*This is the book that I’m writing as a reward, when I write the other stuff. Not that the book is a reward, mind you. I’ll probably never be able to sell it (not because of this part, but because the alien world that comes in later is…. skivvy? to most people) to the public, but it won’t shut up. So it will get written. Anyway, this is something to hold you because I have a short story to deliver before lunch, and I woke up with the world’s worst headache. – SAH*
Everything was going fine, until my father stopped giving orders.
Okay. No. So everything was not fine. For one we had been ambushed.
Which was the problem.
There are no ambushes in space battles. My father had dinned the theory and practice of space battles into my school before I entered the Academy at twelve. Which is as good a place as any to say I was a child prodigy.
Or maybe I wasn’t. There isn’t really any way to tell. Late born son of a brilliant father and a demanding mother. My father named me Scipio Africanus Hayden, for crying out loud. It was clear enough what I was supposed to do. What I was supposed to be. I wasn’t genetically improved – or not so that anyone would ever admit to – so it was just… Look, I had to be what I had to be. And that meant I was a young boy admitted to a military academy five years earlier than everyone else there. Which meant I had to graduate as fast as I could.
Which is how I ended up as my father’s second in command at the battle of Karan. At seventeen.
And we were ambushed. But there are no ambushes in space. Just like there are no ambushes in the high seas.
You see the enemy approach for days on end. The best you can do is hide your strategy or your capabilities from them. But you can’t hide. There’s nothing to hide in. Certainly not with a schrodinger-drive ship. You can’t port near a planet that would hide you. And you certainly can’t port close to the enemy. Or rather you can, but then the risk of porting to the same space as the enemy and achieving the most pyrrhic victory of all time is high.
And we had intelligence – we had intelligence! – from the Nirian side. They had no technology we didn’t have, and their ships had a tendency to fall apart because, well, forced labor doesn’t build good ships. And there was no way to hide a ship in space.
There was no way.
So my father, commanding five battle cruisers, the entire war fleet of her royal majesty of Britannia had ported to a nowhere convergence called Karan. Oh, there was some reason for it, including the fact that Karan gave access to other port points, which gave access to other port points which would put our colony worlds of Eire and Hy-Brasil and Prester within reach. Which meant if we let the Nirian fleet port there and hold it, with no contest, those colonies would be vulnerable, or call it actually enslaved, given the Nirian system of government.
That’s the high level version of the situation, which is all I knew at the time.
The trip to orbit, in order to port to Karan took a day, and then we were there. There was the middle of nowhere in space. In full view of Nirian vessels. Ten of them, but Father said not to worry. “Battles in space aren’t a matter of ship count, Skip,” he said. “They’re a matter of capabilities, of maneuvering, and of training. And we’re better at all of those.” He said it after dinner, leaning back in his chair, his blue eyes crinkled at the corner, the way they did when something amused him. “Always remember, Skip, free men fight better than slaves.”
I believed him. I still believe him. My father, you see– My father never gave me any reason to doubt him. Not even then.
Before I tell the story, something must be rightly understood: I look like my mother, Lady Harcaster. Her ancestors, who ruled over Aeris, all look like me: colorless, thin lipped, tall and spare, the kind of people who grow older by getting thinner and dryer and harder, like aged wood. There are holos of them going back to the time of colonization and they probably look more lifelike than the originals.
Growing up with Mother I always knew exactly what she expected of me. And what she expected of me was always impossible. So, of course, I did it.
Father, on the other hand was my anchor. From my earliest memories, I knew Father cared. So I did what he wanted me to do, not because I feared him, but because I didn’t want to disappoint him.
I suspect that’s why I accepted the appointment as his second in command aboard the HMS Victoria, commanding Britannia’s space fleet. Because I got to spend time with father and away from Mother.
Was it stupid? Oh yes. My stupidity or his? Who knows?
