Jena followed Kinkaid through the Holdfast at his side. Other occupants got out of their way. The corridor linking the control room with the cafeteria was lined with windows facing the rusty Elysium Plains expanding to the horizon in every direction.
“Even with this system-wide crisis our friends at TIL are utterly deaf when it comes to questions about their interactions with the Xenos, and they’re mute about anything they’ve learned,” Kinkaid groused as he shuffled along slowly with his hands clasped behind his back. “I’ve been pressing the TerraCom assembly to act but they’re so busy writing and writing our new Terran Charter that nobody wants to notice. The situation is inexcusable.”
“The solution is very simple, sir. We have to get some of our own people inside,” Jena said. “If TIL won’t consider the complications that this lack of intelligence sharing creates, we don’t have very many options.”
“I agree,” Kinkaid said but then heaved a disgusted sigh. “The problem is access. SOLCorp would no sooner let one of us into their Triton fueling station as we would one of them here at the Holdfast. At first we could monitor their transmissions to and from Earth but all parties involved are using couriers now.”
“So we use Home Fleet to put a cordon around Triton and we demand access. I’m sure someone in the TerraCom assembly can find time to put their signature on a command request.”
“Then the Outworld Alliance would object,” Kinkaid retorted. “Neptune and its moons were ceded to their control after Martian independence. Despite our presence here, any heavy-handedness now would only make things worse, and these corporations! If we anger them, they suddenly stop work on things we need, or manufacture them improperly. I’m not willing to risk a single ship when it comes to the people manufacturing our transit drives.”
“And refining our starship fuel,” Jena said as they rounded a curve and saw a cargo robot approaching with a load carried in its arms. It followed the wall so they altered course to move around it. “I’m surprised that SOLCorp has been as tolerant as we have. After all, it is their station.”
“Which tells me that TIL is sharing what they know, just not with us,” Kinkaid said and muttered. “Inexcusable. They have what we need and, just this once, they’re not selling it to us. Damn them and their two-faced shenanigans.”
They stopped when they came to the lift. Jena pressed the down arrow and said, “Then one of two things is happening, admiral, either what they have is so good they’re trying to find the right way to market it, or things are so bad they have to keep it under wraps.”
“If things are good, we’ve nothing to worry about,” Kinkaid said and stepped into the lift when it arrived and the doors opened. Except for her, the admiral had the lift to himself. “That is not our business, commander.”
“Yes, sir,” Jena said. “If the latter is true then why haven’t they attacked yet? We know they’re here. They know we’re here.”
“You’ve seen the analysis of their ships. Between Home Fleet and the ground defenses we’ve build into Earth and the colonies, they’d never get close to any of our worlds, not with their fleet. In the worse case scenario, they’re just stalling us for time until more of them arrive.”
“I’ll have my report on what reserves we can draw on your desk before the end of the shift,” Jena said. “I spent weeks crawling around the old hulls in our depots. I’d say one in three can be cleaned up and made serviceable again, that’s an extra twenty ships for Home Fleet at most, thirty if we can find crews willing to deploy with a marginal reactor. That’s a whole different complication. These ships have been in storage for seventy years. Who still knows how to run them? Someone in a museum, I suppose, or a retirement enclave.”
“That’s why we keep training archives, commander,” Kinkaid said as the lift doors parted and they stepped out onto the mess-deck. “That’s assuming that the TerraCom assembly will vote us the credits to have them refitted,” He shook his head with disgust. “Did your trip to the Free Callisto shipyard yield results?”
“Their work crews have been decimated by Serenity toxification,” Jena said. “At best we can expect Bellapheron to be finished anytime soon. I threatened them with removing our unfinished projects to the United Space Alliance works but they’re having the same troubles.”
Kinkaid shook his head. “Why did they decide to wake me up this year?”
Jena smiled. “I’m beginning to think I should’ve gone into business law.”
“And miss all the fun?” Kinkaid said wryly and altered their course toward the serving line. “I’d just like to know how they got here.”
“Either they’ve been traveling for a very long time or they have a system like ours,” Jena said and reached for a try. She pointed at a pan full of something labeled, “vegetable lasagna,” and a plateful of it was immediately delivered by a line cook. “If they’ve been taking the slow route we would’ve seen them coming. My vote is that have a tunneling drive or something similar.”
“Then why didn’t we detect any jump flares when they arrived?” Kinkaid said and lifted a bowl of orange gelatin to his tray. “A fleet that size would’ve made quite a scene. All the logs we reviewed reveal nothing but merchant traffic previously accounted for.”
