by Darrin A. Colbourne
Josefina Veracruz seethed inwardly as the limousine she was in sped South along the Rudolph Guiliani Expressway into Manhattan. Never one to properly hide her feelings, the tall, attractive Venezuelan practically radiated barely-contained anger as she pondered the current situation. "We told them." She muttered. "We told them a thousand fucking times and they still let it happen."
Franklin Grimm, Director of the United Systems Office of Strategic Services, allowed himself to be distracted from the report he was reading to glance at his chief administrative aide. She was sitting opposite him in the reverse limo seat. He couldn't fail to notice her body language. The way her arms and legs were crossed, the way her manicured fingernails drummed on the sleeves of her dark suit jacket, the way her stare bored holes into the transparent-armored windows all told him that she was building up to one of her classic tirades. A brief half-smile found its way onto his face as he went back to the report. He'd warned her about her temper often, telling her that in politics losing your cool was usually non-career-enhancing. To her credit, Veracruz had learned to limit her outbursts to times when she and Grimm were alone - mostly - but he wanted her to get to the point where she could hide her emotions as easily as turning them off like a light. It had taken him decades to learn how to do it properly in his time as a covert field officer, but by the time he'd risen to Section Chief he'd developed a poker face that would put professional cardsharks to shame. He supposed it was unfair of him to expect Veracruz to reach the same level of emotional control so soon. She had only been working in the OSS's Analysis Division for a few years before he tapped her to be his assistant, and she'd never been in the field. Still, dealing with elected officials often required the same acting skills needed to deal with alien sources and counterintelligence officers.
"Nothing's happened yet, Josie." Grimm said, his gravelly Southern voice cutting into her thoughts. Her eyes darted to his face immediately. The Old Man knew she hated being called that. Reminding her of it was his way of forcing her to keep her emotions in check. "If we do our jobs right in the next hour or so, nothing will happen."
"I'm not worried about us." Veracruz huffed. "We already did our jobs right. They screwed it up."
"Stop worrying about things you can't control." Grimm said. "We just deliver the information. What the Administration does with it is out of our hands."
"President Freeman would have done the right thing with it."
"Maybe, but Freeman hasn't been President for seven years, and having served his two terms is Constitutionally barred from ever being President again. Again, stop worrying about things you can't control."
"Sir, worrying about things I can't control is part of my job! And we have a lot to worry about here! Human Dominance of this part of the Galaxy is at stake!"
Grimm chuckled a little. "Human Dominance of this part of the Galaxy is always at stake. This time is no different than any other."
"Garrity makes it different!" Veracruz said. "We're more vulnerable as long as he keeps governing with his head up his—"
Grimm cut her off as he dropped the report and gave her his full attention. "Okay, first of all, that's President Garrity to you, and whatever you think of the man personally you will show him due respect for as long as he is in office, whether we're in his presence or not! Are we clear?"
"Yes, Sir." Veracruz said softly. She was chastened, but still angry.
Grimm didn't care. "An attitude like that is gonna get you kicked out of the loop - or worse - if you're not careful. I know; you've never said anything like that in front of him. My intent is to make sure you never do."
"Second of all, in its 300 years of existence the United Systems has survived all manner of threats, be they alien invasions or Presidents with their heads you-know-where. It will survive this, too, but unproductive vitriol is not going to contribute anything to that survival, is it?"
"No, Sir, I suppose not." Veracruz said.
"We're going to do our job. We're going to provide the decision-makers the information we have. We just have to trust they'll use it wisely."
Veracruz grimaced but said nothing else. Grimm let himself be satisfied with that as he went back to his report. They were silent for the rest of the trip to the Executive Estate. The ride wasn't as long as it could have been. Even at nearly 2 AM, Eastern Time, traffic in NYC was heavier than in most cities on the planet, but at least it wasn't bumper-to-bumper, which was always a dicy situation given the 400MPH average speed of modern hovervehicles.
Grimm put the report down for good when the limo's robot pilot slowed to turn onto Central Park Drive, the entrance to the Estate. The street's name was reminiscent of a bygone era, a time when the grounds constituted a large public park smack in the center of the Greatest City In the World. At the end of the "Dark Age" brought on by the devastation of the First Earth-Entoor War, the first President of United Earth chose the park to be the seat of the World's Executive Power, one of several moves designed to overshadow and ultimately wipe out the last vestiges of the defunct United Nations. The landscape of the park had then been completely remodeled to allow a three-story mansion to be built in the center and to make that mansion defensible. Known as President's Manor (or just "The Manor" for short), the mansion sported an American Colonial design, and thus managed to look nearly 600 years old in spite of the 24th Century technology and creature comforts installed within.
