So, normally I would post a story from the Tales of the Nineteen Galaxies series on a saturday, but I’m afraid that’s not possible as the 31st story isn’t finished (you can blame Matthew Sylvester for that). I’ve just started working on a submission for a Nazi/Undead anthology, one that’s a part of the Tales series (although as with the rest of the series it’s a standalone piece, a random slice of life from the gigantic universe).
Hopefully, Mr. Sylvester (who’s editing the anthology) will forgive me for having it under the Tales banner. I’l keep you all updated as to whether I get into the anthology or not.
Oh, almost forgot! The name of the Anthology is called Raus! Untoten! I probably should try and translate that, but meh! Where’s the fun in that?
So, to make up for the lack of Tales action this week (and, unfortunately, for the next few weeks -you’ll see why, I promise), here’s an introductory extract from the latest of my books, the epic Ghosts of Earth. This is the chapter introducing us to Commander Ubis Vanderhak, and the famous HMS Roland Westwood, named for my late grandad.
O N E
Two boys tumbled through the long weed, giggling and laughing. They were on holiday at last, and they were having fun, neither more than ten years old. Their father was a Navy officer, their mother long gone. They both wanted to be in the Navy like their father and grandfather, and two-dozen generations before them.
They pretended to be Navy officers of old, shooting invisible aliens, and charging through the long grass.
“I want to be an Admiral,” stated one of the brothers.
“Admirals are boring; I want to be a starship captain,” announced the other. “I want to sit in the captain’s chair, and command huge spaceships.”
“Starship captain? Which one: Virgil Barkley of the Polly Jenkins; Jared MkFay of the Forge of Command? Or maybe Jeff Marriott of the H.G. Wells?”
“Nah; I wanna be Captain Brag Franks of the Clementine Andover.”
The younger of the two looked at his older brother.
“Pffft, that’s stupid.”
The younger brother jabbed an accusing finger in the other’s sternum.
The older boy pushed back.
With a cry, the two bundled into the long-grass, bear-hugging each other as they rolled and rolled down the small hillock. They shouted and slapped, and bit each other until something large and boot-like stopped them.
They looked up.
“Fighting again?” their father growled. He was dressed in full uniform, his Lieutenant Commander’s stripes almost glowing in the sunlight. The two brothers both knew what that meant.
“You’re going back to the Navy?” the younger said, a sad tinge to his voice.
He nodded, and crouched down next to them.
“I’m sorry,” he said, though there was no emotion on his face. There hadn’t been since mother left. “My ship is recalling all officers and enlisted for an extended long-range survey mission to the T’Kleth Halo. Your Auntie’s going to be looking after you until I get back, okay?”
The two brothers nodded sadly, and watched their father walk away.
* * *
“Commander?” a voice called. “Commander Vanderhak?”
The officer in question was staring out of the massive viewport, enjoying the view. Fort Zeus was the home of half of the Terran Navy, second only in importance to Delta-Tango (Navy Headquarters). Hundreds of starships were moored here, the bulk of several fleets operating out of the star system.
It was the greatest sight he could have hoped for, with starships coming and going, being repaired, and others being built in the massive construction yards further away. At the centre of the ships were three capital ships, including the super-heavy carrier, HMS Cerberus. There were other ships he could identify by sight: the Enterprise docked close to the observation lounge; the supposed renegade ship Winter Sword leaving the system; and the gargantuan HMS Jupiter –formerly the royal titan St. George– undergoing its final refit before it was finally put into use as a frontline vessel.
At the centre of it all, was a construction dock with a special occupant: the HMS Julie Bartlett, the first of a new class of hybrid warship/explorers. The ship was supposed to be a new direction for the Navy: exploring new worlds instead of patrolling the old ones.
In front of all of them was his reflection.
He was tall, taller than most, a lifelong spacer with a bald pale head, a stern look to his sculpted features, and a blade-thin face. He had wide curious blue-grey eyes that had once been mischievous with youth, but were now tempered by long experience. He stood casually, his officer’s cap tucked under one arm, and his other hand rubbing the stylised stubble he had started to grow since his last assignment.
He was eyeing the new rank tapes on his shoulders when the voice repeated itself again, this time far more incessantly, and far closer.
He sighed, and turned round.
There was a young Ensign standing at attention, her cheeks red with the frustration of not getting his attention immediately. She was very young to his eyes, barely out of the Officers’ Academy on Karmana.
