Fleet of the Damned
by
Allan Cole and Chris Bunch

Note: The titles of Books 1, 2, 3, and 4 are derived from 17th-century a.d. Earth and were a series of commands used to bring oceanic warships of the British Navy into battle. Book 5's title was a semiformal command to ship's gunners.

—AC and CRB 

BOOK ONE
LINE OF BATTLE

CHAPTER ONE

The Tahn battle cruiser arced past the dying sun. The final course was set, and in a few hours the ship would settle on the gray-white surface of Fundy—the major planetary body in the Erebus System.

Erebus would seem to be the last place that any being would want to go. Its sun was so near extinction that it cast only a feeble pale yellow light to its few heavily cratered satellites. The minerals left on those barren bodies would barely have supported a single miner. Erebus was a place to give one dreams of death.

Lady Atago listened impatiently to the radio chatter between her crew and the main port com center on Fundy. The voices on the other end seemed lazy, uncaring, without discipline—a marked contrast to the crisp string of words coming from her own crew. It grated her Tahn sensibilities.

The situation on Fundy had been neglected too long.

Lady Atago was a tall woman, towering over many of her officers. At casual glance some might think that she was exotically beautiful—long, flowing dark hair, wide black eyes, and sensuous lips. Her body was slender, but there was a hint of lushness to it. At the moment it was particularly well set off in her dress uniform: a dark green cloak, red tunic, and green form-fitting trousers.

At second glance all thoughts of beauty would vanish as a chill crept up the spine. This was Tahn royalty. A nod of her head could determine any one of many fates—all of them unpleasant.

As her ship punched into landing orbit, she glanced over at her captain, who was monitoring the actions of the crew.

"Soon, my lady."

"I'll require one squad," she said.

Her head turned away, dismissing the captain. Lady Atago was thinking of those undisciplined fools awaiting her on Fundy.

The big ship settled to the ice about half a kilometer from the port center. The engines cut off, and the ship was instantly enveloped in gray as sleet slanted in from a stiff wind.

Most of the surface of Fundy was ice and black rock. It was an unlikely place for any enterprise, much less the purpose it was being put to by its present occupants.

The Tahn were preparing for war against the Emperor, and the Erebus System was the cornerstone of their plan. In great secrecy, Erebus had been converted into a system-wide warship factory.

So distant and so undesirable was Erebus that there was little likelihood that the Eternal Emperor would discover their full-out effort to arm themselves until it was too late. Thousands of ships were being built, or converted, or refitted.

When Lady Atago's battle cruiser entered the system, she could partially see those efforts. Small, powerful tugs were towing hundreds of kilometer-long strings of the shells that would be turned into fighting ships and then transported to ground for final refitting. Huge factories had been hastily constructed on each of the planets, and the night skies had an eerie glow from the furnaces.

The Tahn had drafted every available laborer down to the barely skilled. The poor quality of their work force was one of the several reasons the Tahn had chosen to concentrate so much of their manufacturing on planets rather than in space. Deep space required highly trained workers, and that was something that the massive arming had stretched to the near impossible. Also, deep-space factories required an enormous investment, and the Tahn could already hear the coins clicking out of their treasury vaults.

They wanted as many ships as possible, as cheaply as possible. Any malfunctions, no matter how life-threatening, would be the problem of the individual crews.

The Tahn were a warrior race with stamped steel spears.

Lady Atago paused at the foot of the ramp, surrounded by a heavily armed squad of her best troops. This was her personal bodyguard, chosen not only for military skills and absolute loyalty but for size as well. Each member of the squad dwarfed even Lady Atago. The troops shuffled in the sudden, intense cold, but Atago just stood there, not even bothering to pull her thermo cloak about her.

She looked in disgust at the distant port center. Why had they landed her so far away? The incompetent fools. Still, it didn't surprise her.

Lady Atago began walking determinedly through the snow; the squad followed her, their harness creaking and their boots crunching through the icy surface. Big gravsleds groaned past, hauling parts and supplies. On some of them, men and women clung to the sides, catching tenuous rides back and forth from their shifts at the factories that ringed the port with smoke and towering flames.

The Lady Atago turned her head neither left nor right to observe the strange scene. She just stalked on until they reached the center.

