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Steve White

A what-if tale with a twist: set in the universe of Steve White’s upcoming novel, Her Majesty’s American, the American Revolution fizzles and now there isn’t just one sun that never sets on the British Empire, but myriad. Yet empires by their nature are at threat from separatist forces both within and without that would benefit from a Humpty-Dumpty-like Imperial crackup. Fortunately for the British Empire, there are also doughty, loyal Americans sailing mighty ships riveted together by steel and quantum uncertainty ready to ensure that the Pax Brittanica holds, even among the stars.

“And so, on this the five hundredth anniversary of the founding of the Imperial Grand Council, it behooves us to remember that the course of history was perhaps not inevitable and foreordained, as many think. The First North American Rebellion might have shattered  the Empire but for the farsighted vision of the men, on both sides of the Atlantic, who grasped the great principle of imperial federation and took the first steps on the road we are still following after half a thousand years. We have them to thank for—”

Lieutenant Commander Jane Grenville, RSNR, flipped a switch, and the voice of Sir Archibald Ramsay, Viceroy of North America, ceased to reverberate in her earphones. The old boy wasn’t saying anything the Queen-Empress hadn’t already said in her speech from the throne. Jane settled back in her seat—one of twenty on this fairly crowded military surface-to-orbit shuttle—and tried other channels, in search of music. But on Federation Day—especially this Federation Day—it was naturally all patriotic stuff.

Not that she, a North American with an English mother, lacked appreciation of what her ancestors on both sides had accomplished on this date in 1781 after the British crown and the Loyalist forces led by George Washington had put down Benedict Arnold and his followers who had refused to accept the settlement that had ended the rebellion almost at its inception, before it could grow into an irreconcilable, fratricidal war. It really had been a remarkably generous and large-minded settlement. Maybe old Sir Archibald, for all his fulsomeness, had a point: maybe it hadn’t had to turn out that way. It had helped that King William V had been solidly behind the settlement, in whose crafting he’d had a hand. But then, he had been a monarch of intelligence and character, as had been a number of the descendants of the heir that William of Orange and Queen Mary had unexpectedly produced shortly after the Glorious Revolution of 1688. Thus it was that the Britannic Federal Empire (still so called, although its two centers of gravity now lay in the viceroyalties of North America and India) had endured and now dominated the world.

Not, she reminded herself, without rivals . . .

As though to remind her of the existence of those rivals, she was shoved gently back in her seat, for the shuttle (which lacked such fripperies as inertial compensators) had reached an altitude at which grav repulsion’s efficiency dropped off to the point that the photon thrusters must be activated for docking maneuvers at Albion Space Station. She manipulated the controls again. All at once, the small screen in front of her showed the shuttle’s external video pickup, with the cloud-swirling blue curve of Earth below and the enormous oblate spheroid of the station growing closer. She had no difficulty picking out, from among the ships tethered to its docking flanges, the one that was her destination. It was, after all, bigger than most of the others put together.

HMSS Resolute was a Defiant-class second rater, to use the age-of-sail terminology initially adopted by the Royal Space Navy to avoid confusion with the battleships, cruisers, et cetera of the seagoing Royal Navy, and still used even though those ship types had long since ceased to sail Earth’s seas. As such, she was as large as any Imperial space warship except the extremely rare Invincible-class first raters and practically any foreign rival. (The only exception, Greater China’s new Kuan-Ti, might mass somewhat more, but it could not match the sophistication of the Defiant class’s state-of-the-art weapon systems.)

