The bridge of the Independent Navy corvette Wolf-In-The-Fold hummed with the quiet sounds of the ship's machinery busily keeping the crew warm, breathing, and navigating through the space near Tau Ceti. NAV officer Rydstrom sat at the pilot's station at the front of the bridge, unaffected by the striking vista out the forward view port. All that mattered to him was his instrumentation and readout displays. A green dot on the HUD directly ahead was growing into a small wire-frame box as the numbers on the distance counter spun down. They were nearing their destination.
"We're almost at our assigned waypoint. Who wants to call the captain?"
"Not me," said Finn from the WEPs station. "It's your turn. He's stressed, tired and cranky, with all these strange Indie fleet movements. Last thing I want to do right now is call attention to myself."
"Don't look at me, either," N'Bele added from his seat at the ENG station. "No bloody way. If I've learned anything from my years working with Volochkov, it's the value of avoiding him when he's like this. Three years ago, I watched him destroy an entire freighter with all hands just because they gave him attitude on a bad day. I've heard he's done worse back before he was with either the Indies, or the Commonwealth Navy. And I haven't seen him like this in a long time."
"So I'm screwed then," Rydstrom sighed. "At least tell me what the hell is going on, before I get spaced for paging him. I mean, why are we being sent out here when the Crack-In-The-World and the entire battle group are up to something back there? Do you think Guzman suspects us? It seems like we're being intentionally kept away from whatever is going on."
"If Guzman or MacDuff suspected us, we'd be dead already," replied Finn. "No, I think everyone is being watched more closely these days. Ever since that incident at the asteroid field, the whole fleet is jittery. I even heard that MacDuff himself came out here to talk to Guzman about that incident. It's no wonder she's suspicious of everyone. All I heard about this op was that the Navy is going to try to set a trap for the Indies, the Indies know about it and have a plan to make the ambush backfire on the Navy."
"And we can't do a damn thing way out here, can we?" Rydstrom complained. "We can't even watch to see what the surprise is. Shouldn't we warn the Navy, or try to stop it?"
"Maybe we will, maybe we won't. If you want to second-guess the captain, it's your funeral. Personally, I'd let him decide what to do about it. He's been inside the Indie fleet and spying for the Navy for almost a year now, which is longer than any other Navy spy has lasted that I know of. And we're still here."
"Shit, nothing like a friendly reminder that we're living on borrowed time," Rydstrom said. "We're here. My borrowed time may be even shorter than yours. I guess I'd better get it over with."
A tired voice, deadened by the white noise of ventilation and air-scrubbing filters spoke in the darkened captain's stateroom. The glow from the display screen was the only light in the cabin. "Computer, record the following for naval intelligence, using Frost encryption procedure." The hoarse edge in the voice grew more ragged as Captain Yevgienyi Volochkov spoke those words. His Georgian accent was barely detectable since he'd spent so much of his young adulthood studying at that international university in Freetown. He cleared his throat and paused to collect his thoughts before proceeding. He closed his eyes and bowed his head as if in prayer before continuing. "Report update from covert operative codename Clarinet: Integrity of infiltration remains intact since last contact during the 'Out in the Cold' incident at the Arcadia Asteroid field. However, it is becoming clearer that the commander of this Independent Navy battle group is convinced that there is an informant in their midst. The investigation following the incident with the Redoubt is ongoing, and it is only logical to assume that, in time, they will discover our ruse. We are safe for a time, but how long we have remains unknown. I fear our usefulness as a naval asset amongst the Indie fleet is diminishing. We are able to access less and less useful information, and we are being given less important missions. Due to increased fleet vigilance, and scrutiny of its membership, we have been unable to establish contact using any of the usual." A tone chimed from the intercom, interrupting his thought. "Pause recording," he said. The intercom chimed again, followed by a voice.
"Rydstrom here. You asked to be notified when we reached the assigned waypoint. We've arrived."