“Maybe we weren’t looking with the right sensors,” Jena said and picked a Martian fruit/puffed rice bar from the dessert table. “Of course, having our sensor nets taken down by solar-storms couldn’t have happened at a worse possible moment. It was like being blind in one eye.”
“Thank goodness the damage wasn’t permanent,” Kinkaid agreed as he carried his tray to the dispensary past the serving line. “Tracking the shipping in this system is difficult enough when the sensors are operating. It’s worse after two Mega class storms.”
“What on Earth did we do to piss off the Sun God?” Jena wondered and took a plastic cup from a dispenser full of them. She filled it with water and said, “If there is one. Not that I’m saying there is.”
“Quite all right, commander,” Kinkaid said and filled his cup with the same. The other option was coffee. Ares Prime Lager was only available off-duty. “Sometimes I ask myself that same question. The only true answer that ever comes to me is I-don’t-know.”
“I’ve always thought that it was a good enough place to start.”
“Your mother taught you that, didn’t she?”
“Yes,” Jena admitted. “How did you know?”
Kinkaid smiled. “Who do you think told that one to your father?”
“Victor Borges?” Jena guessed. She laughed as Kinkaid muttered to himself and moved for the nearest table.
The silence that greeted USS Ranger’s arrival set of instant alarms throughout the ship. Pax settlement was off the air. Pax orbital garrison was still transmitting, infrequently, and in a code Ranger had no cipher to. No merchantmen were sounding off. A system well known for its vibrancy was as empty as the first day it was discovered. Ranger and her group rigged for silent running and had not gone down for 76 hours straight.
“Maybe you can tell me what the hell is going on here, amigo.” A quiet voice came through Hurricane’s helmet speaker. He took his eyes off the passive sensor display and pressed his helmet to the canopy so he could look rearward. There was another F/A-28 off his starboard side.
“I haven’t heard anything you haven’t heard,” Hurricane said. He could see Pancho in his cockpit, who waved back at him. “Ask Captain Groove if you want to know anything else. The S-3 gave them a brief before everyone was out of the freezers.”
“The got us out here with anti-shipping packages for a reason, Hog. I think so serious smleck is going out here that they aren’t telling us about. I think they got us out here as bait. Just so something might come after us, so they find out what it is. Were you up for the S-3 brief?”
Both fighters were configured with a long accelerator tube that jutted out from SCRAM intake in a line following the body of the fighter out to 3 meters past the nose.
“Negit. I came out of the icebox forty-eight hours ago,” Hurricane said. “I’ve barely had time to piss as it is. The good news is that my first ration pack was Enchiladas with Rice.”
“I never get that. I was waiting in the chow line after I came out of the box and what do I get? Egg omlet. How the fek am I supposed to choke down Egg omlet. Man, that smleck glows under black light.”
“You make friends with the one masochist around who likes it and trade as often as you can,” Hurricane said and Pancho laughed. “It could’ve been worse. You could’ve gotten smleck.”
“Prepared properly it’s good stuff.” Pancho came back.
“For about thirty seconds.”
Pancho chuckled. “That’s why you have to eat it quick.”
The sensor display lit up with new contacts, a cluster of objects, ID’s by the computer as Nickel-Iron. When Hurricane looked out of the canopy, the holo-HUD pinpointed them in space with red arrows hanging in his vision. “The pre-flight brief didn’t mention how crowded this system is. Watch yourself. I’m picking up some asteroids around.”
“Confirm that,” Pancho said. “The main belt is a way back. I wonder how these ones escaped?”
“A comet is my guess,” Hurricane said. “It must’ve taken a big one with some gravity of it’s own to drag them out of position like that.”
“I think I’ve got freezer lag,” Pancho said and Hurricane could hear him shifting in the cockpit of his fighter. “I’m so stiff and sore. Next time I’m going to find a better position to sleep in.”
“How’d the big nap treat you?”
“I had a picture of Pax settlement pasted onto my icebox cover,” Pancho replied. “I had nothing but pretty Pax girls keeping me company for almost the whole transit. It was ten times better then what I got from Sol to Lalande.”
“Don’t remind me, amigo,” Hurricane said and dropped his eyes to the picture of Jena. “I hope you find her when we get there.”
“If we get there.” Pancho added.
Someone transmitting on the Guard channel overrode their intercom banter. The signal was weak but discernable.
