Commander Matt Reddy and his crew are afraid it may finally be the end of the USS Walker. Ever since their ship was transported to another world, and they became embroiled in a deadly conflict between the Lemurians and the vicious Grik, the Walker has been taking a pounding. With Walker out of commission for repairs, Reddy takes command of a different ship and joins a desperate battle to block the Grik swarm.
Meanwhile, the humans and their allies face a deadly second front in the Republic to the south. All of Reddy's forces are committed, and there's no turning back. Either they'll win—or lose—everything...
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////// Baalkpan, Borno Capital of the United Homes and Headquarters of the Grand Alliance November 29, 1944
It was a bright, gloriously clear, and pleasantly dry afternoon when Commander Alan Letts, Chairman of the United Homes and currently the entire Grand Alliance, came down to the waterfront to watch their latest achievement, the light cruiser USS Fitzhugh Gray (CL-1), return to port after her high-speed trials. Accompanying him was Surgeon Commander Karen Theimer Letts and all their children (one human and two adopted Lemurian war orphans); Commander Steve Riggs, who was Minister of Communications and Electrical Contrivances, and Henry Stokes, the director of the office of strategic intelligence. A Lemurian aide supported a broad, colorful parasol above them, at Karen's insistence, to protect her husband's sensitive skin. He "sloughed off skin like a snake," in her words, when he burned.
Dozens of Lemurian ministers were there as well, as was almost every member of the legislative assembly representing the various Homes, or "states," in the Union. Their furry pelts and wide, bright eyes were as multicolored as the parasol. Most strongly supported Alan as chairman, as did the vast majority of the Union population, but Alan understood and even sympathized with the fact that, with the war increasingly distant, a disconnected weariness was beginning to set in. That couldn't be allowed to take deep root, because the war was in a critical tipping-point phase, and he was fully aware of how quickly it could get dangerously close once more.
Fortunately, many understood this, particularly the ministers and assemblypersons who'd been present during the apocalyptic battle that had consumed this very city. They'd continue to support him as long as his policies were successful. On the other hand, Baalkpan had grown tremendously as labor and troops flooded in from all over the Union, and most of the newcomers had no personal experience with the war besides the hard work they performed to support it. That was the true source of the disconnect. There was a growing desire to get on with the better life promised by the industrial and economic revolution Alan himself had set in motion. Therefore, though he remained highly popular with the people, only the assembly members from Maa-ni-la, Aryaal and B'mbaado, North Borno, Austraal, and Baalkpan itself, of course, were solidly behind him. And of those members, only "King" Tony Scott of the Khonashi in North Borno might be considered a close personal friend, who'd stick through thick and thin. Then again, Tony shared his perspective in a number of ways. Not only had he ridden herd over an even more bizarrely diverse constituency-the Khonashi were a mixed tribe of Grik-like beings and humans, who'd absorbed former enemies into their population-but Tony was also a former shipmate from USS Walker.
Members from Saa-leebs in general, and Sular in particular, were generally more antagonistic and stood figuratively and literally somewhat apart on the pier that day. Assemblypersons from Sina-pore and B'taava (which barely had enough people to qualify for independent representation, and then only because Sular had sent so many colonists there), stood close to the delegations from Saa-leebs. Others from Yoko-haama and the seagoing Homes, many of which were politically united, tended to follow Maa-ni-la's lead. Many more stood squarely in the middle, and Alan longed for the days when there hadn't been so many factions within the cause. I don't much miss the reason, though, he realized philosophically. We were losing then.
Still, it was a mess, and growing more fractious as the war dragged on. But Alan had helped create the monster, and figured in the long run, if the Union survived, the diversity that formed it could only make it stronger. In the meantime, it probably seemed awfully confusing to the representatives of their more . . . monarchical allies, also present. These included Ambassador Bolton Forester of the Empire of the New Britain Isles, and formerly Leftenant, now Ambassador, Doocy Meek from the Republic of Real People. Of the two, he counted Bolton a friend. He'd lingered long after he would've preferred being replaced to help maintain the stability of the Alliance. The Empire was a Pacific power and its Governor-Empress wielded near absolute authority, since the cooperative plots by the New Britain Company and the twisted Dominion in Central and South America resulted in the murder of her family and nearly the entire Courts of Directors and Proprietors. Her nation was chiefly focused on prosecuting the war against the Doms, and there were those in the new Union who considered that theater much too far away to concern themselves with. Fortunately, most knew better. The Doms, though human, were just as bad as the Grik and had been, at least until recently, a more technologically dangerous foe.
Alan didn't know what to think of Doocy Meek. He'd arrived only the day before, after a very long flight from Zanzibar, via Madraas, Andamaan, B'taava, and finally Aryaal, but came highly recommended by Captain Reddy. The Republic, while ostensibly closer to the Union in regard to species diversity and political organization, was really more similar to the Roman Empire, which had undoubtedly, somehow, influenced it at some point. Its aristocratic senators held power over the purse strings of the nation situated on the southern tip of Africa, but its Lemurian kaiser, Nig-Taak, had the final authority. His senate could choose not to fund his policies, but that could be risky, since he and his family were very popular, representing the stability the Republic craved, and there were always other aristocratic families from the various provinces angling for their constituents' approval. Senators were chosen by electors who could be picked by popular vote at any time.
