View Full Version : Critique for my NaNo novel

Mercenary Pen
2010-02-22, 03:06 PM
Okay guys, back in November, I attempted my first shot at National Novel Writing Month. The word count was not a problem because, during the previous month, I had planned out an anime-inspired mecha storyline that was complex enough to keep me going. However, now that I've put it down and had a chance to distance myself from it a little, I want to see how it does quality-wise and to have it checked over for any plot holes...

Working title for this is Iron Seraph.

Out of deference to all of you, I will be spoilering each section:



It was new years eve, and Brian Harris was stuck at a desk. More specifically, he was stuck at a desk about thirty miles away from civilisation in the receiving station for one of the most modern radio telescopes known to man. Technically, the technology to receive data from the orbital telescope array could have been fitted in anywhere, but the university that Brian worked for preferred to build a dedicated receiver station on land they owned and implement complex security encryption on the signals coming down from orbit in a bid to keep all the new discoveries that the telescope would bring to themselves- and because of this, Brian, studying for a postgraduate degree in astrophysics, sat huddled at a desk trying to keep warm despite the wholly inadequate heating, watching over the automated recorders monitoring local space as part of the Moore space radio telescope array.

He looked up at the clock, 9:47pm, his wife would have the new years party they had been planning with friends and family in full swing by now. The original plan was that they would both have been there for the party, only Callum- one of Brian's colleagues- had come down with some sort of bug, leaving the rest of the project team to pick up the slack. Linda had promised She would come and relieve him of duty at 10:30pm, even though it meant that she came straight to the monitoring station from the airport, where she had been away over the Christmas period, barely leaving Brian sufficient time to get home along back country roads with a thirty mile an hour speed limit and a speed camera skulking round every bend in the road, whichever route he took.

Idly, Brian kicked the waste paper bin, strewing its cargo of screwed-up paper, chocolate bar wrappers and shreds of tinsel that had gone astray from the threadbare, seventeen year old decorations his boss, Doctor Myles Cartwright, had put up around the facility the week before the holiday season began for the rest of the world. Stabbing at a couple of keys on the computer keyboard with his fingers, Brian set a new task in motion before stooping down to return the bin to its customary upright position, carefully refilling it with its contents. Briefly, he toyed with the idea of getting up and, using the phone at the other side of the office to call home and check how things were going. The idea left him about as quickly as it came- the last thing he needed was to sit around moping about how everyone else he knew was having a wonderful time.

At that moment, however, a trilling little noise started to come over the speakers of his computer, one of the pre-programmed alarms that Doctor Cartwright had arranged to have programmed into the system- though Brian could not for the life of him work out exactly which alarm this one was. Glancing up at the screen, he blinked at the prominent, flashing message that filled the display (thank heavens he wasn't epileptic, he thought, otherwise that message would have given him a fit), 'Unidentified infra-red sources inside orbit of Jupiter'. Examining the details carefully, he worked out that the two sources that had suddenly commenced throwing out infra-red emissions were of too great a magnitude to be anything less than either rogue planetoids or alien spacecraft.

Great, he thought, of all the times for a major discovery to have been made, it had to be right now, when he had been hoping to get home to a new year's eve party with family. He would have to stay now, stay here, miles from civilisation for however many hours it took to work out what they were dealing with here. With a kick against his desk, he catapulted the wheeled computer chair he was in across to the other end of the room, grabbing the cordless phone from its charger just before the back of the chair hit the door frame. Much as he hated to admit it, the call to his wife could wait a few minutes; he started tapping keys on the phone, flicking through its internal directory to find the home number of his boss.

Meanwhile, in space, the two main infra-red sources travelled. They were fully armed, frigate sized war vessels from two factions engaged in a war that had raged these past three years across six nearby star systems. Around them, smaller attack drones deployed from the hangars of the frigates, combining into rapidly shifting formations that constantly moved to evade the fire from batteries of beam cannons and volleys of missiles that were exchanged between the two vessels. Still, the pursuit continued, always the one frigate chasing after the other, though in fire-power, the two vessels seemed almost evenly matched.

With a decisive volley, the hunters gouged a hole in the prominently-positioned bridge of the fleeing frigate, and time seemed to stand still. Then, with silent ease that belied the gouts of atmosphere venting from the damaged frigate, the ship was brought about, her cannons now firing with a sense of purpose as she turned on her pursuer, the smaller attack drones abandoning their screening formation around the ship to break and engage the drones that had been fielded by the pursuit force, clearing by main force a channel through which missile and cannon alike could advance, overwhelming the point defence gunnery of the other ship.

Back on earth, Brian sank almost visibly into his seat as he put the phone down. He had just given his wife the news that he would not be there to see in the new year with her, to help with the finale to the family new years eve party that they had spent weeks planning. His wife, Michaela, had not taken it well, she had assumed that he was just using this as another excuse to get away from her mother; it wasn't bad enough that the old woman insisted on trying to tell him that he wasn't good enough for her daughter (despite the fact they had been together these past five years), now Michaela was having a go at him any time it looked like he was trying to escape from that she-devil's haranguing.

With a shrug of frustration, he kicked himself back over to the desk where his computer sat, his fingers hitting the keyboard running as he fired up his e-mail client to arrange the loan of other space-observation resources from other universities and study institutions. Michaela might not understand just how important this could be, but he certainly did, and he wasn't going to let anything interfere with something that could not only guarantee him a doctorate but also change the fundamentals of human existence for all time.

Back in space, the two frigates were now engaging in that game of cat and mouse commonly played by opposing fleets as they engaged in battle, each ship vectoring to try and minimise the damage its opponent could do, whilst trying to maximise the damage it dealt in return. Combine that with the actions of the unmanned attack drones deployed by each frigate, and you had a recipe for the annihilation of any ship that wandered across their flight path- which was in fact, the fate about to befall the American space probe Liberty 4, on its way to study Saturn's moons in greater detail. With a sense of dramatic timing, the probe managed to get hit simultaneously with seven different beam cannons, before disintegrating with an explosion that was only silent because of the vacuum of space.

However, slipping in whilst the opposing frigate was blind sided by the American probe, two small attack drones managed to get in close, unleashing missiles and energy bolts with chilling accuracy against the ship which had chased them all this way, shredding the forward guns and missile launchers of the opposing ship. Their command frigate, however, was in bad shape, the gun batteries that were now being destroyed had taken their toll upon the other ship during the early stages of the battle, leaving the pursued vessel pockmarked with hull breaches that bled atmosphere into space, some of it afire from internal damage, and yet, with steely resolve, the battered, almost bleeding frigate kept coming, her engines propelling her towards her target as her beam cannons sent bolts of roiling plasma through rip tides on the verges of hyperspace towards her foe. With what seemed like a mighty bang to all those humans who observed it, huddled in space centres, looking at the monitors from a dozen different space observation programmes, the two frigates collided into a suicidal death grip, the more damaged vessel determined, or so it seemed, to take its foe with it. The surrounding swarms of attack drones, now deprived of command signals from their respective command ships, self-destructed for the most part, leaving behind only those ships that could not achieve self-destruct due to battle damage- and so, the beginning of the year 2064 came with conclusive proof that we were not alone.

Chapter One

Chapter One:

It was early on Tuesday morning, Jason Stone had to be at work for half past eight. It was now half past six, and with a predictable degree of vindictiveness, Jason's alarm clock seemed to start into his morning dose of radio rather louder than he remembered setting it. Bleary eyed, he tumbled out of bed, trying to reach for the clock to give his radio alarm an early end when the cheery tones of overly-saccharine pop music cut out, giving way to a news announcement.

'Good morning,' began the announcer in a voice that seemed to be in its mid forties, 'the fighting in Argentina came to a head today as Argentinian government forces commenced an attack on a base hosting United Nations peacekeeping personnel. In a surprising development, American forces deployed newly developed combat mecha to protect the base, leading to the rout of all Argentine forces committed to the attack before a single American shot could be fired.'