As the shuttle drew nearer, more details came into view. Grav repulsion had largely eliminated the old distinction between ships that could land on a planet and those that traveled between planets—at least for small- to medium-sized ships, such as the fourth through sixth rate warships. But for the great capital ships of space, a planetary landing capability was unnecessary—not to mention the fact that a ship of Resolute’s half-million-ton mass, even had it possessed gravs, would never be able to turn them off on a one-G planet without being wrecked by her own monstrous weight. Resolute was purely a creature of deep space. Her forward section’s ellipsoid curve was broken, astern, by the engineering spaces, the photon thrusters and the twin nacelles for the ranked superdense toroids of the Bernheim Drive, which accounted for twenty percent of the ship’s total mass. Quite a lot of the rest was accounted for by the weapons—especially the magazines of torpedoes, which to be of any use in today’s deep-space combat environment had to be fitted with Bernheim drives of their own. Thus, they were too large and massive for any but the first three rates of warships to carry in useful numbers. The fourth through sixth raters mounted only the relatively small missiles useable in orbital space and directed-energy weapons: x-ray lasers and the particle-beam projectors which were the short-range ship killers par excellence. Naturally, Resolute had plenty of these as well, and even a small planetside assault capability in the form of power-armored Royal Marines and atmospheric fighters.

All in all, a consummate killing machine. As the shuttle made its final approach, her complexity came more and more into focus, and the half-acre-sized Union flag on her dorsal surface near the bow gleamed in the station’s lights. For an instant, Jane felt a small tingle of pride, not unmixed with apprehension, as she waited to disembark and report aboard that great ship as her new helmsman.

The various dominions could—and most did—have their own spaceborne security and law enforcement agencies, operating nothing heavier than a fifth rater. But the Royal Space Navy was a unified Empire-wide service, its personnel totally integrated. Resolute’s commanding officer, for example, was from the Viceroyalty of India. In addition, Captain Ilderim Sharif was a Muslim, and Jane had heard that he tended to lean over backward on that account, given the current troubles with the Caliphate, which persistently tried—not always without success—to spread disaffection among its coreligionists in the Viceroyalty. But when she paid her courtesy call on him there was no evidence of overcompensation—only the captain’s equally renowned taciturnity. So she was able to promptly go about settling into her tiny but private stateroom. Then, with time on her hands, she sought out the wardroom, hoping she was in time to get a meal.

As she entered, her heart sank, for there were only a few officers in evidence and they seemed to be finishing up. She recognized one of them: Major Patrick O’Hara, commander of Resolute’s Marine detachment. (His rank was actually captain, but as such he received the traditional “courtesy promotion” aboard a warship, whose commanding officer alone could be addressed by the sacrosanct title of “Captain.”) She had met him on a previous posting, and knew him to be a stereotypical “professional Irishman”—which meant a staunch Imperial loyalist these days, and had ever since Ireland had acquired coequal dominion status. Then, as O’Hara departed, one of the other officers stood up and turned around, his eyes met hers . . . and both pairs of eyes blinked with recognition.

“Jared!” she exclaimed, stepping forward and extending a hand. “It’s been a long time.”

“It certainly has, Jane.” Lieutenant Jared Wilmarth took her hand, then added with a wry smile, “Or, I should say, ‘sir.’”

Jane made a dismissive noise with her mouth. She and Wilmarth had met each other on the old HMSS Audacious, he as a midshipman and she as a Reserve ensign on her first cruise. Though in different departments (his was engineering), they had gravitated together, partly because they were both North Americans, albeit from different dominions—Carolina in her case, Oregon in his. “Well,” she said, “I certainly hadn’t expected to see you here.”

“I did expect to see you—I’d heard who’d been assigned to be our new helmsman. No surprise, considering . . .” Wilmarth gave a gesture vaguely indicating Jane’s head.

What he meant went unspoken. It was one of the reasons she still outranked him, even though he was regular Royal Space Navy and she was RSNR.

Direct neural interfacing had never lived up to the more extravagant predictions, largely because very few humans had the ability to use it without suffering a terrifying descent into psychosis. But a small percentage possessed, for reasons that still baffled cyberneticists and neurologists alike, the ability to mind-link with a computer with only a brief and relatively mild initial disorientation. Even for this minority, DNI hardly possessed the near-magical properties claimed for it by its early enthusiasts. It did, however, greatly enhance the speed and precision with which computerized controls could be used—such as a starship’s controls.

