For the past four days, Admiral Geoffrey Tolwyn had been under the constant scrutiny of three Marine guards. In deference to Tolwyn’s long, distinguished record, Lieutenant Commander Vincent Chopra of the JAG office had not ordered Tolwyn transferred to the nearest brig but had allowed him to return to his hotel room after each day’s questioning. However, Tolwyn’s request for a private meeting with President Vasura had been denied.
The interrogation had been arduous and had reached a stalemate because Tolwyn would not give up his contacts in Confed Naval Intelligence. These contacts had provided Tolwyn with evidence that established Space Marshal Gregarov’s involvement in a conspiracy to allow Amity Aristee to construct a hopper drive on board the Olympus. Tolwyn’s contacts had further revealed that the space marshal and President Vasura had been exchanging a suspiciously large number of encrypted communiqués during the past several months. Unfortunately, that fact wasn’t enough to prove that Vasura and Gregarov had schemed together and that Gregarov now wanted Vasura dead. Tolwyn had been forced to turn over a particular communiqué that his contacts had decrypted, a communiqué that he had thought would provide incontrovertible evidence against Vasura and Gregarov.
But JAG communications investigators had already proven that Tolwyn could have tampered with the evidence. The admiral would need corroborating witnesses from Intell to strengthen his case. Despite his lawyer’s pressing, Tolwyn refused to produce those witnesses.
Now the situation had grown worse. As predicted, Gregarov had provided the JAG with falsified transmissions indicating that Tolwyn and Bellegarde had hired a group of Pilgrim saboteurs to bomb the Great Hall of Assembly. While Lieutenant Commander Chopra had trouble understanding the motivation behind such an act, he had even more trouble trying to discount the evidence because Gregarov’s contacts at Intell were more than willing to testify to the validity of the transmissions.
As Tolwyn, his lawyer, and his Marine escort stepped into the hearing room, Tolwyn immediately noticed that a tribunal comprised of two other admirals, four field marshals, two vice-admirals, and Admiral Zeyhe and Lieutenant Commander Chopra of the JAG had been assembled. Grim faces suggested that Tolwyn had stumbled into his own auto-da-fé in which he would be led to a dais and shouted toward execution by his peers. In truth, they would formally indict him here, then schedule his court-martial for a much later date, dragging it all out for his extreme displeasure. He guessed that Richard had already been arrested and would be transported to Earth. And while all of this went on, somewhere out there lay Amity Aristee, waiting to strike. While the tribunal toiled over this indictment, Aristee would take a million more lives.
“Good morning, Admiral,” Chopra said.
During their long hours spent together, Tolwyn had become an expert in reading the tall, gray-haired man’s tone. And at the moment, he disliked what he read. “Good morning.” Tolwyn saluted the group, then took a seat beside his attorney.
“I suspect you know why we’re here,” said Admiral Zeyhe. “And it’s good to see you again, Geoff. Wish the circumstances were better. And I would have been here sooner, but I was out in Centauri.”
“That’s all right, Jaza,” Tolwyn said sadly, reflecting on the twenty years he had known Zeyhe. “You’ll still catch the grand finale.”
Even as Zeyhe nodded and turned his gaze down to the reports before him, the door suddenly opened and in walked a young man dressed in a black suit that broadcast his job as a Confederation Secret Service agent. Not much secret about his appearance. Then a second agent appeared, a short-haired woman whose gaze probed the corners of the room as though she were inspecting the cleaning person’s supposed removal of the cobwebs. Finally, President Vasura herself strutted into the room and brought the tribunal to their feet. Fifty and fit, with modest good looks and the prerequisite poise of a president, Vasura swept herself forward, and though no one stood in her way, any one within that path would have been trampled.
Tolwyn rose as the president came to him and gave a curt nod. “Commodore Bellegarde contacted me,” she said softly, then turned and advanced toward the tribunal. She removed a data disc from the leather binder she held under an arm, then handed it Zeyhe. For a few minutes they spoke too softly for Tolwyn to hear.