Blearily, Jason turned this over in his mind. In the five years since the New Year Discovery in 2064, the world's major powers had run space missions to salvage the wreckage of the destroyed warships, examining and reverse-engineering what they could of the alien technology. He did not know the rationale behind any of it, but with the new technology came a shift by the major economic and military powers of the world from conventional war machines such as tanks, artillery and fighter planes into the use of prototype mecha that looked like they had come out of low-budget science fiction shows. Whether it was the American George Washington series cavalry mecha being deployed into the middle east, Russian Commissar class mecha parading through the streets of Moscow and St. Petersburg or an article on how the German armed forces were shifting their activities to a more expeditionary role in world affairs with the development of their Valkyrie series airborne mecha, it seemed that anybody with either money or significant resources was building the gigantic humanoid war machines. One other fact was also clear despite Jason's inability to think quite that early in the morning, no mecha had been destroyed thus far in battle with anything less than another mecha- that rare scenario having only played out on one or two occasions, one of which involved a clash between Israeli owned American built mecha clashing with Syrian owned Russian built mecha when a territorial dispute came to a head.

Meanwhile, that very same day, just outside the orbit of the planetoid Pluto, a number of ships emerged from hyperspace. The smallest of these massive vessels, measuring approximately three hundred meters in length, was of the same design as one of the alien frigates from five years before, and they ranged in various designs up to space faring Dreadnoughts of about 6 miles in length. Cautiously, these vessels exited hyperspace, arraying themselves into a defensive formation outside of the interference of any gravity wells, with every precaution being taken to conceal their presence as far as this was possible. But, if some of the spaceships fielded by this force were familiar in any way to the people of earth, the race of beings that inhabited those ships were distinctly unfamiliar, for the collision of the two frigates had breached both vessels' reactors, incinerating all life that remained aboard both vessels down to nothing more than ashen debris, sent floating through space by the lack of gravity combined with the impact until nothing could be determined from it, not even leaving a charred outline of a distinctive living creature, and if any DNA evidence had been left, it was so thoroughly buried amongst the char that the biologists had not managed to find it.

The aliens were, insofar as any human could describe them, snake people- distinct from lizard people in that they had no legs, instead, their scaled bodies- patterned with camouflage hues from a dozen or more worlds- had four arms, each ending in a set of six talons. At full length, they reached about thirteen feet from head to tail, although some were significantly smaller- as if they had chosen to be a smaller sub-race of the whole species. They were the Hastanjik.

Aboard the lead vessel, a number of Hastanjik leaders convened in earnest conference, discussing the situation they had travelled into.

'Mighty Srassvotar,' began one adviser, addressing the mission leader in their native tongue, 'we have discovered traces of the missing frigate inside the projected orbit of the fifth planet in this system. It is clear from the debris that our sensors detect, that the frigate met our recent enemies, the Roganthir, in battle- though we cannot determine the outcome of the battle...'

'Moreover,' interjected a second adviser, 'our indications suggest that this system is home to intelligent life. Their complex communication signals are beaming out toward us from the third planet of this system, and our vessels are intercepting them as we speak.'

The mission leader, Srassvotar, spoke, 'this presents us with something of a conundrum, for the sacred tenets demand that we should account for- and honour- all of the fallen from one war of cleansing and enlightenment before we proceed to the next battleground, and yet we have already dispatched ships to prepare the way for us in system 64 of the former star prophet Ssansobal- indeed, we have already determined the manifold heresies that are practised by the infidels of that system. Our commanders await only the order to consecrate the system in battle, yet until we can honour our fallen, we cannot give holy battle to the infidels there.'

'Perhaps I may offer you some advice in this, loyal servitor of the tenets,' spoke up another adviser, his fading scales suggesting that he was somewhat older than many of the others.

'Speak your wisdom, Cranvasstar, adviser of my forebear, and let it be judged according to the tenets,' Srassvotar replied equably.

'Perhaps,' the aged adviser Cranvasstar spoke, 'we are being offered a greater chance to fulfil the tenets than that we had found for ourselves, for if we have intelligent life here which may have information on the whereabouts of our fallen comrades, surely we should investigate them as we seek discover the fate of our comrades- search out their position against the standards upheld in the sacred tenets and, should it become necessary, hold them to account for their deviance from that which is laid down in the sacred tenets.'

'It may indeed be that your suggestion has merit,' Srassvotar replied, 'but I shall not risk the future of our people lightly. It is my decision that, in accordance with the seventy fifth tenet of Tsankossor, we shall spend a worldspin in vigil, meditating upon your proposal before any permanent decision is made.'

Jason's day, back on earth, had been fairly average. The usual trouble with bus delays had meant that he barely made it to work on time, despite leaving half an hour earlier than he theoretically needed to. Now, at half past five, when he had just finished work and desperately needed to get home to try and forget about how uninspiring his day had been, one of his colleagues wandered across to remind him that he had, somewhat foolishly agreed to go out for drinks with some of the others from his department tonight.

There was some arguing amongst the group as to where they were going to go for their drink, with some wanting to go to a little place round the corner, mostly because it was the nearest watering hole, whilst others expressed more exotic preferences, trying to tilt the scales in favour of sushi or tapas or real ale. In the end, however, they ended up choosing to have a little fun and go to a bar by the arcade, then going on to a fairly cheap- but apparently good quality- Indian restaurant later on for something to eat. Coming to the arcade, they quite naturally split into smaller groups, some heading toward the bar, whilst others picked out arcade games from amongst the wide range on offer and headed towards their choice of entertainment, whether that was the air hockey table, assorted racing games, whichever beat em up game was in vogue just at the moment, or some 'emulate a super commando' style first person shooter.

In the midst of all of this, trying to look inconspicuous, was a linked complex of eight pods, each of them shaped like some space age cockpit, right down to the steps recessed into the side so that you could get up and lower yourself through the transparent canopy in the top of the pod, which then slid shut. Indeed, these pods were so like the cockpit of a state of the art fighter jet that you had markings on the sides of them, emblazoned with unit patches and health and safety warnings in equal measure. Standing by the side of the pods, looking rather out of place despite their efforts to blend in, were a pair of men wearing the uniform of the arcade's staff, standing in a pose that looked more at home on an army parade ground than in an inner city arcade centre. He watched carefully as they strode across to the canopy of a pod where one customer had just finished his game, efficiently sliding the canopy forward and then up to open it, collecting the helmet that the customer (a large built skinhead who looked like He would be more at home fighting you in a dark alley than on an arcade machine) had been issued with and returning it to a recess at the end of the row of pods having inexplicably unplugged the cable that ran from the pod into a socket on the back of the helmet.

To put it mildly, Jason was intrigued by the sheer oddity of the precision being shown here, in an environment where normally the staff would be more likely to leave gamers to their own devices unless there was a problem with one of the machines. In fact, before he realised it, he was wandering steadily towards the arcade machines he had spotted, one of his work colleagues with him. As Jason had half expected, the two 'employees' came across to them as they approached the pods, explaining that this was the first day for a brand new combat game, designed to emulate the functions and combat capabilities of the latest combat mecha to be developed for the British army, the XM-12B 'Dervish'. Also, they added, for its first week in place, the game was due to be free to all customers.

After a quick consultation with his colleague, Jason, never one to turn away something free if he could help it, stepped forward to give it a go, along with his work colleague and a couple of teenagers who had wandered up whilst the two 'employees' had given their speech.

With admirable- dare he say it, military- efficiency, they were fitted for helmets which, they were informed, contained a heads up display that would give them useful tactical insights during their battle. The canopy, whilst entirely transparent from the outside, was actually the screen upon which their battle would be displayed- giving them as good a field of view as an actual mecha operator would have in a combat zone.

The game operators, as Jason chose to refer to them, assured them that they would be put through the basic training level of the game first, giving them ample chance to master the basics of the game before they got a chance to go head to head with one another. This was fine by Jason, who did not fancy losing to a couple of teenage geeks who had almost certainly been into an arcade more recently than him, just because he wasn't familiar with the controls.

