“Why are we here, Cates?” Volk rocked back and forth on his heels, annoyed at the Admiral, at the ridiculous command structure of the fleet and even at Ensign Cates for getting to do something he was good at while he himself was stuck watching from a patch of floor just behind the pilot’s seat.
“I’m partial to the theory that our purpose is to suffer,” Cates said. He avoided any kind of eye contact but his answer was just deadpan enough that Volk suspected it wasn’t sincere.
“I meant more along the lines of why are we here?” And he waved a hand towards the forward port of the landing craft, where the deceptively graceful lines of the Sea of Tranquility swept by below them; backstopped downwell by the blue expanse of Earth hanging like an exotic dinner plate. “What could possibly warrant dragging the entire ship back here for just one day? I should be back on Mars.”
“At least you know you’re still going to be head of the Martian Operations Department. I don’t know how all that impatience would get stuffed back into the uniform of a Lieutenant j.g.” Before Volk could come up with a retort Cates looked over his shoulder in meaningful fashion, directing Volk’s attention back out of the cockpit of the lander and towards the group seating area where Captain Gyle sat looking over yet another installment of the endless paperwork that comprised the life of an officer. “Have you tried asking him?”
“Yeah, but he wouldn’t say. Just that he believed we were going to get something that improved our chances of working things out.” Volk tapped his AI absently. “I spent an hour going through the fleet records last night, trying to figure out what he was talking about.”
“Just lowered my electrolyte levels.”
Gates grunted and adjusted his controls. “Well stop looming and strap in. Landing sequence starts in forty three seconds.”
“I am not looming.”
“It’s like you instantly became a pompous command officer the moment Oda pinned your new rank on.”
“Now that hurts…”
The Tranquility‘s primary hanger bay was huge, easily twice the size of the Stewart‘s largest landing bay, and packed to the brim with all the ferries, drop ships, drop pods and interceptor craft you could want to start – or end – a war. Easily two hundred and fifty meters long, three stories tall and packing a mechanical retrieval and storage system that allowed it to stack small spacecraft like cordwood, the hanger was much like the Tranquility herself, an ostentatious display of Copernican engineering at its finest. Against that backdrop of sleek fighters and armored landing craft the Rodenberry lander looked and felt like a donkey wandering through a pasture of prized horses.
Normally Volk was a big believer in the unity of form and function but today he was annoyed with the Copernicans and wished they could have made more of an entrance. It didn’t help that they were being drawn in to place via the Copernican’s mechanized system so they didn’t even get the dignity of landing under their own power. That didn’t seem to bother Cates, who was staring out the window at the various Copernican ships with fascination. “Look!” He exclaimed, pointing towards a group of a dozen uniquely wedge shaped fighter craft. “That’s the TX-55 Deep Space Superiority fighter. I didn’t think those were cleared for general service yet!”
“Deep space?” Volk raised an eyebrow. “How do they operate in deep space? You can’t fit a superluminal drive on something that small…”
“And yet, the word is that they did.” Gates was leaning forward over his console for a better look. “Can you imagine putting something like that through its paces on the run-up to superluminal?”
The kid was practically drooling. Volk sighed and craned his neck forward instead of to starboard. Their arrival point was coming into view. There were a good eight to ten people there in the dull gray and black – space cameo if you preferred – uniforms of the Copernican Spacer Corps. In the middle of them was a patch of bright red and warm tan, a woman in some kind of civilian clothing the cut of which he didn’t recognize. Perhaps the Tranquility‘s equivalent to Harriet Thacker?
He lost sight of the crowd as the lander rotated down into its slot in the hanger. Volk grunted his frustration and headed back in to the lander’s main compartment. Captain Gyle had already packed away his work and was straightening his uniform, a hand running over the top of his head. His absent minded tells were so obvious Volk had started wondering if the Captain played poker.
“Ready to meet the Admiral?” Gyle asked.
“He can’t be any worse than getting dressed down by the Academy Commandant,” Volk replied. “And I caught that twice.”
