The Burden of Duty
Volochkov felt like a caged animal as he waited for the stolen LST the Indies used as a courier vessel to dock with his corvette. He had survived another meeting with MacDuff, and returned to his awaiting ship across several jumps, navigational detours and many hours of endless LDS direction changes. These last few minutes of manoeuvres were taxing the limits of his patience more than any other time during the lengthy return journey.
His new agreement with MacDuff gave him a quiet satisfaction. His gambit had paid off. He had gained a place in the inner circle, which gave him a window into another layer of secretive dealings, but he was also under considerable pressure. He had to identify a secure contact in the Navy, and quickly. The seals locked home and he heard a hiss as pressure differentials were eliminated. The indicator panel of the inner hatch winked green. He slapped the 'open' button and waited for the motors to move the hatch aside. He drifted into the airlock space and waited for the hatch to seal again behind him before facing the outer hatch. He could hear sounds on the other side of the metal plating; the telltale sounds of a corvette's main UDC outer hatch opening. The courier ship's hatch finally slid open and he was greeted by Finn drifting in the opening, aiming a weapon directly at him.
"It's alright. It's just me," said Volochkov as he pushed past him, drifting into the UDC shaft. "I'm going directly to the bridge. Give me a report on the situation en route."
Finn hesitated before he lowered the weapon. "Well. Things have been a little tense since you've been gone, to be honest," he said.
Volochkov paused in his haste to get to the ComSec. He waited for Finn to catch up with him in the hatch entrance to the axial corridor. They both stood now, oriented to the same vertical provided by artificial gravity. "Tense? Tense, how?"
Finn hesitated again, as he searched for the right words. "Rydstrom and N'bele.they.they've been talking about cutting and running. They figure our days are numbered here. They want to return to the protection of the Commonwealth for debriefing before we end up at the wrong end of a PBC aimed by a very pissed-off group of Indies."
Volochkov just smiled and nodded. "Well the logic seems sound enough. But the deal I just arranged means we won't have to run.not yet anyway. What about the actual Indies in our crew? What are they saying?"
"Not much. They're grumbling, too, but they just want a break. Understandably."
"I'll have a chat with Rydstrom and N'bele," he looked down at the weapon still held loosely in Finn's hand. "You seem reluctant to put your sidearm away. Where are you in all this? Is this a mutiny? Are you the guy that was supposed to put me in the brig? Are you waiting for me to turn my back so you can put a round in it?"
"No, nothing like that. It's just that.well, OK. There was some talk about what we'd do if you didn't come back. We weren't sure if you would survive a showdown with MacDuff, so we made plans. You don't have to worry about me, skip. It's just that.things have been tense since you left."
"You keep saying that," Volochkov studied Finn. "We'll sort that out later, but at the moment we have work to do. I can't talk about it yet, but there won't be any cutting and running." Volochkov thought for another moment, before taking a new approach.
"On second thought, maybe we should just lay everything all out on the table. Tell the bridge crew to meet me in my office immediately for a special briefing. Tell the rest of the crew to get ready for another mission. MacDuff's orders.at least that part of it is the truth. Promise them some rest time after this mission."
"On my way, Captain," Finn said "And sir. it's good to have you back."
"Don't get maudlin on me. We're in a hurry here. Go!"
With that, they sped to their respective destinations, Finn speaking into a hand held comm unit as he walked. Within a few minutes the bridge officers that made up the covert ops cell were seated in Volochkov's office.
"I understand things were a little tense while I was gone," announced Volochkov without preamble, looking at each of them individually. "N'bele.Your lack of confidence and loyalty disappoints me. We've been working together too long to start unravelling like this." He turned to look at the pilot. "Rydstrom, don't even think about getting to be captain until you can make the difficult decisions. You're ambitious and you're reckless. That makes you dangerous. If I hear one more word from you questioning my judgment, I'll shoot you myself. Clear?"