The population was composed almost equally of Lemurians, humans (from very diverse races and even histories, it seemed), and a third species called Gentaa, which legend mistakenly considered human-Lemurian hybrids because they shared physical attributes of each. Courtney Bradford was adamant that this was a myth and the Gentaa were probably imports from yet another evolutionary past. In any event, the Republic was in the war at last. After a tentative start, its armies had finally lurched into action against the Grik in southern Africa, giving the Allies a long-needed second front for their enemy to worry about.
Surrounding the already relatively large gathering of officials were thousands of citizens of Baalkpan: sailors, troops, even yard workers who'd momentarily stopped what they were doing to watch from precarious perches atop cranes or other ships at the pier. Everyone was on hand for what had promised to be a triumphant celebration of the completion of the largest, fastest, most powerful modern warship ever built on this world (as far as they knew), but Henry Stokes had discreetly presented Alan with a cryptic report when he arrived that the trials hadn't gone quite as well as hoped. Alan was extremely anxious and had a sinking feeling that the celebration might quickly turn into a morale-pounding flop.
"What's the matter, dear?" Karen asked, noting Alan's furtive glances at the spectators and various assemblypersons.
"Oh, nothing." He managed a smile. "You know me and crowds."
Karen glared at him, sure he was lying, but shrugged.
"How long now, Daddy?" piped little Allison Verdia in her heartwarming toddler voice, tugging on the sleeve of Alan's dress whites.
"Yeah," agreed their older Lemurian daughter, Sandra, fidgeting with her skirt while looking at other Lemurian younglings scampering around. They were all naked, but Karen insisted that her children would wear clothes. Sandra, named after Captain Reddy's wife and Karen's friend, was probably about four, but nobody knew for sure. Nor had she known her Lemurian name. Still, Karen figured she'd gained the size and maturity roughly equal to a human child of six or seven, and she spoke perfect English, without the odd pronunciations common among older speakers who learned the language. "I wanna play," Sandra emphasized, watching the younglings shoot up the cranes in marauding packs. They were never allowed in the yard and were taking the rare opportunity to explore it from all angles. "Later, sweetheart," Karen temporized, watching the same younglings with alarm.
Their younger adopted daughter, Seetsi, had a name when they got her but was still just an infant. She was sleeping in a carriage, pushed by their one-armed nanny, Unaa-Saan-Maar. Unaa was a former Lemurian Marine and had left her own younglings in the care of another nanny-with offspring of her own-at the Great Hall.
"I think she's coming in now," Alan said, hearing excited cries from the 'Cats with the highest vantage points. Even before the rest of the crowd caught sight of USS Fitzhugh Gray, however, coming through the narrow channel into the bay, the excitement started changing to dismay as word quickly spread, and the air of celebration began to turn.
"What's the matter?" Karen asked, standing on her toes.
"I reckon," began Henry Stokes in a very dry tone, "that no one expected to see the bloody thing towed back to port."
Alan glared at him. "Towed? Why? And why didn't you warn me?"
Stokes shrugged. "What difference would it've made?"
"I . . . I might've told them to bring her in after dark," he replied, as the crowd grew more disappointed.
"An' lose half a day fixin' whatever failed?"
Alan had no reply.
"Pick me up, Daddy!" Allison demanded. Without thinking, Alan raised his daughter and plunked her on his shoulders. He could barely see the tops of the tall funnels in the distance now, and the ship's high "fighting top" on her foremast as she was towed past the Baalkpan ATC. He could also see the masts and funnels of the two transports, heavier, beamier versions of Scott-class steam frigates, pulling her in.
"Daddy," Allison said doubtfully, with her better view, "I think that boat is broken."
"What's the dope?" Alan asked Stokes. "What's the matter with her?"
"Why don't we let Commander Miyata tell us himself? He'll be here soon enough an' we'll get the full report." Stokes borrowed a speaking trumpet from a nearby yard foreman and raised it questioningly. Alan reluctantly nodded, and Stokes, a former leading seaman aboard HMAS Perth on another world, scampered halfway up the stout timbers supporting the closest crane and raised the trumpet to his lips. "Attention! Your attention, please!" Most 'Cats, in the yard at least, spoke some English. All the ex-pat Impies did. Others had to wait for a translation. He paused while the hubbub died down. "Thanks," he continued. "Now, it appears the Gray had a bit o' bother with her engineerin' plant, an' Captain Miyata chose to shut it down before it got worse. That's what sea trials are for; to find problems so we can fix 'em. No worries; it's nothin' serious. On the other hand, reports are that all her weapons're fine, an' work better than expected. Her new fire-control systems're the best we've made." He laughed. "She ain't sinkin, an' we'll have 'er fixed up an' sent out to help Captain Reddy in no time! So give her an' her crew a good onya when she comes alongside. But stand ready to clear the dock so we can get right to work on her, yeah?"
