Tau Ceti system
"Captain Volochkov, this is Fleet Commander Guzman. Nice to have you back in the fold." He could almost see her smiling at her own pun over comm.
His espionage training and experience hadn't prepared him for the possibility that he would actually like the people he was supposed to spy on. He put those thoughts out of his mind as her transmission continued. "While we've been getting a few days respite from action, it looks like you've been getting your share of calls to duty. No sooner do we get you back with the fleet, than we have to send you off on another of the Quartermaster's errands. Today is no exception. Please stand by to receive a coded message, relayed directly from MacDuff himself. Let me know if there is anything we can do to help."
He leaned forward in his command station seat and activated his comm pickup. "This is Captain Volochkov, of the Wolf-In-The-Fold. Thanks for the offer, but as you say, it's probably just another boring errand. 'Go here, pickup my dry cleaning; go there, collect some pledged cash; give a message to my mommy', stuff like that. I keep trying to figure out if MacDuff likes me, or hates me," he lied. "Anyway, we're standing by to receive. I'll transmit my fleet security codes now. Go ahead with the message relay, whenever you're ready."
He could hear the fleet commander chuckling as she replied, "We've all done missions like that, and no one has been able to figure out if it's because you're being favoured, or punished. Transmitting now. Good luck!"
The message went through an instantaneous decryption, and began to appear on Volochkov's command screen as a briefing. The outlines of a corvette drew themselves out, and the message "Eyes Only" appeared with the requisite codes. MacDuff's voice matched the text message of the briefing as it appeared onscreen.
"Captain Volochkov. As you know, the Independence movement has been dealing with very powerful and mysterious associates, called COSA. While they like to keep a low profile, they have the same basic materials needs as the rest of us, and they need us to help keep them supplied. We keep them supplied, and they favour us with money, weapons, and sometimes more.
"A freighter that is sympathetic to our cause, the Lady Marmalade, is about to deliver a cargo of neutronium and other materials to our new friends at a neutral waypoint. COSA will collect and transfer this shipment to one of their freighters. You are being assigned to join in the escort of the Lady Marmalade to that waypoint. Once there, I want you to observe and to learn as much as possible about these mysterious friends of ours. I'm sending a pair of tugs along to assist in the escort. The Independent Navy Vessel Bannockburn will accompany you, along with the Acadian. Don't be surprised when you see the Acadian. Like the freighter, she's officially neutral, but we know that she's sympathetic to our cause, too. I want you there because, as a Commonwealth navy spy ship, I'm certain you have a top-of-the-line sensor suite. You'll be there to detect and identify anything you can, make recordings, and bring them directly back to me.
"These COSA people are very secretive, and this will be a rare opportunity to learn more about them. I don't want any such opportunities wasted, so remain vigilant, and remember that you will be watched as well. Once the cargo pods have been transferred to COSA's freighter, they will withdraw, as will our own ships. They strongly discourage any efforts to follow or track them, so your opportunity to collect data will be limited. Do not attempt to follow them. Instead, I suggest you arrive at the rendezvous point a little ahead of schedule. Navigational data and waypoints are now available to your onboard CPU. Proceed immediately to the first navigational Waypoint and wait for the Lady Marmalade and the other escort vessels.
"Don't disappoint me. That is all."
The briefing continued to show graphic simulations of Navigational data: a wireframe corvette meeting wireframe freighter and tugs, system routes and waypoints but Volochkov had stopped paying attention. This was his third errand since his secret meeting with MacDuff, but it was his first opportunity to acquire real intelligence data, rather than just prove to MacDuff that he was complying with their new arrangement. Volochkov understood all too clearly that MacDuff would continue to assign errands to him only as long as the Wolf-In-The-Fold was useful. He also knew that as useful as he might be to MacDuff, he was also entirely expendable.
So the 'mysterious friends' had a name: COSA. And they were about to come out of the shadows for a cargo hand-off. It sounded like MacDuff was right: this was a golden opportunity to collect information.
