Location: CWS Fortitude, Sol System, United Commonwealth of Colonies
“Ma’am, docking clamps unlocked and mooring cables disconnecting. Decoupling procedures will be complete in one minute.”
“One minute, people, so look alive. This is Fortitude’s maiden voyage. Let’s make it a memorable one.”
Ben sat at the back of the bridge in a visitor’s chair as Sarah conducted her crew like a maestro. They’d both been so busy since they arrived on Constitution that this was the first time he’d seen her in days. He understood why. The demands of being a skipper outweighed their physical and emotional needs.
Despite that, a thought kept scratching at the back of his mind. There were a few times they could have seen each other. They’d scheduled time to eat chow in the officer’s mess together, but every time something always came up on her end. He’d have his hopes up and then he’d get a message on his PAD to reschedule.
<It’s not like that.> He pushed down the thought. <We’re just both swamped right now.>
Argo’s true maiden voyage with him in command had been a short ride up two rings and into the larger cruiser. Now it sat tucked comfortably in the belly of Fortitude for the journey to York Sector, so he didn’t have much to do other than paperwork at the moment. He’d hoped he’d be able to at least talk to her, but now it looked like she’d be busy again.
While he was here trying to talk with his quasi-girlfriend, his XO was in command. He’d met her earlier in the week and put her to work immediately.
Lieutenant Heather Briggs was an endless pit of energy, which was a welcome relief to a new skipper who was trying to figure some things out on the fly. She’d spent time as an ops section OIC on a destroyer before getting the XO position, and she made it abundantly clear how excited she was for this opportunity. She always had a smile on her face and a skip in her step. The marine squad loved her, but he was pretty sure it wasn’t her good graces that they were trying to get into.
He was confident she would behave professionally, but if not he would take the appropriate actions. Good order and discipline were paramount on a warship where they were going.
“Mooring cables disconnected. Keeping station with thrusters.” The helmsman announced from the front of the bridge.
There wasn’t a window or anything for the man to look out of. The bridge was in the heart of the ship, below several decks and meters of duro-steel and nanite armor. Still, the human brain had a need for visual stimuli, so a holographic rendering on the polyplast-covered bulkhead in front of the ship’s driver showed a forward view of the ship. It made it look like he was sitting in the driver’s seat of the half-kilometer, hundred and fifty thousand ton cruiser.
“Ok, Helm, give me a quarter pulse. Let’s back it up nice and easy. Don’t scratch the paint.”
“Aye, Ma’am. Reverse quarter pulse. Preserve the paint job.”
A few people around the bridge chuckled as the helmsman did his job and the view on the screen slowly started to change.
Small gravitic thrusters on the bow of the ship activated and gave a gentle pulse of artificial gravity. It was enough to move the cruiser a few meters per second, and physics did the rest. Smaller thrusters on the sides ensured the ship didn’t sway to port or starboard, and Sarah’s command of keeping the paint fresh was obeyed. It was infinitely more complicated than backing an air-car out of a parking space, but the bridge crew made it look just as simple.
<If only the original architects had a little more foresight they would have spaced out the rings more so ships could go up or down.>
Hindsight was twenty-twenty when it came to things like that. Fleet Command had eventually thought about it, because the capitol ships were docked on the top ring. In the event of an emergency they could undock from Constitution faster than anyone by going up and away from the anchorage.
“Constitution, this is Fortitude. Clearing the dock now. Slot us in the queue.”
“Roger that, Fortitude. Proceed along route Mike Six-Two. Once you reach the thousand kilometer mark confirm handoff to Sol Command. Good luck.
“Rodger, proceeding along route Mike Six-Two to the thousand – K mark and then conducting handoff to Sol Command. Thanks for the work, Constitution. See you in six months.”
Ben glanced over at the holo-tank that was only showing the thousand meter bubble around CFB Constitution. There were dozens of warships coming and going. Hundreds of shuttles heading up from Earth either docked with the station permanently or just made a pit stop before heading to Mars. He could also see thousands of small construction drones buzzing around ships like busy little bees.
Constitution was alive with purpose.