A sentry barked from a guard booth just outside the main door. She ignored him, brushing past as her squad snapped up their weapons to end any further inquiry. Their boot-heels clicked loudly as they marched down the long hallway leading to the admin center.

As they turned a corner, a squat man came half running toward them, hastily arranging his tunic. Lady Atago stopped when she saw that he was wearing the uniform of an admiral. The man's face was sweating and flushed as he reached them.

"Lady Atago," he blurted. "I'm so sorry. I didn't realize you were arriving so soon, and—"

"Admiral Dien?" she said, stopping him in midgobble.

"Yes, my lady?"

"I will require your office," she said, and she walked on, Dien stumbling after her.

The Lady Atago sat in silence as she scanned the computer records. Two of her squad stood at the door, weapons ready. The others had placed themselves strategically about the overlush offices of the admiral.

When she had first entered the office she had given it one quick glance. A slight curl of a lip showed what she thought of it: very un-Tahn-like.

As she scrolled through records, Dien muttered on in an endless stream of half explanations.

"There... there... you can see. The storm. We lost production for a day.

"And that item! We had to blast new landing strips to handle the freighters. The pressure was enormous, my lady. The sky was black with them. And we had insufficient facil—"

He stopped abruptly as she palmed a switch and the computer screen went blank. She stared at it for a long, long time. Finally, she rose to her feet and turned to face the man.

"Admiral Dien," she intoned. "In the name of Lord Fehrle and the Tahn High Council, I relieve you of your command."

A painter or a physicist would have been in awe at the shade of white the man's face became. As she started out of the room, one of her squad members came forward.

"Wait, my lady. Please," Dien implored.

She half turned back, one perfect eyebrow lifting slightly. "Yes?"

"Would you at least allow me... Uh, may I keep my sidearm?"

She thought for a moment. "Honor?"

"Yes, my lady. Honor."

There was another long wait. Then, finally, she replied. "No. I think not."

The Lady Atago exited, the door closing quietly behind her.

CHAPTER TWO

Sten and Lisa Haines squirmed through the mass confusion of the spaceport. As the main port for Prime World, Soward had always suffered from overcrowding. But this was clotting ridiculous—it was arm to tendril to antenna in beings.

The two became increasingly bewildered and unsettled as they pushed their way to the rented gravcar.

"What the hell is going on?" Sten asked, not really expecting a reply.

"I don't know," Lisa said, "but I think I'm already losing my tan, and if we don't get out of here, I'm gonna be sick."

"Give me a break," Sten said. "Homicide detectives don't get sick. It's part of the job requirement."

"Watch me," Lisa said.

Sten grabbed her by the arm and steered the police captain around a staggering hulk of a young soldier.

"I don't think I've seen so many uniforms," he said, "since basic training."

They slid into the gravcar, and Sten checked with local traffic control for clearance. They were told there would be a minimum forty-minute wait. An hour and a half later—after repeated delays blamed on military traffic—they were finally able to lift away.

Things weren't much better as they cut through the city en route to Lisa's place. Fowler was in nearly three-dimensional gridlock. The two hardly spoke at all until they finally cleared the outskirts and headed for the enormous forest where Lisa had her houseboat moored.

"Was it always like this?" Lisa asked. "Or did I just get used to it?"

Commander Sten, formerly of the Eternal Emperor's Household Guard, didn't bother answering. The uniforms plus the host of military vehicles and convoys they had spotted made it all pretty obvious.

It almost seemed as if Prime World were bracing for an invasion. That was an impossibility, Sten was sure. But the Emperor sure as clot was mobilizing for a major military undertaking. And, Sten knew, anything that involved shooting was almost certainly going to require that he once again risk his young ass.

"I don't think I even want to know—yet," he said. "Besides, we got a few days leave left. Let's enjoy them."

Lisa snuggled up to him and began softly stroking the inside of his thigh.

By the time they reached Lisa's houseboat, the almost heady peacefulness they'd found on their long leaves from their respective jobs had returned.

The "boat" swung lazily on its mooring lines high above the broad expanse of pristine forest. The forest was one of the many protected wilderness areas the Emperor had set aside on Prime World. However, since the headquarters planet of his enormous empire was overcrowded and rents and land prices were astronomical, people were forced to become fairly creative about finding living space.

Lisa's salary as a cop was hardly overwhelming. So she and a great many other people had taken advantage of a loophole in the Emperor's Wilderness Act. One couldn't build in the forest, but the law didn't say anything about over the forest.

