With the Sagaglog system secured I started to catch up with task force Alpha on their hunt for Admiral Buchloren. Intelligence on enemy assets was becoming ever more spotty. The clear evidence of crisp high definition color pictures. Radar scans and three dimensional topographical information from ECF cruisers was quickly being replaced by conjecture, rumor, speculation and hearsay. This was one of the major reasons why the Semblance Class Corvettes had been given development priority. Although it looked like it would be awhile until more entered service due to technical issues.
Given the lack of Drankmastarain military activity it was clear that Buchloren had retreated to a hidden base where he was rebuilding what was left of the imperial fleet to his standards. As to where that base was? That was a nearly complete mystery. Despite the number of ships to work with in the Allied Fleet there were still several known imperial star systems that he could have been hiding in. Or perhaps he had gone completely outside the known system. If I were in his shoes that’s what I would have done.
I was able to put tougher a new Task Force V. Like its previous incarnations this Task Force V was made up of cast offs and oddball ships, which was the way I liked it. The core of the fleet was made up of the battleships Montana, DaVinci, Catherine the Great and Munich. We were graced by the presence of a Singer Capitol ship. They told me that this was the first ship the Singers had built specifically for warfare. It was also the first Singer ship I had ever heard of that had a name, they called it Photolekos. Can’t help but think that the name was more for us than it was for them.
It was an incredible ship, an unimaginably beautiful sculpture of refractive opalescent adamantine minerals. Nigh invulnerable to laser, plasma and probably disintegrator fire. With a wide diversity of weapons smoothly integrated into its gorgeously crafted, 3,000 meter long hull. Grown one molecule at a time, somewhere far far away from anywhere the Web-Way went.
I like to think I built a pretty good warship. The Germans after being given Yonth technology built pretty good warships. The Eutopians build really good warships. None of us could hold a candle to what the Singers could do. On their first attempt they had built a ship that could probably annihilate both the Allied Fleet and the Imperial Fleet in one battle.
Rounding out the rest of the task force V were the new USSAC heavy cruisers North Dakota, Atlanta and Kersage. The Semblance and her sort of a sister ship the Hustler. The carrier Orleans and a dozen smaller ships from a variety of countries and companies with small space programs. Including the flagship of the Indian fleet. Their carrier, the Vikrant.
All this firepower, and no one to use it on. Well almost no one. During the hunt for Admiral Buchloren my task force arrived in a system where an enemy task force consisting of an enemy battleship, two cruisers and an unusually humongous fighter force were conducting a shakedown on a habitable world.
We caught them completely by surprise. Still this was not an easy battle. What became known as the battle of Gilvinmar was mostly a fighter battle. The Turks and Indians had settled on Bugatti 111s as their fighter. Which was gradually becoming the standard Earthling fighter craft. The Indians simply did not have pilots with the level of experience that my crews or the French or Italians had. So during the battle. While I drove Big Blue at nearly top speed through the swirling melee I was treated to the sound of panicking Hindus. Screaming for someone to get this or that enemy fighter off them. Often followed by the reassuring sound of a French or American pilot calling that they were on their way to help. Fighters are cheap, pilots are valuable. Combat tested pilots were rare and precious.
The enemy battleship broke for the Web-Way terminus. I politely requested that the Singers deal with them. While the enemy cruisers stood their ground in geostationary orbit. Bastards knew that I would be reluctant to fire if it meant hitting the planet. Never mind the fact that if either of them fell out of orbit then human life on the planet might go extinct. I bit my lip and tried to come up with a somewhat usable plan of attack. Before I could come up with anything Captain Hoover thought up an interesting idea.
We came straight in at the cruisers, waiting until we were between them to fire. Forcing one of them into lower orbit above the planet, the other into higher orbit. We took an awful lot of plasma to get into that position. Then we opened fire. Pushing both of them back with a barrage of railgun rounds. One was pushed up into higher orbits by hits from the rear guns while the other was pushed downward into the planets upper atmosphere. We couldn’t let it hit the planet so out came the second part of Captain Hoover’s plan.
The falling light cruiser was hit amidships with the second of my four Mark 30 torpedoes. It reduced the ship to a billion tiny pieces which either burned up harmlessly in the upper atmosphere. Or were shot into deep space at insane velocity. Got a little hairy for the fighters as the spray of debris buzzed towards them. The massive EMP probably also knocked out most of the electronic technology on the planet. But most of the people there would go on living. All the metal coming down from orbit was going to give the locals one hell of a light show.
