Part of 2100 CE.
“You’re sure this line is secure?”
Any more secure and we would not be able to talk, Braddox thought as he suppressed a grimace. He had been sitting strapped to a chair in the Leopard’s wardroom for the better part of an hour—strapped because decorum called for him to be sitting during a meeting with a superior officer, a nearly impossible task in zero-gravity without the use of such restrains, and for the better part of an hour because the superior officer in question had taken that long to establish the connection on his end.
Keeping his face neutral, Braddox inclined his head. “Yes, sir. I can confirm on our end that the line is secure.”
Across the table, the fat around Vice Admiral Drommel’s eyes sagged with noticeable relief. As if responding to the admiral’s movements, the image flickered a moment before correcting itself. Even this close to Mars, a mere three hours’ shuttle flight from the Leopard’s present position over Suffolk, electronic jamming remained intense, a necessary and unfortunate byproduct of far too many enemy forays into the Areosphere. With each penetration of the front line—that shifting, amorphous region in space—the top brass became more and more paranoid of a repeat of Laika. They now resorted to keeping ships, even those in port like the Leopard, on the rear pickets and handled communication either in person or via the line-of-sight lasercom. That in itself was no easy task since the fleet headquarters was located inside a hollowed-out, spinning asteroid, Suffolk, which was itself kept in areosynchronous orbit with Tharsis. It had required careful maneuvering of the Leopard’s attitude and relative trajectory to keep the lasercom open.
And all this, he thought as looked at Drommel’s image, so that the admiral can have his meeting…
“It may have been better for you to come and meet face-to-face,” Drommel said in a thick American drawl, seemingly capable of reading the other’s mind, “but the Leopard needs to stay where it is. And besides, moving a carrier so close to here would set some would-be separatists talking. You know how Martians can be,” he said, cocking an eyebrow. From off camera, Drommel pulled into view a bottle of bourbon, refilling a glass already once drained.
Braddox smiled politely. Drommel had a reputation for his uncouth manner and clear dislike of anyone not from Earth. The fact most of the captains under Drommel’s command were Martian—Braddox himself was from Victoria—made life in the wartime Space Forces interesting.
“I tell you, Braddox,” Drommel went on, “it’s a wonder we can even operate without the enemy knowing our every move.” He took a long swig from his glass. “Fact of the matter is, most of these Martians and the colonists are just looking for a reason to split from the earth, or even leave the Confederation all together. Hell, the Alban Self-Defense Forces had to be called out to disperse protestors just the other day. In our own backyard!”
Earth’s backyard, Braddox wanted to say, but instead said, “I had heard there was some disorder.”
Drommel’s image frowned across the table at his subordinate. “You’d heard? Ain’t that a surprise. Wouldn’t expect Martian media to cover something like that…”
Braddox waited patiently as the admiral drained his glass. He smacked his lips together loudly, uttering something Braddox did not understand, before pouring himself another glass.
“Too damn bad you’re missing out on this,” Drommel said, his words becoming slurred. “But I wouldn’t expect a Martian to appreciate good whiskey. Hell, you probably don’t know the difference between scotch and Jack!” He threw his head back and exploded in laughter at his own joke, slapping the table for good measure.
Braddox held his gaze. Pleasantries were part of the process under Vice Admiral Drommel. Even when the man’s summons concluded with the words “there’s not a moment to lose” and desired “haste,” the process seemed to drag on. At least once they adjourned without actually touching on the point of the summons. For a service like the Space Forces, accustomed to an order of efficiency and punctuality—and for an officer like Braddox brought up in that order—this process was excruciating.
“So how does the old girl handle?”
Braddox took a deep breath, forcing a smile. As much as he hated these games, experience had taught him how they were played. “Well, sir, thank you for asking. She is a tad aged, but she will handle well in combat.”
Drommel snorted. “Aged. That’s one word for it.” A took a long pull from his glass. “Two others of her class have been recalled to service after being converted to containerships.”
Braddox nodded politely. “So I heard. Unity and Beluga.”
“Escort carriers reduced to cargo-hauling!” Drommel went on, ignoring Braddox. “And they wonder why we were caught off-guard. Those damn civilians do nothing but cut us off at the knees. They think they’re so smart. Well, how smart do you think they felt when they had a fucking asteroid shoved up their ass?”
This time Braddox couldn’t suppress the grimace. The joke was in entirely poor taste. Into the awkward silence that followed—in which Drommel took yet another swig from his glass—Braddox politely said, “You wished to speak to me, Admiral?”
Drommel’s gaze shot up from his glass and bore down on the captain. He was unaccustomed to being pushed along. They sat that way for a long while, the admiral staring out at Braddox, while Braddox looked back, impassive. Rather than return to his rants, though, the comment seemed to break whatever fog hung over Drommel’s thoughts and focused his mind—even if it was out of animus. “Tell me, Captain,” he said slowly, reclining in his plush chair within Suffolk’s internal gravity block, “how long have you been with the service?”