The limo pulled up to the East Entrance of The Manor to let its passengers out. Grimm got out first and then helped Veracruz out (the analyst considered her boss hopelessly old-fashioned, which she found somewhat sweet). When they were both standing on the walk the limo closed up and proceeded to the parking area to wait to be recalled. As it drove off Grimm led the way to the entrance. The massive oak double doors were flanked by two United Systems Marines, who were smartly turned-out in their Dress Uniforms and standing at Port-Arms, brandishing Sandoval Firearms Directed-Energy Assault Weapons.
A sensor in the doorjamb alerted the Security Desk just inside to Grimm and Veracruz's presence. The two Secret Serivice agents manning the desk watched the OSS Chief and his aide on the central monitor as they approached the door. Not for the first time they noted the stark contrast between the pale, grizzled old spy and his bronze-skinned, statuesque companion. The dark color of their suits and coats were the only thing they seemed to have in common.
"Some guys get all the luck." One agent said as he hit the contact that opened the doors. "He gets to work with her and I get stuck with you."
"I'm just as Latin as she is." His partner said. "You want me to start wearing my hair long?"
The first agent gave him a dirty look. "The hair on your head, you mean? 'Cuz I know for a fact the hair on your chest is already long enough." This caused his partner to chuckle as the visitors approached the desk.
"Franklin Grimm, Director of Strategic Operations." Grimm announced when they were close. "You know my aide, Ms. Veracruz."
"Please place your thumbs on the sensor." Agent One said. Grimm and Veracruz in turn placed a thumb on the small sensor on the front of the desk. On contact hyper-sensitive scanners hidden throughout the alcove examined them thoroughly on a nanoscopic level, searching for weapons, infectious diseases or any other indications that they might cause the President harm. The scans took less than a second. The lack of perceivable threat triggered a green light on the agents' console.
"Welcome to The Manor." Agent Two said. "The President's expecting you."
"Thank you." Grimm said and made his way to the staff maglevator with Veracruz in tow.
After they got around the corner, Agent Two muttered: "Maybe if I used a little powder..."
Agent One pinched the bridge of his nose and grimaced. Every damn time I mention it he gets comical, He thought.
Grimm and Veracruz reached the maglevator and got in using Grimm's thumbprint. Once the door closed them in Veracruz pressed the contact for Sub-Level Four. The trip lasted only two seconds, after which they got out and headed for the Situation Room. They faced another ID check and scan outside that room, then finally reached their destination.
The Situation Room was the most visibly advanced space in The Manor. The long, rectangular table in the center housed a sophisticated hyperwave communications system. The corresponding space on the ceiling housed a high-resolution holo-tank, which could be operated from controls in the table or in the podium at one end of the room. The walls were ray- and particle-shielded and armored with a meter thick concrete-titanium-concrete sandwich.
Most of the Terran Security Council was already assembled. The most prominent member was the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, United Systems Army General Anatoly Petrovich Zbnievsky, a large, heavy-browed Muscovite with a booming voice and stubborn manner. He was currently engaged in conversation with Admiral Theophilus Stavros, the Chief of Naval Operations. Since the Navy was traditionally the United Systems' first responder in an Interstellar situation, the tall, olive-skinned, charismatic career Naval Officer would most likely be given the lead in handling the current problem. Two more Chiefs, Army Aerospace Corps Commandant General Stephen Williams and Commandant of the Marine Corps General Michael Wong, were having a conference of their own nearby. The final member of the JCS, Army Chief of Staff Ariel Jalkovsky, was talking intently with Grimm's counterpart in the Office of Special Intelligence, Retired Army General Sir Francis Drummond. Along with this august collection of men, from backgrounds that spanned the world and its history, came a smattering of junior aides and assistants. Grimm broke away to talk with Jalkovsky and Drummond. Veracruz was contemplating where she'd be sitting when she spotted Stavros's chief intelligence aide, Navy Captain Preston Raab. She and Raab had become good friends while serving in their current positions, so it was always nice to see his boyish face when she attended meetings like this. She walked over to him with a smile on her face. "Prez!" She said.