It was seeing all that activity, and all that life, that made him realize he was heading to the farthest reaches of human civilization. He’d be thousands of light years from home, with no one but the crew of the Argo to keep him company.
By the nature of his job, the crew weren’t his friends, they were his subordinates. It was his job to make sure they did their jobs and they all got home safe. <It is going to be a long six months.>
He got to his feet and left the bridge as Fortitude made its way along its assigned route. The trip out to the Commonwealth’s main Alcubierre Launcher was a pretty straightforward journey. The launcher sat between Mars and the asteroid belt. They’d use it to refine their Alcubierre bubble to access the higher bands of hyperspace. They’d go from Sol to the Asgard Junction about forty light-years away. Asgard’s launcher would take them all the way to the Deadwood system, which was the official boundary between the mid and rim worlds. From Deadwood they had a jump to an unnamed system junction, and from there it was a short hop by ship drive’s to New Lancashire where Task Force Thirty-Three Point Four was stationed.
They wouldn’t be making the journey alone. Fortitude was joining up with its sister cruiser CWS Liberty at the launcher, and a fleet supply ship that was carrying everything from fresh troops to fresh fruit for the sector capitol.
Ben didn’t really need to pay any attention to all that. He’d call up to see if Sarah was free after the handoff to Sol Command. Maybe they’d get a few minutes on the three hour flight to the launcher, or maybe not. The more he thought about it the more he was convinced it would be the latter.
Right now, he just needed something to do.
<I still have a few NCO initial counseling sessions to do.> Being formerly from personnel, and more specifically promotions, he knew how important it was to sit down with his NCOs on a regular basis and give them updates and feedback on their performance. Initial counseling sessions were also a good time to set the tone of his command.
“Sarah?” He asked the moment he stepped from the hanger deck and onto Argo. He didn’t miss the irony in naming his semi-intelligent ship’s interface after a girl he didn’t see much anymore.
“Yes, Commander Gold.”
“Please send Specialist McKinnie to my quarters.”
“Right away, captain.”
Specialist Third Class Daniel McKinnie was the gunboat’s engineering NCOIC. It was undoubtedly one of the most difficult jobs on the ship. It was McKinnie, and his Engineering Apprentice, Spacer Aiko Lee’s job to keep the ship running. It was a tall order for two people. There were two maintenance hands, a Spacer and Spacer Apprentice, to help out but they were only trained on general maintenance tasks. So, the buck fell back on the two engineers. To make it even more difficult, the engineer was only an SP3, MTOE for a gunboat engineer called for an SP2.
That was something Ben had noticed quickly upon taking command. MTOE called for three SP2s, to fill the department NCOIC slots. The chief petty officer took the one he was most comfortable with, but the other three were supposed to be handled by seasoned NCOs. What Ben got was an infantry corporal doing cross training handling navigation, McKinnie in engineering, and then only one MTOE appropriate NCO in charge of communication. Despite being the commo NCO, SP2 Olvera hadn’t said more the ten words to Ben the entire time they’d been on the ship. Including their counseling session.
<I need to talk to the Chief about her.>
As far as the rating chain went Ben wasn’t McKinnie’s rater. The NCOs direct supervisor was Chief Petty Officer Yates, Argo’s NCOIC and Ben’s right hand man. Ben was McKinnie’s senior rater, meaning that he blessed off on and wrote his own comments on top of Yates’ evaluation. Normally, a spacer wouldn’t get to see a lot of their senior rater, maybe only a few times during their whole rating period, but on a gunboat with only twenty people everyone ran into everyone. So it was a good idea for McKinnie to know Ben’s leadership philosophy right off the bat.
That philosophy was simple: follow regulations, maintain good order and discipline, be ready for anything, be able to think outside the box, and complete the mission. As long as he followed those simple rules things would run smoothly for everyone. NCOs had their lane and officers had theirs. Everyone would stick to those lanes unless something wasn’t working or went wrong, but he didn’t foresee that happening.
This was a pretty standard mission, and despite being far from home, he was supremely confident in his own, his crew’s, and his ship’s ability to accomplish their tasks and make it back home.