“Sir; Operations Officer West has been trying to contact you on your comms unit. He assumed you had turned it off for some reason.” Vanderhak pulled the unit out of his trouser pocket. The little red light on it was gone.
“Oh, so it is.” He flicked it back on, the red light returning. “What does he want?”
There were other officers in the massive officers’ lounge, glaring at him with contempt. Many of them were sat in one of a hundred sofas or padded armchairs, enjoying a meal or a drink in their off hours. He seemed to have gained their unanimous hatred by simply standing there, as well as their undivided attention.
“Uh, sir. Captain West wanted to inform you that you no longer have to stay here: your new ship just entered the docking facilities. If I may say, sir, he sounded rather relieved.” She pointed over his shoulder, and he turned back to the window.
A holographic overlay set into it produced a green circled that seemed to lock around the distant visage of the ship in question. It was an old Churchill-class battleship, one of the few to survive the Interior Wars, and now a thousand years old. Despite its age, it looked surprisingly in good condition, its blue hull gleaming under the spotlights of the docking stations.
It slid into the docking clamps like a torpedo about to be fired out of its tube.
Compared to the blockier, more advanced starships around it, the battleship was sleeker and longer, from a time when humanity was still a moderately young race in its space-faring history.
A thousand years old, and she’s still beautiful, he thought. Starships had filled his soul from the day he was born, playing with toys as a child, and taking field trips with school to the Proxima Centauri Construction Yards. They were an obsession he still could not break.
He realised belatedly that his thoughts had drifted away again when the young Ensign tapped him on the shoulder.
“What?” he snapped.
“I am sorry Commander, but Captain West requested you report for your new assignment immediately. He was… insistent.”
“Was he now? Desperate to get rid of me, was he Ensign?”
The junior officer blushed, and began to stammer an answer that Vanderhak cut off.
“At ease, Ensign. I am aware of my reputation here.”
Vanderhak just grimaced, and began striding towards the exit, scooping up his kit before making a silent exit, leaving a relieved group of loungers, and a confused and embarrassed young ensign.
It was an uneasy walk through Fort Zeus’ main thoroughfares to his assigned embarkation point. Everybody looked at him like he was the universe’s greatest traitor, sneering at him when they thought he wasn’t looking. He wished he wasn’t looking. It felt like hours had passed when he finally arrived at the small docking control office overlooking the incoming ship.
The 4500 metres long battleship was going through its final docking procedures, its crew mooring the great vessel with a combination of airlock tubes, fuel lines, cargo elevators, and huge docking clamps. Vanderhak noted the name painted on the blue hull of the ship: H.M.S. Roland Westwood. It was a name he remembered from the history books, one of the great battleships that fought at the Battle of Karmana during the last moments of the final Interior War. It had supported the Poseidon at a critical moment, giving the surviving loyalists the chance to turn the tide.
Vanderhak didn’t know how the Roland Westwood had survived a thousand years of service, but he had heard of stranger things. He didn’t, however, know who his new commanding officer was, and nobody would tell him, as if it were some great big cosmic joke directed at him.
He was getting used to the ire directed his way.
He wasn’t entirely sure he blamed them.
He still blamed himself.
The docking controller announced that the Roland Westwood was fully docked, and that Vanderhak’s presence was requested onboard immediately. The repair crews began moving out towards the ship’s hull straight away. Vanderhak watched them move towards a stippling of damage along the ship’s port nacelle; damage from a plasma storm would have been his guess.
He was halfway through the door when the controller called out to him.
“Commander, there’s an incoming transmission from Fort Hera.”
Vanderhak didn’t even turn around. He just said, “Ignore it.” When the controller tried to make a reply, Vanderhak had already gone.
He pushed his peaked cap onto his bald head, and lazily descended the long winding stairs that led down to the docking lounge. It was blissfully empty, and he was grateful for a respite from the accusatory glares. The room was empty of any plush furnishings, just solid metal benches. He didn’t even bother to sit down.
The airlock cycled open, revealing the docking tube behind it. Several enlisted men and women filed out, and a young Lieutenant stepped out from behind them. He snapped to attention in front of Vanderhak, and threw off a starch-pressed salute that was stiffer than a slab of hull plating. His whole manner was starch-pressed and stiff, as if he were born with a solidified spine, or as if he had been trained that way. He was dull-faced, with unexciting grey eyes, and a severely cropped blonde haircut.
He returned the salute, though was somewhat more relaxed in posture.
“Lieutenant Birgiss, sir.”
“I’m assuming you already know who I am. Permission to come aboard.”