Rydstrom held out his hands in a gesture of helplessness. "Captain, first we're with the Indies, then we're spying for the navy, then we're killing navy ships while we're supposed to be working for them, and we're somehow MacDuff's very special friends at the same time. You don't tell us anything, and you kite off for these quiet meetings. What are we supposed to do? I mean, you were gone and we had no ."
He found himself looking at the muzzle of Volochkov's sidearm, aimed directly between his eyes. "I asked you a question: Are we clear? Yes? Or No?"
"Y.yes. Clear. Sir," Rydstrom stammered.
Volochkov held the weapon aimed were it was, unwavering, but looked at the other two. "Like I've said before, you don't have enough information, so you don't know enough to make these kinds of decisions," he raised the weapon up and away from Rydstrom's sweat beaded forehead, but did not put it away. "No more games on this ship. If more information is what you want, then you'll get it, but let's make one thing clear. The only way I give up command of this ship, is if I'm dead, understand? If any of you want to try to hasten that, go right ahead. I promise you I won't go easily, or alone." He looked at all three carefully, satisfied there were no challenges afoot, spoken or unspoken.
"In hopes that you'll all feel a little less mutinous, we're going to do a little Q and A without the Q's. So listen carefully: We've been exposed as navy spies. That's right. MacDuff knows everything, right from the Arcadia incident. The reason we aren't dead yet is because he still finds us useful. The fact is he doesn't really care all that much that we're spying for the navy. He's afraid of these COSA people. He wanted us to help him spy on them for a change. With the threat of exposing us, he's had us run a few errands. He's been using us as his personal spies to collect information about this COSA group. As you have already surmised, with so many twists and unclear loyalties, sooner or later we would have to make a choice, or get into a conflict that would get us killed. So I went to confront MacDuff with an offer: we agree to keep working for him to spy on this new faction as long as he keeps us on the inside of the picture, he keeps our cover intact, and he doesn't ask us to betray the Navy. Amazingly, he actually went for it. The situation out there is becoming very complex. Not only do we have this new COSA faction to consider, but there are factions within the Navy and factions within the Independence movement as well. The Navy, or a part of it must be in bed with COSA. They've obviously been getting some very high-level intelligence about Navy ops, which has been working to the Indies' advantage to date, but it could change at any time. We already know that the Indie council think COSA are the best thing to ever happen to them. But MacDuff and his inner circle disagree. He thinks we're all being manipulated by COSA, and he wants to find someone in the Navy to talk to about ending the war. Simple, right? Wrong. We don't know who in the Navy is and who is not involved with COSA. As new members of MacDuff's inner circle, our job is to find someone clean and credible within the Navy. When we do, MacDuff will arrange a meeting and have a little chat with them about COSA. That's it. That's all.
"We're all on the same page now. I'm sure you have questions but frankly I don't give a shit. Now maybe you'll be less inclined to question orders, or mutiny, or shoot me in the back. We have a new mission to complete as part of the new arrangement: COSA is planning another hit. They're going to take out a secret Naval research base somewhere in AC-24." Volochkov looked around at the perplexed faces. "That's right. I didn't know the Navy had a research facility in Momar, either. That's how secret it is, I guess."
"Where in the hell would you stick a Naval research facility in AC-24?" N'Bele asked, trying to think of a good hiding place.
"It isn't exactly in the AC-24 system. In fact, it's way out at the limits of what could be considered to be in the system, at least a hundred or so A.U. out. The full briefing doc is still on its way, but I was able to get some background on this. Apparently there are two planetoids in a very distant and eccentric orbit around AC-24, called the Quarrelling Lovers. These two bodies revolve around each other in a strange, twisting dance as they make their way around AC-24. It takes them several years to complete one orbit. At sixty-four different points in their orbit, they come close enough to each other to create a stable, navigable L point that lasts a few hours. The research base, called the Singularity Research Facility, is parked in an orbit near these planetoids. It uses the intermittent L-point as its main point of traffic access."
