In Direct Violation
Epsilon Indi Star System
"Mission update coming in on FTL, Captain," said Bates. "It's directly from Vice Admiral Wexler."
"I have it, Edwina. Thank you. Maybe this is our confirmation," Lejeunne answered as he operated the controls to unlock the transmitted briefing document. The Commonwealth symbol appeared along with the standard security codes before Wexler's voice could be heard over text that scrolled by with the details of a new briefing.
"It saddens me to say that we have indeed found the perpetrator of recent acts of treason and terrorism resulting in immeasurable loss of life and materiel in Tau Ceti, and now in Alpha Centauri. The CNV 534 Redoubt has been pursued across the Alpha Centauri system, and was last seen fleeing two separate engagements, in which a number of naval vessels were destroyed. These vessels were destroyed while trying to peacefully detain the Redoubt, and shepherd her crew back to base for debriefing. The footage you are about to see shows very clearly the destruction of the CNV Almeida, the CNV Crusader, the CNV Fairfax, and the CNV Ompah by the rogue ship Redoubt. By a turn of good fortune, and the heroic efforts of the crew, the CNV Plevna survived the battle, confirming the allegations against the Redoubt."
A series of clips replayed recordings of vessel IDs, their vector trails, missiles and PBC fire in a chaotic flurry of firing, manoeuvres and spectacular explosions. Lejeunne watched in silence as he studied the marker tags identifying missiles launched from the Redoubt slam into the Almeida and PBC fire from the Redoubt tearing through the Fairfax moments before it exploded. Pictures didn't lie, but they could be taken out of context. Wexler's voice could be heard again in the briefing document, after the footage was seen.
"We are uncertain where the Redoubt is at present, but they are not likely to remain in the Alpha Centauri system for long. We are currently engaged in blockading the exit points, but need assistance watching all possible system exits. Proceed to the waypoint provided in this document and join the blockade forces there. If you sight the Redoubt, send for immediate backup, and treat them as an extremely hostile target. Good luck. A strike fleet is being mobilized at this moment. Wexler out."
"Eh bien, it's official, the Redoubt is indeed a rogue ship, a traitor, and our primary target. We've wasted enough time sitting here doing nothing. We are ordered to proceed to."
"Captain, something's emerging from capsule space at the L-point," Bates sounded excited. "You aren't going to believe this, but the Redoubt just arrived here in the Epsilon Indi system. They aren't wasting any time either. They're hightailing it out to the rim of the system on full burn."
"North. Pursue them," Lejeunne ordered with excitement building in his voice. "But keep us as far astern of them as we can until we know where they're going. I want to avoid detection by them for as long as possible. Bates, FTL for backup to Wexler, and advise them we've sighted the Redoubt. Stand by to open fire on them as soon as they exit LDS." He looked over at Iwamasa's back, at the ENG station. "Sorry Kenji. I don't like this any more than you do, but we have orders."
Iwamasa remained silent, as he worked the board at his workstation. A moment later, as the LDS drive engaged and they raced after the Redoubt's vanishing trail, Less than a minute later, Iwamasa turned in his seat and faced Lejeunne.
"Captain Lejeunne. Don't do this. You know it's wrong. I'm begging you don't attack them."
"Kenji, you know I can't break off now. We tried to avoid them, but it's too late. Despite our best efforts not to, we found them. We're committed. I'm hoping we can disable them and wait for the Purdue to arrive, but we cannot stop now."
"They're my. my friends," Iwamasa stumbled. "They saved your lives. Doesn't that mean anything?"
Lejeunne looked down. He turned to face the front of the bridge, his jaw clenching and unclenching. He shook his head. "I'm sorry. I will not disobey direct orders during my first mission as captain."
"Then I'm sorry, too," Iwamasa said. He touched a key, and the Niagara dropped out of LDS instantly. Screens at each of the workstations went dark, and the sounds of comms, machinery, and engines went silent. The ship began to tumble gently as it drifted. The bridge was bathed in the red glow of emergency lights.
