23.03.2268. 0950 GMT
Priesthole Independent Naval Base
Epsilon Eridani System
Volochkov watched space-suited workers move like ants over the surface of a dry-docked corvette from the observation deck of the cavernous Priesthole base. The immense volume inside the hollowed out asteroid base made the corvette look tiny as it received hull patches, new graffiti and a load of missiles at the same time. He had been ordered to leave his ship and travel here aboard three different vessels almost immediately after escorting the Lady Marmalade to the COSA cargo swap. Now he stood watching the process of transformation by which a captured navy vessel became the latest addition to Indie fleet. He wondered who would crew this new ship, and where she would be sent.
The Wolf-In-The-Fold had been ordered to stand down, which would give his crew a much-deserved break while he was rushed out here, presumably because MacDuff himself wanted a face-to-face meeting. MacDuff seemed to favour face-to-face, personal meetings, and didn't concern himself with the distances others had to travel to attend them.
Volochkov had been on base for several hours, wandering the mazelike passages to pass the time. There were two security staff nearby him at all times, keeping subtle watch on him as he wandered. Even here, trust wasn't something the Indies came by easily. He had given up trying to memorize the layout of the twisting corridors, winding throughout the base haphazardly; some burrowed deeply into the rock, some contained by protruding tube structures, like this observation point, attached to the inside surface of the cavern. He looked at his watch to see that he still had more than thirty minutes to kill before he was to meet with the Quartermaster. He stared at the docking facilities inside the asteroid's cavity, trying to estimate how long it would have taken the Indies to set this all up. Only twenty-nine minutes to kill, now.
His meeting was going to be about much more than simply hand-delivering his sensor data to MacDuff. The COSA ships had given him an encrypted message to bring directly to MacDuff. N'Bele and the rest had tried everything they could to read that message, but they couldn't break the encryption. Informed of the existence of a coded message, the fleet commander on the Crack-In-The-World ordered him to personally courier the message here as fast as possible. Volochkov had neglected to provide every aspect of intelligence gathered at that COSA cargo swap, but somehow he still worried that maybe MacDuff had already discovered the omission. Even if he had, Volochkov had already decided to raise the stakes at this meeting.
He saw where this arrangement was heading. Sooner or later he would be asked to betray the Commonwealth, which he would have to refuse (and then would be killed), or he would be exposed to the Indie fleet (and killed), or declared a double agent by the Commonwealth (and killed), or deemed useless to MacDuff (and killed). All options ended with the same unpleasant and ultimately unacceptable eventuality. No, he needed a new arrangement with the Quartermaster, and he now had the leverage he needed to negotiate it. It was time to renegotiate the terms of their agreement. This delivery was just the perfect opportunity to do it.
Three Indie crewmembers walked up and paused to look out at the same view of the cavernous docking bay. They spoke quietly amongst themselves for a few moments, before they moved on, glancing back briefly at Volochkov as they left. He caught a few snippets of their conversation. Apparently, they were glad to learn that a female officer of their acquaintance as going to get her first command. Apparently the corvette in view was to be her ship.
Eighteen more minutes to go.
He started to walk toward the designated meeting room, bracing himself for the challenge he would have to issue, and the potentially deadly brinkmanship that would ensue. He had lived with the knowledge that death was close to him ever since he'd agreed to spy for the Navy. Somehow, he'd always imagined it would come while he was engaged in combat, in the command seat on his bridge. He did not want to end up dead on an office floor, executed on the spot for trying to double cross the Quartermaster, but he knew it was a distinct possibility. The next half hour or so would be the true test of his ability to read MacDuff, think strategically, and play a sort of deadly game of poker.
Nine more minutes. He wondered if he would be able to count the length of time remaining of his life in minutes, too.
He stopped at the door to the suite of offices occupied by MacDuff and his staff for a deep breath, and a last moment to collect himself. He pushed the call button, the door slid aside, and he entered. It was a simple reception room, a couple of chairs that didn't match, and a metal plate on crates for a reception desk. An assistant came out and sat behind the reception desk, glancing at the data pad sitting on its surface.
"Captain Volochkov? The Quartermaster is ready right now, if you'd like to go ahead and get started a little early," she said. It was all so pleasant and cheerful. He nodded and walked to the room with the open door on the left.
