Craig had been first officer on the Crazy Horse when Rodenberry sent observers to the bombardment of Newton. The ship had ultimately wound up assigned to the Copernican fleet and the Rodenberry ambassador, in turn, wound up observing operations from the bridge of the Olympus Mons, the Copernican orbit ship’s first-in-class. Afterwards Craig had watched some of the recordings the ambassador brought back. He was sure she hadn’t gotten the full experience.
Due to their positioning in orbit the Crazy Horse hadn’t been near the Olympus Mons when it bombarded the Minervan pirate fleet over Newton’s southern magnetic pole. Instead they’d watched as the aptly named Sea of Oblivion leveled the captured military bases on and above Galenburg, the planet’s first major starship yard. In order to overwhelm the heavy point defenses built into the yards and bases the Oblivion had launched a swarm of projectiles so dense they resembled a line of pulsing stars that stretched from the orbit ship down to the planet’s surface in an unbroken river. In places Galenburg had been bombed down to bedrock.
In comparison to her sister ship the Sea of Tranquility was positively restrained. Each gun emplacement was the target of a two second burst of smaller missiles that were quickly lost against the brightness of Earth’s atmosphere, each carrying a focused warhead that would burn through a fortified bunker or armored hull well enough but had an effective radius of less than ten meters. Known as wasps, they were generally used as interceptor missiles but could be applied in other ways. Even if he was bombarding Earth, Admiral Carrington was still stepping as lightly as he could.
As glad as that restraint made Craig he still hated watching it play out.
They only recovered about half of the Johnston’s crew alive. Twenty six corpses were also recovered from the wreckage. Presumably some of the crew were vaporized in the explosion that destroyed the Johnston. The rest were scattered across the surface of Earth.
On the bright side, unlike the surfaces of the Triad Worlds or Rodenberry, Earth was largely hospitable to human life. Drop pods could float, so even the pods that landed in water were safe. Presuming Earth still observed the Borealis Conventions on Space Combat the downed spacers would receive full rights as prisoners of war. If they were, in fact, at war now.
There were too many variables.
Fourteen hours after deceleration from superluminal the Sea of Tranquility docked with the Stewart. Elements of the fleet were still hunting through Earth’s orbitals, searching for guard satellites they might have missed but for the most part the battle was over. No retaliation to the Tranquility’s barrage had materialized. No ships had appeared in orbit. No communications had come from the surface of the planet.
Now, most of the fleet had withdrawn to the dark side of the moon. The Tranquility hovered above its namesake, the Stewart nestled against it, returning the Johnston’s crew to their countrymen. As the Stewart’s medical staff supervised the transfer of the worst off survivors of the doomed ship Craig prepared to go off duty. That plan was interrupted by orders to board the Tranquility and speak with her flag officer. Ten minutes later he found himself in the ready room of Vice Admiral Jalak Carrington.
It had been almost two months since the last time Craig had seen the Admiral in person, at a meeting during one of the fleet’s weekly position checks. If the unexpected disaster they’d encountered on arrival had any effect on Carrington’s intense, surly demeanor it wasn’t readily apparent in the way he welcomed Craig.
“Come in, Captain Gyle. Sit down.” A frown cut creases all through the Admiral’s face, but it was directed at the reports he was looking over rather than the officer that had just entered the room. The leatherlike consistency of his skin was one of the many things Craig found mysterious about him. How could a man who spent 90% of his life in a can in space look weathered?
As Craig took his seat Harrington cleared his holodisplay and leaned back in his chair. “It’s a mess out there, Captain.”
“I’ve seen the reports from Tranquility BASIC.”
“You haven’t seen half of it,” Carrington replied. “Earth won’t talk to us. There’s no sign the Lunar Space Dock was ever constructed. There’s no navigational signals we can detect between here and the Jovian moons. The Martian nav relays are almost three degrees out of orbital alignment. The solar system has gone to shit.”
The twitch started at the base of his spine but Craig stopped it before it showed on his face. The Rodenberry Stellar Navy did its best to discourage informal language among on duty officers but Craig knew that wasn’t a universal rule among spacers. “I presume you have been trying to contact all major Earth cities at this point, not just the Nevada and Queensland Launch Zones?”
“That’s correct. We’ve had no responses from any of them, other than some kind of automated response from Cairo, Sevastopol and Sao Paulo.” Carrington drummed two fingers on his stomach, sending small ripples through the fabric and perhaps the waistline below it. He wasn’t a fat man but, with his broad shoulders and thick arms, when he stood he gave the impression of being thinner than he was. “After that we tried to contact Mars.”
