Sunday Serialisation – Back Paige. Chapter twelve, part two.

At eighteen hours twenty, a proximity alarm sounded on the bridge of the Clive Pillmore. The sensors pointed to a number of objects having appeared less than ten kilometres off the port bow.

“Let’s take a look,” Ishmael said.

The large display showed the view from the port-side cameras. The view was clear. Suddenly, standing alongside there appeared a ship about half the length of C-pill. It was sleeker and had a more business-like, or at least meaner aspect. Looking like something from one of the more evil Star Trek empires it carried, seated on its upper surface between the missile bays and laser banks, six smaller craft that were as sleek as the infamous Nubian Royal Starship used by Queen Amidala of the Naboo [Hang on. Isn’t that the third of the cake-made ships mentioned in Chapter 3?].

“We’re being hailed,” the comm officer said.

“Acknowledge and display,” Andrea said.

Joan’s face appeared on the monitor. “Hiya, Andy. You are there? Can you unhide for me?”

Ishmael nodded as Andrea looked at him. He switched the ship’s SEP module to ‘visible’.

“Thanks, Andy. Merry says you’re expecting me.”

“Well, yes, I was. Kind of.”

“Kind of?”

“The admiral informed me yesterday, but I was on-planet when it came in and only saw it an hour ago. We are ready, though, if you wish to come aboard.”

“I’ll be on your pads in two.”

“How will you manage that? Our pads only link with Packway.”

“Pass-through. Packway will bounce my energy to you.”

“You trust that?”

“Why not?” She closed the link.

“Ishmael, send a welcome party to the pad bay, please.”

Five minutes later, the honour guard appeared, piped and escorted onto the bridge Rear Admiral Joan Weinberg and her ship’s master, Commodore Gertie Elliott.

“What do you think of her?” Joan asked Andrea.

“Looks good. Tell me about her.”

“She’s the latest iteration RX-class heavy cruiser, HMDSV King Charles V – we call her Chucky – and she’s accompanied by a squadron of six MX-class attack craft. All seven are QBE-equipped. It takes a lot of power to drive those things but, by golly, do they speed up operational decision-making.”

“So why exactly are you here?”

“Mostly for my engineers to fit some upgrades to C-pill. But, whilst we’re here, we can put Chucky through her paces and see what the new capabilities can really do.”

“New capabilities? What are you planning to destroy?”

“Nothing, Andy. Don’t worry. It’s the new scanners I want to try out. They’re supposed to be able to detect life up to five kilometres underground and up to twenty-five kilometres underwater. The deepest in the solar system is the Mariana Trench, but that only goes down to eleven kilometres. I’m hoping you’ve got something deeper here for us to look at.”

“I wouldn’t be surprised. We haven’t been looking at the oceans, and we couldn’t even see the large population on land, because we couldn’t penetrate the forest canopy.”

“We saw a small population centre in the forest as soon as we arrived. Lily, our QBE, named after King Charles the fifth’s queen, Lilian, counted two hundred and thirteen thousand, eight hundred and forty seven by heat signature and life-sign. The forests are teeming with life, too; large and small.”

“I think I like your scanners.”

“We have upgrades for you,” Joan reassured her.

“Come with me, both of you,” Andrea said, “and you, Ishmael. There’s something I want to show you.”

They walked together to Andrea’s office. There, in a display cabinet on a table behind her desk, stood three large and exquisitely detailed tri-metal models: one was a scaled-down but uncannily accurate replica of the Clive Pillmore, one of the Sir Prijs and one of a ship that was sleeker than either of the others and carried, on its upper surface between the missile bays and laser banks, six smaller craft.

“Recognise anything?” Andrea asked.

“That’s Chucky!” Joan shouted excitedly.

“I have to say, she makes C-pill and Sir Prijs look positively antiquated.”

“They don’t need to be that sleek in space. It’s mainly to look like fighting craft. On a diplomatic mission, I’d rather turn up in C-pill any day, but it’d be comforting to know that Chucky and her entourage – KCV1 to 6 – were there in the background if I needed support.”

“So, Joan, what’s our timetable?”

“Team one will upgrade your AI. That should take a couple of days, maybe three if they hit any snags. That will also upgrade your pads, too, as they’re controlled by the AI. Team two will work on your sensors. Again, should be no more than a two-day job. Team three will look at your manufacturing capability and upgrade it to permit manufacture of more robust defensive armaments. You won’t need offensive capability; if our QBEs have instantaneous communication, we can be here within seconds if you need us. Maybe not Chucky, but certainly a team of support fighters which will be happy to submit to your QBE’s command.”