MacDuff was there, reading something on a screen when he entered. He looked exactly as he had during their last encounter, greying beard, hair pulled back in a tightly braided ponytail. "Captain. Have a seat. We have a few things to discuss," he gestured to the only other chair in the small room. He turned off the screen and looked directly at Volochkov for the first time since their secretive revelatory encounter aboard the Crack-In-The-World. There was no indication in his eyes of any conspiratorial goings on, whatsoever. Volochkov sat.
"Thank you for coming so far, so swiftly. I have to add that you've been performing very well according to our new arrangement. My other little helpers; my.observers, here and there tell me you've been a very well behaved little spy. So far," he smiled dryly before continuing. "However, I had a look at the data from your last mission, and I'm convinced you're withholding something. I'm also aware of the fact that you tampered with a personal and very important message for me from COSA. I imagine you and your lads tried every trick in the book to read that one, eh?" He leaned forward and looked Volochkov directly, formidably, in the eyes. "I don't like it when my little helpers try to read my mail."
"Interesting, you should bring that up," Volochkov said calmly. "Because I'm not going to be your little helper any more." He leaned back in his chair, brushing lint off one of his sleeves before folding his hands, fingers entwined, on his lap. "I find this arrangement to be most unsatisfactory, and I'm here to tell you that it is now at an end. I will not be coerced nor blackmailed anymore. I could continue to be of assistance, but the particulars of this arrangement must change."
MacDuff raised his eyebrows, nodded and turned down the edges of his mouth in a mock expression of surprised concern. He placed a finger over a control on a panel in front of him. "Did ye know that, with the press of this wee button, three heavily armed security people will burst in here within four seconds, weapons hot, ready to shoot at anything that isn't me?!"
"No, I did not know that."
"Hmm," said MacDuff. "You were saying."
"I guessed you might consider simply eliminating me. But I'm hoping you're both more intelligent than that, and that your agenda involves getting away from deeper COSA entanglements."
MacDuff sat quietly for a moment, expressionless in his thoughts. "Go on."
"I'd like to propose a new arrangement.one in which we work together. I give you everything I have, which, incidentally, is more than you think, and you don't oblige me to try to open your mail. I'm talking about a more mutual, open, and equitable sharing of information. I'm talking about putting it all on the table in an honest, open alliance. I'm talking about détente. I can continue to be a tremendous asset, if we have a shared sense of purpose, or I can be dead in four seconds, the choice is yours. But I will not continue this arrangement, which leads ultimately to either betraying you or the Commonwealth, and.well, me being dead either way."
MacDuff continued to listen in silence. His eyes grew unfocused for a moment, as he seemed to consider things far away. His eyes narrowed again, as his focus came back to Volochkov in a particularly keen stare. The creases around his eyes suggested the hint of a smile.
More than four seconds had elapsed.
"What exactly do you propose, Captain."
"I tell you everything I know about what I've seen these past few months, and you tell me everything you know about what's really going on here. We both know this isn't a fight for the cause of colonial independence against the Commonwealth anymore."
MacDuff surprised him by standing up and walking to the door. He opened it a crack, and looked into the reception area, nodded once, closed it and turned to assume a half sitting position on the edge of his desk.
"Tell me, Captain Volochkov. What do you know about the cause of colonial independence?"
"Oh, you know, the same old stuff about people wanting more than they're given, so they decide to take it by force. People don't like it when power is concentrated in someone else's hands, so they work very hard to take that power away from them and concentrate it in their own hands. The folks who already have the power really, really don't want to give it up, so they'll do just about anything to stop people from taking it away. And so on and so forth. Each group makes all kind of righteous claims about the goodness of their cause, and the monstrosity of the enemies. It's all a complete load of shit."
"Ah, so you're a cynic as well as a sell out," MacDuff looked bored.
"Believe what you want," said Volochkov without rancour. "You don't know anything about me or my personal reasons for espionage. Just don't preach to me about how great your cause is, because I've heard it all. It may have been great once, but I stopped believing in it, or even in the crap the Commonwealth claims, long ago."
