Business is Business

Posted by on Oct 15, 2013 in Blog | 0 comments

Business is Business

Written by Spartan Franco |

The bows of the great Governor-Class Battleship Sea Guardian cut through the waters of the southern Indian Ocean like a sword blade. Black smoke plumed from its cluster of funnels into the cloud-swept blue skies as the impressive East India Merchant Company warship forged southwards, surrounded by a small flotilla – three Cruisers, a converted Merchant Carrier and several swift Destroyers.

The reassuring bulk of the Company airship Captain Greaves loomed above the flotilla, along with the waspish forms of several flights of Sea Shrike fighter aeroplanes based on the rebuilt Merchant Carrier, which in a former life before the World War was a bulk grain carrier.

The sun peeked out from behind a large cloud, lighting up the EIMC flotilla as is sailed onwards towards the appointed rendezvous with an important client. Its purpose had been clearly defined by the commanders back in Calcutta.

It was, as ever, all about the money.

East India Merchant Company

Far from the heart of the tumultuous South East Asian warzones, the atmosphere on the Sea Guardian was, for once, slightly relaxed. On one of the Battleship’s upper decks, two men were busy at work cleaning one of the Sea Guardian’s many light anti-aircraft installations.

“But, Surinder, I still don’t understand”. Ordinary Rate Ian Thomas paused in his buffing of the bulky Brunel-Nordenfelt’s brass fittings. “Isn’t the Company Britannian?”

Able Rating Surinder Patel carefully extracted his long swabbing sponge from the rightmost of the ack-ack gun’s eight barrels. “The Company has a charter issued by Her Britannic Majesty’s honoured ancestor, Mr Thomas.”

Ian paused and looked at his Indian comrade. Surinder was five years older than him, and technically slightly senior in rank, yet still insisted on calling him ‘Mr Thomas’. It was a term of endearment. Surinder had shown him the ropes on many different duties when he had started his first tour two months before. He’d been infinitely patient despite Ian’s many mistakes, always responding calmly with “not to worry, Mr Thomas. Just try again.”

Ian scratched his greasy hair. “But then doesn’t that make us servants of the Britannian Crown?”

Surinder started work on the next barrel. “It makes us agents of the Britannian Crown, which is a very different thing. Best carry on with your task, Mr Thomas. You don’t want a bawling out if an officer comes by.”

Ian resumed polishing the gun’s intricate firing mechanisms. “But if we are agents, then why are we on contract to the Antarcticans? Aren’t we at war with them?”

“Her Britannic Majesty’s government does not recognise the Covenant of Antarctica as an ally, that is true,” Surinder replied, carefully wiping the muzzle of a second gun barrel with a rag. “But as agents, rather than servants, of Her Majesty, we have a certain degree of…free action…with whom we associate.”

“When I signed up, I thought we’d be fighting the Blazing Sun. After what happened at Singapore, I thought we’d always be fighting them.”

“Mr Thomas, if you wanted to fight the Blazing Sun, would it not have been better for you to sign up with Her Majesty’s Navy instead?”

“Well…I suppose.” Ian thought for a moment. “But my father was a clerk with the company, and…well, the pay and conditions are much better than with the fleet but…”

“Very true. That was why I signed up as well.” Surinder grinned. “But occasionally you find yourself in these ironic situations because of the Company’s business interests. Becoming accustomed to it can take a while, but it will happen.”

East India Merchant Company Battleship

“Ironic.” Ian looked askance at his comrade. Coming from quite a humble background, he had not received a particularly sophisticated education. “You use that word a lot, Surinder. I’m still not sure what it means.”

“Trust me, Mr Thomas, if you work for the Company for long enough, you’ll come to understand it very well.”

On the Sea Guardian’s bridge, First Officer Jonathan Danjuma lowered his binoculars and leaned against the compass binnacle. The tall West African glanced over at the Battleship’s captain and smiled. “I must say sir, whatever we’re in for when we reach the rendezvous, at least this contract has given us a few days of peace and quiet.”

“Aye, it has at that, Mr Danjuma” Captain Alexander Shawcross replied. He stroked his neatly trimmed grey beard. “Just as well. I’ve a feeling we’re in for a wild couple of weeks.”

“You think they’ll meet us on time, sir?”

“The Covenanters? Of course. I’ve never known them renege on a contract…unlike a lot of other people I could mention.” Shawcross sat back on his chair. “Strange lot, the Antarcticans. Thought they could change the world with the power of reason. Smart, but naive. The power of money’s what makes the world turn.”

Danjuma looked out again at the calm sea and cloudy sky. “I’ve heard they always welcome experienced military types. Even now, with their borders shut. You can go to Canberra. They’ve got an embassy there. Have you ever considered relocating, sir?”