Suddenly a blinding explosion occurred. The Singer ship was engaging the battleship. Apparently when they saw that the Singers had blocked the Web-Way terminus the hostile battleship had tried to make a run for it through normal space.
The Photolekos was more maneuverable than anything that size had any right to be. They were dancing around the colossal enemy battleship like a cat playing with a mouse. Then I realized what they were doing. They were driving the enemy far enough away from the planet to not risk the lives of anyone there. Or the pilots flying fighters around it. I couldn’t help but smile at the revelation that the Singers really were trying to reduce civilian casualties.
Then I realized another thing. Small Singer ships possessed enough firepower to kill a city pretty easily. That monster might have weapons powerful enough to destroy reality itself. I radioed everyone to look away.
Seconds later came something glorious. The Photolekos’s secondary weapons came out of its hull. They were color coded, red for lasers, blue for plasma, gray for rail-guns and there were a bunch of other colors that I guessed made up weapons I couldn’t quite identify. Massive wings unfolded from the ship, they looked like light somehow made solid. The secondary weapons bombarded the enemy battleship for a few moments. Just long enough to bring down their shields. Then the wings enfolded around the enemy ship. Like some impossible combination of a bird of prey and an amoeba consuming its prey. Then everything suddenly stopped for a moment and the light wings dissipated.
The enemy ship was dead in the water. But still intact. This was odd, I was under the impression that Singers did not take prisoners. So I radioed over to them.
“Photolekos, what exactly do you plan to do with that ship?”
“We are going to tear them to pieces to see if there is anything interesting to us inside.”
“Okay, just so you know, that might be dangerous. And you probably won’t fit through their hallways.”
“Don’t worry about us. These carbon based life forms have yet to demonstrate the ability to hurt us without using a dimensional gateway.”
“Okay, have fun.”
“We will, Photolekos actual over and out.”
It kind of tickled me to know that we were rubbing off on them to the degree that they were using our communications protocols.
While the fleet regrouped and the carriers took in their surviving fighters the Singers went to work on the battleship. The impossibly huge wings of the Photolekos came out again. They formed a grid that both enveloped the battleship, preventing any escape or resistance and cut through their hull at the same time.
Captain Hoover was watching this by my side. He was completely silent for a few minutes then stated what was on everybody’s mind watching this. “Oh dear god, they are eating them aren’t they?”
I thought this through and replied.
“No, Singers don’t eat people. They aren’t physically capable, I think, I hope. They are probably all dead from asphyxiation by now. If not then they will probably be vivisected, like their ship. Being eaten might be a more pleasant fate.”
“I can see why you didn’t want them to get further involved in this war.”
“Yeah, but we are stronger together than we are apart Bob.”
“I know, but that doesn’t mean that I have to like it.”
“I don’t like it all that much either.”
After the battle of Gilvinmar the Photolekos went off on its own. When I asked where they were going they said that there was some spacial anomaly that they wanted to get a closer look at. Then they zinged off into deep space in a laser like blast of energy tearing across the fabric of spacetime. I was upset to see the most powerful warship in the known galaxy flying away. But as mildly military and suspect of top down command structures as the IEC and the Eutopian corporations were The Singers were utterly impossible to integrate into any sort of military organization. We really should have considered ourselves lucky that they were cooperating as much as they were.
Six Web-Way transits later my task force caught up with task force Alpha. I took a Corsair over to the Alpha flagship, ECF-Escort Battleship Liberty. I was met, not by Admiral Dufour but by the captain of the Liberty, Valkrin Cholainder, I knew little about her except that she was considered one of the ECFs finest tactical officers.
As soon as I got out of my plane she saluted me and started talking in a much more informal fashion that I was expecting. Her first words to me were.
“Oh thank god you are here.”
I was taken aback by this and replied.
“I take it by your tone that things aren’t going all that well out here?”
She ushered me towards the Liberty’s conference room. She was very tight lipped until we got to the room despite my increasingly probing questions. She slapped the door behind us and whipped out some sort of device I couldn’t recognize. I started to think that this was some kind of an ambush and reached for my revolver.
