Warspite (Ark Royal, Book IV)

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(Ark Royal, Book IV)

Christopher G. Nuttall


Cover by Justin Adams
All Comments Welcome!
Cover Blurb
Peace is not freedom. Peace is merely the absence of war.
The First Interstellar War is over, but the Royal Navy still has plenty of work to do. As Earth struggles to recover from the bombardment, Captain John Naiser is placed in command of HMS Warspite - an experimental heavy cruiser - and ordered to escort a squadron of colony ships to a star system of immense strategic importance.
But as the crew struggle to survive hundreds of light years from Earth, they find themselves dealing with the legacy of the war ... and a threat which may sow the seeds of renewed conflict, or a deadly civil war that will rip the human sphere apart.
[Like my other self-published Kindle books, The Trafalgar Gambit is DRM-free. You may reformat it as you choose. There is a large sample of the text – and my other books – on my site: chrishanger.net. Try before you buy.]

Author’s Note
It will probably surprise most readers to see a fourth book of Ark Royal, as the titular ship died quite spectacularly at the end of The Trafalgar Gambit. Warspite is set in the era immediately following the First Interstellar War, which was detailed in the first three Ark Royal books. I’ve done my best to allow new readers to jump right into the series without actually needing to read the first three, but I would recommend reading them first to gain an understanding of the background.
As always, I am indebted to my beta readers, to whom this book is dedicated.
Thanks for reading!

Published In British Space Review, 2207
Although Commodore Biotin and Admiral Fredrik raise excellent points concerning the philosophical implications of other forms of intelligent life (aside from us and the Tadpoles), they are hardly the prime subject of interest to the readers of British Space Review. Not to put too fine a point on it, we are concerned with the outcome of the First Interstellar War and its implications for the future development of both the Royal Navy and the United Kingdom.
Prior to the Battle of Vera Cruz, naval thinkers anticipated facing a human enemy, rather than an outside context villain. The Royal Navy was shaped in line with lessons learnt through studying American-Chinese skirmishes and war games conducted by the major spacefaring powers. However, when we were actually faced with a serious war, our doctrine proved to be largely insufficient. The disaster at New Russia, if nothing else, proved that our imagination when it came to alien threats was definitely inadequate. Indeed, were it not for the freak circumstances that kept Ark Royal in service, we would have lost the war. As it was, Ark Royal was able to buy us time to react to the new threat.
However, the outcome of the war leaves us with a multitude of urgent questions, all concerning the government and defence of the human race. It is not my place to speculate on any of the proposals to turn the Earth Defence Organisation into a real government, but I must note that history suggests that any attempt to embrace a single government for much of the human race is doomed to failure. The Troubles – and the Age of Unrest – were largely caused by such attempts. Therefore, we must assume that the Royal Navy, while working closely with allies such as the Americans and French, will have to prepare for the future alone. This will not be an easy task.
We started the First Interstellar War with fifteen fleet carriers, not including Ark Royal. Ten of those carriers, a significant proportion of our budget, were lost in the fighting, along with forty-seven smaller warships and an undisclosed number of support and replenishment vessels. The Royal Navy has refused to declassify the precise number of starfighters and their pilots lost in the war, but outside observers have concluded that eighty percent of the pre-war establishment died in the first year of the war. These loss figures, which are comparable with those suffered by the other major spacefaring powers, are truly horrific.
This leaves us with a major problem. We must rebuild the fleet, at the same time as recovering from the damage inflicted on our country by the Battle of Earth and mustering as many freighters as possible to transfer settlers from Earth to Britannia. Failing to do so, despite the hideous costs involved, will merely render us weak and vulnerable, against both a recurrence of the war and conflict against our fellow humans. I hardly need remind the reader that many nations have suffered badly as a result of the war and some of them blame the whole conflict on us. Indeed, the troubles suffered by the Russians in regaining control of New Russia, following the Tadpole withdrawal from the system, suggest that a whole new series of inter-human conflicts may be about to begin.
