"If this be treason, make the most of it!"
William Patrick Henry,
Before the Virginia House of Burgesses
Fleet Admiral Stepan Forsythe looked up from his paperwork as his communicator lit with the face of his staff communications officer.
"Yes, Mister Qwan?"
"Sir," Lieutenant Doris Qwan said carefully "we're picking up something from a Mobius Corp mail packet. A transmission, not a courier drone."
Forsythe cocked an eyebrow. A transmission meant they were in the same system as the packet, but why transmit at all? This system was uninhabited and far outside the Innerworld relay nets; logically there was no one to hear the message, except for the unmanned recorders in the warp point nav beacons.
"What sort of message, Lieutenant?"
"I . . . don't really know, sir. May I play it off for you?"
Forsythe nodded, and his screen flickered abruptly, then steadied with the image of a lean, uniformed man. The twisted-loop collar insignia of his firm was overlaid by the crossed starships of a Federation mail carrier's captain, and his dark, strong face was tense, almost frightened.
"This is Captain Donald Stiegman, Federation mail packet Rising Moon, TFMP-11329. The following information must reach government authorities as quickly as possible. Stand by to receive coded data; this is a Class One Priority signal." Forsythe stiffened. Class One Priority was assigned only to threats to the very existence of the Federation, and his finger stabbed the emergency buzzer on his desk as the screen dissolved into a blur of static. The image danced insanely for perhaps ten seconds, then cleared, replaced by Captain Stiegman's worried face. "Reverse course immediately. Do not enter the Kontravian Cluster. Get that message out. Stiegman, message ends."
Forsythe's cabin door opened as Captain Enwright and Commodore Samsonov hurried in past an astonished Marine sentry. They slid to a halt, faces anxious, but Forsythe motioned them to silence. He watched the screen blank briefly before the message repeated itself, then gestured both men to chairs and punched the override to recall Lieutenant Qwan.
"It's a loop, right, Lieutenant?"
"Yes, sir, with an 'all ships' header. We've been in-system over an hour without hearing a thing, so I think we caught his first transmission. I'd guess he came through from Bantu and started transmitting the moment he hit normal space."
"I see. Anything on that coded sequence?"
"No, sir. I'm afraid the computers haven't broken the scramble yet, much less the code. I think he's using mail service protocols, sir."
"Very well. Keep on it and do what you can." Forsythe felt little hope. Mail service codes were at least as good as the Fleet's codes.
"Yes, sir. Any response?"
"Not yet. I'll get back to you."
Forsythe turned to his juniors. Enwright's expression was thoughtful and waiting; only someone who knew him well would recognize the questions burning in his hazel eyes, but the curiosity in Gregor Samsonov's wrinkled forehead and hooded brown eyes was more evident. Forsythe smiled a wintry smile as he nodded to his flag captain and his chief of staff.
"Gentlemen, it seems we have a mystery."
"Mystery, sir?" Trust Willis to ask the first question.
"You know as much as I do, Willis. You heard the message. Reactions?"
Enwright sat very erect. "A few points seem obvious, sir."
"Indeed?" Forsythe cocked his head. "Enumerate, please."
"Yes, sir. First, he doesn't have any drones or he'd've sent the message direct to a Fleet base. Secondly, whatever the message is, it's both urgent and hot. If it wasn't urgent, he wouldn't be transmitting; if it wasn't hot, he'd transmit in clear. Third, he's worried about pursuit. He's not in range of our scanners, so we sure as hell aren't in range of his. That means he's transmitting blind and hoping someone hears. Couple that with his injunction to clear out fast-" He shrugged. "He must be afraid there're bandits on his tail, and he's warning any unarmed civil ship to stay clear of them.
"And those three points, sir," he finished levelly, "lead to a fourth: he's absolutely right to declare a Priority One emergency."
Forsythe drummed gently on his desk. It was a mark of Enwright's true stature, he thought, that there wasn't even a trace of 'I told you so' in his voice. He glanced at his chief of staff.
"I'm afraid I have to agree, sir," Samsonov said unhappily.
Forsythe sighed heavily, feeling the full weight of his years, then nodded and managed a bleak smile.
"Well, I'm afraid I agree, too. It seems you gentlemen were right to urge me to split the task force."