Craig frowned. Over the last few hours most ships in the fleet had signaled Earth at least once. But Hoyle hadn’t noticed – or at least hadn’t reported – any signals bound elsewhere. “Any response?”
“Nothing promising, just an automated response.” The Admiral shifted back upright in his chair. “But not like the three from Earth, those didn’t follow any protocols we’re familiar with, this was Departure era stuff.”
“We are all broadcasting Departure era transponder codes,” Craig pointed out. “Still, I wouldn’t expect an automated response to still be using them…”
Carrington harrumphed. “It’s a mystery, Gyle, and one I frankly have no damn time for. The Stewart and the Roberts confirmed at least eight drop pods made it safely to the surface. There are as many as thirty two Copernican spacers grounded on a hostile planet. At the same time, I can’t ignore Mars because they might be on their way here this very minute to see why we’re bothering the Homeworld.”
“You want to send the Stewart to see what’s happened on Mars.”
“Or the Spiner, your choice. You understand my position, don’t you?” The Admiral ticked each of his points off on his wide, blunt fingertips. “I can’t send either of the Galilean ships. Setting aside the fact that the Remus is barely a step up from a pirate ship, neither moon wants the other one to be the only moon with a representative present when we finally establish contact with Earth. Whatever form that may take.”
“The Newtonians have four ships.” Although really it was three, one of the fleet’s two logistics and support ships was from Newton and it was little more than a flying warehouse. Given the circumstances, only a fool would send a ship without weapons all the way to Mars.
“And I’d be happy to send one of them, but their two destroyer captains are very green. That leaves them two. Even if I asked them to – and I’m not planning on it – they’re not going to send their box ship. As for the Principia…” Carrington grimaced. “Well, I’m still hoping to talk to someone in this solar system peaceably. The Principia is going to give the wrong impression.”
That left the Copernican logistics ship, which couldn’t go for much the same reasons as the Newtonian one, the Roberts and the two Rodenberry ships. “Are you ordering me to send a ship to Mars?”
“No.” The denial was swift and decisive. “I’m willing to send the Roberts if I have to. This fleet is a coalition of people who have good reasons not to like each other and we’re only here because some drunk politician got it in their head that a great way to patch things up after a war was to send the people who’d been shooting at each other on a yearlong trip through deep space to talk to people who’ve been ignoring us for two centuries. If I didn’t know better I’d say it was a deliberate plan to lose a dozen military ships senselessly.”
“But this was a political plan.”
“So it was, which makes it equally senseless but far less deliberate.” Carrington nearly spit the words out. “And so I have to try and keep the peace with my allies while trying not to fight my enemies. Which is why I’d prefer to keep the Roberts here to guard my flank. If one of your ships goes I’ll leave the other in the Johnston’s place in the formation so it won’t be left exposed. The fact is that your survey vessels are large enough to command respect but don’t carry enough armaments to threaten war. Hopefully they’ll talk to you.”
Craig rubbed his chin as he thought it over. “Very well, Admiral. We’ll take the Stewart out to check on Mars. But I want to route our communications through the Spiner, rather than through Tranquility BASIC.”
A moment of absence passed over the admiral’s face, a clear tell that he was accessing his AI. “There’s an eight and a half minute time lag between Earth and Mars right now, why add the extra step?” His eyes narrowed as he snapped back to the moment. “I see. Roddenberry really has cracked FTL communication, haven’t they?”
“Can’t comment on that, sir.”
A strained moment passed between the two men, then Carrington said, “Fine. Route your reports through the Spiner. I want hourly check ins, if the fleet loses a second ship I’m going to turn this whole thing around and take it back home. Or we’ll make a landing in force and make someone down there explain what their damn problem is.”
Another spasm caught before it made it to the face. With all he knew about Carrington’s career making a landing on the spur of the moment wasn’t entirely out of the realm of probability. “We’ll approach the planet very cautiously, sir.”
The admiral planted his elbows on the desk and leaned forward, his voice dropping to a murmur. “Off the record, Gyle. If we need to spread out operations, is there any way the rest of the fleet can make use of that comm tech?”
