Saltlake Naval Base
Ted Allbright's gratitude for the rescue pickup had worn off several days ago. Since then he had vacillated between irritability, and openly hostility. This whole naval debriefing and protective custody bullshit was just a fancy way of saying he was a prisoner. He was well fed and relatively comfortable, but he knew evasive answers and stalling tactics when he saw them. He'd undergone three intensive interviews with three different navy officers, but when it came time for him to ask a few questions of his own, the flow of information abruptly stopped. They seemed to want to know a lot about the vessels he'd seen just before they attacked him. Unfortunately, he didn't know much. Then, as soon as they learned that he had been an officer aboard the Acadian, he suffered a barrage of new, more aggressive questions. They suddenly wanted to know all about his former ship and crewmates. Shortly after that, his interrogators stopped coming to see him, and not even his guard was talking to him.
All he could gather was that the Acadian was involved in the Independence movement, which put him in the unfavourable position of being suspected of being sympathetic to their cause. He didn't care about the Independence War one way or another, and he found it hard to believe that his former crew was in with the Indies. He knew his former captain Bilodeau too well, so if the Acadian had gone over to the Indies, it would have meant a change of command. He simple chalked it up to another stroke of incredibly bad luck in a long string of Allbright-style bad luck, and tried to work out how he could manoeuvre himself out of this mess.
When he wasn't watching his vid, he tried to fight his preoccupation with getting his hands on some whiskey. He spent more and more time wishing he could indulge in a major binge. He even promised himself he'd tie a good one on if he could only get out of this room. The only distraction from his craving was trying to figure things out.
First, there was this Independence War. It had started out a few of generations ago as a bunch of colonials, grumbling about the unfairness of the central Commonwealth government. They refused to recognize Commonwealth authority and tried to establish an independent government in protest. The Commonwealth came in and squashed it pretty thoroughly, but it kept popping up stronger and more defiant every time. It started to get violent with acts of sabotage, piracy and a steadily increasing trend toward neutronium theft. Neutral vessels, commercial tugs, and all manner of ships were arming themselves, and refusing to submit to Commonwealth law. When the Indies started stealing Navy warships, things started to really get serious. The conflict was still growing and getting nastier every month. Both sides were acquiring stronger forces, but neither side was gaining any distinct advantage. He chuckled cynically to himself at the thought that somebody was getting stinking rich off of this whole thing. The stuff he saw in the news about a recent defeat for the Commonwealth at Tau Ceti made it clear that the Indies had some serious firepower.
He was digesting his supper, thinking about how those strange stealth ships fit into the picture, when the door to his room slid open. A Navy guard looked in at him, then stood back from the entrance to reveal a small middle-aged Asian woman in Navy uniform. She looked directly at Ted, as she entered the room alone. She stood just inside the entrance as the door closed silently behind her. Her eyes never deviated from him for at least half a minute. He returned the look with a vaguely hostile glare that started to wither under her gaze. Another moment passed before she lifted her arm and pointed to one of the two chairs in his room; the one without the food tray covered with empty cartons and wadded serviettes.
"May I sit down?" she asked.
"Do you really care what my answer is?" Allbright shot back, though it lacked the barb he hoped it might have. He sighed and gestured toward the chair. "Make yourself at home."
She placed the chair closer to his cot and sat with the fluidity of a gymnast. He swung his legs down and sat up on his cot to face her. A closer look revealed that, despite the apparent age on her face, she was very fit. She looked around the small room slowly, examining every detail with her dark eyes. Finally she said, "I can see why you don't like being here."
"Do you mean because I'm not allowed to leave, and I can't even go to the head without an armed escort?" he replied sardonically.
She smiled a little, and said, "No, I mean to say that the room is all wrong. The arrangement and dimensions are not.felicitous."
"Yeah, well maybe bad Feng Shui is part of the torture, eh?" he said. He was finding it very difficult to keep his rancour at full force with her sitting so calmly right next to him. "Look, I'm sure you didn't come here with redecoration in mind, so what's on the agenda today? Foot beatings? Electrical wires to the testicles? Or maybe you're here to give me the old Chinese water torture."
She looked at him for a moment before answering. "My name is Colonel Chen. I'm with a special branch of the Commonwealth Forces, and I'd like to talk to you about your.situation."