It was a bitter admission, but he made it calmly, then turned to his communicator and punched up the flag deck. The screen lit with Lieutenant Qwan's face, and he could just see his operations officer behind her. He smiled to himself. Commander Rivera must have heard about his summons to Samsonov and Enwright.
"Lieutenant. Commander." His voice was as gravely courteous as ever. "Task Force orders, Commander. We will increase to flank and close the Bantu warp point. Detach the battlecruisers and Admiral Ashigara's carriers-send them ahead of the battle line."
"Yes, sir," Rivera said crisply.
"Lieutenant Qwan, inform Admiral Ashigara of the situation and see to it she gets a copy of Rising Moon's message. Then I want a message transmitted to Rising Moon immediately. Message begins: Fleet Admiral Forsythe, CO TF 17, to Captain Donald Stiegman, master, TFMP Rising Moon. Message received-give him the time, Doris. My force headed to meet you at max. Estimate rendezvous with my advanced screen in-" he raised an eyebrow at Enwright.
"Call it nineteen hours, sir."
"In approximately nineteen standard hours, Lieutenant," Forsythe continued to Qwan. "Courier drone with your transmission dispatched. Good luck. Message ends. Got it?"
"Yes, sir. It's on the tape."
"Good. Send it standard civil service code, no scramble."
"Thank you, Doris." Forsythe switched off the communicator and turned back to Enwright and Samsonov. "And now, gentlemen, let us give some thought to our circumstances." He smiled his bleak smile again. "Somehow I feel certain even my delicate touch will not suffice to make them any worse."
Vice Admiral Analiese Ashigara, slim and severe in her black and silver uniform, sat on the flag bridge of TFNS Basilisk and watched the bright dot of the mail packet on her display. She glanced at a com rating.
"Anything from the patrols, Ashworth?"
"No, sir. They're a hundred and fifty light-seconds out, and they report nothing detectable in scanner range."
"Thank you." She glanced at her operations officer. If the recon fighters' exquisitely sensitive instruments weren't picking up anything, then there was nothing to pick up. "Recall them, Commander Dancing."
"Aye, aye, sir."
"Communications, raise Rising Moon."
"Aye, aye, sir."
There was silence on the bridge-the silence of a professional team aware of the dangers of unnecessary chatter-as Admiral Ashigara leaned back in her command chair and waited. Suddenly the main screen filled with the image of a dark, lean face wreathed in a huge smile of relief.
"Captain Stiegman, I am Vice Admiral Analiese Ashigara. I assume you have a reason for declaring a Priority One message condition?"
"I wish to hell I didn't," Stiegman said in a rich New Antwerp accent. "All hell's broken loose out here, ma'am, and no mistake. If you don't mind my asking, where's Admiral Forsythe?"
"He is following with the battle-line, Captain." Ashigara said. "I expect him in approximately six hours.'
"Battle-line?! Thank God!" Stiegman seemed to sag towards the pickup. "You don't know what's going on out here, Admiral! They're crazy! They-"
"Captain Stiegman," Ashigara cut him off, "I appreciate the strain you're obviously under. I would request, however, that you say nothing more over an open channel. I will, with your permission, send my cutter for you so that you can deliver your message to me in person. And confidentially."
"Yes." Stiegman inhaled deeply. "Certainly, Admiral. Send your cutter at once. The sooner I can tell someone else, the better, by God!"
"Well, Captain Stiegman," Admiral Forsythe said as he handed the man a drink. "I have the essentials of your story from Admiral Ashigara." He sounded too calm, he thought. The Galaxy was collapsing around his ears, and he sounded too calm about it all. "I don't yet have all the details, however, and I'd appreciate it if you'd summarize for my staff, as well."
"Summarize, Admiral?" Stiegman drained half the glass in a single gulp. "Gladly. In fact, I'll be delighted to let someone else worry about it for a while."
His slowly easing tension wasn't lost on his listeners, and they hunched closer to him as he began.
"It started about a month ago," he said slowly. "I put into Bigelow with a mail consignment-they break it down on Hasdruble for transshipment to the rest of the cluster-and they told me my departure clearance and return cargo would be delayed a day or two." He shrugged. "Two days is a long layover, but I've had longer, so I didn't think much about it.
