Saltlake Naval Base
L5 Earth Orbit
"Incoming message. Coded. Priority One," announced the soothing electronic voice of someone's idea of the perfect virtual secretary.
"Jesus.what is it with this place?" Wexler grumbled as he flung back the covers and pulled his robe about him. "Lights." He rubbed his eyes, squinting in the brightness. "Receive and activate link.Wexler here." He saw the face of Captain Malvo, commanding the Purdue and sighed heavily. "Captain, it is 3:40 in my a.m. This had better be very, very important."
"You asked me to report any activity at Navy HQ, Vice Admiral. I've got a report of the kind of activity we definitely don't want. The Malta just left with her escort."
Wexler sat for a moment trying to absorb the news. "Damn! What else?"
"Nothing, sir. Destination: classified. Mission: training manoeuvres."
"Training, my ass!"
"I was able to learn through unofficial channels that they are probably headed for Epsilon Indi, sir, but that's unconfirmed."
"Damn! What in the hell is she up to?" He started pulling his clothes together as he thought. "OK, get the Purdue ready for immediate departure, and recall all escort crews double quick. We're going out on some training manoeuvres ourselves. Move. Wexler out."
"We're agreed then, Captain," said the tiny image of Hyslop-Smith from the screen on the comm arm display. His voice still sounded haughty despite the tiny sound that came from the audio next to the display unit. "This is a significant setback, but the mission must proceed as planned."
"Yes," Ferris said. "Though with as much prudence as we can exercise. I find the timing of this attack, and the fact that pirates were paid to attack us more than a little disconcerting."
"To say the least," Hyslop-Smith agreed. "I haven't seen such a bold strike by pirates or mercenaries at either of the Toliman points for years. They're too well patrolled by the Navy for that.
"Where are all the Navy patrols now, Captain?" Ferris asked rhetorically.
"I see your point," Hyslop-Smith conceded. "We've just finished repairs. Let's get to the L5-Point, and jump to Tau Ceti before they realize they didn't get us all."
"We're on our way. Redoubt, out," Ferris said and reached to touch the control that would retract the armature. "Mac, we're leaving for Tau Ceti. Set up our NAV waypoint, and get us there as."
Ravindran broke in excitedly with new contacts appearing on the registry. "Captain, we have multiple signals emerging from the L5-Point ahead. Two corvettes and two PatComs," Her tone changed to one of relief. "It's OK, they're Navy vessels, sir. It looks like we're getting some additional backup."
"That would be nice," added Ferris. "We sure could use it."
"Rav, check your ORB display." McMichael said cautiously. "Those ships are coming in awfully fast." It only took another second for the situation to become clear. "Look sharp everyone, we've got inbound missiles."
The bridge comms came to life, as the lead Navy vessel hailed them. The four Navy vessels continued to accelerate as they approached. "Ferris, this is Captain Peel of the Fairfax. Your traitor days are over. Not only are you a sell out, you're a bloody coward. The punishment for treason is death. That's better than you deserve, do you hear me? Our orders are to take you out, and I'm really going to enjoy being the one to do it. At least you get the chance to fight. That's more than you gave our friends at Tau Ceti. Goodbye, Ferris. All ships: attack my target. Destroy the Redoubt at all costs!"
"What the.? Mac, get us some distance. Now!" Ferris barked commands. They felt the roar of the main thrusters immediately, and the corvette swung about and gained velocity. "Rav, deal with those missiles for the moment. Skarsgaard, more power to thrusters and the LDA for now, but stand by to shift power back to weapons systems." The PBCs began firing, as Ravindran tried to pluck missiles from their destructive paths.
Ferris keyed open his comms to Hyslop-Smith. "Crusader. We're being attacked by those incoming Navy vessels! Evade and assist! Target the corvette Fairfax."
"I already understood that much, Captain. We're with you Redoubt." Said Hyslop-Smith. The wingman's reply sounded remarkably calm to Ferris' shouts. "Launching missiles now."
