The Rumour Mill

Saltlake Naval Base
Earth orbit

It was almost two hours before he made it to The Bad Seal, and he could tell the place was filling up as he approached from the main corridor's spin-ward side. He heard the susurrations of dozens of voices talking at once, and the melody of some very catchy tune. It was the latest hit from some Somali kid who had captured the essence of an entire planet's mood in a hauntingly beautiful song. Ferris paused outside the bar for a moment to listen to the song. It was catchy and visceral, and made him understand how billions of people could be sick and tired of the war.the same war he was in the middle of fighting.  It seemed to be coming from speakers everywhere. While he listened, he looked up and noticed the sign over the entrance to The Bad Seal. It was a blue neon outline of the harmless, streamlined aquatic mammal, but this particular seal was sporting what looked like a spiked collar, sunglasses, and a blue neon cigar.

As he walked into bar, Ferris noticed that the crowd was in a more serious mood than usual. He strode in, expecting at least some ribald comment or joke about coming in from the cold, but the crowd was sombre, preoccupied by something else as they huddled around their tables. While he searched the crowd, he received a few nods of recognition from officers scattered at a few tables, and a warm greeting from the bartender, but was otherwise left alone. He gestured to indicate his order to the bartender. She nodded and pointed with her chin toward the left side of the bar. He followed her gaze and saw McMichael and the Redoubt's backup bridge crew at a table near the empty stage, catching up on gossip and continuing old arguments with some of the engineers. Ferris wove through the crowd, working his way to his crew's table. Before he got halfway, a hand shot out from one of the groups he was passing and grasped his upper arm.

"Bill, did you hear the news?" asked a voice Ferris recognized instantly as Boland's.

"How many times to I have to tell you, it's William! I honestly think you're getting forgetful in your old age," Ferris shot back at his friend with humour, "and no, what news is that?"

The smile left Boland's face as he shuffled his seat to the side and gestured with his free hand for Ferris to sit with them. The others moved their chairs and found a free chair for Ferris to sit on. "They're finally confirming the rumour we'd heard about the losses at Tau Ceti. The group that was sent out to get the Crack-In-The-World was wiped out. All of them, including the Syracuse and that windbag, Admiral Devette. They'll be making an official announcement any minute."

Ferris was silent a moment, and the others waited quietly, watching him react to the news, much as they had recently done. He looked at their faces, friends and acquaintances, each of them from the bridges of navy corvettes much like his own. It was hard to believe that many ships could have been lost in one day.

Finally he spoke. He knew no one else would until he did. "All of them? Did anyone get out?"

"None that we've heard about. It was a slaughter," the reply came from Ramsay, across the table. "It's the worst since Metallake."

Ferris was still somewhat stunned by the news. "What about the Tulsa? Did she make it?" he asked. Heads either looked down, or shook slowly from side to side. "I knew Vince Kinsey and his crew pretty well. Damn. What the hell happened?"

"Well, that's the big question that everyone wants answered," replied Boland. "Including the brass and on up the political food chain. The whole hornet's nest is pretty stirred up."

Tagliapietra looked furtively to the side, and said in a conspiratorial whisper, "No way could the Indies have pulled that off by themselves. They just don't have the."

"Would you shut it?!" Boland scolded.  "I already told you, this place is full of ears, and we don't need any more garbage in the rumour mill. All this talk of spies and security breaches has everyone on edge. We don't want to bring the navy intel folks down on us, now do we?"

Tagliapietra was not to be dissuaded. "Spies aren't our biggest problem. Besides, we're not the only ones in this bar talking about the mystery ships being spotted out there. I've heard half a dozen unofficial reports of low emission, stealth ships being detected here and there. Ships that don't quite match any profiles we've got. I mean, this whole disaster means we have to at least consider that there's another player in this conflict don't we? I'm not the only one who thinks there's someone else out there."