"How did MacDuff get all this information? COSA?" Finn asked.
"Yes. Like I said, they have some very high level sources," Volochkov continued. "The facility emits one hellacious LDSi field, and an approach by any other conventional means would be detected early by a network of sensors surrounding the place. Apparently the place is guarded by enough gunstars to ruin your whole day, and a couple of wings of PatComs, permanently stationed there."
"The place sounds positively unwelcoming. What is the Navy doing there that needs so much protection? Surely they aren't really doing research on singularities?" N'bele asked. "That would be.insane."
"Maybe they are, maybe they aren't," Volochkov shrugged. "All I know is that this is the place where the Navy does a whole pile of its secret development stuff. And apparently they're working on stealth ship technology there. COSA doesn't like that idea at all, so they're going to take it out. Once again, they want to keep a low profile. They don't want to be seen as the attackers; they don't want to be seen at all so they're giving the credit for this hit to the Independent Navy. Again. Convenient, eh?"
"COSA wants the Crack-In-The-World group to arrive as they're finishing up with the attack, and smile for the cameras, and generally make things unpleasant while their black ships make a quiet retreat. MacDuff and I both agree that this stinks. He came up with a slightly better idea. I think he wants to see how cranky he can make these COSA people, or maybe just to see how far we can push them. Anyway, he isn't sending the entire group in."
"Oh, shit," said Finn. "I can see where this is going. You didn't have anything to do with him coming up with this idea, did you?"
"Not really, but I'm so glad you're still with me," Volochkov continued. "You've probably guessed right, of course. We're going in early, and with only three tugs. That's it. If COSA smashes up that SRF facility with an attack that obviously required an entire fleet to pull off, then three little Indie ships will look pretty strange won't it? They'll either think we've got a super weapon, or they'll start to wonder who was really involved. Like I said, MacDuff wants to test COSA without being too boldly. disobedient."
"What are some of the possible outcomes?" N'bele asked. "I mean, how do we know we aren't just being set up with a couple of other schmuck's to get killed, so that a few Indie wrecks can be found drifting around the site of the attack?"
"Good question, Kobie," Volochkov nodded. "I wondered about that myself until MacDuff told me that he'd be sending a few of his own trusted ships, namely the Braveheart, the Bannockburn and the Acadian. You remember the latter two from the last errand we ran. They are all from his inner circle, and are trusted confidantes. He might've sacrificed just us, but I really doubt he'd set those others up along with us."
"That's all nice and everything, but how does this help us to find someone MacDuff can trust in the Navy?" Rydstrom crossed his arms in challenge.
"It might not help at all, but it could help us close in on an answer. Here's where it gets a little risky, but then, this whole thing is a gamble," Volochkov conceded. "During the ambush at Tau Ceti, the Syracuse fleet was set up for complete annihilation, right? Things didn't go perfectly, and two ships slipped past and tried to get away. We were supposed to stop them, but who showed up to finish the job? The Commonwealth Navy. We could never get a fix on their IFFs at the time, but I just got confirmation of who they were: the Purdue."
"Wexler?!" Finn said in disbelief.
Volochkov nodded and continued his explanation. "Then we arrived at a cargo hand-off a little early, and who do we catch mid-meeting with COSA? Once again, the Commonwealth Navy, this time it was the Toulon."
"Another one of Wexler's."
N'bele nodded in understanding. "So if we disrupt COSA's attack, maybe leaving it unfinished, MacDuff is gambling that they'll arrange to have a certain faction of the Navy come in as backup again..That means we can expect the Purdue and her gang to show up and try to finish the job, right?"
Volochkov nodded, smiling. "Maybe."
"So that tells us who the bad guys are. How does that help us find the good guys?" Rydstrom asked.
"The enemy of my enemy." Volochkov continued. "We help whomever Wexler's people attack. Those are our first contacts"
"Uh, what if the only people they're shooting at is us? How will we know that any 'good guys' will show up at all?" Rydstrom still wasn't convinced. "I mean, this SRF place is ultra secret."