She swept the room with the device. She found what looked like two listening bugs under her chair and another chair. She dropped them both in a glass of water and began. “Okay, now we can talk. Things have completely gone to shit out here sir. Admiral Dufour has gone completely off his gourd. He locked himself in his quarters about seventy hours ago and he won’t come out. As you can see he has listening devices all over the ship. I think he might order us to do something completely insane like open fire on the English and German ships. He has become incredibly mad with their officers.”
“So, what do you want me to do?”
“I have everything in place to conduct a mutiny. But it would really help if you could come to his quarters with me and inform him that you are taking command of the fleet and he is to return to Eutopos immediately.”
“Let him save a bit of face instead of facing a firing squad? Alright, let’s do that right now. Let me just send a message back to the Montana.”
She assented, I radioed Big Blue and said one thing. “William.” With that I started walking to the admirals cabin. On the way there I asked.
“So besides your admiral going off his nut, how have things been going here in Task Force Alpha?”
“Terrible, just terrible. Months and months of searching for Buchloren and we have come up with zilch. My ship is completely worn out and so is my crew.”
Since these were Eutopian ships and crews we were talking about. Made of stronger stuff than anything on Earth I didn’t even want to imagine how utterly broken the Earthling ships and crews in Task Force Alpha were. I imagined serving on a Russian ship for such a long time for a hot second. I cringed at the thought.
“Dufour became so enraged by our lack of progress that he started torturing prisoners. I think that pushed him completely over the edge.”
We arrived outside the admirals cabin. Besides the captain there were six Eutopian combat androids in full battle rattle on the other side of the door. I released the thumb retention on my holster as captain Cholandier cautiously rapped the door with one hand and a firm grip on her railgun pistol with the other.
“Admiral sir, Admiral Hammond is here to talk to you.”
An alarmingly chipper voice replied. “Really, well come on in then.”
The door slid open. The admirals cabin was even more spacious than my stateroom on the Montana. Though I couldn’t help but notice that this room seemed awfully cramped as it was cluttered with paintings, liquor bottles and various detritus. This would have been completely unacceptable on any ship in the Allied Fleet. Even the Pirates kept things cleaner than this.
What was really horrifying though was the paintings. They depicted all manner of horrifying things. Torture, people being disemboweled on the battlefield. The Admiral was sitting in a large chair, staring out his window with his back to us. I told him that I was here to relieve him of command. He replied.
“I know, I knew you would as soon as I found out that your ship was in the area. It’s only natural. You have taken everything else from me, why wouldn’t you take this you bitch!”
His hostile tone caused the captain and the troopers to raise their weapons. I waved them off and asked, “oh, what have I taken from you?”
“Everything, you took everything. You took everything I define myself by and you flushed it down the toilet. You found the source of the toxic energy and shut it off. I knew the moment you did it, something changed. Something deep and profound changed in me the moment it happened. I didn’t even know what it was until I saw a Singer ship pop into the space near my fleet. It didn’t stay long, just long enough for everyone to become overjoyed that they were back in the war. All it was to me though was confirmation that you had profoundly altered the fabric of the universe. You have upended the natural order of things. The way things have been for thousands of years. Ever since then I have been desperately trying to hold on to who I am. My cowardly captain here has probably informed you of my violations of ECF protocol. I have been inflicting pain on people like never before in my life and it’s not enough. It’s never enough.”
He rotated his chair to face me. He was naked and he had been cutting himself with his giant knife. He stared at me, his eyes no longer had that slightly whimsical flair of the psychotic that I saw the first time we met. This was just pure rage, a cold fury that said that he wanted to kill everything in sight. I took my hand away from my gun and asked. “There’s two ways this ends Virgil. With you in cuffs in the cargo hold on your way back home for trial. Or in a body bag after these guys shoot you in the head a dozen times with ceramic bullets. So what’s it going to be. Here I am, the upender of the galactic order. The woman you tried to kill on Catriea but couldn’t quite get the job done. Care to try where those idiots you tipped off failed?”
He flipped the knife around. I had to trust that the troopers could get their shots off before he could get to me. There was no way I could outdraw him faster than his cyberneticaly enhanced body could cross the room. I put my hands up and surrendered to the moment.
