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Science fiction, of the men-flying-around-in-spaceships-blowing-things-up variety. Written by myself and Will Wiles. Very dark, even by comparison with The View From Ground Zero, though also humourous. (The central idea in this was Will's, not mine.)
A Tandem Writing Attempt, copyright © 1997 W Wiles and C Lightfoot
==Mission Update: =:Bring Retribution Waypoint #4 Achieved =:Action required re: Mission Outline 4:1:1 ==Boot fleet computer upper functions =:Fleet CUF Online == Ready == Revive Personnel Good morning, Admiral. I hope you've had a pleasant rest. == Speech diagnostic OK. Transcript Offline....
Kelley had not had a pleasant rest, but in 'hypersleep' there is no sensation; no dreams. The question hardly seemed relevant. But he had learned to humour the computer. "Yes. Are the main systems on line again?"
"All powered up and ready to go. Waypoint #4 has been reached. Do you want to review the mission guidelines now?"
"No. I would like to convene a meeting of all senior command in the fore conference facility at 0900 tomorrow. Are there any other pressing issues?"
"All systems are nominal. All crew members are waking. At present we are processing batches of the enlisted men from surnames beginning 'A' to 'J' at the barbers facility." An unfortunate quirk of 'hypersleep' was that, although most of the body's metabolic functions were effectively suspended, hair growth continued apace. Kelley ran his fingers through what was rapidly developing into a mane.
"Excellent. Send my barber to my cabin when he's revived."
Kelley stepped from his hyp booth and into the bathroom of his quarters. His was privileged to have his own booth, separate to the main hibernation complexes in his suite, near to all the comforts of home. This was a privilege reserved to him alone, the other officers had a separate complex but even that was communal in itself. The main hibernation decks were vast, labyrinthine, and would now be swarming with thousands of highly-motivated and energetic hairy marines. Kelley shaved and progressed through into the main study area.
"Scenery" Kelley said to the wall "Something unchallenging. Black Forest in Spring."
The pastel shade the wall had once been coloured dissolved, replaced by a tasteful woodland glade and almost-natural light. Birds tweeted in a distant, undistracting way, leaves rustled. Outside, beyond that wall, the Underspace drive was subtly twisting relativistic physics in an enormously useful way. There were no windows aboard ship. There was no view. There could be no communication beyond the bubble of Underspace in which the ship existed. Kelley could not even know if the rest of his fleet existed, let alone speak with it. Communication with mission control on Earth was equally impossible. Nothing could be done, seen, heard or said until waypoint #5, final destination, was reached. Until then, the Cairo was entirely alone.
"What is our ETA to waypoint #5?"
"Thirty seven hours, fourteen minutes."
"All telemetry systems up ready for return into normal space?"
"Yes. There is a slight glitch in the AE35 antenna unit."
Sometimes Kelley wondered whether the computer had been programmed to take the piss. Or was it just bored? Anyway, the habit was aggravating. "Enough of that!"
Cairo's forward conference suite was furnished in plush - it might even be called 'decadent' - style. Apart from the obvious paraphernalia - synthetic mahogany furniture, with computer consoles set into recessed panels in each desk - leather chairs provided space for eighty humans, the fleet's entire command structure, most of whom lived aboard the flagship, but there was no provision for the Slouw. None of them would be placing their loathsome spotty behinds on seats anywhere in Kelly's battleships. He was sure of that. Peace negotiations were not a contingency for which the mission had been planned.
The command officers of the fleet had assembled for the meeting. Kelly noted with disgust that some of them had not made provision to shave before coming. He noted their names down into his computer, to add to his blacklist of Officers Not To Be Promoted. Supreme power, concluded the admiral, was an awesome responsibility, but it could be fun.
"I think you all know why we are here."
This elicited no response.
"Before we begin, I would like to have an idea of the manpower at my disposal" Kelley said "What was the hibernation failure rate? How many did we lose?"
"1.22%" said Dexter, the head of the Manpower Arm of the Cairo "Just short of 350"
Sadly, hypersleep was a far from perfect technology.