Raab was talking with General Wong's aide. Veracruz's voice got his attention. He turned to face her and returned her smile. "Jo! Good to see you. It's been a while."
"We've both been too busy." Veracruz said as she got a good look at Raab. He was in his Dress Blue Uniform, just like Stavros. She wasn't ashamed to admit that the dark-haired Captain looked much more attractive. "Looks like it takes a big strategic screw-up for us to be able to spend any time together."
Raab's smile disappeared as he grunted. "'Screw-up' isn't the word. The word, I believe, begins with 'F' and is far more accurate a description of what we're up against."
Then Veracruz became serious. "What else has happened?"
"It looks like..." Raab began. He stopped himself as more people came into the room, drawing his attention. "Here they come" He said.
Veracruz could tell who he meant from his tone before she turned to look. Over the past three years of the Garrity Administration she'd come to view meetings of the Strategic Security Council as a policy contest between "Us" and "Them". The Joint Chiefs, Intelligence Chiefs and, of course, she and her fellow aides were "Us" in her eyes.
The members of side "Them" - Administration officials - had just started to arrive.
First in was Frederick DeBeers, the Secretary of State. The fastidious, white-haired South African was dressed in an impeccably tailored three-piece suit and carried himself with a formal bearing. A career Interstellar Affairs officer, DeBeers had been instrumental in the drafting of several significant treaties and diplomatic initiatives, dating back nearly three administrations. He was the Garrity Administration's old, wise hand. Right behind him was the Secretary of Defense, Angela Langdon. She was tall and lanky, with almond skin and a bookish appearance. She'd been selected for her job for her budgeting and management experience, skills developed as a former executive at a major hovervehicle manufacturer. When these two Cabinet members arrived the rest of the Council began to find their seats.
A moment later the President's "Inner Circle" walked in. These were Garrity's closest and most trusted advisors, men who had the President's ear and could shape policy with a few careful words. They were Sandy Henslin, the all-business Strategic Security Advisor, Harry Orr, the sharp political animal that served as Manor Chief of Staff, and Alexander Keogan, the Attorney General, a former Senator himself and the President's Brother by marriage, making him the closest advisor of the three.
At last, as everyone settled near their places, Joseph Patrick Garrity, President of the United Systems, entered the Situation Room. A Boston-born and Manhattan-raised Irish-American, the former US Senator had a charismatic and infectious personality which made him more attractive than his average features would suggest. His build was fit but not imposing, which didn't seem to fit the power and prestige that came with his current job. As POTUS he carried numerous titles, including President of the United States (the original POTUS), a job he won according to his native country's constitution, and President of United Earth, a title accorded by a "Vote of Confidence" among an International body of Electors. It was an office Garrity had prepared for most of his adult life, and most of the time he relished the trappings of the job and the responsibilities that came with them.
Yet his role as Commander-In-Chief weighed heavily on him lately, especially during SSC meetings. When he first took office he'd been advised by Harry Orr that no matter how deeply in the ranks he searched he would be hard pressed to find military advisors that would be amenable to his policies and would have a smoother transition if he simply held on to the Chiefs of Staff and Directors already in place from the previous Administration. Alex Keogan had objected, rightly pointing out that most of them were already holdovers from the administration before that, the Freeman Administration, but Orr had ultimately won out by reminding both men of the big picture. They would use Garrity's first term to prove his policies could work, then use the clout gained from that success to win again and affect real change in the Strategic Security apparatus in his second term.
It had seemed like a good idea right after the election, but it had filled Garrity with a sense of dread after his first formal SSC meeting, when he laid out his plans for US Security in the presense of a less-than-enthusiastic audience. To their credit, none of them (for Him, the SSC members not in his Cabinet or Executive Staff were "Them") were openly hostile to his ideas, but the negative press leaks from "Defense Department officials" of various stripes were brutal, and he got the sense that a lot of the bureaucratic inertia that was delaying his policies' implementation was intentional. The off-the-record defiance wasn't as bad three years hence, but the animosity was still there, and it colored every Security decision he made.
