Epsilon Indi star system
Near Old Man Panemito's orbit
Lejeunne sat very still at his command station, trying to cope with the realization that he had lost the Redoubt. As a new Captain on his first command, he had to remind himself that there was no point in claiming that it wasn't his fault. His was the final responsibility, even though he hadn't asked for any of it. This was only supposed to be a brief shakedown cruise around the Sol system and back. He shook with a combination of fear and anger. This was a career-destroying disaster. He had already sent the FTL call to Wexler for backup, telling them they had found the Redoubt. The Purdue and her strike fleet would arrive soon, only to find him sitting here, in command of the Niagara, with no prey in sight, and no idea where to find them.
"Go over it again," he ordered North. "Find me the best possible projected course."
"The only thing I can think of, Captain, is the fact that they came out here for something specific. They either got it or they didn't but the reason they came here ceased to be a reason quickly, so they moved on. It's unlikely they'd go back, given the level of Navy activity, so they probably went on to Metallake, Delta Pavonis, or Inchidies."
"But where would they go? Where would they go? If they really are traitors they will want to reach an Indie controlled system, no?" Lejeunne mused for a moment before choosing a course of action. He keyed open a channel on the comm arm next to his command station. "Get Iwamasa back up to the bridge." He closed the channel and looked at Bates who regarded him coolly and accusingly. "I doubt he will help willingly, but he knows them."
Minutes later the rear hatch entrance to the bridge hissed as it slid upward. Iwamasa stepped over the hatch seal lip accompanied by a fellow crewman and walked to Lejeunne's workstation. Lejeunne glared at him, barely containing his anger. "You may have saved the Redoubt for a few more minutes, but not for long. In so doing, you have destroyed your career, and likely the careers of everyone of us."
Iwamasa shrugged, angering Lejeunne even more. "I'm going to give you one more chance to redeem yourself. Tell me where you think they have gone. What are they up to?"
Iwamasa hesitated before replying. "Captain Lejeunne, I'm sorry if, by letting the Redoubt escape I've caused you, Bates or North any harm. I really am. But I can't help you to hunt my friends. These orders are bogus. You know it, and I know it. The longer we have to wait for actual confirmation, the more likely it is we're being wrongly used. At least wait until we get confirmation."
"But we have received confirmation, Lieutenant Iwamasa," Lejeunne blurted out in anger. "You saw the sensor logs. They destroyed Navy ships!"
Iwamasa shook his head. "That wasn't confirmation from fleet HQ.that was another set of bogus orders from the same bogus source the first bogus orders came from. It is my opinion that Vice Admiral Wexler is unreliable. Captain Ferris did not do the things he's accused of. The Redoubt may have had to defend itself from attack, but that doesn't make them traitors. But none of that matters because I really don't know where they've gone. And if you want to know 'what are they up to', I'd guess they're trying to prove their innocence, like you or I would, if falsely accused. They'll defend themselves in the process, but most likely they're looking for a way out of the mess they're in."
Lejeunne seemed to waver for a moment, his eyes unfocused as he thought about the possibilities. He looked at Iwamasa with renewed hostility. "I have received orders from Vice Admiral Wexler of sector command, and I am obliged to carry them out. I've already sent the FTL signal for backup. They will be here very soon. I need to know where the Redoubt has gone, and I need to know now!"
"I'm afraid I have no idea, Captain Lejeunne. Even if I did know, I wouldn't provide you with that information. I know Captain Ferris. I know he is a good man, and we both owe him our lives, orders to the contrary or not. I know I'll probably spend the rest of my life in the stockade for this, but at least I'll know that I once served with a good crew and a good Captain. My time aboard the Niagara will just be a brief and unfortunate footnote." With that he turned and walked back toward the exit.
"Lieutenant Iwamasa," Lejeunne barked. "You have not been dismissed."
Iwamasa quietly returned to where he had stood and waited with a calm fortitude that disturbed Lejeunne. He sat and stared at the young Engineer for several seconds. His face showed the strain of the conflict he was feeling, his brow furrowed with stress. He blinked his red-rimmed, watery eyes several times and finally said with a thick voice. "What would you have me do?"
"Help them," Iwamasa replied. "At the very least let them go. Hell, just blame me and my incompetence for losing them if that's what you're worried about."
