Location: New Lancashire, United Commonwealth of Colonies
“Sir, I really think…”
“Lieutenant Commander.” Rear Admiral Hank Nelson held up his hand in a halting motion. The officer was sixty centimeters shorter than Ben, and not nearly as thick, but the smaller man had a gravitas that Ben couldn’t match. “Enough.”
The one word stopped Ben’s argument in its tracks. A door slid silently open revealing a conference room onboard the RADM’s flagship. All the smaller man had to do was point to a chair and Ben complied. The RADM took a seat at the head of the table and gave Ben a pointed stare.
“I have allowed you to continue in your duties assisting with my diplomatic team for long enough, Lieutenant Commander Gold. Your insight has been valuable, and the comradery you have formed with Lord Captain Churchill has allowed us to advance our overall mission faster than we believed possible.”
Comradery wasn’t the best word to describe what Ben and the Duke of New Oxford had. It was a competition. Word eventually got back to the Lord Captain that Ben was a Gold. A Gold whose family had property rights to more planets than the entire Star Kingdom. To the Duke, Ben was a worthy adversary and they’d engaged in what amounted to high-level games of skill and wit ever since.
That was part of the reason Ben didn’t want to leave. The nobleman would see it as a victory, and it would hurt future diplomatic efforts on Ben’s part. Because, in the mind of the Duke, the aristocracy’s priorities outweighed simple military requirements. A simple thing like orders wouldn’t stand in the way of a Lord achieving their goal. Ben capitulating to the RADM was a sign of weakness in the Star Kingdom’s culture.
Admittedly, the Star Kingdom didn’t usually have this dilemma since the upper-crust of officers in the Royal Navy were all Lords, and trading favors could resolve any issues with a simple email. Ben didn’t have that luxury or leverage. He had to do what the RADM told him.
Ben had told the RADM all of this but it didn’t matter. That was why this counseling session was happening in the first place.
“You forget, Mr. Gold, that you are a warship captain first and foremost. Your responsibility is to your ship and your crew.”
“Yes, Sir.” Ben knew there was no sense in arguing. The RADM had made up his mind and that was that.
“I’m glad we have an understanding because that makes my next question that much easier.” The smaller man leaned forward, bringing his full half-century of experience to bear. “How the hell did you get this assignment?
<Oh no.> Ben didn’t like where this was going.
“Sir?” He feigned surprise and ignorance, but wasn’t sure it worked.
“I reviewed your record before you arrived. You have solid performance reviews, a doctorate in your chosen field, and what I’ve seen over the last few weeks shows that those achievements seemed to be merit based.”
<That went well enough.>
“But,” the RADM’s eyes narrowed, “there is nothing in your record that stands out as truly exemplary. Why have been promoted ahead of your peers to lieutenant commander? Why were you given command of a gunboat that someone needs top secret clearance to read the schematics?”
“Don’t give me any bullshit, Gold. I can smell the patronage and cronyism a thousand kilometers away.” A vein was bulging in the RADM’s head. He pulled out his PAD and pulled something up with a few clicks. Then unexpectedly laughed. “It figures that the newly appointed Admiral Helms would have been the one to sign off on your promotion orders. He even wrote me a letter about you with ‘suggestions’ about deployments.”
Ben didn’t know about any letter, so this time the confusion was genuine.
“If I had my way I’d have you as an assistant engineering officer spending twelve hour shifts running diagnostics on this carrier’s thruster systems. But,” he let out a long breath, “I can’t relieve you of command without cause, or override a full admiral’s orders; even if Helms was just an ambitious little prick Captain underneath me at one point.”
Ben thought it wise to keep his mouth shut.
“So, with all of this out in the open, I’ve got your new orders.”
There was a chime and Ben pulled out his PAD. He read the detailed email while the RADM activated a holo with a star map of the space surrounding New Lancashire.
“Lieutenant Commander Gold, you will take CWS Argo on a routine patrol and port of call in System 1776.”
The map zoomed in again to show a star system eighteen light years from the sector capitol.
“System 1776 has a small mining operation around the asteroid belt between the sixth and seventh planets.” The holo turned into a split screen and showed the single system beside the greater sector as a whole. “The small station is owned by the Cobalt Mining Corporation, a subsidy of Gold Technologies.”
Ben could hear the RADM’s voice dripping with irony, and he couldn’t blame the man.
“We have a contractual obligation to check on the station once a month, but because of the recent incident we’re a couple of days late.”