"My situation? Sure. A chat with a Colonel would be a delightful change of pace," replied Allbright with more than a little sarcasm. "Maybe I can bring you up to speed. I was doing my job when I was attacked by a couple of your secret new stealthy ships. I was rescued by a Navy corvette, transferred to something bigger and brought here. I've been incarcerated for almost a week, I have no idea where I am, I've been held without any charges levelled against me, I've almost certainly lost the pathetic excuse for a job I had, and I'll probably never be able to pay for the trashed Margate Multi I was renting from my employer.I mean former employer."
Chen was unfazed by his vitriolic response. "Mr. Allbright, I can understand your hostility. I apologise for the way you have been treated. In fact, I'm here to try to make things right; hopefully in a way that will benefit us all. We find ourselves in a rare position of serendipitous mutuality. In fact I hope that I can make you see the equilibrium; the intertwined harmony of the decisions that lay before us. You have something that we want, and we have something that you want. We can both benefit. I ask only that you listen to what I have to say, and think carefully before you respond."
Allbright said nothing for a moment. He simply looked at her, trying to decide if this was a snow job, or the real thing. He decided to give her the benefit of the doubt for the moment, and eased off on the hostility a notch or two. "I have no idea what you mean by serendipitous something-or-other, but I'm listening," he said as he leaned back and crossed his arms.
She remained perfectly still, sitting upright in what he'd already determined was a very uncomfortable chair. Somehow, she managed to make it look positively luxurious. "Let me begin with an assurance of release," she continued. "You were held here at Saltlake Base because you were a witness to something that has eluded us for some time. Your claims to have recordings of sensor data of something that we haven't been able find made some of our officers a little overzealous in their coercion. Then, when they learned that you once served with a vessel known to have Indie sympathies, they felt that they had all the justification they needed to suspend your rights and keep you contained. In fact we are now quite certain that you have no real affiliation with the Independence movement, nor with your former crew on the Acadian for that matter. So I apologize for the way that you've been held, and for the lack of respect you've been shown. I guess we can say that these are difficult times."
"You don't even know the meaning of the words 'difficult times'," Allbright muttered. "Let's get to the part about the release. I've got plants back at the homestead that will be in serious need of tending."
She nodded with a hint of a smile and continued, "A fellow gardener! It has been too long since I was able to tend my own garden. I'm delighted to learn that we share this interest."
"Yeah, it's mutual," he said sarcastically. "A man's got to eat. Besides, the air scrubbers in my home base aren't exactly top quality, so the plants help a little. You were about to get to the part about my release?"
She smiled again, before resuming. "Regardless of what your decision may be, you will be free to leave this facility. The next shuttle leaves in the morning. In the meantime, I'd like to propose a mutually beneficial undertaking."
He glanced at his watch and said, "I've got several hours before I need to pack. I'm still listening, but I have to be honest, the chances of me doing anything but leaving are slim. I don't like the sound of the word 'undertaking'."
Chen seemed to relax a little as she became more erudite. "As you know, spacers see all manner of strange things out there, and they enjoy telling tales when they get home. Part of what we do is to sort out reality from myth in the many rumours we hear. From time to time, strange stealth ships have been spotted briefly in the past few years, but no one has been able to make any kind of sensor lock, let alone a recording of sensor data. The vessels you saw were indeed of an advanced design. Unfortunately, they were not 'ours' as you suspect. The recordings you claim to have made would be of great interest to us, and we would consider them to be very.valuable."
"I get it. Straight coercion didn't work, so now you're interested in bargaining." Allbright's hostility was coming back to the surface.
"It is perhaps a bargain of sorts, but one that holds something of value for you, too," Chen remained calm. "Please recall that you are free to leave on the next shuttle. There is more, though, that you should hear."
Since he didn't object, she proceeded, "You may choose to keep your sensor recordings to yourself. We are confident that we will eventually succeed in making similar recordings. Then, your recordings will be much less.valuable to us. However, there is something else you have that is of interest us: your experience and your.independence."
"How's that?" Allbright was truly stumped. "My what?" He'd undergone enough grilling the past several days to not want to hear anything like the word 'Independent' again.
"Your experience as an engineer, and your independence." Chen repeated.
Allbright almost laughed out loud, "Ma'am, I was chief engineer on a tug nearly six years ago. I started out on a CRAC team, and worked my way up from there to the chief's seat, so my schooling was pretty.informal. Mind you, I was damn good at it, but that was aboard a Puffin-class tug, which wasn't exactly cutting edge technology back then, if you get my meaning."