There was another pause while Lejeunne wrestled with his decision. Finally he said, "I'll consider your suggestion further. In the meantime, take your station." He sighed, nodding to the ENG workstation and waving the crewman who had become Iwamasa's reluctant guard to leave. He cleared his throat before saying more loudly for the entire bridge crew. "We need a course, people. Call up all last known."
"The Purdue is inbound, sir, with six escorts," Bates said. "It looks like Vice Admiral Wexler didn't waste any time getting here."
"It's too late to get clear," Lejeunne said. "I'm afraid we're left with no choice Kenji. We have to fall in with the strike group. Edwina, stay alert just in case."
AC-24 Star System (Momar)
Abandoned Vethonin-class Mining Rig in Asteroid field orbiting Wagip
Volochkov watched the enhanced image on the display of the immense grey hulk for any sign of activity. It appeared only as a shadowy smudge in front of the stars.
"Time?" he asked.
"Our colleagues should be here already," Rydstrom said. "I don't like this."
"Kobie, what are you getting from that rig? Anything?"
"Nothing," N'Bele replied. "The thing looks completely dead and cold as space."
"Not only should the other Indies be here already," Finn said "We're coming up on our scheduled departure time fast, Captain. We need to send the fake distress call now, if we're going to do it at all."
"Any hints of jamming or other forms of comm suppression?"
"None that we can detect, sir. No hint of the abort code either," Finn replied. "You're going to have to make a decision soon, sir."
"The timing on this is too damned tight." Volochkov sighed. "Too many things can go wrong, and when they can, they always do. If I find out that MacDuff has tried to screw us, he'd better be thorough, 'cause he's going to be my first target when if come out of this.
"We're running out of time, so here's how we'll play it. Send the access codes to the Miner's Lament at the last possible second. Once we get the green light, we send the distress call as we're leaving. Have all weapon systems at full ."
"Captain! Contacts coming in." Finn said. "Three Indie IFFs are inbound.Braveheart, Bannockburn, and the Acadian.looks like our colleagues have finally arrived."
"It's about time." Volochkov muttered. "Open a channel."
"This is Volochkov, Captain of the Wolf-In-The-Fold. You're late! In case you didn't get to hear the briefing, MacDuff wants us to arrive at the SRF early, so form up quickly. We have to get going."
"Captain," came a very familiar Scottish-sounding voice from the speaker. "I apologize for the delay, but there was a small, last-minute change of plan."
"Quartermaster MacDuff!" Volochkov replied. "I.I didn't expect you'd be coming along for the ride."
"Hold your position for a moment, while I bring you up to speed," said MacDuff with some urgency. "We haven't much time as we may have encountered a Navy patrol on the way here. Keep your distance from the mining rig and whatever you do, do not, I repeat, do NOT transmit the codes you were given. Things have changed."
"Holding," Volochkov said into the pickup. "What has changed?"
The approaching tugs, two of which were brightly painted in Indie markings slowed to a halt as they came to within a few hundred metres of the waiting corvette. MacDuff's voice was heard on the comm channel again. "We've heard through the grapevine that there's been some strange Navy activity in the last day or so. It seems that a mission intended to eliminate you has gone awry." He let that sink in for a moment.
"You mean the Commonwealth Navy is trying to eliminate the Wolf-In-The-Fold?"
"Apparently so. You've somehow been tagged as the ones responsible for massacre at Tau Ceti."
"That's.bothersome. So much for collecting that Navy pension."
"That's only part of it, I'm afraid," MacDuff continued. "It seems that entire mission was a bit of a PR cock-up, and the ship that was assigned the task of bringing you down has also been declared rogue. They are now being hunted by a number of Navy vessels.whereabouts unknown."
"It sounds like they needed a scapegoat in a hurry," Volochkov surmised. "Who else is catching the blame?"
"The Redoubt," said MacDuff. "Captain Ferris and his crew have been declared traitors, and are considered to be rogue, just like you. Strangely, this edict has not reached everyone in the Commonwealth Navy, nor does it seem to include everyone in the chain of command. It seems to be a fairly local action."
"The same Redoubt that played us at Arcadia; the so-called Out-In-The-Cold?"
"It figures. Well that answers one question, not that it helps now."