Soon the four were helmeted and wired up to the system, Jason musing that this was a far cry from his day job as an advertising consultant. Suddenly, the cockpit canopies were closing, and he found himself immersed into a desert landscape, the air within the pod seeming more arid by the moment, though he was sure this was just his mind playing tricks on him and, with careful instruction from the automated voice over, he began the tutorial, mastering the tricky action of walking, the running a bipedal robotic suit weighing in at approximately thirty five metric tons. It seemed odd, he mused as the tutorial continued, teaching him the basics of weapons control, to think that the bipedal mecha these simulations had been based upon was designed to replace light tanks on the battlefield. He winced as the tutorial difficulty went up a notch, challenging his ability to multi task as he tried to shoot down missiles with the rapid fire anti aircraft beam cannons, or 'flak lasers' as he was informed they were colloquially known by the troops who used them, whilst using his primary armaments to destroy a squadron of light tanks. Sure, Jason had been a bit of a computer gamer during his school days, but this was close to ridiculous as he fought to move his hands on the control sticks as fast as his mind raced after the simulated missiles.

Observing his progress from a monitor outside, the two game operators looked at one another. This was the first person they'd found who had managed to reach this aptitude level in the tutorial. One of the operators nodded to the other, and a switch was flipped. Now it was time to see what this wonder gamer could really do with a near perfect simulation of the Dervish mechanised mobile combat unit.

Jason, inside the cockpit flinched as the words 'New high score, secret level unlocked', scrolled across the visor of his helmet. Suddenly the arid desert landscape he had been in before was replaced by a frigid Arctic wasteland and, according to the visor on his helmet, he had enemy troops incoming, lots of them. With a confident motion, Jason ran his finger across the weapon select switch, bringing to bear his two eighty eight millimetre beam cannons, also unsheathing the pair of plasma forged diamond sword-blades that had been incorporated into the arms of his machine.

His eyes dropped to the range finder and the radar, thrusters in the back of his mecha turning him to face the nearest enemies as he lined them up in the sights for his big guns. Suddenly, something in his gut seemed to clutch desperately at his heart as he realised that the targets weren't just the obsolete tanks he had been fighting off during the tutorial, they were in fact units identical to his own in construction. Muttering under his breath, he opened fire, nailing one of the two machines in his sights, whilst the other slid aside with something of the agility he had gotten out of the unit in the tutorial stage. A flashing light warned him of incoming energy beams and missiles and, quicker than he realised, he threw his state of the art machine to the dirt and rolled, seeming to activate his flak lasers almost before his finger hit the weapon-select button, to blast a trio of the incoming missiles out of the sky. His vernier thruster pulsed quickly to return the machine to an upright position, and switching back to his beam cannons, he blasted the legs out from under another mecha. Running solely on instinct now, and uncertain in the back of his mind that his hands were actually touching the controls, he surged his mecha forward, letting a pair of missiles collide with the hard-packed snow where he had previously been as he raced across the frozen waste at his damaged foe- turning on a penny as his right hand Plasma forged diamond sword crackled with energy, decapitating the damaged unit as his chest mounted missile pods snapped open with decisive precision, a tone a moment later confirming his first target lock as he began to launch missiles in sequence at the advancing squadron of mecha.

In all fairness, he expected them to evade the incoming missiles and so, as the outer elements of the loose skirmish line broke off and went evasive, he responded, his heavy beam cannons firing into the spaces he expected them to dodge into as their flak lasers stabbed out at the missiles he had launched. He was not disappointed. The skirmish line broke in an instant, with two of its machines simply overwhelmed by his concentrated onslaught of fire-power. On the other hand, one of the central units unsheathed swords as it ducked under an oncoming missile, bringing its vernier thrusters up to high output as it closed on him, weight slung forward by the thrusters as it rolled forward on the toe-wheel of each foot, seeming to skate over the hard packed snow as if it were ice.

His forehead was pouring with sweat as he shifted to mount a counter attack against the oncoming mecha, digging in to the ground with the feet of his machine as he ducked down, and with a great heave of sheer mechanical power, threw the oncoming machine into the ground on the other side of him, his two main cannons pointed almost in opposite directions as he not only fired off a shot to finish the thrown mecha, but also took aim at an oncoming machine from the remains of the skirmish group on the other side. Suddenly, he felt his machine rock as oncoming fire from three separate mecha began to strike him- unlike most arcade simulators, this one simulated the real mecha even closer with systems that shut down as they took 'battle damage'- and in an instant he lost his flak lasers and one of his main beam cannons, with more punishment to come as three separate cluster volleys of missiles were launched at him.

He tried to respond, but he could not seem to move quick enough to get his machine out of the entrapment formation that He had been lured into the centre of. With one more enemy volley of missiles, the simulation was terminated. Jason had been put through far too much to realise it now, but he had been put up against more than 10 mecha of equal power and capabilities, and had accounted for five, despite the fact that he had been out gunned, had no cover to speak of and no formal military training.

He was jolted back into reality by the obligatory 'enter name for high scores table' screen, suddenly realising that his arms and legs felt leaden within the cockpit, as if they had not been used for the entirety of the last- he looked at his watch- seven minutes.

He entered his name, his body still feeling as if it had been replaced by a stone statue, and watched as one of the game operators came over to him. The cockpit canopy was pulled back with as much precision as Jason had come to expect from the operators, and he was informed that the other three had finished the basic tutorial and were ready and waiting if he wanted a head to head match against them.

He agreed, wondering to himself why he had agreed so easily as the cockpit canopy went back down, but with a quick nod from one game operator to the other, that wonder faded as the scenario unfolded before him. Unlike the blank canvases that the terrain of the tutorials had represented, this was a masterpiece of area design, an industrial complex surrounded by forest on three sides and a lake on the fourth, this would provide a challenging combat environment with lots of partial and total cover to give his opponents rather more to hide behind.

Somewhere in the back of his mind Jason felt something that he did not recognise, a sort of almost elation as something seemed to click into place again, and soon he was in motion, sensors set to heat-signature mode because radar was going to be close to useless with all the structures cluttering up his field of view, likely to give radar returns just as strongly as any foe He would face.

He ducked his machine into a warehouse whose shutter was open, settling the mecha into a darkened corner and aiming at the entrance or- even better he decided- the gas cylinders that had been stacked to one side of it in defiance of every piece of health and safety legislation on the planet. Sure enough, like a moth to the flame, one of the other players stumbled in through the warehouse doors. Jason's flak lasers pulsed once, targeted perfectly on the gas cylinders which ruptured in a massive fireball. That would not be enough to destroy his opponent, but it gave him enough cover to stand and get a good shot with both heavy beam cannons, and so he did.

Right, one opponent down and two to go. The good thing here was that the game was a free-for-all, leaving significantly less reason for his remaining pair of opponents to work together against him. Cautiously, he peered out of the ruins of the warehouse entry way, ducking back inside with split second reflexes as a pair of plasma beams crackled towards him, ionising the air around him.

Checking his heat sensors, he determined the location of the new threat, turning to face directly towards it, even through the concrete wall. This would find out how readily destructible the scenery was here, because whilst a massive hole had been blown in the front of the warehouse when he had shot the gas cylinders, that could easily have been designed as a pre-programmed set piece.

Ready to test his luck, he activated his main beam cannons on the primary weapon switch, opening the chest cavity of his mecha to place missiles onto the secondary weapon switch. With a snap decision, his beam cannons fired, blasting a hole straight through the normally sturdy wall. His missiles fired the moment that the smoke cleared- he was certain of it now, his finger wasn't even hitting the trigger by the time his weapons were firing. In an instant he ducked away from the newly made hole in the concrete wall as his opponent turned, his flak lasers being brought to bear upon the incoming barrage of missiles- saturating the portion of ground that Jason had just left with beams of blistering energy and shooting down five missiles. Unfortunately, there had been six missiles launched, and the remaining missile struck just underneath the mecha's cockpit, destroying that opponent in a flash.