"Alright gentlemen, listen up," Volochkov turned his attention to his bridge officers. "I know we just got back from a quiet little escort run, but we have a new mission briefing, and we have to head out immediately.
"Rydstrom, new navigational waypoints should appear on your contact list. Make for the first of these immediately after clearing fleet operational space," he said to his Nav officer in the front.
"Aye, Captain." The ship began to reorient to the new heading a moment later. The navigational computer took over, directing the corvette to the nearest LaGrange point. The ship rumbled as main thrusters began to fire. Less than a minute later, the LDS drive activated with a whine that rose in pitch. Suddenly, the rest of the Indie fleet vessels disappeared as if yanked away from behind, and the moon they orbited flashed out of view behind them as well. Coloured lines in the pilot's HUD moved away from the green destination point in the centre of the display faster, giving the pilot visual cues for their rapidly increasing speed.
Rydstom activated the communications video link to Volochkov and said, "We should be at that waypoint in about half an hour. Is this another of MacDuff's special errands?"
Captain Volochkov looked at the small video display in the communications arm that unfolded in front of him for the exchange. "Indeed it is. The Quartermaster wants to use our 'spy' sensors to get a look at some ships that belong to this mysterious faction called COSA. We'll be escorting a freighter to a cargo drop. These mysterious benefactors are supposed to be there to take the cargo away. I'm beginning to think that MacDuff doesn't like or trust these people. I'm also beginning to think he might be right."
Volochkov spoke the name of his ENG chief sitting to his right, which activated a new link on the comm arm's miniature display, but N'Bele probably heard his voice directly anyway. "Kobie, have all sensors calibrated to sweep the infrared especially. Get optics on the COSA contacts as well. I want every kind of recording we can get."
He turned the comms off, and as the armature folded itself away, he read over the text of MacDuff's briefing at his command station again. The LDS drive and bridge activity made enough noise to drown out his last phrase, spoken more for his own benefit, than anyone else. ".and when we're done, I may even share some of our recordings with you, my wily little Scottish friend."
The Lady Marmalade was an independently owned and operated Oakland-class freighter, like hundreds of other freighters hauling cargo in this sector. This one, though, was loaded with neutronium ore, and other materials COSA wanted as part of their stealth technology production. This particular freighter was also sympathetic to the Independence movement, and was willing to risk the wrath of the Commonwealth in order to haul high-priced pods for the rebels' cause. The Wolf-In-The-Fold had been waiting at the specified waypoint for less than an hour when she showed up, along with her two escorts. Both escort vessels were armed Puffin-class tugs, one of which was covered in the brightly coloured graffiti, typical of the Indies, the other was not. Neither was much of a match for the Dreadnaught-class corvette painted in Guzman's blocky primary colours.
"This is the Independent vessel Wolf-In-The-Fold," Rydstrom announced, speaking for their ship. "We are ordered to escort you to the cargo drop. We are also encouraged to proceed as quickly as possible. Please formate with us, and stand by for transit to the designated waypoint."
"This is Captain Fleming of the Independent vessel Bannockburn," came the reply from the captain of the brightly painted tug escort. "We confirm those orders, and are ready to proceed. Let's get this load to them safely, shall we?" Volochkov noticed that he had a similar accent to MacDuff, and wondered if cultural or clan loyalties played a role in his choice of this escort.
The second tug, the Acadian, chose to acknowledge with a text only message. The newly arrived ships' computers linked with the Wolf-In-The-Fold's computer, and they began to accelerate for LDS transit. The trip to the final waypoint was a short journey, relatively speaking. Their destination was only a little over two Astronomical Units away.
The Lady Marmalade and her escorts arrived at the cargo drop waypoint a mere eight minutes early, but there was unknown contact activity at the site as they approached. While one of the unknowns resolved almost immediately as the Pergammon during their approach, the other 'unknown' contacts remained unknown well within the range they should have appeared in detail on the Navigational registry.
The Pergammon was a large freighter, identical to the Lady Marmalade. She had already discharged a load of cargo pods, presumably empty or containing whatever had been arranged in trade. Standing off from the exchange point by several kilometres was a contact signal that was difficult to decipher. N'Bele worked a little magic with the sensors, while Volochkov let the tug personnel handle the negotiations upon arrival at the waypoint.