"It might surprise you to learn that we don't disagree all that much, you and I," MacDuff chuckled. "Here's a wee bit of clan trivia for you, though. My great grandfather fought for independence over eighty years ago. Eighty years! It's hard to imagine that we've been engaged in the same guerrilla warfare for almost a century now. Back then it was mostly political protests, media stunts, lots of time wasted lobbying, and the occasional bit of piracy and sabotage. But he truly believed in what he was doing. Both of my parents also fought actively in several battles against the Commonwealth forces, including the Battle at Jundears Station. I've personally been fighting the Commonwealth for recognition of Independence my entire life. Hell, I captured the Harvard! I fought at the Toliman Exchange. I believe in this movement with all my heart. I really do. But you're right when you say things have changed. We need to find a new way. Unfortunately, my views are not shared by many in the council. In fact, the council has recently made some deeper agreements with this group COSA. And I'll tell you this for free: it feels like a pact with the devil himself to me.
"No, this is rapidly becoming a conflict for something else. Perhaps it's for profit. Perhaps it's for the sake of conflict itself, but I'll be damned if I let myself get manipulated by COSA into a fight that's not mine."
MacDuff walked around his desk and returned to his chair to face Volochkov. "Very well, Captain. I'll play along, for now. Let's make a new set of rules. We.share information and we work together. But before we do, tell me something: What is your ultimate goal. Sooner or later you and I will have to come down on one philosophical side or the other, which will bring us back to the beginning, if you ask me. So tell me what it is that you want out of this?"
Volochkov hadn't exactly prepared an answer for that question, and had to think for a moment. He decided that honesty would be best. "I used to be in this for the money, and I'll admit, the thrill of the ride. Now, I want to see the truth revealed. I want to know who is trying to feed this war, and I want to know why. Ultimately, I want to see it all come to an end. Once upon a time I thought I was helping to do that by helping the Navy, but I no longer believe that's possible, nor even desirable. Not with the Commonwealth in charge. It sure as hell doesn't seem to be what the politicians want. I want to be on the inside of whatever is going to happen to change the status quo."
"'Status quo'. Interesting choice of words, that," said MacDuff. "I'm starting to think that status quo is exactly what all of this is about. A great deal of effort is being put into keeping the status quo, isn't it?" He opened a drawer in his desk and pulled out a box with data chips. He selected one of the chips and placed it on the surface of the desk between them. "There is some highly sensitive information on this chip: mission briefs, the contents of that COSA message, and a few other very dangerous details. Giving this to you could put the Independence movement at great peril. Prove to me that you're not still just a Commonwealth spy. Start talking."
Volochkov looked carefully at the chip, suddenly uncertain of the gamble he'd taken. He was in too far to stop at this point. He suddenly realized that he actually wanted to talk. He wanted to have someone with whom he could share all the secrets of the war openly and candidly. "During the ambush at the Amarid debris field, we were to watch the supplementary L-point for any escaping navy vessels. As you know, two came our way, and, as ordered, they were duly eliminated. But. we weren't the ones that took them out. I mean, it would have been relatively easy. They were crippled, and they were just trying to get away. I. I chose to destroy those Commonwealth ships in a bid to gain some of the credibility I feared we were losing. We launched missiles, and were closing for the kill, when more Navy vessels emerged from the L-point. I was sure they were there to escort them out, and I figured we were screwed if we pressed the attack, so I held off the final blow, and prepared for retreat. The enemy ships fired all right, but not at us. They completely destroyed those two fleeing corvettes. Then they turned their attention to us in a very unfriendly way, so we got the hell out. It took every trick I know and then some, to lose them. We finally did after a chase of several hours. They tried everything to kill us, too. I'm quite certain they did NOT want us to escape. There were moments I honestly didn't think we'd get away."
He watched MacDuff's reactions as he spoke. Satisfied that he saw genuine surprise on MacDuff's face, Volochkov continued. "I've a few theories of my own, but perhaps you can tell me why Navy ships were finishing off their own escaping survivors that day, then going after us with everything they had."
MacDuff closed his eyes for a moment while he pieced things together. "My best guess would be that, just like us, the Navy isn't of one mind, and they're going through some kind of internal power struggle over something. It must be something big, because I haven't heard of open shooting between Navy factions before. Not ever."
"Thank you for stating the obvious," Volochkov voiced his disappointment sarcastically. "Don't insult me. What would they be fighting over that is so big that they would destroy their own crippled, fleeing ships?" he looked at MacDuff with a narrowing of his eyes. "Maybe a better place to start would be to explain to me what was really going on during that ambush. They called it a demonstration. A demonstration of what, for whom, and by whom?"