The air hummed suddenly as a heavy beam cannon barely missed the back of his mecha. Obviously his final opponent had slipped in through the open entry way whilst Jason and his last opponent had been busy trying to blow each other to pieces. The final mecha, Jason noted as he frantically turned, was walking a little shakily, with battle-scarring around the left-hand knee joint, but it was too close for this to be a proper gun battle, so Jason unsheathed the swords on his mecha, channelling energy into the custom formed diamond blades, feinting low to threaten the already weak knee joint, before slashing high with the other blade to cleave the cockpit free of the opposing mecha, ending the head to head battle.

The screen in his pod flickered off, and the leaden feeling of his arms and legs made its presence felt once again. The two game operators were the very height of activity right at the moment, both shuttling back and forth between pods to ease up canopies, collect and unplug helmets and ease gamers out of the pods and back to standing upright. In fact, Jason thought, if the other three feel anything like I do, there's no wonder all this specialist attention was being lavished upon them. Eventually they got to him, helping him free of the cockpit, steadying him as he wobbled just slightly getting out of the pod.

'Easy now,' one of them muttered in his general direction, 'as far in as you got, it can take quite a whack out of you the first time or so.' He got a glower from his colleague for having been quite so open about the subject.

'Apologies about this sir,' the other offered, although his mannerisms and accent made the word sir sound more like sah, 'trade secrets I am told, but between you and me, if you ever find yourself in need of a job, you may wish to keep this card, because you seem to have an aptitude for some of the specialist equipment involved.'

With that, Jason was handed a business card for the British armed forces, the words 'Joint Command- Mechanised Combat Systems' emblazoned on it underneath a heraldic crest that Jason presumed belonged to one military unit or another.

Chapter Two

Chapter two:

Srassvotar, senior priest-commander of the Hastanjik expeditionary force now clustered in the orbit of Neptune, convened his council of advisers. It had now been an entire worldspin (their equivalent of a day), since his adviser Cranvasstar had proposed that they should change the direction of their holy crusade against heretics, examining for heresy within this star system whilst they searched to find and consecrate their dead.

Now, with his council of advisers assembled, he brought an end to the contemplative vigil he had begun, pronouncing his decision concerning the suggestion of Cranvasstar in this matter. With great gravity, he addressed his advisers in time-honoured fashion:

'I have contemplated this past worldspin the interpretation that Cranvasstar suggested for the sacred tenets in our particular situation,' he commenced, 'that we delay our consecration of system 64 of the star prophet Ssansobal in battle and instead devote our sacred devotions to the discovery both of our missing brethren from the last war, and what spiritual laxities it shall be our duty to root out in this system. I coiled within the central chamber of the Dreadnought's sanctuary, amongst the displayed carvings of the sacred tenets, and there was the true interpretation made known to me. Last worldspin Cranvasstar was blessed with the understanding of the tenets, and did give me counsel in the wisest path. In that wise, shall we approach the third planet with great caution and stealth, giving the hunters of heresy the time to uncover the minds of the inhabitants, to reveal their greatest deviations from the tenets. Then, we shall discover the fate of our fallen brethren and- when the time is right- shall bless the inhabitants of the third planet by cleansing them of their iniquities.'

Srassvotar's proclamation, on balance, surprised none of his advisers, for each had examined their current predicament, looking for another solution that satisfied the requirements laid down within the sacred tenets, coming reluctantly to the conclusion that no other easy solution existed.

Major Rick Shaw, known as 'taxi' by his friends, slumped into his usual chair by the hospital bedside- the very chair that he had sat in at least once a week, every week for the past two years. In the bed beside him, hooked up to a drip and any number of life support devices was the man Major Shaw had come to see, First Lieutenant Saul Gardner. Saul and himself had both been test pilots, those two long years before, for the prototype Seraph series mecha being designed for the Royal Air Force. But, during one of Saul's test flights something had gone disastrously wrong.

Their mission that day had been to test out the functionality of the direct neural combat interface, a piece of proven technology taken from the existing prototypes of the British Army's Dervish ground attack mecha, on the more complex Seraph series mecha. The hope was that the dual mode Seraph- able to transition between a humanoid mecha form designed to fight on the ground or in space and a second form, shaped like a conventional jet fighter for the purpose of atmospheric flight- could be made into a more responsive machine by the use of the direct neural combat interface to immediately translate the thoughts of the pilot into commands for the machine even whilst in jet fighter form, the improved response time hopefully permitting it to outperform foreign mecha (such as the United States' Midway series air superiority mecha) which had a similar quality of avionics.

However, they had not foreseen the problem that would arise that fateful day, for as Saul's plane touched down after the test flight, still being operated solely over the direct neural combat interface, a fluctuation in the test-plane's power supply occurred just after touching down, meaning that the hastily compiled programming that was designed to help ease a pilot back into control of his own body did not properly execute, leaving his neural system still thinking that it was connected to ailerons and braking flaps rather than arms and legs. Saul had been rushed from the airfield straight to the nearest hospital, where he had been put on life support ever since and Rick, needing to punish himself over the whole incident, forced himself weekly to come and sit by Saul's bedside, to be there for him in the hospital as he had not been whilst Saul was in the air.

Rick's mind wandered, tormenting him with failure after failure, drawing him back to the Zimbabwean war of 2057, the place where Rick's luck had run out, or so it seemed. This had been back when the Royal Air Force was still on an equal footing with the Royal Navy and the British Army, and had possessed its own highly individual rank structure. Back then, unlike the pilots in every other air force in the world, he had not held a rank that dated back to when that air force had split off from either the army or the navy, but had been a Squadron Leader by rank (even though he commanded rather less than a full fighter squadron) and had been leading the CAP or Combat Aerospace Patrol over the edges of pacified territory within south eastern Zimbabwe, trying to enforce a no tank zone to protect British forces on the ground, or so he had been told.

The incident replayed itself vividly in his mind, his flight had been about thirty miles away when it happened, a brigade of allied troops, mostly British and American, but with a few South African units thrown in to represent the political structure of this particular military coalition, had been ambushed in force by vastly more armed forces than the Zimbabwean government was believed to have within range. He remembered the tone of panic in the words of the first radio message to come through, the way that the Second Lieutenant who had been stuck in front of the radio had let the panic in his voice carry across the airwaves. The way that the junior officer had not managed to give any true indication of enemy numbers, just said that there were too many- too many even for the professionalism and ability to do the impossible that the British army had become renowned for, too many for the supreme technological provision that the US Army made for even its most incompetent soldier.

He called in the matter to his command and control centre on the ground and, before they could give him orders to sit out of it, split his patrol in two, one wing-pair continuing their assigned route, with orders to be on the lookout for any reinforcements heading into the current engagement, whilst he took the other pilot with him into the battle. Wheeling, he set his plane on course, letting the plane kick him back into his seat hard as he went supersonic. Arriving over the battlefield moments later, he cut his speed down to only what he needed and, with what was later described by an army chaplain as the fervour of an avenging angel, engaged the enemy's small cluster of air support, his missiles striking true as he dived and weaved across the combat zone, and when they were gone, he switched to his thirty millimetre cannon and cut through more of the under trained Zimbabwean aviators, only to look back, out of ammunition and barely having escaped from an enemy surface-to-air missile, that his wingman had not been so lucky. Later inquiries determined that the less skilled Flight Lieutenant Jacob Harper had tried to rise to the skill that Shaw had exhibited, following on Shaw's immediate seven o'clock through sort of dogfighting that a pilot survives by luck as much as by skill, finally making the fifth kill of his air force career against an enemy plane shortly before drifting into the path of an air to air missile that Shaw had narrowly avoided, though the same inquiry showed that wreckage from his plane had been responsible for the deaths of seven Zimbabwean infantrymen who had been pinned down by American soldiers in a natural gulley.