"Karen," Alan said, "Why don't you take the kids home? I might be here a while."
"Okay. And then I'll head over to the hospital for a while." She frowned. "Let me know what you find out?"
A much smaller crowd did give Gray a nice welcome an hour and a half later when she finally touched the dock, but it was more subdued than it would've been if she'd steamed in under her own power. And, as Henry Stokes asked, the onlookers cleared fairly quickly once Gray's lines were doubled up. Even most of the ministers and all but one assemblyperson had gone, leaving a few deputies, some of whom Alan would've wished away. Specifically underscoring this, as soon as the brow was rigged, the deputy assemblyperson from Sular, an annoying pain in Alan's ass named Giaan-Naak, tried to lead the others up the ramp.
"Hold it!" Alan snapped, earning a resentful blink. "That's not how we do it in the Navy Clan, or anywhere else I know of," he reminded forcefully. "You will not just stampede aboard!"
"Thaat's our ship as much as yours!" Giaan objected.
"That's debatable," Stokes murmured. "Far as I know, all Sular's tax revenue has gone to support Sixth Corps in India-where it ain't doin' a bloody thing-an' sendin' colonists to B'taava."
"Enough," Alan said, tired of the ongoing argument. "But it doesn't matter who paid for her; she was built for Captain Reddy's clan. My clan," he stressed, "to defend us all. You can go aboard as soon as Commander Miyata's prepared to entertain you. I have official business." He turned. "Mr. Stokes, uh . . . 'King' Scott, and Ambassadors Forester and Meek, will you join me?"
"You take them?" Giaan seethed. "All foreigners, and none of them even people!" There were gasps, even from some of Giaan's companions, but for the first time Alan realized he was right, in a way. Everyone he'd invited was human. But he was simultaneously stunned and furious because he couldn't remember how long it had been since he even thought like that. "Deputy Assemblyperson Giaan," Alan said icily, "I said you could go aboard soon, but even you must understand that I need the first report." He nodded at Tony. "'King' Scott's not only a head of state but a full assemblyperson. The only one still here. If others had stayed, I'd have invited them as well-but they probably get that there's a lot to do, and I'll give the entire assembly a full and complete report as soon as I have it. As for ambassadors Forester and Meek, they enjoy the same status as heads of state, as the senior representatives of their national leaders in Baalkpan." His expression darkened. "And you'll apologize at once for implying they're not people, or I'll personally and unmercifully pester your boss until you're replaced and sent home. Is that understood?"
Giaan recoiled amid the shocked chatter around him, and Alan was perversely satisfied to hear the deputy from Maa-ni-la tell another: "Indeed. Well said. They were all people enough for him when Giaan fled to the Filpin Laands with so many other Sularaans, raather than fight when the Grik came as far as Baalkpan!" Giaan must've heard, because he spun and flashed his hate with fluttering eyelids. Turning back once more, however, he seemed to have composed himself. "I . . . aa-pologize if my zealous protection of Sularaan interests has caused offense."
Alan shook his head. That was no apology at all, but it was the best he was likely to get and he couldn't afford to widen the rift with Sular right now. He'd never understand it. Sularaans in general were fine folks, and many were in the armies and the Navy. But how the hell did the same shitbags who ran out on them when the Grik came get put back in charge when they slithered back? Then it dawned on him. Because most of the ones who stayed were here-or in the armies and the Navy! Sular had been a ghost city until the "runaways" returned. He sighed inwardly. They'll be in for a shock when the war's over-if it ever is-and all those veterans go home and kick their asses out of office. In the meantime, he'd just have to put up with their crap. Without another word, Alan turned and tromped up the bouncing brow. Tony Scott limped behind him, crutch under one arm and his ruined leg in a brace. Forester and Meek followed, leaving only Stokes. For a moment he just smiled at Giaan, who began to blink uncertainty. "C'mere, mate," he said, beckoning him away from the others.
“Anything you haave to say to me, you can say in front of them!”
“Oh, I don’t reckon you really want me to do that,” Stokes suggested. Reluctantly, Giaan stepped forward, and Stokes leaned over to whisperin his long, unusually pointed ear. “Chairman Letts won’t say it because he’s a good bloke an’ just wants ever’body gettin’ along to win the war, but Sular, under wankers like you, ain’t helpin’ nobody but itself. I can’t prove it yet, but I reckon you’re even doin’ things that’ll hurt ever’body—except the wankers in Sular. Now, here’s fair warnin’. Either quit it now an’ pitch in, or I will get my proof an’ take it to the chairman. We’ll see how nice he is about it then. Don’t let his ‘good bloke’ act fool you. If he gets good an’ mad, if the rest of the Union does”—he leaned back and his smile became a grin—“if Captain bloody Reddy does, I promise you’ll hate what happens next.”