“Since I was eighteen, sir,” he said, though Drommel already knew this—they had been through this before. “I signed on directly out of school.”
“You’ve been in combat, isn’t that right?” Drommel continued, slowly spinning in his chair to face away from the camera.
Another game, Braddox thought, though this one he knew better than most. Arbitrary questions received generic responses. “Yes, sir.”
There was a pause as some thought occurred to the vice admiral, before then another thought brought him back to the present and he spun around, filling the screen with his massive form. “Then you know just how poorly our soldiers and crews are performing.”
The soldiers and crews are performing poorly? Like much of what Drommel said, this too caught Braddox unprepared. It had been the Security Council and Joint Command Staff who had labeled the Jovian separatists a minor insurrection, expecting it would be suppressed in a matter of days, like the rebellion on Ganymede had. Even the surprise attack on Mahon and the destruction of the Peacekeeping force stationed there hardly fazed the top brass on Earth. Drommel was right about one thing: It was not until Laika fell on California and killed hundreds of millions that the Confederation brought itself to a state of war. In the meantime the Space Forces lost part of a fleet over Io and the rest of it over Titan, while one of the largest armies ever assembled in human history saw nearly half its numbers destroyed, while its remnants sat in a perpetual stalemate awaiting reinforcements or rescue that might never come.
No, the soldiers and crews were doing their jobs. If the war effort was found wanting, the generals, admirals, and above all the politicians were to blame.
“I might not put it that way, sir,” Braddox responded with all the patience he could muster, “though I certainly recognize some deficiencies within the ranks.” By which he meant Drommel and his ilk.
Drommel nodded solemnly, all at once sober and in control. That particular ability, to consume such great quantities of alcohol and in the next breath regain total control of his faculties never failed to unnerve Braddox.
“Yes, and so does Warsaw,” Drommel said, setting the bourbon aside. “Joint Command is not happy with the progress of the war, so they have devised an operation which should buy our forces more time.”
Braddox sighed in relief. At long last, Drommel was getting to the point.
“It involves the retrieval of some special weapons, for which the Leopard is particularly well suited. Your last report indicated that your combat wing was understrength. Is that still the case?”
“Yes, sir.” It had been the case for as long as he had been in command. There was simply too much demand for fighters and assault craft and not enough of them to go around, especially now that two more carriers were being brought back into service. As it had been explained to Braddox by Drommel’s chief of staff, a particularly aggravating captain by the name of Stewart, resources were strained as fighter craft rotated continuously to the Transmartial orbits, leaving any ship waiting in port at the bottom of a very long list.
Drommel was looking over something on his computer. “Well, it’s irrelevant anyway,” he said. “Tell your wing commander to prepare for transfer. The Leopard will retain a single attack squadron, while the others will transfer to the Tiger.”
Braddox felt an angry retort rising. “Sir—”
“At ease, Captain,” Drommel cut in quickly. “Your mission requires the extra space.”
At his side, Braddox balled his left hand into a fist.
“The frigates Cisco, Stratus, and Lumia will provide escort. You will rendezvous with them and proceed to our al-Basra base where you will retrieve the weapons and then return them here to Suffolk.”
“Al-Basra, sir?” Braddox swallowed, fighting a combination of anger and now serious concern.
“Relax, Captain.” Drommel waved a hand casually. “As far as those damned Jovians are concerned, you’ll be delivering routine supplies to the research outpost. Those SETI morons need to eat, too.”
Braddox frowned. “Yes, sir, though that’s not what I was thinking.”
Drommel cocked an eyebrow. “Then what?”
“Well, sir…” Braddox flexed his fist again. “It is my understanding that in order to guarantee the continued operations of our research facilities in the Jupiter Trojans, we have agreed not to militarize that region of space.”
“I hear what you’re saying, Captain, but like I said,” he leaned towards the camera, “you will be delivering relief supplies.”
“With all due respect, Admiral, we’re going to have a hard time passing off a carrier and three escort frigates as a relief mission. Trojan Customs are known for being thorough.”
“Do you Martians ever stop worrying?” Drommel shook his head. “You will actually be delivering supplies. Our people at al-Basra will handle the rest, including delivery of the weapons to your ship and any trouble with Customs.”
The al-Basra research laboratories was the sole point of dialogue between authorities on Earth and the Jovian separatists—the so-called Galilean League—swapping the use of space so close to the enemy for not militarizing that region of space. What precisely the Jovian separatists got from the exchange, Braddox was unsure, though he had understood there to be an implication of impotency on the earth’s part. Perhaps it was only natural that the PKF was developing weapons within ostensibly neutral territory.
“Let lawyers handle the legal mumbo-jumbo, Captain,” Drommel’s drawl cut through his thoughts. “Your concern is to retrieve those weapons and deliver them safely here.”
