The gentle chime of an alarm from the navigation panel startled him from his light dozing. He almost spilled the cup of coffee still in his hand on the armrest of the captain's seat. There was still a little warmth in the cup, so he hadn't been asleep for long. It took very little time for things to get cold in the frigid temperatures they were keeping throughout the ship. In fact, all four of the bridge crew wore hats, gloves and scarves of some sort or another. What's-her-name Ravindran, their new WEPs officer was wearing a full-sized cold weather parka, with fur rimmed hood and all. He made a mental note to himself to learn to pronounce her first name properly.
They'd been huddled at their stations warming hands on mugs, and watching readouts for almost a fortnight now, without much activity, and only a few rest breaks.
Watching and Waiting
The alarm was a welcome break in the inactivity, and seemed to have the same waking effect on the other members of the CNV REDOUBT's bridge crew as well. Everyone leaned forward in their seats and started calling up information from their workstations. It was probably another false alarm: a solar flare, or some small civilian vessel passing through.
"Signatures emerging from the Arcadia Lagrange point, Captain. Looks like two, no four…correction, five contacts. They're all coming to a halt just beyond the L-point. Doesn't look like we've been spotted. No IDs yet. I'll get them for you as soon as I can get some feeling back into my fingers." The NAV officer said.
"Quit whining McMichael." Captain Ferris replied. "We're pretty far away, but not that far away. We're keeping things shut down and cold for a reason. Old naval submarines had to stay quiet underwater to avoid detection. We have to keep our aspect ratio and our energy output to a minimum to stay hidden. That means heat, too. Start recording, rub your hands together and get me those IDs. Ravindran, stand by, and look sharp."
"Recording." McMichael acknowledged. "Getting some IDs in Captain. Looks like Indie IFFs. Yes, our visitors are definitely Indies. Finally! We've got four Patcoms and a Corvette. Hey, the Corvette is the KNIFE-IN-THE-BACK. The Patcom IDs are coming up now. Looks like the STICK-IN-THE-MUD, the WHISTLE-IN-THE-DARK, the FLY-IN-THE-OINTMENT, and the IRON-IN-THE-FIRE. This could be the show we've been waiting for."
Captain Ferris was trying to suppress his own growing excitement. "The names sound right, but don't get too excited just yet. Let's keep cool heads and do our jobs. Ravindran, you're staying put. If we're spotted we'll need some cover before we're hot enough to make thrust again."
Yes, sir." She replied.
Ferris turned his attention back to his screen as he spoke to his pilot again. "Mr. McMichael, time to earn that extra pilot pay. We've only got a few rocks out here that are big enough to mingle with, so make sure we're presenting the aspect that is most rock-like, and keep thruster use to an absolute minimum."
"Making like a rock, sir." McMichael said with a smirk.
Ferris then turned to his Engineering officer seated ahead and to his right. "Mr. Iwamasa, get two or three of your engineering staff to accompany you to the optics suite. I want you to remove the outer hull cover plate and get it working. No motors, though. Use the hand cranks, and then deploy the optics dome. Get me visual confirmation of those signals."
As if he were thinking out loud, the young Engineer replied absently without taking his eyes off his monitor screens. "Sir, those IFFs match the Indie naming scheme used by the battle group supporting the CRACK-IN-THE-WORLD. I recommend we proceed with a fast warm-up, then get the hell out of here as soon as we've recorded enough and the drives are hot."
The reply was quiet but icy, "Thank you for your recommendations, Engineer Iwamasa," But quickly rose to a bellow, "but save them for when I ask for them. It may have slipped your frost-numbed mind, but I sure as hell haven't forgotten how we got caught with our pants down three months ago. We know first-hand how good the Indies are at pulling IFF tricks. I sure as hell didn't like the last one they pulled on us, and neither did Command. Why do you think they sent us out here to freeze our butts off on this god-forsaken mission, watching a barely-used L-point in the middle of nowhere from a damned rock pile. For all we know, those signals could be coming from modified old satellites dumped off a garbage tug to throw us off the track of the CRACK-IN-THE-WORLD. I put you through drills that included using old optic techniques for a reason. Now get down to optics and get me visual confirmations. I want to SEE those Indie ships."