It was only by coincidence that interface talent and the attributes required of a military officer occurred in the same person. When they did, such personnel were extremely valuable . . . and Jane Grenville was one. The helmsman’s station was fitted for manual control, of course, but it also had an interface jack. It helped account for the fact that the piloting of the mighty Resolute was being entrusted to a reservist. Sometimes pragmatism trumped snobbery.

“Well, at any rate, it’s good to see you again,” she said. “And anyway,” she added jokingly, “we North Americans have to stick together—especially on Federation Day.”

His expression did not match the lightness of her tone. Indeed, a shadow seemed to cross his face. “Inappropriate name,” he said expressionlessly.

“Well . . . I suppose so.” It was, she supposed, something of a misnomer for what had happened in 1781: the reorganization of the colonies into a smaller number of more rational units, each self-governing as to internal affairs while a viceroy moderated intercolonial matters, and the creation of the Imperial Grand Council to steer the Empire as a whole. But it hadn’t been until almost a century later, after many vicissitudes including the Second American Rebellion, that the great principle of imperial federation had been fully grasped: the dichotomy between the metropolis and the colonies had to go. So, by a cumulative process, the Imperial Grand Council had become a super-legislature in which the colonies (elevated to the dignity of dominions) stood on the same footing as England, Scotland, and Ireland.

“Still,” she said, “it was a necessary beginning. Britain alone could never have sustained a world empire.” This was a truism of all the history she had always been taught. The Empire had prevailed by expanding its power base beyond the narrow confines of the British Isles, just as Rome had once outgrown a single city-state. “The world we know wouldn’t exist.”

“No, it wouldn’t.” Wilmarth’s voice was very neutral. Then, abruptly, he grew intense. “Have you ever wondered if maybe the price of that world was too high?”

“The price?”

“North American independence.”

“What?” She looked at him sharply. “Well, I remember your ancestors came from what’s now the Dominion of New England, before they moved west to Oregon.” New England had been a hotbed of rebel sentiment in the 1770s, and later had temporarily won independence in the Second Rebellion of the 1850s, until its compulsive attempts to destabilize the Viceroyalty had exasperated the Empire into a reconquest. “But that’s all ancient history, Jared.”

“Not quite as ancient as you might think. I’ve got distant relatives on New America.”

“Really?” In 2120, the Empire had permitted a group of North American irreconcilables to attempt (at their own expense) to colonize a planet of Tau Ceti. It had been the only slower-than-light interstellar expedition ever launched, because while it was en route the Bernheim Drive had been discovered. So when their antimatter pion drive/magsail hybrid ship had finally arrived at its destination, the colonists had awoken from cryo-sleep to find the Imperials already there—a crushing disappointment. The Empire had been very decent about it, allowing New America a kind of ill-defined semiautonomy and promising dominion status whenever the colonists asked for it. (They still hadn’t.) “I never knew that. But I suppose I can see why you might have special reasons for thinking something of value was lost.”

“You ought to think so too, Jane. After all, some of your ancestors were enslaved at the time of the First Rebellion.”

“What? Well, yes, I suppose so.” It wasn’t something to which she gave much thought. Her one-eighth African ancestry had left little trace except a certain duskiness of skin and tight curliness of dark hair. And anyway, it made no difference nowadays. “But what’s that got to do with—?”

“Don’t you see? Slavery lived on in the Empire almost two generations after 1781, and various forms of discrimination lasted far longer than that. But if the rebels had won, they surely would have abolished slavery immediately after attaining independence.”

“Uh . . . are you sure of that?”

“Of course. They would have had to—their Declaration of Independence explicitly said ‘All men are created equal.’ So there never would have been a race problem in North America!”

“Umm . . . I’m not quite so sure. People don’t always live up to their declarations.”