Though he'd been wakened from a sound sleep and would have been excused for coming to the meeting in a robe and slippers Garrity had taken the time to get properly dressed, though he'd opted for a dark Cardigan sweater in lieu of a jacket and tie. Without preamble he went to his place at the head of the briefing table and sat down, which gave everyone else leave to follow suit. The elected and appointed officials sat around the perimeter, while the aides that had accompanied some of them sat in chairs along the walls.
Garrity took a moment to rub the sleep from his eyes as he began the meeting. "All right, let's get started." He said. "Do we know exactly what we're facing in Azara Rigos yet?"
Admiral Stavros answered. "The CCS battle group is now approximately an hour and forty minutes away from the outer system, Mr. President. We've coordinated the data from the satellites in our Deep Space Tracking Support Network with what we've got from Task Force 177 to get a better picture of what's heading that way. Captain Raab?"
Captain Raab got up and walked over to the podium. Once there he used the controls to log onto the secure Defense Information Network and call up the satellite data. In the process he activated the holotank. A moment later the room darkened, and a three-dimensional image of the relevant area of space appeared in the air just above the table. Identity markers appeared soon after. They indicated Azara Rigos, TF177, the inbound CCS ships and various Sihnpaki, Manatoan and other craft.
Raab cleared his throat unobtrusively and began his brief. "We've positively identified thirty ships in the CCS battle group by type and ten of the ships by name, including the Skarak, Ghosn Of Sehr, Parasite and Wraith. According to our intelligence these ships are, respectively, the flag, deepspace ops, aerospace ops and cloak ops ships of the White Banner Stellar Force."
"So they are who they said they were in that message." Secretary Langdon said.
"Yes, Ma'am." Raab said. "We also have indications that the Force is outside of its normal patrol area...." - he adjusted the image to show CCS stars - "...here. The ships in this area presently are from the Comms' reserve force."
"Did the Cooperative get a formal 'Request For Help' from the Manatoans through coded channels?" Secretary DeBeers asked.
"We're still checking," General Drummond said, in a formal British accent, "but there are no indications of any such request having been sent within the past six weeks." The OSI was in charge of gathering signals intelligence.
"However, Mr. Secretary, such a formal request may not be necessary." Franklin Grimm said. "As you know, the Manatoans and the Cooperative already have an agreement-in-principle for mutual defense. It's not unthinkable that the CCS would act on its own initiative to counter a perceived threat to a friendly power."
"I understand all that quite well, Director Grimm," DeBeers said, "and that leads me to my next question. Has Task Force 177 done anything to warrant the Cooperative taking such initiative?"
Admiral Stavros bristled at the question. He couldn't quite hide the emotion, but he did manage to keep it out of his voice when he responded. "Absolutely not. TF177 has done nothing more than perform the job it was sent to do, which was to conduct Space Control operations. It has concentrated mainly on interdicting pirate and non-aligned operator space traffic within the system."
"No one's saying that the task force went beyond its mandate, Admiral." Langdon said, "We're just trying to make sure that in executing that mandate it didn't inadvertently create a situation that might have triggered a response from the Cooperative by somehow impinging on Manatoan sovereignty or Freedom of Transit."
Now Stavros didn't bother to hide his annoyance. "Madam Secretary, we've been monitoring TF177's actions closely ever since it arrived On-Station. It has been doing its job, period, under excessively strict Rules Of Engagement, which were put in place specifically to avoid 'inadvertently' doing the very things you suggest. In fact, this Comm assertion that the White Banner Fleet is coming to guarantee 'Freedom of Transit' is nonsense! That's what we're doing right now!"
General Zbnievsky's voice cut in at that moment. "And I might also remind everyone at this table that we do have a formal 'Request for Help' from the Sinhpaki Government and are therefore operating in the system legitimately. We are under no obligation to withdraw, Manatoan defense agreements notwithstanding."
And here we go, The President thought as he said: "All right. What happens if we don't withdraw the task force? What would they be facing?"
Raab changed the image from star charts to a series of schematics of CCS warships. "The White Banner Fleet is the Comms' main Force Projection asset. At any one time it will be made up of between 30 and 35 spacecraft and formed around one of their Heavy Combat Battle Platforms. The combined force is armed with enough long-range missiles and particle weapons to make it equivalent in capability to about three of our Deepspace Action Groups and is capable of controlling a sphere of space about ten light years wide."