"I'm on my way," he said. His right hand trembled slightly as he ran fingers through hair. "Computer, strike the last phrase of that recording, encrypt it and file it." He straightened his back and rubbed his face with both hands as he inhaled. He stretched in hopes that a lungful of recycled ship air would somehow grant him the vitality to stand and face another shift in the big chair.
He dressed quickly and strolled down the short corridor to the access hatch to the bridge of the corvette he commanded. He burned his thumb when he spilled some coffee trying to juggle both it and a biscuit in one hand as he keyed the hatch open. A grimace of genuine annoyance gave his otherwise handsome face a pained expression as he dropped into his command station. "OK, I'm here. Log will show we arrived at the waypoint as ordered. Flip the switch, Kobie. I want the event data recorder off."
"Aye, Captain," N'Bele ventured cautiously from the ENG workstation. "The EDR is now off, as ordered, but .umm, as you know, the mission clock will still show discrepancies, so."
"So you'd better shut the hell up, quit questioning my orders and execute them as quickly as possible," Volochkov barked. "Captain Guzman, our illustrious 'leader' on the Crack-In-The-World, gave us orders to wait at the assigned waypoint and prevent any Naval vessels from escaping the system through this LaGrange point. I'm sure we can do that just as easily from a little further away. I want some more distance from this waypoint. Anything coming out of it could destroy us in a heartbeat, if we sit here. Maybe that's what Guzman wanted, but she sure as hell isn't going to get rid of us that easily.
"Rydstrom, stand us off from that L-point by another two thousand Kilometres. I've set up the new waypoint already. We'll still be able to catch anyone trying to escape out this way, but I don't want to get caught by anyone popping in here either. Take us out to." he keyed a few strokes on his console and sent the new coordinates to the NAV workstation. "Here. Then shut us down to passive mode."
"I don't understand. She's already given us a bullshit doghouse mission," Finn added from the WEPs workstation to his left. "Won't this raise even more suspicions?"
Volochkov spun in his seat to face Finn on his left. "Why are we even discussing this? Your understanding is not required. You don't have enough information for that. Yes, we're on a backdoor mission, and it may or may not be important, but I say we watch for stragglers from further away than we were told. Yes, I'm picking and choosing which orders to obey and which to bend. That's my job. Focus on doing your own jobs, and let me do mine! Get us clear of this waypoint, now."
"Aye sir," Rydstrom replied quickly as the engines reached full pitch. "Approaching the new waypoint now."
"If I catch one more of you questioning my orders, again," Volochkov grumbled. "I'll have to operate this ship even more shorthanded than we already are. The Wolf-In-The-Fold moves to my commands, boys and girls. When you get to sit in this chair, you'll get the same privilege. Not before."
"Understood, sir," Rydstrom said. "We're just wondering how we can gather intelligence on this newest Indie fleet action when they send us way out here, away from the action; away from everything. What do you think is going on, that they want to prevent Commonwealth vessels from escaping this way?"
"Let me worry about that," Volochkov scowled, then added more coolly, "All I know so far is that the Crack-In-The-World fleet is knowingly going to walk into a trap set by the Commonwealth Navy. My guess is they've got a surprise of their own up their sleeves. When the fur starts flying, they are expecting the Navy to turn tail and run. We have standing orders that there are to be no survivors; no witnesses to talk about this counter-ambush. We're out here to catch any of them that try escaping this way.
"Having worked for the Navy awhile now, I can tell you that they'll likely have some kind of backup defensive force ready at the L-points, to make sure their ships can get home. I don't want to get caught from behind while we're concentrating on blockading an exit. That is why we're moving further away. Everyone happy now?!" Volochkov's reply dripped with sarcasm.
After a brief pause in which bridge crew worked at their stations, Rydstrom spoke over the bridge comm from his NAV station. "We're at the new waypoint, Captain. Shutting down to passive mode now."
N'Bele added from the ENG station. "Confirm that. Powering down."
"Good. Now we sit and we wait. Turn the EDR back on," Volochkov said. He watched the display in front of him impassively with the same steely grey eyes that inspired the name of the ship; the same eyes his crew often found so inscrutable. One thing wasn't difficult to interpret: he wasn't happy about this particular assignment. "See if we can still pick up anything on the fleet comm frequencies. We're too far out to see anything, but maybe we'll be able to listen in."