“Sir, you’re asking me to pass off a bomb as a loaf of bread,” Braddox said. “Four warships—”
“Both the Tiger and Liberty have made this run. Have you been away from the front for so long, Captain, that armed convoys aren’t what you would expect?”
Braddox flushed red. “And if we’re boarded, sir?”
“You won’t be.”
“But if we are—”
“Then kill every one of those motherfuckers and get back here as quickly as possible—what the hell else do you expect!” Drommel wiped spittle from the corners of his mouth. He took a deep breath, regained his composure, and leaned back in his chair. “I selected you for this mission, Captain, because I know you understand the value of victory better than most of your peers. I certainly don’t have to tell you the cost of failure.”
Braddox felt an eyelid twitch. “No, sir.”
“Good. You leave in seventy-two hours.” Drommel exhaled loudly. “This war will end one day, Captain, and when it does those who served the Confederation well will be rewarded. I can guarantee you a successful career, Braddox—for you and everyone one of those spacelings aboard your ship.”
Before Braddox could respond, the image was gone, and the room was at once silent.
He leaned back in the chair. Bringing a hand to his chin, he slowly shifted his gaze to the room’s other occupants.
Clicking a wall-mounted panel, Commander Cseltor, the Leopard’s executive officer, retracted the screen into the ceiling. Although not technically part of the meeting, Cseltor had long ago learned to stay out of sight. He did not like sitting in on these meetings, but it was Braddox’s idea of insurance against someone like Drommel.
“I think,” Cseltor said into the silence, “he has little regard for you.”
Braddox chuckled, shaking his head. “No, it’s not personal. He hates everybody.”
Cseltor inclined his head in agreement. With his platinum blond hair and violet eyes, Cseltor was the epitome of the stereotypical Jovian. Born on Callisto, he had shown promise early in his career, successfully commanding a corvette against a nest of pirates in the Transmartial, well ahead of his peers. But first Mahon and then Laika—and overnight being a Jovian became a liability.
“Your thoughts?” Braddox said to the room’s third occupant.
The Leopard’s operation officer, Commander Ennis, hovered against the wall, an unhappy expression on his face. He was from the colonies and occupied a strange place in the social order between Jovian and Earthling. “The loss of a carrier from the Martain defense lines implies that there is no imminent threat of attack. It may be that the separatists are too preoccupied with Titan to commit to any offensive actions.”
Braddox grinned. Leave it to Ennis to think in terms of the big picture. “I meant our mission.”
Cseltor was the one to respond. “It makes me uneasy. Following Admiral Drommel’s particular machinations has always left me…concerned.”
Braddox nodded in agreement. “What makes you think this is his plan?”
Cseltor shrugged. “It stands to reason that just as the separatists are preoccupied with Titan, the Joint Command Staff is preoccupied with the situation on Titan to be so concerned with something this small.”
“Even secret weapons?” Ennis asked.
Cseltor shrugged again. “Someone in Warsaw put their name to it, but the specifics of the operation are Drommel’s.”
“Which means his promise of promotion is a lie, but his threat to ruin me is real,” Braddox said.
Braddox ran a hand over his bald pate. “I suspect whatever we’re after is illegal.”
Cseltor nodded. “Agreed.”
“If the Peacekeeping Forces were developing illegal weapons, why not just drop a payload of nukes on Europa?” Ennis said. “Why go through all this effort and risk? Those fools in Warsaw—or Suffolk—are not this creative.”
Braddox frowned at the response. “Are you familiar with the term ‘mutually-assured destruction,’ Commander?”
Before Ennis could respond, the ship-wide intercom pinged, calling the executive officer to the Operations Center.
“That is likely to be the orders from Suffolk,” Cseltor said, glancing at his watch. “The next shuttle returns from Tharsis in two hours, and I need to meet with the department heads before then to coordinate revoking leave,” he said with a significant look to Ennis. To the Captain, he asked, “Would you like me to speak to Commander Senac?”
“No,” Braddox said, undoing the restraining belt across his waist. The ship’s combat wing commander would be angry enough at the news, no point in adding insult to injury by sending a subordinate. “I’ll speak with her.”
“Very well. If you will excuse me.” Kicking off the floor with practiced ease, Cseltor shot across the room and out the door. Ennis followed.
Braddox stayed a while longer, turning the matter over in his head. All members of the service, most of all officers, were obliged and indeed required to refuse unlawful orders—even if most of them regarded that as idealistic drivel. But for an organization founded on the precepts of conflict mediation—an ideal in themselves—ignoring such rules undermined the very core of everything they were fighting for. If they were willing to violate agreements of neutrality, where would it end? DSSP commandos continued detaining separatist sympathizers across the Areosphere, while the media reported of an assassination attempt of a separatist leader on Europa and the Assembly debated a resolution to allow sweeping communications eavesdropping. They were targeting their own people. Was there a way to undo it, or had they passed the point of no return?