Bates threw up her hands after stabbing a few keys. "That's it. We lost them. Happy now, Chief?"
"Everything's out here, too Captain. We're dead stick and drifting," North reported from the NAV station.
"Lieutenant Iwamasa. Restore power to the bridge and ship's systems immediately," ordered Lejeunne.
"Uh.that's a negative, sir. We seem to have encountered some sort of glitch."
"Dammit, Kenji. This isn't a joke. You're already on very thin ice. Get us our power back. Now. Or you can consider yourself relieved. Permanently."
"Aye, Captain," Iwamasa saluted. "I'll get right on it, sir." He began working at the controls, bringing power back to his console first, but his eyes were actually on the clock. He wanted to buy the Redoubt three minutes. He worked continually for a couple of minutes busily redirecting power through a series of pointless shunts. Ten more seconds and.
"Power and control restored sir," Iwamasa reported. "Ship systems should be at your command in a moment or two."
"You are relieved, Lieutenant," Lejeunne scowled. "An escort will meet you at the aft hatch in thirty seconds. You are to accompany him to your quarters at once, where you will remain until further notice." He turned to face his workstation. "Bates, North, get me an extrapolation of their last known course. We'll use the charts to guess a likely destination, and try to pick up the trail of the Redoubt there."
Iwamasa remained silent as he exited the bridge.
Epsilon Indi Star System
Near Old Man Panemito's Parahelion
"Colonel Chen, you're wanted on the bridge immediately, please," urged the exec's voice from the speaker. She folded the data pad on her desk into its recessed compartment, placed the stylus into its clip, and walked out the door of her office toward the main bridge.
The CNV Malta looked outwardly like any Bastille-class destroyer, but that was where the similarities ended. She had been modified for long duration intelligence missions, serving as Chen's mobile base of operations for naval intelligence's covert ops. Ever since the debacle at Midway, the shrewd Colonel refused to be stationed on a platform that couldn't flee or fight back. Against the Captain's recommendations, she had ordered the Malta to take up station as far out as their sensor would permit. They hung silently in the emptiness of the Epsilon Indi system, at the limit of her passive sensors and optics, watching a very specific location: the inoperative, decommissioned FTL satellite that housed a small remote servicing drone called Sneezy.
Allbright had given her the location and codes for Sneezy, and she wasted no time retrieving the data. The sensor readings of two ships, PatComs of a familiar, but unknown design, were a goldmine. The fact that they employed stealth technology made these 'black ships' even more interesting to her, adding to the lore she had been collecting of similar sightings. Her people were analyzing the data three doors down the same corridor she just exited, as she walked to the bridge. The lift took her to the main command deck corridor, where armed marines stood ready to challenge any unfamiliar personnel. She got a courteous nod from the sergeant at the desk. He touched a key on his console and opened the hatch to the main bridge for her.
The bridge was abuzz with activity, and she quickly found Captain Mead leaning over one of the workstations conferring with the officer working the console. He looked pleased as he straightened to meet her approach.
"It looks like your gamble has paid off, Colonel. The Redoubt has just arrived at the location of the drone, as you predicted. They're just sitting there for now. I imagine they'll be quite unhappy when they discover it's been wiped."
"Perhaps. I doubt it will come as a complete surprise, though," she replied.
"Do we move in to attack?" asked Mead.
"Attack? No. We wait."
"Colonel, do I need to remind you that Vice Admiral Wexler, of Sector Command has."
".has no authority nor any jurisdiction here," she finished for him. "We're going to ignore those orders. Do you understand? I take full responsibility, but we will not be attacking the Redoubt. Stand by to move the Malta in. I want to wait a few more minutes to see if anyone else shows up. It will be interesting to see if ."
"Captain. Colonel," announced the officer at the next workstation. " The Redoubt isn't wasting any time. They've been there all of.eight minutes and twenty nine seconds, and they're moving off already."