Gyle snorted. “Keep telling yourself that. I know Admiral Horowitz and he’s no pushover but this isn’t just anyone. It’s Jalak Carrington.”
“Didn’t you say we shouldn’t be deceived by his reputation just two days ago?”
“I said he’s more than his reputation.” Gyle reached out and keyed the door to the lander open. “Doesn’t mean he didn’t come by that reputation legitimately. Remember that.”
Volk had a moment to wonder what Gyle was getting at as they walked down the shuttle’s short landing ramp and into the hanger bay proper. Then the Captain was greeting the Copernican officers and exchanging handshakes and his brain started to check out. This was mostly the Captain’s show, in fact he wasn’t even sure why he’d been ordered to attend this meeting. It made more sense for Commander Oda or Rand to hear what the Admiral had to say, they had more decision making power and heaps more seniority. That train of thought got shoved to one side as Captain Gyle turned and gestured to him, saying, “This is Lieutenant Commander Volk Fyodorovich, who’s in charge on the ground.”
Volk stepped forward to take the Admiral’s hand, surprised to find that Vice Admiral Carrington was actually a full eight inches shorter than he was. That didn’t stop Carrington from radiating energy and authority, it just wasn’t what Volk had been expecting. “Commander, welcome aboard,” Carrington said, vigorously pumping his hand. “I’m assigning two people to your mission on Mars.”
“Thank y—I’m sorry.” Volk tried to roll with the abrupt change from pleasantries to surprises. “What kind of assignment are we talking about? I’m not sure adding more people to a murky situation is advisable.”
Carrington nodded. His scowl didn’t go away but it did somehow become more agreeable. “I understand, Commander. However, in this case I think you’ll find this clears up a number of things. Before I explain further, I need to inform you that this is restricted information. We don’t want it circulating around the fleet just yet.”
“Of course, Admiral.” Volk didn’t have the first clue what this was all about but if the Admiral knew something that could explain Bottletown to him he was willing to listen.
“Good. Let me introduce you to your new crewmates.” The Admiral turned and gestured one of the other spacers with him forward. He was almost as tall as Volk was but much thinner. In fact, he was almost gaunt and there were shadows under his eyes. “This is Sergeant Martin Langly, of the CSV Johnston. He’s an accomplished pilot who’s served since before the Battle of Minerva Polar.”
Volk studied Langly with a sharper eye. Minerva Polar had been a bad one for the Copernicans, with a task force consisting of mostly frigates and destroyers getting wiped out by Minervan raiders in one of the nastiest ambushes of the last war. It was also nearly four years ago, which meant it either happened right after Langly enlisted or he wasn’t quite as young as he looked. At a guess Volk decided they were about the same age, somewhere around twenty eight. “Glad to have you, Sergeant. I hate to tell you but you won’t have many chances to fly in Martian Operations. We mostly spend our time under a colony dome.”
“I have some experience with that, too,” Langly replied. He was surprisingly soft spoken as he said it, Volk wasn’t sure if this was his default attitude or just how Langly dealt with strangers. “Not my favorite way to spend time, but it’ll do.”
“And this is Miss Aubery Vance.” The Admiral said something as a follow-up but Volk didn’t catch it, distracted as that bright flash of color caught his eyes again, moving through the dull colored crow of Copernicans like a tropical fish through muddy water.
A supreme act of will kept Volk’s mouth closed as she came to a stop beside Langly and gave him a once over. Long, silky blonde hair. Beguiling, willowy figure. Facial features sharp enough to cut a brand new vacuum suit open if she just rubbed her cheek on your shoulder after when she welcomed you home. Preliminary survey report: Excellent, but with the potential for numerous dangers lurking within. She stepped forward to shake his hand. Volk accepted the gesture mechanically.
The Admiral was still talking and with an effort he brought his attention back to what Carrington was saying. “– still debriefing one of them to get a better idea of the situation on Earth. However, Miss Vance has some understanding of the situation on Mars and has requested – no, insisted is a better word – that she be allowed to take part in operations there as a condition of their cooperation. She’ll be giving you a complete briefing at your leisure.”