Jane couldn’t be certain, but it was as though shutters seemed to close over Wilmarth. He spoke with a kind of overemphatic joviality. “Well, you’re probably right. Anyway, we’ve got some time. Or at least, I do—Commander Ferguson, the engineering officer, isn’t aboard yet. Let’s go back to the station, where we can at least get a drink!”

Among the many things—practically everything, actually—that the entertainment media got wrong about the RSN was the spacious, theatre-like sets used to represent capital ships’ command bridges. In fact Resolute’s bridge, like all a warship’s working spaces, was no more voluminous than it needed to be.

Jane sat in the helmsman’s chair, her head capped with a neural-induction helmet connected by cable to the interface jack of the ship’s barely subsentient brain. (A cranial implant by which the jack could be plugged directly to the brain was perfectly possible. But that Just Wasn’t Done.) She had, by now, gotten past the initial unpleasantness of direct neural interfacing, and was reflecting that it was worth it to feel the titanic ship and its sensor array as an extension of her own body and senses.

The inertial compensators prevented her from feeling it, but Resolute’s photon thrusters were producing one G of acceleration as they drove the ship outward. Presently, Jane’s neural feed informed her that they had reached that distance—in Earth’s case, about twelve and a half thousand miles from the planet’s center—where gravity field’s force was less than a tenth of a G.

“Primary Limit crossed, Captain,” she presently reported.

In his seat, behind her and slightly raised, Captain Sharif nodded. “Engage Bernheim Drive,” he ordered.

“Aye aye, sir.” Jane thought a series of commands. The photon thrusters ceased to push the ship forward and, at appreciably the same instant, the Bernheim Drive activated, folding space in front of the ship, altering the properties of space to reduce normal gravity in that direction. The ship surged forward at four hundred Gs of thrust, with her occupants in a state of free fall (or, rather, they would have been had it not been for its artificial gravity generators).

At such an acceleration, it would not take long to reach the Secondary Limit, almost out to the asteroid belt. There, with the sun’s gravity field at only one ten-thousandth of a G, the drive could generate a field that wrapped negative energy around the ship to literally change the shape of space and create an area of expanding space-time (referred to as “subspace”) that could move faster than other parts of space-time. The ship would be dragged along by this “bubble in space-time.” Inside the bubble, space was not distorted and the ship was technically traveling at sublight speeds. But the bubble itself would push through space faster than light—almost twenty-nine hundred times faster, in fact. That wasn’t quite as fast as the upper limit imposed by unavoidable deformations in the drive field at the highest pseudoaccelerations. But the closer one got to that threshold, the lower the marginal returns from building in more drive coils and pumping in more energy. Resolute represented what modern naval design theory regarded as the optimal balance. She was fast as well as big.

“Bernheim Drive engaged, Captain,” Jane reported, unnecessarily but as per custom. She raised the helmet into its housing in the overhead, and her immediate physical surroundings came back into sharp focus as her senses contracted to those of her body. “On course as plotted.”

“Very good, Mister Grenville.” Tradition mandated “Mister” regardless of the junior officer’s gender. Sharif picked up a microphone from his armrest and activated the shipwide intercom. “All hands, this is the captain speaking. As you all know, our destination is the Lambda Aurigae system, approximately forty-nine and a quarter light-years distant—a journey of six and a quarter days under Bernheim Drive, exclusive of sublight maneuvering. Our mission is to counter a recent buildup of Caliphate forces in the system. While there, we will land our Marine contingent on the fourth planet to act in support of our colony, New Kashmir, against attempted infiltration from the Caliphate enclave on the planet.”

Jane noted that Sharif used the word “colony” for the Empire’s settlement and “enclave” for that of the Islamic Caliphate. The Caliphate people would doubtless have reversed that usage. She wasn’t clear on the legalities of the competing claims to the system that had led to the current confrontation. Nor were they her business.