Then, duplicating the swiftness of her entrance, the president spun on her heel and departed, twin flashes of black cotton riding her wake.
Members of the tribunal conferred a moment more, and Tolwyn’s lawyer, Commander Sahara Solz, a sixty year old defense counsel with a record nearly as long and remarkable as Tolwyn’s, leaned toward him and whispered, “What did she tell you?”
“Richard got to her.”
“This is great,” Solz said through a broad grin. “I’ll bet she gave them evidence against Gregarov.”
“Don’t be so certain. If Richard got to her, then he probably used a threat. She’ll retaliate. Somehow.”
Zeyhe suddenly announced that the hearing would reconvene at 1300 hours after lunch. Solz cocked her brow at Tolwyn, who simply shrugged. He would not allow his spirits to rise over what could be the exact opposite of his expectations. He decided to return to his nearby hotel room. There, he would meditate on the situation while Solz would ramble on about the endless possibilities now before them.
Tolwyn’s watchphone beeped at 1130 hours. He answered as he watched Solz, who had taken a seat at the hotel room’s desk, begin working her data slate as through it were a piano.
Only a voice came through the watchphone channel, a familiar female voice rising slightly above the static created by a decryption wave. “Sir, we just received word that President Vasura is dead. Cause still unknown.”
After letting that sink in, Tolwyn closed his eyes. “Thank you.” He cut the channel with his contact at Intell.
“Who was that?” Solz asked.
“I guess it’ll take a while before the news people get it,” he began, opening his eyes. “Gregarov got to Vasura. Or at least her people did. The president is dead.”
The evacuation of Pilgrim systems and enclaves had turned into a nightmarish exodus, as Commodore Richard Bellegarde predicted it would. Capital ships of the Fourteenth Fleet had been charged with maintaining no-fly zones over the systems and enclaves, which quite simply meant that no unauthorized ships could travel into or depart from those designations. But the order had come in two days prior, only hours after Bellegarde had ordered Space Marshal Gregarov confined to the brig. Now, each evacuating transport had to be verified, given an evacuation authorization number, and directed to another system.
In Bellegarde’s Area of Operations over McDaniel’s World, finding homes for the refugees had quickly become and exercise in futility. He could not send them on to Tamayo, since that system already had a Pilgrim enclave called Divinity whose residents had evacuated to the nearby and over-populated world of Baldis-Ingram. He could not send them on to the Alliance system, since millions from the worlds of Faith and Promise were en route there. He had already sent tens of thousands on to the Acrux system, despite the refusal he had received from the ambassadors of the two inhabited planets there. Thus, a flotilla of nearly seven thousand civilian scouts, shuttles, and transports had quickly gathered behind the Concordia and her battle group, turning the Sphere of Operations into a precarious obstacle course that swelled by the hour.
Bellegarde gave an exaggerated sigh as he took another look at Radar Officer Abrams’s scope and contemplated the traffic jam astern.
“Thirteen collisions already, sir. Marines have had to evac two of those ships and transfer the civvies to others. We took fourteen wounded on board,” Abrams reported.
“Collisions? For Pilgrims, they sure can’t navigate. What happened to that perfect sense of direction?”
“I don’t know, sir.”
With another sigh of frustration, Bellegarde moved forward to the Concordia’s command chair and grimaced. True, he had always wanted a command of his own, but give him a straight-out war with clearly defined lines and enemies. His “us against them” philosophy had reared its ugly head again. He sat and waited for the next fire to put out.
And the flames rage on. He cocked his head toward Comm Officer Wilks. “Yes?”
“That Marine troopship from the Carraway is still dogging us, sir. The lieutenant says that if you don’t surrender the Concordia, he will, as he put it, shoot his way in.”
“Inform Lieutenant Xao that if a single bolt touches my shields, I’ll blow him and his crew back to Tripoli. Understood?”
