Episode 305: A Nasty Surprise

“Transition complete, sir.”

He breathed a sign of relief, as he always did when the ship returned to normal space.

“We are free to navigate, captain.”

His hand was still shaking, just slightly, just enough to remind him of his weakness. He grasped the arm rest of his command chair, his fingers gripping it convulsively.

“Proximity alarm is negative.”

Finally, he could breathe again. It was a slow, shuddering intake of air, and he could hear it rattle in his throat. Could anyone else?

The PARC Navy’s two-hundred kiloton planetary assault cruiser Light of Suns drifted slowly through the Dominion Rock system, waiting for the commands of her captain, Jackson Nataga. Time to play the game again.

“Contacts,” he said, and his voice was smooth, the cool tenor of a professional. Excellent.

“Coming in now, captain,” said Lieutenant Ebrem from her seat at the tactical station. Her delicate features were marred by a slight frown. “I show one freighter, medium size, in upper orbits. Some smaller vessels; those look like in-system ships.”

“Very well,” Nataga replied. “Record for transmission.”

“Aye, sir,” said the ensign at the com station, Tov McHenry. “Recording.”

“Dominion Rock Orbital Control, this is Captain Nataga of the PNC Light of Suns, requesting orbital insertion. Please forward this notice to Planetary Governor Ulverof: I must meet with her as soon as possible regarding an important communiqué from the Central Government. Light of Suns clear.” Nataga nodded at McHenry. “Send it.”

“Away and clear,” said the ensign.

“Think there’ll be problems here?” asked Nataga’s second, Commander Norbu Chodak. The captain looked over at the other man, feeling comforted as always by Chodak’s solid presence, the way his blocky body seemed to fill any space it was in. The XO’s hair was long, pulled back in a top-knot tied off with an elaborately decorated leather thong. Ritual scars crisscrossed his face, running from below each eye, across the mouth and down the chin. Chodak’s charcoal blue uniform covered his bulging arms and the intricate tattoos that tangled across them.

“I can’t say,” Nataga finally replied to the commander’s question. “This is an isolated world, not much contact with the Core or Central.” He shrugged. “Of course, I would have thought that of Luamba too, before.”

Chodak nodded, grimacing. Light of Suns had stopped at Luamba first on her mission to warn the Outer Worlds of the rebellion that had shattered the centuries of peace the PARC had lately enjoyed. They’d found the planet engulfed in turmoil, rebel fighters waging a terror campaign against the world’s authority. The governor had begged Nataga for help, and Light of Suns had offered it. That was outside the writ of Nataga’s authority, technically, but what else was he to do? Simply let the planet fall to the rebels? Unthinkable. A few ground assaults on strategic targets had done the trick, broken the back of the rebel units, shattered their command structure.

But that time, the ten days they’d been forced to spend orbiting Luamba, gathering intelligence, running missions, cleaning up the mess they’d found. . . . It was eight days more than they had scheduled, and that meant they were eight days late to Dominion Rock. If anything did happen here, Nataga wasn’t sure what he’d do. Stay and fight, or spread the warning so that other worlds wouldn’t be lost. It was a choice between bad and worse.

“Frankly,” rumbled Chodak, his voice pitched low so only his captain would hear it, “I can’t believe the rebels would have elements on more than a handful of worlds.” He shrugged as Nataga looked over at him. “The kind of planning that would take, decades of time, and a level of secrecy. . . . I can’t believe it.”

“You’re being stubborn, old friend,” said Nataga, a small, bitter smile creeping onto his lips. “And you’re forgetting how lax things have become. When’s the last time a Navy unit visited this world, or Luamba?” He shook his head. “No, I believe it. I’ve heard rumors for years, from people who should have kept their mouths shut, people who didn’t know who was listening.” His tone made it clear what he thought of those people. “Rebel cells have been found before this, Norbu, all over the PARC. Individually, they represented little threat. And what reason would anyone have to suspect they were more than isolated instances of revolt?”

Chodak grunted. “Someone should have thought it,” he grumbled.

“Yes indeed,” said Nataga.

“Incoming signal, captain,” said McHenry. He was just a boy, that one, fresh-faced and right out of the Academy on Angstrom. Before the rebels had taken over there. He didn’t let it show, but McHenry had to be feeling that pain, not knowing what had happened to his family, if they were alive.

“Put it on,” Nataga ordered, waving a hand towards the holo, which had been showing a simple navigational schematic. That image now disappeared, replaced with an unsmiling face that looked at once natural and profoundly unreal, a male visage carved out of wax.