Craig hesitated a moment, wondering if he should say anything. Gravcoms had been theoretically possible for decades but no one had built instruments sensitive enough to make them practical until recent breakthroughs in a Rodenberry lab. And clearly rumors that Genie scientists had cracked the problem were already in circulation. Best to be honest and make sure the Admiral didn’t form any wrong ideas about what he might be able to do in an emergency situation. “Not without our sensor technology, sir. They go hand in hand.”
“That’s unfortunate.” Carrington straightened and called his reports back up. “Dismissed.”
The captain was off the ship for less than an hour, which was nice. Even with a full month to adapt, at the end of long days Harriet found her feet aching under the ship’s higher gravity and hanging around Docking Port Six was not a great way to spend an evening.
Not that spending the evening in her quarters, thinking about what had just happened, was a more tempting alternative.
Captain Gyle came back looking much the worse for wear. When he’d left the bridge he’d looked tired but composed. Coming back through the docking tube he looked withdrawn and the red tunic of his uniform seemed to hang a little more loosely on him than before. She cleared her throat and said, “Excuse me, Captain?”
Gyle looked up, surprise flashing across his face. “Miss Thacker. Can I help you?”
Harriet gave him a cool look. “Were you expecting someone else, Captain?”
“Commander Oda, in fact.” He stepped through the hatchway and into the ship proper then keyed the hatch closed. “I was hoping to speak to you tomorrow, though.”
“That would be a change of pace.” Harriet had been expecting the Captain to force his way back to a semblance of normalcy, smoothing his uniform out or putting on a more forceful air. While he’d pushed himself back to his normal posture he still looked disheveled and tired. Still, that only made for two of them. “In honor of the occasion, I’ll let you go first.”
“Miss Thacker, it’s the opinion of the Rodenberry Senate that journalists are always welcome to embed in the Stellar Navy.” Gyle was giving her the party line and they both knew it – he’d said as much when he’d first welcomed her aboard but largely ignored her attempts to conduct interviews in the time since. The only reason for him to go back to it was because he was about to upset the status quo. “Now I cannot – and don’t really want to – give you orders as if you were a spacer from my crew. But given the circumstances, I feel the need to ask you to make the evacuation suit you were provided when you came aboard a part of you every day dress.”
“I-” That was not at all what she’d been expecting. “Thank you, Captain, I’ll take that under advisement.”
“If you do, you might want to consider visiting the ship’s barber.” Gyle ran a hand over the smooth, hairless expanse of his own head, the gleam of the ship’s lights a hypnotizing contrast to the deep brown of his skin. “More than one helmet seal has failed because of a stray hair. Don’t worry, Mrs. Torres is quite good at making short hair fetching.”
If someone had asked her to make a list of top ten things she’d never expected a stellar naval captain say, “fetching” would be near the top of the list. “Thank you, Captain. Can you comment on your discussion with the Admiral?”
“I can give you the full details, but first I feel compelled to offer you the opportunity to transfer to the Spiner, if you so choose.”
“Transfer?” A dozen possible reasons for the offer rushed through her mind but none of them quite fit the situation. “Why is that?”
“My understanding is that you are supposed to bring back an account of the fleet’s trip to and contact with Earth.”
No matter how she looked at it, there was no trick in that statement. “Yes. And?”
“I wasn’t sure if that assignment would force you to remain here, or if you’d be free to accompany the ship to Mars.”
Harriet felt as if the ship had lurched under her. The ship was going to Mars? She was supposed to document the contact between the fleet and Earth, but Benita Hoyle had insisted that there were still no signals indicating Earth talking to anything in space, much less the foreign fleet that had just arrived. Who knew when that would change. On the other hand… “The Spiner is remaining here, in Earth orbit?”
“Along with the rest of the fleet,” the Captain said, a hint of amusement tinging his voice.
Of course it was clear why. Theron Christakos, from the Golden Gate Update, was on the Spiner. But he was staying in Earth orbit, along with all the embedded reporters from the Triad Worlds. This was an exclusive. Gyle knew it, and was expecting her to say yes.
“Well, I wouldn’t want to put you to the trouble of arranging a transfer, Captain. I’d be happy to remain aboard.”
“We’d be happy to have you.”
“Thank you, Captain. If you’ll excuse me, I’m going to return to my quarters and brush up on what we know about Mars.” Harriet hurried off, her head spinning with the potential in front of her. One of five reporters present during recontact with Earth? Not bad, but only reporter present for recontact with Mars? Even better. And hopefully, safer.
It wasn’t until she was at the lift, waiting to be taken to the habitation levels, that she realized the Captain had managed to dodge her questions before she even asked them.