“I’m sorry,” Volk said, mind racing to try and fill in the gaps he’d missed. “Based on what we’ve learned from Bottletown the situation on Earth is directly related to the situation there. Will we be briefed on that?”
“I’m pretty sure I can manage both,” Aubrey said. That was the moment when he knew – he was dealing with a civilian. Not a member of Earth’s military. Military briefings were never short. “But if you want the quick version, Earth is neither hostile nor welcoming towards you. Or Mars. UNIGOV really just wants to ignore you until you go away.”
“How very broad minded of them,” Gyle said. “But why did they blow up one of our ships?”
“As odd as it may sound, it seems they didn’t actually intend to,” Carrington replied. “The satellite that hit the Johnston was an old, automated system that was in the right place at the right time. In fact, since we never found the satellite responsible it may have actually collided with the Johnston rather than firing on it. That’s something we may never know, UNIGOV claims they no longer monitor those satellites.”
“Why would they stop monitoring them but not pull them out of orbit?” Volk demanded. “That seems absurdly dangerous.”
“It doesn’t seem absurdly dangerous, it just is,” Langly put in. “And believe me, you don’t want to start down that rabbit hole.”
“Great.” Volk made a concerted effort to moderate his tone. “I take it Miss Vance is not an official representative of the governing body? That’s UNIGOV? She’s not going to be able to speak to the Malacandran Eldest directly?”
“What’s a Malacandran?” Aubrey asked.
“We were hoping you could tell us,” the Captain said with a grimace. “It’s not a word in our archives. I take it that it’s not in yours either?”
“I wouldn’t know,” she said. “I worked in the traffic control center. Not Schrodinger’s Vault. And not to disappoint you further but no, I don’t work for UNIGOV either. At least not in any official way.”
Great. He had a low level problem fixer of some kind. A very pretty low level problem fixer, but just a problem fixer in the end. “Well, we’re still interested in hearing whatever you can tell us about the situation, Miss Vance.” He turned to the officers and Corporal Langly. “Any other surprises?”
One of the Copernican officers behind the Admiral stepped forward and held out a data card. After a quick glance with the Captain Volk accepted it and slotted it into his AI. “That’s a work-up on what we think of the distorted radiation pattern from the Borealis colony reactor,” the Copernican said. “It’s similar to a kind of sensor scrambling radiation field we were experimenting with about a hundred and twenty years ago. It’s worthless now but against Departure area tech it would make scanning the colony impossible.”
Volk grunted in surprise. “Are you suggesting they did this to their reactor on purpose?”
“Yes.” The officer gestured vaguely towards his AI. “It’s all on the card there, but the short version is probably that they were trying to keep any scans from more than 200 km away show patterns consistent with stellar background radiation rather than an active colony.”
“So they were trying to conceal their presence from Earth after the Borealis colonists were abducted? Makes sense.” He peered at the other officer skeptically. “Why wasn’t this passed on to us before?”
“Because we just got the data to analyze last night.” The Copernican shrugged. “We apparently weren’t looped in on your crews’ engineering reports. We didn’t hear the reactor was leaking until yesterday at 0900 and then I spent most of the day trying to find someone who would share the data with us.”
“That’s…” Volk grabbed hold of his emotions and held on tight until they calmed a bit. “Unfortunate. We’ll try and get you looped back in.”
He gave the Captain a meaningful look. Gylen nodded minutely in reply and added, “A word to the right people on our ships should do the trick.”
“Thank you, Captain,” the Admiral said. “And thank you for bringing your ship all the way back here. I had nothing I could spare fast enough to get them to you in a reasonable amount of time.”
“Of course Admiral,” Gyle replied. “We have the most to gain here, after all. We look forward to working with you, Corporal Langly. Miss Vance.”
Volk watched her tentative smile work its way across her face, charmed. It didn’t sound like she knew much more than they did but he was definitely looking forward to working with her as well.