“Simulation,” muttered Chodak. “Not a good sign.”

Nataga nodded. Most simulations were like this, just wrong enough to let you know you weren’t talking to a real person. It was a form of courtesy, but generally reserved for automated messages.

“PNC Light of Suns, this is Dominion Rock Control,” said the simulation. It’s voice was plain beyond words, the sort of flat sound that no human produced. “Permission for orbit is denied. Planetary quarantine is in effect at this time. All incoming and outgoing traffic is currently prohibited. Transmission ends.” The simulation face flickered out of existence.

“Shit,” Chodak said, with considerable feeling.

“What does it mean, sir?” asked Lieutenant Ebrem. “Is the quarantine for real?”

“We’ll find out,” said Nataga, his voice grim. “Ensign Oded, take us in, nice and easy.”

“Course?” Oded asked, looking up at the captain. Her oversized green eyes stared at him like two saucers, overwhelming her small face. An odd modification, apparently introduced into the family many generations ago. Nothing that changed the fact Oded was one of the best pilots to ever have the name.

“Make for high orbit,” Nataga said. “Otherwise, at your discretion.”

“Aye, sir,” she replied, and suddenly Light of Suns was under power again, moving ahead at a stately ten g acceleration, and tracing a curving track that would take her underneath Dominion Rock’s southern pole, then up and around into the equatorial orbits. The course flashed up onto the navigational display, and Nataga noted that Oded was taking them close to the planet, but as far from the other ships in orbit as she could. It was a smart move, and one he likely would have ordered had she not undertaken it herself.

“Record for transmission,” Nataga said again.

“Sir!” said McHenry. “Ready, sir.”

“Dominion Rock Control, this is Light of Suns,” Nataga said, looking at the camera pickup. “I intend to enter orbit, regardless of any quarantine, unless I hear immediately from an actual person, preferably someone in charge. Nataga out.” He pointed at McHenry. “Send it.”

“Done, sir,” said the ensign.

“Commander,” Nataga said to Chotak. “Please take the ship to general quarters.”

“Sir!” Chotak swiveled his chair around, his hands reaching out to the holographic controls it was projecting in front of him. A shrill siren sounded three times through the five-hundred-meter length of Light of Suns. “General quarters!” boomed Chotak’s voice, from a recording. “All hands, this is a general quarters alert!” The siren sounded three more times, and then fell silent. On the bridge, the only noticeable change was the lights, which dimmed and faded to a muted blue color.

Nataga knew that behind him—the bridge was far forwards on Light of Suns, almost at the bow—men and women were scrambling into battle dress, pilots climbing into assault shuttles and attack ships, landing teams taking rifles and sidearms off of heavy racks in the bowls of the vessel and climbing into transports, while others were strapped into mechanized armor suits. None of that activity filtered into the quiet bridge, but indication lights on the captain’s holo display changed quickly from yellow to green, until they were lit across the board.

“We are at general quarters, sir,” announced Chotak.

“Thank you, commander,” Nataga replied. Especially in battle, he demanded formality of his crew, formality and calm professionalism.

“No response from the planet, sir,” said ensign McHenry. It was unnecessary—if there had been a reply, he would hardly have kept quiet about it—but Nataga forgave the ensign his slip. McHenry was young, and inexperienced. Ebrem would talk to him later, when they were off duty, give him a gentle reminder of how protocol worked on the bridge.

“Thank you, ensign,” Nataga said. He shifted in his chair, pulled up some engineering data, and tried not to fidget. Light of Suns was passing through the planet’s outer orbits, now, and still the people on the ground were silent. That was not a good sign.

“Sir,” said Chotak, “I recommend we stand off and conduct a close scan of the system before entering orbit.”

“Reason?” Nataga asked.

“I don’t like this silence, captain,” replied Chotak. “There’s something wrong here; we could be walking into a trap.”

“Sir,” said Lieutenant Ebrem. “I’m picking something up, captain. Low orbit, barely a signal.” She glanced up at Nataga. “Could be stealth units.”

“Show me,” said Nataga, as Light of Suns continued her approach. Ebrem touched a control and squirted the information onto the captain’s chair displays. The tactical computer had spotted odd light refractions in two locations, coupled with what could be electromagnetic emissions in the gamma-ray bands. It could be background scatter—there were plenty of other satellites in this orbital sector.

“Should I go to active, captain?” asked Ebrem, revealing her own anxiety. Light of Suns was closing in on the planet quickly, only a handful of thousands of klicks away.

“Orbital insertion in twenty-eight seconds,” reported Oded. “Slowing now for entry.”