“Look, Skip, your rank is largely ornamental,” he said. “And temporary and probationary. The only reason for you to be Vice-Commodore, fresh off the Academy, is that you stick close to me and you learn. You learn, Skip. That’s all. That’s all you’re doing here. You’re learning.”
I learned. Oh, the blue uniform with the half cape was pretty nice, too. But mostly I learned. Because sure, I’d be the Earl of Harcaster when mother died, and have full rule over Aeris, which I loathed because it was not Capital City. But that was a function of being born to mother, who’d brought the title into the marriage. Being called Lord Harcaster wouldn’t mean anything, just like being called Viscount Webson, the junior title of mom’s family, made me feel stupid. It wasn’t something I’d earned. And I wanted to earn something.
When I was at the Academy people kept quoting Father and talking about the victories he’d achieved. I wanted to learn that. I wanted to earn that.
And the three days, while Father maneuvered, and the enemy maneuvered, and he planned for every eventuality, was like being back at the Academy. There was a hollo table, and the ships on it, floating in air, and Father moved them. And firing capabilities, and where the weapons were in each ship were discussed, as well as the shielding capabilities though these consisted mostly of turning the proper points to where we knew the enemy weapons were.
It was on the third night, with father and the eight captains and vice captains of the other ships, all assembled, that I asked the stupid question.
They’d just gone over the plan, and something that was constantly mentioned at Academy hadn’t been mentioned at all, and I cleared my throat and before I could stop myself, heard my voice say, “Sir, what about boarding? What about preparations for boarding or to combat boarding?” My voice sounded young, wishful, naïve. In fact, much like the voice of a student. Or a child. I was momentarily glad I hadn’t called him “Father” or – as in childhood – “daddy.”
Look, that was the reason that ships carried each a complement of some five hundred men each at enormous cost. Because ships got boarded. At the Academy we’d studied five battles where defending your ship from boarding had turned the tide of the battle. One of those was the first battle my father had fought as commodore, the battle of Ryrr.
But all nine men stared at me as though I’d lost my mind.
“It never happens,” Father said. “Not these last thirty years, Skip. It doesn’t happen. Their ships aren’t that agile. They have outmoded maneuvering.”
“But,” I said, feeling that if I’d already made a fool of myself, I might as well go on. “Why do we have infantry abroad, then? And why do we wear side arms into battle?”
Father patted my shoulder. He actually patted my shoulder. “It’s the Force, Skip. Things change very slowly. It’s just tradition.”
All the captains had smiled, indulgently, and I wasn’t even mad that Father had called me Skip and not Vice Commodore Hayden. Because I knew it was from an excess of feeling and not a desire to humiliate me.
It was the last time he called me Skip.
Because in the night, while we were all asleep we were ambushed.
You probably read about in the history books, but here goes: our intelligence was faulty or suborned. Which one, it doesn’t matter, and it wasn’t ever established although investigations and interrogations ran for years.
Boarding between spaceships had been done with boarding sleeves. So a lot of maneuvering went on, until you could be in the right where you knew the ship shielding was weak enough that the piercing machinery at the end of the sleeve could attach and make an entry.
Our propulsion and navigation systems were better than theirs. Which is why it hadn’t happened in thirty years.
But you know what those extra five ships contained? Lots and lots of small vessels, each of which could carry twenty five infantry toops. Ships equipped with a an explosive prow.
I woke up to the sound of alarms. Every ship penetrated. Everyone fighting with our utterly inadequate sidearms.
I put my uniform on in the dark, only because I was so fresh from the academy that waking with an alarm and dressing in the dark, without thinking, was second nature.
But the hallways were choked with people fighting and dying, and only the enemy was in uniforms. Our people were in pajamas, in their underwear, or very against regulation, mother-naked and rocking holsters, or in one case that sticks in my mind, dripping wet and with a towel wrapped around himself, Roman style.
I remember that. I remember snapshots of the battle in the corridor. I remember blood. I remember dismembered bodies, mostly ours. I remember people, their bodies torn, pouring out blood onto the glassteel of the floor. Many still fighting.