The LDS drive activated as McMichael did his best to evade the incoming missiles, but before they could traverse more than a few hundred kilometres an LDS inhibitor missile burst nearby, bringing everyone back to normal space for the duration of the exchange. The main thrusters roared to life again, as they slewed and jinked to confuse their attackers targeting systems.
"Captain," Skarsgaard yelled over the sounds of the battle. "Why do they think we're traitors? Shouldn't we try to talk to them?" He sounded genuinely upset.
"I get the feeling they're too busy trying to kill us right now to listen to any arguments in our defence," Ferris shouted back, more than a little upset by the situation, himself. "Just keep this ship in the fight, Skarsgaard, and we'll figure out why they think we're traitors later. If there is a later.'
Ravindran had been concentrating on her weapons fire up to this point. She took a moment to report to the Captain. "There are still two missiles tracking us. More will likely be on the way. The Crusader has drawn the PatComs away, but she's taking heavy PBC fire from them. She isn't firing back, so she may be damaged, or just reluctant to fire on Navy vessels. The Fairfax looks to be disabled. She's immobile but she's still launching missiles at us. The other corvette, the Almeida, is coming in hot and fast. Firing."
They felt the jolt from the cannon machinery, as the particle beam burst leaped from their starboard side toward the distant attacker.
"Deflected." Ravindran said, a little disappointed. She kept firing. Three incoming PBC bolts rocked the Redoubt as the Almeida fired on them. They could see the brightly coloured flashes outside the front view port as the LDA emitters countered and dissipated most of the energy of the incoming PBC blasts. Suddenly, they could see the Navy corvette for a split second as it hurled past them at seemingly impossible speed. "Aft magazine, launching seeker. Firing again." She continued to report her activity. It just didn't make sense that they were fighting for their lives against Navy ships. They felt their ship rock from enemy fire. The Almeida was trying the same rear-firing manoeuvre. From the energy impacts they felt, and the sounds of alarms as systems took damage, it seemed to be working, too. Red lights lit up Skarsgaard's board as the Redoubt felt the blows of the attack. Skarsgaard dispatched repair teams to the more critical systems immediately.
"Captain, we're taking damage.and we've got more missiles coming at us from behind, now," Ravindran announced, keeping her cool throughout. "Launching counter measures."
"Mac, keep us turning, and try to work back to the Crusader," Ferris ordered. He watched his display, as the Almeida's seekers closed on them relentlessly. "Brace for aft missile impact!" he yelled. An explosion rocked the ship, causing it to buck underneath them. Ferris was surprised at how much worse he had expected it to be. It wasn't as big an explosion as he expected. He looked at Ravindran, who was still focused on her display, concentrating her fire between defensive bursts against incoming missiles, and offensive shots.
"It detonated about three hundred meters aft of us, sir," she said, as if reading his thoughts. "Counter measures fooled it. It also looks like we hurt the Almeida on that last pass. She isn't changing her vector or speed, and our seeker is about to."
A flash on her screen, and the changes in contact registry information told the story. "Direct hit in her thrusters," she said almost sorrowfully, as she called up new targeting information on their remaining assailants. "We just killed the Commonwealth Navy corvette CNV 511 Almeida." There was a moment of silence as they all processed that information, while the Redoubt sped toward the Crusader's position. Even if it was done in self-defence, it went against everything they stood for. "I guess that makes us truly rogue, now," Ravindran concluded. "I wonder if the Indies will have us?"
"Do you think we should start a separate kills list for when we take out our own guys?" McMichael quipped. "Y'know, for our stats and stuff."
"Stow that talk, Mac! You too, Rav," Ferris shouted. "We have more Navy ships to kill if we're going to save ourselves and our only escort vessel. The Fairfax has started moving again, let's make sure she stays out of the fight for good, and get ourselves out of here."
