates – and then onwards to New Paris, before heading out for a circuit through the Beyond. It may not work out as planned. The last cruise left us all exhausted.”

“Yes, sir,” I said. If nothing else, it would give us time to break in the new Ensigns. “How far are we going to go into the Beyond?”

“Maybe a hundred light years,” the Captain said. “It may be slightly further, but it depends on what we find. We may even have to return to Earth or another fleet base sooner than we expect.”

I couldn’t keep the grin off my face. The Beyond referred to the space beyond the advancing wavefront of official human colonisation. Anything could be out there, from hidden human colonies to pirate bases and shipyards. It almost made up for the run to Botany. We might even discover the first non-human civilisation, although I wasn’t sure I wanted the UN to encounter them. The UN’s reaction to primitive groups on Earth and some of the colonies was generally to keep them primitive, in the theory that primitive cultures shouldn’t be allowed to vanish from the universe. It probably explained a lot about Muna’s history.

“It’s not that exciting,” the Captain warned. “The last two sweeps through the Beyond found nothing of interest, beyond a pair of habitable planets. You’ll probably find it rather boring.”

“It couldn’t be boring,” I said, shaking my head. How could I explain the thought of seeing emptiness that no one had ever seen before? “Ah, sir…I…”

“Never mind,” the Captain said. He grinned at me, and then softened. “Now, I want a full briefing on Heinlein – and I want the truth, nothing, but the truth.”

“Yes, sir,” I said, and started to talk.

It lasted nearly an hour. I’d started with the invasion and gone on to talk about how the war was progressing, although my information was at least a month out of date. I mentioned the strikes on civilians and how many innocents were being killed in the crossfire, but I didn’t mentioned anything about Ensign Gomez. I did mention that the reporters had been mostly killed in engagements in ‘safe’ areas, however.

“I have met a few reporters,” the Captain said, dryly. “You won't have to worry about them on this vessel.” I let out a sigh of relief. “You will have to take care of the Infantry Company we’re shipping to Botany, but they won’t be as bad.”

“No, sir,” I said, and kept my thoughts to myself. The Infantry had picked up a bad reputation on Heinlein, at least as far as I was concerned. “Why…?”

“Apparently someone at UNPF headquarters doesn’t quite trust the assurances that the troop transports are perfectly safe,” the Captain said. I couldn’t disagree with that unnamed officer, even if he had just condemned us to a crowded ship for the first two weeks of the voyage. “Botany doesn’t rate a high priority, so they’re just being dumped on us for the trip. We can’t put them in the barges or there’ll be a mutiny. They’re a good unit, so be nice to them. An old friend of mine is in command.”

“Yes, sir,” I said.

The Captain studied the starmap on his display for a long moment. “We’re scheduled to depart in two weeks,” he said. I nodded. That had been in the data pack that he’d forwarded to me, along with instructions on boarding. “You’ll have two days to adjust yourself to this ship - again – and then the Ensigns will arrive. You’ll have a proper First Ensign, at least, so that won’t be a problem. Stand watch tomorrow with me and we’ll run through a few drills.”

I wasn't deceived by his tone. He intended to put me though my paces…and it wouldn’t be easy. Captain Harriman wasn't known for sparing the rod when it came to drills; I’d be tested on everything, corrected firmly, and then tested again, and again. It had worked while I’d been an Ensign and would probably work again.

“Yes, sir,” I said, trying frantically to remember everything I would need to know. My mind seemed to have gone blank. I could barely even remember my name. “Tomorrow?”

“Get some rest,” the Captain ordered. He smiled suddenly, as if he had just thought of a joke. “Or catch up with old friends. I’ll see you on first watch.”

“Yes, sir,” I said, and saluted, before leaving the Captain’s cabin. I wasn't surprised to see that the Senior Chief had gone, leaving an Ensign in his place. He would have hundreds of things requiring his attention before we departed…but it took me a moment to realise that I recognised the Ensign. “Sally?”

“John…ah, Lieutenant,” First Ensign Sally Brenham said. There was a bitter tone in her voice. I’d served with her on the last cruise – how was she still an Ensign? She should have made Lieutenant by now. “Welcome onboard the Jacques Delors.”

Chapter Twenty-Four

The vast majority of UN Infantrymen, for various reasons, are not trained to the standards that the Marines or specialist Security Division units use. The net result is that most Infantry units are poorly led, poorly equipped and generally unsuitable for the type of war they are called upon to fight. While there are some capable and competent commanders in the UN Infantry, most of them find themselves marginalized. Their units are often asked to attempt the impossible.

-Thomas Anderson. An Unbiased Look at the UNPF. Baen Historical Press, 2500.

I had only been inside Lieutenant Hatchet’s cabin once, back when I’d been an Ensign. It had seem palatial to my young eyes, being almost large enough to swing a cat, with a large bunk and enough storage space for almost anything we could want. The Lieutenant in me wondered if there was enough space. I had picked up a few personal possessions along the way, as well as my dress uniform, ground-side uniform and various other items of clothing. I even had a bra that Kitty had given me as a joke, just before we parted and she went to her next posting. I missed her dreadfully already.

Sally hesitated on the outside of the cabin. “Come in,” I said, already feeling myself floundering. What did one say to a person who had once been your equal – and then First Ensign, making her my superior – and who was now a full rank-grade below? She clearly had the same problem. Technically, she should have saluted me, but I let it pass. There were no witnesses anyway. “Sally…why are you still here?”

The blunt question seemed to surprise her. I wasn't too surprised. I’d seen a handful of officers who’d spent too long in their grades ever to be promoted again and most people had tiptoed around them, afraid that failure would rub off on them and they’d be damned by association. Three years as an Ensign suggested that someone didn’t have a hope of advancement, but why? Sally hadn’t been incompetent, or stupid; Lieutenant Hatchet would never have allowed her to get away with it. She’d have been working off demerits for the entire voyage.

Her eyes, when she finally looked up at me, were raw and painful. “Just after you left,” she said, slowly. “Just after you left, we made the run to Albion again, carrying a new governor and his staff. The old one had suffered some kind of accident.”

I nodded. I could guess what form that accident had taken. Albion might not seethe with resistance, like Heinlein, but it was still unstable. The men and women who had been trying to escape the UN’s conscription program had probably escaped with the help of an underground resistance organisation, which might have started a new campaign of violence. Another world for the United Nations to occupy…if they could find the Infantry, after Heinlein.

“One of his staff was a Political Officer, but we didn’t know that,” Sally continued. “She seemed friendly and often engaged us on conversation and I shot my mouth off. She wanted my opinion of a few programs and…I told her just what I thought. I’d been assisting the Lieutenant with the logistics after you left and I knew enough to make a fool of myself. I thought it had gone well until I discovered that she’d entered a notation in my file forbidding further advancement.”

I winced. A Political Officer’s notation could be damning to a career. Nothing that Captain Harriman or his Political Officer could do would remove the blight from the file; whatever it said, it would prevent any further advancement. The only good thing about it was that it hadn’t seen her consigned to a deep-space fuelling station somewhere on the edge of the Beyond. Instead, she’d been left on a starship. I wasn't sure if that was kindness or an extra twist of the knife.

“And so, here I am,” Sally said. Her voice was bitter. “What’s the point of doing anything when there’s no hope of going any further?”

“I don’t know,” I admitted. I wanted to tell her about my plans, but I didn’t dare, not yet. This wasn't the Sally I had once known, but a stranger consumed with bitterness and hatred, raging helplessly against the universe. Even if the notation were somehow removed from her file, she’d still be tainted by it…and her new attitude. On the other hand, I could use her. “Sally…we’ll find a way out, all right? I promise.”

“You can’t keep that promise,” Sally pointed out, angrily. “Part of me just wants to tell them to shove it and quit. The other part doesn’t want to give up the starship and service on her. John…why the fuck do I even care?”

A dozen possible answers ran through my mind, but I abandoned them all. They wouldn’t have made the situation any easier. “There are always possibilities,” I said. It sounded trite and I knew it, but I couldn’t tell her anything else just yet. “Listen. We will find a solution, one way or the other. Now, tell me about the ship and its new crew.”

“I shouldn’t even be socialising with you,” Sally pointed out, suddenly. I was surprised by her sudden grasp of regulations, and her willingness to heed them. “You’ll just have your career dragged down by mine.”

“It doesn’t matter,” I said, softly. “You should try serving on a monitor instead of this ship. That would give you a sense of perspective.”

I listened, carefully, as she talked about the other lieutenants, the ones I hadn’t met. They were all junior to me, having earned their promotions later, and had transferred in from other starships. The Captain had apparently decided that they all needed additional training and had run them through endless drills – I knew the procedure by now – until they improved. When Lieutenant Hatchet had left the ship, one of the new Lieutenants had served as First Lieutenant and succeeded in seriously annoying the Captain, enough for him to accept my transfer request. I hoped that that meant there wouldn’t be a second resentful officer onboard, but there was no way to know. If the Captain had been annoyed…it had to be bad.

“Oh, look at that,” I laughed suddenly. “She’s left me the horsewhip!”

Sally giggled, despite herself. Lieutenant Hatchet had decorated her cabin with a horsewhip she’d picked up from somewhere and she’d occasionally threatened to use it on us for a particularly disastrous failure, back when we’d been new and untrained Ensigns. No one had called her bluff and, as far as I knew, no one had ever been whipped. The Political Officer Sally had encountered sounded like an excellent choice for the first target.

“I think its her way of warning you not to fuck up her position,” Sally said. “Or perhaps its her way of telling you that she’ll be back. Take care of it, all right?”

I nodded. “I wouldn’t dare not take care of it,” I said. “She’d kill me.”

Sally finally left me to my cabin and I started to unpack my bags. I’d been impressed by the size of the cabin, but even so, my small number of possessions just seemed to rattle around in the compartment. Lieutenant Hatchet must have had hundreds of possessions, or – perhaps – she hadn’t been inclined to fill all her drawers. I wished, just for a moment, that she were still onboard. I knew so little about what I had to do. I didn’t even know how to console Sally. Lieutenant Hatchet would have known what to say, of course, but I didn’t. I just felt so helpless.

I spent the first night rattling around in the bunk, wishing that Kitty had transferred with me, even though that would have made her First Lieutenant. The bunk was tiny, compared to the beds in the hotels on Luna City, but I’d been used to sharing with someone else. Now it just felt tiny, and alone. I could still message Kitty – her starship hadn’t jumped out of the system yet – but it wasn't the same. I entertained the absurd thought of leaving my new ship and going to find her, but…how could I do that? I needed the Jacques Delors for my plans.

The next morning was too long in coming. I breakfasted at the mess – as everyone, but the Captain was supposed to do – and ground my way through foodstuffs that had been reconstituted from waste, instead of having been sent up from Earth or one of the asteroid farms. The cook did the best he could, but it seemed that supplies got worse and worse every year. I didn’t understand what was going wrong with the farming back down on Earth, but it was clearly disastrous if they were starving starship crews. I would almost have preferred to starve. The food tasted like someone had fed it to a cow, which had vomited it up afterwards. There were probably laws against feeding dumb animals such crap.

“The Supply Department is having problems, or so I’m told,” the cook said, when I asked. “They’re warning us that supplies of anything, but Algae-grown foodstuffs might be limited over the next few years. It’s only temporary, or so we are assured.”

“I see,” I said, wondering if I should take it up with the Captain. He might know more about what was going on. “I’ll see what I can scrounge up for you.”

“There’s been a major accident in one of the main food producing areas on Earth,” the Captain said, when I asked him an hour later. We were alone on the bridge. Hardly anyone bothered to keep a proper watch in Earth orbit, even Captain Harriman. There was no point. Earth’s defences would provide plenty of warning if the system came under attack and the level of firepower surrounding the planet was utterly intimidating. I doubted that anyone would dare to launch an attack. “The UN Food Commission has had to reduce quotas for the year.”

I shuddered. I knew little about food producing systems – the farms and the vats where meat substitutes were grown – but if the UN had lost a major source of food, the entire population would have to tighten their belts, and probably starve anyway. The UN needed to feed us to keep us alive and working for them. What would they do with the population down on Earth? They might not bother to try to feed them at all?

They’d probably try to extort food from the colonies as well, but it would only be a drop in the ocean. Even if they assigned every jump-capable ship in existence to the task, they could only bring in a few million tons of food at most, barely a drop in the ocean compared to the requirement. It might also be disastrous. Some of the food we’d sourced from Heinlein had been contaminated in several different interesting ways. Food poisoning was not a pleasant way to go.

“Still,” the Captain said, “we can survive on what we get. Now…”

We went through an entire watch period, calling up simulations and responding to them. I don’t know if I impressed the Captain or not, but he wouldn’t have hesitated to chew me out if there had been a real problem. Eventually, he called up a set of tactical simulations and told me to keep practicing until told otherwise. I had manned tactical stations before, but this was different. The person commanding the ship had to keep everything in mind. I might not have had to fire the weapons personally, but I had to juggle our course, speed, interdiction field capabilities and weapons. There were some tactical simulations that simply didn’t have a solution. The more you progressed through the simulation, the worse the computer-generated opponents became…and, eventually, the ship was lost.

“You’re not meant to win,” the Captain said, when I complained. “The simulation is meant to force you to think quickly and survive as long as you can. There are people who turn it into a gambling game, but it’s really meant to push you right to the brink.”

He smiled, thinly. “And, of course, it’s cheaper than testing an entire starship to destruction,” he added. “How else could we find out what you’re made of?”

“There was no such test at the Academy,” I said, puzzled. “Why weren’t they included there?”

“Because the Academy is run by people who believe that failure stunts a child’s development,” the Captain explained, angrily. For a moment, I wondered if the Captain was a member of the Brotherhood. It was quite possible, apart from his family connections. “Instead of being taught how to deal with failure, in an environment where the worst thing that could happen was punishment duty, you were coddled and generally spared from experiences that would have taught you things you needed to know. Discipline was lax, almost non-existent, and accidents were common. Those accidents happened because you were not allowed to fail.”

His eyes darkened. “If you ask anyone what went wrong down on Earth, why we have to kidnap workers from Albion and a dozen other worlds, you’ll get a thousand answers,” he said. “I believe it happened because no one was allowed to fail. No child could be taught how to cope with failure, so they were never challenged or disciplined. It didn’t matter how well, or how badly, you did; you were always feted and rewarded for your accomplishments. You were never pushed to succeed, so you never really did – and you never understood that you were a failure.”

I nodded slowly. I would have liked to disagree with him, but he was right. I had been unprepared for the Academy and I’d been unprepared for life on a starship. It could have been worse – I’d seen children failing Remedial Sewing and Advanced Creative Writing – but even so, I’d been one of the lucky ones. There were people my age who’d never been taught to read, but spent most of their time mouthing slogans and trying to find a job that would pay them enough to buy enough drink to blot out the pain of their lives.

Two hours later, I met the Infantry Company as they boarded the starship. I hadn’t been impressed with the infantrymen I’d seen on Heinlein, but this company looked much neater, carrying their bags in a disciplined manner. They weren’t allowed to carry their weapons onboard ship – safety regulations again – but even so, they looked tough enough to take the ship off us with their bare hands. I wondered, briefly, how the Marines would get along with them. I just hoped there wouldn’t be blood on the bulkheads.

“Infantry Captain Andrew Nolte reporting, sir,” their leader said, as three Sergeants escorted the men off their transport boat. The sublight vessel was only capable of ferrying them between the Earth and the Moon. I’d already detailed several crewmen to escort them to their temporary barracks. The ship was going to be crammed to bursting when the Ensigns arrived. “Where do you want us?”

“Welcome onboard, Major,” I said. There could only ever be one Captain on the ship, so Andrew would receive a verbal promotion while he was onboard. “We’ve cleared out two of the crew wardrooms for you, along with one of the holds for your equipment. How many men do you have?”

“They didn’t tell you?” Andrew asked. I shook my head. They’d told me that it would be a Company, but I’d seen Infantry Companies that had everything from ten men to three hundred. “I’ve got seventy men and five sergeants. We should have more, but the Generals insisted that Botany was going to be a safe posting and I could spare a couple of platoons and two sergeants.”

“Typical,” I agreed. It had been clear from the start that Captain Harriman had too few officers and men. The Jacques Delors should have had more crew. As it was, if we ran into trouble, we might not be able to deal with it. The Engineer had been complaining about the shortage of crewmen trained to repair the ship for weeks, according to the reports the Captain had filed. “Are your men equipped for shipboard life?”

“Don’t worry,” Andrew assured me. He understood my meaning, all right. Infantrymen had a certain reputation on starships. It was why they were normally entrusted to troop transports and stasis pods. “We won’t cause trouble. You won’t even know we’re here.”

I laughed. “I’ll take your word for it,” I said. “We’re supposed to be departing soon, but things being what they are, I wouldn’t be surprised if they were delayed.”

“Exactly,” Andrew said. I found myself liking him, despite his career. He would have made a good starship officer. “Hurry up and wait.”

I shrugged. “Why are they sending an infantry company to Botany anyway?” I asked. It seemed rather odd to me and the orders had no explanation attached. “It doesn’t strike me as the kind of place an infantry company would be needed.”

“Just rumours, apparently,” Andrew said. The final infantrymen passed our position and marched onwards into the ship. The crewmen would be able to help them unpack and run through basic safety procedures with them. Unlike the reporters on the Devastator, they would probably be smart enough to listen. “You know what the Generals are like. They hear a rumour and suddenly everything has to be dropped until the rumour has been checked out.”

“I know just what you mean,” I said, remembering adventures on Heinlein. We’d been deployed in support of rapidly-mounted operations before on the planet’s surface. We’d just been lucky that there hadn’t been a second atrocity – as far as I knew. “We’ll get you there as soon as we can.”

“Oh, there’s no hurry,” Andrew assured me. He laughed, dryly. “Like you said, nothing ever happens there. We’re probably just wasting our time.”

Chapter Twenty-Five

The UNPF’s original motive for disdaining military formalities was a reaction to the military formalities used by various national military forces, before they were integrated into the UNPF or dispatched to various colony worlds. It didn’t take long for the new hierarchy to realise that it enjoyed the formalities, and even that they served a purpose. Regardless, the UNPF takes a slapdash view – at best – of the requirements and it is sad, but true, that many Ensigns leave the Academy with only a vague idea of what they are.

-Thomas Anderson. An Unbiased Look at the UNPF. Baen Historical Press, 2500.

I saw them coming through the cameras in the docking tube before they reached the Marines. There were five of them, wearing uniforms that were…slovenly, at best. I had a moment of Déjà vu – seeing them as Lieutenant Hatchet must have seen us, years ago – before they came up to the Marines and presented their papers. No wonder the Marines had smiled when they’d seen us. They'd known, and probably heard, the chewing out we’d received. We had deserved worse than we’d got.

The scene didn’t improve as they stepped through the airlock. They should have walked in one by one, in accordance with safety regulations. Instead, two of them pushed through, propelled by the other five. They stepped dead on seeing me and the others, who hadn’t seen me yet, pushed them forward. I almost expected them to fall flat on their faces – which would have been an embarrassing welcome to the starship – but they managed to keep their footing, barely. The other three saw me and stared. I’d worn my dress uniform – I’d shined it specially – and looked practically perfect in every way. They looked like they were wearing unearned uniforms, compared to me.

“Ah,” one of them said. “We’re reporting for…”

I cut him off, making a big show of reading my chronometer. “And what time,” I demanded, with another flash of Déjà vu, “do you call this?”

The spokesman stumbled, and started to recover. I didn’t give him a chance. “It is now 1307,” I said, coldly. It was my impression of Captain Shalenko and it worked. To them, it must have been thoroughly intimidating. “Your orders specifically ordered you to report onboard at 1300 precisely. Instead, you are seven minutes late. Do you have a good explanation for this?”

I allowed my eye to trail across nervous faces, some defiant, some twitching, and smiled inwardly. “Well?”

“We were…ah, admiring the ship from outside,” one of the female Ensigns said, finally. I mentally gave her points for truthfulness. We’d admired the ship too before we’d boarded, only to run right into Lieutenant Hatchet. “We didn’t mean to be late.”

“And yet you disobeyed orders,” I said, icily. I paused, as if I had just made a shocking realisation. “Why are you not at attention? Were you given leave to stand at ease?”

They straightened up. If anything, they were worse than we had been. The line wasn't straight; they weren't angling themselves on me and their uniforms…I didn’t want to think about what some of them had been doing to their uniforms. If they’d worn dress uniform, they would at least have been presentable, but really! No one in their right mind should report onboard a starship wearing standard ship-worn uniforms. They weren't really capable of making a good impression.

“Good,” I said, grudgingly. It wasn't anything like good enough and I knew it. I just hoped they knew it as well. “Sound off, by the numbers.”

There was a moment’s pause while they tried to remember who should go first. It was generally from left to right, but evidently they hadn’t bothered to practice that either. I listened as they finally gave their names and ranks, nervously eyeing me as if I were a tiger contemplating my dinner.

“Ensign Allan Barras, reporting for duty, sir!

“Ensign Yianni Gerasimos, reporting for duty, sir!”

“Ensign Evgenia Agathe, reporting for duty, sir!”

“Ensign Geoffrey Murchison, reporting for duty, sir!”

“Ensign Sandra Chang, reporting for duty, sir!”

“So you at least know how to do that,” I said, as if they had barely convinced me that they were their names. I had already read their files and matched names to faces, but I wanted them to go right back to the basics. “I am Lieutenant John Walker; First Lieutenant John Walker. I am the second-in-command of this vessel, which means that I am your supervisor during your time on this ship. If you have problems, you come to me with them. If you have questions, you ask me. I will be far less annoyed if you ask me stupid questions than if you fuck up because you didn’t understand something. Do you understand me?”

“Yes, sir,” they said, in unison.

“You may believe that you are now officers,” I continued. Lieutenant Hatchet had given us a similar lecture. “You may believe that you are qualified to issue orders to crewmen, regardless of their time in service. That belief is a function of your own ignorance. You are shockingly unprepared for the life of a starship crewmen and we will have to train you as hard as we can. You have two choices. You can suck up what we teach you, apply yourself and learn as quickly as possible, or you can be put off this vessel. If you want to leave, say so now and save us all a lot of trouble in the future.”

There was a pause. No one took me up on the offer. “Good,” I said. “I will expect you to work hard to learn what we have to teach you. It may interest you to know that a third of Ensigns die on their first voyage – because they didn’t know basic facts and their ignorance killed them. If you listen, you will stay alive. You might even be promoted. Fuck up and, if you’re lucky, you’ll get yourself killed. If you’re unlucky, you’ll get someone else killed with you. You start out as the lowest of the low. If you learn, you will rise.”

I allowed my eyes to linger on Ensign Allan Barras for a long moment. “Ensign,” I said, coldly. “Why are you not wearing your dress uniform?”

He stumbled under my gaze. “I was informed that wearing a dress uniform was not required,” he said, finally. “I was…”

“Nonsense,” I said, allowing my tone to drop even colder. “UNPF Regulations specifically state that all newcomers to a starship – particularly one that is their new posting – are to wear their dress uniforms. You should have checked the data download we gave you with your orders, instead of listening to advice from someone who either decided to set you up for a fall, or simply didn’t know. The only acceptable excuse for not wearing a dress uniform is coming directly from another starship on transfer. You came directly from the Academy.”

I stared at him until he lowered his eyes. “One demerit for not wearing a dress uniform,” I said. I looked from Ensign to Ensign. “That goes for all of you. One demerit each for not wearing dress uniforms. Now…Ensign, why are you not wearing your Academy pin?”

I took five minutes over his uniform and ended up handing out three additional demerits. He’d worn jewellery – not for a religious purpose, which was permitted if frowned upon – and hadn’t taken care of his shoes. I finally turned to Ensign Yianni Gerasimos and studied her carefully. I could tell, by her shuffling, that she knew what I was going to say before I said it.”

“Tell me,” I said, pointing a long finger. “What is that?”

She flushed bright red. “My…ah, breasts, sir,” she said. She’d opened the buttons of her uniform to show an impressive cleavage. I could hear two of her fellows snickering very quietly and glared them into silence. “I thought…”

I cut her off. “You are required to be demure on duty at all times,” I said, coldly. “This is not a brothel or a clubhouse for boys and girls. This is a starship and a modicum of professional appearance is required at all times.” I held her with my eyes. “Or did you think that you could flash your tits at us and we would carry you on our backs? We don’t have the time or manpower for dead weight, Ensign.”

“Hang on,” Ensign Geoffrey Murchison said, angrily. “You can’t talk to her like that?”

“And how should I talk to her?” I demanded, fixing him with a gaze that could have killed. “A crewwoman on a starship is expected to meet certain standards. A person who is unable or unwilling to meet those standards has no place on the ship and will probably get someone killed. Did you do her homework for her? Did you carry her on your back at the Academy? One demerit for speaking out of turn. A second demerit for being rude to a senior officer.”

I turned back to Yianni. What sort of name was that? “It may interest you to know, Ensign, that one of the Ensigns on my last ship was raped by a passenger,” I informed her. “I suggest that you comport yourself more demurely in the future. One demerit for being improperly dressed and a second for not taking care of your uniform.”

I went through the others, one by one. Ensign Geoffrey Murchison only earned one demerit for his appearance. He’d go far if he learned to keep his tongue under control. The Academy hadn’t been allowed to punish insolence or do anything more than issue mild rebukes, but I had other options. He was young and clearly bright, but very unformed. I saw, for a long moment, just why Lieutenant Hatchet had stayed at her post for so long. The chance to shape a young mind was intoxicating.

And, compared to them, I felt very old.

“Twenty-seven demerits between you,” I said, finally. It hadn’t been a pleasant experience for any of us. I’d had to inspect them all, carefully. They’d had to stand at attention long enough to give them cramps. “Five on average, right? That isn’t too impressive, is it? What are we going to do with you?”

I allowed my gaze to pass over them again. “You are going to develop into proper officers here,” I said, coldly. “You will work off each and every one of your demerits and the experience will teach you one thing you lack – discipline. There are ships where discipline is a joke, but this isn’t one of them. You will develop into fine officers, or we will kill you trying to turn you into fine officers. Do you understand me?”

Their expressions were oddly amusing. “Good,” I said. “Now, stand at ease.” They relaxed. “In a moment, the Captain will welcome you onboard his ship. Afterwards, we will introduce you to the First Ensign and allow you ten minutes to settle into the wardroom – I suggest that some of you use that time to change into cleaner uniforms – you’ll be washing the other uniforms yourselves, just to remind you of how much time it takes to wash them. After that…”

I allowed myself an unpleasant grin, the kind of grin that moves towards a swimmer with a fin on top. “After that, Ensigns, we will begin your proper introduction to the vessel.”

“Attention on deck,” the Senior Chief said, as he entered. “Captain on the deck!”

I stood to attention as well and saluted the Captain – perfectly – as he entered. It looked coincidental, but I knew that the Captain would have been watching through the airlock’s cameras. I saw him cast his eyes over the Ensigns – who, at least, had managed to stand to attention properly – and wince slightly at Yianni’s shirt. The way she looked, she would have had more hopes of a career as a fashion model, rather than an Ensign. I remembered Ensign Gomez and winced myself. On Earth, a girl walking about like that in one of the malls would have been an open invitation to rape. I wondered, absently, just where she’d come from originally. I’d have bet good money it wasn't from Earth.

“At ease,” the Captain said, finally. I listened as he ran through the same speech he’d given us, years ago. He hadn’t changed it in the slightest. It was odd how comforting I found that, even though the Ensigns had probably found it as intimidating, and yet inspiring, as we’d found it. I rather hoped so. They could afford to hate me – just as some of us had disliked Lieutenant Hatchet – but they couldn’t afford to hate the Captain. He was the father of the entire vessel.

“Attention,” I ordered finally, as the Captain departed the airlock. “Senior Chief?”

“Please follow me,” the Senior Chief said. Please or no please, it was an order and I was relieved to see that the Ensigns followed it unquestioningly. The Senior Chief took them on the long way around to their wardroom, showing them something of the ship’s layout – seemingly by accident. The Ensigns should have studied the unclassified diagrams of the ship that we’d provided in the data pack, but if they hadn’t…well, we were offering them a chance to learn. They stared around as they moved, trying to drink it all in. They'd learn, I decided, even if the experience wasn’t comfortable for them. I just hoped that none of them would ever end up kidnapping people for the UN.

The Ensign’s wardroom was smaller than I remembered, or perhaps it was just that I’d been getting used to a Lieutenant’s cabin. There were still the original eight bunks, one of which was occupied by Sally, who gave me an unreadable look as the Ensigns filed into the wardroom. I hoped that none of them had expected to be First Ensign, even though they all had the same graduation date; Sally would outrank them until they were promoted, which would happen unless they screwed up by the numbers. I nodded to Sally and left them to get acquainted, with a final warning that I’d see them on Deck Three in ten minutes. I was deliberately pushing them as hard as I could. How quickly could they change, make themselves presentable, and then reach Deck Three? It was just possible to do it all in ten minutes…

“Interesting lot,” the Senior Chief commented, as we walked towards Deck Three. Deck Three was generally used for storage space and sickbay. I’d introduce them to the other sections of the ship one by one. “Did you notice how badly they were dressed?”

“I handled out demerits for it,” I remarked, crossly. We hadn’t looked much better, but at least we’d worn dress uniforms. “Is there a reason for that?”

“Standards are slipping everywhere,” the Senior Chief said. I wondered if he’d heard it through the Brotherhood grapevine, or simply by keeping his ear to the ground. We’d have to talk once we were inside the wormhole and well away from Earth. Until then, there wasn’t much I could tell him. “The Academy has been trying to rush more cadets through on an emergency program – they think they’re going to have to meet much higher requirements in the next couple of years. I’m actually surprised they didn’t send us the full eight Ensigns, but maybe they’re trying to spread the newcomers out a bit.”

I frowned. “They’re speeding up the program?” I asked. I’d been at the Academy for four years and I had missed plenty that I’d needed to know. “What the hell are they going to cut out of the program?”

“Fucked if I know,” the Senior Chief said. He lowered his voice for a moment. “I bet you anything you care to put forward that they won’t have cut any of the political indoctrination.”

“Shit,” I said. I’d been taught the rudiments of using a spacesuit, operating in zero-gravity, piloting a shuttle, basic maintenance – which was really replacing a broken component with another component – and much else besides. How much had the Ensigns been allowed to skip? “We’d better get ready to test them on everything, just in case.”

I scowled. System Command had played around with our departure date again and now we were scheduled to depart in two days. I had that long to break the Ensigns in and remove, if necessary, any Ensigns who simply couldn’t adjust to life on a starship. It was quite possible that one or more of them would be far more of a liability than an assert, someone who had no idea how inexperienced they were until it was far too late. I’d have to weed them out quickly…because if we entered the wormhole, we couldn’t turn back. System Command were already bitching to the Captain because we hadn’t left earlier.

“Yes,” I agreed. “Get the dummy spacesuits and the retch gas. We may as well start with the fun test first.”

