by Darrin A. Colbourne
If she concentrated hard enough, and let her imagination run away with her, she could almost see the waves of the ocean splashing between the two ships. She was just enough of a romantic to let the scene transform in her mind, until it matched the images she'd seen in her parents' dioramas. In the old days, the "wet navy" days, the material transfer now being conducted would have been accomplished with lines and cables dangling precariously between the two ships, swaying in the ocean breeze as the two vessels made a slow, steady course through the surf.
Of course, the reality was light-years away, literally and figuratively, from her imaginings. Her ship, the United Systems Ship Republic, was taking on hydrogen, a much more volatile fuel than oil or coal had ever been. The Independence-class carrier needed the substance for her aerospace planes' and her own primary power systems. The ship providing it, the USS Buena Vista, was doing so through the use of Planck Tunnels, conduits bored through the fabric of space by nanoscopic particle streams. At the same time, replenishment drones from the Buena Vista were orbiting the Republic and scanning her weapons and countermeasures launch tubes, making sure none of the ordnance loaded within needed to be repaired or replaced. Aerospace transports from the replenishment ship brought spare parts and replacement ordnance for the tactical aerospace craft to the carrier's flight deck, and the entire operation was being conducted at nearly the speed of light as the two ships orbited the star of the Azara Rigos System.
So Rear Admiral (Upper Half) Linda Weaver realized that what she was witnessing was much more complex than the relatively simple task of passing a sack of coal from the deck of one ship to the deck of another. In fact, she wasn't even watching it through a real "window". There were no windows in modern Faster-Than-Light ships, since FTL transit unleashed energies that would disintegrate even the strongest transparent materials—and anyone unlucky enough to be standing behind them. The window effect was achieved with technological sleight-of-hand. Instead of just an oversized Three-Dimension Video screen, the Flag Bridge viewer was built as a wide strip that dominated the forward and side bulkheads. The image it displayed came from hundreds of advanced imagers and computer processors, as well as data from the carrier's sensors. The result was the illusion that you were seeing the external environment out of a typical windscreen, even though a "typical" windscreen wouldn't have survived the first FTL jump, and there would be nothing for the human eye to see anyway. It was one example among many in modern spacecraft design where function gave way to tradition and aesthetics.
It was a trade-off that Weaver appreciated. It was comforting to know that Naval Architects could be romantics too. Her own romanticism had driven her to join the United Systems Navy in the first place. It had been instilled in her by her father Ben, a Naval Historian and writer, and her mother Julie, a graphic designer. They had turned their basement into a hobby room and filled it with scenes from the days of powerful seaborne ships, modeled to scale using highly detailed replicas, force fields and hologram projectors. Young Linda could spend hours in the room looking down on the displays of dreadnoughts conducting live fire drills, diesel subs sneaking up on convoys, amphibious forces storming a beach, missile cruisers engaging attacking aircraft and even the occasional underway replenishment. She'd been aching to be part of the action then, but as she grew older she ultimately had to face the fact that the closest modern equivalent was the United States Coast Guard, the last armed surface fleet on Earth, and it was concerned mainly with Maritime Safety and Law Enforcement...not exactly what she was looking for. The next best thing was the United Systems Navy, so at eighteen she enlisted in the service and never looked back. It was the start of a career that would span nearly twenty-five standard years, during which she'd served on missile cruisers and destroyers, qualified for Officers' Candidate School and taken the Deepspace (Ship-to-Ship) Warfare Command Track. From then on she'd grown in the Navy's fighting ships from a nervous Ensign into a confident Commanding Officer, fought in several battles in the United Systems' wars, served on command staffs on Earth and In Space, and still found time to conduct a long-term, long-distance relationship with a good man. (He was a Marine of all things, but she forgave him for his lack of judgment—just as he forgave her for hers.) All in all it had been a satisfying career, which now found her commanding her own Carrier Battle Group, traditionally an Aerospace officer posting that few career Deepspace officers ever broke into.
Not bad for a little girl who used to dream about standing on the deck of an old battlewagon, feeling salt air and seaspray on her face.
"Admiral." Someone said, breaking her train of thought. It was Captain Brian Stark, her Chief of Staff. Standing a full six-foot-six, he never failed to make Weaver feel much smaller than her actual five-foot-nine whenever he got close. "Corregidor just reported in. Her CAP intercepted a civilian yacht that strayed out of the established Safe-Transit corridor."
