The captain of the Independence, a silver-haired man named Donner Sanchez, brooded over his tactical display — his right fist crumpled against his cheek as he stared at the 19 red signatures co-orbiting the gas giant Muehling. During the Secession War he’d occasionally faced bad odds – and managed to win the day because his opponents had no experience going vessel against vessel. A penchant for unorthodoxy had helped him — had helped all of them — make a mockery of Peacekeeper tactics.
It was apparent the Colonial Administration Authority was intent on not repeating history. If their tactics had not evolved, their muscle certainly had. The mammoth battlecruiser at the heart of the Peacekeeper formation appeared to mass more than all of the Independence’s squadron combined. There were no tricks Sanchez knew to defeat such an armada. Even if he had a dozen squadrons at his disposal.
“What’s the word?” Sanchez said, his eyes not leaving the tactical image floating in the air before him.
“The Commandant has released official command of the Force to Noribatu,” said Vela Guppta, the ship’s Executive Officer. Even older than Sanchez, she’d been with him since the first silent rumblings of rebellion had surface among the Peacekeeper officer corps over forty years prior — when they’d both been green and idealistic.
“Bruce talked Tanna into it?” Sanchez said dryly.
“Was there ever any doubt?” Guppta replied.
Sanchez shook his head. No, there wasn’t. Most of the senior officers had always assumed Noribatu would be back, if ever the stakes got high enough. And the stakes had gotten pretty damned high. With footage of New Mojave’s annihilation spreading across the ansible network, Sanchez suspected that Noribatu wasn’t the only old soldier putting the uniform back on.
“And what’s the Senate saying?” Sanchez asked.
“So far the Senate is silent,” Guppta said. “I’ve made repeated requests for their opinion on this, and so far I’ve gotten nothing.”
“What’s our new — old — Commandant doing about that?”
“General Portland tells me that his squadron is speeding for the capitol. Noribatu is afraid the Senate will crumble unless she makes a personal appearance, appealing for courage.”
Sanchez’s laughter barked across the Independence’s tiny bridge. Asking courage of politicians was like asking turtles to do wind sprints. If the EW’s Senate had proven anything, it was that politics tended to attract the lowest common denomination of human being. He bitterly smiled at the fact that Noribatu had insisted on allowing the civilian government to remain in charge, following the Secession War. He wondered if she’d come to regret that choice in the years following. Her retirement in exile suggested she had, though whether or not overt military control of the EW would have been any better, Sanchez could not be sure. Exchanging one form of dictatorship for another was precisely what they’d all wanted to avoid.
The captain of the Independence sighed softly. Had it come down to this, then? A futile few years of squabble-prone autonomy, punctuated by a bloody re-fusion with the rest of humanity?
A bright chime sounded, and the duty officer at the bridge’s communications station tapped a few keys before looking over his shoulder at Guppta.
“Message coming in,” the man said.
“From the Authority fleet?” Guppta said.
“No, this is from the Muehling municipal government. They want to know our intentions.”
“Tell them I am waiting for instructions,” Sanchez said.
“Muehling’s message was quite emphatic — that they speak to you, sir.”
“Tell Muehling they can shove… as you were. Tell Muehling I’m in the middle of a conversation with my superiors, and I will get on the line with them as soon as I get off the line with my bosses. If they don’t like that, too bad.”
The young officer at the communication station nodded, and went to work.
90 seconds later, the officer turned back to face Sanchez.
“Sir, I’ve got an encrypted connection now. Command priority. It’s not local civilian.”
“Sir, it’s General Portland, on the ansible.”
Sanchez eyed Guppta, who eyed him back.
“Tell the Commandant–errr, tell the General, we’ll take it in the stewpot,” Sanchez said — the stewpot being the cramped conference room adjacent to the bridge.
Moments afterward, and with the hatch to the stewpot securely sealed, Sanchez and his XO stared into the holographic faces of both Bruce Portland and Tanna Noribatu.
“Donner,” Tanna said, inclining her head.
“Long time, Tanna. Retirement got you bored?”
“Safely bored, and happy to be so. Too bad it couldn’t have stayed that way.”
“Yes,” Captain Sanchez said, “too bad.”
“I’ll get to the point. As you and all the other commanders have no doubt been notified, Bruce has put me back in the driver’s seat. I’ve been looking at where our squadrons are concentrated, compared to where the Authority armada is now, and I’m giving you and your squadron orders not to attack.”
“We’re going to retreat?” said Guppta.
“No,” said Portland.
“Explain,” Sanchez demanded, though in as polite a tone as he could muster.