Sally led the Ensigns in and stood to attention. I checked my chronometer openly and allowed myself a slight smile. They’d made it – barely. Hopefully, they’d have learned the unspoken lesson as well; they needed to listen to and learn from Sally. She could talk to them as an equal, while they couldn’t talk to me, or even the Senior Chief, as anything, but subordinate to superior.

“At ease,” I said, checking their appearances with a glance. They showed few signs of haste, probably thanks to Sally. “There are five spacesuits on that rack there. Put them on quickly and go right into the next room. Sally, remain here.”

The Ensigns struggled, I saw, without surprise. It wasn't easy to put a spacesuit on without assistance, even though it was something that the Academy taught everyone. Normally, they’d have help from their superiors…and that wasn’t something they’d have if they were alone. They were treating it as a race, I realised. Yianni was struggling with hers, but Allan, instead of helping her, was trying to beat her to the punch. They hadn’t realised that they needed to cooperate.

A moment later, Adam was finished and moving right into the next room, through the pressure barrier. A more experienced officer might have wondered why the barrier was there. They ran into the room…and, a moment later, we heard the sound of retching. The suits hadn’t been fixed properly.

“First lesson,” I said, as they staggered back into the room. The interior of their suits was truly disgusting. “Check everything, even if someone tells you it’s safe. Trust no one when it comes to your personal equipment. Take no chances. It’s not a race, you know. Why did none of you check the telltales on the suits?”

I smiled at their expressions. This time, the experience had been humiliating, but harmless. The next time, it might be lethal…and I could see the realisation sinking in. Despite their inexperience, perhaps there was something that could be made of them.

“Clean yourselves up,” I added, more gently. “We’ll reconvene at Ninth Watch.”

Chapter Twenty-Six

The UN prefers not to ‘waste’ money on war games and exercises, insisting instead that it’s Captains – those who believe that training isn’t a waste of time or money, but a vital process – work with computer-generated simulations. This has the effect of allowing mistakes to be made and studied without any real life consequences, but it lacks a certain reality. The situation is worse in the Infantry. Training budgets are so low that infantrymen are rarely allowed to fire their weapons outside of combat…and the paperwork required is so extensive that most officers skip training altogether. The results of this can be imagined.

-Thomas Anderson. An Unbiased Look at the UNPF. Baen Historical Press, 2500.

“Stand by to open the wormhole,” the Captain ordered. “Helm?”

Ensign Yianni Gerasimos looked nervous – and considerably more demure than she had on her arrival – but somehow also confident. She would have practiced in simulations at the Academy, yet now she was doing it for real. “Wormhole coordinates set, Captain,” she said, carefully. “We are targeted on Botany.”

I checked my own console. I hadn’t realised, back when I’d been an Ensign, how many safety precautions the Captain had had in place. I’d believed that I was solely responsible and anything that went wrong would be my fault. The Captain had had the Pilot and a Lieutenant watching over my electronic shoulder, ready to intervene if I charted a course right into a planet’s atmosphere or somewhere else equally dangerous.

“Good,” the Captain said. “Engineering, this is the Captain. Status of the Jump Drive?”

“Jump Drive inline and ready for operation, Captain,” the Engineer said. I hadn’t realised how involved he’d been either. “You may open the wormhole at will.”

“Excellent,” the Captain said, gravely. “Helm, open the wormhole and take us in.”

My display altered as space warped in front of us, opening up into a wormhole. A person watching from the observation blister would have seen an event horizon forming in front of us, opening up into a funnel that sucked us down out of normal space and time, but my display merely showed the energy flux. It reminded me of what the Senior Chief had said about how few people really understood the Jump Drive, or even how it worked. We were dependent on a piece of technology we barely controlled.

“Wormhole entrance closed, sir,” I reported, as the wormhole sealed itself behind us. The display suggested that we were trapped in our own little universe. In theory, it was possible for another starship to inject itself into our wormhole, but as far as I knew, no one had ever tried. No one expected an attack inside a wormhole. It would require so much luck that no one could hope to pull it off. It was barely possible to track the wormhole vector to get a rough idea of where a starship was headed. Even that wasn’t perfect. A starship could emerge from one wormhole and promptly open a second one, altering heading as it did so. “We’re clear.”

“Good,” the Captain said. He looked down at Yianni. “Good work, Ensign.”

I saw her flush slightly with the praise. “Thank you, sir,” she said.

The Captain keyed his console. “All hands, this is the Captain,” he said. “We are now in wormhole space. Stand down from alert. I repeat, stand down from alert.” He looked over at me as he unkeyed his console. “Lieutenant, you may begin your exercise sequences now, if you please.”

“Yes, sir,” I said. It didn’t matter if I were ‘pleased’ or not. We’d discussed the exercises beforehand when we’d been planning the voyage. I keyed my own console and smiled thinly. “All Ensigns, report to the bridge. I repeat; all Ensigns report to the bridge.”

“You have command,” the Captain said. He stood up and headed towards the hatch. “Try not to crash into an asteroid.”

I blinked, before realising that I was being teased and chuckled. There was nothing in wormhole space to ram, but the old good-luck blessing still worked. The Captain left the bridge, pausing only to accept the salutes from the entering Ensigns – they knew better, now, than to allow anything to delay them from answering a summons to the bridge – as they entered. They’d had their status drummed into them by myself, Sally and the Senior Chief. They’d learnt that their ranks hadn’t yet been earned. It seemed hopeless, at times, until I remembered that we had probably seemed equally hopeless as well. Five of us had reached lieutenant; the sixth – Sally – had run afoul of the Promotion Board.

“Yes, sir,” I said, and keyed my console. By long tradition, only the Captain could sit in the Captain’s chair, so I logged the change of command and stood up. I could have sat in the watch chair, or at any one of the consoles, but I thought it looked more impressive if I stood up. I looked at the Ensigns and was gratified to see how quickly they stood to attention. I had just realised that Ensign Sandra Chang was missing when she ran in through the hatch, breathing heavily.

“I’m sorry, sir,” she said, quickly. “I was just caught up in my work…”

“Indeed?” I asked. “I believe that you were taught how to stand to attention?” I watched as she stumbled into position. “What exactly were you doing?”

“I was helping Lieutenant Kennedy with the inventory and we were in the midst of the medical supplies when you called me to the bridge,” she said. “She told me to go, but I had to put down the lists first before I left her.”

“Really,” I said. She held my eyes and I decided that she was probably telling the truth. If she were lying – and stupid enough to invoke the name of a Lieutenant in the lie – it would come out soon enough. “Why did you run onto the bridge?” I spoke again before she could answer. “Officers are expected to maintain a basic decorum at all times, as you know. What would have happened if a passenger had seen you running through the corridors?”

I smiled, slightly. It was odd, but passengers onboard starships were regarded as minor children at best, irritations at worst. On second thought, remembering the reporters, there might be a point to the concept. The reporters had nearly gotten themselves killed more than once. Part of me still wished that someone had arranged an accident for Frank Wong before he died on Heinlein.

“They would think that something was wrong and panic,” I said, coldly. “Passengers have no sense of what is right and wrong onboard a starship. Instead of waiting in their cabins for orders, they might run around the corridors screaming, spreading the panic still further. If they did that, how much of the starship’s corridors would they block up?”

I looked at her. “One demerit for running in the corridors,” I said. I saw the suppressed groan. Working off demerits involved hard and disgusting work, or hours upon hours of exercises in the gym. She already had too many to work off. We didn’t allow Ensigns to work them off while on duty. It would be the middle of next week by the time they had a chance to work them all off. “I trust that the lesson is taken?”

She nodded, slowly. “Good,” I said. “Evgenia, I believe that you had the highest scores on the tactical consoles at the Academy? Perhaps you would like to take the console?”

“Yes, sir,” Ensign Evgenia Agathe said. She was a slight girl, with an appearance that suggested that she was barely entering her teens, but there was nothing wrong with her mind. Given enough time, she might even be mistaken for adult – as well as a competent officer. “Ah…is it set to exercise settings?”

I smiled. “Well spotted, Ensign,” I said. At the moment, the console was live, even though there was nothing to shoot at inside the wormhole. “If you’d used the console without checking, it would have earned you five demerits.”

“Yes, sir,” she said, tightly. It was a little cruel – five demerits would have pushed her over the line and earned her harsher punishment – but it had to be done. She started to look for the switch they would have shown her on the Academy, but she was wasting her time. They’d been removed from starships for over twenty years. I’d made the same mistake myself.

“It isn’t there,” I said, and keyed my console. “Engineering, this is Lieutenant Walker. Disengage the bridge controls. We’re going to be running simulations for the next hour.”

“Certainly,” the Engineer said. I guessed that he was just as happy that the Ensigns would be out of his hair. They couldn’t be trusted in Engineering until much later, and even then, they would be carefully supervised. “Authorisation code?”

“Alpha-Three-Walker,” I said, clearly. “Disengage the systems now.”

“Bridge controls disengaged,” the Engineer said. “Have fun.”

I smiled. It was true that we’d used the system for games – games with a very practical purpose – and gambling on Devastator, but we couldn’t do that here until the Ensigns could be trusted to wipe their own bottoms without supervision. I reached over Evgenia’s shoulder, noting the SIMULATION ACTIVE icon that had appeared in the display, and brought up the first simulation, a missile attack on the Jacques Delors from another starship.

“All right,” I said. I pushed as much drama into my voice as I could. “The defence of this vessel is in your hands. Your actions will determine if we survive to tell the tale or die in a ball of exploding plasma. And, if you last more than ten minutes, I’ll cancel half of your demerits.”

“Yes, sir,” Evgenia said. I was pleased to see that she had no illusions about my offer. I wouldn’t have given her something easy to do to work off even one demerit. “When do I begin?”

I touched the console. “Now.”

The tactical simulation, I was surprised to note, had been improved in the wake of the UN’s war with the Heinlein Resistance Fleet. Originally, it had consisted of a makeshift pirate vessel – a converted freighter – that somehow held and fired more missiles than was physically possible. Now, it featured a Heinlein starship flying the Skull and Crossbones and performing rapid and unpredictable manoeuvres to prevent its firing patterns becoming predicable. If it were real, we would have shot back with our own missiles, but now…all Evgenia had to do was keep us unhurt. By program fiat, the starship could survive no less than three hits, even with nukes. A fourth hit would be devastating.

I smiled. At first, the missiles had come in one by one and had been easy to knock down. As the simulation progressed, they had started to come in pairs, and then in entire salvos, each one packing enough power to take out the entire starship. Evgenia coped well at first – I’d have been surprised if she didn’t – but as the missile barrage grew stronger, I could see the tension as she bent over the console. It took upwards of five to ten seconds of continuous burn from the lasers to take out a missile and while a point defence laser was dealing with one missile, another could become a problem. Some of the missiles failed to find a targeting vector and slipped by into space harmlessly – the tactical program counted hitting one of them as a loss – but most of them angled in on the ship, looking for weaknesses.

“Shit,” Evgenia said, suddenly. I let it pass, even though that should have earned her a reprimand; the missiles had suddenly split apart into smaller missiles, each one racing towards her position. We’d seen that trick before on Heinlein, even though the smaller missiles couldn’t carry large warheads, and it never failed to irritate the point defence controllers. The UN kept promising that they’d find a way to identify such missiles before they separated, but I wasn't holding my breath. If tactical experts like Captain Harriman and Captain Shalenko hadn’t been able to separate them I doubted that anyone else could, at least in a way we could use. “Sir, I…”

“Focus,” I snapped.

The screen flickered red suddenly; a missile had slipped through her point defence web and struck the ship. In real life, the entire ship would have heaved, power fluctuations would have torn through the ship and vital components would have burned out, causing havoc. In a simulator, we could fix all the damage with the touch of a button and study our mistakes endlessly. Evgenia swore again and redoubled her efforts, but now the swarms of missiles were coming in faster and faster. The simulators didn’t care about the drive field limitations that we – and Heinlein, among the other colonies – had to respect. We could test our Ensigns against missiles that didn’t – yet – exist in real life. The screen flickered red again…and this time the computer ruled that half of the point defence weapons had been knocked out of commission. I looked at the timer – seven minutes – and smiled. A moment later, the ship was destroyed…

“Pause simulation,” I ordered. “Not too badly done, Ensign.”

“I lost,” Evgenia said. She hesitated. “Why don’t we let the computer do it?”

“We use the computer to support your efforts,” I pointed out. It was true. Once Evgenia had marked a missile down for destruction, the computers had taken over and burned the missiles out of space. “We don’t let the computers do everything because they can be tricked, or spoofed, in ways that a human would see through. The best tactical officers learn an intuition about such matters that computers never develop.” I paused. “Any other questions?”

“Yes,” Evgenia said, slowly. “Why do we have imaginary missiles in the simulation?”

“You handled yourself well against missiles that moved faster than anything known in space,” I explained. “If you can cope with them, you can cope with the slower missiles we have to deal with in real life – without thinking that you know everything you could possibly face. Our enemies develop new weapons and tricks, Ensign, and they’ve used them to surprise us before. We put you through hell in hopes that it will keep you alive.”

I looked over at Ensign Geoffrey Murchison, he who had stood up for Yianni. “Well, Ensign?” I asked. “Would you like to try?”

Geoffrey gulped. “Do I get the demerit reduction as well?”

“Ten minutes,” I said, motioning Evgenia away from the tactical console. She looked vaguely surprised that the seat wasn’t covered in sweat. “Good luck.”

Geoffrey lasted eight minutes before he lost his ship as well. He hadn’t done badly at first – and he’d clearly been watching what had happened to Evgenia, learning from her experience – but he missed a scatter-missile before it scattered, right into his face. The point defence computers overrode at once, but it was too late to prevent the three fatal hits. He didn’t swear and listened carefully when I outlined what had gone wrong.

“There are no clues in the display as to what missile is what,” I said, “but if you watch carefully, you may notice slight hints. That one, however, drove in like a standard missile and you ignored it until it was too late.”

Geoffrey blinked. “But…no clues,” he said. It wasn't entirely accurate, but picking up on the clues would require experience. “That’s not fair.”

I snorted. “Whoever told you that the universe was fair?” I asked. “Yianni – your turn. Try and last longer then Geoffrey.”

Yianni lasted five minutes. I replaced her with Sandra and she lasted seven minutes. Allan, who went last, had studied carefully and managed to last nine minutes, but only Sally – who’d been doing it for years – managed to cross the ten minute limit. It wasn't so useful in her case. Because of her age and general experience, she hadn’t been given a demerit for years.

“That,” I said, pointing to Sally, “is what you have to match.” I smiled at their expressions. Sally had made it look easy. “You’ll be drilling time and time again on this console – and others, set up down below. You’ll be registered in the ship’s computers and anyone who survives longer than nine minutes will receive a merit point. Anyone who dies before passing the five minute mark will receive one demerit instead.”

“I don’t understand,” Evgenia said, slowly. “I’ve studied tactical records at the Academy and no ship ever had an engagement like that one.” She nodded towards the console. “Why do we have to practice like that?”

I smiled. “First, the engagement we created for you is theoretically possible,” I explained. “I admit that no ship has ever had to fight such an intensive battle, but it is possible. Furthermore, there are…issues in real battles that don’t arise in simulations, and if we programmed the simulation to let you only practice what we have experienced, you’d be at a disadvantage. The purpose of this training session is to teach you how to think and act quickly, not to practice real battles.

“Second, because we said so,” I added. “You need to learn. Once you learn, you will understand the basis for this training session – and others – far more thoroughly if I simply told you the answers. In time, you may find yourself teaching others.”

I grinned, nastily. “Now we’ve done the easy part,” I said, “we can turn to the harder part. How many of you have ever flown a starship before?”

The helm console, rigged to simulate actual flight operations, lit up at my touch. “It’s time to see if you can dock us with Orbit One – who wants to go first?”

Evgenia took the helm, and then Yianni, and finally Allen before we ran out of time and they had to go to their political briefing. If I’d been commanding a real starship, I would have probably had them strangled and then thrown out of the airlock; they crashed the ship into Orbit One twice and avoided disaster by the skin of their teeth seven times. A starship handles like a wallowing pig near an orbit station…and the slightest mistake could be disastrous.

“You’ll be doing that again and again too,” I said, at the end. “If you don’t learn that quickly, you’re going to get us all killed.”

Afterwards, I laughed, even though it wasn't funny. God help me, but I was growing to like them. How had Lieutenant Hatchet coped with it?

Chapter Twenty-Seven

Outside observers have often wondered at the discrepancies between the United Nations Infantry, the United Nations Specials, and the United Nations Marines. The first is a blunt instrument used for the violent suppression and occupation of enemy worlds, the second is a covert/special forces operations unit and the third is used mainly in space. The discrepancies are explained by differences in their training methods. The UN invests a great deal in its Marines, while Infantrymen are regarded as expendable. This goes a long way towards explaining the treatment of civilians by the infantry. They know that their masters regard them as worthless.

-Thomas Anderson. An Unbiased Look at the UNPF. Baen Historical Press, 2500.

I hit the deck hard enough to hurt, even though the padding.

“Uncle?” Master Sergeant Erwin Herzog asked sweetly. “You’ve not been keeping up with your practice, have you?”

I rubbed my jaw slowly, knowing that it could have been a great deal worse. I was almost certain that he’d pulled that punch, and yet it felt as if someone had smashed the entire starship into me. The contest bout had been my idea, but I hadn’t had the time to keep up with training on the Devastator and I had slipped, badly. He’d knocked me down in just under a minute.

“Uncle,” I agreed, thoughtfully. I ached in several places and I hadn’t landed a single punch. I’d treated him as I’d treated Jase and his friends down on Earth…and that had been a mistake. When he'd dared me to challenge him, I had accepted…and realised, too late, that it was a trap. He’d knocked me down with ease. “That was sore.”

“Hard training, easy mission,” Erwin said. It was a Marine saying that had never made its way into the Infantry, or, for that matter, the Academy. “Easy training, hard mission.”

“Touché,” I agreed, sourly. “How are the new Ensigns coming along?”

“Three of them will make…adequate martial arts artists in a few months if they work at it,” Erwin said, helping me to my feet. “The other two won’t make anything other than journeymen at best, I’m afraid. Too much reluctance to try to land the killing blow, or perhaps too much fear of pain. We could beat that out of them if they went to Camp Currie, but here…well, there are limits to what we can teach them.” He shrugged. “I trust you’re not thinking of challenging one of them to regain your pride?”

I started to sputter before realising that I was being teased. It wasn't as if I were short on possible sparring partners. There were the other Lieutenants, Sally herself – although that would have bent regulations almost to breaking point – and, of course, Andrew’s infantrymen. I could see several of them gathered around a Marine and an Infantryman, watching them pushing at each other. It looked more like a hazing rite than an actual bout, but Andrew and a pair of Marines were watching them carefully. We had already had one bloody fistfight and didn’t need a second one.

The relationship between the Marines and the Infantrymen was an interesting one, I’d decided. The Infantrymen were determined not to be outdone by a bunch of overpaid pretty boys – their words – while the Marines were equally determined to rub the Infantry’s collective nose in their own inferiority. I would have bet on Erwin’s twenty-one Marines against all of the Infantry Company if it were a normal under-trained Company, but Andrew was apparently a good officer. Their stats, according to Erwin, were better than anyone had a right to expect.

It had also led to an interesting series of encounters. Some had challenged others to grudge matches, while others had produced illegal decks of playing cards and engaged in cross-unit fraternisation. The joint training had broken down into several fistfights before their respective leaders restored order, but an hour later Andrew and Erwin had been arm-wrestling for superiority, or a point of order. Neither of them knew how to quit and they’d managed to sprain each other’s wrists. The Doctor had made a number of sarcastic comments about how many small injuries she was being called upon to treat, but after a few days, they seemed to come to a halt – mostly. The two leaders were also very inventive when it came to punishment duty.

I smiled, thinly. If nothing else, the starship was cleaner than it had been in years.

“No,” I assured him, as I staggered over to the dressing bench and pulled off the tunic I’d been wearing. Being naked in front of men and women had bothered me when I’d gone to the Academy, but I was used to it by now and wasn’t particularly surprised when Erwin joined me. I was glad I hadn’t seen him naked before I’d been volunteered for fight training. I would never have dared raise a hand to him. “They’re not ready for that, are they?”

“Be glad of it,” Erwin said, as we stepped into the showers. The warm water sluiced off the sweat and drained away down towards the recycler. Cleaning that was yet another punishment duty. “I’ve served on ships where the Captain used force to keep his people in line. It never ended well.”

I nodded as I washed away the dirt and stepped out of the shower. Water is always at a premium on a starship and while we could, in theory, mine an asteroid or a comet for water ice, it wasn't something the Captain would want to do if it could be avoided. It was against regulations to remain in the showers for more than two minutes, unless you had special permission, but I wasn't surprised when Erwin stepped out of the shower just after me. We’d all learned to time it properly, although the shower in the Ensigns’ Wardroom was configured to only give them two minutes and nothing more.

“So,” Erwin said, afterwards. We were alone in the changing room. “I understand that you have something to talk to me about?”

“Not here,” I said, quickly. I’d broached the issue with the Senior Chief and he had insisted on approaching Erwin personally. I hadn’t attempted to prevent him. They’d been friends for years. The Master Sergeant might not listen to me, but he’d listen to the Senior Chief. “Can we talk in your quarters?”

“I don’t have any fancy quarters,” the Master Sergeant said, dryly. I flushed, remembering that all of the Marines shared a single wardroom. The Infantry had had to be spread out, but the Marines practically lived in each other’s pockets. They shared a closeness that even the best Ensigns never achieved. “Your cabin, John?”

I nodded and led him through the corridors, before we turned and entered my cabin. I took a moment to wave him to a chair and turn on my music player, accessing a file of heavy metal music. Midgard Metal, the singer and songwriter, wasn't entirely to my taste, but anyone trying to listen in to our conversation – I was almost sure that the cabins were probably bugged – would have some problems. It was one of the ideas I’d learned from the Heinlein files. They even included instructions on how to subvert and overthrow the government, something that had convinced me that the system worked better than Earth. I couldn’t have hoped to find information like that on Earth.

“All right,” I said, as the strains of Darkness Falls Upon Her Heart echoed through the cabin. “Listen carefully.”

I outlined everything that had happened at Heinlein, from the deaths of innocent civilians to Ensign Gomez’s rape and my determination to overthrow the system before it killed us all, or led the Earth to ruin. I knew I was taking a chance, but I trusted the Senior Chief…and we’d need the Marines to help us. Without them, it would be much harder to seize the fleet. Without the fleet, the entire plan was dead in the water.

“Interesting,” he said, when I’d finished. “What do you plan to do afterwards? Declare yourself ruler of the galaxy?”

“Hell, no,” I said, angrily. I didn’t want the job and I knew no one who could be trusted with it, even if the UN’s experience suggested that interstellar government couldn’t work. “We just end the war – without the Peace Force, the UN can’t fight the war – and declare peace. We pull the infantry off Terra Nova and prevent further invasions, from anyone.”

I didn’t bother with emotional appeals. Erwin would either go along with it or he would refuse. If the latter, we were in serious trouble. If something happened to me, now, the entire plan might be blown out of the water.

“It might work,” he agreed, finally. “You know, of course, that some form of interstellar trade will have to continue?”

“Yes,” I said, flatly. I suspected that Heinlein, Williamson’s World and maybe even Iceberg would corner the market on interstellar freighters, but that hardly mattered to me. Freighters couldn’t be used to wage war. If we prevented anyone else from building warships and didn’t launch any invasions ourselves, interstellar society wouldn’t collapse under the weight of the war.

“And there’ll be a bloodbath when the locals realise that the Infantry no longer has access to orbital weapons,” Erwin added. “What will you do about that?”

“Withdraw them as quickly as possible,” I repeated. “I don’t think we should be supporting them any longer than it takes to withdraw them. The local resistance fighters might even back off and allow us to pull them off the planet, along with any collaborators the UN created over the years. God knows, we can even try them for war crimes.”

“If I agree to help,” Erwin said, “that’s my price. I want genuine war crimes trials for the infantry. I don’t want my Marines contaminated by their…attitude to war.”

“I understand,” I agreed. Personally, I would take some delight in finally seeing General Hoover and the rest of his staff brought to book for war crimes against civilians. They’d probably use the following orders defence, but that meant little to me. They shouldn’t have followed the orders in the first place.

“Did they have any choice?” Erwin asked, when I said that out loud. “What would have happened to them if they had refused to follow orders?”

I scowled. “Point taken,” I said. The Generals would probably have been reduced in rank. The common Infantrymen would be court-martialled and shot. They hadn’t had much choice…but I still wanted to hurt them for what they’d done. “Will you help us?”

“I’ve been in the service for thirty years,” Erwin said. His voice darkened. “I’ve seen hundreds of my friends lost, their lives squandered, because some moron back on Earth screwed up and sent them to die. I know other Marines who feel the same way too, but really…what could we do about it? The Brotherhood couldn’t help us.”

His eyes narrowed. “Do you trust the Brotherhood?”

“I don’t know,” I admitted. I trusted the Senior Chief, and yet…there was no way to know who was really on the far end of the computer network. The Brotherhood seemed to be composed of shadows and little else, although I was unsurprised to realise that Erwin was a member. His friend had probably invited him to join as well. “I think that I’d prefer to keep them out of it if possible.”

“A wise choice,” Erwin agreed, slowly. He looked down at his hands for a long moment. “I believe that most of the Marines would join without hesitation, if given an opportunity. Do you want me to speak with them?”

“Not now,” I said. “I want you to talk to them after we leave Botany. I don’t know where Andrew’s sympathies lie and I don’t want to risk opening communications with him yet.”

“I think he would have made an excellent Marine,” Erwin said. He grinned, suddenly. “If you tell him I told you that, I’ll have to kick your face in. You could probably convince him to join afterwards, but at the moment…well, he’s just got to worry about his men and Botany. It’s going to be a hardship posting.”

I made a mental note to review the files as soon as I could. “I understand,” I said. “Thank you.”

“One final point,” Erwin said. “What about the Captain?”

I hesitated. I hadn’t been allowing myself to think about that, but he was right. The Captain would be the ideal leader for our conspiracy, except his family tied him to the UN and the status quo. I would have followed him anyway, but how could I ask him to lead us against his family? His family had gotten him the command and ensured he kept it, despite his unconventional outlook and methods. He wouldn’t want to wage war on them, or even, as I intended to, prevent them from waging war against anyone else.

“Nothing,” I said, shivering inside. How could we remove the Captain from power? I knew that there was no choice, but to relieve him, somehow, yet…I couldn’t move against him. I’d have to cross that bridge sooner or later, and yet I hoped it would be later. Perhaps something else would intervene. “We can’t risk telling him anything.”

Erwin nodded and left.

I spoke to the Senior Chief that evening and compared notes. I hadn’t realised just how much the non-commissioned ranks saw of the ships, or how they worked. The Senior Chief knew hundreds of people who might be willing to help us, if approached properly. The Brotherhood might even be used to vouch for some of the recruits, without trusting them completely. He agreed with me that it would be a bad idea to approach the Captain, although he insisted that the Captain was not to be harmed.

“It may not come down to a mutiny now,” he said, “but if it does, you can remove the Captain without hurting him. Don’t even think about killing him.”

“I understand,” I said. I didn’t want to lose the Senior Chief and I understood. Captain Harriman wasn’t someone who could be killed without hesitation. “I won’t hurt him if it can be avoided.”

He scowled at me, but accepted the point. “Very well,” he agreed. “One final point, then. I think that you should speak to Sally. She needs something to keep herself going.”

“But…” I began, and then shook my head. I’d already decided that we wouldn’t approach any of the Ensigns, but I’d known Sally back when I’d been an Ensign myself and knew she could be trusted. More to the point, she was growing more and more withdrawn by the day and might even be considering jumping ship. I needed her and not just to supervise the Ensigns. It was at times like this when I missed Kitty. She would have known just what to say. “I understand, Chief.”

Sally almost laughed at it when I finally approached her. “You’re telling me that you intend to overthrow the government?” She asked, when I told her – in general – of what I was planning. I didn’t mention either the Marines or the Senior Chief. Her laugh would probably have earned her a demerit under other circumstances. It was high-pitched and hating. “John, it’s nice of you to care, but…”

I looked at her, really looked at her, for the first time in a while. She was sullen and withdrawn in many ways, her eyes dark and filled with shadows. She was teaching newcomers what they needed to suppress her career and go onwards, while she remained behind, a permanent Ensign and then a lowly officer on a fuelling station or a transport. I saw the rage boiling behind her eyes and the frustration that might turn to violence. Sally had nothing to live for – now.

“I do care,” I said, and took her arm. She stared at me. Touching a lower-ranked officer like that was illegal and could land me in deep shit – I had no powerful friends like Frank Wong had had. “Sally, we can change the world, if we plan it carefully and strike when the time is right…and I’m going to need you to do it. Will you help?”

“I want them dead,” she said, angrily. She looked up at me, her gaze tinged with suspicion. “There, I said it. Are you satisfied?”

I smiled, suddenly realising what she thought. “I wouldn’t be talking to you to the strains of Captain Ward and his Quest for Grim Reaper if I wanted to record this conversation,” I pointed out. “Sally, it’s no joke.”

“Prove it,” Sally hissed. “What kind of indiscretion are you trying to lure me into? Who’s jerking your cock anyway? Why would you, of all people, work for Intelligence, or Security?”

“I’m not working for either of them,” I said, patiently. I hadn’t expected outright disbelief. “Sally, just how badly have I just compromised myself?”

“Son of a fucking bitch,” Sally said. “You are serious!”

“Yes,” I said, flatly. “I can’t promise you revenge for everything you’ve suffered, but I can promise you that it won’t happen to anyone else, if we strike when the time is right! Do you think that you would remain an Ensign in a properly-run fleet? How would you like a chance to realise your ambitions and rise to your proper heights?”

I held her tightly. “You didn’t deserve any of what happened to you,” I said. “Do you remember the hopes and dreams we had at the Academy? We can make them real?”

“I wish,” Sally said. Her voice became doubtful, pleading, and my heart went out to her. “I’ll help, John, but how far can we get?”

I winked at her. “As far as we need to go,” I said, and kissed her. I was breaking regulations, but I didn’t care. Besides, it would help convince her that I was telling the truth. “We can go as far as we want.”

After a moment, she kissed me back.

Chapter Twenty-Eight

One of the fundamental problems facing the UN was the degree to which its decisions were influenced by irrelevant political factors. Some of them were ludicrous – including laws prohibiting the ‘pollution’ of outer space and the attempt to prevent the terraforming of Mars, which were passed to please the environmentalist factions in the UN – and some were downright ridiculous. Having decided that condemned prisoners could not be executed, and having decided not to face the political unrest caused by releasing said dangerous prisoners, the UN decided to exile them all to Botany, a world that – after the intervention of the environmentalist lobby – was barely habitable. The UN lost its scruples soon afterwards, but by then exiling convicts was policy, not to be altered by mere mortals.