"An attack?" Weaver said as she and Stark walked to the Tactical Data Display in the center of the space.
"The Captain of the yacht is claiming navigation system failure, but the course the ship was on would have taken her right into the Corregidor's Exclusion Zone. Captain Lightfoot is conducting a detailed scan of the yacht and has dispatched Marines to search for anything someone might be able to hide from long-range sensors."
Weaver used her hands to brush her shoulder-length auburn hair behind her ears as she bent to take a close look at the tabletop Display. The image was being fed to it from the main tactical displays in the carrier's Combat Information Center. The Surface Warfare Ship Corregidor was centered on the screen. The yacht had taken up orbit around the ship, flanked by one of the Pegasus fighters from her Combat Aerospace Patrol. Another tactical spacecraft, a "Survivor" multipurpose transport, was closing in on the yacht, presumably carrying the platoon of Marines that would conduct the search.
Weaver straightened up, still looking at the screen. "Probably nothing. We've had more close calls than anything else since we got here."
"That's good, isn't it?" Stark said. "Our job was to make sure nothing interfered with normal space traffic. If the bad guys saw us coming and chose to bug out before we got here, Mission Accomplished."
"True." Weaver said, smiling. "It just seems a bit too easy, given recent events before we got here."
"Recent events" referred to the activity of the past six months, Earth Time. Commercial shipping into and out of Azara Rigos had been plagued by a wave of Terrorism and Piracy. Hijacking and theft had cost shipping concerns and other businesses a fortune while hit-and-run and suicide attacks laid up or destroyed hundreds of transports. Though most of the vessels were unmanned, the loss of life among those with crews was the greatest tragedy.
The politics of the star system were believed to be the driving force behind the unrest. Azara Rigos was an oddity, since it was home to three life-bearing worlds. The largest was 80 million miles from the primary, called Manatoa by its sentient inhabitants. 10 million miles further in the other two worlds, each roughly the size of the Jovian moon Europa, shared an orbit. Only one, Sihnpak, had produced sentient life. The other world was the cause of conflict between Sihnpak and Manatoa. Using their sister world almost exclusively as a source of raw materials allowed the Sihnpaki to support an economy and interstellar trade far beyond what their own world was capable of, without doing any significant environmental damage to their world. The Manatoans, whose technology was a generation behind their neighbors', wanted this resource world—and the technology that made it work—for themselves. This clash of interests had been the impetus for numerous interplanetary wars between the two Rigosian races spanning at least a standard century. This pattern was suspended for a time after an alien empire annexed the system and turned to the Sihnpaki to provide resources to an entire sector of their realm, suppressing Manatoan resistance in the process. Fifteen years ago, that alien empire had been defeated in a war with the United Systems, causing the empire's collapse and leaving the different races in the sector more dependent on Sihnpaki resources than ever before. This gave the little world enormous political power, but also made it an ever more appealing target to the newly independent Manatoans. The wars might have resumed, but Sihnpak's leaders had the presence of mind to deal with the US and secure the Human Republic's commitment to keep Manatoa from taking advantage of the empire's defeat. Even their technological advantage was no guarantee of Sihnpaki victory over Manatoa's sheer numbers, but the Manatoans couldn't stand long against US might, at least not in a conventional conflict.
The worry now was that Manatoa was resorting to unconventional means to do what their standard forces couldn't. Those few attackers taken alive were almost uniformly Manatoan, though the government's official line was that they were either "mercenaries", "radicals" or run-of-the-mill "pirates". Official connection or not, these operators were taking a huge bite out of the Sihnpaki economy and putting a huge black mark on its credibility. They had to be stopped, but the Sihnpaki Navy was too small to devote the resources necessary and still keep Manatoa's Navy in check.
US Navy Task Force 177, under Weaver's command, was sent to assist. Comprised of the Republic Carrier Battle Group, the Corregidor Surface Warfare Group and the Buena Vista Underway Replenishment Group, TF177 was one-third of the Navy's forward-deployed striking power. It was much smaller than advance forces the US had deployed in years past, but at seventeen ships and 130 aerospace craft it was more than enough for the task at hand. Buena Vista's group was stationed in the libration point between Sihnpak and her resource world, while Corregidor's was patrolling the space between Sihnpak and Manatoa. The ships and aerospace craft of the carrier group were dispersed throughout the system, maintaining a widespread, coordinated watch on all incoming and outgoing traffic.