"COSA, of course," MacDuff replied. "They informed us of an opportunity to destroy a Navy strike fleet lying in wait for us in the Amarid debris field in Tau Ceti. They also informed us that this would be an opportunity for us to observe a new COSA weapon in action. They wanted to sell us a bunch of these new stealthy weapons platforms very cheaply. Practically for free, in fact. They are almost invisible until they go active. Apparently they are quite vulnerable and short-lived, but in large numbers, they can overwhelm an entire fleet. They wanted to supply us with these weapons. This was meant to be a product demonstration for our benefit. They told us where to go, what course to take, what speed, when to go there.everything. One condition they were very clear about for this 'favour' was complete secrecy: We were to prevent any Navy vessels from escaping after the demonstration was over. They did not want survivors talking about it. They were very eager to make sure that we got the credit for the destruction. The Council was only too happy to oblige, and be seen as more of a threat. It's quite likely the Council will be asking for many more of these weapons from COSA.
"The real question is: Who was that demonstration really for. I'm convinced that there was another message in that wholesale slaughter, meant for us Indies, and that was to observe very clearly where the real power was. Aye, they were also telling us that we need them a good deal more than they need us. By attacking and destroying such a large Navy target like the Syracuse and her strike fleet, COSA was showing us what they can do to anyone, anywhere, should they choose to. They were letting us know that we'd better appreciate the preferred customer status we were being given. Clearly, COSA had to have a Navy insider because that fleet was set up to perfection. The bit that you've just told me; that Navy ships were also a part of COSAs security measures, tells me that the insider help they're getting may be larger than we think, which only makes my mission more important, and far more urgent."
"Mission?" asked Volochkov. "Are you talking about that coded COSA message we brought? By the way, when you briefed us for that escort mission, you never mentioned anything about being your personal couriers."
"That's because we weren't expecting that message. But the 'mission' I just mentioned is only sort of related to the message they sent with you. I'll explain in a minute. First, tell me what else you know. What really happened at the neutronium hand off?"
"Well, my report contained the main gist of the encounter, but I left out a couple of important details. First off, as you suggested, we arrived a few minutes early. We must have interrupted a meeting, because at the edge of our sensor range, we detected a pair of corvettes in close proximity to one another, likely docked. As soon as we showed up, they separated and one of them fled in great haste. One of the ships was our COSA contact, of course. But guess who's ship was in such a hurry to leave?"
"A Commonwealth Navy corvette, no doubt. Did you get a specific ID?"
"Indeed I did. My guess is the special message we received for your eyes only was brought to that meeting by a Navy corvette. I'm also guessing it wasn't part of the original plan for that rendez vous. Anyway, they took off in a big hurry and the rest of the transfer went as planned, but just before we left, they transmitted the coded message, and a few more COSA corvettes just suddenly 'appeared' inside our sensor orb, as if by magic, then everyone left on a different vector. It was quite an impressive display. I suppose it was another one of your little 'don't-even-think-about-fucking-with-us' demonstrations. It certainly worked on me."
"What was the name of the Navy corvette you saw fleeing the scene?" MacDuff asked.
"What was in that coded COSA message?" Volochkov countered.
MacDuff smiled and leaned back in his chair. "We must play chess someday, you and I. I think I would enjoy it," he said. Volochkov nodded, but remained tight-lipped. "Very well," MacDuff continued, "COSA has decided to do us another favour. They will hit another Navy target, give us credit, and retreat to the darkness of the shadows. Quite a gift, eh? Almost no strings attached, either."
"Why would they.whoever in hell 'they' are, choose to be so generous to the cause for independence if they weren't willing to openly ally themselves with the Independent Navy as members of the cause?"
MacDuff shook his head. "I'm convinced that COSA cares nothing for our political agenda, and we haven't really required it of them. The fact is that we've desperately needed their help. We were losing this war for a few years before COSA came along. All we could hope to achieve was a drawn out series of guerrilla strikes and retreats. We could capture, but we couldn't hold much of anything of strategic value, not militarily. Then, suddenly, magically, we get this very powerful friend willing to help us. We get weapons, and amazing intelligence about Naval dispositions, and all we have to do is keep them well supplied with neutronium, and keep their identity and involvement a secret. In other words, they gave us everything, and asked for almost nothing in return. Suddenly we were back in the fight. Who, in their right mind would question a gift like that?"