-Thomas Anderson. An Unbiased Look at the UNPF. Baen Historical Press, 2500.

Botany, I discovered one night in my cabin, was perhaps the only world where the files I obtained from Heinlein and the information available to me from the UNPF computer files largely agreed. Heinlein itself was a democracy with an earned franchise, or a military-run state, depending on whom you believed, but Botany…well, the files agreed on all of the major points and most of the minor issues. The only real difference lay in the politics, and that was no surprise.

“Emergence complete,” the Pilot said, as the wormhole closed behind us.

“Local space appears to be clear, sir,” I said, from the tactical console. I’d hoped that the Ensigns would be allowed to handle the emergence from the wormhole into normal space, but the Captain had discontinued that practice as raider attacks increased, even though statistically it was unlikely we would be attacked right out of the wormhole. It was regrettable. We could have used it as a prize for the most innovative Ensign. I’d had them solving puzzles all week. “No sign of any intruders.”

“Good,” the Captain said, from his command chair. “Pilot, take us towards the planet.”

“Aye, sir,” the Pilot said. The hum of the ship’s drive increased as the Pilot powered it up and took us towards the planet. “We will reach standard orbit in thirty minutes, sir.”

I smiled as the image of local space started to fill up. Botany simply wasn't a very interesting system. It had three rocky planets, one gas giant and a handful of comets. The gas giant might be suitable for mining, later, but so far no one had bothered to invest in a cloud-scoop. In theory, one day Botany itself would develop a space industry that would need fuel from the gas giant, but I wasn't holding my breath. The files from both Earth and Heinlein agreed that any civilisation forming on Botany would be a long time coming. The only other sign of space-based activity was the station orbiting the planet and a handful of satellites in high orbit. It seemed rather insecure, but then, Botany had had little to loot – until now.

The files had agreed that Botany had originally been rated as a seventy-percent planet, a planet that had been suitable for quick and easy terraforming into an Earth-like world. I’d been surprised that they had even considered it, but back then no one had known for sure how many planets there were out there to be colonised, or how many of them were like Earth. The settlement rights had been bought by an Australian-based investment group – it had taken me several days to work out what an Australian had been; Australia was now part of the Pan-Asian Zone – and they’d started terraforming the planet. They’d been well on the way to establishing a habitable world when disaster had stuck.

At this point, the files diverged. The UNPF files referred only to mild sabotage by socially misguided rebels with a cause, a description that could have fitted the Heinlein Resistance, along with all the other resistance groups. The Heinlein files waxed lyrical about environmentally-friendly terrorists who had seen the terraforming effort as an assault on nature itself and had somehow managed to sabotage the program. Two years later, the planet was barely habitable, but swept with massive dust storms and other problems that made building a sustaining civilisation very difficult. The Australians had tried to fix the problem, breeding up newer forms of plant life in the hope it would stabilise the planet, but nothing seemed to work. The UN eventually took over the planet and most of the Australian settlers moved to Oz, which at least had the benefit of not being a dusty hellhole.

“Lieutenant Walker,” the Captain ordered, “confirm with the Infantry that they are ready to head down to the planet.”

“Yes, sir,” I said. I turned the console over to Lieutenant Hafiz and left the bridge. The infantry weren't looking forward to their new posting, from their Captain to the lowest soldier. Andrew himself had been sleeping with two female crewmen, according to rumour, just to try to forgot the hellhole waiting for his men. They’d done their jobs too well and had been exiled from Earth. I wished – now – that I’d dared discuss revolution with him. The risk hadn’t been worth taking.

The UN had rapidly decided that Botany was a useless world. Although the atmosphere was breathable – and some of the more optimistic projections suggested that it might even settle down and become habitable in a few hundred years – no one in their right mind would want to live there. It had experimented with moving some of the remaining human tribes from the desert regions of Earth there, but it had been pointless. No one knew what had happened to them.

And then someone had had a brainwave. The UN had been taking over law and order on Earth for years, but it was causing them problems, because the UN’s ideology made it bad at handling law and order. Back then, back when it had had to care what people thought, it had a bad reputation for coddling criminals and not executing them, no matter how bad they were. The unnamed beauecrats – only a group of beauecrats could come up with something so stupid – had suggested exiling them to Botany instead. If they lived or died there – and both were possible as the planet couldn’t support large settlements – they wouldn’t be the UN’s problem any longer. The idea was taken up at once and several thousand criminals were dumped on the planet, the very dregs of society. Serial killers, mass murderers, paedophiles, religious fanatics and – inevitably – a growing percentage of people who had offended the UN in some way. There was no shortage of them.

I stepped into the shuttlebay and looked at the infantrymen as they formed up into ranks. They were wearing desert uniforms, specially adapted to Botany, and looked very professional, except for their faces. They looked, male and female alike, looked as if they were being sent to their own execution after a show trial. Andrew was inspecting them, one by one, and making reassuring comments, but his heart wasn't in it. He knew, as well as they did, that most of them would not survive to be picked up in five years – if the UN bothered to send a transport to pick them up.

“I understand that you’ll be coming with us to pay your respects to the governor,” he said, once he’d finished the inspection and allowed the Sergeants to take over. “Are you going to be flying the shuttles personally?”

“I think that’s going to be done by their pilots,” I said, regretfully. I would have loved to fly myself, or given the task to some of the Ensigns as a reward for good behaviour, but Botany’s weather made flying dangerous. I understood that the UN’s engineers had tried to set up a space cable several times and discovered that the cable broke under heavy winds. “Are your men ready?”

“We’re going to be going armed, with loaded weapons,” Andrew said. He was probably expecting me to object – loaded weapons onboard shuttles into anything, but a war zone, were strictly prohibited – but I didn’t bother. I knew enough about Botany to be grateful for the precaution. “We have to load, but then we’ll be ready.”

“Good,” I said, checking the time. In five minutes, we would be orbiting the planet and the Captain didn’t want to stay very long. I couldn’t blame him. Under normal circumstances, he would have gone to pay his respects, but Botany was hardly a normal posting. “Shall we proceed?”

The first cargo of convicts had either killed each other or had been killed by the environment, as very few of them had survived to see the second group arrive, but the UN hadn’t been concerned. They’d just kept pouring more prisoners onto the planet, sometimes near the first group of prisoners, sometimes at the other side of the world, just to see what would happen. The convicts hadn’t been given much in the way of medical equipment, or even survival tools, but they’d discovered through experimentation that they could eat some – not all – of the planet’s vegetation. There were even oasis-like places where they could dig down for water. The smart and brutal ones had formed tribes, snatched as many female convicts as they could – the UN had ruled that convicts had to be dropped in equal numbers of males and females – and set up a social system that worked, barely. The tribes moved from oasis to oasis, hiding from the storms under woven tents and trying to eke out an existence under horrific circumstances. The truly horrifying part was that the UN hadn’t even bothered to sterilise the prisoners, which meant that children were being born on that hellhole, knowing nothing else. The tribes hadn’t forgotten their origins, but as time wore on, they grew better at wiping out the newer arrivals, or breaking them into the tribe. It was a thoroughly hellish existence.

The UN hadn’t cared. They set up a small garrison on the planet’s surface, which was staffed by officers and men who had offended someone in some way, but they hadn’t attempted to help the locals. It was questionable how many of the locals even knew of its existence. There might have been a handful of tribes orbiting the garrison, but there was little interaction between them, apart from a tiny amount of trade. The garrison staff were quite happy to trade food and supplies for women and as for the women, living in the garrison, even as a slave or a whore, was preferable to living out in the endless desert.

And then everything had changed. For reasons best known to itself, the UN had ordered a re-examination of every piece of survey data from barely habitable worlds, insisting that they be studied through new eyes. One bright-eyed researcher had spotted that Botany not only had vast amounts of silicon – something that could be found on hundreds of worlds, including Earth – but hints of something else, rare elements that were normally found in the asteroids. The UN had leapt at the chance to obtain a new source of supply and promptly sent in a mining team to extract as much as they could. One thing the UN had right – the amount they ruled on, I had to like those odds – was that planet-size mining was inefficient. The miners could only produce small amounts of ore, but it didn’t matter. The UN needed as much as it could get. The locals had objected to this despoiling of their home and low-level war broke out. The UN had finally realised that this might be a problem and dispatched Andrew and his Company to Botany to suppress the enemy. It wasn't going to be an easy task.

“Ready,” Andrew’s sergeant reported. “All present and correct, sir!”

Andrew raised his voice, pointing to the first shuttle. “Platoons A to D, load up,” he barked. He switched to the second shuttle. “Platoons E to G, load up!”

I’d seen Infantrymen on Heinlein moving as a disorganised mob. This unit moved with an easy grace and confidence that belied their destination, or what their superiors generally thought of them. They carried their assault rifles slung over their shoulders in a ready position, where they could grasp them at once if they were required. If the shuttle crashed somewhere on the planet, they should have enough firepower to cut through the tribesmen and escape, unless the tribesmen had similar weapons. The UN had apparently refused to give them anything beyond a handful of knives, but the files had been vague on just what they had. Andrew had assumed the worst and armed his men to the teeth.

I keyed my terminal. “Captain, this is Lieutenant Walker,” I said. “The shuttles are fully loaded and we’re ready to depart.”

“Understood,” the Captain said. I could hear the Pilot’s weather report in the background and rather wished I couldn’t. It didn’t sound good. “You may depart when ready.”

I boarded the shuttle, Andrew right behind me, and made a quick check of the men. They were all buckled in and waiting impatiently to depart, much to my quiet amusement. The Infantrymen on Heinlein had often neglected the simplest precaution and had to be babied through everything. I took the seat next to the pilot and watched him running through the pre-flight checks, taking special care with our transponder equipment. There was no one here to listen in on our conversation and, if something happened, we’d need the signal to arrange rescue. The Captain would find a way to rescue us, I was sure.

The shuttle’s drive spun up and we started to glide towards space. “Departing now,” the shuttle pilot said. “All systems functioning normally.”

I stared as we dropped into open space. All of the worlds I’d seen, from Earth to Heinlein and Terra Nova, had been a mixture of blue-green. Botany was a dull reddish-orange colour, like a desert seen from space. There was no sign of any surface water as far as I could see, although apparently there were times when it bubbled to the surface in places. The Australians had introduced water into the planet by dropping a pair of comets into the atmosphere, but most of it had apparently drained into massive underground caverns, rather than remaining on the surface. The garrison drilled a line deep underground to obtain fresh water for itself, but apparently the tribes lacked the ability to do that. It kept them permanently nomadic. The miners probably tapped into the same underground reservoir.

“Ghastly looking place,” Andrew commented. “Do you know that there are people who believe that Earth will end up looking like this one day?”

I stared at him. “No,” I said, in surprise. It seemed impossible. “Why do they think that?”

He smiled, darkly. “The atmosphere is growing more and more polluted,” he said. “This kills the vegetable life, which makes it harder to replenish the oxygen and even causes humans to develop illnesses. The icecaps are melting which pushes salt water further inland, killing more farmland. Worst of all, the corporations that have paid the UN vast bribes to avoid the environmental regulations have been having disasters as their overworked equipment starts to break down. The entire planet is dying and we killed it.”

I said nothing. I’d heard that there were problems, but nothing on such a scale. I wasn't even sure if anything could be done about it. The regulations already existed, but if they were being avoided on such a scale…how could anything be done about it? I wondered, vaguely, if the Captain’s family knew, if they were trying to do something about it, but there was no way to know. It was taboo even to suggest that something might be wrong on Earth.

The shuttle buckled slightly as it fell into the atmosphere, streams of superheated air surrounding it as it raced down towards the ground. I could see the mighty storms making their way across the desert, giant darker patches of moving sand that overwhelmed anything puny humans could do to counter them. The files had suggested, from the reports of a handful of anthropologists who’d gone among the tribesmen, that they’d started to worship their planet. It was no wonder. A sandstorm on the wrong place would be utterly lethal.

“I’ve got the garrison’s beacon now,” the pilot said, from his position. “We should be landing at the landing pad in thirty minutes,”

I leaned forward as the shuttle shook under the impact of a gust of wind. If I’d been out there without any protection at all, it would have sent me flying through the air, perhaps even killed me. A moment later, we broke through into clear air again and we could see the mining camp below us. It was an ugly mixture of glinting buildings and dust, flying into the air from the open mine. I suspected that the locals would regard it as blasphemy. What else could it be on a living planet?

“There’s the garrison,” the pilot added. “We’ve coming into land now.”

“It doesn’t look very secure,” I commented, as the buildings came into view. “Andrew?”

“No, it doesn’t,” Andrew agreed, slowly. “They told me that they used weather-control equipment to try to keep the dust storms away from the mines, but it only worked half the time, if that.”

I looked at him. That hadn’t been in my files, either of them. “It’s not commonly advertised,” Andrew added, seeing my look. “They used to use it on Earth to get better weather for farming. After a few years, they discovered that it only caused more havoc later on and banned it – too late. Botany, on the other hand, doesn’t have an environment to fuck up any further.”

A moment later, the shuttles came down to land and I saw the Governor and his men.

I took one look and knew that we weren't going to get on.

Chapter Twenty-Nine

The position of Planetary Governor tended to vary wildly in importance. Some of them, particularly on worlds like Terra Nova, had vast powers and control of the UN Garrison to back up their decisions. Others, such as the Governor appointed to Heinlein before the invasion, had very limited powers and had to contend with local governments that resented dictation from Earth. The posts naturally became key magnets for greedy or corrupt men and the rewards were often great indeed. Those who prospered even found that the UN regarded them as experts on the planet in question and were consulted on all issues involving the planet.

-Thomas Anderson. An Unbiased Look at the UNPF. Baen Historical Press, 2500.

“Welcomes to Camp Sand,” the Governor said. He had a voice that reminded me of a gang-member, a mixture of overwhelming power and confidence, underlain by the awareness that he didn’t control everything. I disliked him on sight. “I am Governor Rollins.”

“Lieutenant Walker,” I said, shaking his hand. It was soft and flabby. The man himself was grossly overweight. I didn’t understand how he managed it on a place where foodstuffs were always rare, but it was possible that some supply transport had dropped off thousands of MREs for the Garrison. “We’ve brought the…”

“Yes, yes, I can see that,” the Governor cut me off, impatiently. “Captain, I trust that your sergeants can allow Captain Ridley to lead your men to the barracks?”

“Of course,” Andrew said, a tight note of anger barely concealed in his voice. I understood exactly what he was thinking. This overweight governor held his men in contempt? “Sergeant Pascell; please see to it.”

We shared a glance as Captain Ridley led the soldiers away towards the barracks, which we could see in the distance. The entire garrison wasn't even fenced in, or encircled by walls, and even to my untrained eyes, it looked like a recipe for disaster. The Captain had looked surprisingly well-dressed; in fact, he’d looked too well-dressed. He didn’t look like the kind of man who’d been chasing tribesmen away from the mining equipment. I heard a noise in the distance and caught sight of a sandy-coloured beast, being led by the nose towards a watering plant. I couldn’t help myself. I stared. I’d never seen anything like it before.

“It’s called a Camel,” Rollins explained. I caught a glimpse of the man he’d once been underneath and smiled to myself. His enthusiasm was almost touching. “They were originally used by desert nomad tribes on Earth as they travelled the deserts, mainly because they didn’t need to drink as much water and could eat things that no human could eat. Back when they landed the garrison here, the first Governor ordered a few hundred of them shipped in and handled most of them out to the nearest tribes. They bred them and there are now thousands of the beasts wandering the planet.”

He paused. “Anyway, if you’ll accompany me…”

I didn’t see anything to change my first opinion of the garrison. It was little more than a collection of prefabricated buildings that had been dropped onto the planet from orbit and then carefully embedded in the soil. Most planets would have broken them up as they built new homes and offices from local materials, but Botany’s governors hadn’t bothered. It wasn't as if there was much to build from on Botany, apart from sand or stone. If there were other raw minerals on the planet, it would require too much effort to get at them.

He led us through a small office, staffed by a handful of girls who looked nervously at Andrew when they saw his uniform. There was no way to be sure, but I would have guessed that they’d been recruited from the planet’s tribes and taught typing and other skills, along with…ah, servicing the needs of the UN staff and soldiers. They would probably never be allowed to return to their tribes, even if they were wanted back. It was quite possible that the Governor had traded the tribes useful supplies in exchange for their services. God alone knew what would have become of them otherwise.

“Of course,” the Governor said, when I asked. “I only take in girls born on this planet and doomed, otherwise, to be little more than mothers, daughters and wives.” I remembered Muna and grimaced. Had that been something of the same? “They’re taught useful skills here, but even so, most of them never go home. We tried to teach medicine to a handful in hopes they would serve as a goodwill gesture to the tribes, but they were rejected when they were returned. We don’t know why.”

I frowned. “Surely you could set up a home for them elsewhere,” I said. “Couldn’t you even send them off-planet?”

“The only people allowed to leave the planet are people who came here, to the garrison,” Rollins said. He shrugged. “The convicts are not permitted to leave, nor are any of the tribes. The sociologists say that their tribal culture is a civilisation that must not be contaminated by us and…hell, I think that if they didn’t sometimes sell their girls to us, they’d still die anyway. The largest tribe we’ve encountered has been only around one hundred strong.

“It doesn’t matter, anyway,” he added. “They’re barbarians.”

“You never tried to recruit them for the mines?” I asked. “Can’t they be taught how to mine?”

“They don’t want to learn,” Rollins said. He seemed to be becoming irritated, so I decided not to press him any further. “They believe that staying in one place too long is bad luck and so they stay away from the miners. The miners have their own brothel of girls taken from the tribes, but they haven’t had any other contact, as far as we know. The tribesmen do steal some items from us, mainly metals and other items they can’t get for themselves, but otherwise…little contact”

Andrew frowned as we entered a massive dining room. “If that’s the case,” he said, “why did you request a reinforcing unit for the garrison?”

“We do have some contact,” Rollins admitted. “The tribes…well, they don’t take some things very calmly. If someone commits an offence against the tribe, they boot him out and leave him to live or die as the planet pleases. They worship the planet, you see, and if the man survives more than a year, they take him back – if he wants to go back. The sociologists sometimes pick up an outcast – male or female – and ask them questions. One of them said that his tribe had been invited to join others in an attack on the garrison itself.”

“I see,” Andrew said, doubtfully. “And has such an attack materialised?”

The Governor shook his head. “We sometimes get light raids,” he said. “They’re never a serious problem and we can drive them away with ease. The tribes don’t have a formal government so sometimes we have to kick them a little to teach them not to mess with us. There’s never been an all-out attack. Even if they won, the tribe that took the Garrison would be brutally wounded.”

Andrew nodded. “Do they fight amongst themselves?”

“Sometimes,” Rollins said. “It’s really challenges and counter-challenges than actual warfare. Their society argues against it. The winner would still be badly weakened.”

He waved for us to sit down as the remainder of his staff came in. I couldn’t believe the dining room. It was on a primitive planet, yet it was as luxurious as an Admirals-only reception bar back on Earth. His staff didn’t look very impressive either and they all blurred into one after I’d been introduced to a few faces. Some were little more than people who’d annoyed the wrong person and been sent to Botany, others were proper engineers, or sociologists. Their chatter was meaningless to me. Some talks about their miners and their complaints, others talked about their researchers into the tribal society developing just outside their door. I was starting to see why the Captain had volunteered me for the job. The thought of being fawned over by the Governor and his lackeys was nauseating.

The first course was served by tribal girls in scanty outfits, barely practical for anywhere outside Luna City. I took a moment to study them, trying to place their original origins, but their parents had clearly been born to a mixed partnership. They had dark skin – the sunlight beating down on the planet had seen to that – and soft brown eyes. They also looked thoroughly terrified and one looked as if she had been beaten. I felt a flicker of anger that I was quick to subdue. How dare the Governor abuse his position like that? I watched helplessly as the girls served, sometimes being groped or fondled by the staff, and wondered how long it would be before the Governor was poisoned. There had to be a plant that could serve as a source of poison somewhere on the planet.

“Eat,” Rollins said. I didn’t want to eat anything, but there was little choice. The meat tasted strange to my tongue, but it was surprisingly good. “This is the one meat that we’ve been able to raise on this damned planet.”

Camel, I realised. The beast I’d seen hadn’t looked very appetizing, but perhaps it tasted better than it had looked. I’d never ridden a horse before, let alone a camel, but I could see the attractions for the tribesmen. They probably regarded them as wonderful creatures.

“Tell me something,” I said, as I finished the plate. “Are you going to be introducing other animals to Botany?”

“Perhaps,” Rollins said. He grinned at one of his people, a sour-faced woman who looked like she’d been slapped too often as a child. “Debbie there is doing an Impact Analysis Report on introducing other forms of desert life, but there’s just so much paperwork to do. In fact, I don’t know why…”

He broke off as an explosion and a series of shots echoed out in the distance. “What the hell was that?”

Andrew’s terminal pinged. “Sir, we’ve got multiple hostiles coming in from the north,” one of his sergeants said. “Captain Ridley is dead, I repeat, dead. They’ve somehow hit the first barracks and most of the on-planet soldiers are dead.”

“The hell?” Rollins asked. “Captain, I demand that you see to the defences…”

“Yes, sir,” Andrew said, tightly. He jumped to his feet. A moment later, I was on my feet and with him, drawing the pistol I’d worn at my belt. The laser pistol might not have looked as impressive as the Infantry rifles, but it could kill. “You’re staying here.”

“No, I’m coming,” I said, firmly. “Governor, I suggest you get your people under cover.”

A wave of hot air hit us in the face as we ran out of the building, towards the sound of shooting. A towering wall of fire had enveloped one of the buildings and the disgusting scent of burning flesh was in the air. I winced, remembering it from Terra Nova, and followed Andrew. A moment later, he threw himself to the ground and I followed, just as bullets crackled over our heads.

“Stay down,” Andrew hissed. I saw a man wearing some kind of tunic pointing a very obvious weapon at us. We fired at the same time and the man staggered backwards and collapsed, half of his head blown off. “Take his weapon, now!”

The sound of shooting from the barracks only grew louder as I crawled over to the dead tribesman. He had the same skin colour as the serving girls, but he was almost completely covered in hair, with more muscles than I’d seen on anyone else, even a Marine. I wouldn’t have wanted to trade punches with him. I recovered the weapon – it looked like a simple rifle, but well outside their capability to build – his ammunition pouch and his knife, before searching his tunic roughly. He had nothing apart from his weapons and clothing.

“Come on,” Andrew hissed, and I followed him towards the defences. As we reached the corner, he held up a hand to stop me and whistled a tune into the air, twice. It was a moment before it came echoing back and he turned the corner. A second passed and then he waved me onwards as well. “Sergeant, report!”

“A major attack from the north, sir,” the Sergeant said. Here, the sound of shooting was growing louder. I could see the Infantrymen spread out on the ground, lying flat and shooting with short precise bursts, or taking up firing positions in the second barracks. The first was now a burned-out shell. Whatever they’d built it of hadn’t been fireproof, which still raised the obvious question. How did they get a bomb inside the barracks? I remembered the serving girls and had my answer.

“Got it,” Andrew said. He fired a burst himself at a dark figure, which toppled over backwards, howling in pain. “Why the hell are they attacking now?”

The answer flashed into my brain. “The shuttles,” I said, grimly. I keyed my terminal. “Shuttles, come in – now!”

“Pilot Van Diamond here, sir,” the lead pilot said. “What’s all the shooting?”

“Never mind,” I said. “Seal up the shuttles completely; no one to get onboard without either mine or the Captain’s permission.” I thought about ordering them back to orbit and thought better of it. If we needed to evacuate the Garrison, we’d need the shuttles. The tribesmen’s bomb had made sure that we had a lot of empty seats. “Andrew…”

He was way ahead of me. “Sergeant, take D and E and get them to the shuttles,” he ordered. “I want the ground around the shuttles swept and then secured.”

“Yes, sir,” the sergeant said, and started to run. The infantry were reorganising on the fly and, once again, I was impressed by their professionalism. I’d seen attacks on Heinlein that had broken down as one unit tried to advance through ground controlled by another unit, or even fired on their own side, quite by accident.

“We’ll cut them off from the shuttles, and then drive them back from the garrison,” Andrew grated. I saw him smile and realised that he was enjoying himself. “Contact the ship and see if they can move into position to support us.”

“Yes, sir,” I said, and keyed my radio again. “Captain, we’ve got a bit of a situation here.”

“I understand,” the Captain said, when I had finished explaining. “We’ll move into low orbit and prepare to unleash KEW strikes if required, but our sensors can barely pick up the tribesmen.”

Andrew overheard. “Anyone outside the compound is an enemy,” he said. “We really need a helicopter flight or two.”

I nodded. Botany’s atmosphere was too much for helicopters though, or even any other kind of aircraft. The Garrison had experimented with an airship, but the idea had never really worked in high winds. The shuttles might be able to lay down fire for us, but the cost in fuel would be prohibitive. Of course, we were probably past being able to care about it.

“Understood,” the Captain said. “We can use our lasers to target the ground.”

“Do so,” Andrew said. “I want a wide-beam sweep around the compound.”

I covered my eyes as the laser beams swept through the air. Normally, a laser beam is invisible until it hits its target, but the weird atmosphere made the beam show up as a flickering ray of light. The results were unmistakable. Sand overheated and became glass, while any tribesmen caught in the beam died instantly. I hoped – prayed – that it would be enough. After that, the tribes were probably going to be out for blood.

“Sir, this is Sergeant Price,” Andrew’s radio said. “There was an attempt to rush the shuttles, but we beat it back and they faded into the desert. The little shits can hide right under our noses.”

“Well done,” Andrew said. He looked at me. “With their goal now impossible to reach, what do you think they’ll do?”

I heard a sound, rather like a thin trombone, in the air. A moment later, the tribesmen stopped shooting and vanished into the desert. Our shooting stopped a moment later as we realised that there was nothing left to shoot at. The brief attack – it didn’t seem that it really had only been ten minutes – was over.

“Sergeant King, take A Platoon and sweep around the compound,” Andrew ordered. “All others, sound off.”

I listened absently as the infantry ran through their names. “Get the injured to the medical clinic,” Andrew ordered. He frowned down at one of the dead tribesmen. “Check the tribesmen and find out if any of them are alive. I want to know where they got those weapons.”

It was an hour before we found out the truth. The captured tribesman had sworn that he wouldn’t talk, no matter how much we hurt him, but an injection of truth serum loosened his mouth. He’d explained how the tribes had been contacted by someone from the stars who had offered them weapons and supplies, inviting them to take their revenge on the garrison and its people. One of the tribe, a convict who had survived the harsh welcome, had even suggested taking the shuttles and the starship in orbit. With a little luck, the plan might even have worked. Would the Captain have realised the danger in time to fire on his own shuttles?

And the observation network surrounding the planet was primitive. Anyone could have landed without being observed. They might have been resistance fighters from a dozen worlds, or they might have been pirates. It didn’t matter in the end, did it?

“Good luck,” I said to Andrew, afterwards. “You’re going to need it.”

A day later, we opened a wormhole and headed onwards to the Beyond.

Chapter Thirty

The UN’s decision to leave various tiny asteroid colonies – even a handful of planet-bound colonies – alone comes as a surprise at first, but the truth is that the ‘grey’ colonies are simply not that important, compared to more productive worlds like Heinlein. While the UN would like to bring them under its formal authority, there is little point in wasting military resources occupying the asteroids. The UN chooses, instead, to content itself with ensuring that the grey colonies do not support interstellar resistance efforts.

-Thomas Anderson. An Unbiased Look at the UNPF. Baen Historical Press, 2500.

It was the best of times.

We spent nine months cruising in the Beyond, moving from star to star. Some of them were completely empty, as far as we could tell, although the Captain insisted on treating them as potentially-hostile systems anyway, just in case. It would have been easy to hide an entire population right under our noses with the right level of technology and not all of the human settlements needed Earth-like worlds to survive. Others had isolated human populations, known to the UN and generally ignored, few of whom were pleased to see us. They’d come out so far to get away from the UN and enjoy their blessed isolation.

It surprised me just how diplomatic the Captain could be, as we moved from isolated settlement to isolated settlement. It helped that there was no one looking over his shoulder, apart from Jason Montgomerie, and even he understood that there was little point in bullying the tiny grey colonies. We called in, asked if they needed any help and if they’d had any contact with resistance forces, but otherwise left them largely alone. A couple of religious colonies invited us to send over people for shore leave – in hopes, perhaps, of converting crewmen to their religions – but other than they, they didn’t seek to harm us, nor did we seek to harm them. They had nothing that the UN wanted or needed.

I stood on the icy surface of Planet Eskimo and wondered at the settlers who had somehow managed to set up a functional settlement on the planet. It was further away from its sun than Earth and was completely covered in ice, inhabited only by deep-water fish that swam in the warmer water under the ice. Humans couldn’t eat the native animals – not without getting very ill, at least – but Earth stocks had taken well to the alien sea and the Eskimos lived off them, and the products they grew in their underground farms. They were even more isolated than some of the odder settlements, even Botany, and I suspected that they might even consider Earth a legend as they dug deeper under the ice. Some of their foodstuffs might become delicacies in the years to come – if the UN survived its current crisis, or something else arose in its place – but for the moment, everyone was content to leave them alone. What did they have their pirates might want? Fish?

The Amish Colony was very similar in outlook, although they had inhabited a much more welcoming world. I wasn't sure what to make of a sect that had largely abandoned technology in favour of a simpler life, but after a week’s shore leave on the planet – a dreadfully boring experience for spacers used to Luna City – I had decided that they were completely insane. The vast majority of their population worked from day to day on back-breaking labour, trying to pull enough crops from the soil to feed themselves for another year. They spoke of happiness in simplicity, but I saw little of it. I only saw people who didn’t know what they were missing. They could have replaced their horses and carts with cars easily, or even built aircraft or airships, but they seemed content with what they had. It was a deeply boring planet. They, too, had nothing the UN or anyone else wanted.

“Captain,” I asked, one day, “why are we checking in on all these places?”

The Captain shrugged. He’d been happier, if anything, than I was. This far from the Human Sphere, his word was law. “They might become a threat later, or someone with more hostile intentions might use them as a base,” he said. “The Amish won’t have mentioned it to anyone, but fifty years ago a pirate tried to extort food and supplies from them, before a UNPF cruiser chased him away. It’s worthwhile just to keep an eye on him.”

“Yes, sir,” I agreed. I wanted it to last forever, even though I knew better. Back home, the conspiracy I had created would be burrowing into the UNPF’s structure, trying to reach as many starships as possible and prepare to seize control. I had to go back to trigger the takeover, but…I didn’t want to go back. I understood, now, why so many starships had gone renegade over the past hundred years. They couldn’t bear to return to the tarnished world they’d left, where honour was a joke and they were compliant in atrocity after atrocity.