And there is a further threat. Prior to the Battle of Vera Cruz, we believed ourselves to be unique in the universe, the sole intelligent race. This belief has been resoundingly shattered by the war. We cannot afford to rule out the possibility that other races may be out there in the darkness – and that some of them will pose a threat. Or, for that matter, that we will be hemmed in by alien-occupied stars and find ourselves with no further space for expansion.
Therefore, sirs, we must turn our attention to the task of rebuilding the Royal Navy, integrating Tadpole-derived technology and ensuring the security of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Britannia.
Admiral Sir Joseph Porter (Ret.)

“Mary,” Lieutenant Higgins said, as he entered the compartment. “We have completed our latest transit along the tramlines.”

Mary turned to the handsome young officer and beamed. “Thank you, Joe,” she said, warmly. “It’s always good to know when we can relax.”
Seated at the opposite side of the compartment, Gillian McDougal sighed. Mary was five years younger than herself, a beautiful girl fresh out of university who had married her husband just days before he had departed on the Cromwell Mission. They’d thought – just as Gillian and her husband had thought – that they would be separated for less than a month before the secondary personnel were allowed to board ship for the distant colony world. But then the war had begun and a month-long separation had swelled into four years. Mary hadn't wasted time finding a new lover to warm her bed.
Not that I could really blame her, Gillian thought, as Higgins led the dark-haired girl out of the compartment. She barely knew her husband before she tied the knot.
It had seemed an adventure, once upon a time. They would move from Earth to Cromwell; a whole new world, a human-compatible planet utterly untouched by any mortal hands. There, they would set up their own farms or businesses, which – because they would be in on the ground floor – would lead rapidly to wealth and power. Not a few new scions of the aristocracy had been created after the settlement of Britannia, Gillian’s husband had noted when they’d put their names down for the colony mission. Success on Cromwell would ensure that his children had a chance to truly make something of themselves. It was why he had insisted on leaving first, even if it meant leaving his wife and daughters behind for a month or two. He had been adamant it was the only way to ensure they staked a proper claim.
But a month had become two months, and then a year, and then several years ...
Mary had asked, more than once, why Gillian had remained loyal to her husband. It was the 23rd Century, after all, and marriages rarely lasted longer than it took for the children to grow to adulthood and flee the nest. And her husband was literally thousands of light years away, growing plants on a distant world. Gillian had considered it, then pointed out sharply that she genuinely loved her husband, even if they were apart. They’d made memories together ...
She shook her head at the thought, then turned her attention to the datapad in front of her, barely reading the words. After so long, they were practically engraved in her mind; the complete records of the first survey party to visit Cromwell and certify the world safe for human habitation. Cromwell was everything Earth was not, even now; a safe environment, free of higher-order forms of life ... and two-legged predators who would chase after her daughters, even before they entered their teens. It was a chance to build a new home, she knew, even though it would mean a great deal of hard work. But a doctor trained in emergency and colonial medicine could practically write her own ticket.
A dull quiver ran through the ship and she looked up, startled. Vesper was a large colonist-carrier, not a warship. The passage had been smooth, save for the uncomfortable sensation of passing through the tramlines. There had been nothing save for an endless thrumming from the ship’s drives since they’d boarded the vessel. For it to quiver ...
“Your attention please,” the captain said. “Please return to your quarters and strap yourselves down. I say again, please return to your quarters and strap yourselves down.”
The hatch opened, revealing a surprised-looking Mary in a dishevelled state. “What’s happening?”
“Your lips are swollen,” Gillian said, bitchily. It helped override her growing alarm. “What are you going to do when Brian” – her husband – “finds out about your affairs?”
Mary glared at her. “And who is going to tell him?”
“Every last person on the secondary lists knows you’ve been fucking around,” Gillian pointed out, as sweetly as she could. “There’s nowhere to go on Cromwell ...”