"You?" Volochkov answered.
"Me!" MacDuff confirmed. "Like I said: I pick my own fights, thank you very much. These gifts are raising the stakes, and coming with more strings all the time. The problem is that the Independence movement is anything but a 'unified front'. Most of the representatives on the council think that this COSA business is great. The bloody Exchequer is practically in love with COSA."
"What are the details of this latest gift from COSA."
MacDuff looked sidelong at Volochkov for a moment before continuing. "Why not?! Here are a few details that I've put together that aren't in any of the files they've sent. COSA's biggest advantage, besides their hidden bases and secret identities, is their stealth technology. They've got thermal baffles on their exhaust systems, radar absorbent shielding on the bodies of their black ships, and they've resolved the infrared emissions problem that has stumped the Navy researchers for so long. We still have a tough time seeing their ships unless they're active.
"Now it seems that the Navy, contrary to popular belief, didn't quite give up on their stealth technology research program. They've been researching it in secret all along, and are getting close to a breakthrough. If the Navy discovers the solutions to some of the IR shielding problems they've run into, and it looks like they will quite soon, then COSA will suddenly have much less of an advantage. There's a secret Navy research facility that COSA sees as a threat to their technological edge, so they want to take it out completely. This serves their own purpose quite nicely, but they really don't want to be identified as the aggressors. Not yet anyway. They are more than happy to give us the credit for the strike. The only string attached to this gift is that we have to supply a fleet of Independent Navy vessels to be seen at the secret research facility immediately after the attack, to make our involvement believable. They want us to arrive just as they're leaving and mop up, get noticed, maybe even recorded, maybe even deal with the Navy response, which is likely to be swift."
"Why don't they just tell you where it is and let you decide how, when or if you're going to smash it?"
"I don't honestly know why, but this is the first time they've insisted on doing the hit themselves. My only guess is that this is an important one to their particular agenda. They probably want to make sure we don't muck it up," MacDuff replied
"And this doesn't sit well with you."
"No it does not sit well with me."
"Why not? You get to hurt the Navy, again."
"No, they get to hurt the Navy and we get to walk in and take the credit. This is not something we decided to do, because it suited us.No. We get handed these 'gifts', that are actually more like orders. They've even gone so far as to suggest that we send the Crack-In-The-World group in to mop up, since that fleet is of sufficient size to be believable. We're becoming their errand boys. Someone else calls the shots, and we are so eager to hurt the Commonwealth that we fail to see that we are no longer even in charge of our own destiny. That, my little spy friend, is what this whole Independence thing has been about, all along: Self determination."
"It doesn't feel so great to be someone else's errand boy, does it?" Volochkov baited. "So what is this mission you mentioned earlier, then."
MacDuff brushed off the taunt with a shake of his head. "We really must play chess someday soon. All right. It won't help you one way or the other, anyway. The 'mission' is my own self-appointed task. It is simply my personal agenda, one shared by a select few of us, and directed quietly by myself with the help of a few trusted friends, and.little helpers, so to speak. So far, you've been an unwitting and admittedly highly disposable part of that team. Now you'll be a little more.informed, if we continue down this path."
"I might be willing to allow myself to remain one of your little helpers, if I understood the 'mission' more clearly."
"It's simple, really," MacDuff continued. "I want to arrange a meeting with someone in the Commonwealth Navy. I need to find someone in the Navy willing to listen to me. I have some ideas about COSA, and some evidence I'm willing to share with the right person or persons in the Navy. The trouble is, I don't know who will listen, and I don't know whom to trust. Not yet anyway. There are factions within the Navy that are deeply involved with COSA, I'm convinced of that, but I don't know which. That is the 'mission', and that is where you can be of most help."
Volochkov thought for a few seconds before replying. "I think it's safe to assume that my credibility with the Navy is shot. I wouldn't be exactly the ideal contact, nor messenger. In fact, anyone connected with the Naval Intelligence branch won't carry a lot of credibility in the Halls of Power, if that's where you're hoping to find an ally."