“Captain,” said Chotak.

“I’m not going to run like some frightened bunny,” growled Nataga. “They’re going to have to show their hand.”

“Range to orbit, five thousand kilometers,” Oded said, her voice still cool and calm.

“Power spike!” shouted Ebrem suddenly. “Bearing two-seven-five-mark-four-two!” A half-second pause, then, “They’re firing captain!”

Light of Suns shuddered as two heavy-caliber lasers lanced into her port-side shielding.

Nataga did not hesitate. “Break off!” he barked. “Maximum power, evasion plan Gamma!” At Ebrem, he added, “Go active, now! Fire at will, repeat, fire at will!”

Light of Suns ramped up to three hundred g, cutting her course sharply away, diving down from under Dominion Rock’s pole, while at the same time her active scans lit up the underside of the planet. More lasers lanced out at them, lighting up the threat board, but the shots were just wide, Oded rolling the ship out of the way as if guided by some preternatural sense of where they’d be coming from.

“Contact!” barked Ebrem, and a new icon, glowing ugly red, appeared on what was now a tactical display in the holo tank. “Multiple contacts!” Ebrem corrected herself as more red icons appeared on the screen, expanding out from the initial point of scan as the ship widened its sweep. Five, then ten, then twenty. “It’s a satellite screen, captain,” Ebrem continued, talking fast. “Targeting now, all aft batteries.”

A moment later, Light of Suns returned fire, her own lasers and particle cannons spitting out shot after shot. The incoming fire had marked out the satellites, and the stationary weapons platforms couldn’t exactly move. Ebrem killed one, then another, finally a third. But there were so many of them, a sky filled with death. More lasers lanced out at the ship, finding their target this time, and Nataga fell silent, letting his people do their work. Casualty lights began to flicker on his screens, but nothing serious yet. The satellites were numerous, but not powerful.

“Range!” he barked.

“Twenty thousand and climbing, sir,” said Oded. “Continuing evasive maneuvers, sir, which is slowing us down.”

“Don’t stop,” muttered Chotak

“Keep firing,” Nataga ordered, but Ebrem hardly needed encouragement. Another four satellites died at her hands as Light of Suns twisted and spun, changing course four times a second. With the kind of acceleration the ship was capable of, even a quarter second put her a hundred kilometers out of line with the most recent targeting solutions the satellites were generating, and the majority of the lasers lancing out at them failed to reach their target. The defense network—or whoever was running it—wasn’t stupid, however. Their shots began to bracket the ship, blocking her in as best they could, so each flinch left or right, up or down, would run her into another beam. Oded frowned, and then started moving her hands more quickly.

“Any warheads?” asked Nataga.

“Unknown, captain, but none so far.” Ebrem looked up at her captain. “There’s a hell of a lot of them out there, sir.”

Nataga nodded. He didn’t need her to spell out the implication of that. “Range to nearest satellite?” Light of Suns shuddered again as another volley hit her astern.

“One hundred thousand,” said Oded. She sounded completely at ease, the result of years of experience. She’d be a lieutenant soon, assuming Light of Suns saw her next port of call. Nataga shook himself. This wasn’t the time for such thoughts.

“Take us out to two million at maximum,” he ordered, “then swing us around and bring us into a rough orbit that far out.”

“Aye,” she said, and set about making it so.

“Incoming fire has ceased, captain,” said Ebrem. “I still have range on the satellites.” She looked up at Nataga.

“Cease fire,” said Nataga, though it pained him. If they weren’t firing at him, he’d rather keep it that way. He turned to Chotak. “Damage report!”

“Four injured in the port side weapons run,” said Chotak, checking his own displays. “They are in stable condition, sir. Structural damage was minimal. We have two thirty millimeter cannons down in the port broadside, one fifty millimeter laser in the aft chaser banks. Damage control teams are in place. No damage to engineering spaces.” That alone made Nataga feel like they’d been lucky. A hit near the reactors was always cause for concern. “Shielding is destabilized in fourteen sections. Commander Ammak reports it will be five hours before she can shore it up.”

Nataga nodded. Ammak was the best engineer he’d ever met, so he knew her estimate would be both correct and entirely truthful. “Very well. Recommendations?”

“We can’t take an orbital defense network head on,” said Chotak, stating the painfully obvious for the record. “We could stand off and take them out one by one, but there’s no telling how long that would take, or if we’d even find all of them.”

“Leaving orbital bombardment,” finished Nataga. Chotak nodded. “I’m not ready to make that decision yet, commander,” the captain continued. “The rebels may not be in full control; if we start lobbing random rounds into cities, we’re just as likely to hit the good guys as the bad.”