So her landlord had leased the unsettleable land and then provided large McLean-powered houseboats to anyone would could pay the freight. It was a squeeze, but Lisa made sure she could afford it.

They tied up to the side and walked across the deck to the door. Lisa pressed her thumb against the fingerprint lock, and the door slid open. Before they entered she carefully checked the interior—a cop habit she would never lose. It was one of many things she shared in common with Sten. After his years of Mantis service, it was impossible for him to enter a room without making sure that things were reasonably as they should be.

A few minutes later, they were sprawled on a couch, the windows opened wide to clear out the musty air.

Sten sipped at his beer, half hoping it would wash away the slight feeling of sadness growing in his belly. He had been in love before, had known his share of women. But he had never been alone with a lady for this long a time, with no other requirement than to enjoy.

Lisa squeezed his hand. "Too bad it's almost over," she said softly.

Sten turned to her.

"Well, it ain't over yet," he said. He pulled her into his arms.

Sten and Lisa had performed admirably, everyone agreed, in thwarting the high-level conspiracy against the Emperor. Things hadn't worked out even close to perfection, of course, but one can't have everything.

Regardless, they had both been promoted and awarded leaves of several months. Thanks to Sten's old Mantis chum, Ida, there was more than enough money to enjoy the leave in style.

So the two had bought tickets to a distant world that consisted mostly of vast ocean and thousands of idyllic islands. They had charted an amphib and had spent week after blissful week hopping from island to island or just mooring out in the gentle seas, soaking up the sun and each other.

During those months they had purposefully avoided all news of or contact with the outside. There were scorched nerves to soothe and futures to be vaguely considered.

Sten wasn't too sure how much he was looking forward to his own immediate future. The Emperor had not only promoted him but had heavily advised that he switch services from the army to the Imperial Navy. Advice from the Commander And Chief Of All He Surveys, Sten knew, was the same thing as an order.

So it was with a mixture of dread and some excitement that Sten contemplated what would come next. Entering the navy, even as a commander, meant that he would have to start all over again. That meant flight school. Sten wondered if he could get his old job back if he washed out. Clot, he'd even be willing to go back to being a nice, dumb, not-a-care-in-the-world private.

Right. And if you believe that, my boy, there's some prime swamp land available at a dead bargain price on a Tahn prison planet.

Sten came slowly awake. He felt to one side and noted Lisa's absence. She was across the large main room of the houseboat, shuffling through her computer files for mail and phone calls.

"Bill," she muttered. "Bill, bill, bill, letter, bill, police union dues, letter... Clot! Knock it off, you guys. I've been on vacation."

"Anything for me?" Sten asked lazily. Since he had no home address—nor had he since he was seventeen—he had left word for everything to be forwarded to Lisa's place.

"Yeah. About fifty bleeping phone calls. All from the same guy."

Sten sat up, a nasty feeling growing slowly from his stomach to his throat.

"Who?"

"A Captain Hanks."

Sten walked over to her and bent over her shoulder, tapping the keys to bring up the file. There they were, all right: call after call from a Captain Hanks. And Lisa hadn't been exaggerating by much—there were nearly fifty of them.

Sten tapped the key that gave him Hanks's recorded message. He was a shrill, whiny man whose voice went from basic urgency to ten-alarm emergency. But the gist of it was that Sten was wanted immediately, if not sooner. As soon as he returned he was to consider any remainder of his leave canceled. He was to report to Imperial Flight Training.

"Drakh," Sten said.

He walked away from the computer and stared out the open window at the green waving forest, his brain churning. He felt Lisa gentle up behind him, her arms coming softly around his waist.

"I feel like crying," she said. "Funny. I don't think I ever have."

"It's easy," Sten said. "You just squint up your eyes and think about almost anything at all."

Sten did not report immediately as ordered. He and Lisa had a lot of good-byes to say. 

CHAPTER THREE

The eternal emperor had definite ideas about a picnic.

A soft rain of five or ten minutes that ended just before the guests arrived added a sweetness to the air.

Said rain had been ordered and delivered.

He thought that a breeze with just a bit of an invigorating chill in it whetted appetites. As the day progressed, the breeze should become balmy, so the picnickers could loll under the shade trees to escape the warming sun.