"But a few hours later, the port master called me up again-something about a viral infection and they couldn't find one of the people who'd been exposed. He agreed the odds were against their plague carrier being on board, but SOP required a search of the ship. Well, I wasn't too pleased, but nobody wants to chance another plague outbreak, so I agreed."
He paused and stared down into his drink. When he looked back up, his eyes were hot.
"But it wasn't any damned medical inspection party they sent aboard my ship," he grated. "It was an entire platoon of Marines-or they wore Marine combat zoots, anyway." He relaxed his muscles with a visible effort. "But they were already aboard before I realized they weren't medics, and no one in his right mind argues with a platoon of zoots, whoever's inside 'em."
He shook his head slowly, remembering.
"They were polite as hell-I'll give the bastards that! But they posted two men in each drive room and two more on the bridge, and they told me-me, the skipper of a Federation mail packet, damn 'em!-that they had to 'detain' me." His lips twisted. "Wouldn't say why or for how long. Wouldn't say anything else. Just stood there and waited for their reliefs."
He growled something under his breath and finished his drink. Forsythe personally refilled the glass, to his obvious relief, and he sipped again, more slowly.
"Anyway, they had us. I tried getting a message out when I saw a Frontier Fleet cruiser on my screens, but they were on top of me in seconds. No nastiness, you understand-just another guard suddenly appeared in the com section and they stripped off our drones in case I got any smart ideas about using them.
"At first, I thought it was some kind of mistake, but then I figured out the whole orbit port was in on it-whatever 'it' was. And at least some of those 'Marines' really were Marines. I'm sure of it. I considered piracy, a real medical emergency-hell, even a port-wide outbreak of mass insanity! But I never once considered what was really happening."
"And that was, Captain?" Willis Enwright prompted when Stiegman paused once more.
"Treason, Captain," the mail packet captain said harshly. "Goddamned, old-fashioned, dyed-in-the-fucking-wool treason! The whole damned system's decided to 'secede' from the Federation!"
The blood drained from Lieutenant Qwan's face. Enwright's features only tightened slowly, but Samsonov looked as if he'd been punched in the stomach and Rivera looked murderous. Only Forsythe seemed unaffected-but, then, only he had seen Admiral Ashigara's scrambled transmission.
"I see, Captain Stiegman," he said quietly. "And their objective, obviously, was to keep Rising Moon from letting the cat out of the bag?"
"Exactly. Took us a while to put it together, Admiral, but there had to be some contact between my tech crews and the port service personnel.
"Near as we can figure it, it all began a month or so after Ladislaus Skjorning got home. Nobody's sure whether it was his idea or whether it was his whole damned planet's notion, but Beaufort's where it started, and whoever planned it must've had one hell of an organization! Given the way the warp lines run, Beaufort's at the bottom of a sack; all the rest of the cluster sort of drains down to 'em. They knew what that meant, too, because they didn't start on Beaufort; they started from Beaufort."
" 'From Beaufort'?" Enwright repeated.
"They sent out 'emissaries,' Captain. God only knows what kind of underground's been cooking away out here, but they sure as hell knew who to talk to where, and they sent out people like Stanislaus Skjorning and Dame MacTaggart. Hell, no wonder people listened! I'm a Fringer myself; I know how hot tempers are running out here since the MacTaggart murder. But goddamn it to hell, there's no excuse for a full-scale civil war!"
"A war, Captain?" Rivera did not-quite-sniff. "What do they plan to use for a navy?"
"Damned if I know," Stiegman said frankly, "but it's going to take a fleet-and I mean a fleet-to change their minds."
"How so, Captain?" Samsonov asked.
"Because they're not stupid, however crazy they are. They stage-managed it perfectly. Just one day everything is peaceful and fine; the next, Killiman Skywatch is in mutinous hands."
"Killiman Skywatch?" Rivera half-rose. "Good God, man, do you know what you're saying?"
"Damn right I do." Stiegman seemed almost gloomily satisfied by Rivera's reaction. "I don't know how they did it, but I know they had Killiman, and I'm pretty sure they had Beaufort. Don't know about Bigelow-they were playing it mighty close to their chests in Bigelow, which could mean they didn't have Bigelow Skywatch-but Bigelow's the only way into the cluster, so it could just mean they were being careful in case of visitors."