Iwamasa uttered a very formal "Aye, Captain Ferris. Right away," then scurried out the lock from the command section, almost stumbling in his haste. The reminder of their last mission was sobering to all but Ravindran. They'd been able to capture one Indie Corvette, which was damaged beyond repair, but were completely humiliated when the entire depot and supplies they were guarding were stripped clean. The cold and the boredom had them all on the edge, and he probably was a little harsher on the kid than he'd meant to be, but he was not in the mood to have his orders questioned.
At least he felt a little warmer, now. He was certain the others did, too.
"Mr. McMichael, our Engineer made a good point. I want you to…"
McMichael interrupted him before he could finish. "Captain, more signals arriving through the L-point! We've got five…six….damn! Sir, we've got at least a dozen new Indie arrivals with this second group. Showing Corvette IFFs now. We've got the PAIN-IN-THE-NECK, the BIRD-IN-THE-HAND, the DROP-IN-THE-BUCKET, and the HOLE-IN-THE-HEAD, as well as some more Patcoms. More Corvettes are still coming through, now. I'm also picking up a tug and a modified support tanker called the BUN-IN-THE-OVEN. Hey Ravindran, there's one of the corvettes that ripped us off, thumbed their noses at us, then gave us the slip last time out: the GHOST-IN-THE-MACHINE. I'd love to give those gents some payback, right about now. We'll never live that one down until we do."
Ferris responded to this new situation smoothly. "All in good time, Mr. McMichael. For the moment, we're still hidden, but otherwise at a serious disadvantage. I'd like you to script the fastest possible restart procedure, and set it up. If we're picked up by any of those ships, we'll need thrust and LDS very quickly indeed. Plot us the most direct route possible to the Ranier L-point."
"On it, sir. Ranier LaGrange point, then home." The pilot replied.
A barely detectable finger movement on the touchpad control at the captain's station opened a link to Iwamasa and his work crew. "Report on optics, Mr. Iwamasa. We've gotten some new arrivals"
Iwamasa's voice sounded strained over the intercom speaker. "Optics dome deployed now, sir. We're having a hard time with one of the targeting axes. We can't zoom in on them if we can't get them in the viewfinder."
"All right, keep on it, and link directly to Mr. McMichael if you need us to re-orient the ship. If he's as good as he keeps boasting, then he should be able to point the scope at them using thrusters." Ferris cut off the link then added to McMichael sitting on the pilot’s platform almost two meters in front of him, "Minimal use of thrusters, Mr. McMichael. Minimal."
A few moments later, he saw the pilot nodding in response to unheard directions in front of him. The hiss of attitude thrusters seemed louder than usual, compared to the silence they'd been used to, as the starfield outside the forward view port rolled a little to port, and then yawed portward again, before stopping.
Iwamasa's voice sounded excited over the link. "Captain, it's really them. Indie ships, all painted according to the profiles used in the CRACK-IN-THE-WORLD battle group. Squared blocks of primary colours and whites, with black trim. They look like a bunch of Mondrian paintings. I'm recording images of several…"
There was a sudden break in his speech, but not in the communications link. They could all still hear him breathing.
He resumed speaking momentarily, with much more excitement in his voice. "Captain, I've just seen a big flash, but it doesn't look like an explosion. It looks like another ship has just come though the L-point; a big one. Oh, my God! It looks like…."
McMichael was reading his own display and spoke at the same time as Iwamasa, as if in a chorus, "It's the CRACK-IN-THE-WORLD."
Ferris hesitated, then spoke quietly into the audio pickup. "All right, Iwamasa. Tell your crew to keep recording, then get yourself back to the bridge quickly."