Moping in the aftermath of that battle, with the feeling that he had led a man to his death and failed to detect a massive enemy force within his assigned patrol area, Shaw asked for re-assignment, barely noticing when the report came through that revealed the complicity of one of his own commanders, Air Vice Marshal Leonard Groom and a number of other senior RAF staff officers in the incident. These men had, in a bid to convince the government that the newly built Challenger IV tank was unfit for purpose, and that money therefore needed to be spent on vastly more useful jet planes, had been feeding choice bits of information to the enemy, giving intelligence on the location of forces on the ground as if it were a birthday card to a close friend, and slowing air force response times to these crises by carefully arranging the patrol routes to leave gaps that were almost imperceptible, even to someone like Shaw who knew the capabilities of the aircraft running these patrol missions. That incident had resulted in the temporary disbandment of the RAF between 2058 and 2062, with her combat units divided between the Royal Navy and the British army whilst the whole mess of treachery was sorted out in an alarmingly public trial. It was of course, in response to this incident that the United Kingdom chose, rather hurriedly, to return the death penalty to the statute books for the crime of 'military sabotage by personnel of HM Armed Forces', and the guilty members of the air staff found themselves- after various appeals were overturned as quickly as could possibly be achieved- being staked out as targets on an army artillery range, to be terminated by the very service they had betrayed.

Finally, in September of 2062, the air squadrons that had been absorbed into the army were re-established as the Royal Air Force, with an intensive re-structuring of exactly where the boundaries lay between their own units and those of the Army Air Corps- in particular the restriction that prevented the Army Air Corps from owning any helicopters large enough to transport more than about 6 infantrymen plus its own flight crew, whilst the Royal Air Force, in seizing a monopoly on heavier helicopters, had left itself operating a fleet of transport helicopters, their pilots all the while telling themselves the blatant lie that “we are not just some taxi service for the army, you know”.

The process of complex re-structuring complete, the Royal Air Force came back into existence, leaner for years of being run by an army that was significantly more interested in replacing the men, tanks and artillery pieces that been destroyed during their tour in the Zimbabwean theatre, this left the RAF a smaller, leaner organisation, relying on significantly fewer enlisted personnel per serviceable airframe than they had previously. But Major Rick Shaw, army rank now having replaced the fanciful hierarchy of ranks that had existed within the RAF, was still a part of that air force and, decorated for his part in the battle where it all went wrong, all due care and attention was taken to putting him to effective use as a test pilot, until that day in 2067 when it had all happened again. For a few months, he knew, he had been impossible to live with, He had even driven his wife away from him with his alternating between self pity and bouts of incandescent rage. Unable to continue facing life as a test pilot, he ran from his demons again, taking a desk job in the transportation corps calculating airlift payloads, clocking in just enough flight time to stay qualified for both transport and combat aircraft (and keeping his flight pay), just in case he was called to the field of battle again because, regardless of his nightmares, he kept telling himself that He would have the courage to put his life on the line when it was asked, even if some days he did not believe himself.

Sitting by Saul Gardner's bedside seemed to be the one thing that kept him from flying off the handle completely, though at times even that was pretty marginal. In fact, he had to wonder on some of his darkest days if he wasn't just waiting for another major war to come along, so that he sign himself up as a combat pilot again and go out in a blaze of glory fighting against odds big enough to guarantee that he would not come back. It was odd, he mused, having the ability to go head to head against tanks and supersonic attack aircraft, and yet running in terror from your own shadow, and yet that so often seemed to be the way the world worked. The strong laughed in the face of the things that could so easily turn round and be the end of them, and yet trembled at things that either could not or would not harm them.

Rick shuddered violently, the room seemed to be closing in around him, the air around him and his unconscious comrade getting to oppressive to breathe, and so, hurriedly, he left, almost fleeing through the corridors, his duty to his lost comrade done once again.

I'll leave it at that for the moment, because I shouldn't swamp you any more than this without warning (also, the next chapter took me over the 50000 character limit for a single post) I do, however, have another eleven chapters worth, so I'll post them once it seems appropriate.

Edit: Just realised I forgot to title the story... This has now been fixed.

Mercenary Pen
2010-02-24, 08:25 AM
Hmmm... More than thirty views with no replies. Unless I'm told otherwise, I'd assume you're waiting for the rest of the story- or at least as far as I've got- before responding...

Chapter Three
Chapter Three:

Colonel Jane Watson strode through the halls, her bearing arrogant, as if daring anyone to get in her way and have her bring them up on charges. She worked in military intelligence, and had been assigned to the seemingly insignificant role of intelligence liaison to the Ministry of Defence's Joint Space Warfare Operational Planning Centre, one of those useful places where the Army, the Navy and the Air Force could simply re-assign inconvenient senior officers, sweeping them quietly out of the way of their own pet projects. Now, with the New Year Discovery of 2064, as it had become known, the average layman would have thought that the Joint Space Warfare Operational Planning Centre might have rose to some sort of prominence, garnering an increased share of the military budget and an increased number of personnel who were actually expected by their superiors to achieve results as and when we were invaded from outer space- and from the outside, it might even seem that in the years between 2064 and 2069 this had actually happened. Certainly the Centre's budget had been increased, and new and higher-ranking officers had been injected into the facility, as well as non-commissioned security personnel but- in Colonel Watson's experience- this was all an elaborate charade. The armed forces had merely latched onto the increased possibility of a threat from beyond our solar system as a reason to appropriate more government funding (not all of which was being poured into the Space Warfare Operational Planning Centre), and to accelerate the process of shunting aside the politically inconvenient staff officers of their respective services, the lower ranking commissioned officers who were unlikely to advance much further within their services.

This meant that morale was pretty low, work ethics were rare, and even the most urgent of projects seemed unhurried, with generals and admirals alike perfectly willing to wait the extra hour, day or even week for the straightforward report that, in a time of war might have been the difference between defeat and victory. Colonel Watson was, perhaps the main exception to this rule of indifference, taking her job almost too seriously, regardless of the fact that She would prefer to be somewhere that her skills were more valued. Known throughout the centre as the Iron Maiden (though anyone of lower rank she caught referring to her by that nickname- or indeed by any nickname- earned themselves time in the stockade or doing interminable punishment duty), she had oversight of a small staff of other similarly inconvenient people from within the military intelligence sector. Running a very tight ship, she demanded the highest standards of analysis for every relevant intelligence she could get access to, ranging from terabytes of recorded astronomical data from satellites and observatories around the world to the latest technical blueprints available on British and foreign space-capable combat vehicles.

However, being the skilled intelligence officer that she was, Colonel Watson had other sources who provided her with intelligence outside of her official purview, ranging from information passed under the counter from intelligence units analysing data from the latest international trouble spots to information from across the rest of Britain's headquarters establishment, such as the way in which policy was shifting within each individual service, or the senior officers due to be transferring from one advantageous headquarters posting to another, and this was not a matter of gossip to her as it might have been to another officer, it was in fact a matter due the gravest and most careful analysis. Indeed, these sources of information were the main reason she was walking the halls at this particular time, for she was led to understand- by one of her more reliable sources- that in light of recent retirements within the Joint Space Warfare Operational Planning Centre, a few new senior staff officers were due to be brought in. However, her information led her to believe that some of these would not be the usual crop of inconvenient personnel, but that some of them- officers with service records which suggested they were going to go very far indeed- had actually specifically put in for transfers to the Centre. Tucked under her arm, she had a set of about eight identical briefing dossiers for those personnel that- as staff officers- would actually require one, though her contact had not given her precise information either on who would be transferring in, or how many they would be.

She turned the corner, almost walking into an officer she did not recognise. He was a slightly portly man, with the years of soft and advantageous living back here in Britain since his last deployment having been a little too comfortable in her critical eye. His full head of hair was mostly black, though veins of grey ran through it at the sides.

'Sorry about that,' he offered, 'the rest of these halls seemed so deserted, I wasn't expecting to run down somebody.'

She looked into his eyes, taking in his face for the first time now that she tore herself away from an intelligence analysis of the rest of his body- and what a contrast. Where he had grown a little broader across the stomach than before as a result of easy living, his face- whilst victim to the same treatment- was rather harder underneath, showing a man with great determination, a man whose presence on the battlefield could be- and probably had been, she realised- both inspiring and terrifying.

'General Harvey Welsh,' he offered, also offering his hand.

She offered her own hand in return, 'Colonel Jane Watson, military intelligence liaison.'