The Wonderland Asteroid Federation was easily the oddest colony – set of colonies – I’d seen. They had moved out to their asteroids – thousands of asteroids circling a dull red star – nearly a hundred years ago and burrowed into the rocks using technology that had been outdated even before humanity had taken the first steps into space. Their technology could keep them alive, but it couldn’t do much else, let alone challenge a starship. If they had crashed on a planet’s surface, they would have been utterly unable to escape, even assuming they survived. They’d lived years under lower gravity than Earth, or almost any other world, apart from the moon. Their bodies had adapted to the low gravity. We took shore leave on one of their resort asteroids and watched a sexual ballet between girls who seemed to fly through air on wings. It was profoundly moving and yet, somehow, very sad. I slipped away early.

It was there that I saw my first Transhuman. The process was officially banned everywhere the UN held sway – and, oddly, Heinlein and most of the other colonies were in full agreement. The process had created a human spliced with animal DNA in hopes of creating a superior form of life. The UN’s files were scarce, but reading between the lines, I suspected that the process didn’t always work perfectly. The Chimps – as they were called in impolite company – might not be fertile, or might grow into immensely retarded adults. The whole process made me sick and I complained to the Captain, who told me to ignore it. The asteroid federation could go to hell in its own way.

It chilled me and the next time I went to the flying ballet, I allowed myself to wonder if the wings were actually part of the girls’ bodies. I even asked one of the girls afterwards and she laughed at me, before removing the wing and offering to allow me to examine her in private. She was so slight that I was terrified that I would break her in half – I was only average on Earth standards, but I was a lot stronger than her – and I was no longer sure that I liked the colony. They did have something the UN wanted – asteroid ore – but with all the stresses being placed on the freighters and transport networks, it would probably be centuries before someone attempted to set up trade links. If the UN was still around, I wondered, what would they make of the colony? Would they all be Chimps by that time?

We also spent months inside the wormholes and I spent the time, apart from training the Ensigns, studying the UN carefully. It wasn't an easy task. There were so many lies and half-truths in the files that I found it hard to work out what was true and what wasn't, and the Heinlein files weren't much of an improvement. They were sound, historically speaking, but there was a ideological bias against the UN running through them. It was hard to know just what was truth…and what was nothing, but a lie.

No one had intended to create the UN, I worked out slowly. I wished I could have discussed it with the Captain, but I didn’t dare. The system had originally been nothing more than a place where humans from different nations could meet and talk in relative safety, although the most powerful nations had always been able to go their own way. As technology advanced and the world grew smaller, the UN had ended up assuming more and more of an oversight role, over everything. I was vastly amused to discover that there had been an environmentalist movement even that far back. They hadn’t known how lucky they had been! The development of the Jump Drive had allowed those who hated the thought of a world government to escape, while leaving Earth in a desperate state. Terrorism and wrecker attacks had the entire population scared to death and willing to support anything to eliminate the terrorists.

The nations could have vetoed laws, but no one had thought to prevent the UN from creating regulations, until it was far too late. The UN hadn’t intended to create a massive bureaucracy itself, but as it was forced to create regulation after regulation, it ended up with a massive support base, demanding pay. It had ended up taking over the power of taxation and securing its position as the master of Earth. It imposed harsh new laws intended to curb pollution, but the bigger corporations had simply paid massive bribes and carried on polluting. The smaller ones had been unable to either pay the bribes or meet the regulations and, eventually, most of them had either collapsed and thrown the employees onto welfare, or emigrated to other stars. I wondered, absently, if that had been deliberate. The UN had known from the start that there was a population problem.

I couldn’t understand that, at first, until I did the maths. If a child costs money to raise, parents will have fewer children, but if the costs are met by someone else – the UN’s welfare department, for example – there is actually an incentive to have more children. This put more pressure on the system, but repelling the legislation would have been politically impossible, forcing them to try to extract more taxes and resources from the colonies. There, in short, was the tragedy of the United Nations. It could neither cure itself nor allow anyone to break free of its grasp. The people who really ran the UN, the beauecrats, were resistant to any change. The colonies were resistant to being robbed to pay for the UN’s mistakes. The civilians…had no control over their lives at all.

“You’re not doing badly with the Ensigns,” the Captain said, one afternoon over tea. I hadn’t realised that he drank tea with his First Lieutenant and Political Officer on a regular basis, but it made sense. The Captain had to be aloof to the remainder of the crew, particularly the Ensigns. “Allen and Geoffrey will make quite competent tactical officers, apparently, and Yianni would make a good engineering officer in the future.”

“Yes, sir,” I said. The Captain had invited me to relax, but how could I call him anything else? Yianni had expressed a keen interest in the engineering compartments and the Engineer had reluctantly agreed to give her additional training. She had a keen mind that all the public schooling down on Earth had failed to ruin completely. It was a minor miracle. “She was talking about applying for a transfer to Engineering School, out in the belt.”

The Captain smiled. “Jason, what do you think of that?”

“She’s always a productive person in the group discussions,” the Political Officer said, sipping his own tea. I had caught a whiff of it and realised that his tea included a large dose of whiskey. It was still a mystery how he managed to bring so much alcohol onto the ship. “Very intelligent, very understanding…I see no reason why she shouldn’t apply for the transfer. I’ll even put in a good word for her myself if you wish.”

I smiled. The group discussions were attempts to reason out how the United Nations worked and how it was superior to all other systems, past and present. I had realised years ago that it really worked on the Garbage In, Garbage Our principle. If a person accepted political doctrine as fact, the entire system worked, provided that one didn’t take a careful look at the foundations. It was hard to believe that the system worked perfectly when people seemed to be happier on Heinlein, or even among the Amish.

But a good word from the Political Officer would take Yianni far.

“Please do,” the Captain said. He smiled, rather dryly. “There is a considerable shortage of engineers, as you well know. If Yianni was to become a proper engineer, I’m sure some Captain would be pleased to see her.”

“It would take her out of command track,” I said, slowly. “I think that that’s why she’s reluctant to ask for the transfer now.”

The Captain nodded. Ensigns on the command track, like I had been, were expected to be generalists, not specialists. I might have qualified as a Tactical Officer, or a Helm Officer, but I didn’t have the skills of the Pilot, or even the tactical staff in their compartment. My task was to set policy; theirs was to carry it out. If Yianni did transfer to Engineering and go to Engineering School, she would never have a chance to become a Captain in her own right. Engineers weren't in the chain of command.

“Don’t push her,” he advised, with a glance at the Political Officer to suggest that he shouldn’t push her either. “If she decides to become an Engineer of her own free will, she’ll be a better Engineer than if we pushed her into volunteering for the transfer.”

“Yes, sir,” I said. I was still wondering why Yianni hadn’t transferred back at the Academy, back when it would have been easier, but I thought I understood. The Academy hadn’t given any of us a real chance to understand what Engineering was all about, merely tested us when all of us were keen to become Captains ourselves. Yianni would never have had the chance to realise that she wanted to become an Engineer. “I’ll allow her to make up her mind.”

“See that you do,” the Captain said. “It wouldn’t do for her to think that we were taking an interest in her development, would it?”

I smiled. It was something else I hadn’t realised back when I’d been an Ensign, but the senior staff had kept a close eye on me than I’d understood. I’d thought that they’d been watching for mistakes that could have imperilled the ship, but they’d also been watching for signs of promise, signs that they could push me forward for promotion, or maybe change my career path into one of the non-commissioned departments. I hadn’t even suspected that the Captain knew or cared who I was…

But then, there had been his order to train with the Marines, after Terra Nova.

“No, sir,” I agreed. “I’ll wait and see what happens.”

Day followed day as we sailed on through the Beyond. We entered an unexplored star system and discovered two Earth-like planets orbiting around each other, with a smaller planetoid in the barycentre between them. I took a shuttle down to the surface with two of the Ensigns, and three Marines for security, and we walked on a beach under an alien sky. I looked up and saw the other planet hanging in the sky, seemingly far closer than the Moon on Earth, and shivered. It was irrational, but I felt that the planet was going to come crashing down on me. Settlers on Jupiter’s moons had felt the same – they’d also seen the Great Red Spot as an eye glaring at them – and some of them had gone insane. I wondered who would come willingly to settle this planet, if they knew the truth. Perhaps people from the mountainous areas of Earth, I decided; both planets were covered in mountains.

The Captain formally named the two planets Romulus and Remus, after the legendary founders of Rome, but I doubted the name would stick. The UN would go looking for some nice inoffensive name for the twin worlds before they started settlement – even assuming that there were enough colonist-carriers left to settle the colony – and the first city would probably end up being called Landing City, again. The Captain shrugged when I asked him if they’d change the name, merely noting that whatever happened, he’d named the planets. We left a satellite in orbit to mark our visit and headed back onwards to our final destination, Bellefonte.

I had wondered if we would get any finders reward for locating the new planet – planets – but the regulations suggested that any discoveries made by UNPF personnel automatically belonged to the UNPF. It was quite possible that the planet was the location of a black colony and they wouldn’t be happy at being disturbed, but they wouldn’t get any reward either. If they were lucky, they'd be integrated into the settlement population. It had happened before. The unlucky ones would get a harsh lesson in how the UN treated deviant populations and probably wind up enslaved, or dumped on somewhere like Botany. I mulled on that as we sped onwards to our final destination.

“Captain,” Yianni said, as we emerged from the wormhole, “I’m picking up a distress signal.”

“Put it through,” the Captain ordered. Bellefonte might not be a UN system, but all starships were obliged to offer aid if required.

“This is…station alpha…under attack…”

The signal broke off in a wash of static. “Signal lost, sir,” Yianni said.

The Captain nodded. “Sound battle stations,” he ordered. “Helm, take us in.”

Chapter Thirty-One

On first glimpse, there appears to be no economic basis for piracy in the UN’s sphere, but that is a false impression. Depending on what the pirates loot, they can sell it to black or grey colonies – or even back to the UN or the colonies. Even farming equipment, sold to the right people, can bring a high price. High tech is worth more than gold to the black colonies. Although the UN would wish to deny it, it cannot be doubted that many pirates are UNPF renegade ships, determined to eke out a life for themselves on the fringe.

-Thomas Anderson. An Unbiased Look at the UNPF. Baen Historical Press, 2500.

“Power up weapons units,” I ordered, as I brought the tactical console on line. One hand moved down a line of switches, unlocking the starship’s weapons. “Load torpedo tubes. Load missile racks. Power up laser cannons and activate the point defence systems.”

“Number One, launch a probe towards the enemy ship,” the Captain ordered. I complied and launched the fast-boost probe towards the pirate vessel. “Ensign Gerasimos, transmit a stand-down and prepare to be boarded signal to the enemy ship.”

“Aye, sir,” Yianni said. She worked her console. “No reply, sir.”

The Captain leaned back in his chair. “Put the feed from the probe on the main display,” he ordered. “Stand by to engage.”

The probe’s signal vanished suddenly – the enemy point defence would have picked it off, given time – but it had lasted long enough to give us an image of our enemy. I almost came to my feet when I saw the enemy ship, feeling a mixture of astonishment…and shame. There was no mistaking the design. It was a starship of the same class as the Jacques Delors.

The Captain muttered a curse, barely loud enough to be heard. “Number One,” he ordered, “prepare to fire a warning shot.”

“Yes, sir,” I said. I had heard of renegade starships before, of course – a case could probably be made that I was a renegade myself, or worse – but this was the first time I’d ever seen one. There was no mistaking it for a Heinlein Resistance starship, or a more mundane pirate vessel. This was a UNPF starship, armed and ready to press matters. “What did they want with Bellefonte anyway?”

“Unknown,” the Captain said. There was a dark tone in his voice. “We’ll find out when we ask them, afterwards. Open communications.”

“Channel open, sir,” Yianni said.

“This is Captain Percival Harriman of the UNS Jacques Delors,” the Captain said, coldly. “You are ordered to stand down your attack and prepare to be boarded. If you do not stand down, we will be forced to open fire.”

I scowled, watching the power fluctuations around the enemy starship carefully. If they were renegades, they wouldn’t surrender, not knowing that the UN would either send them to Botany or simply throw them out the nearest airlock without bothering with a trial. I wondered, absently, what their story had been. Had a Captain led a mutiny against the UNPF, or had his officers overthrown him and turned pirate? The latter seemed much more likely. Bellefonte was a small colony, yet it produced a considerable amount of starship components and other high technology. If it hadn’t been for the distance factor, the UN would probably have occupied it decades ago.

“They must be having problems maintaining their ship,” I muttered, skimming through the records of lost starships and eliminating all that had been destroyed by the Heinlein Resistance or other resistance forces. The database wasn't exact, but the UN had produced sixty cruisers like the Jacques Delors and five had vanished in deep space, without any known cause. “They won’t have any source of components.”

“Perhaps,” the Captain agreed. I flushed. I hadn’t realised that I was speaking aloud. “That does leave the other question. Why haven’t they run?”

I understood. No pirate in his right mind would want to tangle with a cruiser. They should have opened a wormhole and escaped, but instead, they were just finishing their bombardment of the Bellefonte Station. They’d be in missile range in less than a minute, unless they intended to escape by the skin of their teeth. They wouldn’t have time to move anything from the station before we were on them.

“Weapons locked, sir,” I reported. “All missile tubes are ready to fire.”

The Captain nodded. “Fire a warning shot,” he ordered. “Fire!”

“Missile away, sir,” I said. The starship shuddered as it launched the first missile. “Tracking now.”

I’d programmed the missile to detonate just short of their drive field, enough to scorch them, but unlikely to cause any real damage unless their drive field was completely wrecked. It was possible, I conceded, but there was nothing wrong with their point defence network. The missile telemetry terminated suddenly as they burned it out of space. A moment later, they began to move away.

“Helm, take us after them,” the Captain ordered. “Tactical, fire at will.”

I keyed the firing sequence into the console and, a moment later, launched a full spread of missiles towards the pirate ship. They turned away again, presenting their broadsides, and returned fire. Their missiles, I noted with a flicker of relief, were definitely older designs. That suggested that someone out along the Beyond had been building missiles for them; the UN had abandoned that particular design years ago. At least they weren't the damned missiles Heinlein had created. They would have made the engagement too unpredictable.

“Point defence network up and running,” I confirmed, as the missiles entered the point defence network. They had the advantage of being targeted on a starship that was closing the gap between them itself, but they were too old and slow to be a major problem. The pirates would have to fire hundreds of them to be sure of scoring a hit, let alone the numbers required to destroy us.

I turned my attention back to our own missiles. Four of the seven missiles we’d fired had been taken out by the point defences and a fifth had misfired, but the final two detonated against the enemy’s drive field. I hoped – prayed - that that had been enough, but a moment later I saw the enemy starship emerge from the blasts, open up a wormhole and vanish.

“Track the wormhole,” the Captain ordered, sharply. I realised what he had in mind with a thrill of excitement. “Engineering, bring the Jump Drive online, now!”

“Unable to track the wormhole,” the Pilot reported, grimly. “The disruption from the nuclear blasts confused the sensors for too long.”

“Nuts,” the Captain said, mildly. “Damage report?”

“No damage,” I reported. “There are mild fluctuations in the drive field, but nothing significant. The Engineer would like to spend several hours examining the generators before we jump out, but he reports that we can jump out now, if necessary.”

“There’s little point,” the Captain said, coldly. I felt guilty, even though it hadn’t been my fault. “Helm, take us back to Bellefonte. Number One, stand down from battle stations, but I want ready watches in all of the compartments, including the bridge. If they decide to come back while we’re here, I want to be ready to greet them.”

“Aye, sir,” I said. I didn’t disagree with the sentiments, although double watches would make it harder to send anyone over for shore leave, or even go through the engagement with the Ensigns. They’d have to study it and identify mistakes, even though it would be a brave Ensign that accursed the Captain of making a mistake.

“Yianni, open communications with Bellefonte,” the Captain continued. “We may as well carry out our actual mission while they might be grateful.”

It was a day before I was sent, as the Captain’s representative, to Bellefonte. Bellefonte’s government, for reasons of its own, had insisted on holding the discussions on one of their orbiting asteroids and the Captain, for reasons of his own, had agreed without demur. I’d been on asteroids before, but Bellefonte’s asteroids hadn’t been spun up to generate gravity, leaving everyone floating in zero-gravity. I’d grown used to it at the Academy, but even so, it had been a long time and I felt a little unwell as I floated through the airlock to meet their representative.

“We wanted to experiment a little with his asteroid once we’d mined it of all useful materials,” the representative explained. Her name was Jade, or so she claimed; a vaguely-Chinese looking girl, barely older than I was. She was pretty, in a way, but reminded me too much of the girls from Luna City. “We thought about creating a gravity field through proper generators, but then the government decided to send the elderly into orbit to make their final years a little easier.”

I blinked. “You can’t cure them?”

Her voice hardened. “The regeneration therapies are very expensive,” she said, coldly. “We cannot produce them for ourselves and we cannot purchase them from you or anyone else. They have to grow old naturally.”

“I’m sorry,” I said, and meant it. Earth’s regeneration treatments were normally saved for the very wealthy or the very well politically-connected. It was true that elderly people were entitled to a dose for a reason that no one had ever explained to me, but most of them received nothing. At least one person I had known as a child had died shortly after receiving her treatment, which suggested that the treatment hadn’t been produced properly, or had been nothing more than boiled water. Earth’s companies were set production quotas and…well, they had to struggle to meet them. A planet like Bellefonte, without even the resources of Heinlein or another world, wouldn’t be able to produce it for itself. “Why were the pirates attacking you?”

“They came four months ago and demanded that we hand over vital components for their ship, or else,” Jade explained. I realised that she was glad of the change in subject. “The Government realised that it had no choice, but to comply, so it handled over everything the pirates wanted. Three months later, they returned and demanded more components and – this time – women as well. A month later…”

“They returned again?” I guessed. “Why didn’t you produce defences?”

“We did,” Jade explained. “We opened fire when the pirates arrived and tried to drive them off. It didn’t work and they were on the verge of destroying one of our stations when you arrived and chased them away. Why didn’t you destroy them?”

“They just opened a wormhole and escaped,” I explained. I felt as if I had failed personally, even though I knew that there had been no chance of catching the pirates. They hadn’t chosen to fight for long – hell, it was still a mystery why they had even fought at all. Perhaps they had wanted to make the point that they couldn’t be scared off so easily. It wasn't as if the Jacques Delors could remain at Bellefonte forever. “They’re going to be back.”

“I know,” Jade said. Her voice softened slightly. “I was going to be one of the women going to them this time.”

“I’m sorry,” I said. I seemed to be apologising a lot while talking to her. “We saved you from that…”

“For a while,” Jade said. She grinned suddenly, a grin with no humour in it. “I’ve been infected with a particularly nasty sexually-transmitted disease. If we lost the fight, I’d have gone willingly and fucked as many of them as I could, just to see them rot away within the year. I’m immune to it myself, of course.”

I shook my head in awe. I couldn’t understand how someone could think of such a plan, and how someone else could tamely accept her fate as part of a desperate operation. It was the work of a desperate mindset, one that saw no other choice, but to sacrifice some of the young women of his planet to make the plan work. It was beyond my comprehension. Not even Heinlein had gone so far, although there had been whores who had killed and mutilated their customers.

“This is the Cabinet,” Jade explained, as we entered a larger cavern. “I believe they want to thank you personally.”

The discussion didn’t take very long. I think they were a little surprised that the Captain himself hadn’t come, although I explained that the Captain was busy supervising the repairs to the ship. The Engineer had decided that several components needed replacing and had decided to do it while we were at rest. The Captain had agreed and also decided that it would be a good exercise for the Ensigns, although for once I wasn't going to be supervising them. Lieutenant Carolyn Lauderdale would do that almost as well as I could. She had a good touch with the Ensigns as well – and, even though it pained me to admit it, she might even have been better than me.

“I believe that the Captain will visit as soon as possible,” I said, at the end. “However, with a pirate ship in the area, he wishes to make sure that his starship is ready for battle before he leaves her.”

“Quite understandable,” the President agreed. There were undercurrents I didn’t understand. The Cabinet might even be considering seeking a closer relationship with the UN and I didn’t have the heart, or the nerve, to explain to them that that might be a dreadful mistake. The pirates were limited by what they could carry away, but the UN would reshape their society and absorb it into their system. Even if that weren't the case, the UN would have real problems stationing a task force out here permanently. If Bellefonte had rated as a serious concern, the planet would have been brought into the UN’s system of garrisons and governors a long time ago. “Your crew will, of course, be welcome for shore leave at any time. We have some quite fantastic sights for you to see, if you would like.”

That, as I had expected, turned out to be largely impossible, although Carolyn agreed to escort the Ensigns on a pair of brief excursions into the asteroid and down to the planet. I was tempted to go, but there was too much work for a First Lieutenant to do, not least writing my share of the report on the engagement. I was tempted just to write ‘we won’ or some thing along the same lines, but the Admirals in the UNPF High Command would demand at least seven pages, in triplicate. I hadn’t realised how much paperwork had to be completed for each missile we had fired, let alone everything else. It was a mystery how we were supposed to get anything done.

“You can just copy the paperwork from one missile and use it for the others,” the Captain pointed out, when I finally took it to him. I’d made a private resolution that if our plan succeeded I was going to cut all of the paperwork down as much as possible. I could see the value in accounting to each missile, but surely I didn’t have to do so much paperwork for each of them. “No one ever looks at it anyway.”

“Thank you, sir,” I said, seriously. That made it a lot easier. Even the vast UNPF bureaucracy would have had problems trying to absorb all of the paperwork. Yianni might well discover that Engineering had tons of paperwork of its own. I wondered about giving the Ensigns a taste of my paperwork, and then decided that horsewhipping them would be kinder. “I’ll see to it at once.”

We spent another five days in the system. The Engineer’s determination to have everything checked out before another encounter with the pirate ship, or even to use some of his copious selection of spare parts, meant that we had to go through everything. The Captain didn’t discourage him; indeed, I rather think that he encouraged him. I couldn’t fault him for that. If I’d learnt one thing in my career, it was that components rarely lasted half as long as they were guaranteed to last. The Engineer even dismantled the shuttles and carefully replaced all of their components as well. It was an insane level of attention to detail.

“I’ll have to pay Bellefonte a visit before we depart,” the Captain said, finally. It had been a week of watching and waiting for the pirates, but they hadn’t shown themselves. It was possible that they had emerged from the wormhole somewhere in the outer system and were waiting for us to leave, but there was no way to find them. A powered-down ship was impossible to differentiate from a harmless asteroid, unless we carried out a visual inspection, and they could hide indefinitely. “If they do show themselves, get after them at once. Don’t wait for orders.”

“Aye, sir,” I said.

I returned to the bridge to take command as the Captain’s shuttle departed. It was easy enough to have the Ensigns run basic tracking exercises on the shuttle, checking and rechecking the shuttle’s course to ensure that it docked safely at the asteroid. We’d tried to teach them the skill without having something real to practice on, but the Captain had firmly believed that the best experience came by doing. I couldn’t disagree with his logic…after all, look where it had gotten me.

”Lieutenant,” Yianni said, suddenly, “I’m picking up a power fluctuation from the Captain’s shuttle!”

I came to my feet quickly. “Report,” I ordered. The icon representing the Captain’s shuttle was beginning to flash alarmingly. I brought up the visual feed and saw it spin out of control. There was no way that that was a standard manoeuvre, or even a pilot showing off. It was bad enough to threaten the internal compensator. “What’s happening…?”

Before my eyes, the shuttle came apart and exploded in a ball of plasma.

Chapter Thirty-Two

The UNPF’s problem – one of its many problems – is that it is unable to guarantee a suitable supply of components for its starships. Each manufactory is given quite unreasonable quotas for production and, if it fails to meet them, is penalised heavily. The net result is that corners are cut everywhere and defective components are very common. Sometimes, when not discovered in time, the results are lethal.

-Thomas Anderson. An Unbiased Look at the UNPF. Baen Historical Press, 2500.

“Scan for life signs,” I snapped, against all logic. He couldn’t be dead. He just couldn’t be dead. “What happened?”

“No life signs detected,” Yianni said. She sounded as shaken as I was. “The shuttle has been completely destroyed.”

I keyed my console. “Engineer, Pilot, I want you to find out what happened to the shuttle,” I ordered. The Captain was dead and that made me Captain, but I couldn’t assume command just yet. I should declare myself Captain at once, according to regulations, yet it would have felt like a betrayal. How could I usurp Captain Harriman? “Yianni, did the station open fire?”

“Negative,” Yianni said, firmly. I checked my console and she was correct. There was no trace of a missile or a laser cannon being fired. “They’re asking us what happened!”

“Tell them that there was an accident on the shuttle and that we’ll talk to them as soon as possible,” I ordered, rising from my chair. “Launch the second shuttle…no, belay that order. Have the Engineer check out a work party and send them EVA to recover anything they can.”

“Aye, sir,” Yianni said.

The hatch opened and Jason Montgomerie came onto the bridge. “I just heard,” he said. “Can we talk in your cabin?”

He tried to lead me into the Captain’s cabin, but I refused. The Captain’s cabin was mine now, but I couldn’t go inside. It felt as if I would be violating his privacy. I couldn’t bear to do that. It would have been cutting the last link with the man I had admired and sought to emulate.

“You have to assume command,” he said, as soon as the hatch hissed closed. “You’re the First Lieutenant and you have to declare yourself Captain, now, to continue the line of authority. The ship needs a Captain.”

“I can’t,” I protested, grimly. It dawned on me that he, or the Senior Chief, might think that I had sabotaged the shuttle personally, just to get rid of the Captain. I hadn’t, but how were they to know that? “Sir, I…”

“You’re the Captain,” he said. There was no give in his tone at all. “You get to call me Jason.”

He held up a hand before I could continue. “Captain Harriman accepted your transfer request knowing that you would be First Lieutenant and his direct successor if anything happened to him,” he continued. “I approved your transfer with the same understanding. You are the senior officer of this ship and therefore command devolves upon you.”

I wanted to argue, but how could I? “The Captain won’t think any less of you for acting according to regulations and declaring yourself Captain,” he concluded. “You don’t have any real choice and you know it. Please, John, don’t make this any harder than it already is.”

“I understand,” I said. I hadn’t realised that Jason, sot that he was, had cared deeply for the Captain. They’d been friends, despite their different positions, something that would have horrified their superiors back home if they’d realised the truth. He might have seemed a drunkard, but I suspected that that hadn’t hampered his position. “Please give me some time…”

“There isn’t much time,” Jason said, standing up. “You know the regulations as well as I do.”

“Yes,” I said. The UNPF had so many regulations that no one could memorise them all, but that particular section was studied thoroughly at the Academy. In the event of the Captain being killed in the line of duty, or being relived of duty according to regulations, command will devolve upon the senior officer in the chain of command. That officer will assume the rank of Captain and return the starship to the nearest fleet base, where a full inquiry will be held. “I understand.”

The hatch hissed closed behind him and I swore, inwardly. There would have to be an inquiry when we returned to Earth and that might expose my own plans. I didn’t even know what had happened back on Earth. It was quite possible that the security forces had uncovered one of my friends and were working to round up everyone involved with my conspiracy. I could take the ship renegade, but what would that gain me, but a lifetime on the run? It would just turn me into another pirate. I say there for an hour before the hatch chimed again.

“Come,” I called. The hatch hissed open, revealing the Engineer and the Senior Chief. The Engineer was holding a blackened component in his hand. I stared at it, puzzled. It might have been something at one time, but now it was just a melted mass. “What’s that?”

“The thing that killed the Captain,” the Engineer said, grimly. His voice was very bitter. “This is a standard-issue fuel injector system for the shuttle. I studied the telemetry from the shuttle just before it exploded and deduced that one of these components must have failed.”

He put it down on my table and I examined it. It meant nothing to me. “I see,” I said, remembering the extensive checks that the Captain had ordered. “Why wasn't the damaged component located before we installed it onto the shuttle?”

“They’re sealed components,” the Engineer explained. He nodded towards the burned-out unit. “I opened two other components and inspected them carefully. They were both flawed – I suspect that someone designed it that way deliberately – and when the shuttle ramped up to full power…well, there was an overload reaction and the fuel tank eventually exploded.”

“Shit,” I said, bitterly. “Are they all flawed?”

“The case of components came to us from Ceres, sealed,” the Engineer said. I didn’t miss the implications. Ceres had a bad reputation even among the UNPF. It was the home of hundreds of conscripted workers, among other things, and produced far too many vital components. Something that would damage a starship might well destroy a shuttle, if it were loaded onboard and used in innocence. “The ones I checked are badly flawed.”

He pointed a stubby finger at the unit he’d brought. “I took that one down to the machine shop and simulated a shuttle drive being activated,” he added. “The result was what you see before you. I have no doubt that that would destroy an active shuttle.”

I swore. “What about the other shuttle?” I asked. “Can we be sure that it’s safe?”

“We can’t,” the Senior Chief said. He scowled. “I’ve ordered the components pulled out and replaced by our final components from the previous shipping, but we’d still be taking a chance. What happens if there are other sabotaged components?”

“It would depend on where they are,” the Engineer said, slowly. “The worst that could happen to the starship itself would be a runaway fusion reaction, which would burn out one of the fusion reactors, but if we lost even two of them.”

“We’d lose our ability to go FTL,” I concluded. There were three fusion reactors on the Jacques Delors and we needed at least two of them to power up the Jump Drive and open a wormhole. Even having main power to the remainder of the ship wouldn’t help us if we had to crawl back to Earth at STL speeds.

“There is no reason to believe that anything is wrong with the components installed on the ship,” the Engineer said, “but with your permission, I’ll check everything as thoroughly as I can. Earth will insist on studying everything, of course, but my report will clearly state that the sabotaged component was responsible for the death of Captain Harriman and the pilot.”

“Ceres,” I repeated. Someone had aimed a random shot into the UNPF and scored a direct hit. They’d killed the Captain himself. It was easy to believe that I had been the target, in revenge for my actions above Albion, but cold logic told me otherwise. “Thank you, Ivan. Please let me know when we can wormhole out and head back to Earth.”

He left the cabin and the hatch hissed closed behind him. “It wasn't your fault,” the Senior Chief said. I’d been half-expecting him to scream at me for losing the Captain. “You don’t need to blame yourself.”

“I can’t help it,” I admitted. “It should have been me on that shuttle.”

“Bullock manure,” the Senior Chief snapped. “The Captain had to go pay his respects to the Government. He had to go. You didn’t know that the shuttle would explode and neither did he. Now, stop whining and assume command. You cannot afford to have people wondering why you didn’t assume command at once.”

I took his meaning. UNPF investigators would be crawling all over the ship. They might find something linked to my own plans, or place additional listening devices on the ship, or God alone knew what else. I couldn’t afford to arouse suspicion, not now that I had a chance to convert my vague plan into something workable.

“Yes,” I said, slowly. I stood up and walked towards the hatch. “I’ll take command from the bridge.”

The crew on the bridge stood to attention as I entered and, after a moment’s reluctance, sat down in the Captain’s chair. No bolt of lightning vaporised me. No one raced onto the bridge to declare me an impostor and throw me out of the nearest airlock. It felt…as if I was betraying him by sitting in his chair, yet the Senior Chief was right. If he were alive now, he’d be giving me a lecture on dereliction of duty instead of understanding.