"Jackpot" was the only other word from McMichael for several minutes. No one else spoke, but they were all thinking the same thing. Maybe this would vindicate them. Maybe this would mean the end to their unlucky streak. Maybe they'd be given better assignments from now on. Maybe they wouldn't have to suffer the ridicule of their peers anymore. Jackpot, indeed. The CRACK-IN-THE-WORLD was the latest Indie prize acquisition. The brightly painted, ex-Navy destroyer had been extremely hard to locate in recent months, and had done more than its share of damage in a series of hit-and-run raids.
Ravindran had been staring at her screens. She flipped back the hood of her parka with thin brown fingers, and turned to look directly at her captain. "Sir, they're moving. They're establishing what looks to be a convoy formation."
There was a pause to consult screens before, again, she turned to speak. "Directly toward us."
McMichael started reaching for startup switches, and flight controls, saying, "That's it, we've been made. Time to move on."
"Wait a moment." Ravindran said, oblivious to McMichael's actions. "No they're coming right at us, but not because they've seen us. They are moving slowly, and in convoy formation. This is not an attack posture at all."
"It doesn't matter" McMichael replied. "They're headed right at us, which means we probably already don't have enough time for a restart and a run for Ranier."
Captain Ferris listened to the newest crew member's analysis with interest. "Keep your cool, Mac. You're probably right. But starting up right now will only hasten our detection, and bring them charging on in force. Wait for my order before starting the warm-up procedure.
The captain stared at his screen for a moment before asking another question. "And where the hell is…"
"Right here, Captain." Iwamasa slid back into his seat like the agile youth he was. "We've got enough data and optics records to make the Intelligence folks very happy."
"Thank you, Mr. Iwamasa." Ferris replied with genuine concern. "Unfortunately we have a new problem that may make it difficult to get any information back to the Intelligence folks. The whole Indie group is headed our way."
Iwamasa froze before asking, "Have we been IDed? Why are we just sitting here?"
Ferris offered an analysis of the situation, which was as much guess as anything. "They're headed this way for the same reasons we're here: it's a decent hiding place. It may not be the best asteroid field, but there's enough rock here to provide decent cover for ships intending to lay low. We're still hidden for now, but in about fifteen minutes, it'll be pretty obvious to them that we're not another rock. Right now, we're as shut down as a ship can be without being in deep cold. How long before we can be underway?"
Iwamasa replied with a glance at his screens. "Less than ten minutes for thrust…about two minutes longer for LDS. We've been out in the cold too long"
"Too long, indeed." Ferris lamented. "We could run, but by then they'd be on us the whole way. We'd be extremely lucky to make it through the L-point."
McMichael added, "And with the way our luck has been going…"
Captain Ferris gave his next orders with resolve, but everyone felt the desperation behind it. "Mr. McMichael, get us completely behind the nearest big rock. Gently, mind you. We may have to go deeper into this rock field, but find a big one and get us hidden, and do so as quietly as possible. As soon as we're obstructed, get going on the warmup."
"Aye, Captain. Quickly but quietly." McMichael said. "Any other miracles?"
Captain Ferris had known McMichael for a long time now, and decided to let that go. Mac could be audacious, but his skill more than made up for it. They all felt the nudge of the thrusters almost immediately, as they started their escape. Hiding still wouldn't solve their problem. The moment they made for the Ranier L-point, there would be a dozen ships on them, and more heading them off. They could try to just hide, and wait, but there was no telling how long the CRACK-IN-THE-WORLD group was planning on staying. Even that was moot, because he knew that the Indies would make a thorough inspection of the cluster anyway. No, they couldn't run, and they couldn't hide for much longer. He silently cursed himself. His whole plan to shut down and look like a rock was backfiring on him. They had been perfectly situated to observe traffic between L-points. But they were not, as it turned out, very well positioned if someone decided to try to use the same hiding spot. Detection ranges, time lags, startup times…all had been calculated carefully to a fine line. How could he have missed this possibility? Iwamasa was right: they'd been out in the cold too long. Maybe he had been out in the cold too long.