Another quiver ran through the ship, followed by a bang that shook the bulkheads. Alarms started to sound moments later; Gillian had barely stood when the emergency airlocks slammed down, sealing the relaxation compartment off from the rest of the ship. It took her a long moment to realise that it was the hull breach alarm, warning that – somehow, somewhere – there was a gash in the hull. The ship’s atmosphere was pouring out into interstellar space.
Mary screamed. “What ... what was that?”
“Remain calm,” Gillian ordered. The maps she’d seen of the tramline network were not encouraging. They were an unimaginable distance from anyone who might have been able and willing to help them. “Panic is the enemy right now.”
“Your attention please,” the captain’s voice said. “This vessel is about to be boarded.”
Gillian felt her mouth drop open. Boarded? Boarded by whom? Space pirates existed in dull entertainment programs, not real life. And which nation would risk war with the United Kingdom by attacking one of its colony ships? But they were so far from Earth, she realised dully, that it was quite likely that the ship’s ultimate fate would never be known.
“Remain calm,” the captain ordered. “There is no immediate danger.”
Gillian gritted her teeth. Mary looked at her, sharply.
“What do we do?”
“We pray,” Gillian said. “There’s nothing else we can do.”
Mary looked disbelieving, but Gillian only nodded. They had no weapons, save for a handful of hunting rifles stowed in the hold. Even if the crew had been able to get them out in time before the pirates – or whoever they were – boarded the ship, they would not be able to offer any meaningful resistance. Vesper couldn't hope to outrun or outfight even a small warship.
She cursed under her breath, then returned to her seat. All she could do was wait and see what happened ... and pray that her daughters survived. Unless a miracle happened, she knew they were unlikely to see Cromwell, ever again. And her husband ...
Closing her eyes, she settled down to wait.

Chapter One
London wasn't what it used to be.
Captain John Naiser stood in Trafalgar Square and looked towards the War Memorial, placed below Nelson’s ever-watchful eye. It was nothing more than a piece of the Ark Royal’s hull, salvaged from the wreckage of the once-mighty ship, but it had a special meaning for the men and women of the Royal Navy. He took a step closer, ignoring the handful of children clustered around the memorials, until he could see the faint edges of the names engraved into the metal. There were far too many names listed of those who had died during the war.
He looked for a specific name, but it wasn't visible. The Royal Navy had lost over ten thousand officers and men in the war, a loss that had crippled the post-war navy. Each of the names were too small to make out with the naked eye, carved out of the metal by cutting lasers guided by computers carefully programmed to include each and every known casualty of the war. There was no point in looking for the names of those who had served on HMS Canopus, still less his friend and lover. He took one final look, then forced himself to turn away. There was no point in dwelling on the past.
The children headed back towards the teacher standing at the edge of the square, their faces pinched and worn compared to the children he remembered from his own childhood. They knew what it was like to be hungry, he knew, and what it was like to lose everything in one afternoon. God alone knew how many of them were war orphans, fostered out to whoever was willing to take in a child after their parents had been killed, or how many had seen nightmares as they struggled for survival. Three years after the end of the First Interstellar War, large parts of the population were still traumatised.
He drew in a breath, then started to walk down towards the Ministry of Defence. Most of the once-white buildings looked torn and faded, damaged badly by the giant waves and endless rainfall that had swept over London. Even crossing the Thames was an adventure these days, after the waves had knocked down all the bridges. The Royal Marines had established pontoon bridges in the early days of the recovery, and the Royal Engineers had added a handful of more solid structures, but there was nothing as reassuring as the bridges he’d once known. It would be years before the city recovered from the attack on Earth – and decades, perhaps, before the population recovered from the war.
A line of young men, wearing the muddy-brown overalls of the Civil Reconstruction Corps, marched past him, swinging their tools in a manner that reminded him of soldiers carrying rifles. They’d been lucky – or unlucky, depending – to escape military conscription in the years following the war, instead being detailed to work on civil recovery projects. John felt a moment of envy for their simple lives, even though he knew they had little true freedom. But then, everyone in Britain was required to play a role in rebuilding the country. The reserves of manpower represented by the civilian population could not be allowed to go untapped.