She also noted what the captain had left unsaid. As its name suggested, New Kashmir’s colonists mostly came from the Viceroyalty of India . . . and included a high percentage of Muslims. It was a widespread (but publicly unvoiced) suspicion among Imperial officialdom that sympathizers among the latter were facilitating that “attempted infiltration.” She couldn’t help wondering if Sharif’s religion and ethnicity might have been a factor in assigning Resolute to show the flag at Lambda Aurigae.

Not, she told herself serenely, that it mattered. Once this ship did show the flag—a very, very large flag, in Resolute’s case—the rag-heads wouldn’t dare try any nonsense. The most bellicose of the Empire’s rival space powers, the Caliphate was also, fortuitously enough, the least advanced. Unable to entirely escape the tethers of its technophobic fundamentalist ideology (for example, Allah apparently disapproved of direct neural interfacing), it had nothing to match a Defiant class. The Caliphate squadron at Lambda Aurigae had been built up to a size sufficient to worry the token Royal Space Navy detachment there, but Resolute could by herself reduce that squadron to cosmic detritus without breathing hard.

She mentally scolded herself for feeling a slight regret that such an occasion would almost certainly not arise.

Lambda Aurigae was a G0V star slightly larger and hotter than Sol. It was also somewhat younger, and its fourth planet, though orbiting in the liquid-water zone, had not had time for life to venture out of that water onto continents of bare rock and sand. But with nanotechnology and self-replicating machines, the planet was readily terraformable and a great prize.

Hence it was the focus of one of the standoffs that frequently occurred on the frontier—and only there. It was generally recognized (even by the Caliphate’s rulers, if not always by its mullahs) that Earth could not endure an all-out war waged with today’s weapons. So a tacit agreement reigned. Earth was off-limits to the antimatter warheads and the nano-disassemblers. The rest of the galaxy was fair game.

As Resolute approached Lambda Aurigae’s Secondary Limit—slightly farther out than Sol’s due to its slightly greater mass—Jane disengaged the drive field. To enter a gravity field of more than 0.0001 G without doing so resulted in the field’s immediate collapse, the drive’s immediate shutdown, and a greater or lesser degree of physical damage to the drive and associated parts of the ship. Entering the Primary Limit with the drive activated in sublight mode had the same consequences. It was as much as a starship captain’s career was worth to allow any of this to happen. Thus, under Sharif’s watchful eye, Jane made a point of erring on the side of caution.

Nor were these the only dangers. Before the drive could be disengaged at the Primary Limit, the velocity—pseudovelocity, really—that it had accumulated in the course of its departure from Sol must be shed, or else the same consequences, possibly up to and including total destruction of the drive, would overtake the ship. The necessary calculations flowed through Jane’s head, meshed as it was with the computer, as she applied the appropriate deceleration. Resolute proceeded on a sunward course that would intersect the fourth planet, where she would switch to photon thrusters and deploy the fighters and the Marines’ reentry capsules, both of which need only be dropped as the ship skimmed New Kashmir’s upper atmosphere.

The passage wasn’t long, but it gave time for Captain Sharif to politely place himself under the command of the commodore—considerably junior to himself in terms of his permanent rank—in charge of the light Royal Space Navy units already in the system. It also gave an opportunity to scan nearby space for threats. There was, it seemed, a Caliphate ship—equivalent to an RSN fifth rater, what was loosely termed a frigate—in geosynchronous orbit around New Kashmir. This was outside the planet’s Primary Limit, and therefore in the equivalent of “international waters,” although close enough to be provocative. But provocative or not, a fifth rater was eminently ignorable by Resolute. And the rag-heads (a term used even by Muslim RSN personnel, despite prim official disapproval) made no response even as New Kashmir waxed to fill a significant portion of Jane’s view forward.