They all sat quietly, consulting the information flowing across their screens, checking restart protocols, flight paths, and defensive possibilities as the starfield outside the forward view port shifted and rolled. They floated toward a boulder just large enough to obscure most the bulk of the 162 Meter-long corvette. Something about what Iwamasa said echoed in the captain's mind. Then it hit him.
"Mr. Iwamasa!" Ferris asked.
A new sense of determination was bulding in the captain's voice as he built on an idea. "As soon as we restart, and reboot, we begin broadcasting our Navy IFF, correct?"
"Um, correct sir" Iwamasa was waiting for the question to make sense.
Ferris continued building his plan as he spoke. "And even if we can kill the signal, they'll still detect us, and know we're hostile."
"Also correct." Iwamasa continued to play along.
"Am I also correct in assuming that, as part of your efforts to understand why we got flummoxed at the depot, you studied and figured out how the Indies were able to get past us?"
"I'm pretty sure I figured out how they did it, yes." Iwamasa still sounded a little perplexed, and more than a little scared.
Captain Ferris turned to his pilot now to continue building his idea. "McMichael, what was the name of that junked Indie ship we captured?"
The NAV officer's eyes widened, and a half smile started to creep across his face as he started to grasp Ferris' plan. He turned as much as he could to face the Captain’s station, directly behind him, "It was called the OUT-IN-THE-COLD, sir."
The captain turned back to the young Engineer with new orders. "OK, kid, here's your chance to be a hero. I want you to…"
Iwamasa had grasped the plan and was already beginning to work on it. "I'll alter our IFF to read the OUT-IN-THE-COLD, and match the codes to theirs. First I'll have to review their carrier comm. frequency tags, and scope out their security codes. Then I'll need to…" His voice trailed off as he focused in on his task. His eyes flicked across the screens of information flashing in front of him, and his fingers flew across touch commands.
Captain Ferris tried to regain his engineer's attention. "Iwamasa?… Kenji!"
"Um, yes sir?" Iwamasa replied distractedly.
"You've got less than ten minutes." Ferris continued. "Don't worry about making it perfect, just make it pass long enough for us to get out of the rock pile and get us a head start out of here. We just want to blend in long enough to move away from them. As soon as someone takes a look out of a window at us, we're dead anyway. Get going."
Captain Ferris then spoke to the rest of the bridge crew. "Did everyone else grasp the plan? We're going to proceed with a startup right here. We let them come right into the field and start parking. They'll have uneven readings this far in anyway, so shaky contacts will be everyone's problem. Mr. McMichael, we join their group right here in the middle of them, then move toward the rear. We will gently start moving toward to edge of the group and the edge of the rock field. Our new destination is the Arcadia L-point simply because it's close. When I say 'GO!' I damn well mean it. I want a spread of suppressive defensive fire, all the spoofing we can dump out of the racks, and a full speed burn to the L-point."
A click on his touchpad re-opened a comlink. "Engineering. While your chief is working on a little problem for us, I want everyone on emergency standby. Alert status for everyone. Get us powered up, and keep those drives working. We'll need everyone on their toes to get out of this one. Captain, out."
He keyed off the intercom, and spoke directly to his pilot next with a much quieter voice. "Oh and Mac?"
"Yes, sir?" McMichael replied.
"Don't miss." Ferris' words were spoken with an attempt at levity, but were suffused with the true sense of the gravity of the situation.
McMichael managed a another smile on an otherwise tense face, "You can have my scarf and gloves if I do."