"That's pretty good" Kelley said, doing some swift sums in his head "Can we run a Chi squared on that? Stats will want to see it. Let's hope it's as good across the rest of the Fleet."
The other officers murmured in polite consent. Kelley paused two seconds in a pose that suggested he was about to say something, just for dramatic effect, before standing swiftly and clicking his fingers in the air. The far wall of the conference room changed from a shade known as barley white to ink black splashed with a trillion gleaming stars. Against this cosmic backdrop, a blue-green planet waltzed gently. It was recognisably not Earth.
"Ladies and Gentlemen" Kelley said "The Slouw Homeworld. Sadly, the pictures we have of it are few and far between. This rather attractive shot was part of the cultural orientation package the Slouw left when they first visited Earth. We do, however, have some rather more interesting shots.
The screen changed to a cityscape. The quality of photography declined notably. Spires and strange, pyramidal ziggurats could be seen, great wide roads like motorways and overpasses, bloated airships, all swarming with Slouw and Slouw vehicles. One or two of the officers made a tutting noise of disgust.
"This was salvaged from the remains of the first human expedition to the Slouw world, and we think it's the capital of one of their larger and wealthier nations in the southern hemisphere" Kelley said "Sadly, the Slouw did not furnish us with as comprehensive and detailed data about the location and size of their cities as we did them. I think we may now know why."
The scene changed to another cityscape, this one blasted and ruined. Those present who hailed from North America could recognise the half-collapsed dome of Congress, and the blackened stump of the Washington monument. Moments later another picture came up. The collapsed ruins of the Great Pyramid at Giza could be recognised. The Kremlin, in ruins. King's College Chapel, barely visible in its severely damaged state. The concrete shell of the Sydney Opera House, rising above the flood-waters unleashed by the second Slouw expedition to Earth. Piles of bodies littering the New York streets. An electron-micrograph of the altered Ebola strain almost unleashed upon Earth's weakened population. Firemen attempting to extinguish a massive blaze at the British Library. On and on went the grisly slide-show.
"The Slouw perhaps did not expect that we would be in a fit state to retaliate. Perhaps they felt that what they did was the justified result of what they termed a 'massive insult'. That their pathetic medical science and their alien metabolisms were unable to cope with the influenza virus is hardly our fault."
The others gathered around the table nodded their agreement. Perhaps it was regrettable that Earth's cultural emissaries had brought with them emissaries of a far more dangerous nature. But, for once in the history of human diplomacy, this was entirely unintended. And the Slouw reaction - resulting as it did in the deaths of almost eight hundred million people, and almost the loss of Earth as a habitable planet - was hardly justified.
The slideshow changed. Human industry over a thirty-year period after the destruction of the Slouw invasion forces. Huge masses of humanity toiling to rebuild cities. The UN passing motions unanimously. The Earth economy devoted to total war. The assembly in orbit of many hundreds of ships, among them the Cairo, preparing for the twenty-five year Underspace jump to the Slouw Homeworld. Operation Bring Retribution in all its glory. Each ship named after a devastated city.
"Do unto others as you would have done to you." The screen switched over to a summary of the mission profile. "As you are aware our first action upon leaving Underspace will be to scan the Slouw system for potential threats. We expect to find none."
The fleet had been designed to outclass any vessel the Slouw might care to field.
"Having ensured the safety of the fleet, we will commence with a surface bombardment. As I have mentioned, we are uncertain about the exact location of Slouw cities, let alone military facilities, so the bombardment will be general, against population and power centres. That done, our intention is to seed the atmosphere with the stocks of influenza virus aboard Washington and Paris. This will take an estimated twenty minutes. We will remain to observe for the specified period of seven weeks; if this last procedure has not had the intended effect, then we will proceed to alternative B." Even Admiral Kelley did not wish to spell out the details of alternative B, which entailed causing the star around which the Slouw homeworld orbited to flare up, even - if the more optimistic of the astrophysicists had been correct, to go super-nova.
"Captain Murdoch, over to you."