He smiled to himself as the workers were followed by a handful of young women, old enough to be out on the streets on their own, but young enough to escape their own conscription into the CRC. Half of them already looked pregnant, having worked out that pregnancy was the one sure way to avoid being subsumed into serving their country. They hadn't realised, the cynical side of his mind noted, that they were also serving Great Britain by providing children – or, for that matter, that raising a child would take far more than two years of compulsory service in the CRC. But it might not matter. If they were reluctant to raise the children, after giving birth, the children could be passed to foster parents for adoption.
“Hey, spacer,” one of the girls called. “You want to go for a drink?”
John shook his head. Colin and he had often hit the bars of Soho, chatting up young men and trying to take one or more of them home for the night, back when they’d been young and foolish and the very concept of alien life nothing more than a figment of human imagination. And now Colin was dead and there were days when John found it hard to raise his head from the pillow and do his duty.
The thought made him scowl, bitterly. He wasn’t the only one to be badly affected by the war. Two weeks ago, he’d heard that one of his old classmates – it bothered him profusely that he didn't remember the man’s name – had put a gun in his mouth and killed himself, blowing his brains over the compartment. He wasn't the only ex-military officer to kill himself in the wake of the war, either through survivor’s guilt or the simple realisation that nothing would ever be the same again.
He sighed as he turned the corner and walked up to the line of armed soldiers on duty. The sight of soldiers in the capital, wearing battledress uniforms rather than ceremonial garb, had once been an unpleasant surprise. Now, with Britain practically under martial law, it was depressingly common. The Royal Horse Guards had been a firm and highly-visible presence on the streets since the Battle of Earth. There were days when John wondered if anything would be the same again.
Of course it won’t, he told himself, sharply. We’re no longer alone.
Five years ago, the human race had known it was alone in the universe. A hundred Earth-like planets had been discovered, with none of them possessing any life forms larger or more interesting than a dog. Earth had seemed unique in giving birth to an intelligent race ...
... And then humanity had encountered the Tadpoles. And, if a single elderly carrier had been scrapped, the Tadpoles would have won the war. Instead, they’d been held, barely. And then, when the peace talks had finally concluded, the human race had looked out on a universe that was fundamentally different. They were no longer alone in the universe and, perhaps, it was only a matter of time until they encountered a third intelligent race.
And who knows, he asked himself, what will happen then?
The guard stepped forward as John reached the security fence. He didn't quite point his rifle at John’s chest, but the threat was clearly there. London had learned hard lessons about security in the days following the attack on Earth. The food riots and outright panic had made the task of recovery far harder.
“Papers, please, sir,” the guard said.
John reached into his uniform jacket and produced his ID card, then the printed letter inviting him to the Ministry of Defence. The letter had been short and to the point, but he had been unable to avoid a thrill of excitement after two weeks on Earth. Paper letters were rarely sent unless he was being summoned for promotion, a new command – or disciplinary action. And he knew he'd done nothing to warrant being hauled up in front of the First Space Lord for a bollocking. That would be the task of his immediate superior.
“You’ll be met inside the building by a guide,” the guard said, after scrutinising the papers and checking with the building’s datanet. “Remember not to stray from the path, sir.”
“I know,” John said. Being arrested by the military police and spending the night in the guardhouse wouldn't be fun. “Are there any problems I should know about?”
“Couple of reports of bandits in the Restricted Zones, but nothing too serious,” the guard said. He stepped backwards and waved John into the building. “Good luck, sir.”
John smiled, then stepped though the gate into the Ministry of Defence. It was the largest military building in London, apart from the barracks serving the army regiments based in the capital, now that command and control facilities had been moved to secret locations or Nelson Base, hanging in high orbit over the city. Inside, it was decorated with giant paintings showing scenes from British military history, culminating in a painting entitled The Last Flight of Ark Royal. It was surprisingly good, compared to some of the others.