"Agreed. I need to find someone who has respect and credibility within the Navy, but above all, I need to find someone with no connections to those in the Navy who are tainted by COSA. We can't just openly expose COSA.it would be far too dangerous to us all. Not to mention the support they already have within the Independence movement. No, we need to proceed quietly for the time being. I need to talk to a true warrior; someone who has been dedicated and thorough in their work; someone who is uncorruptible."
"I see your problem," Volochkov mused. "That's a tall order. Even I can't make any recommendations that are guaranteed to be that pure. I've met a few I can say I respect, but that level of certainty.no. When is this strike against the Navy research facility supposed to occur?"
"Very soon. A matter of days, perhaps less. Can you be ready?"
"What would happen." Volochkov thought out loud, stopping to more carefully select his words. "What would happen if you pulled something like what you did at the cargo swap: arrive early?"
"Interesting idea," MacDuff said as he gave it some thought. "If we arrived early, it might throw off their plans a little, make them uneasy that so many witnesses see them involved in the assault." MacDuff's eyes brightened as a new idea struck him, bringing those creases at the edges of his eyes into a tight smile. "Better yet: Arrive early, and with almost nothing. We could leave the Crack-In-The-World and her entire support group behind."
"Whoa there. Wait a minute. If you're thinking of sending me in alone, then I withdraw my suggestion. You don't think I'm suicidal do you?"
"Suicidal!? A Commonwealth Navy spy walks into my office in the heart of our secret base demanding a new arrangement isn't suicidal? If not suicidal, then you're either mad as a hatter, or one of the boldest Navy specimens I've seen in awhile." MacDuff countered as he studied his opponent for a moment. "No, I don't imagine you are the least bit mad or suicidal. You're shrewd and determined, which is why you'll be the ship to arrive a little early. You'll also have all the gear necessary to record everything you see. It is quite likely that COSA will be very upset at seeing only one Indie ship coming in early, so I'll send a few others to support you, and I'll offer an official excuse. They'll have no trouble believing that the Crack-In-The-World is delayed by mechanical problems. She's been down for repairs for more time that she's been operational since we got her."
"Only a couple?" Volochkov protested.
"You won't be there to fight. As you suggested, you'll go in early, record everything you can about the COSA ships, their tactics, their weapons.everything. If they ask, you'll say that the fleet is delayed, and you've been ordered to make an appearance for blame's sake. You'll get a squadron of armed tugs that are very loyal to me for help. I'll send the Bannockburn, the Braveheart, and the Acadian in to assist you. Just arrive, hold position, observe and record. COSA will likely finish off the research facility and leave quickly. If COSA is unhappy with that, well.too bad. If any trouble shows up, leave. If you absolutely must, FTL for help and I'll send the Crack-In-The-World to support your retreat. Otherwise, get out and report straight back to me."
Volochkov sat and listened to MacDuff, understanding how a charismatic leader can intoxicate followers with inspiration, as he excitedly devised an attack plan on the fly. He knew a good deal more careful planning would be required for such a mission to succeed, and he wondered if it would get done before he was asked to risk his ship on this mission. He nodded and listened as MacDuff listed the potential outcomes of foiling COSA in this assault, doubting if anyone could predict how COSA would react.
"We don't have much time to get ready," MacDuff concluded. "Get back to your ship and await a new patrol mission assignment from me that will send you to the Momar system. Once there, you'll receive a coded transmission from me. It will give you the location and timing of a rendez vous with the ships I mentioned and all the details you'll need about the secret Navy research base. I don't know the particulars yet, but I understand it's quite a way out, near the edge of the system."
"Can I assume that we have a new understanding then?" Volochkov ventured. "If I feel I'm being misused or recklessly risked, I assure you that you will regret such a decision. If I have questions about details or background, I expect you to provide them in the spirit of true collaboration. In return I will continue to work for you and provide you with full reports on COSA activities. Understood?"
"Understood, and agreed, Captain," MacDuff reached across as he stood to shake Volochkov's hand. "You have the qualities of a true warrior; the kind I seek amongst the Navy ranks. Unfortunately, I fear there aren't many like you in the service of the Commonwealth."
"You might be surprised," Volochkov said. He turned and left the room.
MacDuff waited and watched Volochkov leave before saying quietly, "I might at that."