“Approaching Primary Limit, sir,” Jane reported as Resolute neared the distance mandated by safety protocols. She did not add that the pseudovelocity had been killed precisely on the instant; Sharif could see that for himself from the readouts, and it wouldn’t do to toot one’s own horn.

“Very good, Mister Grenville. Disengage drive.” Jane did so, and Resolute came to a virtual halt somewhat outside the Primary Limit. She raised the helmet and looked around her. The bridge was slightly less crowded than usual, for the first officer, Commander Winnifred Rushton, had been called to engineering a while back for consultation on some matter or other.

“And now,” Sharif began . . . only to be cut off by an ululation from his armrest communicator: the internal-emergency signal. He slapped the controls, and the comm screen came alive.

For an instant, Jane could only stare, mentally and physically paralyzed by shock.

The screen was mostly filled by the wild-eyed face of Jared Wilmarth. Behind him, she recognized the engineering spaces where he worked. On the deck were at least two motionless bodies lying in spreading pools of blood.

“Captain!” blurted Jared, seemingly almost unable to speak coherently. “You’ve got to come to engineering at once! Commander Rushton and Commander Ferguson are dead. They’re all dead—the whole watch. They—”

“Get hold of yourself, Mister Wilmarth!” the Captain rapped. “What’s happened?”

But Wilmarth was on the quavering edge of hysteria. “Captain, please come down here! It’s—” He suddenly turned his head and looked outside the pickup. Whatever he saw seemed to horrify him. And at that moment, the screen went blank.

Sharif grasped his comm mike. “Major O’Hara, I’m on my way to engineering. Have a Marine detail meet me there.” He got to his feet. “Mister Grenville, you have the conn. Beat to quarters.” Without waiting for an acknowledgment from Jane, he rushed out.

Jane shook loose from her stunned immobility and moved quickly to occupy the captain’s chair. “We will beat to quarters,” she commanded—a very old naval term still in use. “Lieutenant Chatterjee to the bridge,” she added, summoning her relief helmsman. Chatterjee, a fresh-faced young j.g., arrived with commendable promptness and flung himself into the seat Jane had vacated. He was not possessed of interface talent—no ship could hope to get more than one such helmsman—but he prepared the manual controls and turned to Jane, his expression a silent request for orders.

“Stand by, Mister Chatterjee,” she said in what she hoped was a calming voice. Under the circumstances, it was out of the question to proceed on photon thrusters as planned. For now, she found herself with nothing to do but wait for further word from engineering, while Resolute hung in space just outside New Kashmir’s Primary Limit.

She had only just come to that realization when the comm screen again awoke . . . and revealed a scene which for a moment her mind refused to accept.

Once again the screen showed Jared Wilmarth’s engineering station. And once again he was there—but this time his face was set in lines of tense purposefulness. His left arm was locked around Captain Sharif’s neck, holding him half-choked and totally immobilized. His right hand held a standard-issue sidearm—a Webley gauss needle pistol—pointed at the captain’s temple.

“Jared, what are you doing?” Infuriatingly, she heard her voice rise to a falsetto squeak. She forced it into steadiness and began again. “Jared, there’s a Marine detail on the way—”

“So it’s you that’s in charge up there, Jane? All right, listen carefully. The Marines are already here—outside the hatch. They can’t break in while I’ve got him as hostage. And for that same reason you’re going to do exactly as I say.” For a fleeting instant, sadness seemed to flicker across his face. “I tried to sound you out, hoping you’d go along with me as a fellow North American. But I could see there was no way.” His features hardened again into a mask of inexorable purpose. “As you probably haven’t had the leisure to notice, the Caliphate ship in high orbit is now maneuvering to rendezvous with us. You will surrender this ship to them. Otherwise, I’ll destroy it. I’ve already rigged an override by which I can cause the antimatter plant to overload with a touch of a button. I can—and will—do it before the Marines can try any tricks, or if I smell a whiff of sleep gas.”