"Aye, captain, picking up the signals now," said Finn. "There's a fair amount of interference, let me see if.there, that's better. I'll put it on audio."
They heard a moment of something incomprehensibly garbled, after which a clear voice came on with a distinctly Scottish accent. "This'll be the moment of truth, then, won't it ladies and gentlemen."
Finn offered commentary. "That's got to be Quartermaster MacDuff. I didn't know he was still on the Crack-In-The-World. I wonder why he."
"Shut up, Finn," ordered Volochkov. "I'm trying to listen to what they're saying."
They heard the voice of Captain Guzman next, the commander of the Indie fleet in this system. She must have been speaking from the bridge of the Crack-In-The-World as well. "I've always hated the Tau Ceti system. This little gambit isn't helping to change that feeling, Colin. I don't like this one bit."
"Nor do I, Mo." MacDuff replied. "But we play like they told us to. for now."
Another voice, probably a bridge officer, was harder to discern, but was still audible. "We're getting sensor feed from our source. We've got signatures all over the place out there in the Amarid debris field. It looks like the Commonwealth fleet is in hiding, and getting ready to jump us, ma'am."
"Keep it steady, everyone. This is a serious game. We're still just strolling along, here. We stay alert, but don't let them know anything." That was Guzman again, in her familiar command voice.
"Ma'am!" cried a different officer. "Those signatures are. they aren't just navy vessels. We're getting contacts coming active all over the place out there. We're also picking up weapons fire.lots of weapons are firing. We've got multiple missiles launching, detonations all over the navy positions. None of those missiles appear to be inbound for us."
"Put it on TAC one." After a brief pause of what could only be the captain looking at the screen. "It looks like the enemy is taking a royal shellacking out there."
"That, they are, Mo," Came the reply from MacDuff. There was a hint of distaste in his voice at the slaughter they were witnessing. "That, they are." They continued to listen to the mayhem being unleashed on the Commonwealth Navy fleet for a few more moments.
"It looks like two of them are trying to escape." That came from the bridge officer with the garbled voice. "Yes, two have managed to break free of the debris field, despite heavy damage to each of them. They're limping toward the supplementary L-point. If they still have LDS, we could lose them any minute."
"Tell Volochkov to prevent them from escaping at all cost." They heard Guzman order. Moments later, Volochkov received the coded signal at his command workstation, with the order to intercept two escaping navy vessels.
"Alright, people," Volochkov said. "This is it. Let's get ready for action." They returned their attention to the sounds of destruction still audible on the bridge audio as they prepared. They were able to hear to the desperate comms of the naval fleet as they transmitted indiscriminately on general frequencies. There was a stony silence amongst the bridge crew as they listened.
Pleas for surrender and mercy started coming in fragmented transmissions from the navy fleet. It was having a disturbing effect on the bridge crew. Finally, Volochkov gave the order to cut off the audio. He sat at the command station with his head down, and his eyes closed tightly, trying to shut images out of his mind.
He was grateful he couldn't hear them, for the moment.
"How many?" He asked Finn.
"About two dozen vessels, would be my guess, captain. It's hard to tell, at this point. The Syracuse is the flagship. I should say was the flagship."
"Shit. Put the audio back on."
They heard Guzman's voice mid-sentence. ". were very clear in their instructions to remain at this distance until they withdrew completely. It seems obvious that they didn't want survivors." There was a pause as if consulting some information, or listening to someone out of range of the pickup. "But I agree. I've seen enough. There isn't any fight left in that lot, so let's get in there and mop up."
The same garbled bridge officer spoke again. "Ma'am, we're being hailed. Our Source wants to address you."
"On audio, then" Guzman replied.
An ominous, digitally enhanced voice boomed slowly from the bridge speakers. "THIS DEMONSTRATION IS CONCLUDED. WE WILL RETRIEVE OUR WEAPONS AND WITHDRAW. WE WILL AWAIT YOUR DECISION."