East India Merchant Company Frigate

Shawcross laughed. “I’ve known a few colleagues who’ve taken the ‘Long Voyage’. Used to stay in touch before the war, but can’t now, obviously. They seemed happy enough. But me? Living in a hole in a snowy wasteland with only scientists and penguins to talk to? No, Johnny, the Company gives me a good living, and that’s all I need.”

True to Shawcross’ belief, the Covenanters were on time. They were already at the rendezvous co-ordinates when the Company flotilla arrived there two days later.

“Four large ships off the starboard bow, sir,” said Danjuma. “Must be them.”

Shawcross put his glasses up to his eyes. Yes, there they were; the strange ships of the southerners with their odd, swan-like lines. As he watched, more vessels began to appear – smaller, fish-like craft roughly the size of frigates.

As he watched, one of the ships he’d taken for a cruiser was suddenly surrounded by a mass of churning spray and foam. He watched in amazement as the massive hull arose from the waves, the exposed upperworks merely the topmost portion of a huge warship, larger than the Guardian. Shouts and exclamations from outside the bridge told him that a large number of his crew had seen the spectacle as well.

Shawcross lowered his glasses, and Danjuma did the same. “Now there’s a sight to see,” said the First Officer.

“Aye,” Shawcross replied. “Full of surprises they are.”

“We’re being hailed, sir,” said the senior wireless officer. “The Covenanters are requesting we identify ourselves.”

“Transmit the contract code,” said Shawcross. “In triplicate, so they’re sure. I don’t fancy being blown to bits by the people who’re paying us.”

An hour later, Shawcross was standing on the Sea Guardian’s quarterdeck, with a detachment of marines, awaiting the arrival of the promised deputation from the Covenant flagship. He had left Danjuma on the bridge, with orders to assume command if anything happened to him.

A few decks above their captain, Ian and Surinder stood with their comrades by their ack-ack emplacement. “I wonder how their deputation is arriving,” said the younger man. “I can’t see any boats or launches.”

As he spoke, a faint buzzing sound arose, gradually growing in intensity. Surinder looked to his left and then point. “Look there!”

Ian followed his comrade’s pointing hand. As he did so, many other crewmen became aware of the spectacle, along with Captain Shawcross below.

A strange flying engine was approaching – a small, egg-shaped contraption, surmounted by two whirling horizontal propellers. The buzzing became a rapid thudding – thwoppa-thwoppa – as the machine gained altitude. As the Company crew watched, it came to a halt, hovering over the open aftermost section of the quarterdeck.

East India Merchant Company Blimp

Several of the marines tensed, but Shawcross bade them stay calm. The strange machine carried no visible weapons. As the captain watched, three spindly metal legs emerged from the craft’s underside, and it thumped down rather awkwardly on the deck. Its chugging engine cut out, wisps of green-tinted smoke wafting from its casing as its propellers came to a halt. Up close, Shawcross could see that the smooth, white casing of the odd machine was surmounted by a ring of bullhorns and hooded glass lenses.

As he registered this detail, a tinny-edged female voice sounded from them. “Do not be alarmed. This is Custodian-Captain Nalia Vercetti, officer commanding, Battleship CNS Andronicus. I bid you greetings on behalf of the Covenant of Antarctica, Captain Shawcross. Please approach the emissary-drone.”

Signalling his marines to remain calm but alert, Shawcross did as he was asked. As he did so, the emissary-drone’s pointed prow casing split open with a hiss of pneumatic pressure. The two halves swung open, revealing a flat glass sheet edged with brass.

As he watched, the glass sheet began to glow green. Then, with a click, a slightly grainy, green tinted image of a dark-haired woman in ornate uniform appeared. “Ah, that’s better. Now you can see me as I see you.”

Shawcross gazed, fascinated by the moving image of his Covenant peer in the glass. “Captain Vercetti, I presume?”

“Correct. My apologies for the dramatic entrance, but we do not as a rule set foot aboard foreign vessels or installations in person.”

“Aye, fair enough.” Shawcross nodded, quickly realising why. Practically anyone, Grand Coalition or Imperial Bond, would jump at the chance to kidnap a representative of the Covenant. “Now, Captain Vercetti, I was promised that I’d get the remaining details of the contract when we reached this rendezvous.”

“And so you will. Underneath the screen on which you’re viewing me is a device similar to the ticker-tape machines you’re familiar with, except that it prints out full-size leaves. I’ll transmit the full details over now.”

A clattering sound emanated from depths of the drone, and a sheet of fine-quality paper covered in intricate text began to emerge from a set of rollers. Shawcross took hold of it and gently extracted the sheet. He waved his adjutants over as as the next began to appear.

“Are the blueprints coming through clearly, Captain Shawcross?”