“All hands, this is Lieutenant Walker,” I said, keying the intercom. My voice would be heard over the entire ship. “I must confirm the death of Captain Harriman and Pilot Garry Patterson in a shuttle accident at 1345. In accordance with regulations, I am assuming the position of Captain of this vessel. A brief funeral service will be held in the main shuttlebay at 1800. Anyone who wishes to attend will be welcome.”

An hour passed slowly. I found that I couldn’t remain in his chair and went to his cabin instead, inspecting it carefully. Jason joined me – as per regulations – and we carefully packed up everything he’d possessed, before transferring it all to a sealed hold. He’d had a collection of old books, including some that were in restricted circulation, and a small photo album. I looked through it and saw pictures of his family, his friends and his crew. There was even a picture of Roger, Muna and myself, taken on the day we’d been promoted to Lieutenant. I couldn’t stop the tears from forming in my eyes and wiped them away bitterly. The Captain had deserved better than that.

“It wasn't your fault,” Jason repeated. He passed me a Captain’s rank badge and I pinned it on, cursing the price that came with it. “Never forget that. It wasn't your fault.”

That evening, most of the crew assembled in the main shuttlebay. I had to order one of the Lieutenants and two of the Ensigns to remain on watch – the pirate ship might return at any moment – but everyone wanted to attend. I knew that the crewmen on duty in Engineering or Tactical would be watching through the internal communications system. I couldn’t blame them. It wouldn’t be the first shipboard funeral I’d attended, but it was the first of someone who meant something to me. The Captain had made a man of me.

I looked at the pair of sealed caskets – they were empty; the bodies had been vaporised – and felt a lump in my throat. “We stand together to bid farewell to two of our number,” I began, reading the standard UNPF funeral service. I had never felt that it lacked a certain something before, but now…now, I wondered what was missing. “They served well beside us and led us onwards towards the ultimate destination of the human race. We remember them fondly in our thoughts and memories and bid them farewell.

“They lived in space and so we return them to space to drift forever,” I continued. At my command, the burial party started to carry the two caskets towards the airlock. “Trusting in space to preserve them forever, we cast them adrift on their voyage towards the undiscovered country. We bid them farewell.”

It was customary to share stories of the diseased, afterwards, but I didn’t feel like saying much. “I remember the moment when I first met Captain Harriman,” I said. I was breaking regulations by referring to him by rank, but I couldn’t call him Percival. It was so hard to think of what I could say. How could I tell the truth when it might lead to me being investigated? “He taught me how to be a man and welcomed me onboard his ship. He taught me how to grow into a young officer. His presence is sorely missed.”

Afterwards, we bid farewell to the locals, opened up a wormhole, and raced towards Earth.

The Engineer’s report didn’t make comfortable reading. I had always known that components never lasted as long as the manufactures claimed, but I was starting to wonder if we were the victims of subtle sabotage. Several other components had been identified as failing suspiciously quickly, including one that was linked right into the tactical console. I read the report carefully and then insisted on the entire system being stripped down and replaced with completely new – and checked – components. It didn’t help that some components had to be locked in place and, when checked, were ruined anyway. There was nothing on the ship that could be used to destroy us completely, apart from the missile warheads, but if we suffered a series of failures, it would have the same effect. The missiles, at least, didn’t come from a place that used conscript workers.

I also realised just how the Captain must have felt when I was training the Ensigns. As First Lieutenant, I was responsible for their training, but as Captain, I had to remain aloof. Lieutenant Jerry Robertson – the new First Lieutenant – was a capable officer, but he wasn't me! He knew what he was doing – hell, he’d been almost as involved as I had been – but it wasn't the same. I started to insist on regular reports, which he accepted calmly, until I realised that the Captain had trusted me to do it properly and left it alone. I couldn’t understand how he had tolerated it. I felt the urge to check up on them every day.

The Captain’s private computer files made interesting reading. I hadn’t realised that the Captain kept copies of everything in his own files, but he had, including reports on us. I’d never read my own file before and was surprised to discover that both of my Captains had rated me highly. I had half-suspected that Shalenko’s willingness to agree to my transfer had been because I had been reluctant to fire on ground targets and accept the deaths of innocent civilians. Captain Harriman had praised me to the skies, along with several other officers, including Sally. If she hadn’t shot her mouth off…she would probably have risen high with his reports.

I worked with the Senior Chief and the Master Sergeant every day, using the time and privacy of the Captain’s position, working out the plan. It would be simple enough, I hoped, to bring most of the Marines onside. The Marines knew as well as everyone else that the war was beyond being won and, sooner or later, someone would unleash weapons of mass destruction. The UN was terrified of WMD and after the loss of two cities to terrorists it was hard to blame them. On the other hand, would they fear losing the war more? I allowed myself to start feeling optimistic. If we played our cards right, we might even be able to move within the year.

“The Marine Platoons won’t have been penetrated by intelligence,” the Master Sergeant assured me. “Everyone who goes into a platoon has been passed through the training camp and the Crucible. No spy could last the course.”

I hoped – prayed – that he was right. My own people were being trained by the Marines as well and, even though they couldn’t become Marines, they would be well-prepared for their future tasks. Sally, in particular, learned everything she could. She was turning into quite the bloodthirsty bitch. I knew who she saw when she smashed through the dummies and almost felt pity for her. Almost.

The ship seemed different, now that I was the commanding officer. I haunted the decks, moving from section to section and inspecting it all, keeping the ship as tidy as I could. Captain Harriman had always seemed to know what to do at all times, but I wasn't like him. I was sure that they could see that I was faking it. They might even be pretending to do as I said and plotting against me. The ship felt lonely. The Captain’s cabin was so large that I felt completely isolated.

I made myself unpopular by running drill after drill. I wanted to practice counter-boarding operations in case the UN managed to drive us away from Earth and board our ships. A boarding action occurs once in a blue moon, but if I knew the UN, they would be vindictive in victory. They would want to arrest me and my people so that they could hang us in front of the entire world. Anyone in the lower levels would probably be sent to Botany. The tension just kept rising and rising…

It was almost a relief to return to Earth.

Chapter Thirty-Three

The downside of using conscript labour is obvious, although the UN considered the risk of sabotage to be minimal, for reasons that remain unexplained. The conscripts believed that there was no hope of eventual return to their home planets and started a program of sabotaging as much as they could. The UN found it a serious problem, not least because there was little they could realistically use as a punishment. Death deprived the UN of the services of people they needed.

-Thomas Anderson. An Unbiased Look at the UNPF. Baen Historical Press, 2500.

“The Admiral will see you now, Captain,” the secretary said. “If you will please follow me?”

I followed. She was worth following. Her uniform was tailored to show off her assets to their greatest advantage and it didn’t take much imagination to see how she could use those assets, or how she’d gotten the position. Her long blonde hair reached all the way down to her ass and I wanted to stroke it. I controlled the urge as she showed me into Grand Admiral Rutherford’s office. It was neither the time or the place.

“Walker,” Rutherford said, gravely. He was a tall man, inhumanly handsome, the sure mark of heavy plastic surgery matched with regeneration therapies. His file suggested that he had only commanded one starship in his career, but apparently it hadn’t prevented him from rising to the highest rank in the UNPF. “Have a seat.”

“I prefer to stand, sir,” I said, carefully. No one, not even the Senior Chief, had been able to brief me on what Rutherford would say or do to me. I was flying completely blind.

“Sit,” Rutherford repeated. “That’s an order.”

I sat down and placed my hands in my lap. I’d used to fidget a lot, but the Academy had broken me of that nasty habit. The Admiral had taken his time calling for me. We’d returned to Earth two weeks ago, but after we’d made our report we’d been told to remain in orbit – under quarantine – while the investigators made their report. It hadn’t been an easy fortnight. I knew that some of the crew had been looking forward to shore leave at Luna City and I…well, I’d had my own plans. The summons to EarthStar One couldn’t have come any later.

“So,” Rutherford said, once I’d sat down. “What do you have to say for yourself?”

I looked back at him and frowned inwardly. “Nothing, sir,” I said, finally. “I acted according to regulations at all times.”

“Indeed,” Rutherford agreed. He seemed to relax slightly. “You’ll be interested to know that your own…experience wasn't the only one. Intelligence has been reporting that there were several batches of…sabotaged components being sent out from Ceres, although you were particularly unlucky that you actually lost your Captain. Most of the other incidents were minor and cost us nothing, but time and effort repairing the damage. A handful of other people were killed, but yours was the worst.”

I didn’t relax. “The Board of Inquiry has already sat on the issue and decided that the staff at Ceres were to blame,” Rutherford continued. “Neither you nor any of your crew have been held accountable for the death of your commanding officer. The shuttle’s telemetry was inspected carefully – along with the reports of your own personnel – and they confirm your story. Captain Harriman’s death was an accident and there is nothing to fault in your own behaviour after his death.”

He leaned forward. “You should have declared yourself Captain at once,” he added, “but under the circumstances I think we can overlook that, don’t you?”

“Yes, sir,” I agreed. It was a relief. A full investigation would have destroyed morale under any circumstances, but it would have been particularly disastrous in my case. I had dodged a bullet. “I wanted to know what had happened before I declared myself Captain.”

“Quite right,” Rutherford agreed. He looked at me for a long moment and then stood up and started to pace. “How old are you, son?”

“Twenty-four, sir,” I said. It was certainly true, although wormholes did have a slight time dilation effect. I might actually be twenty-three and a half. There was no way to be sure. “My birthday’s in March.”

He nodded. “The Board of Inquiry did raise the issue of allowing you to continue to command the Jacques Delors,” Rutherford said. I felt my heart twist inside me, sharply. I’d grown to love being the Captain. “Some felt that you were too young for a cruiser command, others felt that you had succeeded to command according to regulations and couldn’t be removed from command without weakening the regulations. A load of bull, in my opinion, but Boards of Inquiry get terribly hair-splitting at the best of times. However…

“It seems that you have some powerful friends,” he continued. I blinked in surprise. As far as I knew, I had no powerful friends, with the possible exception of Captain Shalenko. “Captain Harriman spoke highly of you in his letters to his family and his family have apparently decided that approving you as commanding officer of the Jacques Delors would be a suitable legacy for him. You may not be aware of this, but his family have considerable influence in high places and have succeeded in pushing most of the objections out of your way. These are politics well beyond my level, but…the short version is that you have been confirmed as Captain of your ship.”

I felt cold. Favours like that tended to come with strings attached. I would have liked to discuss the issue with Roger, who might have known what was going on, but I had no idea where he was now. With his connections, he might even have made Captain himself by now, maybe even of a cruiser himself. It didn’t matter. I couldn’t trust him enough to talk about my own plans.

“Thank you, sir,” I said, finally. I had my own ship. It was almost enough to leave me well-disposed towards the system.

“I may not have done you any favours,” Rutherford said, shortly. He sat down again and peered at me over his fingers. “Your Political Officer was due for retirement some time ago. It’s not policy to pair up a Political Officer and a Captain for as long as Captain Harriman and Jason Montgomerie were paired up, but no one was too concerned. You’re going to have to learn to tolerate a new Political Officer, I’m afraid.”

I nodded. I had expected as much. “Yes, sir,” I said. “Jason was talking about retiring to Mars or even Luna City.”

“He’ll be extensively debriefed first,” Rutherford said, coldly. I nodded. I hadn’t dared take the Political Officer into my confidence. “However, we’ll assign a new Political Officer to your ship later today. Two of your Lieutenants, I understand, have already put in for transfers. We’re going to be approving those and appointing two new officers in their places. I hope that that meets with your approval?”

“Yes, sir,” I said. The two officers requesting transfer had done so at my suggestion. They’d be going to two different starships to build their own cells. Given enough time, I’d have every starship in the system riddled with my people, ready to take over in one blow. “I understood, however, that Captains had to approve transfers to their own ships.”

“Under normal circumstances, yes,” Rutherford agreed. “However, we have a pair of Lieutenants who require billets and you’re the only ship with open places on the crew roster.”

In other words, don’t argue, I thought, coldly.

“Which brings us neatly to the final matter,” Rutherford concluded. “You seem to have a First Ensign who will not be rising any higher.”

“Yes, sir,” I said, masking my surprise. The Grand Admiral couldn’t be concerned about Sally, could he? The political enemy she’d made must be very well connected. “She’s a good officer and I found her useful in the wardroom while I was training Ensigns.”

“Indeed,” Rutherford said. His voice darkened. “Captain Harriman recommended that she be promoted, but that was unfortunately impossible. Do you still wish to keep her on your vessel?”

“Yes, sir,” I said, firmly. “The Captain would want me to keep her.”

“He probably would,” Rutherford agreed, and dismissed the issue. “I believe that there were actually no plans for your ship’s next cruise as you weren’t expected home for another two months. I suspect that you will either end up being assigned to Captain Shalenko’s escorting force or Admiral Tao’s invasion fleet.”

I couldn’t keep the surprise out of my voice. “Invasion fleet, sir?”

“We’re going after Williamson’s World,” Rutherford said, coldly. I kept my face blank with an effort. Heinlein had been bad enough. Williamson’s World had to be going all-out to build up their own defences. “We believe that they have been providing covert support to the Heinlein Resistance Fleet as well as building up a defence force of their own.”

I had to admire his honesty. He wasn’t providing any of the bogus reasons the Political Officers had used to justify the invasion of Heinlein. Intelligence might even be right. God knew that the locals would have to be insane not to think that they weren’t on the target list.

“But that will take time to organise,” Rutherford added. He stood up and extended a hand. “Return to your ship. You may dispatch parties for shore leave if you wish, as well as the transferring officers. And congratulations, Captain.”

“Thank you, sir,” I said.

I hadn’t seen much of EarthStar One as I entered, but on the way out my guide showed me the interior of the asteroid. It had been mined out and then spun up to provide gravity, while the interior had been given a biosphere and a breathable atmosphere. The buildings in the main habitation section were luxurious beyond belief. They were the homes of the Admirals who commanded the UNPF and many of the rich or well-connected of Earth. They didn’t want to live down on the surface. It was easy to understand why. EarthStar One was not only the hub of System Command, but the safest place in the solar system. I mulled on that as I boarded the shuttle and flew back to my command. We’d have to take it out or capture it in our opening moves.

Earth looked, if anything, worse than the last time I’d set eyes on the planet. There was a dark cloud of some kind hanging over the ocean, almost like a giant dark eye peering into the vastness of space. I checked the newscasts, but there was no mention of anything like the cloud. The news focused on sporting events and reports of the war on Heinlein, which was on the verge of victory. I couldn’t help, but notice that it had been on the verge of victory for a long time. The accompanying data was sickening. There were videos and recordings from the battlefield, but someone had been at them and the only dead were locals. Some of the videos freely available on Earth’s network were truly disgusting. I couldn’t understand why the UN allowed them to be shown freely, unless they were just a distraction for the civilians down below.

“Congratulations, sir,” the Senior Chief said, when I boarded. I hadn’t sent word ahead, but wearing the Captain’s insignia was proof enough. “What are we going to do now?

“Send the crew on shore leave as we planned,” I ordered. There was no point in deferring that any longer. “Keep a minimum watch on duty, but rotate the others through so everyone gets a few days on the ground, if they want it.”

“Yes, sir,” the Senior Chief said.

“And send Lieutenant Robertson and Lieutenant Hafiz to me before they leave,” I added. “I want to chat with them before they head to their new postings.”

The next two hours passed slowly. I spent them in the Captain’s cabin – my cabin – working on the paperwork. I’d done my best to keep up with the paperwork, but I’d had to leave some things for my successor, if the Admiral had chosen to relieve me. My remaining in command meant that I had to do them myself. I almost regretted it. I signed off on crew evaluations, approved a handful of promotions and pay bonuses for crewmen and read through the Engineer’s final report carefully. If nothing else, the fortnight we’d spent in orbit had allowed us to check every little component in the ship. The report made slightly better reading than the last one.

I was still engrossed in it when the hatch chimed. “Come,” I called. The Captain’s cabin had a security system that required a voiceprint analysis. “Door open.”

The hatch hissed open, revealing a dark figure wearing dress blues. I looked up and felt a smile spreading across my face as I recognised her. “Lieutenant Muna Mohammad reporting for duty, sir,” she said. Her voice was more confident than it had been before, I realised. “Congratulations on your new appointment.”

“Welcome aboard,” I said, with genuine pleasure. I hadn’t heard from her since she’d been promoted alongside me and sent off to a secret project. “It’s good to see you again, Muna. Stand at ease.”

She relaxed and then fell into the chair when I indicated it. I took her proffered datachip and scanned the contents carefully on my terminal. There was nothing on her previous position, excepting only that she’d served with distinction and her commanding officer thoroughly approved her transfer. That, I decided, could be either good or bad, but if he’d hated her, she wouldn’t have been posted to my ship. There were plenty of less prestigious postings.

“It’s good to see you again too, sir,” she said. She held up a hand before I could speak. “I have to warn you that I’m not allowed to discuss anything relating to my prior posting with you or anyone else, even though you’re my superior officer.”

I nodded. “I understand,” I said. I was burning with curiosity – not least because it could prove an unpleasant surprise when I finally made my move – but there was no point in trying to wheedle it out of her. She’d keep her word. I checked her time and grade and nodded again. “You know that you’ll be First Lieutenant?”

“I was told that,” Muna said, seriously. “Do you wish someone else to take the position?”

I shook my head. “My First Lieutenant is leaving the ship, along with four of my Ensigns,” I explained. “You’ll be starting afresh really, so unless you don’t want to be in that position…?”

“I can handle it, sir,” Muna assured me. I trusted her judgement. Indeed, I wondered if I should bring her into the conspiracy, but dismissed the thought for the moment. There would be time enough to bring her in later, if I decided she needed to know ahead of time. The Heinlein files had been very clear on who should – and who shouldn’t – know in advance. We already had too many people in on the secret. “I did wonder about Sally, though…”

“Political problems,” I said, coldly. “Be kind to her, understand?”

Muna nodded. I shouldn’t have worried – she wasn't the kind of person to use superior rank to bully someone – but I wanted to make the warning clear. The last thing I needed was Sally becoming so embittered that she lashed out before the time was right. I could use her for my plan…if she remained alive that long. I was more worried about her than I could admit to anyone, even Muna.

“I will,” she promised. “Do we have orders yet?”

I shook my head. “Nothing apart from take a week’s shore leave,” I explained. “I’m not going to go down to the surface myself, or even Luna City, for a few days, but if you want to take some leave yourself...?”

“I had plenty of time at Luna Base for leave,” Muna said. “I’d sooner get to work.”

I nodded, pleased. “Good,” I said. The intercom chimed and interrupted me. “Yes?”

“Captain, this is Crewman Stanley down at the main airlock,” a voice said. “The Political Officer has arrived.”

“Thank you,” I said. I hadn’t been looking forward to this. “Please show her up at once.”

It was nearly ten minutes before the hatch opened and the Political Officer strode in. I took one look at her and I just knew that we weren’t going to get along. She was tall, with bushy red hair, but her face looked as if she were permanently sucking a sour lemon, perhaps with extra iodine. I decided her nickname would probably be Iodine by the day’s end and hoped that none of the crew used it in her hearing.

“I am Political Officer Deborah Tyler,” she announced, in a voice that was too high and sharp for my tastes. She reminded me a little of a teacher I’d once had before she’d been fired for excessive competence. “Why were you not waiting at the airlock to greet me?”

I refused to scowl at her, or show anything other than a bland smile. “You didn’t give me any notice of your arrival,” I pointed out, calmly. It would probably do no good pointing out command regulations to her. The Captain did not come to meet someone unless they were of superior rank. “Had you done so, I would have been there to greet you.”

“Doubtless,” Deborah sneered. She cast a glance over Muna, with a flicker of her eyes that suggested she didn’t care for people with black skin, and then looked back at me. “I trust that you have all the files in order?”

“Of course,” I said, seriously. She’d go through all the personnel files with a fine-toothed comb. I wished her well of them. It should take her hours to even read the summaries. “Do you wish to begin inspecting them now?”

The next few days didn’t improve her. She insisted on interrogating some of the crew about Captain Harriman’s death and his previous career, before turning the questions around and focusing on me. Muna reported that she was already intensely disliked by almost everyone onboard. I was pretty sure that that was a record. She sent two crewmen for punishment duties after catching them with a stash of porn, and a third for Captain’s Mast after discovering his still.

All in all, it was a relief when Captain Shalenko, my former commanding officer, summoned us to Devastator.

Interlude Three

From: The Never-Ending War. Stirling, SM. Underground Press, Earth.

Back on Old Earth, long before the UN evolved from a transnational talking shop to become the oppressive government of Earth, a new system for governing international relationships arose. It was referred to, not without reason, as MAD – Mutually Assured Destruction. Put simply, it stated that if the United Soviet Socialist Republic (a prisoner state now held up as an example of an proto-UN state) launched a massive nuclear strike against the United States of America, the Americans could detect the launch and launch their own nuclear weapons in response. No side could launch a nuclear assault without guaranteeing their own destruction.

As the USSR collapsed, this taboo lost its power, with the eventual use of nuclear weapons in a war zone – India against Pakistan – and two terrorist nukes, Marseilles and Stalingrad. The UN, therefore, was keen to remove the remaining nuclear stockpiles from Earth as quickly as possible and, as national governments collapsed into the overreaching transnational authority, this became possible. It also led to the creation of a security state that, intended to prevent a third nuclear terrorist attack, was used to create the modern-day UN. The threat of terrorists (now including patriots and independence-seeking factions) was, as always, a useful excuse for clamping down on freedom and personal liberties.

The MAD dynamic continued to hold power when the UN went to war against the colonies, some of which had their own nukes, or the ability to produce them. It rapidly became clear that nukes could be used against UN forces on the ground, but that it would provoke immediate retaliation against the civilian population of the colony world. This was not particularly welcome in some sections of the UN – they needed the colonies and their population to mend their economy – but it was accepted, on the grounds that nukes would make it impossible to hold down the colonies. The moral issues surrounding the use of nuclear weapons were ignored.

This assumed a degree of willingness on the part of the colonists to abide by the UN’s rule. In the later stages of the war, this willingness was severely tested. The UN itself was considering the use of WMD.

Part IV: Captain

Chapter Thirty-Four

Computer programmers talk in terms of GIGO – Garbage In, Garbage Out. The reasoning is simple enough. If a computer – which is not capable of independent judgement – is programmed to believe that black is white, it will believe that black is white. This also applies to life support systems on starships, which is why they are heavily monitored by the crew and secondary systems. A starship’s computer, convinced that oxygen was poison to humans, would quite happily kill the entire crew.

Something of the same can be said for political indoctrination. If a child is taught that the UN is the finest system in the known universe from birth, they will find it hard to understand that it is nothing of the kind. They will be ready to believe anything of the UN’s enemies and to cast them as darkest villains. It should come as no surprise that political officers all have a certain inflexibility of mind when they start their careers, and few succeed in overcoming it. Those who do will often end up being arrested by their fellows, if they are unwise enough to share their doubts with anyone.

-Thomas Anderson. An Unbiased Look at the UNPF. Baen Historical Press, 2500.

Devastator felt much as I remembered, I decided, as Lieutenant Anna Ossipavo escorted us to the conference room. The monitor was largely unchanged. I was surprised that Anna had remained onboard as a Lieutenant, but apparently Captain Shalenko had requested that she continue to serve him. I understood why now. A good First Lieutenant was rarer than gold. Muna was shaping up well. I only hoped that I had served Captain Harriman half as well.

The conference room was bigger than I remembered, although as a Junior Lieutenant I hadn’t had much opportunity to spend time in it. It held a table, a large display screen and a handful of chairs, three of which were occupied. I recognised Captain Shalenko and his Political Officer, but the third man was unknown to me. He was a grey man in a grey suit, without any insignia at all. I guessed that that meant that he was either important or someone pretending to be important.

Captain Shalenko rose to his feet as I entered and I realised, for the first time, that he was wearing a Commodore’s rank bars. I saluted him at once, which he brushed aside and shook my hand firmly. He looked older than I remembered, with more grey hair and a longer beard, but his grip was still strong.

“Welcome onboard, Commodore,” he said, with a faint grin. I understood. I might have been a fellow Captain now, but I could never be addressed as Captain onboard his ship. Even so, he was apparently a Commodore…and a Captain as well. “Congratulations on the promotion, John, even if it did come at a cost.”

“Thank you, sir,” I said, slightly puzzled. If he were a Commodore, how could he be a Captain as well? “I understand that congratulations are in order for you as well, sir.”

“Maybe so,” Shalenko agreed. He tapped his bars thoughtfully. “They agreed to bump Anna up to Captain pro tem, but I don’t know if these will be permanent yet.” He looked up as two more men entered the conference room. “Ah, Captain Hardwick.”

Captain Hardwick was a man whose expression just dared me to make a joke about his name. He looked more like a Marine than a starship commanding officer, but there was no mistaking the Captain’s rank bars he wore, or the name of his ship on his lapel. George Robertson wasn't a name I recognised, but I knew the cruiser by reputation. She had a good history for hunting pirates and resistance starships.

“Alex,” Hardwick said, nodding to him. His rank pins below his rank bars showed that he had been a Captain for seven years, either being denied promotion or having refused it when it was offered. Either one could be the case. I had heard of Captains who had died on their ships after refusing transfer, despite injuries and age. I understood now I’d become a commanding officer myself. “And you must be John.”

His tone was neutral. Still, his time in grade made him senior to me. “Yes, sir,” I said, shaking his hand.

“I was sorry to hear about Percival,” Hardwick continued. “It was probably how he would have wanted to go, but he deserved better than that. I trust that you held a proper ceremony for him afterwards?”

“Yes, sir,” I said.

Hardwick grinned. “You don’t have to call me sir,” he reminded me. “You can even call me Gary if you like.”

The grey man cleared his throat. “If you don’t mind, we are operating under a time limit here,” he said. “Could we place the social interaction at the end of the meeting?”

“Of course, sir,” Shalenko said. “John, Gary, all of you, please would you be seated?”

I sat down. I had hoped that Deborah Tyler – a woman the entire crew had come to detest in less than a week – would sit away from me, but she sat down next to me with all the inevitability of Christmas, or death and taxes. I’d been as polite to her as I could, even fawning on her, but inwardly I couldn’t wait to have her blown out of the airlock. She was nothing more than a one-woman morale destroyer. If we could have turned her voice into a weapon, the UN would have been invincible.

The grey man took control of the display and brought up an image of a blue-green planet I recognised instantly. Heinlein was very like Earth, apart from the fact that the ratio of land to sea was practically reversed. The handful of seas on the planet’s surface were effectively massive lakes. It was an unusual occurrence, at least in the four hundred or so Earth-like worlds that the UN had surveyed, and I suspected that there were geologists still trying to account for it. It didn’t matter to me in any case. I was more interested in knowing why we had been summoned to the monitor.

“The planet Heinlein,” the grey man said. His tone hadn’t changed at all, but there wasn't the slightest doubt in the room that he was in charge. I wondered, absently, who he actually was and who he worked for. Could he be Intelligence, or some other department? “I understand that you all served there at one point in your careers.”

“Yes, sir,” Shalenko said. I recalled my own tour on Heinlein with mixed feelings. I hadn’t enjoyed the planet at all, but at the same time Heinlein had proved to me just how evil the system was, and why it had to be fought. Dead children swam in front of my eyes. The irony was that Heinlein had taught me how to build a cell structure and use it to strike a blow at the heart of the UN’s power. “John served there under me. Gary served there a year later as part of the asteroid-patrolling squadrons.”

I eyed Captain Hardwick with new respect. The battles in Heinlein’s asteroid belts had been brief bloody affairs with quarter neither asked nor given. The UN had lost several cruisers – which should have been invincible to all, but major warships – to the asteroid miners and had resorted to destroying any habitable asteroid that didn’t surrender at once. Even so, the war had raged on for months…and, according to the Brotherhood, was still going on.

“Yes, sir,” Captain Hardwick said. “We patrolled for five months before we took enough damage to force us back to Earth for repairs. If that missile had detonated closer…well, I wouldn’t be here to talk to you today.”

“Thank you,” the grey man said. He stroked his chin. “What you are about to hear is considered classified material. Discussing this information with anyone outside this circle will be regarded as a breech in security regulations and punished by life exile to Bounty. If any of you require a briefing on the relevant security protocols, please say so now.”

There was a pause. “Good,” he said, finally. When I’d been confirmed as Captain, I’d studied the Official Secrets Regulations carefully. “The war on Heinlein has taken a turn not exactly to our advantage.”

I smiled inwardly. I’d read Heinlein’s history of Earth – more interesting than the bland pap I’d been taught in school – and I knew where that line came from. I wondered if the UN had finally decided to admit defeat, except I knew the United Nations. They would hardly be trying to prepare an invasion of Williamson’s World if, at the same time, they were going to withdraw from Heinlein. Unless…

I thought about Devastator’s capabilities and felt my blood run cold.

“You may all have heard rumours about the recent sabotage campaign mounted against Peace Force starships and installations by workers who came from Heinlein,” the grey man continued. “The effects of the sabotage have been much more serious than we appreciated at the time. Although we didn’t lose any starships directly, two cruisers suffered reactor overloads and ended up having to be towed to the shipyards for reconstruction. Other ships had problems ranging from the amusing to the serious – including the recent death of Captain Harriman.

“This has been merged with an ongoing offensive mounted against Infantry troops on the ground,” he added. “Attacks against peacekeeping forces have risen tenfold in the past five months, backed up by a growing campaign mounted against spacecraft and installations in orbit. Some of them have been direct assaults by the remaining Heinlein starships, others have been sneaker, while some are clearly the results of sabotage. General Hoover’s attempts to use industrial facilities in the Heinlein System for supplying his basic requirements have backfired. We nearly lost a starship due to a particularly cunning piece of sabotage.”

I frowned as I listened. The United Nations wasn't known for being so honest with its own people and I felt it boded ill. “Certain decisions have been taken,” the grey man concluded. “It has been decided to force the Heinlein Government to the table, by any means necessary.”

That, I decided as the silence grew longer, might not be possible. I hadn’t understood all the implications of Heinlein’s Government, but one I did understand – in hindsight – was that most of the Citizen’s Council would have escaped the destruction of their building, simply by not being there at the time. They preferred to use electronic communications systems and most of the people swept up by the Infantry had been nothing, but harmless workers. The UN had declared the Government captured, however, and no one had dared to disagree, openly.

The grey man looked at Shalenko. “Your orders are simple,” he said. “You are to take Devastator, with the two cruisers for escort, to Heinlein and destroy Valentine.”

I kept my face blank, somehow. Valentine was the second-largest city on Heinlein, although it would have vanished without trace in any of Earth’s crumbling metropolises. It had a population of over five hundred thousand if I recalled correctly – tiny compared to Earth’s population – and most of them had been penned inside the city by the Infantry, after the invasion. They’d resisted, of course, and the city had rapidly become a no-go area. I’d expected that the Infantry would have finally pacified it, but apparently they’d had other considerations. I wondered how many reporters had gone inside the ‘secure’ city and lived to tell the tale.