“Don, you know as well as I do that you’ll be dead meat the minute you open fire on those Peacekeepers. You’re outnumbered almost 5 to 1 and you’re outgunned probably 50 to 1. If we’d had enough warning we might have been able to concentrate several squadrons into a task force capable of taking the Peacekeepers on, but as it stands we left everything distributed, which means nobody is currently in a position to offer sufficient resistance.”
“What’s the alternative, then? Total surrender?”
“No,” said the Commandant, “we’re not going to do that either — the wishes of some Senators be damned.”
“I’ve been trying to get through to the Senate,” Sanchez said. “They won’t respond.”
“I’ve ordered that all inquiries from all squadrons to the capitol be ignored. This is a delicate decision point, Don. I don’t want any squadron leaders making any moves based on what their local Senator might say. People are liable to begin ordering that their home systems and planets be given priority over the larger strategic situation, and I can’t allow that. So for now all Force communications to the capitol have to go through me.”
“Is it your intention to declare martial law?”
Sanchez saw Noribatu hesitate — but just for a moment.
“No, we’re not there. Not yet. I’ll be able to tell you more once I’ve had a chance to stand on the Senate floor and assess their collective state of mind. For now, know that we’re following strict chain-of-command. No going through back channels or calling in favors. It was a long, lovely peace, but now it’s over and we’re going to have to show the CAA that we’re as military as we’ve ever been. You get me?”
“Understood,” Sanchez said. “So what are your intentions, for myself and the 7th Squadron?”
“You’re closest to New Mojave. I want you to prepare to break Muehling orbit and rendezvous with the 4th, 9th and 11th Squadrons.”
“Seems a bit too late to help New Mojave, don’t you think, Tanna?”
“No,” said the Commandant flatly.
“But what about all these Muehling civilians? If we abandon them here, the Authority armada is sure to wipe them out — down to the last habitat. We’re the only defense they have.”
“And if you stay and fight, Don, you’re going to be wiped out along with them. Oh, knowing you, I am sure you could bust out a few Peacekeeper teeth, but in the end it would be hopeless. So I am not wasting you or your ships on a gesture of symbolic defiance.”
“You expect me to tell Muehling’s governor that I’m abandoning them in place?”
“No, I’ll talk to the governor as soon as we get off this link.”
Sanchez sighed an audible breath of relief — and immediately felt guilty for it.
“What if the Authority attacks us as we try to leave?” he said.
“I’ve already dispatched an official Force communication to the Brynhildjur woman, telling her that I’m evacuating EWDF vessels from Muehling space preparatory to talks. They’ll be expecting you to leave.”
Captain Sanchez leaned close, the floating pixels of the Commandant’s face distorting slightly as his nose approached the ghostly version of Noribatu — as rendered by the Audio-Visual array installed in the center of the stewpot’s oxbow conference table.
“What the hell kind of game are you playing, General?”
“The only game I know how to play, at the moment,” Noribatu deadpanned. “If I am right, Muehling has nothing to fear. When you arrive at New Mojave, you and the other squadrons will be given additional instructions. Until then, you’re to go out of your way to avoid confrontation with the Peacekeepers. Understand me, Don? Avoid confrontation.”
Sanchez slowly sat back in his chair, a hand running along his jaw.
“Roger that, ma’am. We will comply.”
“Hook up with the other squadrons when you arrive in New Mojave orbit. I’ll be in touch then. Just stay cool and follow orders. This thing isn’t over. It’s only gotten started. But you have to trust me to know what I am doing.”
“I’ve always trusted you, Tanna. We all do.”
The quietly humming AV unit went dead, leaving Sanchez and Guppta in the low-lit confines of the stewpot, the bass vibrations of the Independence filling their ears.
“You think she really has a plan?” said Sanchez’s XO.
“Maybe, and maybe not.”
“We’re leaving Muehling to die.”
“It would appear that way, yes. But the Commandant is right. If we stayed and took our best shot, we’d wind up dead too. Whatever was in that message Tanna sent to the Deputy Overseer, we’ll have to hope she’s right — that it will get them to hold their fire until we can… do whatever it is we’re fixing to do?”
The last was an open question that hung between them.
Guppta shook her head and slowly stood up. “I’ll get the word out to the other XOs. We’ll be breaking orbit in one quarter of an hour.”
“Do that,” Sanchez said.
His XO stopped at the hatch, while her boss remained seated.
“You’re not coming back to the bridge?”
“Not yet. In a moment. I need to do some thinking. Alone.”
“Gotcha. I’ll ping you if you’re needed.”