"How's that, Captain?" MacDuff asked.
"I was going to suggest the Redoubt as a reliable and trustworthy contact candidate. They had a solid reputation within the Navy. They were known as a ship that had some integrity," Volochkov said. "I was right.they're among the good guys, but it doesn't matter now, because they'll probably be dead soon. If they somehow survive they'll have zero credibility. Anyway, I still don't see how this all affects our SRF mission. Are we going or not, 'cause time is running out."
"We're going," MacDuff continued, "but as soon as the navy started hunting one of its own, the access codes to the rig changed automatically. I don't even think that COSA know about that. If you had transmitted the codes we were given by COSA, this thing would have become very dangerous to approach. It took us a while to acquire the new codes, but we should be able to pass safely now."
"I see. Well, I'm glad we waited, then," Volochkov said. "If we want to get there early, we should get going."
"Indeed," said MacDuff. "Formate on me, and approach the rig at port speed. We'll transmit the new code, at which time it should provide all L-point NAV data for our HUDs automatically, as well as a timer/countdown to tell us how long it will remain viable. We'll be able to make a capsule space jump normally once we get the navigational data. Remember to be on full alert. The situation at the other side of this short jump could be extremely hostile."
"Understood," Volochkov acknowledged. "We're ready here. We'll transmit the fake distress signal on your mark."
"Here we go ladies and gentlemen," MacDuff said. "Transmit the distress signal now. Luck be with you all."
Inchidies Star System
Sisemis LaGrange point
The Redoubt emerged from capsule space at the Sisemis L5 in the Inchidies system without incident. They all waited for Ravindran to complete her scan of the region around the L-point. Without a word, she nodded to Ferris, who in turn nodded to McMichael's reflection in the overhead mirror. Indie navy traffic was common in this system, but it didn't mean the Indies 'controlled' Inchidies. It simply meant that there was a much greater likelihood that a single Commonwealth vessel would find itself the target of an Indie patrol here than in Alpha Centauri. The Redoubt wheeled as it moved around the LaGrange point to set up another capsule jump in rapid succession.
"As soon as the capsule drive is charged, get us through to the Momar L4 in AC-24," Ferris ordered. The crew worked silently and efficiently at their stations. Four marine guards arrived to take up positions on the bridge, while Dupuis sat fastened into the rumbled seat at the aft bulkhead.
"Still clear, Captain," Ravindran reported. "It looks like the Indies are busy elsewhere today."
"First bit of luck we've had all day," Skarsgaard muttered from the ENG workstation. "That's it. Capsule drive is charged and ready when you are driver."
"Who's a 'driver'?" McMichael said, as he hit the thrusters to take them into the L-point at 500 m/s. "I prefer the term 'Pilot', or even 'Navigator' myself, Lieutenant Commander. A driver turns a steering wheel left or right. I do fantastically complex and miraculous things like pilot a starship, and find secret, hidden mining stations like the Miner's Lament, which, by the way, is locked in as out next waypoint, Captain, in case anyone was wondering."
"Very well..Pilot. Proceed," said Ferris. Space outside the forward view port flashed brightly, bathing the bridge in the brilliant and colourful glow of capsule space. "Mac, please call Colonel Carr and invite him to the bridge."
McMichael looked at Ferris' reflection with a perplexed looked, but nodded in compliance as he keyed the call button for their marine guest.
"Next stop: Momar!" McMichael said, imitating the train conductor characters he'd seen in old Earth flatties. The time in capsule space seemed interminable as they waited for their ship to traverse the quantum tunnel that defied Einsteinian physics.
With a second flash, they emerged in the Momar system. Again, all eyes turned to Ravindran as she performed the ritual scan for contacts. "Three contacts, Captain," she reported. "Unknowns. They're already in LDS and moving away from us. Going, going and gone. I doubt they even saw us arrive."
McMichael answered for her. "It looks like they're heading in exactly the same direction we're going. The mining rig waypoint is right on their projected path."
"I don't like it, but I guess there isn't much we can do about it now. We're in AC-24 already, and there isn't anywhere else we can go right now. Get us to that rig as quickly as possible. Rav, stay sharp. We're heading toward too many unknowns," Ferris said. "Let's go. Every moment we spend sitting here makes us that much more of a target for someone."
