His Majesty's Starship

BOOK: His Majesty's Starship
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HIS MAJESTY’S STARSHIP

Ben Jeapes

Wizard’s Tower Press

England

Copyright © Ben Jeapes 2011

First published by Scholastic Press 1998

(as ISBN 978-1-4357-1282-9)

Ebook edition, published in the UK, April 2011

by Wizard’s Tower Press

All rights reserved

EPUB ISBN: 978-1-908039-03-3
MOBI ISBN: 978-1-908039-04-0

Cover illustration and design by Andy Bigwood
Ebook design by Ben Jeapes and Cheryl Morgan

http://wizardstowerpress.com/
http://www.benjeapes.com/.

PROLOGUE

To:
All heads of state in Sol system
All parties in Sol system with spacefaring capacity
All press agencies in Sol system

From:
Senior of the First Breed Earth Mission
First Breed residence, Manhattan

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

Manhattan, 23 August 2148:
Following communication with the home world of the First Breed, I am authorised to announce the following.

We have been made welcome as guests among you for over a year and have closely observed your ways and your history. We have concluded that our histories are very similar; your world’s development has paralleled our own, and of all the species that we have discovered, you are the closest to us in technological development. On our world, too, natural resources have been plundered; our world’s environment has been dealt a grievous blow; we have known the pain of the extinction of species. We too, within the last ten decades, have finally begun to make good the harm done by those who came before us. With sympathy and amusement, we have observed your efforts to hide from us your warlike past and the damage that you have done to your own world. Had you made contact with us first, we would doubtless have made the same efforts.

There is no need for two such similar races to continue their development separately; indeed, we are convinced that if we try it will only result in future conflict as our interests will inevitably clash.

Therefore, we extend to the human race this invitation.

We have a world which we would like to share with you: the second planet of a star that is not visible from Earth but which lies in the direction of the southern constellation of Pavo. The world (Appendix 1) is very similar to Earth. It is over 1000 lightyears away but we can help you cover that distance quickly. There is room for both our races there. We call it the Roving.

The First Breed have only one nation: you have many. We therefore invite all interested parties with spacefaring capacity to tender for the joint development of this world. Together, as a partnership, our two races will go out into space, side by side as friends.

All interested parties will provide one (1) delegate authorised to represent their interests fully, and a spaceship capable of supporting its crew for at least one month to transport that delegate to the Roving. Consumable supplies will be renewable upon arrival. Each ship must have the minimum technical specifications noted in Appendix 2. The First Breed reserve the right to refuse entry into the delegation. Our decision is final and no correspondence will be entered into. Once accepted into the delegation, all delegates will be treated as equals.

The delegation ships will rendezvous at a place and date to be announced. A First Breed prideship will be responsible for escorting the delegation fleet to and from the Roving. We guarantee the safety of all humans in the fleet until they have returned to this system, and we take responsibility for their well-being for all the time that they are our guests. Each delegation ship will have a member of the First Breed appointed to it, to help liaise with the delegate and to accustom the ship’s crew to dealing with our species.

Upon arrival, delegates will have a chance to study the Roving at first hand, and will then attend a Convocation where they will state the case for their party to take charge of the human side of our alliance. Precise rules and a timetable for the Convocation are laid out in Appendix 3. Each case will be considered carefully and an alliance made with whoever most closely matches our own interests.

This is a chance for both our species to make a fresh start. We of the First Breed hope that you will take it.

For further information, instruct your aide to consult the Invitation Helpdesk at the First Breed Mission.

Verbatim Bald

First Breed residence, Manhattan

23 August 2148 CE

- 1 -

20 March 2149

The alarm sounded when the cluster of M-type asteroids was two hundred miles ahead, visible as small pebbles through the viewports and as massive, slowly rotating mountains on the displays.

Michael Gilmore airswam into HMS
Australasia
’s cramped flight deck, a boxy little space at the front of the boxy little ship, with his mind still full of the baffling dispatch he had left in his cabin. He pulled himself into his couch at the command desk with a practiced twist of his body, and the autostraps slid out and held him in place. “Status,” he said.

“Just a brief echo, Captain,” said Hannah Dereshev. His first officer was calm and matter-of-fact. “The gas detector picked it up, a couple of molecules-”

“And again, sir,” said Adrian Nichol. The young pilot twisted round to look at them and his eyes shone. He wasn’t much older than Gilmore’s own son, who was still in his teens, and his shock of hair and freckles made him look even younger. “Definite contact. Must be a scuttler.”

Of course, there was nothing but asteroids in the viewports. It always amazed Gilmore that non-spacers couldn’t grasp the concept of hiding in space: if something was in direct line of sight with nothing in between, they would reason, it must be visible. They had no sense of the scale of things. A small thing like a ship, using stealth so radar couldn’t lock onto it, in the vastness of space ... what did they expect? Anyway, the Rusties had been lurking in space undetected for years, or so it was widely believed, and their vessels were a lot bigger than the average scuttler.

But all ships had to manoeuvre at some point, as this one had done. It would have baffles over its thrusters to hide the glare from prying eyes like those on
Australasia
, but even they couldn’t stop the fact that gas was being ejected into the void. Gas that
Australasia
’s scanners had picked up, and the chase was on.