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Tanna pinched her nose between her thumb and forefinger, willfully resisting the subtle headache that was beginning to seep into her brain. She’d not slept nor eaten since coming aboard the Refusor, and it didn’t seem like she’d be getting any sleep for many an hour yet. She and Bruce had been in the Refusor’s own stewpot almost non-stop, issuing orders to various officers and constructing a diplomatically-worded rejoinder to the Colonial Administration Authority’s Deputy Overseer. If she’d shown confidence in herself while discussing her orders with her squadron commanders, Tanna allowed herself to be real with Bruce — one of the few men she’d ever trusted completely.
“You might be right,” Bruce said, his hands balled into fists and rubbing at his eye sockets. “The CAA might go for your request for parlay, and spare Muehling.”
“Even if they don’t, and Muehling gets wasted, we need every ship we can get.”
“Which is why we’re concentrating four squadrons in the system where the Authority armada used to be?”
“It’s a good cover story, Bruce. In case the Peacekeepers are still monitoring things at New Mojave. If we concentrate ourselves anywhere else, they’ll know we’re getting up for a counterattack of some sort. But they can’t very well blame us for sending people to mop up after the annihilation of an entire planet, can they?”
“Yeah, if there was anything to mop up. Which I don’t think there is. So what are we really going to do with those ships?”
“Did you ever hear of something called the 82nd Airborne Division?”
Bruce blinked incomprehension.
“Back during the Secession War, I got my hands on some very old archive material from Earth. Some of the ancient classified crap dating back to the pre-nuclear period. I was looking for information on what had happened prior to the United Nations, when Earth hadn’t been forcibly pacified yet. I wanted to look at the old wars, to see if there was anything there I could apply to our war.”
“It was hard to put together. So much of that time has been obliterated. I still can’t fathom how much we lost, or how much is still being held secret by the UN. But I did stumble across a photo image of a unit patch with a description attached. The patch was for something called the 82nd Airborne Division, and the description said that the 82nd Airborne had been an infantry organization specifically trained in doing aerial parachute jumps from aircraft.”
“Parachute,” Bruce said. “So, kind of like a combat drop using armor?”
“I think so. Only they didn’t have armor, and no thruster packs or other protection. Just helmets and soft uniforms, and rifles. They’d jump out the back of airscrew-engined planes and float down through Earth’s atmosphere like dandelion seeds, or so the description said. Their job was to land in enemy territory and disrupt and attack the enemy away from the front of battle. Hit the soft spots.”
Bruce suddenly straightened up in his chair. “You’re sending the squadrons from the New Mojave rendezvous to attack the CAA?”
Tanna nodded once. “It’s the last thing the Peacekeepers will expect. Last time, we fought them purely on the defensive. We drew a line in the sand and repeatedly shoved them back across it, until they went home. This time, we can’t afford to play it as cleanly. The obliteration of New Mojave tells me that the Peacekeepers are in Emancipated space for the duration. Either we throw them out again, or we make things hot for them back on their own turf so that they temporarily retreat to take care of business.”
“It’s a suicide mission,” Bruce breathed, eyes wide.
“I know. And if I thought I could spare either one of us, I’d have the Refusor leading the way. But I can’t do that. Our job is to placate this Deputy Overseer as long as it takes to figure out how we can break that armada up into chunks we might be able to take on separately.”
“The only thing that will placate the Deputy Overseer,” Bruce said, “is our necks in her noose. You saw the ultimatum. She wants all of the original commanders from the Secession War brought forward. They’re going to run us up on charges and have us executed.”
Bruce frowned deeply, his blue eyes shadowed by his eyebrows — now grown bushy. Tanna stared at his face, marked by lines which hadn’t existed last time she’d sat across the table from him. She knew where they came from — had held the Commandant’s burden for as long as she’d been able, before the collective stupidity of bargaining and hassling with the Senate had made it seem like a fool’s errand.
“You might be right,” Tanna said, watching him. “But if they want us, that means we have value. Bargaining value. Let’s use that value while we can.”
“And the Muehling government?”
“Oh shit, I had almost forgotten,” Tanna said. Then she keyed the AV and spoke to the Refusor’s bridge, asking for a secured ansible connection with Muehling’s governor. She hated what she’d have to say, knowing that it was mostly bluff. There was every chance the Peacekeepers wouldn’t accept parlay, in which case Muehling would cease to exist. All of its people — to say nothing of its shipyards and metalworks — would be history.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
“You see now, Admiral?” said the Deputy Overseer. “These people can be sensible when they need to be.”