“Permission granted, Commander. If you would please come this way, I’ll show you to your quarters, and get you settled in, sir.”
He nodded, and followed the young man back into the ship.
“Never been on a Churchill-class before,” he muttered. They entered the ship through the airlocks, and arrived in a small corridor. The bulkheads were plastered with the same stark white as any other Navy warship, clinically clean and bright to the eyes. They passed several enlisted and officers. Vanderhak was taken aback by the lack of reaction by the passing crew, except for a respectful nod of greeting.
“How has this ship stayed in one piece after a thousand years?” he asked. “The other Churchill-class ships were all decommissioned centuries ago.”
The young lieutenant looked suddenly vacant.
“You haven’t been on the ship long, have you Birgiss?”
“No, sir. I came onboard a week ago when the ship docked at Constant Station.”
“I posed that same question to the chief engineer when I arrived onboard, sir.”
“And what did he tell you?”
“She told me that the Roland Westwood was held together with luck.”
Vanderhak eyed the bulkheads warily. “That’s comforting.”
* * *
Birgiss left Vanderhak so he could attend to his own duties, leaving him outside what the young man had told him was his new quarters. He pressed the door controls, and strode in. The lights were dim, and the room set out in stark fashion.
They weren’t big quarters, though his new position guaranteed that he had bigger quarters than most. The sofa and armchair were sat facing a large screen embedded into one wall, with a small metal table between them. There was a small single bedroom with barely enough room to hold the bed, a wardrobe, and a bedside cabinet. There was also a tiny bathroom with an energy-saving sonic shower. Living space was at a premium, even onboard a starship nearly five kilometres long.
He left the bag on the sofa, and was about to begin emptying it when the intercom chimed. He sighed, and pressed the wall-mounted comm panel’s activation stud.
“Commander,” a young woman’s voice said. “The Captain has requested your presence on the command deck.”
“I’ve only just… Never mind, I will be up immediately.”
He hadn’t even had time to take off his peaked cap.
He strode out of his quarters and into the corridor, attempting to remember the deck plans of the ship from memory. The corridor to his left led down to an officer’s lounge and senior mess, whilst the right led to the quarters of other senior officers as well as guest quarters. The corridor ahead led off to the deck’s elevator cluster.
The corridors in this section were empty: the senior officers were on duty, getting the ship docked, and organising the re-supply and repairs of the ship, something he would be a part of once he reported to the captain.
He stepped into the first elevator.
The elevator hummed gently, almost musically, as it ascended up through the core of the ship to the armoured command spine on the top of the great vessel. Much of the décor was as it always was on Navy vessels, though there were some aesthetically unpleasant choices made to the innards of the Roland Westwood: curved patterns in the structure of the white walls that were at odds with the bearing of a military vessel.
The elevator suddenly jerked to a stop, toppling Vanderhak over onto the floor.
“Command deck,” the elevator computer announced in a sweet innocent voice.
“Thanks,” he groaned.
The doors hissed open, and he found himself looking at Lieutenant Birgiss once again. The junior officer had a smirk on his bland face.
“Problem, Lieutenant?” he growled.
“No, sir. I forgot to mention the elevators were acting up. My apologies.”
Vanderhak sneered at him. The officer just turned his nose up, and walked away without offering the commander any assistance. Vanderhak felt like giving him a reprimand, but wondered if that would do anything to help his position aboard the ship.
Not that my position was particularly great to begin with, he thought, picking himself off the ground. When he walked onto the bridge, there were a few snickers, and the odd amused glance, though the crew managed to keep themselves relatively quiet.
Past the vast windows of the forward command deck, he could see the docking clamps attached to the armoured prow of the ship. Small work pods zipped across above the ship’s hull, repairing any damage the ship’s engineers could not reach from inside the ship.
The bridge was relatively empty: with the ship docked and unmoving, much of the officers and crew were elsewhere with other duties.
He flagged down a Lieutenant Commander with a sad, weary old face. He introduced himself, at great expense apparently, as Arcillion.
“Where is the captain, mister Arcillion?” he asked.
“You just missed him,” the aging officer answered.
“As far as I am aware, this is still a military vessel, and thus there are certain ways to behave onboard such a vessel. There are these little things called regulations and codes of conduct. I know they are a pain, but they are the rules.”
Astonishingly, Arcillion just harrumphed and wandered away, leaving Vanderhak flabbergasted. The remains of the bridge crew were all shrugging knowingly to each other. Vanderhak was about to make a fuss about it, when he realised nobody was paying attention anymore.