The Independent battle group slowed as it approached the rock field, which was the first taste of good fortune felt by the crew of the CNV REDOUBT, now known as the OUT-IN-THE-COLD. It had taken Iwamasa longer than he'd anticipated to alter the IFF signal, but in the end he successfully created a new identity that would pass a glancing inspection, but not much more than that. He also installed a toggle that would permit them to regain their Commonwealth Navy identity once they returned home. He thought far enough ahead to realize that they could escape this frying pan, only to land in a friendly fire. The ring and accumulator startup was nearly complete, but all other systems remained shut down until the Indie fleet was right on top of them. As the first Indie ships passed them a few dozen Kilometres away, gliding more deeply into the rock pile, they continued to hug their covering boulder. More ships moved in, and some were already halting, and powering themselves down. This was their second stroke of luck, as tracking active vessels wouldn't be a priority while ship contacts were flickering and dropping off contact lists. There was still no sign of detection while they remained as much a part of their covering boulder as possible. The HOLE-IN-THE-HEAD came closer than any other ships, passing them only about twelve Kilometeres away. Then it slowed and altered its course to approach them.
They’d been detected.
"OK, folks, the hiding part is over, they know we’re a ship of some sort. Power up, and let’s see if Mr. Iwamasa’s IFF trickery worked." A few hums and whines were audible from the rear bulkhead of the command section, but little else signaled the complete powering up of their vessel. They were showing up as the OUT-IN-THE-COLD to everyone, now. Captain Ferris had to remind himself to breathe as they waited to see if their trick would work. The HOLE-IN-THE-HEAD continued in their direction, slowly closing the gap. She seemed to pause for a moment, then return to her original heading. It appeared to be working.
More ships moved past them. It seemed that luck was with them, so the captain gave the signal to start moving toward the periphery. The OUT-IN-THE-COLD came to life in the middle of the Indie battle group, and began changing her position. McMichael nudged her toward the edge, on a vector that might look to others like a search for a better parking spot. In fact he was working his way closer to, but not directly in the line of flight toward the Arcadia L-point. Every second that passed without being visually identified, or receiving a challenge, or hearing a missile lock alarm was a step closer to their escape at the L-point.
"So far, so good, folks." The captain wasn’t sure how, but they were actually moving closer to their escape point. All systems were working perfectly, and everyone was tightly focused on their jobs. It seemed that the moment of truth, when they could start their desperate flight, was getting very close.
Then a name came across the captain's contacts list that sent a chill down his spine. The original OUT-IN-THE-COLD had an operating partner; a sister ship, as it were. The WOLF-IN-THE-FOLD was an Indie corvette that frequently operated along side the OUT-IN-THE-COLD on raiding missions. The two ships had earned a reputation as a formidable team. Now the WOLF-IN-THE-FOLD was closing on them, and it looked like they intended on docking. As soon as McMichael saw it on his contact list, he keyed open their comms and heard the words of the approaching ship's captain.
"…did you get here? Sweet Mary and Joseph, man, I thought you guys were gone. Last we saw, you were taking heavy damage. How in the hell did you get out of that one?"
Ferris began issuing orders calmly. "All right, Mr. McMichael. Let’s speed up the process here, but try not to look too much like we’re hurrying. Wait for my signal before the full burn."
"Aye, sir. Hurry, but don’t look like we’re in a hurry." McMichael quipped.
Ferris then turned his attention to the audio pickup in front of him, keyed in a few filters and other effects that might garble his voice, then began yelling at full volume into the pickup to further distort the sound, "Where in the hell were you?! We played dead for hours waiting for some help! We're still trying to fix half our systems, but at least we could get to the rendez-vous point!" He then cut off the channel, and returned his attention to the approaching ship on his screen.
"Ravindran, get ready to hit them hard with everything. Then I want you to target the GHOST-IN-THE-MACHINE with a volley of seekers. I know we're too far out now to really do them any damage, but I want to spit in their eye."
"Aye, sir. Targets set."