“Valentine has been picked for several reasons,” the grey man said, when we said nothing. “It is large enough to make our point, yet it is not worth preserving from our point of view. It makes the most sense as a target.”

I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. The UN had forsworn nuclear weapons on planetary surfaces for years. How could they break the strongest taboo the human race had? Even without that taboo, Heinlein had definitely built nukes of its own before the invasion. What was to stop them launching them against the UN’s Infantry? How much damage could they wreck if they took the gloves off.

“Devastator is certainly capable of destroying the city,” Shalenko said, dispassionately. I wanted to scream at him to stop, but it would only have destroyed my career for nothing. “I do not understand, however, why you require Devastator. Any cruiser or even a gunboat could destroy a whole city.”

“Devastator has something of a reputation on Heinlein,” the grey man said. “Besides, there are other considerations. The use of nuclear weapons is strongly prohibited on a planet’s surface without direct orders from the General Assembly and other starships might have problems overriding the safety systems built into their missiles. A monitor is designed for planetary bombardment.”

He stood up. “I trust that no one has any questions?” He asked. I was too stunned to speak. “You are cleared to depart Sol this evening and return as soon as you have completed your mission.”

“Thank you, sir,” Shalenko said. The grey man swept out of the hatch, which hissed closed behind him. “As Commodore, I will be commander of the mission. The George Robertson will provide our forward escort and scout, while the Jacques Delors will bring up the rear. We can expect the Heinlein Resistance to go all-out to stop us if they suspect our purpose, so we will maintain strict silence on our goals until we enter Heinlein orbit.”

“I protest,” Hardwick said. “I’m sure that none of my crew have links to Heinlein.”

“I merely wish to prevent any leaks before we have completed the mission,” Shalenko said. His words were so calm and composed that I almost forgot the horror lurking behind them. We were going to butcher the population of an entire city. We were going to slaughter hundreds of thousands of innocents who had done nothing to deserve to die. We were even going to be killing UN Infantry who were trying to secure the city. I would have bet good money that they wouldn’t be warned in advance. “We will depart at 2200 precisely. Dismissed!”

He held up a hand as we turned to leave. “John, I want a word with you,” he added, before I could escape. “Remain behind.”

“I should be here too,” Deborah protested. “My orders clearly state…”

“And my orders clearly state that I am in complete control of every aspect of this mission,” Shalenko barked, so loudly that Deborah jumped. “My First Lieutenant will escort you to the mess, where you may eat if you wish, or to the airlock if you wish to return to the Jacques Delors ahead of its Captain. Leave.”

Deborah threw him a glance that could have killed and stalked out, head held high. I doubted that she’d gone very far – she was probably lurking outside the hatch, waiting for me and trying to listen through the solid metal – but at least she was gone.

“Political officers are always such a bore,” Shalenko commented, when we were alone together. I remembered the rumours that he and his political officer were lovers, but I didn’t believe them. The thought of Ellen Nakamura having anything to do with love…the mind couldn’t stand it. “I imagine that you have concerns, John?”

“Yes, sir,” I said, grimly. “We’re considering mass murder!”

“We’ve done more that consider it,” Shalenko said. “I checked that man’s credentials very carefully. He’s not just a messenger boy, John, but someone with very strong links right to the top. The message he passed on might have been signed by the General Assembly, but everyone who’s anyone in power agreed to it first. They knew the risks and accepted them for everyone else.”

I stared at him. “But, sir…”

He held up a hand. “There’s no more time, John,” he said. There was a finality in his tone that quelled protests more than even a royal chewing-out. “I prevented you from throwing your career away over this before, but this situation is different. The UN itself is in desperate waters and needs time to recover before the war is truly lost. I believe that there were even groups calling for nothing less than the complete eradication of Heinlein…and not a few other planets into the bargain.”

His eyes bored into mine. “If you insist on protesting this decision, I won’t be able to protect you any longer,” he added. “No one, not even Admiral Rutherford himself, will be able to prevent you from being summarily tried, convicted, stripped of rank and executed. They’re desperate, John. If you protest, you’ll lose everything and it will happen anyway!”

I looked at him. “Do they deserve it?”

“Does anyone?” Shalenko asked. “All I know is that if something doesn’t happen to break the logjam soon, the entire United Nations will come crashing down. The good we do will vanish along with the bad. The colonies will rebuild and seek to wage war on Earth, or maybe even on each other. The rule of law will be completely destroyed. We need to end the war on terms we can accept, or we all lose.”

I wanted to protest anyway, but he was right. I had to remain silent and wait for the right time to move. I wanted to move now, but we weren't ready. A failure, with so many ships left untouched, would mean our swift annihilation. We needed more time. That time would be bought at the cost of hundreds of thousands of lives.

“I understand, sir,” I said, finally.

“Good,” Shalenko said. He smiled, softly. “Captain Harriman would be proud of you.”

“He wouldn’t,” I said, bitterly. I knew it was the truth. Captain Harriman had never bullied any of the grey colonies, or even acted like he was the lord of the universe around the colonists. He would never have agreed to kill thousands of innocents just because the unnecessary war was being lost. “He’d spit on me if he were here.”

Chapter Thirty-Five

Although no one would have admitted it, after the failure to crush Heinlein’s resistance in three years of fighting, the UN was in a desperate position. They could not supply the troops on the ground with everything they needed, while they were unable to prevent the insurgents from using their (seemingly limitless) stockpiles of weapons to take the offensive and hit the Infantry hard enough to force them to back off. As a new year dawned, the UN Generals realised that they were on the verge of losing the war.

-Thomas Anderson. An Unbiased Look at the UNPF. Baen Historical Press, 2500.

As soon as I returned to my ship, and escaped Deborah’s incessant demands to know what I had been discussing with my former commander, I held a meeting with the Senior Chief and the Master Sergeant. I broke several different regulations – at this rate, the UN was going to have problems deciding exactly what they were going to shoot me for – and explained exactly what we’d been ordered to do. I had hoped that either or both of them would be able to suggest a way out, but neither of them could think of anything. We hadn’t made contact with all the Marine units yet and if we failed to take the starships, our plan would probably fail. A battle in Earth orbit might be disastrous.

“I know how you feel,” the Senior Chief said, “but there’s no choice. All you can do is avenge them later.”

I found myself considering all kinds of drastic actions, but nothing seemed likely to work. I checked through the communications my fellow plotters had sent, looking for signs of hope, but the only optimistic thing I saw came, ironically, from the plan to invade Williamson’s World. The UN was scraping the barrel to draw up so many starships, but it allowed us a chance to get our own people onboard before the official launch date for the invasion. I couldn’t understand why, if things were so bad, the UN was launching another invasion, let alone announcing the ETA in advance. I wondered if they’d done that for Heinlein and if that explained the reception we’d had, but in the end it didn’t matter. The invasion was not going to be launched if I had anything to say about it.

My dark mood found expression in inspecting the starship before we departed Earth and opened the wormhole. I inspected everywhere a First Lieutenant might be expected to cut corners and found, much to my relief, that Muna had been doing a good job. We were fit for exploration, or a battle, or even murdering hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians. Muna was also handling the training of the Ensigns and I watched through the surveillance systems as she and the Senior Chief put them through the retch gas treatment. Their faces looked pale and wan when they emerged and I hoped they drew the right lesson from their experience. They couldn’t trust anything on the starship, even something as simple as a spacesuit. It made me wonder what we’d do if a new Ensign was smart enough to check the telltales first. Probably give them a dose of the gas anyway.

I took my command chair on the bridge – it felt like mine now, rather that something I’d stolen from its rightful owner – and watched as we opened a wormhole and fled into the pocket dimension. It was tempting to decide to turn renegade now, but we were so close to launching our coup that there was little point. Captain – Commodore – Shalenko had been right. The population of Valentine were going to die anyway. I could at least make sure that they didn’t die in vain.

“Wormhole sealed, Captain,” the Pilot reported. System Command had offered me a new Pilot, but I’d decided to stick with the one I’d inherited. He knew the Jacques Delors and how it handled and a newcomer would have had to relearn everything. “Jump Drive powering down now.”

“Thank you,” I said, tapping my console to check the readouts. We were sliding down a long tube heading towards our destination – or at least that was how I envisaged it – and now there was no turning back. No starship had ever tried to leave the wormhole early and lived to tell the tale. “First Lieutenant, you have the bridge.”

I spent the next three weeks studying my own starship, obsessing over each and every detail. The Engineer shared my obsession and tolerated my intrusions into his domain, watching over his shoulder as he checked each of the replacement spare parts carefully, just in case there was another bout of sabotage. I was particularly worried about the sealed components and encouraged the Engineer to reject any that didn’t meet his high standards, but some of them couldn’t be tested until they were locked in place. It was yet another illustration of how far the rot had settled into the system. The UN couldn’t even punish the workers too harshly, for fear they’d commit suicide or try to escape. The non-conscript workers weren’t much better. They had no real incentive to perform well.

And, unfortunately, I had to endure Deborah’s presence. She seemed to feel that she should eat dinner with me at least once a week and kept inviting herself to my cabin. I had wondered, as absurd as it seemed, if she were making a play for me, but if she intended any seduction it was a political one, rather than a personal one. I hadn’t realised just how deeply she believed in the entire concept of the United Nations, yet she was still able to justify mass murder to herself. I wasn't going to allow her to realise that I meant the UN great harm, but still…I wanted to strangle her physically. It was less than she deserved.

“The traitors who set up Heinlein were trying to prevent their sons and daughters from being enfolded in the tender arms of the United Nations and its commitment to ensure that all enjoyed an above-average style of living,” she informed me, one day. I hadn’t realised until I’d worked on logistics how impossible an ‘above average’ style of living for everyone was. “They refused to pay their dues to society and chose, instead, to steal from the patrimony of The People.”

I could just hear the capital letters thudding into place. I was never sure how seriously she took the shit she was sprouting, but I knew that far too many people believed every word. I’d also seen worlds that worked differently to the UN. Even Terra Nova, with its endless ongoing civil war, had a higher standard of living than most of Earth. That might change if the war raged on and the UN pulled out, but for the moment…I remembered my last visit home, back before I’d boarded Devastator, and shuddered. In hindsight…

The UN had promised people the world. It had promised desperate people that if the UN took control of every aspect of their lives, it would create a paradise on Earth. It had promised to soak the rich to feed the poor, but no matter how much they’d leeched away, it had never been enough. They had taxed businesses out of existence, throwing thousands more unemployed onto the streets, who then had to go on welfare themselves. If that wasn't enough, they created regulation after regulation, and used that as an excuse to throw more people out of work…they’d even defined objecting to the system as a sign of mental illness and sent anyone who complained to hospital, preventively. Soon, no one dared to object, even in private. Anyone could be a police spy.

And none of it had mattered. The rich had paid vast bribes to be left alone, or had integrated themselves into the developing society. The poor had found that their cities were crumbling away anyway, no matter how much they were told that their lives had improved. And the bureaucrats? They’d discovered that under the system they had created, however accidentally, they had more power than they had ever dreamed possible. Something had to break.

I silently toasted Heinlein with my wine glass. Deborah smiled. She thought I was toasting her.

An hour before we entered the Heinlein System, I ordered the Jacques Delors to yellow alert and inspected every inch of the starship, again. If the UN was ready to tell us that the situation was so bad, the odds were that it was actually much worse. I’d already had drills running throughout the trip, but now I ran through a final set of drills and then ordered everyone to get something to eat. We might be emerging into the midst of a battlefield.

“Wormhole opening, sir,” the Pilot said. Captain Harriman had allowed me to take the helm back when we’d reached Terra Nova, but I couldn’t afford to have an untested Ensign at the helm now. If the Resistance knew what we had come to do, they’d hold nothing back. If they took out Devastator…the UN would have to either send another monitor or alter a missile warhead for use against ground targets. “Emerging…now!”

The display lit up as our sensors started to probe nearby space. Captain Shalenko had picked the wormhole coordinates himself and included them in sealed orders, so it was probably impossible for the Heinlein Resistance to locate us, but they knew – if they knew about us – where we had to go. They could have their remaining starships hiding near the planet. Powered down, they would be barely detectable except at very close range.

“Red Alert,” I ordered. The crew raced to battle stations at once. “Tactical?”

“No enemy starships detected,” Muna said, from her position. Her voice was calm and very composed, but she didn’t know what we had come here to do. “I am picking up a data download from UNS Peacekeeper.”

“Update our records,” I ordered. Peacekeeper was a heavy cruiser of the class before ours. It had been extensively upgraded to continue to serve, but even so, it had weaknesses. I knew that the Resistance had destroyed other ships of the same class. “Communications?”

“I am picking up a direct link from Devastator and George Robertson,” Sally said. I’d placed her on communications, mainly because I needed a trusted officer there. I was relieved to see that she’d gotten along well with Muna, although I knew it had to hurt. Everyone else in our class had made Lieutenant, at least, by now…and Roger was commanding the Kofi Annan. His Admiral Uncle must have pulled more than few strings to set that up. “The Commodore is ordering us to follow him in.”

“Pilot, keep us at medium separation range,” I ordered. There was no real chance of accidentally ramming the monitor, although part of me seriously considered opening fire and hang the consequences. “Tactical, keep watching for enemy starships.”

Heinlein’s orbit looked, if anything, more crowded than it had back when we’d invaded. There were more remote orbital weapons platforms glaring down at the planet, backed up by a handful of starships. I suspected, although there was no way to know for sure, that most of the starships had been recalled to serve in the fleet destined for Williamson’s World, or maybe anti-piracy escorts. The UNPF just wasn't building enough starships to replace its losses. Even if all the colonies surrendered tomorrow, the UN would still have problems garrisoning them all and rebuilding the interstellar communications network. It didn’t bode well for the future.

I found myself looking at the remains of Heinlein’s orbital shipyards, feeling more than a twinge of envy. If we’d had those working at full capacity, we’d have enough freighters to rebuild the transport network, but the workers wouldn’t work for the UN. Even if Heinlein managed to escape the suffocating clutches of the UN, it would still have to concentrate on building warships, rather than pulling the isolated colonies back together. If the UN fell apart – if we failed – a new interstellar dark age was almost inevitable.

“System Command welcomes us into the system and has cleared us for orbital entry,” Sally said, suddenly. I doubted that System Command was that keen to see us, not if they knew what we had come to do. I felt, again, the insane urge to throw caution to the winds and open fire, but what good would it do? We were within range of those mighty orbital batteries. “They’re asking just what we’re doing here.”

So they don’t know, I thought, coldly. “Ignore it,” I ordered. “If the Commodore wants to explain our presence, he will do so.”

Nothing rose to bar our way as we settled into orbit. I relaxed slightly on the bridge and called up the data download on my console. It was worse than I had realised. Entire tracts of the planet were, to all intents and purposes, completely out of control. Valentine was occupied by the resistance now and any UN Infantry unit that went into of the city never came out again. The orbital weapons platforms were firing every day, and yet…the situation still worsened. The UN had to be out of its collective mind! It had this on its hands and yet it wanted to invade another world?

“The Commodore is informing us to watch for surprises,” Sally said. “The Devastator is about to fire.” She stopped. I could see the question forming in her mind before she pushed it down. “They’re firing.”

I looked up at the display. The monitor had never fired a nuclear planet-bombarding missile while I’d been onboard and I was curious, despite myself. It streaked away from the starship and raced down into the planet’s atmosphere. I watched its trajectory and thought about intercepting it first, but the George Robertson and the orbital weapons platforms would turn on us at once. It reached Valentine and detonated high over the city. The flash would be visible from orbit.

“My God,” Sally said. “Sir, I…”

“As you were, Ensign,” Muna snapped. There was no real anger in her tone. She was as shocked as the rest of us. There was no live feed from the city, but my imagination could fill in the details from the records we’d been shown of the cities on Earth that had died under nuclear attack. Heinlein built good buildings and it was possible that some of them would survive, but the population would be almost wiped out. I wanted to see, to rub my own eyes in what had happened, but there was no point. “Captain…?”

“Leave it,” I growled. I knew that the Heinlein Resistance wasn't going to let this go unpunished. “Sally, raise the Commodore.”

“He’s already signalling us,” Sally said. “We’re to escort the Devastator to a safe distance from the planet and then cover her as she heads home, before following her ourselves.”

“Understood,” I said, bitterly. When the remainder of the crew heard about this, they’d either be angry, or delighted. Deborah’s speeches had focused on how monstrous Heinlein’s residents were for weeks and I was starting to understand why. If the enemy were to be dehumanised, the UN could do anything they liked to them and the population at home would cheer. “Helm, take us out, following the monitor.”

Nothing happened as we reached the wormhole coordinates and watched Devastator vanish behind a closing event horizon, but I was morbidly certain that thousands of unfriendly eyes were watching us from a safe distance. Intelligence couldn’t even tell us how many starships the Heinlein Resistance had left, but they believed that there were at least five separate starships still active. Four more had been reported destroyed in encounters with the UNPF. If they massed all five together, they might have a chance to take out Devastator before we could stop them.

“Devastator’s gone, sir,” Muna said, finally.

“Yes,” I said. I’d been lost in my own thoughts…and on the bridge. I was glad that Deborah wasn't there. She might have noticed…no, I was giving her too much credit. “Helm, set course for home. We have a long voyage ahead of us.”

I spent the remainder of the flight home wondering what form Heinlein’s revenge would take. They couldn’t – wouldn’t – allow that to pass, I was sure. I had to launch my own plan quickly, in hopes of preventing a greater disaster, but I couldn’t prevent them from launching their counterattack. I tried to figure out some way of contacting the Heinlein Resistance, but I could think of nothing. After what had just happened, I wouldn’t be surprised to find myself on their hit list, with a price on my head. They’d be out for my blood.

The grey man accepted our report without demur when we reached Earth. They must have had a press report ready already, for they were filling the airwaves before we even reached Orbit Nine. I read the first two stories – recognising the name of one of the reporters who had travelled on the Devastator, years ago – and then threw the datapad across the room. He wrote about what we’d done, but somehow he almost managed to make it sound justified. It was enough to make me feel sick.

“We have most of the people we need contacted and ready to move at your command,” the Master Sergeant said, that evening. “We could move now, but I’d prefer to wait at least another week. EarthStar One is going to be the real problem.”

I nodded. EarthStar One controlled all of the defences in Earth orbit. It also didn’t allow any UNPF personnel to serve permanently on the base. It was controlled by a very secretive, very loyal organisation, who were paid well for their loyalty. Roger might have gone to serve there if he hadn’t passed the Academy entrance exams. We had to knock it out, yet it wouldn’t be easy, even with the entire fleet under our control. We studied the problem and came up with the only solution.

Two days later, the Heinlein Resistance struck back.

Chapter Thirty-Six

Earth was commonly regarded as invulnerable, and it was true enough that no one had committed an act of aggression in the Solar System – as opposed to Rock Wars between RockRats – since the UN had assumed responsibility for the defence of the planet. Indeed, most analysts believed that it was impossible. They missed the self-evident fact that no colony possessed a force capable of striking Earth, unless they chose to disregard the possibility of retaliation. A suicidal attack, as always, was the hardest to deter.

-Thomas Anderson. An Unbiased Look at the UNPF. Baen Historical Press, 2500.

Problems, I had come to realise, only happened when I was off the bridge. Captain Harriman had probably felt the same way. They found me in my cabin, or inspecting part of the ship, or even in the head. I was never on the bridge when something went badly wrong, but I was always in touch through my terminal. I could reach the bridge very quickly if I was needed.

“Report,” I snapped, as I strode onto the bridge. The crew didn’t turn to salute me as I entered, something that proved that the situation was serious. “Number One, what’s happening?”

“System Command has declared a Code Red One alert,” Muna said, from the tactical console. I felt my face freeze for a second. Code Red One meant a direct attack on Earth itself, nothing less. I couldn’t believe it. Who would dare to attack Earth? I remembered what we’d done at Heinlein and shivered. I knew one answer to that question. “I have placed the ship on alert in response.”

“Confirmed,” I said. It was good thinking, even though I knew that there were Captains who would have been horrified at any display of initiative by their crews. I’d learned better from a master teacher. “Status report?”

“The ship is at battle stations and at your command,” Muna said. “System Command has not yet updated their original warning.”

I scowled. The defenders of the planet would receive a direct download from EarthStar One, the coordinating entity, instead of using their own systems. Years ago, that had made sense, but now, with advances in technology, it was useless. I keyed my access code into my console and brought up what little we had. Gravimetric sensors had detected wormholes opening close to the planet, dangerously close, but nothing had apparently emerged. That didn’t bode well.

“Engineering, this is the Captain,” I said. “Power up the drive and prepare for combat operations. Pilot, seal the link to Orbit Nine and prepare to cast off.”

“Yes, sir,” the Pilot said. Two of the Ensigns had been running drills when the alarm sounded and they now stood by his console, unsure of what to do. I knew just how they felt. I felt the same way too. “Airlock release in twenty seconds.”

I scowled inwardly. That wasn't fast enough. If the enemy had planned to take out Orbit Nine, they might well have taken us out as well…and that would have been a disaster. If, of course, there actually was an enemy out there. System Command could be jumping at shadows, or perhaps it was all a drill. I hadn’t known System Command to be imaginative enough to run drills, but perhaps some new officer had been promoted into a position of power and…no, I’d have heard of that. The sensors might well be having flights of fancy.

“Take us to one hundred kilometres separation as soon as the airlock is clear,” I ordered, tightly. That would be far away enough to use our weapons without fear of accidentally harming Orbit Nine. We needed those stations, desperately. It didn’t help that the UN had accidentally stranded thousands of involuntary colonists in the upper levels of the orbital towers and the orbiting asteroids because the transporting situation had become dire. I’d heard rumours of riots and Marines being sent in to crack heads, but nothing concrete. “Tactical?”

“Nothing new across the board,” Muna said. “I’m picking up no trace of hostile activity.”

I brooded as the Pilot took us away from Orbit Nine. Could it be a trap intended to catch us? It was possible, yet why would they put us on alert? I could open a wormhole and escape now, along with half the starships orbiting Earth, if I decided to move. We might even be able to launch our coup and succeed, even now. I looked at the firepower orbiting Earth, the twenty-seven starships and hundreds of orbital installations, and frowned again. No one in their right mind would want to challenge those defences, surely?

That's not very bright, I reproved myself, irritated. You’re planning to challenge those defences, idiot.

I looked back at the iron representing EarthStar One, surrounded by enough smaller icons to make up a galaxy, and wondered just what was going on over there. The alert had sounded, and yet no one was issuing further orders, or even telling us to stand down and relax. The Admirals were probably arguing over what was going on and wondering if it was nothing, but a glitch in the scanners. Someone was probably going to get the blame…

“Wormholes,” Muna snapped. “Multiple wormholes!”

The display flickered to life as three wormholes opened on the other side of the planet. We couldn’t pick them up directly, but we could see them through the live feed from the orbital defences. Three Heinlein Resistance starships flew out of the wormholes, drive fields already powering up, and drove down towards the planet. I watched in dismay, nothing their acceleration rates – faster than anything UN starships could pull – before orders finally started to come in from System Command. We were to remain where we were, on patrol. Other starships would have the honour of engaging the intruders.

“My God,” the Pilot said, from his console. “I want one of them.”

I couldn’t disagree with him. Starship acceleration rates decrease sharply as the mass of the starship rises. The battleships the UN had wasted time and money building moved like wallowing hogs…and Devastator and her sisters weren't much better. The nimble cruisers were still the mainstays of the fleet, and yet the Heinlein starships seemed to have them effortlessly outclassed. If I hadn’t read the reports carefully, and recognised the weaknesses inherent in their designs, I would have known that nemesis was looming.

“Hold position,” I ordered. The enemy were racing right into the teeth of our defences. I doubted that they would be doing something so stupid unless they had a plan of some kind. The Heinlein Resistance wasn’t composed of fanatics from New Kabul or Living God. They wouldn’t throw their lives away for nothing. “Keep a close eye on them and…”

I smiled inwardly as starships moved to intercept, only to be greeted with a spread of missiles from each of the interlopers. The starships twisted, spun effortlessly in space, and launched a second salvo, just before opening fresh wormholes and vanishing into them. I listened to the communications between the UN starships as they struggled to take out as many of the incoming missiles as possible, discovering for themselves how devious the Heinlein weapons-makers were. Some of the missiles had standard nuclear warheads, others had multiple missiles concealed inside the mother missile and several had specialist warheads. A bomb-pumped laser warhead gave several UN cruisers a hard time. Two more detonated near an orbital weapons platform and wiped it out of existence.

“They’re going to be back,” I said, when Muna glanced at me. I was sure of it. They wouldn’t have caused so much trouble for nothing. All they had to do was wormhole in, launch a few missiles, and vanish again, tying Earth’s defenders up in knots. They’d get away with it too. As long as they used a certain amount of caution, they’d be bound to avoid being targeted and killed. “Set our lasers on proximity trigger and power up the jump drive. Engineering?”

The Engineer sounded grim when he answered. “Yes, sir?”

“Keep the Jump Drive at maximum readiness,” I said, shortly. He argued, of course. Keeping the Jump Drive powered up like that would place a serious amount of wear and tear on the components, perhaps even risking a burnout. It might even have been what the Heinlein Resistance hoped to achieve. If they knew that their compatriots had been sabotaging our starships, they might intend to force us to burn out the components and lost starships to the yards. Could they coordinate their plans like that?

I shook my head. It didn’t seem possible. “Three new targets,” Muna said, into the silence. “Three new starships, coming in directly towards Orbit One!”

“They’re probably not new starships,” I said. The UN had been reporting that the Heinlein Resistance either had no starships or hundreds of starships, but I knew it wasn't the former and if it had been the latter, the UN Invasion Force would never have reached Heinlein alive. They’d have been dictating terms to us, not the other way around. “Ten gets you twenty they’re the same starships with slightly altered drive patterns.”

Muna scowled down at her console. “No bet,” she said, finally. “They’re firing!”

The next hour brought us all to the verge of collapse. The attack seemed endless; they jumped in, fired off a few salvos of missiles, and jumped out again. Only a couple of starships were damaged – a dozen gunboats were destroyed – but the crews were rapidly reaching the end of their endurance. If it hadn’t been for Captain Harriman’s – and mine – insistence on endless drills, we’d have been in the same boat. As it was, we were stretched to the limit. The attacks seemed largely pointless to the Admirals – I could hear some of their chatter over the communications network – but I could see the point, all right. They intended to wear us all down and then launch their final blow.

I keyed my intercom tiredly. “Chef, have coffee served to the men on duty, including the bridge,” I ordered. Captain Harriman had banned food and drink from his bridge, except on Last Night, but I knew there was little choice. I felt tired and drained and knew that the rest of the crew probably felt the same way too. “Make up several pots of your extra-strong coffee and have it served up here.”

My gaze swept to the Ensigns. “You two go help him,” I ordered. They looked relieved to have something to do, even if it were something simple. I had a mad impulse to put one of them on the helm and the other on tactical, but pushed it back down into my mind. They weren't ready for that, with the possible exception of Sally. Hell, she’d have been perfect, if she had Lieutenant’s rank. “Tell the remaining Ensigns to assist as well.”

They left the bridge without looking back, much to my mild surprise. When I’d been an Ensign, I had been involved in battles, but that had been a happier, more innocent time. The young officers who’d come onto my starship after I assumed command might be the last Ensigns to graduate, even if my plan didn’t work. How long could the UN maintain this kind of military effort?

“Coffee?” Muna asked, very quietly. “Do you really want hot drink on the bridge?”

I looked at her. Her black skin was shining with sweat. “I don’t think we have a choice,” I said, grimly. I envied, just for a moment, the Marines. They didn’t have to worry about battles in space. They could continue to study the plans of EarthStar One in peace. “We’re not in a good state here.”

“Neither are they,” Muna said. I watched as another missile burst open to reveal a shower of smaller missiles, which raced towards their target. “They might be in just as bad a state as we are…”

She broke off as the hatch opened and the Chef entered with a small tray of coffee in spacer’s mugs. I’d hated them when I’d first seen them – they reassembled nothing more than baby beakers – but I could see the value now. If we dropped them on the deck, they wouldn’t break and splash hot coffee everywhere. I imagined that that would be quite a distraction for my crew.

“Here you are, sir,” he said, passing me a beaker. I took it with great dignity and waited until everyone else had one before taking the first sip. It was hot enough to burn my tongue and foul enough to be used to power the starship, but it shocked me awake. Spacer’s Coffee is renowned for being the worst in the universe, which didn’t stop it from becoming the favourite drink on starships. “I’ll brew up more as soon as I return to the gallery.”

“Good,” I said, warmly. I placed the beaker down and turned back to the display. “Pilot…”

“Wormhole,” Muna snapped. “They’re coming in much closer.”

I swore. They were coming in far too close. “Fire if you get a lock,” I snapped. “Pilot, take us on a pursuit course.”

The display updated rapidly, but I was already far ahead of it. If we were lucky, we’d get a solid chance to hit them…and we had to take it. They weren't coming right at us, but if they actually wanted to hit anything, they’d have to pass through our field of fire. My own best guess was that they would open up a wormhole and vanish as soon as they saw us, but we’d at least have a chance of hitting them…

“They’re evading,” the Pilot said.

“And firing,” Muna added. I tensed, expecting to come under attack, but the display told a different story. “They’re firing on EarthStar One!”

Impossible, I thought. Could we be that lucky?

The answer was no, it seemed. The missiles were faster than UN-standard missiles, but not as fast as the simulated missiles we practiced against in the exercise drills, and it seemed that EarthStar One’s defenders had kept up with their own drills. The missiles were swatted out of space before they even got close enough to try for a proximity kill. The Heinlein starship twisted, threw a salvo of missiles at us, and then vanished back into the wormhole.

“Pilot, jump us out of here,” I snapped. The missiles were far too close to hope that the point defence could take them out. A moment later, we fell into our own wormhole. This time, the trip took seconds. “Report!”

“We’ve evaded the missiles,” Muna said, calmly. I felt her presence steadying me and wished, absurdly, that I knew her better. We’d lived together as Cadets and Ensigns, yet I felt I didn’t know her at all. “They’re trying to find new targets before they burn out, but unless they have some completely new drive system it’s unlikely they’ll find anything.”

She broke off, and then snarled a curse in a language I didn’t recognise. “Captain,” she said, “you’d better take a look at this.”

I looked. It was the live feed from the orbital defences. “Shit,” I hissed. “What happened?”