Jane desperately tried to struggle up from the ocean of nightmare in which she felt she was drowning. “Jared . . . I can’t believe this. You—a Caliphate agent?”

“No!” Wilmarth sounded indignant. “I belong to the Sons of Arnold.”

Jane had heard of them—an organization of irreconcilables on New America, chronically under suspicion by the authorities but generally dismissed as all talk. Jane had never heard of them being present in North America itself . . . but she recalled Wilmarth saying he had New American relatives.

“I don’t mean the gutless old fuddy-duddies who head the Sons,” he went on in a rush, as though unable to resist the temptation to deliver a manifesto to a captive audience. “They’d never dare to do this. But some of us—the younger ones, the ones who represent the true spirit of the old revolutionaries—understand that bold direct action is needed, not hot air.”

“But Jared, what’s that got to do with trying to betray this ship to the Caliphate?”

“We take our allies where we can find them, Jane.”

What? You’re telling me that your faction has allied itselves with the rag-heads? Their crazy fundamentalist version of Islam is about as far from the ideals of the old North American rebels as it’s possible to get!”

“Do you actually think we like the Caliphate?” shouted Wilmarth. He took a deep breath and got himself under control. “Politics makes strange bedfellows. Breaking up the Empire by freeing North America is in their interest, so they’re willing to help us. But there are limits to how helpful they can be, given the disparity of military power. Turning this ship—which is far beyond anything they’ve got—over to them will help redress that imbalance. A war will give us our chance.”

“You know perfectly well it’s been centuries since anybody in North America has wanted to be ‘freed’ from the Federal Empire. You’re mad as well as being a bloody murdering traitor!”

“Traitor?” Wilmarth’s eyes flared with fanaticism. “You’re the traitor—as much a traitor as Washington was! I’ll be the greatest North American hero since Benedict Arnold!”

With a sudden, convulsive effort, Sharif unlocked Wilmarth’s grip on his throat just enough to speak in a croak. “Grenville, don’t obey him! That’s an order!”

“Shut up!” Wilmarth struck the captain a sharp blow to the side of the head with the barrel of his Webley, and tightened his grip again as Sharif momentarily sagged. He turned back to face Jane, and his voice and his expression both snarled. “Enough talk! Do as I say or I’ll blow up this ship. I’m not bluffing!”

For a moment, Jane sat frozen in an agony of indecision. Glancing at the tactical plot, she could see that the Caliphate ship was indeed approaching. It hadn’t taken it long, for it could use its drive, since Resolute was still just outside the Primary Limit.

Just outside the Primary Limit . . .

An idea came to life in her, begotten by desperation.

“Well, Jane?” came Wilmarth’s ragged voice. “Stop stalling!”

It left her no time to talk herself out of the insane course of action that had occurred to her. Resolution congealed.

“All right. I agree.” She saw the triumph on Wilmarth’s face, and the horrified widening of Sharif’s eyes. She ignored both and continued in a carefully calm and reasonable tone of voice. “I’m going to return to the helmsman’s station, so I can more easily control the rendezvous maneuvering.”

Wilmarth nodded stiffly. Jane stood up, aware that every pair of eyes on the bridge was glaring at her. She met those of Lieutenant Beaumont, the weapons officer, for a fleeting instant; she winked, and with her chin gave a barely perceptible gesture toward the tactical plot. She hoped he would understand. Then she brusquely motioned Chatterjee out of his seat and took his place. It was necessary. The youngster might not have obeyed a command from her that would have seemed perfect lunacy. At a minimum, he would have hesitated long enough for Wilmarth to carry out his threat.

And furthermore, she thought as she lowered the neural induction helmet over her head, now she would be able to think that command rather than giving it verbally for Wilmarth to overhear.

First she activated a special override of engineering’s control of the power supply to the Bernheim Drive. Then, taking a deep breath and bracing herself, she sent a flashing thought to the computer . . . and the drive awoke, on full power.