Three siren blasts sounded in the Flag Bridge. This was the ship-wide acceleration warning. Weaver turned to look at the Buena Vista. The supply ship had completed its duties and was breaking off from the Republic, allowing the carrier to accelerate to its normal FTL patrol speeds. Everyone in the space braced themselves on consoles and on handholds along the bulkheads. The gravity plates in the deck canceled most of the inertia of acceleration, but not all of it.
Weaver braced herself on the Tactical Data Display as she turned her attention back to it. "Okay, have Lightfoot keep me posted on what he finds out. We'll impound the ship after the Marines are done with their inspection and take it..."
"Admiral!" Someone called. It was Captain Steven Moore, the battle group's Deepspace Warfare Officer. He was monitoring one of the repeater consoles in the forward part of the space. "HAWKEYE has picked up multiple intermittent hyperspace contacts, bearing 290 by 73, range 6.4 light-years and closing. Evaluate as large deepspace action group inbound."
A chime from the TDD announced a change in view. It now displayed the new information from HAWKEYE, the "Shadow" Aerospace Early Warning/EM Warfare craft conducting long-range reconnaissance for the battle group. HAWKEYE was picking up at least 16 distinct ship contacts, although the estimated hyperspace wake indicated the presence of several more. There was no positive identification of the inbounds yet, but that wouldn't take long. "Time to outer system?" Weaver asked.
"Approximately two hours." Moore said. "The inbounds are currently decelerating, but it looks like they'll end up in an orbit just outside ours."
Weaver's blood went cold. Extreme range, normally a problem in combat, had developed into the US Navy's specialty. If these ships turned out to be hostile, the last thing she wanted was a close quarters battle. That would force TF177 to take unnecessary casualties. "Warn them off." She told Stark. "Dispatch MONARCH to intercept them at three light-years." MONARCH was an Anti-Ship CAP composed of two Deepspace-armed Pegasus fighters. "Let's bring the anti-ship plus-fifteens up to plus five and..."
"Incoming Signal!" A communications technician announced. "Text message, addressed to you, Admiral. It's being translated right now. You should see it on your display momentarily, sir."
"Very well." Weaver said, then looked for the message icon on the TDD. She touched it as soon as she found it and a window expanded to show her the communique. It said:
FROM: COMMANDER, WHITE BANNER STELLAR FORCE
TO: COMMANDER, US TASK FORCE 177
RE: OPERATIONS IN AZARA RIGOS
1.) THE COMMUNITY OF COOPERATIVE SYSTEMS RECOGNIZES THE RIGHT OF THE PEOPLE'S GOVERNMENT OF MANATOA TO SAFEGUARD ITS CITIZENS AND IS COMMITTED TO MAINTAINING FREEDOM OF TRANSIT IN AND AROUND THE SPACE OF THE AZARA RIGOS STAR SYSTEM.
2.) I HAVE THEREFORE BEEN ORDERED TO TRANSIT TO THE AZARA RIGOS SYSTEM AND CONDUCT SPACE CONTROL OPERATIONS IN SUPPORT OF MANATOAN POLICY.
3.) YOU ARE REQUIRED TO STAND DOWN ALL OPERATIONS AND RETIRE YOUR FORCE TO SPACE OUTSIDE THE SYSTEM'S BOUNDARIES. FAILURE TO COMPLY WILL RESULT IN THE DESTRUCTION OF ANY AND ALL SPACECRAFT THAT REMAIN WITHIN THE EXCLUSION ZONE.
4.) IF YOU ATTEMPT TO USE STRATEGIC WEAPONS TO ATTACK MY FORCE, I WILL HAVE NO CHOICE BUT TO USE SIMILAR WEAPONS AGAINST YOU.
Weaver and Stark stared at the words for a few seconds, shocked at the blatant ultimatum. Stark recovered first, speaking what his commanding officer knew all too well.
"Sir, I don't think they're planning to be warned off."