"COSA's supposed to sneak in and knock out the FTL transmitters first, so the facility can't send out any distress signals. We're going to kind of. help them a little by sending out a distress signal coded to look like the SRF's just before we jump in."
The others looked at their captain, and at each other in disbelief. "When does this all go down? We're going to need some preparation time to study the SRF, plan our approach, work through some contingencies, coordinate with the other tugs. Stuff like that. How much time do we have?"
"We leave in twelve hours."
Allbright checked the reading and watched it flicker again. This was the third time in as many minutes. Three almost imperceptible fluctuations in readings from three of the four main UDC docking clamps just didn't make sense. It was almost as if someone were walking around the circumferential service access way to each panel and. A sudden realization flashed to him, and he knew what was happening. He sent the information directly to captain Ferris' workstation, and hastily unbuckled himself. He got down to the UDC quickly, but it took him longer to reach the service tunnel access hatch. He shoved himself past as the hatch opened and rushed into the dark, narrow space. He found a clamp control mechanism panel, and looked for evidence of tampering. The panel had definitely been opened, but that would be normal in the frequent repair and servicing jobs on an active ship. He fumbled open the panel to look for anything that might be wrong and found.nothing. It was all reading green. He pulled out the pad and attached leads to start running tests and got the same story. It was fine.
Captain Ferris appeared in the crawlspace at that moment, out of breath and tired-looking. "What have you got, Allbright?"
Allbright shook his head in disappointment. "I'm not sure yet, sir. I saw something on my monitor happening just a minute ago, as if someone were here doing something to these UDC clamp controls, but.I get nothing now."
"Maybe you're being a little too vigilant, and you're starting to jump at shadows." Ferris offered.
"Yeah. Maybe I am getting a little jumpy. But I could have sworn."
Ferris saw the disbelief in Allbright's eyes as the Assistant Chief studied the readout on the pad. Ferris started to move around the rim to the next control panel access. "Let's check the other panels to be certain, then I have to get back to the bridge, we're approaching Epsilon Indi."
"Captain, I swear there was something." Allbright decided not to finish, folding his pad up and moving to join Ferris around the rim. "But I can't really say why anyone would want to mess with our UDC docking locks, or any of the clamps for that matter.there are so many more effective ways to disrupt a ship's functions if you want to sabotage it. I guess.I don't know"
"Maybe you've got the jitters, but I'm not taking any chances at this point. I think it's time to give those marines a little something to do." Ferris said, pulling out his pocket comm. "I hope Sneezy pays off quickly, because our chances are getting smaller every hour that goes by."
"Epsilon Indi isn't the most exciting system, is it?" Bates said from her WEPs workstation.
"Right now, boring is good," Lejeunne said. "North. As pleasant as this tour has been, please take us back to the Toriope L5 point. We'll take up an observation station there. It's just as easy to kill time lying in wait as it is running around, but fewer things can go wrong."
"You mean like, there's less chance of us running into something if we're sitting still?" North asked.
Lejeunne's face grew dark and tense. "No, Ensign. I meant that we have as good a chance of finding something if we watch one single L-point from a good distance as we do if we run around looking at all of them one after the other."
"I thought the whole point was to not find anything," said Iwamasa.
"We've played this game for long enough," Lejeunne said. "We have a responsibility to the Commonwealth. We haven't heard anything regarding our request for confirmation of those orders and I'm getting a little. I've had time to think about what we're doing here; about what I'm doing here; about destiny; about duty. We can't just take these ships and do whatever pleases us most. I have a duty that I must uphold; a duty that outweighs any personal feelings of indebtedness to Captain Ferris. Take us to a point 1500 Km from the L-point and assume low emission observation station.
"Understood. Heading back to our point of entry, captain," North acknowledged.
Iwamasa said nothing.