“That sounds good. What think you, Ishmael, from a tactical and engineering standpoint?”

“More than happy with that. As long as the aliens aren’t aware that we have offensive-capable company up here.”

“That’s a good point, Ishmael. Joan, I shall be bringing up a pair of visitors from the planet tomorrow. Can you and your entourage run invisible whilst they’re here?”

“We usually do, the same as you do; it’s the most efficient way to run the SEP. Any reason you particularly want us to now?”

“We are moving gently towards seeking to coexist with them on their planet…”

“Of course. That mission’s still on, isn’t it?”

“Do you know something I don’t, Joan?”

“I’ll brief you later. Flag grades only, I’m afraid.”

“Okay. But can you? Run invisible?”

“We probably won’t need to. I plan to spend two or three days on a sensor survey of the planet, using our new scanning capability. As you know, the normal SEP setting that absorbs light significantly reduces the range of the scanners. I’ll need at least a full day for the oceans alone, and to get maximum effect, I’ll need to be on the minimum SEP setting so I’ll start on the opposite side of the planet.”

“How will you know when it’s safe for you to move into our quadrant?”

“Your QBE will be able to tell Lily as soon as it’s active, and also whether your visitors have left.”

Sunday Serialisation – Back Paige. Chapter twelve, part one.

“What do you mean, Ishmael?” Andrea asked, “Are you suggesting that I can’t offer these aliens the same courtesy they offered us? What does that say about us as a species?”

“No, Admiral. That isn’t what I said. What I said is that the MTS pods, as configured, can only call back those they transited down. You are aware we use the undo function to bring you back up?”

“Yes, of course.”

“All I’m saying, Admiral, is they can’t undo what they didn’t do in the first place.”

“Can’t they be reconfigured to be able to do that?”

“I can’t see how, but I’ll put it on the list to discuss next time Kala Kodash is here.”

“Do that. Meantime, I want to give Fronglad and Granhalf a tour of C-pill. Find me a landing site; I’ll take shuttle one.”

“Of course, Admiral. Meantime, a message came in from Packway during your absence.”

“Any idea what it’s about?”

“I’m afraid not.”

“Okay. I’ll take it in my office. You stay here, I’ll call if I need you.”

Andrea left the bridge and made her way to her office. Although she was disappointed that she wouldn’t be able to bring the Xhwntradin up by MTS, she was secretly excited at the prospect of taking another trip at the controls of her SOPT; something she hadn’t done since coming aboard C-pill. That was less than a decade ago, but it seemed like an eternity, so much had happened since then.

Once in her office, she instructed the ship’s AI to play the message on her wall-mounted monitor. Meredith’s face appeared. Andrea immediately thought her boss looked older than when she last saw her, barely half a year previously, as though the heavy weight of high command was beginning to take its toll.

Meredith started her message. “A lot has happened since you took your ship and crew out of the solar system. The combination of threats from rogue asteroids and from dissident groups mining in the asteroid belt and prospecting on the outer planets’ moons prompted the International Space Council to mandate the formation by the Regiment of what it called a Space Defence Command. That has been done and I have put Rear Admiral Weinberg in charge of it. Near Space has been farmed out to the private sector. The science and technology cadres have done a first-rate job and major developments in spaceship, weapons, AI and cybernetics have come out of it. Things are quiet here now and are predicted to remain so, thanks in large part to the presence in the system of an SDC policing and enforcement wing of seventy MX-class attack fighters equipped with CAG, SEP and MTS, as well as some weaponry you’d need to see to believe.

“Some of the advances we’ve made also have potential to benefit your operation. I have in mind to upgrade your ship’s AI to QBE – quantum based engine [pronounced cube]. It can be given a group of quantum processors, which will offer numerous benefits, not least of which will be the ability, through what they call entanglement – although don’t ask me what the hell that means – to communicate instantaneously with other QBEs with which it will have a special connection. These will be, initially, here in Packway and in Joan’s flagship and its entourage. There are also, linked to that, major advances in scanning technology, which I know you’ll find useful.

“I’ll leave Joan to fill you in on the other advances this alert has prompted when she arrives with you, which is projected to be tomorrow, at around eighteen hours your time. Enjoy, and I hope to see you soon. Transmission ends.”