Ferris listened to the exchange, trying to piece together what he was hearing. Finally, he realized how exhausted he was and tried to steer the discussion back to simpler things. He said, "It doesn't matter what we think, does it? 'Considering' is for the higher-ups. We're the guys who take orders and go out there to complete the missions they give us, or die trying. The upside to that is we don't have to worry about the rest of it. And hopefully, if we do our jobs, they'll let us go home so we can grow old and fat in peace," he said. He raised his glass in a silent toast. "To our fallen comrades, and to our departed friends." He up-ended his glass and drained it in true navy tradition.

Almost reflexively, the others followed suit. There was a staccato clacking, as empty glasses were placed back on the table, followed by a brief pause in the conversation.

Boland broke the silence with a new line of conversation. "I heard about your pickup of the Corregidor. Lejeunne and his team were very grateful."

Ferris looked down briefly before replying. "We just happened to stumble on their signal first. They were pretty far off the beaten path, but they weren't in any big trouble. Not really. Their accommodation section had separated fine, and they'd managed to evacuate most of the crew before the reactor went. So they were sittin' pretty and playing cards when we showed up."

A smile crept over Boland's face. "That's not exactly how Lejeunne tells it. Let's just say they weren't looking forward to being adrift until the supplies ran out."

"Well I'm just glad we got them back. Too bad about Heckerling and Buckley though," Ferris said. "I didn't know them, but I hear they were decent men."

"They were," Boland said soberly.

"Ramsay, here, did a bit of rescuing of his own a week or so ago," said Tagliapietra. "Tell him Sid."

All eyes switched to Sid Ramsay, executive officer on the CNV 545 Idzumo Maru. Ramsay finished his beer to the bottom of the glass, and set the glass down slowly as he wiped his moustache with the back of his hand. He glanced toward the empty glass as a hint for a refill.  He was clearly winding up for a good yarn. Those at the table already knew something about what he was about to recount, but it didn't matter. When Sid told a story, everyone leaned in, and kept quiet for the duration. A fresh beer appeared next to the empty glass, which was Sid's cue.

"Ten days ago, we're stuck on patrol in the Epsilon Indi system: a real shit hole of a system. Finally we get orders to jump out, and join a wing of corvettes watching Venturi. Apparently the Indies are getting desperate for fuel, so we're supposed to go help baby-sit the fuel processing facilities there. I'm figuring this'll be a smooth one. There are some leisure stations there, with more bars than I could hit in a term of service. So just as we're lining up at the L-point, about to jump out, we get this bitch of a blast from the FTL network that nearly fries our ears and every system on the bridge. I mean, this was the mother of all 'squawks'! So we wiggle our fingers in our ears for a minute, and when the ringing stops, we go check it out.

"Two hours later, after visiting a couple of FTL relays at the outskirts of the system, we come across this wreck of a utility multi. More like half a multi."

"You mean like a mini-multi, one of those new flitters?!" Grant asked. His interruption nearly broke the spell, and everyone gave him one of those looks.

Ramsey was unfazed, though. "No, I mean like the front half of a normal sized Margate Multi that's been severed amidships." He made a slicing motion with his hands. "Chopped clean in two. So we get close, thinking we're going to have to recover some frozen corpses and we're telling each other 'poor fuckers', when all of a sudden, we get these strobe flashes from a guy with a hand-held torch in the cab."

Grant interrupted a second time, "You mean to say the break was so clean that the cab was intact?"

"No, shit-for-brains, it was a mess, it had been spaced several hours before we got there. It had been rammed for chrissake, not sliced with a cutting beam! But this guy inside is a tough old bastard, and an experienced spacer. He had his suit on before the trouble hit him." Ramsay continued, glancing at the rapt faces around the table. "We pick him up, and he's spitting piss and vinegar the whole time. He's going on about these mysterious ships, and how he surprised them at an FTL relay, where they were up to something.  He described them as PatComs, but not like anything we've got. 'Stealthy' he says, and he goes on about having proof and everything. He said the big FTL squawk was his idea, and it's the only reason he's still alive. He was probably right, too."