"Even if they have Skywatch," Samsonov said, thinking out loud, "there's still the Frontier Fleet orbital base. No armament to speak of, but there's a Bigelow-based cruiser squadron. They might not want-"
"Exactly, Gregor," Forsythe cut in, and Samsonov broke off as he remembered a civilian was present. "Captain Stiegman," the admiral went on, "did you at any time monitor . . . unusual, shall we say, com traffic between the orbit port and Skywatch or the Fleet base?"
"Never," Stiegman said flatly, "and we kept a good listening watch."
"I see. And how did you finally come to escape, Captain?"
"We were lucky-or maybe they got careless. My engineer contacted a buddy in the orbit port and suggested most of the Fringers in our crew were on their side and ready to mutiny against me with a little help from their 'Marines.' Stiegman shrugged. "They went for it. Guess I'm a better actor than I thought. At least, the 'fight' between me and a half dozen others and the 'rebels' in the crew seemed to convince 'em. Fair amount of shooting to tear up the bulkheads, chief engineer stopping me at gunpoint just before I wrecked the drive-that sort of thing. Nobody hurt, thank God!"
"Very neat," Forsythe congratulated him. "And after the 'mutiny'?"
"Locked me up in my own brig," Stiegman said cheerfully. "Well, not a 'brig,' really; mail ships don't run to those. But one of our secure cargo holds worked just fine, and then Rising Moon was a good rebel ship. Took 'em a few days to feel sure of it, then they pulled the Marines off. Needed 'em elsewhere, I gather."
"I see. And then?"
"We waited another few days, behaving like perfect little rebels till we were pretty sure they believed it. Then we powered the drive real slow-told 'em it was an equipment test-and ran for it."
"You ran for it," Samsonov repeated. "Why didn't you contact Bigelow Skywatch or the Fleet base?"
"Because if either of 'em were rebel controlled, stopping in com range'd be a real good way to get our ass shot off. Besides, there were Frontier Fleet units in-system. If they were loyal, well and good-but if they weren't? Rising Moon's fast, but not that fast. If we were going to have light cruisers on our tail, I wanted all the start I could get!" Stiegman grinned wearily. "We made transit so fast nobody's eaten since, and our backup astrogation computer's still pitching fits!"
"I see. And then you headed for Innerworld space?"
"Not directly. Actually, I was headed for Heidi's World. Figured to check in with the Frontier Fleet base and come back loaded for bear. Never figured on meeting half the Navy this far out!"
"I understand, Captain." Forsythe forced the warmth of approval through the winter of failure in his voice. "But I'll take care of that with a courier drone. I'm afraid I'm going to have to commandeer your vessel."
"Why not?" Stiegman grinned wryly. "I'm getting used to it by now."
"Then I want you to head for the Fleet base at Cimmaron to carry my dispatches and your own account directly to Vice Admiral Pritzcowitski. He'll know what to do from there."
"Glad to." Stiegman finished his drink and set it aside, his face thoughtful. "And may I ask what you plan to do, Admiral?"
"You may," Forsythe said with a wry smile, "but I'm afraid I haven't really decided, yet."
"I see." Stiegman rose. "In that case, I'll get back to my ship, with your permission. But, Admiral-" he met Forsythe's eyes levelly "-I'd recommend some caution. You haven't talked to these people; I have. They're serious, mighty serious." He shrugged uncomfortably. "I haven't seen your intelligence reports, but this is my normal run. I've felt the tension growing out here for months, and I can tell you this-the Fringe is a nuke about to go off, Admiral."
"I know, Captain Stiegman. I know."
There was a brief silence after Stiegman's departure. Forsythe and his juniors stared down at the carpet, wrapped in thought. Finally the old man raised his head.
"Captain Stiegman," he said, "is a most resourceful man."
"Yes, and he's got guts," Enwright's voice was tighter than usual, "but I can't help thinking he was a little too lucky, sir."
"In what way, Willis?"
"He got away with it," Enwright said bluntly. "No one fired on him and no one chased him. If they had, they'd've caught him. A packet's fast, but so is a light cruiser-and a cruiser's armed."
"True. But if they haven't taken the Fleet base or Skywatch, the rebels couldn't have fired on him-assuming they had anything to fire with-without alerting those installations."
"No, sir. But why didn't either of those bases ask Rising Moon where she was going and why? Don't tell me she had departure clearance!"