Murdoch was the military expert. "We expect that Slouw technology will not have developed significantly since our last encounter with them. Therefore, we can expect that they are heavily reliant on fusion technology, in addition to optical computers and other systems closely analogous to our own. We have, of course, the twin benefits of surprise and numerical superiority, and in the contingency that the Slouw do have a technological edge over us, it is not expected to be significant enough to entail changing the mission profile. We are massively ahead of them."
"What form might that technological edge take?" Bradshaw was something of a smart-alec. Kelley had him marked down for promotion.
"Obviously that is hard to predict, but at the time we left Earth the main drive of military technological development was taking place in the field of a new form of EMP weapon which might penetrate our shielding, but that's very unlikely. Also, some were talking of a new form of Underspace drive tagged an 'Overspace' drive, but again, that's very unlikely. General refinement to existing technology has been anticipated. The geneticists on Earth have toughened the 'flu to counteract any antibiotics they might attempt, but from what evidence we can assess, it seems antibiotics are almost as deadly to the bacteriological-symbiotic part of the Slouw anatomy as the virus itself."
"It has, of course, been over fifty years since we last heard from the Slouw" Kelley said "We don't know what treachery they might attempt. We believe that they may consider the Human economy to be too damaged to even attempt revenge for several centuries, as we already know them to have seriously underestimated our resourcefulness and ingenuity. We will bring retribution to the Slouw. They will reap what they have sown. We will destroy their cities, and eliminate their race. Their planet will make excellent compensation for the damage we have suffered. Future generations will look to us with pride and thanks. In approximately twenty hours, we will drop out of Underspace encircling the Slouw world. In just under half an hour after that, Slouw civilisation will be an unpleasant memory."
The other officers looked grim. Nobody enjoyed what they were doing. It might please them to see Humanity revenged, but it was still slaughter on a genocidal scale.
"That's all for now" Kelley said "You all have jobs to do. I suggest you get on with them while we maintain our forty-hour sleep credit. Dismissed"
Kelley returned to his quarters and read Pope a while to try and take his mind off things. He had never actually seen a Slouw in the flesh, as it were. It took a quarter of a century to reach the Slouw world from Earth, therefore the first Slouw expedition had taken place approximately one hundred and twenty years ago, the second about sixty after that. He had been born while the final phase of the war was still in progress, in a refugee camp in Central England somewhere, a place without light or heat at night, to parents who had lost everything in the intensive air bombardment of the West Midlands industrial centres. He had grown up in a place where the only entertainment after fourteen hours of reconstruction work for the Provisional Government was clustering around one of the four working radios in their camp by a single light-bulb in the communal tent listening to stirring reports from distant lands. The Slouw forces retreating two thousand miles across southern Africa. The last outpost of Slouw resistance in the Carpathians overrun, the remaining Slouw slaughtered. The first plans for Bring Retribution laid down by the United Nations. A far cry from the relative luxury of the Admiral's quarters aboard the Cairo. Every fibre of his body burned for revenge.
"I have the Chief Science Officer on line four," the computer said. It was programmed to enjoy its work. Kelley often wished he could be. "He would like to talk with you."
"Put him through." Something in the ether clicked. "Sandoz. A pleasure as usual. What can I do for you?"
"The Underspace bubble monitors are acting up." Sandoz, a sprightly Peruvian, looked slightly tense. There were a good few Peruvians in the crew of the Fleet, something to do with Lima being made the provisional seat of the Security Council during the war as one of the few remaining intact major cities.
"Any threat to the integrity of the bubble?" The admiral was worried as well, now. He had seen what had happened to Slouw ships when a method of pricking their Underspace bubbles to prevent their escape had been worked out. It was not pretty. The only thing that was left could best be described as a paste.
"No, no" Sandoz said "Not yet, anyway. We just seem to be picking up fluctuations beyond the bubble, what I can best describe as Underspatial elongations from a remote source."
"Underspatial elongations?" Kelley asked.
"Sandoz, contact me when this becomes a problem, or alternatively when you learn to stop talking Technoshit."
Sandoz knew that he was already on Kelley's blacklist, and that the Admiral had no power to demote him, even if he had felt safe in sacking the Fleet's only Underspace expert. "It's no fault of mine that you took an Arts course. I can assure you that I am speaking sense. Over and out."