Guzman's voice came back on, sounding downright angry. "Have the tugs begin salvage operations immediately, and have squads one and three provide cover. The rest remain with the main fleet. Make it clear to the Navy that no one escapes this system, but we've got plenty of room for survivors. Not that there will be many, from the looks of it." There was another garbled bit they couldn't make out before Guzman's voice could be heard again. "What's the status on the escaping vessels?" Someone replied something garbled, to which she could be heard saying, "Tell Volochkov to hurry up and dispatch them, then get back, pronto. We're a little exposed here."
"Audio off," Volochkov ordered. "Stand by to do some hunting."
"Captain, here they come. I'm picking up the two vessels they must've been talking about. Two navy corvettes," said Finn. "They're definitely headed our way in LDS, but travelling very slowly. They must have taken some serious damage."
"Ready an LDSi missile, and stand by for full power up," Volochkov said.
"Captain, are we going to attack them?" N'Bele asked, incredulous. "I mean, technically, we're on their side."
"You're going to do what I order you to do," Volochkov snarled his warning. "Yes, we're going to finish them off. They're as good as dead anyway. We've had to kill a Commonwealth ship before this as part of our covert duties, and it's the only way I can see to regain some credibility with the Indies. We just have to be sure to recover the EDRs so no one in the Navy finds out that we're directly responsible for killing these ships. Spying's an ugly business, in case you hadn't noticed. Launch LDSi now, and bring us up to full power."
"Firing. Missile away," Finn reported, all business-like again.
"Powering up all systems. You'll have PBCs in twelve seconds," N'Bele said.
Volochkov nodded, apparently satisfied his crew were back into operation mode. "Gunner: Two seekers apiece at our navy targets, then concentrate all beam fire on the faster one once we've closed. Launch missiles now."
"Aye captain, firing missiles," Finn reported, as the ship vibrated with the launches. "Helm to me. All four missiles are away. Moving in now. PBC range in eight, seven.."
"Captain!" Finn exclaimed. "Energy spikes at the L-Point. We've got incoming vessels."
Volochkov keyed his screen and saw ships emerge from capsule space as his missiles closed on the fleeing navy corvettes.
"Shit! We've got four navy ships arriving at the L-point, and we've already powered up and fired on the fleeing ships. They've probably already seen us fire on them, so there's no point trying to convince them we're on their side," he said. He paused again when he saw the size of the fourth navy ship. "Christ! We've got a destroyer here, too. No way we're taking that on. Stand by for evasive manoeuvres. We're getting out of here."
Finn reported what he was seeing on the WEPs display. "Captain, we got two hits with our missiles, crippling one of the corvettes. The other is still heading toward his buddies at the L-Point. We're still out of PBC range. Damn! The new navy arrivals are launching missiles now.What the hell?! They're firing PBCs and gattling cannon, too. We're way too far away for them to do any."
They all watched their screens for a moment in disbelief.
"Captain," Finn continued after swallowing hard. "They're firing on their own ships. The navy vessels that were fleeing are both . both destroyed.at the hands of those Navy ships that just arrived."
Volochkov watched the bizarre turn of events on his screen, and spoke quietly to himself, unaware that his bridge crew was listening on the audio pickup. "Through duplicitous eyes, I see duplicity."
"Captain? Say again?" N'Bele said.
"Something very bad is happening that I don't fully understand," Volochkov said, louder this time, "but whatever it is, we're in deep shit. We fired on navy ships and they know that. Then they killed them off for us, and we know that. They've seen us and know we've seen them. No matter what they're up to, we're a loose end they'll probably want to clean up. and we need to get the hell out of here."
Rydstrom reported more bad news. "Uh, Captain. We've been targeted. They're launching more missiles, and they're heading right for us now, full burn. What the hell is going on?"
"Let's worry about that later. Get us the hell out of here. Make for system zenith, plus 60 a.u. Best speed. Now. Ready on countermeasures. Stay alert, everyone. This could be the run of our lives."