"So where's his proof?" this time it was Ferris who broke in with a question.

"It wasn't on the smashed up multi. He said he recorded the sensor data and transmitted it to a remote drone, then launched it. He said the drone was still out there, but he wouldn't give us its frequency, location or anything. I'm still not sure if he was scared of us, or if he was just a cantankerous fuck. We looked for it, but there was so much crap floating around we couldn't find it. Anyway, we didn't have long to look 'cause before we know it, we've got new orders to meet with the Malta and hand this guy Allbright over to them for 'debriefing'," Ramsay said.

"The Malta! I wonder what she was doing there?" Tagliapietra asked.

"No idea," Ramsay continued, "We just do what we're told. We dock, and a couple of spooks come aboard, grab this guy and everything to do with him, including our interview logs, and they leave with him. Just like that. They just tell us to proceed here, wait for further orders, and forget about the Venturi mission. I can't say I'm too broken up about sitting around here. Besides, I heard the fuel dumps got hit pretty hard. The Indies tried something pretty bold and it backfired on 'em. Lot o' ships were lost," he upended his beer again, and drained at least half in a single mouthful.

Ferris nodded and finished his beer quietly, listening to the others at the table as they continued to talk about recent events. Apparently, a newly salvaged Navy corvette named the Dreadnaught was really making a name for itself. They exchanged the standard station gossip and speculations about the Commonwealth's politics. He was tired, and the news of the disaster at Tau Ceti was a lot of information to absorb. The implications for the war, his career, and tomorrow's meeting drifted around in his head, but refused to connect with one another. The harder he tried to make sense of it all, the more elusive it got. He caught Mac's eye again, and gestured that he would be there in a moment. There seemed to be some spirited discussion going on there as well.

"What did you say this guy's name was, again?" asked Ferris.

"Allbright. Ted Allbright," Ramsay said. "He's not exactly a master of diplomacy, if you know what I mean, even after you rescue his ass from certain death. If you see the ungrateful prick, tell him 'You're welcome!' from me."

"I'll be sure to convey that message in the spirit intended if I see him," said Ferris.

Tagliapietra was fascinated by the possible connections. He wasn't shy about sharing his ideas either. "Personally, I think it's connected to the loss of the Syracuse and the attack group at Tau Ceti."

"Here we go, another conspiracy theory," Ramsay quipped.

"No, not a theory. More a fact that just needs a little more support. Too many pieces already fit."

"Like what?" asked Boland.

He ticked itemized points off on his fingers one by one. "We got all kinds of reports of sightings of weird ships out there."

"Unsubstantiated reports," Boland added.

"OK, Unsubstantiated reports, but enough to mean people are seein' things out there.something is going on," he continued his finger list unfazed. "We got Navy intel spooks nabbing guys after run ins with unknown, stealthy ships. We got our own spies out there working right inside the Indie fleet telling us two things: jack and shit! We got a big strike group go after a major Indie battle group and get wiped out to a man. It wasn't a big fleet battle, it was us losing everything. I mean, that alone is just too bizarre. How often does a fleet that size, doesn't matter whose, get defeated without at least a few survivors. This wasn't a defeat: it was a slaughter. I'm telling you, something weird is going on. Look at what happened at Metallake: we get this spook intel informing us about the existence of an Indie base. We get there, and not only is it abandoned, it's got a big old antimatter welcome gift waitin' for our boys. The only answer is obvious: our own spooks sellin' us out to the Indies. The Indies are makin' some new weapons, and the spooks are helping them perfect them.probably so we can get our hands on 'em or something. This whole 'Naval Intelligence' branch is just a bunch of turncoats selling us out lock stock and barrel. Give me the days when we were just the Commonwealth Navy, and we kept those stinkin', ungrateful colonists from tearin' each other apart. We protected them, and yeah, we kept them in line too, but it was for their own effin' good!"