“I confirm that, sir,” said Hannah, consulting her own instruments.

“Flares,” Gilmore said. There was a muffled thud from outside the flight deck.

“Flares away,” Hannah said.

“Fire us up, point three gee.”

“Aye aye, sir,” Nichol said. His fingers flickered over his desk.

A muffled roar came from astern as
Australasia
’s main engine fired and a faint semblance of weight returned to the flight deck. The small ship began to move towards the asteroids-

-and the flares that had been fired off from the ship seconds earlier exploded, bathing the cluster in their white glare. The viewports and visual displays dimmed automatically but the ship’s sensors were taking everything in. No shadows were cast against the mottled surface of the rocks.

“Nothing, sir.” Hannah’s voice was flat.

“Damn!” The last scuttler of the patrol was going to be a hard one. It was somewhere inside the cluster. Gilmore looked at the cluster’s radar image and fought off the temptation to go home. He had every excuse, with the recently-received dispatch still fresh in his astonished mind:

‘HMS
Australasia
will return to UK-1 with utmost haste-”

So, he could just walk away from this; but he couldn’t live with an unfinished job on his conscience. As always happened at times like this, the black spectre of failure swam in front of his eyes; and as always, he banished it by conjuring up a mental picture of exactly what he needed to do. All the necessary actions, laid out before him with the precision and detail of a technical diagram.

“Bring us up to point five gee, cut burn and bring us over Number One Rock’s north pole. Tell the hands to brace for indefinite manoeuvring.”

“Aye aye, sir,” Nichol and Hannah said.

Outside, seven asteroids had been nudged together into a cluster by surveyors from UK-1,
Australasia
’s parent vessel. The surveyors had staked provisional mining claims and left them in the route of UK-1, which would roll up in its own good time and begin exploitation.

But the clustering had signalled to every freelance miner in the system that those rocks were worth working. So, as UK-1 drew near, so did the scuttlers, earning their name by scuttling in to stake their own claims. All they had to do was actually process some ore and the claim was automatically theirs. UK-1 had the legal right to prevent trespassers approaching its provisional claims, but once a claim had actually been worked by someone else then it belonged to that person and there was nothing anyone else could do about it.

In his capacity as a private citizen, Michael Gilmore had to admire the cheek and the enthusiasm of the scuttlers; as a holder of the king’s commission and commander of one of UK-1’s sweep ships, he was a legalised bully boy whose duty was to deter them so that UK-1 wouldn’t have to share its provisional claims with anyone. There was no reason why there couldn’t be several mines with different owners all on one rock but that offended UK-1’s sense of tidiness and – Gilmore had to be blunt – greed.

And now there was a scuttler out there. Gilmore could already picture it in his mind. It would be painted matte black, and fitted with the latest stealth tech and a host of gadgets for absorbing or deflecting as many forms of electromagnetic radiation as possible. Scuttlers might start their journey months, years earlier, maybe even with the crew going into cryo, coasting silently through the solar system up to the chosen cluster to stake their claim.

On patrol, in the waiting stage of the game,
Australasia
had been on silent running, using exactly the same tricks as the scuttler to stay hidden in the void. All that was over now as the sweep hurtled over the north pole of the nearest rock. At the same time, under Adrian Nichol’s careful piloting, some thrusters flared, others did not and the ship oriented itself so it was pointing into the heart of the cluster: a few hundred tons of ship, a small ferro-polymer bubble of warmth and air and light in the deep dark, surrounded by a ring of harsh mountains.

There had been no sign of fusion burn from the scuttler: no glare and no radiation. So, it wasn’t using its fusion engine, if it even had one: it couldn’t be moving very fast. With a bit of luck it too was still in this bottomless valley in space, still heading for the hills.

“Flares,” Gilmore said again. “Three hundred and sixty degree spread.”

“Aye aye, sir,” said Hannah. “Flares away.”

The flares streaked from
Australasia
in all directions and now white light was reflected off seven pitted surfaces; a vista of small craters and shadows to the left and right, above and below, giving a brief and terrible sense of vertigo. Gilmore narrowed his eyes, trying to beat the sensors: were any of those shadows moving? Were-

“Got ’im!” Nichol said. His voice cracked and he coughed. “Um, scuttler sighted, sir, bearing 320 degrees by minus 13-”

Australasia
’s sensors were zooming in on the coordinates. Still nothing showed on the radar – the scuttler’s stealth tech was good – but searchlights mounted on the ship’s hull reached out and speared the intruder. It was 70 miles above the surface of Number Three Rock and dropping. An ugly, functional collection of boxes and pipes, painted night black. With visible contact made it would find it hard to shake
Australasia
’s sensors off.

“Concentrate flares in that area,” Gilmore said. “Bring us to that bearing and burn-”

Hannah and Nichol were already doing their jobs.
Australasia
turned towards the scuttler, now clearly picked out, and her main engine fired.

Gilmore told the comms AI to open a channel. “This is HMS
Australasia
to unidentified craft,” he said. “Provisional claims have been staked on these asteroids by UK-1 and you are in violation-”

BOOK: His Majesty's Starship
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