The space marshal’s sudden “incapacitation” had obviously aroused suspicions. Bellegarde had been ordered to surrender the vessel and battle group to Gregarov. Since Bellegarde had yet to do so, the brass had turned elements of his own battle group against him. The destroyer CS Carraway was commanded by a woman named Boonesta who had been the only captain to disagree with Bellegarde’s plan to maintain control of the battle group. He could not blame her, though. Career management and preservation remained her top priority. Contrarily, Bellegarde lived a gambler’s life, which might get him into a shooting war with one of his own ships. As always, he would play his hand until the bitter or victorious end.
“Message conveyed to Lieutenant Xao, sir,” Wilks said. “He demands to speak with you.”
Bellegarde swiveled violently and bounded out of the chair. He crossed to the comm station as Wilks shifted aside so that Bellegarde could lock gazes with the stone-faced Marine on the viewer. “Stand down, Xao.”
“I can’t do that, sir. Captain Boonesta has ordered me and my people to board your ship. If you continue upon this course of action and fail to let us approach and board, we have the authority under Confederation Naval regulations to do so by force.”
“Lieutenant, you know what will happen if you try that.”
“I do, sir. But I have my orders.”
“Standby.” Bellegarde thumbed the pause button. “Get me Boonesta.”
Wilks nodded, contacted the comm officer aboard the Carraway, then established a direct link to the captain’s quarters. Boonesta spun her desk chair toward the camera and shook her head. “You can’t be serious, Richard.”
“Neither can you.”
She swore under her breath, then drew her gray-and-blond hair into a ponytail. “What do you expect me to do? We have to come aboard.”
“Where’s the space marshal?”
Boonesta bit her lip, averted her gaze for a second, then her face flushed. “Cut the bullshit, Richard. You got her in the brig or what?”
“Just listen to me. We put her in command, and this whole thing goes to hell. She’ll go against the senate and order a stand down. This is the right thing to do. We both know that. The other skippers know that. We received orders that we have deemed unsound. The regs permit us--”
“Don’t come at me with regs. You’re breaking the chain of command, Richard. And you’ve arrested someone without evidence, without the authority, without good sense. I can and will not condone this course of action. My troops will board your vessel. No question about it.”
“In a few days the order will come in for us to start bombing McDaniel’s World. That’s our job here. If we place Gregarov back in command, she will interfere with our duty, and anyone who obstructs me from obeying my orders is removed.”
“Well put, Richard--and that’s exactly why I need to remove you. I’m going to order my troopship to approach your aft bay. If you fire upon it, I’ll be forced to fire upon the Concordia. Think about it, Richard. Take a breath. Think about it. Boonesta out.”
Bellegarde stiffened and turned away from the screen. His bridge officers shifted uncomfortably in their seats, and a few gazes met his. Earlier, he had announced his intentions to the crew, and not one officer had openly protested his decision to remain in command, though he knew the scuttlebutt continued to circulate. How far would he let this go?
He placed a consoling hand on Wilks’s shoulder. “Contact Boss Raznick. Tell him to issue clearance to Lieutenant Xao.”
Wilks frowned. “Aye, sir.”
“Then tell Lieutenant Davey that I want a Marine security force to detain Xao’s people in the landing bay. Tell them to exercise extreme caution. I want those Marines detained--not injured.”
Executive officer Geranata left the port observation station and met Bellegarde back at the command chair. Olive-skinned, with tightly-curled hair and a gaze that seemed continually glazed by the responsibilities of his rank, Geranata held himself a moment, then finally spoke. “Sir, you’re only delaying the inevitable. Once Boonesta loses contact--”
“I know, Eric. She might send another troopship, and right now she’s lobbying for help from the rest of the battle group. She’ll try to turn the rest of those skippers against us. We need a conference. I have tell them everything that’s going on. I mean all of it.”
“You think that’s wise, sir?”
“My grandfather once told me that there’s no wisdom without truth. Let’s see if he was right.”