At four hundred Gs of insensible acceleration, Resolute surged planetward, past New Kashmir’s Primary Limit.

What? was all Wilmarth had time for. With a grinding crash and the indescribable shriek of rending metal, the drive shut down in a brutal way that was never intended. At once the pseudovelocity dropped to zero and Resolute came to a shuddering halt with which her inertial compensators could not entirely cope. The great ship shook convulsively.

The entire bridge crew would have gone sprawling had they not been, as per regulation, strapped into their seats while at general quarters. In the comm screen, Wilmarth did go sprawling, losing his grip on the captain, as Jane had been gambling he would. He got off a shot with his Webley, but the electromagnetically propelled fléchette went wide, barely missing Sharif’s head. Then the two men were grappling on the deck.

In the tactical plot, the Caliphate ship hung in stunned motionlessness.

“Mister Beaumont!” snapped Jane, “I want a target lock on—”

“Aye aye, sir!” Beaumont, she thought, must have understood, for he recovered more swiftly than she would have thought possible. His hands flew over his control board.

“And Mister Beaumont . . . fire at will!”

Whatever damage the ship had sustained, it clearly hadn’t affected the weapon systems. From all the projectors that could be brought to bear, gigawatt x-ray lasers stabbed out at light speed—virtual instantaneity at this range. The beams were, of course, invisible. But in the outside view, a new star flared into being as the Caliphate ship’s shields and armor failed under an energy transfer beyond what a fifth rater could withstand. It was a star that briefly went nova when the target’s antimatter powerplant went critical.

Jane sagged back in her seat and turned to the comm screen. Through the acrid smoke that now suffused the engineering spaces, she could see that it was all over. The Marines had broken in and had the screaming, writhing Wilmarth pinned to the deck. A corpsman was examining the captain’s throat.

She stood up and helped Chatterjee—the only one present who hadn’t been strapped in—up off the deck. “Mister Chatterjee, you may be inserting us into orbit around New Kashmir.” At least she hoped the photon thrusters were still in working order, although she didn’t mention that. “Mister Beaumont . . . good work.” She returned to the captain’s chair and sat down. “I believe I still have the conn.”

The reports were in. The Bernheim Drive was badly damaged—inoperable for now, in fact—but it hadn’t been wrecked beyond repair. In fact the new engineering officer was confident it could be repaired in fairly short order. Ships carried a full supply of spare components against the possibility of an encounter with a sizeable piece of space junk, which could have the same consequences Resolute had just experienced.

And now Jane sat in the captain’s private office, looking across a desk at Sharif’s dark, hawklike face.

“You do realize, Commander, that you violated more regulations than I can call to mind at the moment.”

“Yes, sir.”

“There will, of course, have to be a board of inquiry. However, after the board has heard my testimony, and that of every other officer of this ship, I don’t think you’ll have any worries. In fact . . . when next year’s Honors List comes out . . .” He dismissed the subject as outside his purview. “Tell me, what caused you to think of that stunt?”

“Well, sir, I’ve heard Major O’Hara quote what he says is a very old Irish saying.”


Jane grinned. “It’s not the fall, it’s the sudden stop.”

Steve White served as a Naval Intelligence officer in the Mediterranean and in the Vietnam War Zone. He is a graduate of the University of Virginia Law School and an associate member of the Virginia Bar. He is well known for the best-selling Starfire military science fiction series with David Weber and, more recently, Charles Gannon. In addition, he has written a number of popular science fiction adventure novels for Baen. They include the galaxy-spanning adventure Prince of Sunset and its sequel Emperor of Dawn, the secret-history science fiction novel The Prometheus Project, the high fantasy novel Demon’s Gate, and the Jason Thanou series of time travel adventures that began with Blood of the Heroes and continues throughout the current Gods of Dawn. His other solo novels include Saint Antony’s Fire, an alternate-history fantasy set in Elizabethan times. Steve lives in Charlottesville, Virginia.

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