“Not to mention civilian casualties, sir,” added Chotak.

Nataga nodded, but kept his thoughts to himself. Civilian casualties were essentially unavoidable in modern warfare, had been for the last thousand years at least. Hells, there’d never been a time where civilians had been safe from war, just a fantasy kept in the hearts and minds of those too weak to do what was necessary. Nataga had no love for the task, but he was good at it, damn good. He’d do what it took.

An hour later, Oded had them in an orbit that could only be considered wide, just a bit more than two million klicks out from the planet, well outside the range of any conventional weapons system the satellites might be carrying. The one freighter in orbit—most of the smaller craft had disappeared as Light of Suns had closed in—was tight in, now, inside the satellite net, and Ebrem reported shuttles moving up and down out of the well, moving something down from orbit, she thought, based on standard performance curves and observed shuttle behavior. Most likely supplies for the rebels.

And still, the planet was silent, ignoring two more messages from Captain Nataga.

“What now?” asked Chotak in a low voice, leaning over towards his captain. Nataga was staring blankly at the tactical display, which was filled with the glowing red icons of the satellite network, all of them shifting their orbits ever so slightly as they repositioned themselves to the optimal spots to cover the gap Light of Suns had shot into the net.

“I’d like to know what triggered this,” said Nataga at last. “When did they find out about the rebellion? Who told them?” The captain straightened up in his chair and put a clenched fist on its arm. “Angstrom wasn’t done on a schedule, Norbu, and I can’t believe that this is coincidence. Someone told them.”

“But without going down there,” Chotak said, “there’s no way we’ll find out. Bringing us back to square one.”

“Not quite,” replied the captain. Clearing his throat, he caught the attention of the rest of the bridge staff. “Everyone below the rank of lieutenant,” he said, “please leave the bridge.” McHenry, Oded and two crewmen rose from their seats and started towards the blast doors, which Nataga was now unsealing. “Oded,” he said, and the ensign stopped. “Sit.” Technically, he would be breaking regulations by keeping her here, but. . . .

“Sir,” she replied, returning to her station.

“Ensign,” Nataga said when the others had left and the blast doors were sealing again, “I’m giving you a field promotion to lieutenant.”

“Thank you, sir!” Oded said, sounding surprised, elated, and a bit suspicious.

“You deserve it,” said Nataga firmly. “I’ll see to it that it sticks when we get back home. This also, however, lets me tell you all what I am about to divulge without breaking regulations.”

“I understand, sir.” Obviously, Oded did not understand.

“It is a convenience to me to do this, lieutenant,” Nataga said to her. “But you know me well enough to know I wouldn’t do it if that were the only reason.”

“Aye, sir,” she said, and now he saw a smile touch her lips. Good.

“What’s this about?” asked Chotak. “What regulations are you talking about?”

“You’ll see in a moment,” Nataga replied. “Voice activation,” he went on, letting the ships’ computer now that he was addressing it directly. “Open Eye Protocol active, authorization Nataga-seven-four-three. Clear lock-outs and initiate primary level contact, and route information to tactical station and top repeaters.”

Ebrem looked down at her station, and her eyes widened. “What the hell?”

Nataga smiled as the same information—or a summary of it, at any rate—spilled across one of the holographic screens surrounding his seat. “Satellites, lieutenant,” he said. “Central calls it the Open Eye Program, and it’s been in place around most of the inhabited worlds in the PARC for the last five decades.”

“How is that possible?” asked Oded, shaking her head. “That’s thousands of planets!”

“I can’t believe no one knows about this,” added Ebrem.

“Some people probably do,” admitted Nataga. “Every captain in the fleet, of course, and the command staff. The top levels of the bureaucracy.”

“My scans didn’t detect anything out there,” protested Ebrem. “Active scans!”

“The Open Eye satellites are in the outermost orbits,” Nataga said, “well outside the area you were scanning.” He clapped his hands. “Lesson’s over,” he said. “The link has obviously been established. Ebrem, query the system—you should have complete access—and go back a few days. Look for any ships entering the system.”

“How far back should I go?” she asked, getting to work. She was frowning, but Nataga trusted that she’d learn the interface in just a few moments. Ebrem was good.

“Anyone know when the last official visit was?” asked Nataga, looking over at his X.O. Chotak called up the information on his screen.

“Last scheduled visit was the PNC Nimble Feather,” he reported, “two months ago.”