This would be a good step in the right direction, she decided, for General Welsh had built up quite a reputation for himself when he had to step into the duty of commanding all coalition troops within the Zimbabwean theatre after the disastrous battle that led to the revelation of RAF treachery killed off the American senior general. This was the man who, according to some sources, had almost single-handedly salvaged the war effort after the debacle that had brought about the death of his American predecessor. In fact, her sources credited him with such instincts for- and attention to- detail that she wondered idly if he was analysing her as intently as she was analysing him.

She broke down first after they'd shaken hands and stared at each other a moment longer. Taking a dossier from underneath her arm, she proffered it to him earnestly.

'I heard we had a few new officers due in so I prepared these dossiers on the Centre, you may want to have a good read of this,' she suggested to him, being careful not to tell this canny soldier what he should be doing in so many words.

'Thank you very much,' he replied, 'though I am sure it'll go alongside the dossier I get from the person who would be officially assigned to make certain that I and my staff get properly oriented.'

'Hate to be the bearer of bad tidings sir,' she interjected, 'but if you wait for the official dossier, well, you could be waiting quite a while sir. It's all in the dossier I've just given you.'

'I see,' he said, his voice now developing a slightly sharper edge, 'in that case, I'll read this, and weigh it against my own evaluation very carefully. You say the others are also dossiers for members of my staff?'

'Yessir,' she replied, the tone of his voice bringing rigidly to attention.

'Then I'll take them, because they're due to report to me first thing when they get here, though I'll need a few more copies. I imagine your sources did not tell you how many officers would be coming in this latest transfer.' He noted her surprise, 'Oh yes, I've heard enough about the trade in internal intelligence between Headquarters postings to know what information gets passed on and what most commonly gets left out. I'll need another six copies of this dossier.'

She snapped off a quick salute, surrendering to him her copies of the dossier and turning back the way she came, determined to get General Welsh the extra copies of that dossier as quickly as she could, because whilst he wasn't yet in charge of the Space Warfare Operational Planning Centre, he was easily the man best qualified to take charge of the facility, and if she were to alienate him, she could pretty much kiss the rest of her military career goodbye.

Meanwhile, at a construction facility that had developed in Rosyth, Scotland- replacing their traditional shipbuilding industry, Doctor Gareth Taylor overlooked the latest project, one of the first orbit-capable Cruisers being made available to the British armed forces, a 400 metre long spacegoing vessel that would rely on the latest technology to get airborne, let alone reach orbit, but which would provide Britain with the possibility of a proper capital ship presence in space, should one ever be needed. Unfortunately, this was one area where Britain could not help but lag behind, for geographical constraints forced them to convert an old naval shipyard to build their first space warships- imposing a maximum length upon the vessels even after the years of work that had been done to extend the existing dry-docks at Rosyth. Thus, whilst the Americans built kilometre-long battlecruisers in the middle of the Nevada desert, and the Indian and Chinese governments massed millions of labourers to clear stretches of jungle to put in their own similar sized shipbuilding capabilities, Britain was hamstrung in this endeavour by being a small island- a small hilly island with too many people living on it for the purposes of this latest stage of the space race.

However, Britain did have one small advantage- Cambridge university. A haven for scientific advance, Cambridge had managed to get an undeniable lead in research into the technologies that could be discovered from the wrecks of the two alien frigates, managing barely to outstrip the American research departments working on similar projects- snatching patents for technologies out of American hands sometimes as little as three days before they were due to make a particular breakthrough public, and whilst the Americans had the resources to throw ever increasing sums of money at this field of research, the amount of patent money they were having to send to Britain was steadily increasing, and was being invested- at least in part- back into further British research.

As a result of this, Britain had managed to lay out blueprints for one of the most advanced of the new breed of spaceborne cruisers, using modular technology heavily so that as new advances were made, they could be quickly incorporated into the design by phasing out the modules that they replaced. The upshot of this was that the British vessels under construction were maintaining pace a little better with the changing face of technology, and while they might not have the sheer gunnery of an American or Chinese battlecruiser, or the payload of a Carrier built by those same nations, what they did have was state of the art and was being tested for reliability as best it could be, whether it was the artificial gravity circuitry or the hyperspatial beam-accelerator coils that increased the effective range of the main plasma cannons.

But today, Taylor mused, was special. Today would see the launch of Britain's second completed space cruiser, the HMSS Swiftsure, whose drives would soon launch her into orbit to undertake her shakedown cruise alongside the already complete HMSS Sovereign. Moreover, in a major upturn for the books, the first of America's larger warships had suffered construction delays and wasn't due to be commissioned for another month and a half, with the other major powers lagging even further behind, apart from the French, who had launched the 550 metre long Jean D'Arc last month, but were having technical difficulties, and had been forced to bring her back to Earth for repairs. Beyond that, Rosyth had another six Sovereign class vessels in varying stages of completion and, while Britain might not manage to maintain any sort of equilibrium with the world's superpowers for very long, she would at least contribute to global defence, should an enemy come to visit from beyond the stars.

Aboard the Hastanjik flagship, Hesstonar, who was currently in ascendancy amongst the hunters of heresy, was concerned. The indicators relating to the third planet all seemed to add up wrong as far as the tenets were concerned. For one, the planet's inhabitants had not formed together into one nation, in the way that the tenets stated that even the foulest infidel would do, it being considered a fundamental natural law that creatures band together for defence against that which is alien to them.

From transmissions, Hesstonar had determined that the people of the third planet had a number of different languages, the most prolific of which were now quite a way through being translated, chiefly those called English, Arabic and Mandarin, though Spanish, French and Portuguese were not far from major breakthroughs, especially since they'd intercepted those language lesson programmes. That was another thing, however, these creatures were an example of a storyteller culture, there was no doubt about that, but the puzzling thing was the extent that they had taken storytelling to, devoting significant resources to making stories available to their population, and beyond that, telling the little stories to themselves that denied the reality of their existence, ranging from 'if two pills will take some of the pain away, seventeen will do a whole world of good,' to 'no, if I sell out my billions of dollars of stock in company X it won't prompt others to do the same, triggering the collapse of the entire system.'

However, there were an increasing number of more immediate problems, such as the small warships being launched into orbit by the various individual nations- there was that concept again- whose profiles on the flagship's sensors suggested they might just have enough technology to pose something of a threat. On top of that, he had discovered the existence of literally dozens of separate belief systems which, whilst heretical, kept them perpetually divided, unable to achieve any kind of unity for more than a short period of time, though that short period of time did seem to vary wildly depending on the circumstances.

He shook himself, snapping himself out of his reverie. He had a meeting to attend with Srassvotar and Cranvasstar to discuss the progress he had made with the task they had set him. He had to find some way of explaining his findings accurately to them without them calling for an immediate confrontation, one that would prevent him getting to the bottom of this race whose very existence seemed to defy the sacred tenets themselves- and he had to do it quickly.

Chapter Four
Chapter Four:

Jason Stone was having a bad day. He had managed to miss his first- supposedly early- bus, and had thus ended up arriving three quarters of an hour late for work on a day when he had been due for a meeting first thing. On top of that, He had been assigned the difficult task of fielding phone calls from his bosses ex wife, who was in the middle of custody proceedings for their children, and was the sort of person who felt it was her inalienable right to phone him up at all hours of the day to harangue him- needless to say that the seventh time he had to tell her that he wasn't there, despite the fact that Jason could see him behind the glass panels that separated his office off from the rest of the floor, he did blow his stack just a little. Needless to say, after that particular incident, he was called in to be told off by the same boss he had to pretend officially wasn't there any time his wife called, despite the fact that She had taken the time to call him at home and found out he wasn't there either, each and every time.

If that wasn't bad enough, there was also the fact that he managed to submit not one but two important reports significantly late, slowing down the business of other, more important people within the company, managed to insult the head of human resources over lunch without meaning to- and within her hearing- causing her to glare at him and walk off in a huff with a look that said 'just you try getting the holiday dates you actually want now' and accidentally shredded an important invoice.