<Then it’s off to the Diplomatic Corps.> He smiled at the light at the end of the tunnel.
Location: Tortuga, Unaffiliated System, Mid Worlds
Tortuga was paradise. It said it right on the big ass sign floating in the dusty clouds above the partially terraformed planet’s only city. From a planetary ecosystem viewpoint, it was a shit hole. But the beauty of it went past the physical. In the domed city, nestled in the shadow of a giant plateau, a hundred thousand people did what they wanted, where they wanted, whenever they wanted. They didn’t have to live by the Collies’ rules. They didn’t have to squirm under the thumb of the Blockies. They didn’t even have to worry about the Corpies’ ever looming profit margins. Here in Tortuga everyone was free.
To a point.
Noah saw that case and point when he sidestepped into a dark alley with Able just as gunfire cut down elements of a small time gang trying to peddle something on a street corner. He could tell it was another rival gang by the loud booms of their cheap, old, and unreliable chemically-propelled weapons, and the way they scrambled to grab whatever they could off the dead guys’ bodies before the authorities showed up.
That didn’t work out so well for them.
The “authorities” were three big guys in black smart-cloth suits packing hand cannons. Old-school ink tattoos spread across their skin, up through their shirt collars and onto their faces. Their small cannons emitted half-meter balls of pure plasma that ate right through the little gangbangers. The weapons were more intimidating than practical. Those plasma balls only had an effective range of fifty meters, and they were slow moving, but intimidation was a weapon all its own on Tortuga.
“Excuse me, gentlemen.” Noah walked right up to the three men who’d just casually put down the street thugs. “My employer has a meeting with your boss.” He produced a holographic card that got close scrutiny, then a nod and a gesture to follow.
The three men didn’t consider the small red-headed runt to be a threat, so they didn’t even keep an eye on him as they walked down a street lined with bars and brothels. Their attention was entirely on Able.
Despite the establishments present, customers spilled into the streets to drink and fuck however they pleased. The black suits and plasma weapons kept the revelers at bay until they reached a four story casino at the corner of a major intersection. Two more black suits stood guard outside and no one came within fifty meters of the place unless they were sober, dressed, and looking to spend money.
Noah and Able got waved through and walked to an old-fashioned elevator at the back of the main floor behind another guarded door. The pirate captain felt the small cabin lurch as steel cables pulled the elevator up. It moved slowly without an anti-grav lifting mechanism, but that was the point. The people at the top wanted time to prepare for their guests.
“Mr. Able,” a practiced sensual voice greeted them as they stepped off the elevator. “How lovely to see you again.”
A lithe woman, with obvious bodily enhancements, stepped around a nearby chair and walked over to kiss the large mercenary on both cheeks. The smile showed her age lines, wrinkles, and scars. Once upon a time she had been a very attractive woman, but years of working her way to the top of her particular industry had been hard on her.
“Ma’am.” Able answered with his usual brusqueness.
Noah restrained himself from stomping on his beard’s foot. He needed to teach the warrior the art of sophisticated conversation.
The woman released the former soldier after holding his arms a second too long, and made space for the room’s two other occupants.
“Mr. Able.” The first man gave a small bow from a safe distance.
His ancestors clearly came from Earth’s Asian countries, as opposed to the woman’s eastern European or Slavic ancestors. The last man was as dark as Tortuga’s thirty-two-hour night, but his handshake held the gravitas of a heavy-worlder.
Able didn’t even wince at the manly tug-o-war. His military enhancements more than compensated for his home world’s normal gravity.
“Please take a seat.” The last man, and the triumvirate’s leader, gestured to chairs set aside specifically for Noah and Able.
Together, the three people meeting with the pirate captain controlled Tortuga’s gambling, sex, and drug trades. Essentially, they owned the planet. But more importantly to the diminutive pirate, they served as brokers. If someone needed a job done they put out feelers. Those feelers got in touch with people like Tortuga’s enterprising management team, who then got in touch with freelancers like Noah and Able. The whole system offered a degree of separation between the clients and the operators. So if Noah was ever caught he couldn’t lead the authorities back to the clients. He would be able to turn over Tortuga’s leaders, but that had its own dangers involved. Primarily, it would get him blacklisted throughout the galactic underworld network, which meant he would be out of a job and have to go make an honest living.