“RN Achilles to any monitoring station. Sos. Our engines are out. We are adrift and under attack. Any monitoring stations please reply. Sos. This is Achilles.”
“Did you get that, Hog?”
“I got it,” Hurricane said. The HUD bracketed the section of space where the signal had come from in yellow. He found the fuel level display. “I think we can reach it. It’s gonna take us a while though.”
“Trailboss, this is Rodeo two,” Quickdraw called in. He and Wild Bill worked a similar box of space 200,000 kilometers away. “We’re picking up a mayday. Request permission to haul ass over there.”
“Affirm that, Rodeo two. We’ll meet you there,” Hurricane said and reactivated the wireless link between the two fighters in his flight. “You’re free to maneuver, amigo. In thrust we trust.”
“Let’s go get our dicks in it.” Pancho trawled as he accelerated past.
“Don’t let ‘em get cut off.” Hurricane said to himself and pushed the engine throttle control forward. Gravity arrived.
Tali wouldn’t take negit for an answer. Every day there was a new message in Jena’s v-mail about the upcoming Founder’s Day. Despite her attempts to maintain distance, Jena took a silent accounting of her friends on-planet and found a short list. Her friend Tali was near the top and communicated once a day. The message was usually the same. A face with pretty eyes and short cropped, dark hair framing her puckish grin.
Jena closed the door to her Holdfast hab-unit and squeezed past the shower module into the unit itself. “Play V-mail.”
“Hi, Jena. It’s Tali. You said to remind you about Viking Carnival on fifth-day, so I am, again. If you can’t get off let me know. Gabrielle says hello. She might meet us there. Call me back. Bye.”
Jena sat on her bed-slab and pulled off her padded boots. Next off was the service jacket, then her garrison trousers. Fleet issued “female utilities,” were kept folded to regulation standards inside garment lockers, non-regulation articles were worn instead. Her collection was filled with dainties and she fell back onto the bed-slab in a pair, simple, thin cotton patterned with daisies that rode low on her hips.
“Call Tali.” She said into the air. The multi-purpose video board on the wall came on and filled with a string of digits.
“Hello?” Tali said and put the call through clad only in a short, green robe that flapped open as she settled into the viewer. “Jena? Hi. I wasn’t expecting you to call so early.”
“It’s late, I’m sorry,” Jena said. Tali smiled and rubbed both hands through her spiky hair. “I guess I should’ve thought for a minute about what time it is there.”
“It’s alright. What’s up?”
“I got your messages about the exhibition. I’m taking a few vacation days in a row. This fifth-day is one of them. The Holdfast is shutting down for the first week of the festival so I thought ‘why not?’ I’m just going to throw so things into a bag once my shift ends and catch the air ferry. What do I need to bring?”
“Just your moon boots and some pay-cards.”
“Tali, what are you getting me into? What kind of exhibition has a name like Viking Carnival?” Jena said and took down her hair. “I asked some people about it. One guy described it as a ‘breathtaking experience. What’s that supposed to mean?”
“The settlement puts the Viking one lander on display and it just sort of becomes the focal point of the party. I won’t lie to you, Jena, it’s not a cocktail party,” Tali hesitated to reconsider. “Maybe in some ways it is. Think of it this way, it’s a celebration of life. That’s the best way I can describe it.”
“How much was my pass?” Jena said. Tali squinted at something out of sight and reached out of frame for it. She reappeared with a pink ticket in hand and pressed it against the viewer. A caricature of Norse Goddess Freya beckoned in ink above the silver-embossed name of the event.
“You can make it up to me if you want to,” Tali said and took the ticket away, replacing it into storage. “You’re our guest.”
A hand with long fingers appeared from behind Tali and waved at the vid-com, then dragged themselves down Tali’s neck and back. Tali twitched at a ticklish spot and switched vid-com off.
“Keep sending that SOS until we get a reply,” The Captain-1st of RN Achilles had 20 years in service and knew when he was in trouble, big trouble. Achilles still had weapons, which had been effectively keeping the closing zapper rocks at a distance, but without engines it was only time before more zappers arrived for an attack en masse. “Sensor, conn. Is there any sign of the ship that ejected the damned jump flare we’re out here looking for?”
“Nothing yet, sir. We’re scanning a maximum range. All we’re picking up are zapper clusters. They either destroyed what was out there or it went into hiding.”
“To hell with them for sending us on this wild goose hunt.” Captain 1st said. The Pax orbital garrison was a protective shelter that he longed to steer his ship for.