"Astolus-Tifun L4. From there.unknown. Probably Inchidies. They're entering LDS now."
"Stand by to pursue," Chen ordered. "How's the tracking program working? Do we have a signal?"
"Loud and clear, so far. As soon as they tried to connect with the MFD we were in. We can. Wait a moment. Another contact is coming in behind the Redoubt." The same officer grew more excited as the situation grew more complicated. "It's coming into detection range now. It looks like it's following the Redoubt, too. ID coming in now.it's the Niagara."
"The Niagara." Chen whispered to herself in thought. "The Niagara isn't one of Wexler's is it? Give me a roster of her bridge crew, now!"
"Do we move in, Colonel?" Captain Mead asked.
Chen held up a single finger, gesturing for him to wait, as she studied the screen in front of her. "Let's give them another moment or two to see what they do."
"The Redoubt's long gone. The Niagara is just coming in, now. They must have lost the trail, they're going to the other FTL relay from the looks of it; the one that's still active."
"They don't know, do they?" Mead asked.
Chen nodded, her finger still pointing at the ceiling plates overhead. "We'll see."
"Coming up on the waypoint for Sneezy now, Captain." McMichael reported. "That was way too easy."
Ferris nodded, fighting a yawn. "I agree. I expected a lot more trouble getting here than that. Rav, get Allbright up here on the double. And where the hell are Carr's marines? I asked him to post guards at all vital points in the ship more than ten minutes ago. I would have expected at least a couple for the bridge, of all places."
He watched her as she spoke softly into the jaw mike on her headset. She nodded to him once, confirming the request, and returned to her scans. "Captain, so far, this region looks clear. I'm also picking up the small mass where the drone and inactive FTL relay housing should be. Allbright's coordinates were right on target, elapsed orbital time and everything."
"Bring us in close, Mac." Ferris turned to the ENG station to his right. "Skarsgaard, send the codes and begin the download as quickly as possible."
The Chief worked the controls for a moment before reporting back. Bad news, Captain. The drone's there alright, but it's been wiped clean. Very recently, too."
Allbright entered the bridge at that moment with a trio of armed and armoured marines. Two of the marines stopped at the entrance hatchway and took up positions on either side, while the third walked the remaining few steps to the captain's workstation alongside Allbright. Dupuis remained silent in his fold-down seat at the rear bulkhead watching the marines impose their intimidating presence on the bridge. He leaned forward to read their names stenciled on the armour plating. The names Hadley and Rinaldo, brought a reassuring element of human-ness to the soldiers that stood in silence next to the entrance hatch. Allbright seemed unfazed by their presence and stood looking over Ferris' shoulder at the command console. The third marine placed himself directly behind Allbright, dwarfing him with his presence, and blocking him from Dupuis' view. Connover was stenciled on that one's back.
"Wiped, eh?" Allbright said. "Chen beat us to it, then."
"She's probably watching us right now," Ferris looked over to Rav.
"I wouldn't doubt it," Allbright agreed.
"Now what?" McMichael asked, looking at Ferris in the mirror.
"I just wish I'd been able to get a decent reading of those ships I picked up on sensors during the fighting," said Ravindran, shaking her head. "They appeared out of nowhere, moved, and then disappeared again. It was almost as if they were stealth ships or something. If only I could have gotten a heading from them, we might have."
"If the ships I saw here a few weeks ago weren't stealth ships, then I don't know what is. They were the closest thing to stealthy as I could ever imagine," added Allbright. "I'll bet even money they're the same ones watching during the fighting."
A voice spoke our from the rear part of the bridge. "Stealth ships? Did you say 'stealth ships'? Dupuis interrupted.
"What is it, Lieutenant?" Ferris turned and looked at him carefully. "Is there something you can add?"