I remember sweat, shortness of breath. I remember running out of charges on my weapons, and picking them up from corpses.
All through it, I knew one thing: I should be in the command room with Father. Father would know what to do.
And then my mind becomes clear as I entered the command room. It was filled with dead. Dead in piles.
In the middle of it, Father. He was also in his uniform. He was getting up. There was a gaping wound in his chest, and he was getting up, trying to reach the com.
“Son,” he said. “Son.” And it was bare rasp. “They knew. They had—They came here first.”
He didn’t need to say it. I could see the path from the outside, through a protected wall, through two adjacent storage rooms. It was plugged with the Nirian ship, or we’d be leaking air into space.
“Father,” I said. “Commodore, please don’t talk.”
“I must give orders. I must—”
But even as he spoke his voice got fainter, and he was collapsing. And I – with my academy training, got on the com, and called, ship by ship, for status.
Our ship was the only one breached, though one of the small ships had attacked the Belcaria.
I got on the coms. I screamed into them, my voice by turns hoarse and shrill.
Did the captains understand this was Vice-Commodore Hayden? Did I even tell them? Technically Father was hors de combat. I was in command.
I roused the ships. I gave them instructions. Text book instructions. But the hollo of a man in uniform bellowing instructions to the just awakened can be effective. And the ships spun. And fired on the small would-be intruders. Before they got near. The few that penetrated were met with a full complement of wakened-in-time, in uniform, in their right minds infantry.
Me? I stayed at the coms. I stayed with it, calming, cajoling, ordering.
Do you know I don’t remember firing my side arm even once, while I was at the coms But I must have, because Father was unconscious, and there was no one else there with us but the dead. So unless the dead got up to fight – I don’t know. It’s as plausible as anything else – I fired and fired and fired, and accounted for about thirty five of the enemy, which effectively choked the door, so they couldn’t come in anymore.
They must have been working on breaking through the barrier of corpses when our people, commanded by me at a distance, and mostly from the Belcaria, took the Victoria, cleaning up as they went.
When it became clear the people trying to enter were our people, I got off the coms. I had the vague idea that if I could only keep Father alive till the medics got there, the regen would make everything all right.
He was on the floor where he’d laid down. His eyes were closed and his hands were cold, and I thought he was dead.
I have no memory of all the orders I gave in combat, but I remember what I cried, then, “Father! Daddy!”
His eyes opened. I lifted his head. I babbled about medics, about regen.
Father stared at me and smiled. He said, “Good man, Scipius. Well done, son.” And then he died.
My father had the most amazing eyes. Blue, sure, but a very dark blue, so that from across the room they looked black. But up close, you saw them blue and dseep like the night sky in summer, blue and deep like the whole universe.
One moment they were looking at me, shining, deep blue. The next they were black.
I looked into my father’s eyes and I lost myself. I forgot what I’d been meant to be, what I was.
They came in. They pronounced Father dead. I was wounded, they say. Nothing vital hit. Or nothing vital that couldn’t be regened.
They tranqued me to drag away to the infirmary.
When I woke two weeks later, they told me that father was dead, but I already knew.
I wore the blue uniform with the half-cape once more, on a freezing winter day, in blowing snow, as I stood in the family cemetery next to the Earl’s palace of Aeris, and watched father’s coffin lowered into the grave, while space force captains and countless infantry stood at attention, wedged awkwardly between statues of angels and spacemen, of kings and imperious women holding aloft wreaths of victory.
When it was done, they played the sweet, haunting “Home of the Spacer” consigning father’s memory to the stars.
I stood at attention there, and then I stood beside Mother and received the condolences of a grateful Empire, and the Queen herself pinned the Wreath of Valor upon my chest, the big one, in gold, with the replica of the first colonizing ship in the middle.
I removed it after the funeral. And then I removed my uniform. I sent my resignation to her majesty.
And then I lost myself in the fleshpots of capital city.