"Captain, sensors are having a difficult time making out some of the signals in the area, but the unknown contact further out there, off the exchange point turns out to be two vessels docked together, one belonging to these COSA people, and one belonging to.just a moment..I thought I had an ID there, but its still an unknown. Sensors are taking moment to figure out the signature..Hang on. They're undocking. The other vessel, looks like.a corvette. It's moving away extremely quickly, now. I'll try to keep scanning. Shit! They've hit LDS, sir. They're gone."
Finn reported from his WEPs station. "The COSA vessel is reading as a corvette, too. She still reads as an unknown on the contacts registry, and her profile doesn't match anything we've seen. In fact, we're getting some conflicting information from sensors, which must be their stealth technology. At least we know we can get a targeting lock on them."
"Keep scanning them, and make sure we're recording," Volochkov directed. "Scan anything else in the area that looks even a little bit odd. Can we get anything visual on them? Kobie, send whatever fragments of sensor data you've got for that fleeing vessel to my station. I'm going to see if I can clean it up a little, and get an I.D."
"Aye Captain. Sending that portion of the sensor stream to you now," N'Bele said. They all sat in silence for a few more minutes working at their respective stations while the transfer took place. Cargo pods undocked from the Lady Marmalade, beginning a strange ballet of swapping pods, as they criss-crossed the empty space between the vessels.
A few more minutes passed, with only the squawking mutter of distant comms to fill the bridge with sound. When the transfer of pods was complete, they could see the Pergammon begin to slowly swing about on her long axis, to bring herself up on a new bearing.
A deep booming voice filled the bridge with sound from their communications audio. "THIS IS A MESSAGE FOR MACDUFF," after which they heard a moment of high-pitched, warbling static. The slow, plodding electronic voice then continued. "WE ARE LEAVING. DO NOT FOLLOW."
With that, the Pergammon began to move off, as did the COSA corvette that had been sitting off the transfer point. It headed in a different direction. As if by magic, three more COSA corvettes suddenly appeared on the contacts list inside their sensor orb, much closer than the COSA corvette had been. All three had not been visible to their sensors moments before they powered up. They waited until the freighter activated her LDS drive and was off the scopes, then they all did the same thing, hitting LDS outbound on different vectors. The Indie ships kept quiet, as they brought their vessels into formation to help the Lady Marmalade on her journey back home.
"Captain, did you see that?" Rydstrom asked. "One second they aren't there, then the next, 'boom' they appear right in front and right behind us. Then they just leave."
Their WEPs officer added. "I wish we had that kind of stealth capability. The things I could do."
"I'm sure that's exactly what they wanted us to feel, Finn," Volochkov said. "That was a demonstration, just like we saw at the Amarid debris field."
"Yeah, nothing like rubbing our noses in it, eh," Rydstrom said.
"They aren't exactly the friendliest of allies are they?" Volochkov mused, "Rydstrom, get us back to the Crack-In-The-World. Best speed."
"Aye, Captain. Best speed," replied the pilot. "What was in that squirt transmission for the Quartermaster? Anything we can use?"
N'Bele had been examining the signal, and was first to reply. "I think it was a tight beam transmission, aimed at us alone.I doubt the other ships got anything beyond the spoken message. But even if they did, it seems to have some fantastic encryption. MacDuff must be the only guy with the key. I'll try to decode it, but don't get your hopes up. At least we can be sure these other escort vessels won't have the same high tech spy decoder rings we've got. I'll get working on it."
After a brief pause N'Bele continued, "Any luck with the identity of that other ship we saw fleeing the scene when we showed up early?"
Volochkov had been applying filters to the small bits of sensor data they had recorded before the unknown ship fled. When the data were about as good as they were going to get, he asked the computer to display its best guess of the identity of that vessel.
When the name of a Commonwealth Navy corvette appeared on his screen, he rubbed his chin with one hand. "Interesting," was all he said.