"I'm afraid my knowledge of Engineering terminology is limited," she said. "What is the Crack team?"
"C.R.A.C: Collider Ring Accelerator Coils. The CRAC team is usually a couple of junior engineers who sit in a small noisy control room down on the engineering decks of a ship and monitor the ring systems, which are finicky to say the least, as I'm sure you already know. That was a long time ago for me. I served as chief for eight years. Since then, I've been doing the engineering equivalent of pushing a broom. Oh sure, I've learned loads about FTL relay systems lately, but frankly I find that stuff boring as hell. That and I've been fighting a few personal demons of my own. Even the greenest freshman in naval academy probably knows more about current tech than I do. And I don't know what you mean by 'independence'. I don't think I want to know."
"What I mean by 'independence', Mr. Allbright, is the fact that you appear to have no personal investment in either side of this conflict between the Commonwealth and the Independence Movement, yet you have contacts on both sides."
"If you mean the Acadian, they are very old contacts, who would probably rather not be contacted," he corrected.
"As you say," she nodded. "Nevertheless, there can be great merit in being on the outside of things, when being on the inside brings only suspicion."
"I'm sorry but.you lost me there," he confessed.
"Your independence; your status as an outsider, makes you valuable to us right now. There are certain internal problems within the different branches of the Commonwealth Navy that make any individual we recruit from within our own ranks.suspect. We would much rather recruit someone who is truly a reliably disinterested independent with substandard skills, than a more skilled member whose loyalties are uncertain. In short, we would rather have you, and help you to brush up your engineering skills, than rely on a graduate from the naval academy who may have come under the influence of a questionable faction within the Navy."
Allbright held up his index finger to interrupt her "Let's just set aside that little 'substandard' comment for a moment. You said 'recruit' twice just now. Are you saying that you want to recruit me?"
"Yes," she said. Her candour shocked him to silence for a moment.
"But." he started to stammer out objections. "I've got to be at least five years older than you are. I've been studying to re-qualify, but I haven't gotten my first class papers yet. I don't know anything about the whole spit and polish and saluting and 'Aye-aye, Captain' Navy stuff. I'm probably the last person you'd see on a Commonwealth Navy recruiting poster."
"And that, Mr. Allbright, is why we want you," she said with a rare flourish and a smile. "I'll give you the particulars to consider. Then I'll leave you to think about it until the morning, when I'll return to take you either to the shuttle home, or to a meeting on board this station. First, if you agree to help us, we will pay you handsomely for the location, frequency and any information in the remote drone you recorded. We can probably even arrange to look after your plants while you're gone; maybe fix those scrubbers, too. Second, we will place you as the second ENG officer on board a Navy corvette outbound on an important mission. I want only one thing: for that mission to succeed and for the ship to make it home intact. We have reason to suspect that there may be someone else who wishes otherwise. I am confident that you will work hard to save your own skin, if nothing else. Third, your status during the mission will be as a specialist, and your rank will be temporary. You will have to determine for yourself who to trust and who to follow, but you will be expected to behave as an officer of the Commonwealth Navy. I can give you reasonable assurances that the Captain of this vessel is trustworthy, but you should begin by trusting no one. Upon completing this mission, you will receive a full commission, back pay, hazard pay, an honourable discharge option, and full first class qualifications. In short, you'll get a clean slate and a good jump on a new start."
"And if I choose to decline your offer?" he asked.
Chen lifted her head and straightened her neck a little as she looked at him squarely. "Then you are free to go, but I'm afraid we won't be able to assist you in any matters pertaining to your debt or your employment. You would be.on your own. We would also, of course, insist that you refrain from discussing this matter with anyone."
"Figures. Some choice, eh?" Allbright said. He already seemed to be engrossed in thought.
"As I said, it is remarkable that we may both gain, or both lose equally, depending on your choice," she said.
"Don't think that you can manipulate me so easily, Colonel. You're talking to someone that doesn't have much to lose," he snapped. "The situation isn't nearly as balanced as you seem to think."
"Precisely," she said as she stood and took a step toward the door. "Which is why you'll probably want time to think it over. I'll see you at 06:30 in the morning. Sleep well, Mr. Allbright."