<I’d rather shoot myself in the fucking head.>
“I have what you ordered.” Able informed the group. “Twelve million in silk.”
It was two million more than the agreed upon price, but haggling at the last minute was a bit of a tradition in these circles.
“Twelve million it is.” The woman didn’t even put up a fight. “Now we have another job for you.”
Noah immediately tensed up as warning alarms started sounding in his mind. That had been way too quick. They were paying over market price for the silk. They were going to lose seven figures on the deal. It didn’t make any sense.
“Sir, we have that other contract.” Noah leaned over and informed Able.
It was their prearranged code phrase that there might be danger.
Able was a hammer. His job was to hit nails. It wasn’t his specialty to notice the subtle nuances of negotiation.
The woman looked at Noah like he’d taken a shit on the rug and she’d stepped in it. He respectfully lowered his eyes. He had a knife up his sleeve that he could probably get in the woman’s neck before the guards turned him into Swiss cheese, but that didn’t do him any good right now.
“Consider this one first.” The black man handed over a data chip.
Able took it and handed it off to Noah who was already pulling out his PAD. He placed the chip on the PAD’s polyplast surface. After a few seconds it had downloaded all the information.
Noah’s eyes nearly popped out of his head. It was a file on a target, and the price tag on the guy’s head was eight figures. He showed the information to Able and hoped the mercenary wouldn’t start drooling.
“That’s a generous payday.” Noah replied, as Able tried to come to grips with what a fifty million dollars would feel like sitting in their accounts.
“The clients are very interested in seeing this done quickly and professionally. They have a time table to keep, and need an answer today or they’ll move onto someone else.”
“Why me?” Able was back with them now and playing his part perfectly.
“The silk job has impressed several people, and your reputation is well-known throughout certain circles. I won’t lie and say you were the first candidates, but you were near the top of the list.” The woman smiled coyly.
“Why’d the top picks pass?” Noah dug deeper into the folder and saw why.
<Attacking a flagged ship of one of the big three starfaring nations, kidnapping someone, and then holding them for ransom.> It would be an act of war if anyone else did it. <Yeah, I’d say no too. But…fifty million bucks.> It was hard to pass up. That was retirement level money.
“The usual.” The Asian man lurked in the background of the conversation. “They felt the risk wasn’t worth the reward.”
“Are we pirates or privateers on this mission?” Able inquired.
The difference between the two was important considering who they were going up against.
“If you accept you’ll have an official operating license from the United Commonwealth of Colonies by the end of the day. Along with coordinates for a supply pick up in their territory.” The woman smiled again at Able.
“Logistics?” Able ignored the woman and looked at Noah. This was their code for the real captain to make a decision.
“This isn’t a one crew job. You need at least two: one to distract and one to strike. Is there any upfront money?”
<Someone really wants this guy bad.> Ponying up a million bucks on a long shot wasn’t something you saw every day.
“We’ll need a least a day to resupply and find another crew willing to do the job. But after that, yes, Sir, it should work.” Noah nodded to Able.
“We’ll take the job.” Able accepted and the five people got to their feet. There wasn’t any time to waste.
“Thank you, Mr. Able. Our people will follow you back to your ship to unload the silk and render payment. Do you require anything else during your stay?” The woman couldn’t be laying it on thicker unless she tried to blow the mercenary right in front of everyone.
“No thank you, Ma’am. We’ve got work to do.”
“So professional.” She swooned, and Noah had to stop from rolling his eyes.
“Good luck, Captain.” Both men shook Able’s hand and walked with them back to the elevator.
With their business completed, the door closed behind them and they started to descend back to the casino floor.
Able was grinning like he’d just won the lottery, which was true, but Noah was too focused to rein in the killer’s enthusiasm.
<I need to figure out who this Benjamin Gold is, and why he’s so important?>
Able would be able to handle the resupply. Noah had research to do.