In recent days, Lieutenant Todd “Maniac” Marshall had spent more time pummeling Confederation personnel than piloting his Rapier and skinning Kilrathi with his neutron gun. He had taken out his fury on the complexion of a SIRE control officer whom he had assumed played a role in Blair’s beating. That had earned him three days in the brig and a stiff fine. Then he and Hunter had fought with three class-two welders whom they believed were responsible for beating Blair. The hearing on that case had resulted in an even stiffer fine and ten days in the brig. Still, Lieutenant Commander Jhinda of the JAG considered the punishment much too lenient. Captain Gerald had assured her--and Hunter and Maniac--that one more incident would impel him to do everything within his power to boot the two pilots off of his ship with a recommendation for their dishonorable discharges. It was not in Gerald’s nature to make idle threats.NEXT
Just ask Angel, Maniac thought as his gaze swam lazily across the overhead of his cell. He lay on his bunk, glad that at least his confinement would only last another eight days, while Angel had been relieved of her command and confined to her quarters for over three times as long.
Yeah, only another eight days, but every day I sit in here doing nothing, I’m getting weaker--while the enemy is out there, getting stronger. Don’t these pogues understand that? Nah. Fact is, they don’t care. It’s all about saving your own ass. But they forget that the ball’s going to drop on one-five-eight. Where will old Maniac be? Right here in my little metal box. Brilliant use of personnel. Let’s see, now. I’m captain of this sad excuse for a strike carrier. The fleet’s tied up, and the cats could attack. Hmmm. Think I’ll lock up all of my best pilots. Yeah, life’s overrated anyway.
Footsteps. It’s 1800. Probably the guards with dinner. They try to feed me that soup again and somebody’s going to make a hot, wet fashion statement.
Maniac shuddered at the sound of her voice. She carried his dinner tray and seemed uncertain of whether she wanted to smile or gaze pitifully at him. “They let you come?” he asked.
Zarya nodded. “I dug through the regs, and there’s a loophole in visitation rights for those serving time under a captain’s direct disciplinary action.”
“Whatever. Glad you’re here.” He slid to the edge of the bunk and accepted the tray through a slot in the bars. Damned soup again. Cream-based. No, it just wouldn’t look good on her, and she probably wouldn’t visit again. “I miss you,” he said, dropping a spoon in his meal and stirring out the steam.
“No, you don’t.”
“Come over here, and I’ll prove it.” He set the tray aside, rose, and went to the bars.
She retreated. “I’ve been thinking.”
“Really?” He threw up his hands. “I’m making that a career.”
“You know, we got together, and I really admired the way you handled yourself,” she began in a little song that hinted at the venerable, the inevitable I-don’t-think-we-should-see-each-other-anymore ending. “I thought I’d finally found someone who, I don’t know, someone who had a real spirit.”
“So how do you like flying with Gunner’s squadron?” he suddenly interjected.
“We’re not talking about that.”
He gripped the bars and squeezed. “I know it’s hard for you. If you just--”
“This was a mistake. We jumped into this way too soon.” She looked to the floor for solace. “And you and I, we’re just, I don’t know... We can’t do this anymore.”
“Of course it ain’t working for you. It ain’t working for me, either! For god’s sake, I sat in a cell on board the Olympus, then I’m locked up for three days for hitting that SCO, now I’m in for another ten for whacking those welders.”
“Don’t you get it, Todd? You’re proving my point. You’re whole life is about looking before you leap. It was a fun ride for a while. But now it’s just... old.”
Squeezing the bars even tighter, Maniac stood there, just breathing and realizing that words were bullshit. He looked at her until she felt so uncomfortable that she had to turn away.
“I’m sorry,” she muttered, then shambled off.
He snickered. “I’m sure you are.” Then, swearing under his breath, he fell back onto his cot and slapped an arm over his eyes. A few years ago, being dumped would have driven him into another woman’s bed before the day’s end. He had never spent long periods of time grieving for a relationship; there had always been someone else to help mend the wounds.
But for once he didn’t want someone else. He looked around the cell and knew that if didn’t grow up soon, his relationships and his career would all wind up here. Knowing about it was one thing, but nothing would change unless he acted. That was the hard part...
Why couldn’t life come as naturally as flying?