Sometimes Kelley wondered whether his abrupt manner was in some way reprehensible, but he had concluded that, if it was, it obviously wasn't very reprehensible. How else could he have become the greatest Admiral in Earth's history?
Cairo continued on its progress through space. The Slouw homeworld was now only eighteen hours away.
"Admiral?" Cairo's commander - Kelley's flag captain - had roused him from his sleep. "We are now only half an hour out from the exit point. You wanted me to rouse you."
"Thank you. I shall see you on the bridge shortly."
The Slouw homeworld glistened in the sunlight. As planned, the observation vessel Frankfurt dropped out of Underspace ahead of the main fleet. Batteries of sensor equipment began to search out potential threats. Eighty radar stations were located, and more than fourteen thousand conurbations large enough to take a place on Target List Alpha. There was also a great deal of traffic in space, but it seemed to be largely non-threatening commercial vessels. Strange, thought Lieutenant Markovitch, who nevertheless instructed his weapons officer to start lasering communications satellites. Four minutes after Frankfurt materialised, other elements of the fleet followed suit.
Kelley, on Cairo's bridge, was awaiting Markovitch's signal. This was received as soon as his ship located the flagship, and the contents of Target List Alpha was broadcast to the fleet. Lithium fusion bombs began to rain down.
Officers on the bridge were momentarily distracted by a bright flash.
"What was that?" demanded Kelley, fearful of a counterattack and attendant loss of surprise.
"I think one of our battleships just materialised on top of another vessel... yes, we've lost Peking."
"One of their vessels destroyed, presumably?"
"No great matter, then."
By 'T' plus fifteen minutes, all of the cities on List Alpha had been hit with fusion bombs. Eight had malfunctioned, and replacement missions were scheduled. The extent of remaining military and economic activity was hard to judge, since most of the transmitting stations and satellites had been pasted early on in order to inhibit good order and military discipline. Kelley had dispatched a detachment from the fleet to seek out and destroy remaining traffic around the world, and was preparing the deployment of the modified 'flu virus before moving on to destroy facilities on other worlds in the system. He anticipated that eliminating all the Slouw in the asteroid belt would probably consume most of the seven week observation period required before deciding whether to move on to Alternative B. Cut off from their economic lifelines on the homeworld, the Slouw settlements elsewhere in their system would soon perish anyway. Beneath, the cloud cover on the planet had been stripped away to reveal a veil of fire covering every continent. The element of surprise was perfect. Slouw civilisation would never know what hit it. Just visible now, the Washington was making the first of its surface passes, distributing influenza into one of the major southern hemisphere airstreams. Individual fighter craft were streaming from launch bays aboard the Caracas and the Johannesburg to deal with the orbital and aerial traffic, which was by now in hopeless disarray. Meanwhile, the huge and rather ugly hulks of the Coventry, Warsaw and Seattle were preparing ground forces to move in. Everything was proceeding like clockwork.
Elsewhere on the Cairo, Sandoz had overcome the disappointment that his sun-destroying device was unlikely to be used, and was consumed with a larger problem. The Etherneedle bursts designed to prick escaping Slouw vessels' Underspace bubbles appeared not to be working. Instead of turning any ship that tried to escape the massacre into paste, they were instead super-compacting them into small, intensely heavy balls. While this had the desired effect, it was somewhat perplexing, and it had caused Sandoz to wonder what would happen if it was possible to invert an Underspace bubble, and thereby create an entirely new drive system. It was, of course, entirely impossible.
Or at least, it had been twenty-five years ago.
Sandoz tried to contact the Admiral, but received a terse pre-recorded "busy elsewhere" message.