"It's just that. Well.this is classified, but I suppose it doesn't matter much now. The weapons used against the Syracuse and the entire strike group at the Amarid cluster, were some form of stealth weapon platform. Unfortunately, we couldn't prove anything.like you, we never got enough sensor information."
"And.?" Ferris prompted impatiently.
Dupuis unbuckled from the rumble seat and walked up the starboard aisle to stand next to the command station. "The point is, we don't have anything even remotely like it. Not yet."
"What do you mean, 'not yet'?"
"Well," he paused. "This is even more classified. The Navy has a secret research facility. I happen to know, through a personal contact, that this same stealth technology is not only the subject of some big budget research, but its getting close to being ready for field testing."
"You must mean the same 'secret research facility' that has been reverse engineering alien technology," McMichael quipped, "and studying mind control and time travel and."
"Shut it, Mac!" Ferris barked without taking his eyes off of Dupuis. "Are you saying these ships of Allbright's could be Navy test ships?"
"No. At least I doubt it. I haven't heard from Cor.from my personal contact in a few months, but she said something to the effect that they still had months of research to do before they went to prototype next year," Dupuis said, ignoring McMichael. "But someone has these stealth ships already. Whoever they are, they'll likely be pretty unhappy about the Navy figuring it out and taking away their advantage."
"Even if you're right," Skarsgaard said, his eyes narrowed in a disturbing purple shroud around those pale pink-rimmed eyes, "and the Navy is about to pull off a research breakthrough in stealth technology, how does this help us? We're rogue in case you hadn't heard. We can't get anywhere near Sol space, let alone the 'secret' military research facility on the moon. Even if we could, the asteroid attack that almost to wipe it out a few months ago gave them an excuse to beef up security more than ever."
"I never said anything about the moon," countered Dupuis. "There's secret and then there's secret. The 'secret' lunar research base is the one everybody knows about. The one I'm talking about is." he took a deep breath as he prepared to break a few Navy oaths, professional principles, and a personal promise to Corinna. "It's in AC-24. It's in Momar." He exhaled heavily before continuing. "It's called the Singularity Research Facility, or SRF. It's way, way out beyond the periphery of AC-24. My girlfr.my ex-girlfriend works out there in the materials research group. She never told me directly, but I figured out that she's with the research group looking at the stealth materials. I am in intelligence after all, and I was curious, so I did a little digging and pulled a few strings to get information that I shouldn't have, about the place. That's how I know a little about it."
"Great! Good for her," said Skarsgaard sarcastically, "and Momar's next door, too, which is convenient. I'd still like to know what good it would."
"Lieutenant Commander Skarsgaard!" Ferris scowled. "Let him finish. I'm willing to entertain anything at this moment, because the longer we sit here, the greater our chances of being seen and destroyed before we learn anything about this mess. You'll get your chance in a second." He turned back to face Dupuis.
"Captain, I'm convinced that this whole fool's mission is some kind of set up and the Navy, or at least some part of it, is involved with these stealth ships." He pointed at Allbright standing in the opposite aisle. "Allbright's seen them; they're real. Someone in the Navy doesn't want us to. If we can figure out how to detect them, or track them, then we can find out who they are and where they go. If we can find the real culprits and bring them out into the open, then all this manufactured 'rogue' crap will look like the load of horseshit that it is. Our best bet might be to find and talk to the scientists studying this stuff," he said. He looked as if he were imploring Ferris to take him to the SRF. He suddenly realized how desperate he was to see Corinna again, even if the circumstances were less than ideal.
Ferris studied him for a moment, looking dubious about Dupuis' motivations. He turned to look at Skarsgaard. "Chief. What do you think? Should we try for this SRF in Momar? It's possible that they may not even know about the hunt on for us. At the very least, we could maybe drop a few people off, get some supplies, catch our breath."
"Captain," said Skarsgaard, "Dupuis just wants to see his girlfriend and get away from this ship and the big bull's-eye its got painted on it. I can't say I blame him, either. But I don't see how going to a top secret research facility will make us look any less rogue, than we already do, let alone complete the mission to bring down the spy ship we had in with the Indies."