He went to the captain’s office off the side of the bridge, and pressed the door chime.
There was no answer.
He turned, and found a yeoman waiting patiently with her hands folded in front of her.
“Sir, the captain just left the bridge minutes ago, but told me to tell you that he would be in the main engineering room.”
“Why didn’t he just comm me?”
“He said it would be more personal like this, sir.”
He grunted, somewhat amused: already, the captain was snubbing him. His new assignment was really starting well.
With a sigh, he stepped back onto the elevator.
“Acknowledged,” the elevator replied. The elevator practically fell down, though he was lucky enough to already be holding onto the railing. It halted just as it had before, though he stayed on his feet, and kept some of his dignity intact. “Main engineering deck,” it announced innocently.
He grumbled, and exited, hoping the elevators were fixed soon.
Composing himself, he was almost knocked onto his rear-end by a charging enlisted man. The big brute –a giant abhuman native of Ar’s Paradise- threw an apology over his shoulder, adding a half-arsed ‘sir’ at the end.
He followed the enlisted man’s path towards a commotion down the large main corridor. There was shouting and swearing, and an almighty clattering noise.
Curious, he silently entered the main engineering room, unwatched. Engineers were running round frantically, seeing to various tasks. They were all wearing duty overalls, though some had the upper half tied around their waists, exposing vests and tee shirts, and even tattoos in some cases.
None of them were happy; red-faced and blustery.
The source of the clattering noise had been someone knocking over a tool locker, and spilling its contents.
Nobody seemed to be paying it any attention.
Vanderhak focused on a figure at the centre, stood by a control console underneath the great shielded Graymanium crystal that powered the massive engines. Three fat gold stripes sat on the shoulders of her duty uniform same as his, but she was somewhat young for her rank.
She was barking orders left and right.
The chief engineer, he presumed.
At first, he panicked that something had gone wrong with the engine, but noticed that the engine crystal and its supply conduits were behaving normally; a simulation then.
And it wasn’t going very well.
Big red warning lights flashed across every computer panel and monitor. The Roland Westwood was from a time before holographic controls were used extensively in day-to-day operations. It was a nice thing to see, even if what was being shown was anything but nice.
The computer announced a cascade failure, and a containment breach, before declaring everyone dead.
The chief engineer shouted a curse that made every member of her crew blush, and then she announced an end to the simulation. Shaking her head, she began reviewing the data. The engineering team, released from the emergency drill, either returned to their duties, or returned to their off-duty activities.
Vanderhak chose that moment to approach her, noting some of the bulging eyes of shock and disbelief at seeing him there. He nodded to a few that passed close by.
“Interesting time to have a drill,” he noted.
“There’s never a good time to have an emergency,” the young officer replied.
“Well put,” he nodded. She still did not look round. “Of course, the ship has only just docked at a friendly port, and I would imagine the captain would be somewhat peeved by you breaking regs like this.”
“The captain believes in being prepared; and it keeps the crews on their toes.”
“They look overworked to me,” he pointed out. Was everybody on this ship as disrespectful and rude as the next person?
She finally turned round, and a frown appeared on her sweat-stained forehead. Locks of long chocolate hair framed a strong, young face, with bright, intelligent blue eyes. She glanced at his rank tapes, and didn’t seem amused, or threatened. Clearly she was used to being the underdog, that or she was simply used to being tougher than others of her rank.
“And what qualifications do you hold that gives you the knowledge to know when engineers are overworked?” She folded her arms defiantly in front of her.
He tried not to smirk.
“I’m Commander Vanderhak, the new Executive Officer.”
Her eyes bulged, and her jaw dropped. She stammered and stumbled over her words, and snapped to attention sharpish, throwing a somewhat disorganised salute.
“My apologies, Commander. I wasn’t aware you had come onboard.”
He sighed, letting go of the frustration he felt welling up in him at the whole situation.
“It’s alright, Commander. At ease; we’re the same rank; there’s no need to salute me for nark’s sake.”
“Commander Edgkin, sir.”
“Edgkin; I’m looking for the captain. One of the bridge crew told me he was down here.”
She shook her head, nervous.
“He was here, sir, but he said he had to visit the medical bay.”
Vanderhak sighed, and strode towards the exit.
The medical bay gave him as much useful information as main engineering had, though he met an interesting character, who was surlier, grumpier, and older than any other doctor he had met in his career.
“What the hell do you want?” the doctor had growled when Vanderhak walked in.
“Er, I was just looking for the captain.”