The WOLF-IN-THE-FOLD slowed, but continued her approach steadily. She was very close to the point where a glance out of the forward viewing port would expose the ruse. In seconds, they would know that they were docking with a drab Commonwealth Navy corvette, and not a brightly painted Indie ship. The Indie captain’s voice could be heard on audio again, "What the hell do you mean ‘rendez-vous’. We didn’t even know we were going to be here ourselves, until a few… Hey! What the hell?!"
McMichael was the first on the bridge to speak. "That’s it, sir, they’ve seen us."
Ferris added calmly. "It appears so. Get ready for the run of your lives. Everyone set?"
Each member of the bridge crew nodded, or voiced their acknowledgement. The captain opened his mouth to give the order to run, but something inexplicable made him hesitate. The WOLF-IN-THE-FOLD hadn’t budged. McMichael leaned forward in his seat to peer up and to the left. Sure enough, he looked right at the WOLF-IN-THE-FOLD hanging there, as if frozen. Then he saw a pinpoint flash of red light flicker for an instant from the center of the Indie ship, then stop.
Iwamasa was the first to analyse it. "Sir, we’ve just received a tight beam communication. Two parts, both coded. One part I can tell is text only. It came from that Indie ship."
"Coded?" Captain Ferris aked, somewhat perplexed
"Yes, sir. Commonwealth Navy code, at least part of it." Iwamasa continued. "The other part seems to be a much larger data packet, but I have no idea what kind of encryption its got."
"Decode what you can and give it to me right away." Ferris replied eagerly.
"Should be on your screen now, sir." Iwamasa said.
The message was from the captain of the Indie ship WOLF-IN-THE-FOLD. It was brief.
McMichael couldn’t contain his impatience. "Well, are we running? Are they going to kill us, or what?"
"The message reads: ‘COMPLIMENTS. GOOD SPOOK JOB. OTHER SHIPS APPROACHING. WE WILL JOIN PURSUIT. GIVE YOU 30 SECONDS HEAD START. MAYBE MORE. WILL TRY TO AIM POORLY. WE THOUGHT WE KILLED OUT-IN-THE-COLD 3 MONTHS AGO! WERE ABOUT TO FINISH THE JOB. GET GOING. RUN. NOW.’ It’s signed ‘COVERT NAVY OPS’. Ravindran, cancel your first target. Send a full volley to the GHOST-IN-THE-MACHINE, then concentrate on defensive fire. Mr. McMichael, if you please, get us the hell out of here."
They were already underway. The roar of the main engines was almost deafening. The ship vibrated as seeker missiles left their launch tubes and started on their way toward the GHOST-IN-THE-MACHINE. They were gathering velocity at an incredible rate, but already two Patcoms with quick reaction times were altering course to give pursuit. They still had a significant lead, but only for the moment. Comms became a buzz of activity. Some Indie ships took the time to utter threats. Missiles were already speeding toward them. More ships were accelerating at near impossible rates to catch them.
"OK, everyone is pretty much pissed at us now. We’ve got four Patcoms closing on us fast. Looks like two or three corvettes aren’t far behind them" The entire ship jolted as PBC hits were absorbed by the Displacement Array shields. McMichael was completely focused on flying to the best of his ability, accelerating and angling for the best L-point entry.
Ferris yelled over the roar of engines and blasts of PBC hits. "Mr. McMichael, watch your speed. We still …"
"I know, I know. Scarf and gloves." McMichael replied hoarsely. "I won’t overshoot. But Captain, those Patcoms are accelerating way beyond what we can do if we want to get lined up for the L-point."
Ferris watched his screens as he replied. "That’s because they’re not trying to jump out. It looks like they’re going to try to damage us on the way by as they overshoot."
They all watched the numbers change as the pursuit craft continued their headlong acceleration. They were going to come very close, just when the OUT-IN-THE-COLD was going to be slowing, turning, and making its final approach into the L-point.