"A Carrier Battle Group's tactical spacecraft give it a reach of fifty light years." Langdon said. "The task force should have the advantage."
"Um...not in this case, Madam Secretary. Under the current ROE TF177 wouldn't be able to fire on the Comms unless the Comms shot first. There's also the fact that the White Banner Fleet managed stay undetected until it began the deceleration leg of its hyper-transit, and by then it was well within the effective tactical ranges of both groups."
"Enlighten me, Captain." DeBeers said. "Why is that a problem for our ships?"
"If they stay concentrated and maintain a tight defense the closer ranges actually give the advantage to the Comm ships. The screening ships have a smaller volume of space to worry about and since our ships would have to concentrate as well it gives their Big Guys an easier target profile - and they have more missiles and beams to throw than our screening ships can defend against in a constricted battlespace. That means what planes Republic and Corregidor do manage to get into space will spend more time and ordnance fighting a defensive battle than doing their main job, which is engaging threats like this in deep space and keeping them on the defensive."
"Also," Stavros added, "concentrating the battlespace within the boundaries of a star system as populous and with as much interstellar traffic as Azara Rigos adds the possibility of neutral kills and collateral damage. Two hyper-capable space fleets trading FTL missiles in a system a couple of dozen astronomical units wide is a recipe for all manner of disasters. That's why the Navy trains mainly to defeat the opposition in the void between stars."
"You're talking about a nightmare scenario." Sandy Henslin said.
"And that nightmare is under four light-years from Azara Rigos and closing." Stavros shot back.
"So let's get the task force some help." Harry Orr said. "Why don't we just get another carrier group moving to Azara Rigos?"
Stavros frowned and let out a breath, then said, "Because we may not have one available. Captain?"
It was time for the rest of the bad news. Raab worked the controls again. Two new images appeared over the table. Each was a wide view of a different region of space. Once the ID markers were in place he resumed the briefing. "When we figured out how the White Banner Fleet managed to mask its hyperwake until it got so close to Rigos we adjusted the senors in the DSTS satellites. We picked up new contacts approaching the Menos and Caravan star systems. The forces are smaller. The one heading to Menos is between ten and twelve ships, while the one headed to Caravan is definitely ten ships. They're both Deepspace Action Groups made up of CCS ships. Task Force 175 is already moving to head off the Menos-bound force, which is about 11 light-years out, while Task Force 176 is holding its ground against the Caravan-bound force, which is 9 light-years out. Until we know the intentions of those other groups we dare not remove the carriers from those patrol stations."
"What about the carriers working up to relieve the ones on station?" General Wong said.
"We checked that on the way here. Sentinel suffered a training mishap earlier today that fouled her recovery deck. The fires are out and repairs are underway but she'll still need work in the yard to get her back in shape. Until then, she's incapable of conducting flight operations without stranding her pilots in space. Her group is returning to port and the craft she couldn't recover bingoed to Sirius. The gremlins that caused Immortal to delay her departure last month have reared their ugly heads again. Malfunctions in her Fly-By-Light control system are making navigation even in normal space dicey. We may cause more harm than good sending her charging into Rigos. Federalist could get there in time, but only if she outran her escorts and launched from extreme range. Even then, the best her pilots could do would be to add to -177's defensive mix."
"We should give Federalist those orders now." Zbnievsky said. "Any help is better than leaving TF177 to face the White Banner Fleet by itself."
"We have an ACG in Sirius gearing up for a training mission." General Williams said. He was talking about one of his Corps's Aerospace Combat Groups. "We can have it loaded up for anti-shipping strikes and get it moving at top speed to Rigos, but we've got to get word to it right now."
"Could we take a step back here?" Alex Keogan said. "Gentlemen, you're talking about pouring forces into Azara Rigos before we even know what the Cooperative's intentions really are."
"The intentions of the White Banner Fleet's Commander were made perfectly clear by the communication it sent to -177's flag officer." Stavros said.
"But would they have given our ships the option of withdrawing if their intention was to take Azara Rigos by force?" Langdon said. "Why not just barrell in under radio silence and let loose on TF177 when it was still deployed for Space Control within the system and not Space Supremacy outside it?"
"Because as long as we and the commanders on scene sit around dickering over the meaning behind the communication the Comm fleet is getting much closer than it would have if it had launched as soon as it was detected." All eyes were drawn to the new speaker. It was Josefina Veracruz.