"Whoa there. Are you saying that the reason we lost the Syracuse and all those ships was because of our own intelligence people?" Ferris interrupted.

"Effin' right! Every one of those intel spooks is just waitin' for the right moment to sell us regular navy guys out. Maybe they're just waitin' until the price is high enough."

"He's got a point," Ramsay said. "Even if he does have a few too many in him, and he makes his point crudely. But who can blame him? He had a brother who was a C-Fighter pilot in the first wave at Metallake. I heard in the rumour mill that we've got a spy right in with that Indie battle group we were aiming to take out. Only I heard that they haven't been reporting in much lately. Then we go in for an assault, and suddenly we lose everything. It's got to be because they turned. It's the only thing that makes sense."

"Except for one important thing," Ferris said, growing less patient at their accusations of other service branches. "You're all completely full of shit! The spook ship you're talking about saved my ass, at great risk to themselves when we recovered the data that was used to set up that raid almost four months ago. I know. I was there."

"They probably just wanted to make sure you would get away with their plans for a complete setup, and they threw in a little drama to make it more believable. You swallowed it wholesale, and now we got a whole strike fleet dead!" Ramsay said.

Ferris tried to remain calm. "You weren't there. I was. It wasn't just a little drama. We saw Indie ships destroyed before we got away. In fact that same spy ship almost took us out because we were posing as an Indie they'd already destroyed; one that would have threatened their cover. We had no idea.we were just trying to buy a little time so we could make a run for it. They were this close to killing us when they saw we were actually Navy. So they held their fire, they sent us some data, and they helped us get away."

"Ferris, you're the one's full o' shit," Tagliapietra retorted. "You got your loyalties all wrong. Those ships we lost out there this week? They were Commonwealth Navy ships. Navy. Understand? They were our friends. That spook you ran into just used you to help set them all up. You may not have done it intentionally. But as far as I'm concerned, you helped them wipe out our people."

"So now it's me who's selling out the navy is it?" he looked dangerously quiet as he fixed Ramsay, then Tagliapietra with a piercing glare. "Boland, you ought to be more careful who you choose for company," he said. He slowly looked around the table, his gaze met by equally hostile looks. "Some of these .individuals can't seem to hold their liquor. I think I'll go sit with officers who won't insult the uniform."

He didn't need a map to tell him that this could get ugly fast. He thrust his chair back as he stood and walked away from the table. With more force than he would normally use to traverse a crowded room, he reached the table where his officers sat and leaned over to speak to McMichael.

"We're leaving. Now," he said. With that, Ferris turned his back, and strode toward the exit. His crew followed, and not a word was spoken by any of his officers. McMichael joined him in the main corridor as the rest of the Redoubt officers streamed out. "We were just having a little healthy debate about our navy's wisdom," he said. "What's the problem? Who's tender sensibilities did I insult this time?

"No one's. This time, I'm the one who stepped in it. But things are getting ugly around here. You have those crew reassignments ready for me?" Ferris held his hand out, palm up, waiting.

McMichael handed him a data card, with a smug expression. "No way I was going to miss a few rounds at The Bad Seal, so I got right on it."

"You should have reported to me when it was completed immediately," Ferris chided without humour.

"Where's the harm in a little."

"Don't make me pull rank on you twice in one day, Mac. I'm too tired to get into it again," Ferris said as he looked around. "I'm not looking for any more disappointments from my most senior bridge officer and friend. Besides, we can't afford any incidents right now. Something is up. We've got a major defeat about to be announced, talk of betrayal from within, fingers pointing every which way, but mostly at the intel folks, sightings of mystery ships, and a mission briefing in the morning that I don't know anything about yet. Get everyone tucked away, with the warning for the new roster to be on standby for rapid return. Once you've done that, get some sleep and meet me tomorrow morning after the briefing."

"Aye, sir," McMichael grumbled. He knew better than to question or joke when his captain used that tone of voice.




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