"Captain, the Crusader is back in the fight. She just launched a REM missile at the two PatComs. They're turning and coming back for another pass at her," McMichael described the scene before him, enhanced by labels and vector trails on his HUD. "Unfortunately, the Fairfax is still pouring missiles out at both of us."
"Not for much longer," Ravindran said. "Coming into range of the Fairfax now. Switching to Rapid Fire Mode. Mac, keep us facing the target. Firing." The PBC fired a rapid burst of punishing energy, building up heat faster than it could dissipate it. McMichael spun the ship on its axis to keep the Fairfax in the manual crosshairs as they sailed past it toward the Crusader. Overheated, the weapons shut themselves down automatically, leaving the Redoubt dangerously vulnerable for a moment, as they shed heat. The tactic had worked, though. The last bolts tore through the Fairfax's main forward fuel reserve section, and the aft portion of the ComSec. A number of subsidiary explosions rumbled throughout the hull of the vessel before it finally ruptured and billowed in a violent fireball. The Redoubt, spinning back to face its trajectory, had just destroyed its second Commonwealth Navy corvette in as many minutes.
They closed on the Crusader, which was crippled but still in the fight. The REM missile she had launched detonated between the remaining Navy PatComs while they were accelerating in for another attack run. The rearmost PatCom was completely destroyed by the blast. The other PatCom, the Plevna, was crippled by the blast, coasting on its previous course directly toward the Crusader.
"Captain!" McMichael exclaimed. "The Crusader's in serious trouble. Those missiles from the Fairfax are heading straight for her and they're out of our range. We can't stop them in time."
"Then let's hope the Crusader can," said Ferris. They were closing the gap, but not fast enough. Helpless, they watched the missiles close on the Crusader. Two seeker missiles slammed into the Navy escort vessel one after the other, ending her service in an expanding fireball. The explosion carried enough force to inflict more damage to the Plevna, which coasted helplessly past the expanding fireball where the Crusader had been. The bridge crew of the Redoubt were close enough now that they could actually see the explosion envelope the crippled PatCom, deflecting it off its course, and stripping off her magazine pylons and large chunks of hull plating.
"Well, if she wasn't screwed before, the Plevna sure is screwed now," said McMichael as he watched the PatCom drift away from the clouds of drifting debris that marked this battle.
Ferris nodded, as he keyed commands into his console. "Let's leave them alone, and get the hell out of here. Mac, get us to the outer boundaries of this system fast. Take us at least fifty a.u.'s out. Pick a random vector, I don't care, just get us somewhere nice and quiet. Let's clear this LDSi field and get out there before anyone else shows up." The thrusters roared to life pushing the Redoubt further and further away from the field.
"Captain, it may be too late to leave here unnoticed," reported Ravindran. "A moment ago I detected a vessel on the contacts registry. It was a civilian vessel, probably a tug or a freighter. She was headed toward this L-Point and stopped when she detected the battle. They probably saw the whole thing and decided to run for some other point."
"Damn! A witness was the last thing we needed. If there was any doubt that we'd become traitors before, there won't be much now that we've been seen destroying Navy ships. Did you get an ID on them?" he asked.
"I'm afraid not," Ravindran said, matter-of-factly. "They stayed quite far out, and I was distracted by the fighting, and what I thought were more contacts."
"What do you mean 'more contacts'?" Ferris asked.
"For a moment, while I was going through sensor filters on the contacts registry, looking for missiles or mines, I thought I saw two new ships in the area. They were unknowns, corvettes from the looks of it, and then they were gone. It was very similar to the sensor blips we picked up at the time we engaged those pirates. They were probably sensor ghosts, or echoes from all the debris we just made around here."
"Nothing we can do about it now," said Ferris, rubbing his eyes with the heel of his hand. "Let's get out of here. I need a minute to think." A chime indicated the LDSi field had been cleared, and the LDS drive ramped up, kicked in, and hurled them away at near light speed.
"Captain, you realize that they'll have the L-points of this system bottled up in no time, don't you? We may not have all that much time," the new ENG Chief said.