Dupuis leaned over the display screen to get closer to Skarsgaard. "Don't you get it? There never was a mission! I'm beginning to think that Wexler put everyone on this ship to clean up all his loose ends. Think about it: Someone high up in the Navy has to be helping this group with the stealthy ships and weapons platforms. What if it's been Wexler all along? He finds out we had a spy in with the Indies and they see something they aren't supposed to see, like maybe this stealth technology or something else he's up to. He gets anyone who had anything to do with this spy," he pointed to Ferris, "or has figured out there's another faction," he pointed at his own chest, "or has seen the stealth ships," he nodded at Allbright, "and he puts them all in one mission doomed from the word 'go'. Everyone who knows anything that can threaten his power disappears in one swat. Pretty neat, don't you think?"
"Nice theory except for two things." Allbright said. "First, Wexler didn't put me here. Chen did. Second, why would Wexler put one of his own people on board to sabotage the ship if all he wanted was to wipe us out in a space battle." He looked accusingly at Skarsgaard.
"Whoa, now wait a minute you little." Skarsgaard started. "I may have been chosen by the Vice Admiral to keep this ship on track with the assigned mission, but I'm no saboteur. If I was, believe me, those attacks would have changed my loyalties right quick. My skin's as much on the line here as yours, you pathetic excuse for....
"Gentlemen," Ferris announced. "If we're going to start exploring conspiracy theories, or hurling insults, we're going to do it somewhere else. Let's talk on the way to wherever we're going next, because sitting here and bellyaching does nothing good. Mac, get us to the L4 point at Astolus; best speed. It's the one by Tifun. Set the capsule drive destination for Inchidies, and see if you can find the location for this SRF."
The star field outside the forward view-port spun as the Redoubt oriented toward Astolus. McMichael spoke over the roar of the main thrusters as they pushed the corvette away from Sneezy's grave. "I've already been looking, but I guess its secret for a reason. Nothing shows up as even a likely candidate for this SRF in the AC-24 system, Captain."
"Lieutenant Dupuis, give our pilot the coordinates for this SRF in Momar, please."
"Uh. I'm afraid I don't know where it is."
Ferris rubbed his eyes again with thumb and forefinger. His fatigue was apparent in the sigh he heaved. "Very well, then. Tell us what you do know."
"I'm sorry, but I don't have any particulars, just the few bits that Corinna told me," he stammered. "All I know is that the SRF itself is out at the rim of the system, there's very little light.AC-24 is very dim, far and small, from what she's said in her messages. Oh and they go through a final capsule jump within the system to get there."
"That means there has to be an L-point at both ends, which might help us narrow the search some," said McMichael as he keyed up new maps of AC-24 on his screen. "Do you remember if she said anything about what was at the nearer end of that capsule jump?"
"No. I don't think she ever said anything about.wait, she did mention something like 'Minor Lemon', or 'Minor LaGrange'. I can't remember exactly. I don't know if it's a moon, or a rock, or a codeword. Does that help?"
"It may help a little," Allbright said, "and it kind of fits, but I get the feeling that if she did mention the Miner's Lament, then we're in for more problems than just finding this SRF."
"Start talking, Allbright," Ferris ordered. "We're headed to a system that is largely controlled by the Indies. If we can successfully get in and out of the Inchides system without getting killed by an Indie patrol, and if we can get ourselves to Momar, we still don't have a destination for this SRF yet, so anything you can offer is welcome right now."
"Even if it's old spacer lore, or fairy tales?" Allbright asked.
"At this point, I'll listen to anything," Ferris said, waiting as they sped toward the jump point at near light speed.
Allbright nodded and offered the little he knew. "I think Miner's Lament is the name of an abandoned mining operation near a large asteroid in AC-24. From what I've heard, it was a big rig, like a Vethonin-class mining rig."