“They hit Asteroid One,” Muna said. “The death toll…”

She broke off. Asteroid One was more than just another asteroid; it was living history. It had been the first asteroid to be moved back to Earth orbit and mined for raw materials, before it had been mined out and converted into the first asteroid colony, high over Earth. It had been the playground of the rich and famous for years before the UN took it over and turned it into residences for people too important to live down on Earth among the scrum. Now…

I breathed another curse under my breath. Asteroid One had been settled before the UN had instigated rigorous safety checks – not that anything had gone wrong, at least for over three hundred years – and it hadn’t been designed to take nuclear hits at close range. The bombs had broken through the rock and atmosphere was streaming out, which would have been bad enough, but the spin was now tearing the asteroid apart. As the damage mounted up, the situation only became worse; the asteroid was shattering in slow motion. I made a silent bet with myself that it wouldn’t be more than an hour before it shattered completely…and I was damn sure that everyone onboard was dead.

“They’re gone,” Muna said, finally. “They did what they came to do.”

I kept the ship at red alert for another hour, but there were no more attacks and I breathed a sigh of relief. The Heinlein Resistance were making a point of their own, one that fitted in with their nature. They'd gone after some of the UN’s leaders and killed them. I wondered if we could use the chaos to aid our own operations. We’d have to move as soon as possible…

“Leave it until Wednesday,” the Senior Chief advised, when I met with him and the Master Sergeant in the evening. I didn’t know if I could wait two days, but they were right. We had to make the final preparations now. “That will give them time to get the power struggle underway. None of the big bosses will be watching what’s happening in orbit until it’s too late.”

I hoped he was right, but I sent the messages anyway. If the UN Security Division knew what was afoot, they’d have time to act, but we’d be ready. Two days…a lot could happen in two days, even with all our planning. If we failed to take EarthStar One quickly, we were going to have to abandon the second part of the plan. I just wished I knew if they knew…

Two days, I reminded myself, thinking of Kitty. Two days…

“I shouldn’t worry too much,” the Master Sergeant added. He started to speak in rhyme. “He either fears his fate too much, or his deserts are small, that puts it not unto the touch, to win or lose it all.”

I shrugged. I was betting everything.

But then, so was he.

Chapter Thirty-Seven

EarthStar One was originally designed by the United Nations in the wake of the creation of a truly global military force. The original logic was that if the headquarters of that force were in orbit, it would be immune to pressure from the national armed forces or even political influence. This feeling was so strong that everything related to Earth’s defence was relayed through the station. Even when the UN disbanded the remaining national forces, the policy was not changed. The UN’s inertia kept it firmly in place.

-Thomas Anderson. An Unbiased Look at the UNPF. Baen Historical Press, 2500.

The shuttlebay was packed with all of the Marines and their equipment. My starship was firmly behind me, if nothing else, and while I had issued firearms to everyone in the know, I probably wouldn’t need the Marines onboard. They had their own mission. I’d listened to the bitching and had been relieved to hear that most of it focused around the use of a common shuttle, rather than one of their assault boats. The Master Sergeant had overruled the objector by pointing out that an assault boat near EarthStar One would be a red flag for the defenders; indeed, the only way we could get a shuttle there was through my request for an urgent interview with Admiral Rutherford. By the time the defenders realised that they were under attack, it should already be too late.

“Don’t worry,” the Master Sergeant said, shaking my hand. “You just make sure you live up to your promises, understand?”

I nodded. The Master Sergeant had had his own price for joining me and I fully intended to pay it. The thought of operating without political supervision was intoxicating, but…I looked down at my timer and winced inwardly. Thirty minutes before Zero Hour. Even now, my friends and allies would be gathering their forces, preparing to seize control of the starships and mutiny against their commanding officers. I hoped that everything went to plan. We had most of the Marines on our side, but those who weren't with us, or those we couldn’t risk contacting, were a dangerous unknown factor. I might have to convince them to play with us, or force them into surrendering. I hoped it wouldn’t be the latter. The Master Sergeant wouldn’t take it calmly.

“I will,” I promised. “Don’t fuck up, all right?”

He snorted. “An asteroid crammed with worthless paper-pushers who’ll shit themselves when they see us carrying weapons,” he said, with a grin. I wasn't so confident. He was taking twenty-one Marines to assault a target that had no less than two thousand personnel and, despite his confidence, I feared that something would go wrong, right at the worst possible moment. “Don’t tell me my job, Captain. You tend to your knitting and I’ll tend to mine.”

“Deal,” I said, watching as the Marines filed onboard the shuttle, pushing and jostling at each other. I couldn’t understand that either. They were going off to die in a cause few of them believed could work…and they were laughing! One of them was telling a filthy joke about two whores he’d met at Luna City, a mother and daughter team, and the others were just about wetting themselves laughing. “Good luck, Erwin.”

“I taught you well,” the Master Sergeant said. “You’ll do fine.”

A moment later, he boarded the craft and I turned and left the shuttlebay, before watching them depart. Realistically, we’d been committed as soon as I’d started to reach out to my former classmates and ask them to join, but now…now I felt committed. I knew what I had to do now, before all hell broke loose in orbit, and I touched the pistol at my belt. It felt clunky and reassuring in my hand.

The shuttlebay doors hissed closed and I walked back towards Officer Country. By now, the Lieutenants and crewmen who were in the know would have secured their assigned compartments, preventing any spies from reporting to their superiors. I’d run enough drills, even counter-boarding drills, to keep them from realising that this was anything else, until it was far too late. I just had to deal with a particular loose end myself. It wasn't something that I could trust to others.

I swung past the communications room and inspected the three crewmen on duty carefully. Crewmen were not normally allowed to carry weapons without special permission – something that I was counting on for the other starships – but the Master Sergeant had trained them and the Senior Chief was sure that they were trustworthy. I locked the communications console anyway and restricted the ship to internal communications only. A warning now could do terrible harm to our cause.

Heinlein’s books had taught me how to proceed. I’d built up cells on each of the starships in orbit, the ones assembled for the invasion of Williamson’s World. I’d determined that that invasion would never be launched, although it was quite possible that the plans had been shelved for the foreseeable future anyway. The cells would, in turn, infect the trustworthy crewmembers on the starships – with hardly any links to me – and prepare to seize control. Heinlein’s attack on Earth worked in our favour. There was so much confusion that no one would notice anything out of the ordinary until it was too late, I hoped. Orders had been streaming out of EarthStar One for days now, only to be countermanded seconds later, much to my relief. Devastator had been ordered to prepare for a flight to Heinlein – perhaps to retaliate for the retaliation – and I’d feared they would order us to accompany her, before I was ready to make my own move. It would have disrupted my plans considerably.

I glanced down at the timer one final time and stepped into Officer Country. I’d been in this particular cabin before, back when Jason Montgomerie had been Political Officer, but I had tried to avoid it ever since Deborah had taken up the position. In theory, a Captain had the right to inspect any part of his ship, but in practice not even a Captain would dare to irritate the Political Officer that much. Jason’s collection of expensive wines had gone with him, presumably helping to console him for the loss of his position, and I had no idea what Deborah had moved in herself. I keyed the door chime and braced myself as the hatch hissed open. This wasn't going to be pleasant.

“Captain,” Deborah said, looking up from a datapad. There was a faintly mocking tone in her voice. “What a pleasant surprise.”

“Doubtless,” I said. I judged that no one had given her any advance warning at all. It shouldn’t have been possible – everyone who knew in advance had had ample opportunity to do far worse than tell her – but who knew how the human mind worked? Some of the men who’d ordered the carnage on Heinlein liked spending time with their wives, mistresses and children. They were even kind to dumb animals. “Do you have a moment?”

She smiled in triumph. “I always have a moment for…what?”

Her face went deathly pale as I drew my pistol and pointed it directly at her head. She’d probably never even seen a gun before she’d taken up service with the UNPF, let alone had one pointed at her. The Master Sergeant’s drills had included threats to shoot us or pistol-whip us if we didn’t learn fast, but no one dared use those methods with ordinary infantrymen. They might even sue the UNPF for their treatment if they found that they’d been tested beyond their means. Deborah probably believed the nonsense the UN used as anti-gun propaganda.

“Stand up,” I snapped. An unpleasant smell told me that she’d wet herself in shock. I saw an argument forming in her mind and gestured with the muzzle. “On your feet, now!”

She obeyed, shaking. A large dark stain marked her uniform. She’d had it expertly tailored for some reason beyond my comprehension and it was now ruined. Her staff would probably have to tell her that it was now unusable and that she would have to buy a new one. I pitied them. Jason had had no servants, but Deborah had brought two maids with her, and both of them had shown signs of mistreatment. The Doctor had told me, in confidence, that Deborah seemed to enjoy hurting them.

“Do as you’re told and you won’t be harmed,” I said, softly. I wanted to scare her – I wanted to hurt her – but I pushed that aside. “Turn around and face the wall. Place your hands on your head, now!”

I stepped forward as she complied, pulling out the small pair of handcuffs I’d recovered from the Master Sergeant before he left on his mission. A moment later, I’d snapped them on her wrists and sent her falling to the deck. I doubted that she could escape, but just to be sure I pulled out a small needle and injected her with a heavy sedative. I’d considered killing her at once, but we might need her later, although I doubted it. Besides, we could always kill her later.

“Bitch,” I muttered, as she collapsed into a heap. The sedative was normally used for serious injuries or accidents where there was only a limited supply of oxygen. She’d be out for days unless someone injected her with the antidote. “Just stay there and…”

“No,” a new voice said. “You stay there.”

“Muna,” I snapped, irritated. I spoke harshly to cover my shock. How the hell had she gotten behind me? I must be growing old. The Master Sergeant would laugh his head off. So would everyone else, for that matter. “What are you…?”

I turned. She was pointing a laser pistol directly at my head. “Don’t lift your pistol,” she said, her voice deadly calm, although her hands were shaking. “Please, Captain; put it down on the deck, gently.”

There was no choice, but to comply, I realised. “Muna,” I said, softly. “You don’t understand…”

“I think I do,” Muna said, coldly. “You came here to put her out of commission, but you didn’t kill her. You sent the Marines away on some mission for you personally. You’re either planning to go renegade or you have something more ambitious in mind.” She saw my expression. “Captain…what are you planning?”

I sighed. “Listen,” I said, far too aware of the laser pistol in her hand. There was no dodging a laser beam and it would be lethal if it passed through my head. The Master Sergeant’s words of contempt for the weapon echoed through my mind and I almost smiled. It didn’t matter how crappy a weapon was if it were being used by someone who knew what they were doing, did it? “This war is going to destroy us all.”

“Maybe,” Muna said. Her voice seemed to grow even colder. “And yet you’re planning…what?”

“We can take the starships and Earth’s defences,” I said, carefully. I wanted – needed – to convince her. “We can force the United Nations to come to terms with the colonies…for God’s sake, Muna, how long do you think it will be before we are ordered to destroy an entire planet? How long do you think it will be before Heinlein hits Earth hard enough to kill the entire population?”

“I don’t care,” Muna hissed. There was a bitterness in her tone, something emerging from her veneer of discipline. I’d never seen her lose control before. “You’re committing treason!”

“Why does treason never prosper?” I asked. I had to reach her somehow. “Because if it prosper, none dare call it treason! How many have to die before you will act?”

“You don’t understand,” she said. “What do I care if the whole damned population of Earth dies? What do you know about my past? I was born into a tribe that thought I was nothing because I was a baby girl! I was sold to my first husband when I was seven! Raiders killed my husband when I was nine and they took me as a whore – oh, but I was no longer virgin by then. My husband took me at once and what did he care how badly I was hurt? They used me and abused me until I ran to the UN Compound and they took me in. They were the only people who helped me!”

I saw tears in her eyes. “Pierre didn’t try to use me; he didn’t try to rape me. He had me checked by the doctors and…I could never have children! My husband had seen to it that I would never give him the healthy boys he craved. The raiders hadn’t cared what happened to me. They kept me on and taught me how to read and write, and then he called in a favour and got me a place at the Academy. The United fucking Nations saved my life. If I’d stayed there, I’d be dead by now, or wishing I was.”

Her hand trembled, but she held the pistol steady. “I believe in the United Nations,” she snapped. “What do I care how many people suffer? I just wish they’d destroy the cursed place I was born and seed the land with salt!”

I found myself looking for words and failed. I hadn’t known – I had never realised – just how bad Muna’s life had been. I had thought I’d known, but I hadn’t understood, even though the Senior Chief had hinted at it…God, it felt like centuries ago. I couldn’t believe it. She was going to kill me and everything would come to nothing. Kitty would take over, I hoped, but I’d never see it. Would we win, or would we merely prolong the war?

“It won’t make any difference,” I said, slowly. “Muna, we can do something to avenge you…”

“What would it matter?” Muna demanded. “Could you give me back everything I’ve lost? I have no family, but the United Nations. I have no chance of ever having children of my own. I have nothing!” Her voice hardened. “I’ll wake her up and use her to get the warning out. The UN will react in time to prevent your forces from taking EarthStar One” – she saw my surprise, for she smiled – “oh come on, John, where else would you send them? I can nip everything in the bud.”

“You won’t,” I said, with absolute confidence. It no longer mattered anyway. “You’ll just cause a civil war instead of a quick and relatively bloodless takeover…”

“So what?” She asked, and pointed the gun directly at my forehead. I tensed and prepared to spring aside, even though I knew it would be futile. I even considered trying to jump her. “John, goodbye…”

She crumpled to the ground. I threw myself to one side a second later, but nothing leapt at me. I saw her body on the ground and, standing behind her, Sally, holding a stunner in one hand. I was never so relieved to see anyone in my entire life. I almost laughed aloud in relief.

“I thought that you’d been delayed,” Sally said, dryly. She bent down and checked Muna’s body, not gently. “I never thought that she would betray you like that.”

I ran my hand though my hair. “Never mind that at the moment,” I said, grimly. “She’s young and strong, so she’ll be out of it for only another half hour at the most. Get a pair of crewmen and put them both in the brig, separate cells, and make sure that neither of them are carrying anything dangerous. Once that’s done, join me on the bridge.”

“Yes, sir,” Sally said. She turned and left the cabin, but paused in the hatchway. “What did she say to you anyway?”

“Never mind,” I said, shaking my head. There would be time to deal with Muna later. I didn’t want to kill her, or sent her to Botany. There had to be another option, somehow. I checked my timer and frowned. The first mutinies should have begun by now. “You go deal with he, and then meet me on the bridge.”

I’d envisaged telling Muna the truth after securing Deborah, but now I’d just have to wing it. Lieutenant Carolyn Lauderdale, a member of the conspiracy, had been left in command of the bridge and she smiled in relief when she saw me. I was just as relieved to see her. I’d been having nightmarish visions of security forces on the bridge leading my people away in chains, but everything was normal.

“Report,” I said, as calmly as I could. “Have we picked up any coded pulses yet?”

“Only from three cruisers,” Carolyn said, grimly. I winced inwardly, although I knew that seven minutes wasn't really long enough to secure a ship, even with the Marines cooperating. The three cruisers that had secretly identified themselves as under our control had had the bridge crew thoroughly subverted. The others would take longer to secure. “Captain?”

“We wait,” I said, coldly. The icon for EarthStar One hung in the display, taunting me. Was it under our control, or had something gone badly wrong? I felt a feeling in the pit of my stomach I couldn’t quite explain. “Concentrate on…”

“Captain, I’m picking up a message from the Marines,” Geoffrey Murchison reported, quickly. “They’re saying…”

“Put them on,” I snapped. There was no need to worry about secrecy any longer. “Erwin, this is John.”

“John, they had troops in place waiting for something,” the Master Sergeant said. I could hear shooting in the background and cursed under my breath. Even Marines couldn’t take the entire station against armed opposition. There were only twenty-one of them, after all. “They’ve got us pinned down.”

I swore again. If they failed, it had all been for nothing.

“Erwin,” I said. I found myself grasping for words again. I’d thrown their lives away – for nothing. “I’m sorry…”

“Stow it,” he snapped. “Just make damn sure that all of this is worthwhile.”

The connection broke. A moment later, the icon representing EarthStar One flickered…and vanished.

Chapter Thirty-Eight

With the handful of a few exceptions, there were few who could claim to be truly loyal to the United Nations – indeed, the institution actively discouraged loyalty. Officers and men served for their pay checks and little else, while their political masters treated them as serfs and used them as expendable slaves. Discontent was widespread throughout the system, yet it required a rallying point before it could become a serious threat.

-Thomas Anderson. An Unbiased Look at the UNPF. Baen Historical Press, 2500.

“They took a nuke,” I realised, in shock. I’d known that the Marines carried scuttling charges for captured freighters, just in case the crews decided to try and take them back, but the Master Sergeant hadn’t mentioned taking one along with him to me. I hadn’t thought that one would be necessary, but he’d obviously had different ideas. Had he known that suicide was the only solution…or had he merely planned for all eventualities? “Why did they even have troops onboard?”

“It must have been the Heinlein assault,” Sally said, stepping onto the bridge. If anyone thought it was odd that a mere Ensign was addressing a Captain in such a manner, they said nothing. “If that panicked the people on EarthStar One, they might well have uploaded more security forces without telling anyone.”

And twenty-one good men died in the blast, I thought, coldly. The Master Sergeant’s sacrifice had bought us the time we needed, but at a fearful cost. Earth’s mighty defences were useless now, at least until we could board them and replace their control processors, and we would have a free hand, as long as nothing went badly wrong. I glanced down at the display and saw that seven starships had definitely fallen into our hands, along with two of the troop transports. The Marine transports were already on their way from Mars, but we couldn’t trust the Infantry. Luckily, most of them would be in stasis tubes and wouldn’t know that anything had changed until it was far too late.

“Captain, I’m picking up signals from the orbital asteroids and two of the starships,” Lieutenant Samantha Kennedy said. “I think the cat is definitely out of the bag now.”

“Put them on,” I said.

“This is Sanders, Captain Sanders,” a voice said. It was the sound of despair. “The Marines have taken the ship and are breaking into my cabin. They’re mutinying against…”

The voice vanished, only to be replaced by another one. “There’s a battle going on at the airlocks,” it said. This one was young and female, an Ensign who had forgotten everything, even basic communications protocols. “The Captain is dead! They killed the Captain!”

“Armed Marines are boarding the asteroid and cuffing my men,” someone else said. This one was old and cynical. The Marines had to secure the orbital asteroids before someone got any clever ideas about trying to reassume control of the orbital defences. “They’re killing anyone who tries to resist!”

“This is Devastator,” a familiar voice said. I recognised my former Captain and winced inwardly. I’d wanted the monitor to threaten Earth if necessary, but he would have been one of the few Captains to survive. Devastator hadn’t had a large cell of rebels, just because the Captain inspired loyalty. “I have four mutineers in custody, I repeat, I have four mutineers in custody. I believe that this is not an isolated event and a security alert should be declared at once.”

“Too late,” I hissed, savagely. The quick-reaction force in orbit consisted of the Marines, the Marines I’d already subverted. They wouldn’t respond to orders from the ground, but by the time the UN realised that that was the time, valuable time would be lost. They’d then send up troops in shuttles or the orbital towers, although the latter would be fearfully slow, but by then we’d have control of all the starships, one way or the other. We’d even control the upper levels of the orbital towers.

“We had six people onboard Devastator,” the Senior Chief said. He shouldn’t have been on the bridge at all, but again, no one objected. “Two of them must have been killed in the crossfire.”

“This is Captain Traduce,” another voice said. “I am barricaded in my cabin, but the mutineers have taken control of the bridge and the engineering compartment. The Marines are joining the rebels, I repeat…”

The signal vanished in another wash of static and two more starships declared that they were secure. I keyed my console, sending the orders I’d prepared already, ordering them to prepare to move out to the asteroid belt if necessary. The Marines I’d sent there would have destroyed the UN garrisons by now and the workers would be rebelling, given half a chance. I’d seen it years ago. Earth no longer supplied the UNPF with anything. It all came from the asteroids. Earth’s vaunted industry couldn’t even meet Earth’s needs, let alone anyone else’s requirements.

“Colin, watch out,” someone said. “They’re behind you and…”

It broke off in a scream. “This is UN General Command,” a harsher voice said, yet it was tinged with fear and uncertainty. “This is a general broadcast to all starships. Report your status at once. I repeat, report your status at once.”

“Ignore it,” I ordered, imagining the chaos down on the surface. The politicians would be trying to come to grips with the crisis, unaware that things were already outside their control. I was tempted to broadcast fake information to mislead them, but there was little point. Earth’s power to intervene was almost non-existent. They were probably regretting having disbanded the heavy ground-based laser cannons by now. “Samantha, how many starships are with us now?”

“Twenty-one,” Samantha said. “The Al Gore is drifting out of control and we lost all contact with her two minutes ago.”

“That was one of the ships without subverted Marines,” the Senior Chief muttered in my ear. “If there was a fire fight on the bridge, or damage to the control systems…”

I nodded. “We’ll have to try to recover her later,” I said. The cruiser wasn’t about to fall into the atmosphere and add to Earth’s woes. If worst came to worst, I’d fire on her myself, but it shouldn’t be necessary. The ship wasn't leaking atmosphere and the crew should be able to remain alive long enough to be rescued, unless they’d killed each other by now. For once, I breathed a silent prayer of thanks for the UN’s obsessive concern with safety. The loyalists would find it hard to pump out the atmosphere and kill my people. “Can you get a link to Trygve Lie?”

Samantha winked at me – she knew my relationship with Kitty – but she opened the link without demur. “Kitty, this is John,” I said, quickly. The battleship was always going to be the hardest target – in fact, in hindsight, I should have tried to prepare a suicide charge for that ship as well. We’d never have been able to smuggle a nuke though the sensors, but there were other ways. “Report!”

Kitty sounded tired when she spoke to me. “I’ve got good news and bad news,” she said. I forgave her the breach of protocol. If she were still alive, we hadn’t failed. Not yet…and the more starships that fell under our control, the more certain our victory. “The good news is that we have control of the ship. The bad news is that there was a laser fight in several compartments and we don’t have any weapons until we can rig bypasses. We don’t even have point defence.”

I swore. Battleship or not, expensive waste of resources or the ultimate weapon of intimidation, the starship was completely defenceless without weapons. A handful of nuclear strikes would take out a battleship, same as any other starship, and while the battleship mounted heavy point defence weapons, they couldn’t use them without the control systems. Intentionally or otherwise, the UN had scored a goal.

“Understood,” I said, finally. There was no point in crying over spilt milk. “Can you still move the ship?”

“Yes,” Kitty said. “The bridge is a mess, but we’ve moved operations down to the CIC and we can still use the drives.”

“Good enough,” I said. “Power up the Jump Drive and jump out to the asteroids. There’s no point in keeping you here if you can’t fight. Make repairs as quickly as you can and then return.”

“Yes, sir,” Kitty said. Her voice softened slightly. “Good luck, John.”

I looked down at the display as the battleship started to manoeuvre out of the planet’s gravity well, ignoring increasingly frantic messages from the ground. We had twenty-one starships under our direct control now, with the others still disputed…apart from Devastator. I’d expected Captain Shalenko to be trying to take action, but instead the monitor was just sitting there, waiting. The torrent of messages from the asteroids was slowing down as my people secured control. He had to be going out of his mind with worry…or perhaps he was waiting to see who came out on top.

They probably think that one of their senior officers has launched a coup, I thought, with a flicker of amusement. The upper levels didn’t realise – they didn’t really believe – that people less fortunate than they had been had minds and souls, or even the ability to use them. The thought of a mutiny from the lower decks was beyond their comprehension and, in every case, their paranoia had worked against them. If every member of the crew on each starship had been armed, the results would have been unpleasant. The chaos would probably have cost us our chance at a bloodless victory.

I looked down at the messages and smiled. They’d been trying to call me directly, but they were also calling others. I wondered if they’d realised that I was in command of the rebellion, but it looked as if they were desperately trying to contact anyone. I studied the relay systems, trying to see what Captain Shalenko was saying to them, but Devastator appeared to be silent. He had to be using tight-beam lasers to communicate with the ground.

“I think its time,” the Senior Chief said. “John, are you ready?”

I tensed. “Yes,” I said, slowly. “Open a general channel, wide broadcast.”

“Channel opening,” Samantha said. That had been one of the tricks I’d picked up from Heinlein. I wouldn’t just be addressing the UN General Command on the ground, or the uncommitted across the solar system, but everyone. They would all hear what I had to say. “You may speak when ready.”

I took a breath. “This is Captain John Walker,” I said. “As of now, we have secured control of Earth’s orbital defences and most of the starships orbiting the planet. The United Nation’s ability to dictate terms to the Colonies, or even Luna Base, has been neutralised. This action is not something we take willingly, but it is action that we must take. The war between Earth and the Colonies is beyond victory. It can only end in defeat.

“Ask yourself this, if you doubt me,” I continued. “Why have conditions on Earth steadily worsened, despite the UN’s promise of booty from the Colonies? Why have we – the officers and men of the UNPF – been expended endlessly in a war that they told us would be won in weeks, perhaps days? Why was Heinlein’s Resistance able to strike at the very heart of Earth itself, creating a sight that no one could miss in the sky? Why should we serve as enforcers to a group of politicians too stupid to see the writing on the wall?

“We all swore loyalty to the high ideals behind the Peace Force. We were told that the Peace Force existed to promote Peace and to enforce Peace. Have we succeeded in our mission? No! How can we succeed in our mission when the mere presence of the Peace Force is enough to destroy Peace? How can we succeed when our lords and masters take steps designed to expand the conflict and destroy the peace and tranquillity on dozens of worlds? How can we look in the mirror and call ourselves the Peace Force when we bring them war, famine, pestilence and death?”

I felt my resentments bubbling up. “But what does it matter what we do, if the political cause is right?” I asked. “What does it matter if we kill millions of innocents if the cause is right? The ends justify the means, right? We’re not robots, or computers to be programmed, even if far too many of us have allowed ourselves to believe their lies. We have minds and we can think for ourselves. How does it benefit Earth, or even the UN itself, if our very presence causes resentment and hatred? Are we murderers, so far fallen from grace that we can accept the destruction of an entire city of innocents by the weapons we are sworn to prevent being used? Are we monsters that we become passive observers as worlds are looted, women are raped and children are killed? Are we not compliant in their deeds? Are our hands not dripping red with blood?

“Look at the UN, look at the world and ask yourself one question. What is it we serve? We serve as their enforcers, stamping down on anyone who dares to question, while others grow worse under our protection. How many decent officers have been held back, or sent to isolated fuelling stations, for daring to question? How many sensible Captains have been overridden by their Political Officers, or humiliated on the bridge in front of their crews. What value is our service when it is based on lies? How many of us only took service to escape the conditions on Earth?

“The UN created the nightmare that now grips Earth,” I thundered. “Look at it! How does it match the version created by the UN’s propaganda machine? Have things gotten better? No – if anything, they’ve gotten much worse. Our families and friends choke to death on pollution and suffer under the rule of the gangs, or corrupt police officers, while the political class dine on fine foods and drink fine wines, unheeding of the screams for help below them.

“We’re not disloyal to Earth, or humanity! We are people who have decided that enough is enough! We are the people who are going to end the war and prevent the UN from crushing the life out of hundreds of worlds. We’re your comrades in arms, your fellow servicemen. Join us. You have nothing to lose, but your chains!”

I drew my hand across my throat and Samantha cut the channel. I was sweating heavily. I had never claimed to be a good speechwriter, and yet it had to come from the heart. The signal would be racing out across the solar system now, yet who would listen? The uncommitted in space might join us, or take advantage of the chaos to revolt against the UN, but what would happen on Earth itself? The UN had been breeding all initiative out of the population for centuries. Would they rebel, or would they shrug and return to their lives?

“I’m picking up a direct signal from the planet,” Samantha said. “It’s the Sec-Gen himself.”

“On screen,” I ordered. The Secretary-General looked pale and wan. He was grossly overweight and, despite the best treatments money and high status could by, was balding. He was sweating like the pig he reassembled. “Hello.”

The correct means of address was ‘Your Excellency,’ but I wasn't in the mood to kowtow any longer. It would have betrayed everyone who had fought and died to get this far.

“Captain,” he said. His voice was probably intended to sound resolute, but it came out as more of a whine. “Captain, we can discuss this, perhaps even…”

“My terms are quite simple,” I said, cutting him off. “You will surrender control over the UNPF to me. You will declare the war with the Colonies at an end and formally accept that your jurisdiction ends outside Earth’s atmosphere. You will not attempt to subvert my command or interfere with us in any way.”

I stared at him coldly. “If you refuse to comply I will be forced to bombard Earth,” I added. I’d counted on Devastator, but even without her I could still drop precision KEW weapons. I could take out the entire UN and he knew it. “The war is over, you fat pig.”

Samantha broke the connection and we burst out laughing. No one had spoken to him like that since…oh, probably since he was born. I hadn’t been impressed with his appearance either. A more resolute man would probably have tried to stall long enough to put together a military option of some kind. As it was, I suspected he’d give in, sooner rather than later.

And Captain Shalenko was still out there, waiting.

I considered hailing him, but pushed the thought aside. Instead, I concentred on mopping up the remaining loyalists before they could become major problems. The newly-arrived Marine Transports were ordered to secure the orbital towers and shut down their massive elevators until everything was secure. The asteroids surrendered one by one and we secured the stores that had been prepared for invading Williamson’s World. I took a certain delight in ordering the beauecrats held prisoner and prepared for a return to the surface. The fleet I intended to build would have no place for their kind.

“Ah,” Sally said, suddenly. “Captain, I think we have a problem.”

“Show me,” I ordered. I should have known that everything was going far too well. Captain Harriman had taught me that if my plan had worked perfectly, it meant I was about to lose. I hadn’t understood the logic until much later. “What’s happening?”

A trio of wormholes formed near Earth. Two of the new arrivals were cruisers. The third…

The Kofi Annan.

Roger’s ship.

Chapter Thirty-Nine

The UN was always careful enough to ensure that its most powerful starships went to the Captains who had a strong incentive to be loyal to the system. By 2500, that generally meant younger members of the Political Class, people who had very well-connected families. Competence was regarded as an unexpected bonus.

-Thomas Anderson. An Unbiased Look at the UNPF. Baen Historical Press, 2500.

“Sound Red Alert,” I ordered, keying the intercom. “All hands to battle stations. I repeat, all hands to battle stations.”

The massive battleship had emerged from the wormhole beyond the moon, but that wouldn’t prevent Roger from hearing chapter and verse from the Secretary-General, or even from Captain Shalenko. How would he react? Roger was smart enough to see the flaws in the system, but unlike me, he had strong ties to the ruling class. Years ago, I would probably have trusted him, but after Muna…I no longer knew who I could trust. What side would Roger be on?

“Captain,” Samantha said, “I’m picking up encrypted signals from Earth to the Kofi Annan. I think they’re trying to warn her Captain of what’s happening here?”

“Damn you, Roger,” I muttered. Either through planning or a horrendous stroke of bad luck, he was in a position to reverse most of what we’d done. It would still be bloody – and the UN’s self-confidence would have taken a ghastly set of blows – but he might still come out ahead. “What do you think you’re doing?”

I looked down at the display. Seventeen starships were in excellent condition, but a handful, including Kitty’s ship, were damaged. Kitty had jumped out to the asteroids and wouldn’t have the slightest idea that something had gone badly wrong at Earth. By the time she knew, it would all be over unless I sent a ship after her…and, even so, she would still have to repair her weapons before she could intervene.