“Probably more recent than that,” Oded said, standing so she could move behind Ebrem and watch the tactical screens. “Angstrom only happened twenty-five days ago.”

“Got something,” said Ebrem. She flashed it up on the main holo, letting everyone see what she’d spotted: a ship, coming in from off the main approach vectors. The Open Eye satellites had noticed that right away, had noted the odd ship design, and had allocated extra resources to watching the visitor as she’d approached the planet. Nataga and his crew sat in silence, watching as the video moved forward at fast speed, until Ebrem fiddled with the controls, bringing the ship into close-up. The image froze. It was blurry, but not terribly much so, not bad considering the speed of the ship and its million kilometer distance from the camera.

“Got you,” said Nataga, his voice soft. “That’s no trader.”

The ship was long and thin, like a needle, bulging slightly at the waist, where two protuberances jutted out opposite each other, almost like stub wings, but heavier in build. Some broadside weapons ports were visible, but not many. Besides, the ship was only a bit over a hundred meters from bow to stern.

“Some sort of pirate ship?” ventured Chotak.

“I’ve never seen a design like that,” Oded said. “What the hell are those bumps on her sides? Missile pods?”

“Drive nodes,” muttered Nataga. “For her jump drive.”

“On a transverse orientation?” asked Ebrem, clearly doubtful.

“Not important, really,” said Chotak. “Take us ahead. What’s she doing here?”

Ebrem scanned ahead, and they watched as the intruder sailed into orbit, decelerated so hard and fast Nataga felt his jaw drop slightly, and then dropped into the planet’s atmosphere. Cameras and other gravitic sensors tracked the ship as far as they could, while EM sniffers caught a few words of stray radio transmissions, but for a long while—for nearly a day—the ship was invisible, somewhere on the planet. During that time, however, the Open Eye satellites registered several explosions large enough to light up the evening sky over Dominion Rock’s main city, Calaise.

“They didn’t just bring word,” breathed Oded.

“They brought firepower,” finished Chotak, his voice grim.

Hours ran past in moments, ticked off by the time stamp on the satellite data feeds, and suddenly the ship reappeared, lifting herself out of the planet’s atmosphere, climbing into low orbit. More snippets of communications traffic were summarized on screen as the EM sniffers sorted through whatever they could find, but nothing seemed of note.

“They’re keeping radio silence,” said Ebrem, “or using point-to-point.” Laser communications, essentially untappable, unless you happened to be in the line-of-sight transmission beam. Interception also usually meant detection of the breach, unfortunately. There was no way for the Open Eye satellites to be in that kind of a position anyway.

“She’s smart,” Nataga said. “No indication of anyone listening in, but she’s still using LOS, not taking any risks.” He tapped a finger on the arm rest of his chair, his stare boring into the holographic images.

Suddenly, another ship entered the system, and one of the two Open Eye satellites shifted its attention to the newcomer. “The transport in orbit,” said Chotak, recognizing the ship first.

“The one-two punch,” Oded said, trying hard to disguise the admiration in her voice. “Was there a signal?”

“No,” said Nataga, “there’d be no time for that. They just trusted that the job would be done.”

“Not even that,” Chotak said. “Just pop in, see if things went to plan. If it’s all gone to hell, you pop back out, do a quick sequence jump. Otherwise. . . .” He trailed off, indicating with a wave of his hand what the freighter was doing, which was lumbering into orbit with a lot less grace than the raider had displayed.

“And where to next?” whispered Nataga, as the raider left orbit, accelerating leisurely towards the flux boundary, the limiting gravitational well of the planet—of any major gravity source—that restricted the activation of the Kellerman Wormhole Drive. And then the intruder blinked out of existence, the blue-white flash of a wormhole engulfing her for the briefest of moments.

“Record everything,” said Nataga. “Have the satellites dump every bit of data they have, starting two days before the first ship arrives, and going right up to when we get here. We’re going to go over that with a fine-toothed comb.”

“Aye sir!” said Ebrem, clearly excited.

“Oded,” Nataga continued. “Bring up a nav plot on that ship’s projected course, based on her last known heading. Give me anything remotely probable within ten lights.”

“Sir,” said the acting lieutenant, sitting back down at her station and bowing her head over the displays there.

“She’s got a head start on us,” said Chotak in a low voice, leaning over towards his captain. “Two days.”

“And she’s not going to dawdle,” agreed Nataga. “But she might get caught up in something at her next port of call. Not every planet will be this easy to subdue. Not every plan goes right.”

“As we know,” Chotak added, a small smile touching his lips. “Now all we have to do is guess right.”