His mind kept drifting back to the incident in the arcade, and to the business card inside his wallet that lurked behind his almost unused local library card. In fact, he kept asking himself, 'is life in the military going to be better than this, because walking out is looking more and more attractive by the moment'. Finally, at the end of the day, when he was approached to work who knows how many hours of unpaid overtime so that an urgent project could go out on time, he snapped, hurling a company laptop at the office window in frustration, throwing a rude hand-gesture at his boss and walking out, not caring what any of his colleagues thought of him at that point. In all likelihood, given what had been said at the arcade, he would not even be asked for references in this new career, and would not need to worry about being docked pay, because he suspected the military would provide him with room and board.

Making his way home, he eventually got in at about half past seven, finding a long and vitriolic e-mail in his inbox from work, stating that they considered him persona non grata, were docking his entire accumulated paycheck in lieu of notice and would not be providing him with a reference when he looked to find another job. Well, he thought to himself, that's just fine- in fact, it's just what I expected. With his e-mail fired up, he started a new message, pulling the flimsy business card from his wallet, noting that the cheap ink it had been printed with had started to come off, leaving traces of itself upon the library card he never used, behind which the card had been concealed for lack of a section of its own to inhabit within his wallet.

Luckily, however, the e-mail address was more or less intact, and he quickly typed it into the window, then tried to coherently arrange his thoughts to write the rest of the e-mail without just spewing random thoughts and what have you at whoever ended up reading the e-mail. Finally, setting his thoughts in order, he wrote the e-mail, sending it off and going to make himself something to eat. An hour later, when he checked his computer again, he found a return e-mail, short and to the point, it told him to get himself to Paddington railway station by 10am the next morning where He would find a soldier in combat fatigues standing outside the entrance to the station concourse who would take take him to their offices for an interview prior to enlistment, after which he would have a few days liberty to set his affairs in order before he had to show up and start his training.

In a hurry, he spent the rest of the evening making arrangements with friends and relatives to form provisional arrangements to store particular items of his stuff, handle the sale of his house in his absence if need be, and so forth.

The following day, he was up on the dot of seven, not needing to make it through the commuter rush into the city of London during the morning rush hour. Instead, he waited until about eight thirty before setting off, taking advantage of trains that were almost out the other end of the commuter rush to occasionally get seats on his way to the assigned rendezvous at Paddington station. Finally, he arrived at the station and, racing up escalators that were getting down to the stage of being half-empty, headed for the entrance to the station concourse, which he finally reached at about three minutes to ten.

'Took your time,' the waiting soldier responded when he introduced himself, 'not like I have anywhere else to be now, is it?'

Jason apologised, only to be met with a 'don't worry about it,' in return, followed by the statement that He would get used to it soon enough.

The waiting soldier led Jason to a small army Land rover, which they drove out of Paddington's station car park, out of London heading west, and towards Reading for a way, eventually arriving at an old stately home which had been taken over by the military as the headquarters of the Joint Command- Mechanised Combat Systems.

Presumably, Jason thought to himself, the base where Britain actually kept its mechas was somewhere else, because he certainly could not imagine that those state of the art machines were kept in these beautifully manicured grounds, even with all the rolling park lands that would be available for training exercises without having to leave the traditional estates that this particular stately home came with.

Hurriedly, he was rushed inside and taken through the winding corridors of the building to a second floor anteroom where he was asked to wait until someone came for him. All fairly standard interview procedure, he told himself.

A few minutes later, a call came through, and the soldier on the reception desk stood and addressed him, “the General will see you now.”

With that, he was ushered through into an office down the next corridor, where a sign on the door stated General Michael Marsden.

He entered the office at the prompting of his guide, and was offered a seat by the general. He tried to offer a salute as he sat down.

The general chuckled, 'that's not quite how it goes, but we can work on that. The gesture is appreciated though.'

The interview went well, such as it was, and before Jason knew it, he was asking about his fatigue in the arcade simulator. This was, he was informed, due to the direct neural combat interface, a system used in both the Dervish and Seraph series mecha in British service, as well as variants of the system being used in the mecha of other nationalities. Basically, the system took a direct neural interface from the pilot to cut reaction times, but basically took over from the pilots arms and legs, almost switching them off whilst the mecha was in use to attain military superiority. However, and here came the kicker, the real difficulty did not come from the fact that your arms and legs were almost out of use, but from the fact that your brain was deliberately re-focused away from them mechanically, because if the re-transition to using your arms and legs did not happen properly, you could end up hospitalised, unable to break out of the temporary conditioning your brain had been put through. From the sound of the General's voice, he knew of experiences where this had actually happened, but Jason did not have the courage to press the issue any further.

As things stood, He would be given ten days to get his affairs in order and report for duty- and at this stage he was given the address of the Aldershot base where He would be assigned for basic training.

In what felt like a blur, he was returned to London, and not just to Paddington station where He had been picked up, but in a rare moment of generosity from his driver, the same soldier who had picked him up that morning, direct to the doorstep of his north London suburban house.

Chapter Five
Chapter Five:

When it began, Jason's military training was perhaps one of the biggest shocks to his system that he had ever undergone. The early morning wake up calls, the physical exertion, the return to classroom studies after being three years out of university, all served to make the experience that little bit more challenging for him, that little bit more difficult to adjust to, no matter how hard he tried. Some things, such as the technical side of his studies, he showed an aptitude for, others, such as his studies on the rules of engagement and the Geneva conventions, he knew He would have to learn, whether he wanted to or not, because those were the ways a soldier knew he had done his duty and engaged the enemy legally.

But the real difference between the office job He had come from and the army camp where he was now, was the sense of purpose to what they were doing. The people who surrounded him were not just in it for the money, some sort of advancement perhaps, but certainly not the money. They were a pretty mixed bag, destined for just about any part of Britain's armed forces you could care to mention, and perhaps a few you could not, but all late arrivals age-wise and in need of basic combat instruction. But Jason focussed upon what he was being required to learn, and even managed to hold his own in the unarmed combat instruction, despite the fact that the last fighting of any sort that He had done had been a few months of karate lessons where He had just about managed to qualify for his first belt upgrade, and then dropped out to take guitar lessons instead.

Some of the time, he did not know whether he was coming or going, what with all the different things he had to master within the few weeks allowed, but other times he felt so elated with his progress that he felt like he was on top of the world. As a sergeant had told them the day he arrived for training, 'sometimes this'll feel like the most thankless and pointless thing you'll ever do, certainly the most foolish, but you live for the other times, because they're the times that make all the sleepless nights, the moments of gnawing terror, and the times where your conscience doesn't let you live with yourself seem to have meaning.'

At that precise moment, they were on the small arms firing range, practising their marksmanship. Jason wasn't as good at this as He had led himself to believe he was, because aiming the guns of a mecha with a machine that read his mind was apparently rather easier than aiming an assault rifle with your bare hands in the chilly, early morning air. They had been up and about since false dawn, an hour before, and now, behind the targets in the east, the sun was rising, the changing lighting conditions putting more than a few of his comrades off their shots. He aimed at the target, trying to keep his eyes on the target and not upon the rising sun overhead. His target, at the other end of the range, was a kevlar-plated mannequin crouching on the concrete slab that it had been bolted to. With a sudden sense of purpose, he straightened for a moment and fired, the local birds scattering into the sky as he chambered his next round into the semi-automatic rifle, his shot taking the target in the left shoulder.

'Well done Stone,' came the voice of the training sergeant over his earpiece, 'I am beginning to wonder whether we might actually make a soldier out of you yet.'

For this particular training sergeant, that was high praise indeed. The process continued until each trainee had emptied a full three rifle-clips of munitions down the length of the range, and most of the targets, armoured or no, looked as if they had been murdered with a machine gun with the number of holes now in them. It was getting better, they were now hitting their targets about two thirds of the time, and whilst on the battlefield that wasn't going to be nearly enough (especially since most of the hits they managed were very unlikely to be fatal) it was much better than where they'd started, with some of their number- Jason included- only getting one lucky hit out of the three issued clips of ammunition, and in Jason's case, his lucky hit had split the target dummy's finger. That was progress for you, the difference between hitting a man's heart and hitting his finger could mean all the difference in the world in an actual battle, and yet it was proving hard, even with intensive training for Jason to hit the one rather than the other.