“Captain Naiser,” a female voice said. “I'm Commander Stephanie Underwood. If you will come with me ...?”
John nodded, then allowed the young woman to lead him through a network of corridors. Outside the entry lobby, it was surprisingly bare, as if the walls had been stripped of paintings and all other forms of decoration. It was political, he guessed, as Commander Underwood paused in front of a large pair of doors. The Ministry of Defence couldn’t afford to be living it up when a fifth of the British population was still living in shoddy prefabricated accommodation scattered around the countryside.
“The First Space Lord,” Commander Underwood said.
“Sir,” John said, stepping into the office. It was as barren as the rest of the building, save for a large holographic display floating over the Admiral’s desk. “Reporting as ordered.”
“Take a seat, Captain,” Admiral Percy Finnegan said. He returned John’s salute with one of his own. “It's been a while.”
John sat, resting his hands in his lap. Finnegan had commanded HMS Victorious during the war, where he’d had the dubious pleasure of saving John’s life when his carrier had responded to the report of an attack on Bluebell. John had met him twice, once for a debriefing and once for a transfer from starfighter piloting to mainline command track. Both meetings had been short, formal and largely unemotional.
“I was reading through your file,” Finnegan said, as he sat down and placed his elbows on his desk. The show of informality didn't help John to relax. “It’s quite an interesting read.”
“Thank you, sir,” John said.
“Born twenty-three years ago, in London,” Finnegan continued. “Parents largely absentee; you were practically brought up in boarding school. Joined the Cadet Corps at fourteen, then switched to the Space Cadets at fifteen. Your instructor spoke highly of you and cleared the way for you to enter the Starfighter Training Centre at eighteen. You were involved in an ... incident the week before graduation and were accordingly assigned to HMS Canopus, rather than a posting on a fleet carrier.”
John stiffened. The ... incident ... had seemed a good idea at the time.
“You served on Canopus for five months before the Battle of Bluebell, where you were the sole survivor. Your heroics during the battle won you the Victoria Cross. You were asked to return to the Training Centre to share your experience, but instead you requested a switch to command track. May I ask why?”
There was no point, John knew, in pretending to be mystified by the question.
“Colin and I were ... close,” he said. “We were wingmates, sir. When he died, I decided not to fly starfighters anymore.”
“Indeed,” Finnegan said. He took a long breath. “You were appointed First Lieutenant on HMS Rosemount, as she required a CAG at short notice. I might add that you weren't expected to keep that position indefinitely. Captain Preston, however, chose you to succeed Commander Beasley when he was promoted to take command of HMS Jackson. You served as his XO until you were transferred to HMS Spartan. Again, you were quite young for the post.”
“Yes, sir,” John said.
“But you would be far from the only officer to be promoted rapidly,” Finnegan concluded, shortly. He met John’s eyes. “Your failure to follow a conventional career path would, under other circumstances, limit your chances of advancement. As it happens, however, we have a posting for you.”
John kept his face expressionless with an effort. The Royal Navy needed all the trained manpower it could get, after so many officers and men had been killed in the war. In truth, he’d expected to be assigned to the Luna Academy or the Starfighter Training Centre years ago. He would have hated it, but it might be the best place for him to go. The recruits needed someone with genuine experience to ensure they knew what they needed to know.
“This isn't an easy time for the Navy,” Finnegan continued. “We no longer have enough hulls to meet our commitments, even without having to refit a number of pre-war designs with alien-derived technology. Worse, several second-rank human powers are now in a position to challenge us, because they didn't take such a beating in the war – and then there’s the threat of renewed conflict with the Tadpoles. Accordingly, we’re having to rush a stopgap design of starship into service.”