"Aye, captain." McMichael said. "On our way."
Thrusters roared to full power. The Redoubt slewed toward her new heading as velocity increased. The LDS drive ramped up quickly as they cleared the small inhibition field. The ship suddenly entered the rapid physical shift that allowed them to travel at interplanetary speeds. McMichael watched the speed indicator rise as the HUD speed perspective lines zipped by him. The colours changed from green to orange to blue to indicate near light speeds.
McMichael looked up to the mirror and caught Ferris eye as they sped toward the new destination. "May I ask a question?"
"Always," Ferris smiled.
"What the heck are we doing?" McMichael knew the wording might have been construed as insubordinate, but he trusted that his relationship with the Captain would make the meaning clear. "I mean, I know we're kind of reaching for anything that might help us get out of this mess, but how will the SRF and this stealth technology research help us? More importantly, why would we want anything to do with Colonel Carr? If you ask me, we should leave that bald psycho and ."
"Then it's a good thing no one asked you, isn't it, Lieutenant," Colonel Carr said as he strode up beside the pilot's station flanked by armed marines. "Captain Ferris, I trust you'll be taking the appropriate disciplinary measures against this insubordinate officer. If you do not, I will apply the required discipline in order to maintain order in the ranks. I will not tolerate this kind of subversion of authority. Discipline and respect for the chain of command must be maintained. On this particular issue I will not be flexible."
Ferris heaved a sigh that could have been equal parts exhaustion and exasperation. "Colonel Carr, I gave my officer permission to speak freely. Therefore the responsibility is mine and any discipline should be directed against me."
"I don't accept that, Captain. This man is responsible for the words he utters whenever he wears that uniform. I can take a little name-calling, but that kind of disrespectful behaviour in the line of duty must be punished in order to."
"Then leave the punishment to me, Colonel," Ferris replied sharply. "Accept my word that he will receive a formal rebuke at the appropriate time. Right now isn't the appropriate time."
"Very well," nodded the Colonel. "I'll accept that on the condition that I am witness to that punishment."
"Fine, but right now we are faced with more pressing matters."
"Matters, I assume, that required my presence on your bridge," the marine Colonel replied. "I have endeavoured to respect the wishes you made clear the last time I set foot on your command deck, Captain."
"Colonel, we're about to arrive at an armed and automated defence platform. Its purpose is to guard a little known LaGrange point in this system. As far as we know it will lead us to a research facility that may hold some answers to the stealth ships that seem to be involved in the attacks we've been suffered. The problem is that we don't have the access codes, nor any way to deactivate its rather frightening defences. But we need to gain access to the NAV data that will enable us to make the in-system jump to get to that research facility. Do you have any solutions for this problem?"
"I don't see any problem. It is a small challenge perhaps, but not a problem. I have at least two specialists that can hack that platform, or, in a worst-case scenario, sever the right conduits to render it harmless."
"Then ready your team and stand by. We'll be arriving in a few minutes."
Colonel 'Barber' Carr issued orders into a small link in the cuff of his uniform, and turned with a snap and signalling two of the four marines on the bridge to return to the pastie using rapid hand signals. He listened to a garbled reply from a small comm on his uniform and left the bridge to prepare his assault team.
"Mac, from now on you watch your mouth," Ferris said. "We're all on the same side, and we need."
"Captain!" said Ravindran. "I've just received a distress call from the Singularity Research Facility. It isn't on the normal S.O.S. band, but it sounds legitimate. It's repeating now."
"Let's hear it."
"Aye, sir," she said as she activated the audio. "This is the Commonwealth Naval research facility code-sign Calypso Lollipop 8824-srf. We are under heavy attack by unknown vessels and require immediate assistance."
"It sounds almost too.by-the-book, doesn't it?" McMichael said. "Whoever sent that distress signal doesn't sound very distressed."
"Maybe," said Ferris. "Or maybe whoever is in command there isn't easily panicked. The question at hand is: Do we still want to go there at all?"