“Conn, sensor. I read eight more zappers moving toward us from the cluster.”
“Send the bearing to fire control,” Captain-1st said quickly. “I think their reinforcements just showed up.”
“Conn, weapons control. I have new target solutions.”
“Accept new solutions. Weapons free.” Said Captain-1st and climbed into his battle chair. The holo-dome he lowered over his face let him follow the shots from his weapons in. My hepacs were taking too long to recycle, too long, he thought and swallowed his panic. “Divert all power to weapons recycle.”
“Turrets are over the rail. Commencing main battery fire.”
“Give me time.” Captain-1st said.
“Eighty seconds to until main batteries are ready to fire.”
The full barrage from Achilles knocked the lead zapper out of formation but they continued to close. The Captain-1st watched the power meter on the hepacs climb and thought, too long, too long.
Even from 100,000 kilometers, the disabled cruiser was localized by the flash of the cruisers turret-mounted guns unloading. Pips of angry red battered targets that Thunderbird’s computers ID’d as asteroids. Were they on a collision course? Hurricane wondered.
“Rodeo four to Trailboss. We’re getting a good look at the ship. The engine compartment has a big hole is the side where something burned through. It doesn’t look like any laser damage I’ve ever seen, over.”
Trailboss to Rodeo four. Give us ten minutes to get into position and then commence attacking whatever it is that Achilles is targeting. Take as many runs as you can. Get back to the ship when you’re bingo fuel.”
Roger, Trailboss. Wild Bill and me will wait for your signal to start the fireworks, out.”
“Heat it up, Pancho. Set HUD for ship-to-ship and transfer reactor power to your accelerator,” Hurricane said. “It’ll take four minutes to charge. Remember that for later.”
“Power transferred, accelerator charging,” Pancho radioed back. “I don’t like the looks of this Cisco. I see way too many asteroids doing things asteroids don’t do.”
“Just follow my lead, amigo,” Hurricane said and visually swept the target area. Achilles was hammering away at the closest object moving toward it. “We’re gonna hit the cluster inbound to the ship. We’ll reassess the situation after the first pass.”
“I’m telling you, Pancho. This ain’t right.”
“Stand by for course-correction burn,” Hurricane said and entered a vector into his navigation system, a heading for the flank of the asteroid cluster and a 12 second engine burn. “Get wired tight, amigo. Don’t worry about right or wrong now. It’s time to go open up a can.”
“I’m with you, Cisco.”
Captain 1st of Achilles considered his options. He wouldn’t order the ship abandoned until the zappers started burning it through or he received a reply to his SOS. The air in the life-pods would not last long. The ship’s executive officer handed him a printout listing all his damaged systems. Achilles would need an overhaul if they survived this.
“Conn, sensor. I’m picking up new signals, sir. We’ve got little friends around.”
“Explain yourself.” Captain 1st demanded.
“Fighters, sir. Ours,” The sensor-tech said when the Captain 1st moved to look over his shoulder. “I don’t know where they came from but I show four fighters attacking the nearest zapper cluster.”
“We don’t have any fighter carriers in this system,” Captain 1st said as confusion started a slow perfusion through his mental process. “Commo, conn. Try to make contact with those fighters out there.”
“Conn, commo. Aye-aye, connecting now. We have a link on the Guard channel.”
“This is RN Achilles. Friendly forces please identify yourself.”
After several tense moments a reply came back. “Achilles, this is Trailboss. We thought you could use some help with your situation. VF-two-two-one at your service, over.”
“Achilles to Trailboss. What ship are you from, over?”
The reply was broken by static as a zapper plasma weapon fired. “USS Ranger, over.”
“Conn, fire control. Hepacs have recycled.”
“Fire control, conn. Lock on nearest target and open fire.”
“Fire control, aye.”
“Achilles to Trailboss. Are you with Second Fleet, over?”
“Affirmative, Achilles,” Came the reply. “Second Fleet.”
The bridge crew erupted into cheers that overwhelmed the addition of “On detached duty” to the pilot’s statement. His XO embraced him and pounded his back.
“We’re very, very glad to see you, Trailboss,” Captain 1st of RN Achilles sent out. Relief flooded his system making his knees wobble. “We’ve been waiting for you for a very long time.”
“What the hell is that supposed to mean?” Pancho said as they overflew the crippled cruiser. As they passed, the Achilles opened up on the drifting asteroid cluster again, asteroids that emitted powerful streams of plasma that reached out to scorch the side of the NorCom warship.