Ravindran looked up from her station, still firing steadily at approaching missiles and ships, and said, "Captain, those ships are not going to shoot at us as they pass. They are going to ram us. It also appears that one of the pursuing Corvettes has launched a remote missile at us. We must get through that L-point now."
More hits rocked their ship. Despite Ravindran's remarkable accuracy, damage was starting to appear on the Engineering boards as more PBC fire and missiles got through their shields. The work crews were frantically repairing systems as they took hit after hit.
"Full power to Engines on my mark. Let’s turn the Navy IFF back on, and let them know who played them. I at least want them to know that much." He glanced at the growing list of ships streaking toward them, and saw that the GHOST-IN-THE-MACHINE was not one of them. She was back in the rock pile, too damaged to fight. Small satisfaction.
The remote missile was fast approaching, overtaking the four closing Patcoms. It looked bad. The blast radius from the remote would do too much critical damage, and then the Patcoms would be able to finish the job. It was a good run, but it didn’t look like they were going to make it after all. Then, without warning, the remote missile detonated prematurely, close to the group of Patcoms. Three of them simply were no longer there, and the fourth became a tumbling wreck. The explosion cleared several approaching seeker missiles as well. Unfortunately, the explosion was close enough to the REDOUBT that it caused some additional damage. The L-point was fast approaching, and the vector looked OK, but suddenly the Capsule Drive was offline, losing its charge. Without it, they would pass through the L-point as if it were just more empty space.
"Full power to thrust, now. Looks like our deep cover spook friends tried to do us a favour, but it kind of backfired. Mr. Iwamasa, get everyone on the Capsule drive repairs. Now."
"Already on it sir. It’s going to be close." Iwamasa shouted over the engine roar.
The symbolic HUD wire frame cage showing the L-point was growing rapidly in the Navigational display from the pilots seat. McMichael could at least draw some satisfaction from the knowledge that he’d done his part. They were going to glide right through the middle of it at a very satisfactory angle, and high velocity. But if the Capsule drive wasn’t ready to kick in at the right moment, they’d just continue to be target practice for the approaching battle group. More ships were coming at them fast. It looked like a cloud of missiles was screaming at them, and the sound of missile lock alarms was constant. Another glance at the drive status showed that it was getting ready to come back online as it charged. But the L-point was only seconds away. There simply was no more time.
McMichael watched the graphic representation of the L-point disk pass him in a flash. He had time to close his eyes, and vow to continue to fight. At the same time, the Captain gripped the arms of his command chair with both hands as if willing them to make the jump, when suddenly there was a brilliant flash, and he saw a fiery light display fluorescing around them.
They’d made it into Capsule space.
"Mr. Iwamasa, report." Captain Ferris called out.
"We're in one piece, but just barely, sir." Iwamasa struggled to regain the use of his naval training. "Getting better, sir. We definitely couldn't have taken much more of that."
McMichael looked up from his displays, to the lightstorm streaming past them on all sides and said, "Amen to that. NAV systems seem OK. We'll be emerging in friendly space soon. But captain, what was that all about? Why the hell would we get sent out to recon the location of that battle group when we already had a spook in with them? We were set up, weren't we? We're supposed to be dead right now...some kind of sacrifice to help their credibility, maybe?"
"I'm not sure of that Mac." Ferris then turned to face the WEPS officer, and stared at her thoughtfully for a moment before asking, "Ravindran, could you shed any light on this?"
There was an uncomfortable pause as all eyes turned on their newest member, and she in turn looked at each of them.
"Um, actually, yes. That data packet was meant for me." She finally replied.
Iwamasa looked at her in shock, then narrowed his eyes. "I don't believe it. You're a spook plant!"
McMichael wasn't far behind, saying, "Son of a…"
Ferris was quick to intercede, "Stow it, you two." He then turned his attention back to Ravindran, before speaking again gently. "Perhaps you'd like to fill us in?"