"Why would anyone in their right mind abandon a Vethonin-class mining rig?" Skarsgaard sneered. "That's almost two Kilometres and millions of creds worth of extracting, processing and refining machinery. It's like a small colony. It would be a salvage team's score of a lifetime."
"Who said anything about being in their right mind?" Allbright continued. "This rig is at the heart of a region of space that's become a kind of dead zone; like a Bermuda Triangle in space. Believe me, salvagers have tried.and vanished."
"What's the Bermuda Triangle?" McMichael asked, genuinely curious.
"You must've come from the colonies," Allbright said to the pilot in front of him, "Because every kid on Earth knows that the Bermuda Triangle has been famous for centuries as the place where seagoing ships disappeared mysteriously without a trace.
"Spacer lore has it that the Miner's Lament was an operation that ceased for no apparent reason. Kind of like a boogey man or ghost story people like to tell. Any ship that has gone near there ever since has also vanished without a trace. Come to think of it.it's the perfect setup for hiding something and discouraging gawkers."
"Wait a minute!" Dupuis said. "Captain, Allbright may be right. I never put it together before, but I think I may have heard of this rig. I mean, not heard of it, but had something to do with it in another aspect. Especially if it's a Vethonin-class rig. Back when I was training at Naval Intelligence, some documents came across my desk that were contractor invoices for some sensor and targeting systems, CPU's, shielding plates, a bunch of FTL components and stuff like that. It was for a secret automated defense platform, but I never knew where it was located, or anything more. From the specs on the invoices, the thing had to have been huge. I was told to forget it, and in this business, you learn to do that pretty damn quickly.but this could be exactly what it was.
"The Navy must have gotten the Miner's Lament, modified it, and made it look abandoned. I would guess that this thing looks dead but it is very much active and deadly. I don't know how they've done it, but I'll bet anything this thing guards one end of an L-point. The only explanation I can think of is that it would lead to the SRF."
"Would you say that you're sure enough to bet your own life?" Ferris asked bluntly.
Dupuis swallowed, but he seemed to remain convinced. "Yes sir, the more I think about it, the more I'm convinced that this is the way to the SRF.
"Sounds pretty thin to me, but we're low on options. What kind of defenses are we talking about?" Ferris asked.
"I don't know specifics. It will look completely abandoned, but be more deadly than anything you've seen before, if activated," said Dupuis. "It was designed to let you approach. Unless you provide it with the correct codes within a certain amount of time, or on the right band, it basically comes alive with weaponry and would probably leave nothing bigger than a wristwatch when it's finished. For all I know it has a team of drones that feed it the debris to fuel it. That would explain all the disappearances."
Ferris studied him for a moment before breaking the silence. "You hear that Mac? Start combing the databases for a vessel or an abandoned mining operation, not a planetary body. Look for a big mining rig listed as inactive. My guess is they'll have parked it near a decent sized asteroid, not too far from another planetary mass to make the stable L-point they need for an insystem jump. Once you find it, that's our destination.
"Outstanding, gentlemen," Ferris tried to keep up morale with some encouragement. "Assuming we can get through Inchidies without encountering the Indies, we may actually have a chance at finding this SRF. If we can find these stealth ships, and whoever is operating them, we have a chance at clearing our names. Dupuis, Allbright.I'm finally glad you're along for the ride. Strap yourselves into the spare seats at the back and stay put. I may want to hear more of your spacer lore and old intel stories."
"Great!" McMichael muttered sarcastically as he clicked through the database. "We're running from the Commonwealth Navy, who are trying to kill us, through a system controlled by Indies, who are still trying to kill us, to end up at a giant killing machine that'll leave nothing bigger than a wristwatch. All so we can meet some scientists who might be able to tell us more about some ships we can't see, 'cause if we can track them, maybe we'll be able to find out why everyone's trying to kill us. I liked the original bullshit mission better. At least we know that the Wolf-In-The-Fold is real."
To be continued . . .