"Captain," said Skarsgaard, "the whole point of going there was to avoid contact with Commonwealth Navy, and to hopefully get some answers to this whole stealth ship technology question, right? I don't see how we can accomplish either by going there now. Every ship out looking for us will be rushing to the SRF as fast as they can, right? My guess is we don't want to be in the middle of that. They probably already think that we're the ones attacking it. This might be our best chance to get clear of this system, while everyone is preoccupied, and find a nice hole to hide in for a while. At least it will give us time to come up with a better plan than this."
"We're not even sure we can get there," said Ravindran. "We still have to get past the mining rig guarding the way. And if we do, we'll be arriving at an unknown location in the middle of a hostile situation that will only be compounded by the arrival of more naval vessels. We may be in over our heads, Captain. This might be a good opportunity to get away and regroup somewhere safe."
Ferris nodded as he considered this option. He was still deep in thought when McMichael spoke.
"I have to agree with the Rav and the Chief on this one," said McMichael. "This is definitely not the place we want to be if something bad is happening. That doesn't even begin to address the possibility that this is a trap. We just saw three ships heading in exactly the same direction we're going. We know that everyone in the navy is hunting us, and the Indies will probably do their best to kill us, too. It just smells like."
"Horseshit!" Dupuis shouted from the back of the bridge where he had been sitting quietly through the last two jumps. "You're all full of it and you know it!"
Dupuis strode up the aisle to stand next to Ferris putting Hadley and Rinaldo ill at ease. The marines quietly changed their stance. They held their weapons ready in case they had to dispatch anyone on the bridge at a moment's notice. Dupuis, oblivious to the risks he was taking, spoke directly to Captain Ferris.
"As the intelligence analysis specialist for this mission, I can tell you that the trap theory makes no sense at all. If they wanted to trap you with an S.O.S., they'd do it somewhere less secret and more easily reached than a top secret research facility." He looked over at Skarsgaard next. "And where do you propose we run to? Where should we hide, and for how long? What alternate plan of action could there be as long as we're considered to be traitors? There is something very odd about the entire sequence of events so far. Nothing about this mission has made much sense, but it has something to do with the stealth technology being used by those ships, some crooked navy dealings, and a new faction. The more I think about it, I am convinced our answer lies at the SRF.
"The distress call is likely to be legitimate, especially given the stealth research connection at that facility. This may be our only chance to get some answers and to clear the name of this ship."
Ferris nodded at Dupuis' argument without a word, seeming to be lost in thought. He looked more exhausted than anyone recalled seeing. His sunken, red-rimmed eyes were unfocused. There was a silence on the bridge as the others waited for him to say something. He spoke quietly when he finally did respond, forcing the others into a stark silence. "The only real question at hand, is: Who are we?"
The others looked perplexed. There were uncertain glances exchanged between the crew on the bridge, including Allbright sitting quietly in the other rumble seat at the rear bulkhead. McMichael began to wonder if the fatigue and strain hadn't finally gotten to the Captain. Ravindran's mind raced through possible meanings as she waited for him to elaborate. He obliged them all a moment later. "In a few minutes, we'll be arriving at the Miner's Lament. You've all described what appears to be a choice we must make: Do we use this distracting opportunity to slip away, or do we use the opportunity to learn more about stealth technology to help expose these mystery ships? Those might be good questions, but they're the wrong questions. I say we only need to answer one question of ourselves: Who are we? Are we, or are we not officers of the Navy?" He looked at each of them again carefully, pausing for an uncomfortable moment. "In other words: Do we continue to behave like a Commonwealth Navy Vessel, and respond to that distress call, or do we run?"
Ferris looked at each of them. "We have no future if we try to slip away. We may buy ourselves a little more time, but we'll cease to be the Navy ship we currently are. We'll be on the run, and truly and finally become the rogues they say we are. So far we've had to fight and even kill fellow Naval personnel in this mission, in order to survive, but as far as I'm concerned those ships were out of order. The crew of the Crusader knew it. They fought along with us, and died doing their jobs. This vessel's designation starts with three letters. We have, and will continue to operate as a Commonwealth Navy Vessel. I haven't given up my status as Captain of a Commonwealth ship yet, and I'm not about to turn rogue just because someone says I have. We all are officers of the Navy, and we all know that the distress call we received is our call to duty, even if we risks our own destruction."