“I’m a doctor dammit, not a tour guide.”
Bewildered, Vanderhak had left the medical bay, and asked one of the nurses where the captain was, receiving a surprisingly helpful, if somewhat frustrating, answer.
The elevator he was in opened out onto the starfighter hangar deck.
He was directed by a deck crewman to the primary hangar, and found a gaggle of pilots arrayed in a semi-circle around someone in a Navy officer’s peaked hat. He couldn’t see who it was, but assumed it was the captain. He strode across the main deck, far under the gantries where the deck crews worked on the starfighters in their cradles on the ceiling and walls.
Beyond it all was the containment forcefield that held the hangar’s atmosphere in, but let the starfighters in and out safely. Beyond the forcefield were other starships in the distance, all of them of newer, more recent classes.
He narrowly avoided an ammo cart that blasted past at ridiculous speeds, the driver honking the horn impatiently. He quickly made his way towards the pilots and the captain, staying just out of the way of the briefing.
The captain, as it turned out, was just about finished.
“Have a good time during leave,” he said. The pilots all jeered, and fell out of formation, heading off to other places. Vanderhak was dumbfounded when he saw the captain’s face for the first time.
The bearded captain stepped in front of him.
“You must be Commander Vanderhak, my new XO. I am Captain Brag Franks.”
Vanderhak was speechless.
* * *
“Are you alright, Commander?”
Vanderhak realised he was staring gormlessly at Franks.
The tall, thin lifelong spacer regarded him with bemused old eyes, his face wrinkled with both concern and amusement.
Vanderhak gathered his wits.
“Yes, Captain. Sorry.”
He could see Franks was hiding no small amount of mirth, though was keeping it in check like a good captain should in front of his crew.
“Walk with me, Commander.”
Vanderhak fell into step with Franks as the older, taller man strode towards the elevator. They stepped into the car, stiff as boards, neither saying anything until the elevator was moving rapidly towards yet another destination. There was, however, something that had been bothering him since the day he had received his orders to report to the Roland Westwood.
“Sir, if you don’t mind my asking-”
“Why did I select you to become XO?”
Vanderhak nodded. “Given my recent past, sir, and the consequences of what happened, I didn’t think I had much of a life left in the Navy.”
“A reasonable conclusion after what happened to the Phoenix,” said Franks, a serious look on his face. He reached over, and tapped the emergency stop control on the wall of the elevator. The car stopped with a jolt that threatened to once again land Vanderhak on his backside. Thankfully, he managed to stay upright.
Franks removed his peaked cap, and let out a long sigh, leaning against the elevator’s circular railing.
“Are you aware of the Clementine Andover?”
“Yes, sir. She was decommissioned thirty-five years ago.”
There was a pained expression on the captain’s face.
“It was covered up,” he said, fiddling with the rim of the cap. It was a contradiction of the usual picture of a composed and stiff starship captain. Despite Franks having his head dipped, looking at the cap, Vanderhak could see a familiar haunted look in his eyes: it was one he saw in the mirror regularly.
“The Clementine Andover was sent to negotiate a peace between several warring races. The negotiations were organised by a supposedly peaceful local race. Turns out they were the worst of the lot. The ship was destroyed; my crew and I were captured. My surviving crew and officers were all executed. They left me adrift in an escape pod as a warning to the Navy to stay away.”
“Why was it covered up, sir?”
“They never told me.” Franks looked up from his cap. “So now you can guess why you’re here.”
Vanderhak found a sad smile spreading across his own lips as the realisation dawned on him.
“You left the Navy, sir. Commanded a cruise liner for twelve years.”
“What’s that old saying in the Academy on Karmana? You can take the officer out of the Navy, but not the Navy out of the officer?” He pressed the resume control, and the car jerked into a climb again.
“So what now, sir?”
“We’re currently undergoing repairs from an ion storm in the Cryer Nebula. Should only take a day. After that, we’re headed to Marosh for a standard supply run to the locals there.”
Vanderhak looked at his new captain incredulously. Was this what his life was going to be now: supply runs to far-flung barely known worlds? Perhaps he should have left the Navy behind? Perhaps he still could.
“Be good to be back in space, sir.” Vanderhak knew it was a lie as soon as it left his lips. Franks seemed to see through the lie, but either didn’t want to embarrass his new XO, or simply saw no point in having that kind of conversation so soon after meeting.
“That’s the spirit,” Franks grinned.
It was that one little moment that endeared Franks to Vanderhak. He hoped he wouldn’t come to regret staying in the Navy.