Elsewhere, Vice-Admiral George Mercer sat in the command chair on the bridge of the HMSS Sovereign, impassively staring at his latest orders. Evidently Britain had done a deal with the United States Government to lend the use of both Sovereign and Swiftsure to assist with putting up American orbital defences. Specifically, these would be docking satellites to which the American Air Force would keep attached entire squadrons of unmanned space combat pods, capable of potentially swarming both Sovereign and Swiftsure at the same time considering the number of pods that would be going into space to await activation in this first wave.

But, America had, as yet, shown little aggression towards Britain, even after the ending of Britain's historic 'special relationship' with the United States in 2049 after the American president of the time, shortly before being ousted from office in the election, managed to refer to Britain as 'a nation of ignorant, unamerican savages' on live television- which had, understandably resulted in Anglo-American relations being rather frosty for the next few years. Therefore, despite his trepidation, Vice-Admiral Mercer gave the order to remove the ship from orbit, descending into the atmosphere with a sharp eye to the ship's re-entry angle and on course for a designated landing point in the sea off the coast of Florida.

Americans, he thought to himself, it'll take a near miracle to get them to move all their space operations away from Florida, despite the fact that they no longer need to be as close as possible to the equator to reach orbit. He had hoped, when he started reading the orders, that He would be asked to land somewhere near the American's space battlecruiser factory in the Nevada desert, but perhaps they were so lacking in confidence of their spacegoing warships that they did not want the crews of Britain's fully functional star cruisers going near their still-unfinished ships. Whatever the reason, Mercer had his instructions, and he wasn't going to cause an international incident just now because he wanted a look at the ships his American counterparts would have command of.

His crew had all come from the Royal Navy, and knew their way around the procedures for operating a warship in and out of combat. He reminded himself of that because, with the growing emphasis on inter-service cooperation, some of the crewers aboard Sovereign's sister ship Swiftsure were not from the navy, coming instead from an Air Force background, though to make things easier for Swiftsure's master they had been temporarily commissioned at equivalent Naval rank. It was the little things that made the difference though, and Mercer knew that he could trust his entire crew to do their jobs properly and professionally, regardless of the stress they were under- he wasn't as certain of Swiftsure's crew in some of the key places. For example, in most of the readiness trials that Sovereign and Swiftsure's respective crews had run, Sovereign's crew had managed to achieve something of an edge over the crew of their sister ship, ranging from the twelve second lead in getting to full-alert readiness from stood down, to the marginally greater accuracy in targeting drills.

But whatever his professional preferences, Swiftsure's crew was only marginally behind his own in capability, and was- according to his instruments cutting into the upper atmosphere on a textbook descent from orbit only slightly behind his own vessel. Her mission, the same as his own, would see her splashing down in the Atlantic ocean just off the Florida coast, but due to her prior orbital position, he knew she was going to take longer to reach the designated landing zone.

'Helm,' he said, his voice sounding indulgent this time rather than his usual firm order, 'suggest we ease up on the speed slightly and let Swiftsure come alongside, see if we can't arrange for the Americans to have a little demonstration of formation flying with these massive crates.'

'Yes sir,' came the grinning reply from Sovereign's senior helmsman, a man who had served in both the main navy and the fleet air arm, and was probably one of the best men in the world to be trying complex manoeuvres with a ship as big as this.

Calling the other ship up on the radio, with their encryption active, the two commanding officers, a Vice-Admiral and a Rear-Admiral respectively agreed the plan, vetoing an atmospheric gunnery drill, before handing over the comm channel to their helmsmen, who quickly decided on the programme of aerobatics they would push the ships through, and when they'd start. Sovereign's helmsman took the lead in planning the routine, as the more experienced of the two, but was careful to accommodate the skill level of his opposite number aboard Swiftsure into his calculations, trying to be certain that the manoeuvres would be easily achieved by both ships.

Then it began, with a synchronised loop the loop, the artificial gravity systems on both ships whining into overdrive to not only provide their own gravity but negate the gravitational pull of the Earth which would otherwise have thrown hundreds of crewers against bulkheads throughout the loop. Coming out of that, the two ships slid into an under over spiral, the ships maintaining a proximity of ten metres to one another, the pilots grim faced with concentration as the proximity alert sirens went on for long and painful minutes. Finally, when they were certain that enough of the crew of the American aircraft carrier sent to meet them had seen the display, they rose in a steep almost vertical climb, splitting apart and rolling to horizontal before slowly drifting down on their launch and landing drive engines to a textbook perfect vertical landing.

Helicopters were launched from the carrier, landing upon the two British star cruisers to collect the Admirals- and some of their staffs- for a reception dinner that the commanding officer of the American carrier had arranged. By the time that the British flag officers came aboard, the American forces had quickly cleared their flight deck of anything other than essential equipment, and arrayed a formal honour detail to welcome the visiting officers aboard.. With columns of personnel neatly laid out either side to form a corridor of people, two American staff officers started forward towards them, one the Naval Officer who was presumably held command of the carrier, the other wore the dress uniform of the United States Air Force, so they assumed he had been sent to oversee safe delivery of the American weapons systems they had been assigned to deliver.

The naval officer of the pair stood to the fore, and handled the subject of introductions as he led them away from the helicopters to somewhere they could actually hear themselves talking- something rather more difficult in the presence of still active helicopter engines.

'Welcome aboard the U.S.S. Obama gentlemen, I am Admiral Giuseppe Friedman, current commander of this ship, and my colleague here is Brigadier General Cole Martaine of the US Air Force, as you may have already guessed, he's been sent to oversee the packages that you gentlemen will be delivering.'

They were ushered inside and the honour guard dismissed, the helicopters that had brought them lifting off from the carrier's flight deck to collect their cargo from the base on land where the satellites had been laid out, with their unmanned attack pods already attached, the sheer number of them being more than sufficient to overwhelm even the massive flight deck of the American super carrier. They exchanged small talk over the course of the meal, exchanging harmless details of former postings, with talk of such things as the rooster a group of pilots had smuggled into the compound of one American air base which gave the base's command staff a bit of a shock early one morning, or the time that one of the British officers, a Lieutenant Commander aboard HMSS Swiftsure, had had his bed removed from his quarters, whilst he was asleep in it and left on top of a derelict submarine in the middle of Portsmouth harbour.

All the while they were exchanging these little, insignificant details that each other could take the time to laugh about, a fleet of helicopters were ferrying back and forward with the precious cargo of American satellites, the professional crews of Sovereign and Swiftsure, who had been left orders by their commanding officers, getting these stowed into the ships' cavernous space deployment bays with their deadly cargo of unmanned attack pods already attached.

An aide approached the American Admiral, relaying a message to him from the carrier's bridge.

'Gentlemen,' the Admiral announced, 'Our latest intelligence tells us that the Chinese have just launched their first eight Star Cruisers a few minutes back. These were, it appears smaller ships constructed in naval dry docks at Hong Kong, and are about three hundred and fifty metres in length.'

Soon after this, the reception broke up, with the two British flag officers being returned to their commands, though, at the request of the American government, they took with them Brigadier General Cole Martaine to oversee the deployment of the satellites.

The take off went without a hitch as soon as the helicopters that had carried the last satellite aboard had flown clear of Sovereign's path of ascent, and they were soon accelerating out of the atmosphere with their deadly cargo. All this notwithstanding, Vice-Admiral Mercer was getting an impression of Martaine and, in his professional opinion, there could be a lot worse men put in charge of America's primary space deterrent, though he suspected that, once the Americans started putting their own Star Battlecruisers into orbit, they would like Britain be sending up members of the admiralty to take charge of those ships, at least at first.

The deployment of the satellites, whilst slow went without technical or diplomatic hitches, with the Chinese not choosing to contest the deployment of American defence satellites, though this might have been because six of the satellites had already been deployed and brought online, tipping the military balance of power outside the atmosphere in favour of the Americans, at least for the time being.