This caught even Dupuis off guard. McMichael squared his shoulders and shifted a little in his seat, tightening his grip on the ship's main attitude controller. Ravindran looked down as if she were ashamed. Skarsgaard looked at Dupuis and Ferris and shook his head in disbelief. "You don't seriously think we should just forget about everything that has happened in the past several hours and go charging in to the rescue, do you? Your sense of nobility, or duty didn't stop you from killing those other Navy ships that attacked us. Why get all holier-than-thou and self-sacrificial now? We're barely combat-viable as it is, with only a handful of missiles left. We'll probably be the first ones to get blamed for whatever is happening there. Actually showing up will only make things worse.it will put us at the scene of the crime."
"Not our crime! Not our crime. We're not the criminals," said Ferris. "And we aren't going to start acting like we are. We aren't defined by what we appear to be to others. We are defined by our own beliefs and by our own actions. We've been fighting for our survival from the start of this mission. It meant making choices in the moment that would keep us alive long enough to think things through. Believe me, since then I've been thinking things through. We're going to do everything in our power to defend that station, even if it means getting killed in the process, because that's who we are.
"Mac, as soon as we get within three hundred Kilometres of the Miner's Lament, bring us to a halt and hold station," Ferris ordered. "Skarsgaard, I want you to get some people on the optics, get a good look at the rig and tell us what we're up against."
The bridge crew watched the distances decrease in the hundreds of millions of kilometres as the Redoubt hurtled across the Momar system. The trip took longer than Ferris had anticipated, but every additional minute would give the marines more time to prepare for their boarding action. McMichael finally began decreasing the LDS rate and slowed the Redoubt to thruster velocity just over four hundred kilometres away from the rig. They came to a halt at three hundred Kilometres distance from the abandoned mining rig. The comm arm swung out and Ferris received a final report of combat readiness from the marine module. The optics suite called to indicate that they were bringing the Miner's Lament into view, images of which began to appear on the CMD display, for Ferris to examine. He leaned to the side and looked back at Dupuis and signalled him to join him at the command station to see the same blurry and jumpy images that were taking shape in front of him.
"Not much to see, is there?" Ferris commented when the image stabilized and focused in on the distant, dark object. "It's hard to believe that thing's almost two klicks long and packed with weaponry."
"Believe it, Captain," Dupuis said, staring intently at the screen. "I certainly do."
"Beliefs are all we're hanging on to, right now. Yours and mine," replied Ferris.
"It must be well shielded, we're getting nothing from it; no power output, no heat, nothing," said Ravindran. "It looks completely dead."
The Redoubt shuddered, as the marine pastie separated and began its journey toward the Miner's Lament. Allbright left his seat and walked to a place between the command station and the Engineering station, looking back and forth between displays.
"Do you really think they can hack the rig and get us past it?" he asked.
"We'll know in a few minutes," said Ferris. "They're within fifty klicks of it now."
"Wait a minute. Captain," said Allbright with a hint of concern growing in his tone. "I've been thinking about that thing. It has no output on any of the normal emission wavelengths does it?"
"No, it still looks very cold"
"But look at the size of it. It's big enough to hold several small ships tucked away in all its nooks and crannies isn't it? Maybe even several dozen smaller armed drones?" Allbright asked.
"The marines are trying to dock," interrupted McMichael, "but they're having some problems."
Allbright continued his line of questions, "What if it doesn't have a single large power source; the kind that would be necessary to operate a bunch of mounted weapons and LDA emitters.I mean what it if were nothing but a big heavily shielded garage for a whole bunch of small armed drones?"
Ferris thought for a moment before replying. "They'd all have smaller and separate reactors that would be quicker to start from cold, and be easier to hide in shielded recesses, all over."
".and those Marines are heading in there thinking that they'll be hacking some central CPU or cutting some main power source."
"But something would have to detect and coordinate the actions of the drones. Something has to be tracking and providing the NAV data once the green light is given." Skarsgaard offered.
"Drones can be more or less autonomous and activated by a simple sensor feed. And all the navigational stuff could be handled by the equivalent of a miniature FTL relay. There may even be a few of them hidden all over for redundancy."
"What about the need for a microgravity environment so that the FTL relay can work?" asked Skarsgaard. "That thing is near a sizeable asteroid."