“I want to see it again,” Admiral Dung replied dully.
He tapped a finger on the armrest of his chair, the bridge’s AV showing a replay of the short message that had been received from so-called Commandant Noribatu. He’d met her a few times at various Peacekeeper conferences, back when they’d both been young. Like himself, apparently Noribatu hadn’t ever been able to say goodbye to the military way of life. Unlike himself, Noribatu was going to end her career in front of a firing squad.
Presuming her promises were in good faith.
Which he was fairly sure they weren’t.
Not that it stopped Brynhildjur from smiling openly and rubbing her hands together with satisfaction. The Admiral worked hard not to wince at her overly demonstrative display of confidence. Being a bureaucrat’s bureaucrat, she should know better than to assume things would be going this smoothly. Then again, the Deputy Overseer might have spent enough time in her current office to become complacent about people jumping at her every whim. Dung knew the feeling. But the scars from the Secession War ached in his unconscious, reminding him of his true mission.
“It’s a stalling tactic,” Dung finally said as the message ended for the third time. “They want to preserve Muehling and buy time to formulate some kind of counter-strategy against us.”
“What strategy could they possibly come up with, Admiral? You’ve said it yourself, many times. The way to bring these children back into the fold is to do it with overwhelming strength. You’ve seen the little groups of ships they have protecting Muehling from us. Could any of those ships make even a small scratch in our fleet?”
“No,” Dung said.
“Then I think we can afford to be magnanimous. Even if they are planning something ulterior, let us wait for them to misbehave, and punish them for their insincerity. But not before, do I make myself clear?”
“Deputy Overseer,” Dung said, steepling his fingers thoughtfully while he metered his tone, “please consider things from my perspective for the moment. So far as we have seen, our Peacekeepers overmatch the Defense Force by an order of magnitude. But it has been many years since any Authority vessel plied this space. The Defense Force could be holding its best hardware in reserve, for when we’ve let our guard down. In order to meet them at their capitol in a position of full superiority, we need to show them we mean business at every step. Like New Mojave, Muehling is a chance to shock them. Moreover, it is a chance to deny them a very important industrial and war-fighting asset.”
The Deputy Overseer tsked at the Admiral from where she stood at his side.
“Then we would be proving ourselves as duplicitous as the Defense Force you refuse to trust. My instructions from the Security Council were clear, Admiral. Be blunt, but be fair. These worlds — these people — will be part of us again very soon. We need to try to make that blending as hurt-free as possible.”
Again, the Admiral resisted the urge to wince. Perhaps he’d sold his strategy too well? The Deputy Overseer was tying his fists at precisely the moment when he needed most to use them. To not only bloody the nose of the opponent, but break the opponent’s jaw for good measure.
Dung considered carefully.
“Very well, Deputy Overseer. I am bound, of course, to follow your directives. But heed this simple warning: Noribatu is a woman more cunning than meets the eye. She defeated us once before, when we also assumed we had superior strength. If it becomes plain that our desire to be magnanimous is compromising the safety of this vessel or this fleet, I will be forced to act — in accordance with my oath as a general officer of the Peacekeepers.”
“We both have our duty,” Brynhildjur said coolly.
“Then let us hope that Noribatu’s missive is sincere.”
A small alert sounded across the Secretary-General’s enormous bridge.
“Sir,” said one of the junior officers at his monitoring station, “we show residual anti-particle traces from multiple Korolovska Reactions. The enemy squadron has jumped away.”
“As was told to us,” the Deputy Overseer said.
Dung felt like the housecat who’s just watched the mouse walk out of the kitchen, unmolested. Worse yet, he was also being denied his saucer of milk.
“Orders, sir?” said the young officer.
Dung cleared his throat and sat up in his chair.
“Alert the flotilla. We’re due for a jump of our own. Set course for the insurrectionist capitol. Best possible speed.”
“All ships, sir?”
Dung locked eyes with his subordinate, and then glanced quickly up at the Deputy Overseer.
In an instant, he made a decision.
“No. Contact the Legislator, the Manifest, and the Oceanic. Have Captain Homonii appointed as Fleet Captain for that trio of ships. I am leaving them here.”
“What for?” Brynhildjur said, surprised.
“Insurance,” Dung replied. “They may be more inclined to play by the rules of we continue to hold this important piece of the puzzle under our guns.”
Dung waited for the Deputy Overseer to countermand him, his eyes not blinking.
She finally demurred. “Very well, Admiral. A prudent measure.”
“Thank you, Deputy Overseer.”
With that, Dung nodded his head at his bridge staff, and the countdown for departure commenced.