John felt a sudden burst of hope as the First Space Lord tapped his console and a holographic image of a starship appeared in front of him. She was larger than a frigate, he noted, although she would still be dwarfed by a fleet carrier. Oddly, she looked smoother and sleeker than the more mundane craft the Royal Navy deployed. He couldn't help being reminded of some of the alien ships he’d seen during the war.
“The Warspite class is a hodgepodge of human and alien technology,” Finnegan informed him. “They’re armed with a mixture of weaponry, carry alien-grade jump drives and are generally faster and more manoeuvrable than any previous design. On the other hand, the mixture of technology has already led to teething troubles and kinks in the design, which we don’t have time to work out before pressing the ships into deployment. We’re that short of hulls. Unfortunately, they also require non-standard commanders.”
That made sense, John was sure. The starship’s combination of human and alien technology might daunt a commander with more experience of human starships. He’d have less to unlearn than someone who followed the standard command track to high rank. And besides, if the data at the bottom of the display was accurate, the starship would handle more like a starfighter than any pre-war starship. He was sure, now, that he would assume command of one of the new ships. The thought of the challenge made him smile.
Finnegan shrugged. “They have considerably more range than a frigate,” he explained, as the holographic display twisted to show the starship’s interior. “Thanks to some of the alien technology, she can even draw fuel from a gas giant if necessary, although she lacks the machine shops and other onboard replenishment systems of a carrier. In short, she should be ideal for both escort missions, showing the flag and coping with limited problems without needing a major fleet deployment.
“You will assume command of HMS Warspite,” he concluded. “We already have a task for her, Captain. You will not have a proper period to settle in to your new command.”
John nodded, unsurprised. The meeting wouldn't have been organised so rapidly if the Royal Navy hadn’t needed to get Warspite into operational service as quickly as possible. It was likely to be a major headache if the ship was as untested as the First Space Lord was suggesting, if only because of the risk of failing components. There had to be a reason for the haste.
But he would assume command! It didn't matter what Finnegan wanted him to do. All that mattered was that he would be commander of a starship, master under God. It would be the peak of his post-war career.
“We’ve been probing through the new tramlines,” the First Space Lord said, unaware of John’s inner thoughts. “We’ve had some successes in locating newer ways to travel through human space which will, I suspect, cause a major economic boom once the technology is commonly available. Two months ago, however, a survey ship located a star system on the edge of explored space that possesses no less than seven tramlines, three of them alien-grade. One of them is directly linked to the Cromwell Colony.”
“Founded just before the war, if I remember correctly,” John said, slowly. There had been a political argument over the British claim to the world, with several second-rank powers asserting that it should be theirs, damn it! Britain already had one major star system and several minor ones. “They were untouched by the fighting, I take it?”
“They weren't touched directly,” the First Space Lord confirmed, “but there were delays in getting supplies and new colonists out to them. They’re not our concern, though. You will take your ship and a small flotilla of starships to Pegasus, the newly-discovered system, and lay claim to it in the name of the British Crown. Someone else might try to get there first.”
“Possession being nine-tenths of the law,” John commented. There were endless arguments over who should claim systems with life-bearing worlds, but systems with several tramlines could be equally important. Control over shipping lanes would give the system’s owner a fair source of revenue in its own right – assuming, of course, they could make their will felt. “I assume the system hasn't been formally claimed?”
“It won’t be, until we have an established presence there,” the First Space Lord warned. “I would prefer to avoid a challenge from one of the other powers over ownership.”
He stood up. “Your formal orders are here,” he said, holding out a datachip. “You will travel to Warspite and assume command at once. I expect you and the flotilla to be ready to leave within the week, barring accidents. You will not find it an easy task.”
“I will not let you down,” John assured him, as he took the datachip. There would be more than just his formal orders on the chip, he was sure. He could expect details of everything from his new command to her crew roster. “Thank you, sir.”
“Thank me when you come back,” Finnegan said. His voice hardened as he rose to his feet and held out his hand. “Not before.”

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