"Doesn't matter if it isn't really working as a relay," Allbright replied. "This thing only needs to be local, so it can park next anything it wants. The point is the marines might never find a central CPU or main power grid using their standard breaking and entering techniques. They're thinking this is going to be like a fancy gunstar or weapons platform. That thing doesn't need to be an armed platform if it's nothing but a shielded warehouse. If I'm right, then those marines could be walking into a serious death trap. If I was designing something like this, I'd make it less like a gunstar and more like a Q-ship."
"I'm trying to get Carr on the comm now," Ferris tapped a series of key sequences. "We have to tell them to abort and return here immediately, they could be pulverized if they dock to it."
Ravindran reported on the comm activity she was hearing. "We're getting more internal comms from the marine pastie now, they've found what looks like a place to dock and are moving toward it, but they're also picking up multiple low level power sources throughout the rig."
Ferris spoke into the comm arm pickup as quickly as he could. "Colonel Carr, this is Captain Ferris. That rig may have a more distributed defence system than we thought. There may be nothing to hack or cut off. Return to the Redoubt on the double and we'll try something else."
"Nonsense, Captain," Carr's annoyed voice replied from the speaker. "We know what we're doing. My people are trained for this sort of thing. You have a nasty habit of contacting me when I'm in the middle of delicate operations. Please allow me and my team do our jobs. I'll conta."
"What happened?" Ferris asked. "Where's his signal?"
"He just stopped transmitting, Captain," Ravindran said. "It may be interference from the rig. I'm getting some activity from it now, more contacts are appearing. Looks like Allbright may have been right."
"Optics are confirming that. They are reporting some activity at the rig. Either the marines are using beams and cutting their way into that thing, or weapons are firing," reported Skarsgaard.
Ferris watched the dark, almost indiscernible image for a second before seeing a brief flicker of light followed by another faint flash.
"That's weapons fire!" he said. "McMichael, start moving us in closer, and stand by for a fast retreat. Maybe we can draw some of those things off them. Ravindran, we're going to need some of that gunner magic in a moment."
"Aye, sir," she replied. "It looks like the marine pastie is getting swarmed. They're definitely taking hits. It's starting to show damage on my readout. I hope none of the marines were outside when those things hit them."
Ferris turned to Allbright, who was watching events unfold, as he feared they might. "Allbright, you know FTL relay systems."
"I know a thing or two about them, yes, but..."
"You and Skarsgaard get to work and find a way to disable that thing out there without killing the NAV data stream we're going to need. Do it now."
Allbright felt the dryness in his mouth push the desire for a drink up to the forefront of his consciousness again. He ran his trembling hand over his mouth and down his chin in an effort to push the urge down again. He blinked away the impulse to leave the bridge in search of a bottle, and tried to focus on the details of his surrounding. He was about to tell them that he couldn't do it; that his skills weren't up to it; that his hands would shake so badly for lack of a drink that he would slow any efforts down, when he saw McMichael's personal touch bolted to the overhead panels. The sight of a rear view mirror from an automobile attached to the ceiling of the bridge on an NSO model 929 Commonwealth Navy Corvette, one of the best war machines they had, complete with a pair of fuzzy dice, made him laugh with a silent burst of breath. The laughter left him gasping after a few seconds. He coughed a little, and laughed a silent wheezing laugh that broke the grip of panic and alcohol addiction that had paralysed him a moment earlier. He felt tears sting his eyes as he continued to snicker a little less silently. A new focus gripped him and he chuckled again at the silliness of that decoration next to the deadliness of what they were doing. He shook his head and settled next to the Chief Engineer's workstation. Seconds later, he was leaning over the displays and controls speaking quietly with Skarsgaard. The Chief's blue and pink streaked hands flew over the key commands as Allbright directed him. Together they worked furiously to find the way into the FTL navigational data stream. After a few minutes of this, the Chief turned around.
"Captain," said Skarsgaard excitedly within a few more moments. "I think Allbright has done it. We've found a way into the navigational data, but."
Skarsgaard's shoulders sank a little. "There's nothing we can do about the drones. Not yet anyway."
"We got it," Allbright cried. "We're receiving the NAV feed now. Pilot, you should be seeing a destination for the capsule drive any moment."
"I'm seeing it now," said McMichael. "Wait. Captain, look at that timer on the L-point! We have about two minutes to make a capsule jump if we don't want to wait a few weeks for the next opening."