"A point. You're suggesting, then, that the rebels control everything? The entire cluster, fortifications and all?"
"We can't know that, sir. I'd say they hold Bigelow, but the rest of the cluster?" Enwright shrugged. "Still, it seems probable. Rising Moon may have jumped the gun on them, but they let her go. And since Bigelow's only six transits from Heidi's World, that must mean they figure they're about ready anyway. Or close enough they didn't feel they had to blow away an unarmed mail packet just to keep us in the dark a little longer, at least."
"I see. But assuming you're correct, where do we go from here? Gregor?"
"I don't know, sir," Samsonov said frankly. "I'm no Fringer-I don't pretend to know how these people are thinking. But even if Willis is right, they couldn't have known TF Seventeen was coming. They must figure on at least another three months before anyone can turn up; and if they're expecting a relief from Heidi's World, they're only expecting Frontier Fleet units-not monitors and assault carriers."
"Gregor's probably right, sir," Enwright said, "but remember our discussion with Captain Li. Everything I said then still holds true."
"I know you think it does, Willis," Enwright said. "You may even be right. God knows I don't want to go down in history as the first Navy commander to fire on other Terrans! But I don't see that we have any choice. If Bigelow Skywatch isn't in rebel hands, it's going to need all the help it can get, and the same is true of the Fleet base, the repair yards in Killiman-the entire cluster, for that matter."
"Admiral, please," Enwright's voice was urgent, "send in a few destroyers first. Find out what's happening before we barge in in force. The cans will have the entire task force behind them-and they can say so. That should stop any itchy trigger fingers long enough for a parley."
"With respect, Admiral," Rivera said harshly, "I think that would be a mistake. If Bigelow Skywatch is still loyal, it could touch off the very incident Captain Enwright wants to avoid. Take the entire task force. Show them the odds, and they'll cave in."
"Don't delude yourself, Commander," Enwright said coldly. "If these people've gone this far, they're ready to go further. The actual presence of the task force won't achieve anything except to up the stakes for everyone!"
"Perhaps," Forsythe said softly, "but if the entire task force is there, we can be certain anything that happens is over quickly, Willis."
His heart ached at his flag captain's look of desolation.
"Face it, Willis," he said gently. "We can't afford delays. There's no way to keep this quiet-we can't even try to; we need to warn the other Fleet bases, warn the government, warn everyone-and the word is bound to leak. We need to be certain a resolution follows the news as quickly as possible, or other Fringe Worlds will be tempted to follow suit. You know that as well as I do."
Enwright looked away from the thin, troubled face with the wise old eyes. Yes, he thought, some of the other Outworlds will follow suit if the Kontravians aren't stopped. But this was the wrong way to do it. He knew it was the wrong way. Or did he? Was that the TFN officer in him, or was it the Fringer? His intellect, or the confusion of his loyalties? He looked back.
"Please, sir. Talk to them first."
"I'll talk to them, Willis." Steel showed through Forsythe's compassionate tone. "But from the flag bridge of this ship with the task force behind me." He rose, terminating the meeting. "Gentlemen, check your departments. I want a complete status report in one hour. We will then formulate our precise plans."
His staff saluted and left. Willis Enwright walked slowly to the hatch and paused, then turned back to his admiral, his face older than his years.
"Sir, what if they don't surrender? What will you do if they fight?"
"Do, Willis?" Forsythe felt the cold of interstellar space blow down his spine. "I'll honor my oath to defend and preserve the Constitution-any way I must."
"You'll open fire, then," Enwright said almost inaudibly.
"If I must," Forsythe said steadily. "I don't want to. I'll tell them I don't want to. But I have orders to execute and four centuries of history to defend. Unlike them, I have no room to make personal choices, do I?"
"I suppose not, sir," Enwright said quietly. "But consider this, I beg of you. What you see as a personal choice may not seem like one to others." He seemed to be trying to tell Forsythe something, but the old admiral was too worried and heartsick to hunt for the meaning.
"I understand that, but I don't have an option. No one can ask more of any man than that he do his duty as he sees it." He shook his head sadly. "No matter how painful it is."
"Yes, sir. I hope we all remember that," Enwright said quietly. Then he drew himself up and gave Forsythe the sharpest salute the admiral had ever seen from him. He stepped through the hatch, and it closed behind him.