The remains of the task force that had successfully defended System 1552 against the Blockies had limped back to New Lancashire after being relieved by a fresh pair of battleships. It would have left New Lancashire itself dangerously understrength without the Star Kingdom’s dreadnaught in-system, but Ben could tell the RADM wasn’t happy having the only other non-damaged heavy-hitting warship in the system come from an only recently declared ally.
“Your mission is to conduct the scheduled port call with the station, do a standard inventory and contraband sweep, and place an early warning drone at the edge of the system.”
The split screen vanished and lines of various brightness appeared between the systems denoting the warp valleys that expedited Alcubierre travel. System 1776 had one of the duller shaded lines going to and from it, but lessons with Sarah told him what they meant.
People too often thought of space as two dimensional and linear, when it was three dimensional and confusing as hell. In the two-dimensional star maps shown back in elementary school they painted a nice orderly network of travel through Commonwealth controlled space, with major junctions for ships to make their transfers into new warp valleys. The reality was that there was more than one way to make it from point A to point B, and that was where three-dimensional space came into play.
New Lancashire was at the end of an explored valley, and the easiest way to get to it was by passing through two separate junctions. System 1552 was one of them. The other was System 1773, which had a fledgling colony and only a destroyer in orbit for defense.
The Blockies had two movement options. They could either roll right through the system and use the junction, or go around it on a slight detour. That’s where things got interesting.
Systems 1772 through 1776 all occupied the same rough area in space. They were all stacked on top of each other, but still light years apart. System 1773 was on the same valley line as New Lancashire, but system hopping from 1771 to 1772, 1774, 1775, or 1776 and then back into that warp valley that ran from 1773 would circumvent the early warning the Commonwealth-held system provided. The result was an enemy fleet in New Lancashire with no advanced warning. The detour would take longer and cost more resources but it would give the enemy the element of surprise. That was something the RADM could not afford to give them.
“All of your gunboats are going out.” Ben pointed at the other highlighted detour system.
“Yes,” the RADM was staring at the star map pensively. “We’ve already got a network established around 1552 because of the raid, and we need to cover our other avenue of approach.” The RADM shook his head, breaking out of whatever tactical trance he’d been in. “Do you understand your orders, Lieutenant Commander?”
“Then you will depart no later than 0800 hours.”
“Yes, Sir.” Ben knew when a conversation was over and he was being dismissed, so he got to his feet and left.
He immediately headed down to the hangar bay where Argo was docked because they had a lot to do and only a few hours to do it in.
<And I do not need to give the rear admiral another reason to distrust me.> Ben wasn’t even a month into his six month cruise, and despite his good work he was already on the boss’ bad side.
Location: CMS New Day, System 1773, United Commonwealth of Colonies
The Dawn looked like a proper mining ship again. All the extra paneling and sensor-spoofing material from the Arachna job was gone. On top of all that, her emissions pattern and registration were all bran spankin’ new and legit. Any Collie vessel that ran a scan on him would see the Commonwealth Merchant Ship New Day out of New Lancashire that was contracted with Cobalt Mining Corporation to mine ore at any of their installations in the sector.
As far as cover identities went, it was the best one he’d ever seen. Whoever was paying him eight figures to grab this Gold guy had serious connections in this sector.
<I’ll have to ask about repeat business. A man can get used to this.> New Day was coasting into orbit around the inhabited moon of a gas giant in system 1773.
“New Day this is System Control. Continue course and speed. You cleared for orbit in slot 448.”
“Roger that, Control. Holding course and speed for slot 448.” Able was at the controls and piloting the ship into its parking spot.
Noah was behind him in what was traditionally the navigator’s seat. He was going over all of the information available on their operations, including the contact they were meeting on the ground. They were using old-school tradecraft for this op. There were no electronics involved. Everything was hardcopy or face-to-face.
“New Day, this is Full Moon.”
Able looked over his shoulder at Noah when the crackly voice came over the ship-to-ship comms.
Full Moon was the second ship Noah had hired for the job. Truthfully, he would have preferred to do it alone, but going up against a military gunboat required more than one ship. They needed to set a trap and spring it expertly if they wanted to survive. Luckily, there were still people crazy enough in the galaxy to go up against the Collie navy; especially when cold hard cash was involved.