Ferris nodded an acknowledgement feeling the full weight of the news. If they tried to save the marine pastie, they might all die, and they would certainly lose the chance to get through the tiny L-point. It was about to cease to be stable enough for the capsule drive to operate within. He hated making this kind of decision, but he knew what the responsibilities of the Captain's chair entailed.
"Mac, take us to the L-point for a capsule jump," he said. "Full burn."
The engines roared loudly as they shifted direction and angled for a fast approach to the new L-point appearing on the HUD.
"What about the marine pastie?" Skarsgaard asked.
"Tell them the situation," he replied stiffly. "They have less than two minutes to get docked and secured to us as we line up for an urgent capsule jump. We'll be under fire as we make the final course corrections for the jump, but we don't have time to stop and fight. They'd better have a damned fine pilot because we aren't going to slow down to let them get lined up. They'll either make it and get mated in time, or they won't and get left behind. Tell them to position themselves for an emergency-docking manoeuvre with a moving target.
"Rav, do your best to keep those things off of them.and us," Ferris said before addressing everyone else on the bridge. "Strap in folks. This could get rough." He activated the general ship-wide comm next. "All hands: Brace for enemy contact and emergency manoeuvres. Repair teams: Stand ready."
"We'll be in range soon," Ravindran said. "The pastie must have gotten the message, they're trying the break away. It looks like they're angling in on an intercept vector."
They all watched their display screens, as the swarm of drones following the pastie began to shift. At first a few, then several, then at least two-dozen of the armed drones streaked toward them. "Here they come," Ravindran said as she started firing the main forward PBC into the oncoming vehicles.
"This all seems disturbingly familiar," said McMichael with remarkable calm.
"Just get us through that L-point, Mac," Ferris said.
"Oh, I plan to. As long as it's still there when we get to it. Counter's down to less than thirty seconds, now. But we're getting close." He rolled the corvette and pulled back on the main pitch control, changing course in a tight high-speed turn. "I don't have much hope for those poor marines, though."
The LDA flared and flashed its deep magenta hues as it tracked and blocked incoming fire. More and more shots were getting through. Thankfully the drones relied on numbers, not individual power, so each hit was less damaging than it might have been. The problem was that the numbers were in their favour, and the damage to ship systems was accumulating faster than it was being repaired. Dozens of drones closed in on the Redoubt and dodged around them, some exploding in brilliant flashes of superheated gas as PBC bolts tore into them, many more delivering their own lethal stings to the hull of the corvette.
"Watch you don't overheat the PBCs, Rav," chided Ferris. "We can't afford any holes in our defence."
"I'm firing at the optimal rate, Captain," she replied. "Any less and we'd be dead."
We're in the final vector for jump now with a few seconds to spare," McMichael said loud enough to be heard over the din of PBC fire. "Do we slow down for the pastie, or keep pushing it? It looks like they're getting close enough to maybe make it."
"Damage Report!" yelled Ferris.
"Too many systems on my board are going red, Captain," replied Skarsgaard. "If you want a working capsule drive then get us away from these damned things as fast as possible."
"Keep pushing, Mac. They'll just have to."
The ship rang with a painful-sounding metallic grind as they were all jarred suddenly downward. Ferris looked at McMichael in the mirror as the corvette developed a new vibration and started slewing toward the port. McMichael was too busy struggling to keep the ship on target to see Ferris looking at him.
"Report!" Ferris yelled again, focusing on his screens, looking for answers.
"The marine pastie just pulled the boldest move I've ever seen," McMichael said. "Looks like it worked, because they're clamped onto us tight for the moment. I guess they didn't want to get left behind. Here we go, coming up to jump in three.two.one."
The capsule drive worked as it was designed to. They flashed out of the region of space dominated by the Miner's Lament, and into capsule space for a brief respite from the barrage of light PBC fire they had endured.
"That was some good work back there, everyone," said Ferris, "but right now we need to focus on repairs. Skarsgaard and Allbright, make that your primary focus now. Mac, we have no idea what we're coming out into, but once we do, if there's a quiet place to take cover for a few minutes, I need you to find it fast. Rav: that was some fine shooting. Stand ready to do some more."