“Contact the fleet,” I ordered. “Order them to form up on us, apart from the Gabriele. She is to fly directly to the asteroids and inform them of what’s happening here.”

“Aye, sir,” Samantha said. “They’re acknowledging.”

The Kofi Annan’s icon seemed to dominate the display. I considered hailing him and trying to talk sense into him, but I needed the time to form up my small fleet. It looked as if our first battle was going to be our last, unless Roger decided to switch sides as well. I’d welcome him. He might be related to some of the most corrupt and vernal men in existence, but there was no doubting his competence. He wouldn’t have been able to keep command of the battleship without it.

I watched the fleet forming up on my flag. We were hopelessly ill-prepared, I realised. We hadn’t had a chance to practice operating as a fleet yet, let alone anything else. Some of the ships still had crewmembers who didn’t know what was going on, perhaps even people preparing to retake the bridges. I thought of Muna and Deborah and scowled. At least I had my dissidents in the brig. Muna had deserved better, somehow. I hadn’t realised just how loyal she was to the UN.

“Link us into the fleet communications system,” I ordered, quietly. The downloads from the other starships wouldn’t tell me what I needed to know. No one had bothered to set up a system to monitor the process of a mutiny and coup, a serious oversight. If we won the coming fight, we’d have to update the systems…hell, we’d have a lot to do. I knew hundreds of sections that needed improvements. I could build a real fleet without having to worry about pleasing the UN any longer.

And if Roger won? I’d die a free man, at least.

“Aye, sir,” Samantha said. I skimmed through the downloads quickly, trying to read between the lines. It was hard to be sure, but most of the starships seemed to be under firm control. I saw one data line and smiled. Luna Base had declared for us and there seemed to be fighting in some of the settlements. I just hoped that Luna City survived. The crewmen would never forgive me if it were destroyed in the fighting and all the women were sucked out into space. “They’re standing by.”

She broke off. “Captain, the Kofi Annan is hailing us,” she said. “They want to talk.”

“On screen,” I ordered. Roger’s image appeared in front of me. He looked older than I remembered – it had been three years since I’d seen him on Heinlein – but he also looked surprisingly competent. He wore dress uniform on his own bridge and carried a pistol at his belt. “Roger.”

“John,” he replied. He sounded tired and wan. “I don’t know what you have in mind, but it won’t work.”

“It will,” I said, pretending a confidence I didn’t feel. The battleship might have been an expensive waste of resources under normal circumstances, but the unique battle we were about to fight would play to its strengths. We couldn’t let it break the siege of Earth or the UN would be able to regain control of the orbiting stations. It would still trigger a civil war within the war, but that wouldn’t be much of an improvement. “Do you know how close Earth came to destruction three days ago?”

“No,” Roger said, flatly. “John, what you’re doing is treason against the human race itself. You’re turning your guns on the hands that created you and turned you into an officer in the Peace Force. What will happen to Earth if the Colonies manage to break free while we’re fighting a civil war?”

Wars are never civil, part of my mind whispered. “Roger,” I said, “three days ago, a Heinlein starship took out Asteroid One, after we took out – murdered – an entire city on their planet.” I thought about how many of the Political Class had been killed in the attack and shivered. If they’d remained alive, they would have been good hostages. “What happens next time? Will they sneak something through the defences that will kill the entire planet? It’s technically possible. You and I both know that this war is beyond being won, but it can be lost. What happens if no one says stop and makes it stick? How many people do you want to die?”

I leaned forward. “Do you remember,” I asked, “when we were both Lieutenants on Heinlein? I asked you if the war was worthwhile and you said that it was. You were wrong and the war has now reached the point where they can slaughter civilians in vast quantities as well. The war will keep stretching our system until it breaks completely. Why not join us instead?”

“Because…what you’re doing may not create something better,” Roger said. It dawned on me that our debate was public. The entire system would be listening to us arguing. “You might create something worse. Even if you don’t want to be Emperor yourself, someone else will take what you have created and try to build an empire on a pile of skulls. You might even be right and the Colonies will take advantage of the pause to hit back at us. John, please, give up. I can plead for leniency.”

“No,” I said. “I won’t betray everyone who died.”

Roger’s image vanished from the display. “I’m picking up targeting sweeps from the battleship and one of the cruisers,” Lieutenant Carolyn Lauderdale reported. She’d taken the tactical console after Muna had been…indisposed. “They’re powering up their weapons and making it very obvious.”

“Perhaps hoping that we would surrender,” I said, darkly. What was the other cruiser doing? Was it in the midst of an internal power struggle, or was something else going on? “Load missile bays and lock weapons on target. Prepare to engage the enemy.”

I looked over at Samantha. “The primary target is the Kofi Annan,” I added. There was little point in trying to coordinate the battle. We’d have to wing it and hope. Luckily, there was only one battleship in Roger’s force. He’d have to be lucky and we’d have to be unlucky. How much did he know? If he knew about the asteroids, what would he do? “Inform all ships. When we open fire, they are to engage and fire at will.”

“Aye, sir,” Samantha said. “They’re acknowledging.”

Sally frowned from her console. “He always had a silver spoon in his mouth,” she hissed, with a bitterness I had come to realise had become part of her personality. “No wonder he won’t see sense and surrender, or even vanish with his battleship and turn renegade.”

I shrugged. The Kofi Annan wasn’t a cruiser. It needed a day in a shipyard for every day it spent on duty and it hadn’t been getting it. I studied the emissions thoughtfully, trying to see if there were any weaknesses we could exploit, but nothing suggested itself. Roger wouldn’t have skimped on the basic maintenance unless he had had no choice. Still, there would be no hope of keeping it running out in the Beyond. He didn’t have much choice. He either fought or surrendered. The Colonies wouldn’t help him.

“Enemy vessel now coming into range,” Carolyn reported. “I have weapons locked on target.”

“Hold fire,” I ordered, tersely. Perhaps we could prevent a fight. “Roger, what are you playing at…?”

“Missile separation,” Carolyn snapped. “They’ve opened fire.”

“All ships, fire at will,” I ordered, sharply. Carolyn’s hand fell on her console and we fired our first spread of missiles. Between all of the ships, we could fire over a hundred missiles per salvo. Roger would face his ship’s worst nightmare; repeated volley fire from multiple launch platforms. “Evade as required.”

Roger wasn’t playing games himself. He’d fired fifty missiles in his opening salvo and all, but ten were targeted on us. The missiles would be basic UN-standard, I suspected, instead of Heinlein-designed surprises, but that wouldn’t stop them being lethal if they touched home. We had a surprise ourselves; I had enough starships with me to produce a genuine point defence network, rather than merely each ship for itself. I watched as the missiles roared closer and smiled when they started to vanish, one by one.

“The Kofi Annan is picking up speed,” Sally reported, grimly. “Estimated ETA Earth orbit is twenty minutes.”

“Understood,” I said, shortly. The missiles were still falling to our lasers, but Roger had fired a second salvo and then a third. I ran through the calculations in my head. His point defence was just as good as ours – maybe better in some ways – and he had the power to back it up. We had to give him a ore complex problem to deal with, yet we couldn’t do that without risking our own point defence network breaking up. “Keep firing…”

I tapped my console, issuing orders to the other starships. At my command, four of them opened wormholes and jumped around the Kofi Annan, emerging dangerously close to the battleship. Before Roger could react – and I was sure that he would have his gunners on hair triggers, after Heinlein – they fired their missiles and reopened the wormholes, slipping away. Roger’s point defence found itself struggling to cope with newer targets coming in from different vectors and I smiled as one missile detonated against the drive field. My election vanished as I realised that the Kofi Annan was almost undamaged by the blast and was still firing.

Get into Earth orbit and regain control, I thought. That’s what they will have told him to do. Get back into Earth orbit and reclaim the orbital defences. How can I use that against him?

“Incoming missiles,” Carolyn snapped. “I doubt we can take all these down.”

“Pilot, jump us out,” I snapped. A wormhole enfolded us and we vanished, emerging far too close to the battleship for comfort. Carolyn fired another spread of missiles before we vanished again. I had a mental image of a powerful beast being tormented by coyotes or hyenas. Every time it turned to deal with one problem another jumped in and attacked the creature’s back. “Carolyn, continue firing!”

The position was untenable, I realised. We couldn’t coordinate our fire, so we could only harass the battleship, not destroy it. Roger knew that as well as we did, so all he had to do was keep moving towards Earth. We’d either have to stand and fight, or pull back and admit defeat. We scored two more hits on the battleship, but they weren’t coordinated and the battleship seemed undamaged. The dance was going to end in Roger’s victory by default.

I found myself grasping for possibilities. Could we recall Kitty in time to make a difference? She’d have come the moment she repaired her weapons systems, but she wasn't here, which suggested that they still weren’t repaired. Without her battleship to counter the Kofi Annan, we couldn’t stand and fight. Would we have any choice? If we let them enter Earth orbit and drive us away, all of this would have been for nothing.

“Damn you, Roger,” I hissed. “I’m not going to let you end it all.”

“Captain,” Carolyn snapped. “A new wormhole is opening!”

I allowed myself a moment of hope. It might have been Kitty, but instead Devastator emerged from the wormhole. I stared in stark disbelief. Devastator was a monitor. She wasn't designed for the line of battle. Captain Shalenko had had to have lost his mind. He couldn’t be planning to intervene, could he?

“Receiving a transmission,” Samantha said. “He says he’s sorry.”

Before my eyes, Devastator plunged towards Kofi Annan and crashed right into her. The media suggested that starships collided on a regular basis, but the truth was that even the most insanely incompetent pilot would have struggled to make two ships crash, unless it was deliberate. Even then, it would be hard, but Roger had unintentionally aided Devastator on her final cruise. The two starships exploded and vanished inside a massive fireball.

“Captain Yamamoto would like to surrender,” Samantha said. I barely heard her. I was still staring at the remains of a man I’d once called a friend, and a commanding officer who’d prevented me from throwing away my own career. What had gone through his mind in the final few minutes? Had Shalenko intended to kill himself, or had he realised that he had committed vast crimes and sought a means of redeeming himself. “Sir?”

“Accept the surrender,” I said, softly. “Check around with the other ships and find one that has an intact platoon of Marines and send them onboard to secure the ship. What about the other cruiser?”

“They’re apparently under the control of mutineers themselves,” Samantha said. I didn’t smile. We were mutineers as well, unless we won outright. Winners got to write the history books. “They’re asking to join us.”

“Find out who’s in charge and see if they’re one of us,” I said. “If not, find a second platoon of Marines and send them onboard, just in case.”

I looked down at the display. “And prepare to return to Earth,” I added. “This isn’t quite finished yet.”

A moment later, another wormhole materialised and Kitty’s starship appeared. I couldn’t stop myself from laughing. Five minutes sooner and Captain Shalenko wouldn’t have had to commit suicide to stop Roger and his battleship. I doubted we’d be building any more such ships ourselves. They were just resource hogs.

“It’s good to see you,” I said, once we’d filled her in on what had happened in her absence. She had been as surprised as we were to discover that Roger had returned to the system; had they known something, or had it just been a hideous coincidence? “What’s happening at the asteroids?”

“They’ve all declared for us,” Kitty said, seriously. I thought that she’d never looked more beautiful in her life. “There were some problems with some of the overseers, but the prisoners took care of them and threw most of the bastards into space. I think that most of them will want to go home, but they’ve agreed to support us as long as we need them.”

“That might be a long time,” I said. Even if we started training up proper engineers again, it would still take years to replace all the conscripted workers…but I owed them a debt of honour. I’d helped put some of them in the work camps and now I’d get them back home, even if it made my operations difficult. I relaxed slightly as it dawned on me that I’d won. We held the Peace Force – and I was going to rename it something else once everything else had been done – and Earth’s high orbitals. Yesterday, the UN had controlled hundreds of star systems and billions of people. Today, it only controlled one planet. They couldn’t get at us any longer. Given time, I was sure that each of the garrisons would be wiped out, even as we were clearing their baleful influence from the fleet. “Still…we can maintain the fleet now.”

I paused. “Sally,” I ordered, “stand to attention.”

“Yes, sir,” she said, standing up.

“By the power vested in me, I hereby promote you to Lieutenant,” I said, clearly. I’d wanted to do it ever since I’d become Captain, but now…who was going to disagree? Everyone knew that Sally had been badly treated by the UN and no one doubted her competence. It was a shame I couldn’t grant her seniority as well, but that would have pushed matters too far. It wouldn’t be long before she was assigned to a new starship where she would either rise or fall according to her merits.

I sat back down in the command chair. “Pilot, take us back to Earth,” I ordered. I couldn’t keep the smile off my face. It was easy to be dramatic in the flush of victory. “It’s time to dictate terms to the United Nations and end the war for good.”

Interlude Four

From: The End of the Nightmare. Standard Press, New Washington, 2567.

The end, when it came, came swiftly.

The UNPF coup in orbit above Earth broke the power of the UN completely. As then-Captain Walker sent messengers to the occupied planets, the remainder of the UNPF and the UN Infantry swung to his side. Walker’s message was clear. The occupations were going to come to an end, provided that the Infantry were allowed to withdraw in peace. Planets such as Heinlein respected the ceasefire and generally permitted the UN Infantry to withdraw to bases out in the countryside, while they waited for transport to be organised back to Earth. Others, such as Terra Nova or New Kabul, resumed their civil wars at once without waiting for the UN to withdraw, forcing the Infantry to establish safe zones for their forces. There was a certain irony that General LePic, whose hands had been tied by UN Regulations, was able to impose peace on Terra Nova without those regulations. Indeed, many disbanded Infantrymen chose to make their way to Terra Nova to join him.

But that would come later. The messengers convinced most of the remaining starships to join Captain Walker in rebellion against the UN. Many of the crews had been frustrated, or treated badly by their superiors, or even hadn’t been paid for their services. Around 70% of the UN’s starships and all of their support bases fell into Captain Walker’s hands, while a handful of loyalists either vanished off into the Beyond or attempted to turn pirate. Several other loyalist vessels attempted to attack Earth and break the blockade, but the repaired orbital defences – firmly in rebel hands – were able to beat them away from the planet. The longer the blockade held, the more planets and asteroids that broke away from the UN. Mars declared independence after a brief rebellion and most of the outer systems followed suit. The long war was over.

It was not a neat and tidy process. The issue of reparations for damage inflicted and punishment for war crimes continued to hang over the proceedings. Were the UN soldiers guilty of breaking any laws, or committing war crimes? Would they have been allowed to pass unpunished if they had followed orders? What was a war crime anyway? And that, of course, ignored war crimes committed by insurgents, who had often had little choice. The issues seemed insolvable.

And this still left, of course, the problem of peace. John Walker had never intended to run an empire of any kind, yet was there any other solution? Others feared his ambitions or his control of a fleet strongly loyal to him personally. It was towards this end that Walker summoned representatives from each of the inhabited planets, including Earth, to a grand summit at Unity, where such issues would be decided.

Part V: Generalissimo

Chapter Forty

Unity was unusual in that it was the only UN-settled world that didn’t have a civil war or the prospect of one held in check by the Infantry. Although it did have four different ethnic groups dumped on the planet – Germans, Russians, Mexicans and Indians – they were dumped on separate continents and actually built separate lives, to the point where Unity actually had four nations. The distances between them helped prevent racial/ethnic strife, although the UN-backed planetary government lacked real power.

-Thomas Anderson. An Unbiased Look at the UNPF. Baen Historical Press, 2500.

“This meeting will now come to order,” I said, as calmly as I could. “Please could I have your attention?”

There was little fear of losing it, I reflected, as their eyes followed me. I’d hoped to have a relatively small conference, but I’d forgotten how many different factions there were in the Human Sphere. There were over five hundred actual delegates in the chamber, with an equivalent number of observers, reporters and other representatives. I’d planned to hold it onboard the Percival Harriman – our only battleship – but we’d been forced to move down to Unity. It wasn't an auspicious beginning.

It had taken nearly a year to set up the conference, a year where I’d wondered if I’d lose control as quickly as I’d taken it. My UNPF – I’d decided that we’d simply be ‘Fleet’ in future, rather than any more Peace Force nonsense – faction was larger than all the others, but some elements of the old regime had tried to fight rather than submit, or even accept my offer of future service. We’d had to chase several starships into the Beyond, or catch and destroy others, and that still left the problem of cleaning up the Infantry. Some worlds had allowed the Infantry to disengage gracefully, others had continued the war right up until the conference itself…and God alone knew what we were doing to do about Terra Nova. Was it possible that that mess would ever be sorted out?

In the end, I’d imposed an uneasy peace, but I doubted that it would last forever. The power of the UN had been broken, but there were other factions that would make their own bids for power, now that the oppressor had been defeated. There were resistance forces that saw us as merely the continuation of the UN’s oppression and radical fanatics determined to punish Earth for centuries of oppression. The UN had kept the lid on hundreds of racial and religious conflicts – I remembered Muna with a wave of bitter regret – and now that lid was coming off. Fleet Intelligence – I’d given that to one of the handful of people I trusted completely – was predicting that at least fifty-two worlds would see outbreaks of civil war by the end of the following year. The UN’s baleful legacy would be felt for years to come.

“I am not a diplomat,” I said, into the silence, “so I trust that you will understand if I disperse with the usual formalities. I have read accounts of conferences that went on for years without producing any real result, but I see no reason why we cannot have the basis of a peace agreement within a week, perhaps less. I understand that many of you have grievances you wish to air, or demands you wish to make, but we are here to discuss the future of the Human Sphere. More mundane issues can wait.”

I paused and took a sip of water. “This is the situation as I understand it,” I continued. “I – we – control the vast majority of the former United Nations Peace Force. We control the starships, the Marines and the supply bases, including the productive centres in the Solar System. We may not control the Infantry – either the ones who have accepted reparation to Earth or have decided to go to Terra Nova or other worlds – but we possess overwhelming military superiority. Is there anyone here who would dispute that?”

There was a long silence. Heinlein’s starships had returned in glory, but even though they were more advanced than our best, they would be heavily outnumbered. I’d already decided that Annihilator and Bombardment would be broken up or converted into supply vessels as soon as possible, but even without the monitors Fleet – my Fleet – could turn any or all of the human worlds into radioactive ash. I wasn't blind to the implications. They’d be scared of me and start a new arms race. In the end, we’d just have another war.

“No?” I asked, finally. No one had bothered to disagree. “Good. I intend, therefore, to set out the basics here for a peace agreement and future status quo for the Human Sphere that should be acceptable, if not particularly palatable, to all of you. I understand, as I said, that most of you will wish to deal with other matters, but I believe that our priority lies in ending the war and preventing another from starting. I am not interested in the political or ideological disagreements that we have fought over in the past. I am interested in preventing the extermination of the human race.

“The UN has been crippled,” I continued. “The vast majority of the occupation forces have been withdrawn from the planets they attempted to garrison, or have moved to remote locations to await pickup. The war is over. Local governments may assume control of local affairs as they please. I do not intend to intervene.”

A rustle ran through the atmosphere, but no one stood up to object. I didn’t blame them. Earth’s ongoing collapse – food riots in the north, barbarity rising in the south – had made the news on all of the colonies. I’d given orders that anyone who had been a member of the Political Class was to be refused departure from Earth, but even so there were tens of thousands trying to flee as the chaos grew worse. Heinlein and Williamson’s World had been producing hundreds of extra colonist-carrier starships for our use, but even so, it would be impossible to reduce Earth’s population pressure before the final collapse. The best guess Fleet Intelligence had produced was that two-thirds of the total population would be dead within ten years. The Colonies were taking in as many as they could – unlike the UN, we weren't trying to force them to accept new colonists – but it would never be enough. How could it be?

I remembered my final interview with Muna, a week after we’d secured control of Earth’s orbitals. She’d been harsh with me, despite our success, and refused to take a position in the new Fleet. I’d reluctantly let her go to Luna Base and find her own place, if that was what she chose. I doubted she’d go back to Earth. Her former people were among those trying to loot others for food and supplies they no longer had. The UN had used orbital strikes to keep them in line, as a last resort, but without them the Infantry had to get their hands dirty. The war was going to be very bad.

“I do not, however, propose to allow star systems to develop their own interstellar fleets,” I said, calmly. “I believe that if we allowed such a development, it would not be long before we were at war again, with perhaps far greater casualties as other worlds wouldn’t be trying to occupy and loot the colonies. I therefore propose the following. We – the Fleet – will assume an oversight role preventing interstellar war. There will be no independent Jump-Capable military starships. Fleet will, to all intents and purposes, be the neutral arbiter in disputes between star systems. We have no ambitions of our own.”

I’d worked out the idea from studying Heinlein’s files. Military governments never worked for very long, because the strains of trying to govern a population with military methods always tore them apart. I had no intention of losing what we’d built or creating a monster even worse than the UN, so I’d decided that local governments would have complete power over local affairs. The Fleet would only become involved if third parties – such as visitors from another star system – were threatened.

“I have prepared a treaty to this effect,” I concluded. It would have been transmitted to their terminals as soon as I completed my speech. “I would like to invite you, now, to ask questions and address matters we haven’t covered here.”

It was nearly seven minutes before the Heinlein delegate rose to speak. “I will be as diplomatic as you were,” he said, shortly. “What you propose is that we remain naked before you for the foreseeable future. Why should we accept those terms? Why should we trust that you will remain forever benevolent?”

There were actually several answers I could give to that, but I bit down on the obvious one. “Fleet will not develop any form of ground-combat force beyond the Marines,” I said. It would actually take us years to build a competent one anyway, if we had chosen to try. “Frankly, there’s little that we would want from the Colonies that would be worth the effort of taking it. If we mined asteroids instead, we’d get all the resources we needed to supply and maintain the fleet.

“However, there is a stronger reason,” I added. “We will be recruiting from all of the human worlds, not just Earth. Your citizens would be welcome in Fleet and make it harder for us to bully you, should we choose to do so later.”

I smiled at their reaction. The UNPF had only recruited from Earth. It hadn’t even recruited people from the asteroids, even though they had come with skills the UNPF had desperately needed. The idea had been simple enough – people from Earth didn’t often think kindly of the Colonies – and it had worked. If I reversed that policy, which I fully intended to do, it would prevent Fleet developing into a bully.

“I accept your terms,” the delegate from Edo said, in a faintly Japanese-accented voice. “I wish, however, to discuss another matter. My planet was occupied by UN Infantry for the last seventy years and they wrecked great devastation on my world. I wish to know when the UN will be forced to pay reparations for the damage they inflicted.”

Bastard, I thought. The Senior Chief had bet me ten credits that someone would raise the issue of reparations. I would have been more annoyed about it if the credit was worth anything these days. I’d have to give some thought to building an interstellar system that worked on something more complex than barter.

“That is a complex issue,” I said, carefully. “The problem is that the UN is currently incapable of paying any reparations to anyone. Earth’s growing…problems will certainly impede recovery for at least the next hundred years, perhaps much longer, and indeed the UN itself may not survive.”

“Good riddance to bad rubbish,” someone muttered, at the rear.

“I understand your position,” I concluded, “but we cannot force them to pay reparations that they literally cannot pay.”

The delegate didn’t accept that. “Earth is the richest system in the Human Sphere,” he snapped, angrily. “Are they incapable of paying anything for the damage they’ve inflicted?”

“The solar system has broken up into a morass of political entities,” I said, carefully. “I doubt that there is any point in extorting money from the asteroids, or Mars, and Earth’s currency is effectively worthless these days. As I said, I doubt that they will be able to pay anything at the moment. Earth’s only export is people.”

The argument raged backwards and forwards for nearly an hour. As I’d expected, this was nearly the breaking point of the conference…and, if I hadn’t held ultimate military power, it would have been the breaking point of the conference. They wanted Earth to pay, somehow, for what it had done, yet Earth had nothing to give. I ended up intervening when several planets started talking about sending troops to Earth to extract payment…there was, after all, little to take. Someone even proposed hitting the asteroids or Mars, but I nixed that idea quickly. They hadn’t been compliant in the UN’s crimes.

“We can put that issue aside for the moment,” I said, finally. It would probably never be solved. “Are there any other issues?”

“War crimes,” the Heinlein delegate said, firmly. “We want those UN personnel guilty of war crimes extradited to face courts on Heinlein.”

“Now hang on a moment,” the Earth delegate said. He’d just sat and watched with a smile while the Colonists argued over reparations. I could appreciate his feelings. Nothing, but anti-UN feeling bound the colonies together. If they fell out over this, the UN might have a chance to recover in peace. “I have a long list of complaints about war crimes by your people against ours.”

He accessed his terminal and began to recite a formidable list. “Attacking under cover of a white flag,” he said. “Shooting surrendered prisoners out of hand. Use of illegal chemical and biological weapons against UN Infantrymen. Failure to wear a uniform while on combat operations. Attacks on unarmed supporting personnel…”

“If you hadn’t invaded our planet,” the Heinlein delegate snapped, “we would not have to use such methods.”

“They remain war crimes,” the Earth delegate said, amused. “Do you claim that you are immune from the charges you wish to bring against us?”

He smiled at me. “Do you intend to enforce the laws against us both, or just Earth?”

I thought fast. This was an issue that I needed to settle, somehow, but who was guilty? Almost anything could be counted as a war crime under UN Regulations, yet they were right; Heinlein had committed acts just as bad. It was a nightmare. The definition of a war crime itself was vague.

“That, too, is an issue that will be handled later,” I said. “We will set up a tribunal to try war criminals after we define a war crime, but yes, we will insist that it be applied equally to all sides.”

“And yet you punished some by sending them to Botany,” the Earth delegate pressed. “Why did you do that?”

“They were mainly clearly guilty,” I said, remembering the Political Officers and other oxygen thieves. I’d had them all shipped to Botany, where Andrew was now running the planet, although that wouldn’t last. There was little economic sense in a prison world and I rather suspected that we would discontinue it soon enough. “The remainder of suspect war criminals will be addressed later.”

I looked around the chamber. “You have to make a decision,” I said, finally. “Will you accept our terms, or not?”


I hadn’t given them much of a choice and they knew it. There was some haggling, mainly about what kind of defences each planet would be allowed to have, and what rights Fleet commanders would have over local defence units, but they’d known that they needed to accept my terms or I might make them harsher. They’d play along, try and see how many recruits they could give me, and hope that they could moderate my behaviour in time. I had never wanted to be Emperor of the Human Sphere, but I was, in all, but name.

“They agreed, then?” Kitty asked, when I finally joined her and the Senior Chief in her cabin. It felt odd to be wearing an Admiral’s uniform – and I’d had to accept that I’d never command again – but there was little choice. Young as I was, I had to look impressive to the delegates, or they wouldn’t take me seriously. “We have our agreements?”

I nodded, looking up at the holographic image of the Human Sphere orbiting above my head. We’d have the bases and facilities we needed to transform the remainder of the UNPF into a completely different organisation – we might even cause peace to break out, which would be ironic! I’d written most of the Fleet Protocols myself in hopes of preventing any further involvement in planetary affairs, but we’d certainly permit most of the other conflicts to burn themselves out. It wasn't pleasant, but if we intervened we’d need an army, and then we’d grow into the habit, and then…

We’d be the UN, again.

“We have what we wanted,” I said, remembering the dead and dying on Heinlein. Once I’d set Fleet up, I privately resolved to submit myself to a Heinlein court to stand trial for my deeds. I’d started repairing the damage the UN had caused, but I couldn’t repair my soul. “The rest…”

I shrugged and looked over at the Senior Chief. “Tell me something,” I said. It was something that had been bothering me over the last few months. “Who really founded the Brotherhood?”

The Senior Chief smiled thinly, but his voice was serious. “Does it matter now?”

“I think so,” I said, slowly. I had learned to dislike mysteries in my time. They tended to lead to unpleasant surprises. “That’s the one puzzle that I was never able to solve. I met others from the Brotherhood, but no one seemed to be in control.”

“No one ever was,” the Senior Chief said. “It wasn't designed to be anything other than a way to share information that hadn’t been…tainted by the UN. It even kept people from identifying most of the other members, just to keep the rest of them safe. And, with that in mind, who do you think founded it?”

“The Captain,” I said, slowly. It had to be Captain Harriman. Who else would have wanted to create something that could be used to share information, but not overthrow the United Nations? The thought reminded me of one of my new Captains. Captain Hatchet was old, but I had no doubt that she’d make a superb commanding officer. I just hoped she’d agree to take on the Academy in a few years, wherever that ended up. We couldn’t keep training Cadets on the Moon. “Did he know…?”

“I don’t know,” the Senior Chief admitted, “but I think he would be proud of you.”

The End

Appendix One: The Treaty of Unity

Article I: This treaty marks the solemn agreement between the United Nations of Earth (hereafter referred to as the UN), the Colonies and the former United Nations Peace Force (hereafter referred to as Fleet). All three parties agree that the treaty will be binding on them in perpetuity, barring only contact with hostile non-humans.

Article II: The War between the UN and the Colonies is hereby terminated. All UN garrisons on the planets will be withdrawn under Fleet’s supervision as soon as practical. All parties agree to forfeit rights to reparations. The issue of war crimes and trials are to be settled by arbitration at a later date, but all sides acknowledge that failing to come to an agreement does not mean the resumption of the war.

Article III: The UN hereby acknowledges that its authority extends only over Earth, Luna, and those settlements in the Solar System that continue to accept UN jurisdiction. The Colonies likewise acknowledge that they possess no jurisdiction outside their own systems. The precise governing structure of the Colonies is an internal matter only.

Article IV: The UN and the Colonies agree to develop no force capable of projecting interstellar power, defined here as jump-capable military starships. They also agree to ban the development of biological weapons, or the further development of nuclear weapons designed for use against ground targets. Fleet will enforce this ban through all necessary means, up to and including punitive strikes against the offending planet.

Article V: The UN and the Colonies accept Fleet’s position as the interstellar arbiter of power and effective ruler of the Federation. They agree to make no challenges to Fleet in its area of power and providing funding, personnel and state-operated bases.

Article VI: Fleet agrees to accept responsibility for preventing interstellar war, suppressing privacy and safeguarding the flow of interstellar commence. Fleet also agrees to refrain from developing any sizable ground combat force (see appendix two) and limit the Fleet Marines to five hundred thousand combat effectives.

Article VII: Fleet agrees to recognise the internal independence of all human worlds and agrees to avoid interfering in their internal affairs, provided that they respect the Protocols governing human affairs. Fleet will not intervene in any internal affairs that do not threaten third parties, regardless of the issues involved. Fleet will maintain one garrison on all human worlds charged with recruiting for Fleet and overseeing interstellar affairs.

Article VIII: The UN and the Colonies agree to refrain from attempting to subvert or hamper Fleet in the performance of its duties.

Article IX: All human-settled planets, including Earth, agree to send representatives to Unity to draw up protocols for further interaction between human worlds. Those articles will form the basis of a Federation of inhabited worlds, providing the civil government for humanity.


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