Grimm had wondered how long it would take for her to lose patience with the proceedings. She was staring right at Angela Langdon, and though she didn't say it out loud, her tone had the phrase "You Moron" written all over it. If he were feeling more charitable he might have saved her from herself, but if she couldn't learn to keep her mouth shut... "Why don't you elaborate for us, Ms. Veracruz?"
Veracruz's eyes went wide as she rapidly shifted her gaze to her boss. She wasn't ready to give any kind of brief and he knew it! That's probably the point, she thought. She'd spoken out of turn, and not very respectfully. After a moment she closed her eyes and took a deep breath, then spoke in a more detached manner. "Every part of the message contains a political dimension that we're forced to examine. It raises questions of Sovereignty, Legitimacy and Propriety involving all the parties concerned, and determining the answers to those questions can only be done at the highest levels of our governments. That takes time, and the problem is that while discussions are taking place over the political aspects of the situation we're turning our attention away from the immediate tactical problem, which is much simpler. The White Banner Fleet is on its way, it won't stop until it is within the system proper and the only force available to counter its arrival may be unable to do so at all, but is certainly unable to do so under the current Rules Of Engagement."
"All that may be true," Langdon said, "but as long as those political questions have been raised, it's our duty to try to answer them before we commit to any action - regardless of the tactical problem."
"Hear, hear!" DeBeers said. "So let's get back to answering them, shall we?"
"Fine. Let's do that." Grimm said. "We'll start with the Cooperative's intentions."
"You have an idea what they want?" The President asked.
"Yes, Sir. Unlike us, they only want the answer to one question."
The President looked confused. "What's the question?"
"Will we fight?"
Grimm didn't elaborate. The question hung in the air for several seconds until Henslin found his voice. "You mean this is some kind of test?"
"A test of what?" Langdon said. "Our courage? Our resolve?"
"Neither." Grimm said. "This is about will, pure and simple. None of this is a coincidence. They have long range scanners too. They can follow our naval deployments as well as we can follow theirs. The White Banner Fleet was sent to Azara Rigos for a reason. They could see that TF177's ROE and Space Control deployments would put it at a disadvantage against such a large force. The other two forces are just there to keep our other deployed carriers from riding to the rescue."
"But what about the carriers working up?" Orr said. "They couldn't have known those ships would be unavailable."
"Why not? There are a few people in the Cooperative who can use a slide rule, Harry. All they had to do to figure out Federalist was out of place was find it and measure the distance between it and Rigos. Captain, what about that mishap with the Sentinel? What was it?"
Raab checked the console. "A Pegasus fighter missed the recovery deck high and dished in the aft cowling. The craft and crew were both lost. Some of the ordnance aboard detonated on impact, but nobody's sure yet whether it was warheads or fuel. Shrapnel was thrown into other craft spotted for launch, power was lost to the landing lights and magnetic arresters."
"What about the physics? Could CCS sensors have picked it up?"
"Easily. It was an FTL recovery. The impact would have produced detectable effects in both hyper- and normal space."
"What about Immortal?" Langdon said. "They couldn't have known about her flight control problems."
"They didn't have to. They know our deployment patterns. All they had to do was watch closely when the relief carrier groups deployed and where they were sent. Immortal deployed late and has probably been telegraphing her inability to navigate for a couple of days in her training area. Captain, what carrier was she working up to relieve?"
"Republic, Sir." Raab said.
Grimm ticked off the events with his fingers. "Sentinel and her planes are retiring from the field, Federalist is way the hell out of position, Immortal can't steer straight and the task force Immortal was training to join is stuck within the boundaries of a small star system and deployed completely the wrong way to repel an attack from deep space. If I'm the Comms and I'm seeing this, I'm thinking 'Go Time'."
"But they couldn't have deployed so many ships just to take advantage of this opportunity!" Langdon said. "The preparations would take too long, which means they'd have to be clairvoyant to see such a confluence of useful events."
"Not if they were working to bring those events about all along." Grimm said. When no one responded immediately, he continued. "We're in the Endgame here, Ladies and Gentlemen. These are the final moves of a chess match we've been losing for the past several years, and the decision we make concerning Azara Rigos could determine how long the United Systems stays an interstellar power - or whether or not we stay one at all."