She took a moment to gather herself, then spoke clearly, as if reciting something well-practiced, "I am a Naval officer, just like you. I just graduated from WEPS training. I was approached by special operations only after I had been assigned to this crew as a replacement for Tomms. As you know, his injuries were… he will not be crewing with you again. I was told that there was a possibility that, if we were able to locate the CRACK-IN-THE-WORLD battle group, one of our deep cover operatives would try to contact us. There are several such recon missions currently taking place with the same objectives. These undercover operatives; the crew of the WOLF-IN-THE-FOLD did not know it would be us, they did not know where exactly we would be, they only knew that someone would be out there listening. I truly believe that they came very close to killing us, believing we were the OUT-IN-THE-COLD, returning to expose them. They have been trying to get a data packet out for some time now."
McMichael said, "It must be some sweet data."
Ravindran turned and spoke directly to him. "I cannot discuss it with you, partly because I have been so ordered, but mostly because I don't know much about it. It is indeed very important, and will likely mean the destruction of that entire fleet within a matter of months. I was simply instructed to ensure the safe retrieval of the data in its encoded form, deliver it to the contact at base, and to erase all traces of it from all ship records and logs. Once I have done this, my mission, and I believe my entire involvement with the Special Operations people will have ended."
"Does that word 'erase' include us?" Iwamasa asked nervously.
Before she could answer, Ferris added another question to the pile, "Why wasn't I brought in on this. This is command decision stuff, not secret agent crap."
"Perhaps I can answer both questions at once." Ravindran then continued, "My mission to retrieve and return data was never in conflict with the one you were given, captain. You were told to recon and report. In a sense, so was I. We were both 'spying' on the enemy. It was made clear to me that both were important, and the data retrieval mission was not to interfere with any command decisions you might have made in carrying out your orders. I think they chose to do this in order to optimize success in either domain. It is the data in the packet that is important, not the fact that WE retrieved it. The optical and other data collected as part of your recon mission are also invaluable. I'm certain it will be rewarded. My reward for success will be my release from any more dual roles. Once I deliver the packet, I'm released and free to accept a posting as WEPS officer to whatever navy ship will have me. It is my hope that it will be this one. So, Kenji, you don't have anything to worry about from me."
McMichael was still angry at the deception. "You can pretty much count us out, sister. We need to be able to trust each other here, and you're a long way away from…"
"That's the last time I'm going to tell you to shut it, Mac." Ferris breathed deeply, then changed tone to a more conciliatory one, "You and Iwamasa were too busy at the time, but I saw her shooting just a few moments ago, and can say that she saved our necks several times over, easily. It was more than just her own ass she was saving. Ravindran was following her orders and performing her duties, just like the rest of us. And with considerable skill, I might add. I doubt she likes the fact that she had clandestine duties any more than you do. Sometimes we hate the orders we get, like sitting in a frozen can for almost two weeks watching nothing, comes to mind. But we do it.
Ravindran, these two have short memories, but I gave each of them a chance, not too long ago, and they've worked out well. In this ship, there's no finer team to be cooped up with, out in the cold. You deliver your goods, conclude your duties, and get yourself completely free and clear of the Intelligence spooks. We'll keep that seat warm for you when you can come back pure Navy."
McMichael risked further rebuke with another interjection. "Captain, begging your pardon, but I'd like to ask just one thing if I may."
"Alright, Mac. What is it?" Captain Ferris said with mild impatience.
"I have no problem giving someone a chance who's earned it. And Rav, you earned it. But speaking of keeping seats warm, is there some reason why we need to keep the temperature setting where it is? I don't know about you folks, but I'm still freezing."
Captain Ferris realized with a grin that in all the recent activity, no one had thought to adjust the thermostat settings."As am I, Mr. McMichael. Iwamasa, let's warm her up. Good work everyone. Now let's get home and do some boasting. I think there are a few members of the LENNOX crew that owe us drinks."