Full Moon was an older class of transport ship that had been retrofitted over the decades by its various illegally-minded crews. It looked a little bit like a human ribcage. The main section of the ship ran about seventy-five meters long and had thick duro-steel arms, six on each side, extending out into space. Those arms were designed to grab and secure modular cargo containers for transport. Each container could hold thousands of tons of cargo, and Full Moon could hold six of them. As an independent shipping vessel it could make a solid living, and it did, as long as no one looked too closely at what it was hauling. That, and the armaments that had been camouflaged into the design.
“Boss?” Able asked.
Able and the captain of Full Moon didn’t get along. They were both hammers who looked at a world full of nails. Their mindset was: if you hit things enough you made it work for you. That was the reason Noah was the brains behind the operation. Sometimes subtlety was the best course of action.
“Let him through,” the pirate captain sighed.
“Go ahead, Full Moon.” Able replied curtly.
“I’d like to send a man down with you on the milk run, New Day. Need to make sure we get all supplies that we need.”
The only supplies the two ships were getting were a quick refuel of exotic matter to make the jump to their final destination, and the intel telling them where that destination would be.
“Negative, Full Moon,” Able replied when Noah shook his head. “We’re only going to be planetside for an hour tops, we need you to supervise the refueling.”
There was some grumbling on the other end, but eventually the other captain agreed. There was no reason to start shit when he could stab them in the back after they grabbed Gold. Noah put that likelihood at sixty percent, and it jumped to one hundred if the other captain learned just how much Able and Noah were getting paid compared to him.
“Button everything up while we’re gone, Able. I don’t want Full Moon getting any ideas while we’re away.” Noah would be able to monitor the ship’s feeds from the surface, but having all the doors locked had a way of putting his mind at ease.
New Day pulled into orbit in its assigned spot, cut the engines, and its two crew members geared up. Able had an armory of weapons stowed away in the smuggler’s hold that contained his entire wartime kit from when he fought for the Maccabee Alliance. It was all fifty years out of date, but he expertly maintained it, and he would be a threat to anything less than a modern armored infantry soldier. His dedication to his gear was one of the things that made him a top-tier mercenary.
Noah had his own stash of weapons, but they were subtler. He had a standard license PDW which he could openly carry on his hip. That would ward off any amateur criminals. The blaster Able lent him would deal with the more cunning criminals, and that was discretely hidden in the folds of his coat. System 1773 was in the middle of their planetary winter, and it was hovering a little below freezing at the moment. The rest of his weapons compliment was a variety of stabbing instruments, all sheathed, and all coated in some exotic toxin. Some were manmade, and some came from far off worlds that Rim settlers wouldn’t have a vaccine for until it was too late.
“Let’s do this.”
Their contact was meeting them in a cantina down in the center of the planet’s single city. Calling it a city was a stretch. There weren’t even ten thousand people on this rock trying to scratch out a living, and he meant “scratching out” literally. This was a dense, ore-filled world where the one and only industry was mining. Cobalt had received a loan and equipment from the Commonwealth to terraform it and paid them extra for that destroyer in orbit.
All of that ran through Noah’s mind as they hustled through the ship’s corridors to the waiting shuttle. An old plasma repeater was tucked into a hidden wall compartment, but other than that it was just a regular two-person puddle jumper. Noah took the driver’s seat on this one and initiated the drop sequence to pop out of the bottom of New Day and hit the atmosphere for their rendezvous.
They’d be on the ground, depending on traffic in fifteen minutes.
The cantina was half a kilometer from the spaceport, and even in the late morning it was packed with people. The planet attracted a rough crowd, and Noah had seen more than one person eyeing the foreigners. Able warned them off with his cold eyes and scarred face while Noah looked for the contact.
He spotted the man immediately. He was one of the best dressed people in the joint, and was wearing all of the color coordinated clothing it said he would be in. He spotted the two pirates too, and immediately got to his feet.
“Grab a chair. I’m going to hit the head.” Noah headed toward the rear of the establishment, past where the contact had been sitting.
He rounded a corner and saw the man go into the rest room. He pretended to check his PAD for thirty seconds and then headed in after him. The place was empty, but Noah spotted the small envelope balanced on the sink. He picked it up, stuffed it in his coat, and took a piss for the sake of covertness.
When he got back, Able had a couple of whores sniffing around, and the big man was enjoying the attention.
“Let’s go.” They didn’t have time for an afternoon quickie.
They backtracked to the spaceport and hit orbit fifteen minutes later. They were back on New Day within the hour, and after only one sweep of the ship for bugs he opened the package.
“Set course for Cobalt Station in System 1776.” He broadcasted to Full Moon. We’ve got twenty-four hours until the package arrives.