He dropped the knife. The troopers threw a bathrobe on him, then a pair of cuffs and leg irons. They hustled him out of the room. I maintained my composure until they got him some way down the hallway. Then I collapsed onto my knees. Captain Cholandier grabbed me and said, “that was one of the craziest things I have ever seen. How did you know he was going to stand down?”
“I didn’t, I just had faith that your troopers would take the shot if he attacked. And if that didn’t work then I had faith that my task force would have obliterated this ship the instant my vital signs monitor went dark.”
I looked down at the band on my wrist. My heart rate was through the roof. I looked at the shocked captain and told her. “Now, your orders are to take Task Force Alpha back to the Earth Terminus at best possible speed. And don’t ever make me do anything like that again!”
We all went back to the Ristavron system to see Task Force Alpha off to home. I really, really wanted to make sure that they didn’t deviate from their orders. Once they were confirmed to be back in Earth space I gave my crews some time off while their ships were rearmed. The dust up at Gilvinmar had burned up much more ammo than it should have. Inexperienced crews have a bad habit of firing everything they had due to a varying combination of poor aim and lack of confidence in their weapons power.
I joined my crew at the Plunderdome. I hadn’t set foot there since Sasha had introduced me to the place. I didn’t get as many sideways glances as the first time I walked in there. Though I was still regarded with suspicion.
The Plunderdome had become the de facto hub of activity for crews of the Allied Fleet outside regular fleet activities. For everyone except the Japanese who had their little island base too far away from here for their crews to easily get here. The locals may have warmed up to us, our money and our technology. But they still harbored diseases that could kill a strong man overnight and most of their booze was still potent enough to knock out a horse with one sip. The raucous insanity of the Plunderdome was not just less dangerous. It was also familiar. Here you were surrounded by humans from Earth and the solar colonies. Familiar cultures and faces. I had heard that there was an officers club called the Golden Tiger that had set up shop in the Plunderdome, so I went looking for it one evening.
While I was expecting to just see fleet staff as I wandered around it was clear that the Lizards and some of the local strains of humanity had worked their way into the Auxiliary Fleets headquarters. After the Lizards had proven their willingness to fight alongside us they had become welcome guests everywhere within the entire Allied Fleet. Though it was quite bizarre to see Lizard People gambling and drinking alongside humans. I was curious what the Lizards drank on their time off so I snuck up behind a group of Russian sailors and Lizards who were cheering around a roulette wheel and took a whiff of a lizard drink. There was no mistaking the main odor, ammonia. As I recoiled in disgust I couldn’t help but wonder how often that was going to cause problems. I had an image of a Lizard politely signing out.
“Whoops, that was my drink.” As some poor shmuck was throwing up what was left of their esophagus.
I wandered past several clusters of improvised shopfronts selling all sorts of wacky things. I snuck a few glances at a couple of the brothels that had been set up. Some marginally scrupulous Eutopian entrepreneurs had built a variety of somewhat crude androids with biological components that looked like rather attractive earthling women. There were even a few who appeared to look like Martian women. That’s great, if you were into ten feet tall chicks.
I really didn’t know how I felt about this. On the one hand it solved a lot of problems, kept men from going bonkers from frustration. On the other hand these androids were meant to simulate human communication and connection. As such they skirted around the outer limits of being a conscious life form. Which opened up a whole Pandora’s box of ethical and possibly legal concerns. Never mind the familiar danger and disgustingness that prostitution entailed.
While I was looking at all this and these unpleasant thoughts rattled through my head someone tapped me on the shoulder and asked, “hello sailor, looking for a good…”
As I turned around I saw that it was one of the female androids. My stomach dropped to my feet. This android had been assembled with the face my mother in law was born with. I remembered her having that face while she occupied an android body that wasn’t quite as lifelike as this one. I really didn’t know wether to laugh or puke.
The android apologized, didn’t know I was a woman. She didn’t back off completely though. She started tracing a shape on my arm and told me. “You know, I have never been with an Earthling woman before. You sure you don’t want to…”
I threw up my hand defensively and sternly stated, “no, go away, you…. Whatever the hell you are!”
That was just what I needed right now, a big blaring reminder of my deviance. Had that android just been messing with me or had it seen how I was reacting to the situation? Androids could see things that regular humans couldn’t. I was feeling very open, vulnerable and traumatized by being hit on by something that looked exactly like my stepmother. I needed to get out of the hustle and bustle of the Plunderdome. I needed to be among my own kind.