"I'm fully aware of that Mr. Skarsgaard. I didn't say I needed a lot of time, but I need to decide on a course of action and to do that, I need to consult everyone. Assemble the bridge crew, and meet me in my office as soon as we're at system edge and the backup crew are at their stations. Make sure Colonel Carr and Lt. Dupuis are there, too."
Alpha Centauri System
CNV 676 NIAGARA
"Exiting Toliman point now," North said. "Welcome to Alpha Centau.My God! There is debris all over the place!"
"Looks like there was a fight here recently," said Lejeunne. "Very recently. Stay alert everyone. Any sign of the Redoubt?"
"None. I just got the last traces of a ship hitting LDS as we were entering. No ID, and no way to pursue, just a rough direction," said Bates from her WEPs station.
"Iwamasa, what are you getting from this debris? Any EDRs?"
"Aye, Captain," Iwamasa replied. "Mostly Navy vessels here, plus a few neutrals from the navy's 'probably pirates' list. All of the vessels assigned to escort the Redoubt were destroyed here. The other wrecks were either formerly assigned to system defence, or the Purdue's battle group. From the looks of it, though, I'd say the Redoubt got away."
"What in the hell is going on?" Lejeunne asked no one in particular.
Iwamasa chose to answer. "Whatever it is, there is no way I'm going to believe that Captain Ferris is a traitor. There was something funny about this whole mission, and the way I see it, this is some kind of set up."
"I find this all difficult to believe myself. In fact, I don't like it any more than you do, Kenji, but we received very direct orders from the Vice Admiral himself. We are ordered to destroy the Redoubt." Lejeunne said.
"I have to tell you right now, sir, if we come to that point, you're going to have to place me under arrest. I cannot participate in that kind of order. I don't care if it means the end of my career."
Lejeunne thought for a moment before answering. "I'm afraid there isn't much we can do to stop this, Chief. If we find them and we don't fire, our logs will show that we didn't carry out our orders."
Bates offered a solution. "I agree with Kenji. This whole thing stinks. I mean, what ever happened to due process? We haven't seen any evidence to support the claims that they've committed treason. Here's an idea: What if we don't ever find them?"
"Are you suggesting we intentionally avoid them?" asked Lejeunne.
"Let's assume that the Redoubt survived whatever happened here," Bates went on. "Let's also assume that the trace we saw hightailing it out of here was them. We could just head in the opposite direction, go through the L4 point out that way, and start roaming the Epsilon Indi system. I mean, if I were them, I'd head through Proxima to get back to Earth. There ain't much out the Epsilon Indi way."
"I'm willing to be the one responsible for leading you that way. I'll make something up to suggest I recommended going that way."
"Yeah," She nodded in agreement. "We could tell folks that Kenji here told us 'they went that-a-way'".
Lejeunne considered the option, but didn't seem convinced. "This is my first command, and I do not wish to blatantly disobey orders. I certainly did not expect to be making such a choice so quickly. Those orders were very clear and very explicit."
"But they tell us to kill one of our own," Iwamasa continued. "Can't we at least request confirmation from someone at Fleet Command? If nothing else it will buy them a little more time while we await confirmation."
"Very well, I'll send the request for confirmation to Fleet HQ. But when we get it, we will carry out those orders."
"Captain," Iwamasa said matter-of-factly. "I'm not going to be a part of the destruction of the Redoubt. If you don't want to avoid her, then we could always develop a serious drive or power plant failure, the kind that would take a day or two to repair. I could knock us out of the game right here and right now, if drifting around Alpha Centauri is the preferred option."
"No, I've had enough of drifting, and this ship needs to overcome her reputation for mechanical problems. We all owe Ferris and the entire crew of the Redoubt a debt of gratitude. I'll send the request for confirmation of the order and I'll agree to your suggestions. For now." He spoke to North next. "Ensign, take us on a nice sightseeing tour of the Epsilon Indi system. Let's all wish the Redoubt luck, wherever she decides to go."