On the bridge, the Admiral was beginning to experience the Slouw reaction. All military installations that had not been wiped out had been rendered useless by the bombardment. Only one missile base had had enough time to fire off its arsenal before being vapourised with a lithium-fusion volley targeted at a nearby city. The response was simple, a single small and fast nuke dispatched into the midst of the volley and detonated, scrambling the onboard navigation systems with an electro-magnetic pulse. It had then been fairly simple for the Fleet computer to hack the nav systems and cause the missiles to be redirected to the nearest undamaged medium-sized Slouw city. Beyond that, the only Slouw response was to use what communications equipment it had left to broadcast desperate messages to the Bring Retribution ships. The Admiral was under the strict instruction of the mission profile not to listen to these messages under any circumstances. He was, however, allowed to watch them with the sound off, and this was the way he entertained himself when the sight of the burning surface became tedious.
He was slightly alarmed and perturbed by one of the things he thought he saw. The scenes of mass destruction and annihilated cities were semi-interesting and quite satisfying in many ways. They appealed to a darker side to his personality. This darker side almost eclipsed the lighter side.
There was, however, something else. One of the messages which he had selected for viewing consisted of a rather panicked-looking Slouw on top of a one-storey building in some burning city. The rather repulsive thing babbled silently away for a while. Halfway through, the camera did a rather shaky pan, presumably to demonstrate the extent of the damage, which was considerable.
During the pan, and only for a second, Kelley could have sworn that he had glimpsed the familiar red and white livery of a Coca-Cola billboard....
He mentioned this, and asked the computer for an explanation. About half a second of 'thought' elapsed; the computer, having considered and rejected - on the grounds of Kelley's apparent lack of sense of humour - referring to 'precious bodily fluids', explained it away with one word: "Coincidence."
Activity elsewhere in the fleet had largely ceased. There was little else to destroy. On board Birmingham, the captain was informed by the Systems Officer that a message was being received from a commercial vessel.
"Well, destroy it."
"Um... well, it seems to be registered to the Microsoft Corporation."
"Yes. It's designator is BGW/1001: William Gates V."
"It must be a trick."
"It doesn't look like it."
"Well, get the message on screen." The captain rather fancied himself disobeying orders, and had resolved to try it some time. Now was that time.
The fat, confused face of a man - a human - in a suit that marked him down as middle-management appeared on the screen. He began to speak.
"This is Herbert P Watkins, Sales Department, Microsoft Corporation (Slouw)." The man had clearly been trained to pronounce the parentheses. "Can you tell us what the fuck is going on here? We have a lot of worried customers down there. Computer systems aren't standing up very well under all this crap you're throwing at them." This, of course, was the intention of much of the bombardment.
Captain Smith felt duty bound to reply. "This is Captain Matthew Smith of UNSS Birmingham, taking part in Operation Bring Retribution. Please explain yourself."
But it was too late for that. A salvo from Karlsruhr had vapourised BGW/1001 in short order. Smith was perplexed, but continued to follow the mission profile. The incident did not seem worth reporting.
"Admiral Kelley" the computer, normally frustratingly chirpy, now sounded oddly grave.
"Computer?" Kelley said wearily. It had been a busy hour, carving his name on the face of history. "Is there some serious problem? Can it wait?"
"As part of my operational parameters, I have been monitoring all human communications traffic. There has been considerably more than I anticipated."
Kelley grew irritated. A breach in protocol had been committed somewhere. "All ships were instructed to keep traffic to the absolute base functional minimum"
"The majority of this traffic is coming from human ships outside Operation Bring Retribution" the computer said. Kelley allowed this to truly sink in.
"Oh?" he said "Really?"
"There are - were, until recently - quite a few of these ships"
"That was not something we had anticipated" Kelley said "In fact, it isn't possible and therefore does not require consideration. We have been travelling at top speed for twenty-five years. Nothing could have overtaken us."
"The spin put on events by these ships is intriguing," the Computer said "And may interest you."
"Then proceed" Kelley said, cautiously.
"They refer to an Overspace drive of some sort that is in the region of two hundred times faster than our Underspace drives. They also claim that since the launch of Operation Bring Reconciliation by the Slouw twenty years ago, Humanity and the Slouw have been at peace."
Kelley began to feel ill, but felt that, at least, his place in history was assured.
Thousands of kilometres beneath his feet, the first influenza spores were settling on the glowing embers of a hundred thousand Slouw cities.
Copyright (c) 1997 Chris Lightfoot and Will Wiles. All Rights Reserved.