Sure enough, I was able to find something that looked like the officers club I was searching for. They let me in without a challenge.
Now this was more like it. The walls were soundproofed. Smooth jazz was being played by a man on a piano and a woman on a saxophone. The chairs and furniture were a bit crude, but solid and comfortable. I sat down on an overstuffed leather chair in front of an solid wood table/footstool engraved by the spurs of dozens of Cowboys, Caballeros and Cossacks. I sighed as I kicked my feet up on it and a waiter came up to me.
“Welcome to The Golden Tiger, Admiral. It’s lovely to finally have you here.”
He handed me a menu. It was impressive, various delicacies from dozens of Earth cultures were available. I asked to see a drink menu instead. It was even bigger. Dozens of beers, various fine brandies, wines, cognacs. Even a few varieties of tequila I never expected to see out here. From what I had seen around here it looked like the Auxiliary Fleet were cramming luxuries from Earth into every last crevice of extra space on their boats. Hell, might have somehow snuck extra ships into the formations coming through the Web-Way in the termini fields generated by warships big enough to carry a Portal Key.
I shook my head and snapped back into focus onto what I had at hand.
“I will have a snifter of the Martell Cohiba Cognac please.”
The waiter nodded and walked away. It was a diverse bunch in here. Officers from all over the Allied Fleet. They all snuck glances at me but none of them came over to talk. I didn’t know any of them personally. They were mostly new staff, an ever flowing sea of new faces.
Then I heard a familiar voice. “Huh, I would have guessed you were a Bourbon drinker Admiral. This seat taken Sheila?”
“No it’s not lieutenant Brenneke.”
“It’s flight captain Brenneke now.”
“Oh really? at the rate people get promoted in this war I would have thought you would be a rear admiral by now.”
“Well, there is a reason for that.”
“Wait, let me guess. You keep fowling up so you can remain a frontline fighter pilot instead of getting promoted to some paper pushing job back in Australia.”
“Seen this before eh?”
“One of the perks of owning my own military. I can do whatever I want and put people wherever they need to go. You guys in the government forces never know where a promotion is going to take you. So you try to walk a fine line to do the occasional fuck up that is just bad enough that you stay where you are and hopefully not wind up on the brig.”
“You know me so well.” He said sarcastically. “Speaking of fuckups, I meant to ask you the last time we talked. Do you have a brig on your boat?”
The cognac arrived. I swirled it around in its rather odd looking snifter. Took a whiff, then took a sip. It was the real deal, my favorite cognac, not watered down or anything. Suddenly I felt warmer, friendlier, kinder to this impudent young pilot. I looked him square in the eyes and replied.
“Most of the time it’s just part of the laundry room. Why do you ask?”
“Oh, I have been hearing some scuttlebutt that Admiral Dufour went completely off his gourd and you had to arrest him.”
“Just between us, he was detained by his own people. Guy went war wacky in a way I have never seen the likes of before in my life. On his way back to Eutopos in cuffs. ECF still isn’t used to war, and more importantly they aren’t able to handle many of the consequences of a war. Dufour was an animal, they never should have let him be an admiral.”
Lucas looked off into the distance for a moment. He had the classic thousand yard stare in his eyes. ANZSAC had lost several ships and nearly a hundred fighter pilots over the course of this war. He had lost friends in this conflict, as had everyone else. I was going to change the subject when another familiar face walked into the room, Captain Ross.
“Hey, Greg, have a seat. I was just talking to another friend of mine. Have you two met?”
As the liquor flowed things loosened up. The rigid formality of military and corporate order dissolved into a free flowing conversation between the three of us. I had an epiphany of some sort during this talk but I can’t remember what it was because while I was having it someone snuck up behind me and whispered in my ear.
“Sir, we need you back at the launch facility. There’s been a development you need to address.”
“What? Aw, go away kid you are bothering me.”
“Sir, I have to insist that you come with me now!”
“Unless Admiral Buchloren has personally led a task force into orbit around this planet and is about to commence bombardment I don’t care. And I doubt that has happened otherwise Captain Hoover would have addressed it himself. So, as I was saying fu….”
He grabbed me by the shoulder and whispered harshly. “Sir, it’s the Aurora, she has just breached the terminus.”