“Crystal-clear, thanks. I must say I’m finding this…picture-radio a bit unsettling.”

Vercetti smiled, but Shawcross could see that her expression was tinged with sadness. “We had planned to…make a gift of it to the world but with the current unpleasantness…” She paused, and the raised a quizzical eyebrow. “Captain, would you mind telling that inquisitive fellow with the screwdriver who thinks he’s sneaking up on the back of the drone to keep his distance, please?”

Shawcross jerked his head up in annoyance, catching sight of the over-curious would be-engineer. “Eh! Get back, you silly sod!”

East India Merchant Company Fleet

As Shawcross directed a Company marine to guide the interloper firmly away, Vercetti gave a slight smile. “Thank you, Captain Shawcross. That could have been very embarrassing, not to mention quite shocking for you.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, emissary-drones have no weapons installed, but we can’t risk their technology falling into…undesirable hands. Any attempt to tamper with the drone will trigger an automatic destruction sequence. At the very least it would have made a real mess of your quarterdeck.”

Shawcross blanched. “Ah, I see.”

“Indeed, captain.” Vercetti looked solemn. “As we have learned from bitter experience, there must always be limits to our trust.”

“Enemy in sight, captain,” said Danjuma, an ornate listening-horn held to his right ear. He was listening to the lookouts high in the Sea Guardian’s fighting-top. “Looks like five large warships stationed around the waypoint, with maybe a dozen of those dustbin lids they call Frigates.”

“This is the captain. Action stations! I say again, Action Stations!” Shawcross hung up the speaker-horn next to his battle position as armoured shutters slammed down over the bridge windows. Red-tinted light flooded the bridge. “Well, here we go, Johnny. Ever tangled with the Russians before?”

“Can’t say I have, sir.” Danjuma took up his own station. “It’s a strange world. Here we are, fighting with the Covenant to wreck a Russian way-station we might have found useful as a stopover.”

“The Company thinks it profitable, so here we are,” Shawcross replied. “And if we come through, in a few months we might be fighting with the Russians against the Covenant, because the Company thinks it’s profitable. Like I always say its money makes the world turn.”

“Enemy in sight!” The lookout’s faint call reached the Sea Guardian’s decks as the Battleship cut through the choppy waters of the southern ocean.

Barely had Ian and Surinder, tight beside their ack-ack gun, heard the words than the Sea Guardian’s fore main battery opened fire with a mighty crash that left their ears ringing. Ian saw explosions blossom atop the hulking enemy Battleship, bits of debris flying away in great glittering arcs. For a few moments, he witnessed the battle’s opening act without interruption.

Another series of booms rang out from on high, as the Captain Greaves sent its own shower of destruction down upon the Russian flotilla, enveloping a pair of Frigates with flaring orange blasts. Then a fearsome actinic flash split the greying skies as the Andronicus, leading the Covenant forces into action some distance away to the south-east, cut loose with its arcane radiant-energy cannons.

The Russian response wasn’t long in coming. The Sea Guardian was suddenly surrounded by tall waterspouts as heavy shells straddled it. The deck heaved beneath the young rating’s feet as the Guardian began to swing to port, to bring its full fire power to bear. A tremendous clang split the air as an enemy round impacted on her bows.

“Russians, Surinder!” Ian cried. “We’re fighting Russians!”

A nearby speaker-horn boomed. “Incoming enemy aircraft! All ack-ack batteries, prepare to fire!”

Surinder laughed as Ian and the five other men crewing their heavy Brunel-Nordenfelt, swung the mounting about and cranked its seven barrels skywards. “This is what I meant by irony, Mr Thomas! We have a charter from Her Majesty, yet we fight against her allies!”

“Get those magazines in! Move it!” the gun commander yelled.

Ian slammed the last magazine into the multi-gun, and then, with two other crewmen, took to frantic cranking. The B-N thundered as each of its barrels spat a stream of deadly tracer shot into the skies. Surinder and the other two ratings began readying more munitions, to be fed into the hungry gun as each ammo box became exhausted.

Ian took up the cheers that erupted as a Russian aeroplane, no more than three hundred feet above the water, burst apart in a welter of flame as it made its attack run. But then he stopped. Why am I cheering, he thought, when we’re shooting down our…allies?”

“It’s because we’re in the Company,” Surinder continued, shouting to Ian above the noise. “And the Company comes first in everything we do! It’s all about the money! Business is business, Mr Thomas!”

Business is business. Ian ran the thought through his mind over and over as he cranked the ack-ack gun. War is business. It almost didn’t matter who you were fighting for, as long as your employer paid you. This was the truth of the mercenary’s life, and in the heat of combat, Ian Thomas realised with cold certainty that he’d better get used to it.

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