Andrea sat for a while and tried to assimilate all that Meredith had said to her. Conflict risks in Earth space? That had all been resolved and put to bed almost a century ago, surely? But some of the advances she mentioned were exciting. She determined to find out more about quantum theory and especially entanglement, but…

“Commodore Al-Kawazi to the Admiral’s office,” she announced over the ship-wide comm. Moments later, Ishmael walked through her door.

“You rang, Milady?” he asked nasally.

“When did this message come in?”

“Yesterday afternoon, Ma’am.”

“Why didn’t you tell me it had arrived?”

“Your orders were that you were to be treated as incommunicado except in an emergency.”

“And you didn’t think a message from the Admiral’s office qualified as that?”

“Only if it’s marked urgent. This may have been on a personal matter, Ma’am.”

“Which you would have known it wasn’t, had you opened it.”

“And you wouldn’t have thanked me for opening it if it had been, though, would you?”

“Okay. I suppose not. What’s the time now?”

“Just after seventeen hours.”

“It’s just become urgent.”

“Ma’am?”

Andrea played the message. The last part caused the colour to drain from Ishmael’s face. He put his wrist comm to his mouth and started barking out orders. At the end of it, he turned to Andrea and said, “We’ll be ready, Ma’am. However Admiral Weinberg chooses to come aboard, we’ll give her an appropriate reception.”

Sunday Serialisation – Back Paige. Chapter eleven, part one.

Arriving in her office, Andrea found a priority message from Packway awaiting her. In it, Meredith explained that she was concerned that Patsy could possibly have played a significant role in Henri’s demise. Equally worrying was that as soon as her security officers had tried to apprehend Patsy to bring her in for questioning, she had used her EPHS ability to send them into a trance. At that stage, Miss Pratt was, to all intents and purposes, a fugitive, a potential killer and a most dangerous woman. A general alert was issued, calling on all RSR and civilian staff to be on the lookout for her and to report any sightings. She was not, the bulletin said, to be challenged or even approached.

Of course, Patsy saw the bulletin. She immediately made her way the Meredith’s office, dealing with anyone who tried to stand in her way with a brief, but no less effective for it, flurry of fingers. A total of twenty-four temporarily inert bodies littered the path she took from her quarters to the admiral’s command office. All would recover fully within fifty minutes and be blissfully unaware even of the passage of time during their absence.

Nigel Swann showed her into Meredith’s office. Perhaps showed her in gives him a bigger part than he actually had in her entry to the inner sanctum. He didn’t move as she stormed through the anteroom that was his domain. Once she was in with Meredith, Nigel briefly left his office to don dry underpants and trousers.

“Hello, Patsy,” Meredith said sweetly, “how kind of you to drop in.”

“Do you believe this nonsense?” Patsy asked.

“What nonsense would that be?”

“That I somehow killed DuBois whilst I was back here, two and a half thousand light years away from him.”

“Do I believe you had motive? Yes, I do. You made no secret of your feelings towards him…”

“Yes, but that doesn’t mean I…”

“Don’t interrupt me, Commander,” Meredith bellowed. “So, motive… check. Do I believe you have the means? I do. Your prowess with Enhanced Post-Hypnotic Suggestion is practically common knowledge. We all know how voodoo works; the human mind is weak and can be pre-programmed to do all sorts of things. Witch doctors and shamans have for centuries protected property simply by making it known that anyone who violates it would die within a certain number of days. Those who believe it and transgress will die in that time period. Yes, I believe you do have the ability to kill from this great distance. So that’s motive and means. Only opportunity is left. You spent time alone with Henri. That is established fact. You argued with him. Also established fact. And we all know how quickly you can plant suggestions. Taken together, that sounds like opportunity and makes you a prime suspect. If no other cause of death is established, it could be difficult to defend your position. And, before you say or try anything, using EPHS to disable security personnel does nothing to help your case, so put those hands down. I’m going to confine you to quarters until this matter is brought to a conclusion, one way or the other. Anything to say?”

“Just one thing, Ma’am. I didn’t do it. I didn’t use EPHS to kill DuBois. Yes, I did consider it briefly, I’ll admit to that, but I decided he wasn’t worth the effort. Look. If I were to do anything to him with EPHS it would have been to suppress his arrogance and his bigotry. Believe me, Admiral, it is so much more satisfying to change someone’s outlook, their viewpoint, than it is to get rid of them. Look what we did with that Four No More group.”

“I see what you mean, Patsy. I still have to confine you to quarters, though. I’ll get Joan to recommend someone to defend you, should it come to that, but I’ll be looking for alternative causes first.”

Patsy allowed a pair of security officers to escort her to her quarters and secure her inside.