Hunt for the Saiph
The Saiph Series
Copyright 2015 PP Corcoran
Published by Castrum Press
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Meet the Neighbors
SS CHARLOTTE DUNDAS, SELENE SYSTEM - 272 LIGHT YEARS FROM EARTH
"Captain call the bridge! Captain call the bridge!"
"What now?" Grumbled Captain Lucio Vela as he dragged himself out of the comfortable seat in the officers’ lounge of the SS Charlotte Dundas where was sipping his steaming coffee and observing the gathering clouds on the planet below through the plasteel porthole and headed for the comms panel by the entrance hatch. Vela hated the wrist comms he was supposed to wear at all times, so he tended to forget to wear it unless a member of the Zurich Shipping Line hierarchy happened to be aboard. These days that was most unlikely with the difficulties the company was presently going through. Charlotte Dundas and the other eight Elephant class 250,000 tonne cargo ships were in high demand these days. Only ships like the Elephant class had the load capacity to carry and sustain complete mining or colonization operations like the one currently taking place on Selene, so they were very rarely in port long enough for the big wigs to decide to visit.
Keying the comms panel by the entrance hatch Vela established a link to the Duty Bridge Officer. Vela made no attempt to keep the irritation out of his voice. “Captain speaking. This wants to be good Givens or you’re going to be doing night watches for the rest of this cruise."
"Captain. Sensors are showing a group of ships closing on our position from behind the orbit of the planet’s second moon."
Vela’s jaw dropped in surprise. Charlotte Dundas had been in orbit around Selene for over two months now as the embryonic colony on the planet’s surface fought to establish itself. If all went to plan then Vela and his ship would remain a further three months before heading home for a quick shore leave and maintenance cycle before heading out with another load of colonists.
"Have you sent them a hail? They could be another colonization operation who haven’t gotten the word yet that we've secured the rights to Selene." Even as he said it Vela knew he was grasping at straws. It took months to organize a project the size of colonizing another world and before you even started getting the finances together you had to secure a license from the Bureau of Colonization. They certainly were not going to make the mistake of issuing two licenses for the same planet.
"Yes sir. So far no response to our hails."
Vela heard the edge of concern in Givens voice. It was no secret the cargo of a colonization ship like Charlotte Dundas was worth a small fortune and many a ship’s captain, like Vela, wondered why some enterprising individuals had not yet thought to hijack a ship just like his and sell off the cargo on the black market or ransom the crew.
In the days before the invention of the gravity drive and the war with the ‘Others’, the Sol system had had its problems with privateers. A problem the small navy of the TDF at the time had struggled to contain. With the invention of the gravity drive, the expansion of the navy and the surveillance platforms which were seeded throughout the Sol system, the age of the pirate appeared over. But out here, hundreds of light years from home there was a resurgence of this particularly nasty art.
Yes, if you got a comms drone away in time it could fold and reach Colonial Support Command (CSC) almost instantly. Unfortunately there was no guarantee there would be a naval vessel in a position to respond immediately. The navy called it overstretch. Vela called it bad planning.
"What’s their ETA?"
"If they maintain their current course and speed they should rendezvous with us in... fifty-eight minutes."
"OK Givens let’s get a drone away to CSC on Ganymede. Download our logs and sensor data and request immediate assistance. Put an all hands call out, quietly mind, no need to worry the remaining colonists on board just yet. Let’s secure all the outer hatches and tell the master at arms to pass out the side arms. Better safe than sorry. I'm on my way to the bridge now. Vela clear."
Lucio headed for the bridge knowing the handful of side arms in the ships armory had little chance of stopping any serious boarding action but it was all he had. For the first time since they arrived at Selene he wished he was with the colonists who had already set up on the windswept planet below.
COLONIAL SUPPORT COMMAND, GANYMEDE - SOL SYSTEM
The dull early morning routine in the operations room of what was euphemistically called Colonial Support Command housed deep in the bedrock of Ganymede, Jupiter's largest moon was something the duty officer, Lieutenant Pizarro, could have done without. He had been up late the night before celebrating the promotion of his roommate and was feeling a little under the weather this morning, particularly at the prospect of another long tour in the darkened room lit only by subdued lighting and the glow of terminals manned by equally bored sailors.
CSC had been established in response to the wave of colonization which swept the Commonwealth. CSC was tasked with acting as the intermediary between Survey Command, the Bureau of Colonization, and the various shipping firms which were providing the actual colony ships. Hence some unknown sailor had christened the operations room the 'Hub' and the nickname stuck. Even becoming part of semiofficial parlance. CSC did not actually own any navy ships. If there was a requirement from a colony or shipping line for naval support the 'Hub' would consider the request, prioritize it and pass it on to the Office of Joint Naval Operations who again would consider the request, prioritize it and let CSC know their answer usually within ten days. Nothing moved fast in the administration world.
"Drone arrival! Its transmitting a priority message code Lieutenant."
The call from the Communications Section brought Pizarro to full wakefulness as adrenalin flooded his system. "Accept the message and pass it to my terminal." Pizarro tapped his desk top repeatedly with his stylus as he waited for the drone’s message to be downloaded and passed to him. As the message header appeared on his screen his brow furrowed. The SS Charlotte Dundas was not a name which immediately came to mind and Pizarro keyed a query into the computer for the stats of the ship and its destination as he continued to read the message. His breath caught in his chest after only reading two lines of the message as he reached the part about three unidentified ships on an intercept course for the defenseless colony ship.
With the heightened tensions between the Commonwealth and the Alonan Empire it was thought, however unlikely, the Empire may attempt to retaliate following the destruction of Balat. Pizarro thought that may be what was happening here and acted appropriately.
"Comms. Flash Signal. Copy the message and logs from the Charlotte Dundas and download it to our drone. Make your destination First Fleet. Add our recommendation for immediate naval support and launch when ready."
A Flash Signal was the highest priority message in the navy. It automatically overrode all other traffic and would set alarm bells ringing when it arrived at First Fleet. A big call for a mere lieutenant to make but Pizarro was confident he had taken the correct course of action. Pizarro sat back in his seat having done all he could. He just hoped help reached the Charlotte Dundas in time.
SS CHARLOTTE DUNDAS, SELENE SYSTEM - 272 LIGHT YEARS FROM EARTH
All eyes on the cramped bridge of the Charlotte Dundas were fixed on the main holo cube. Although not as well equipped as a modern naval vessel Lucio Vela was still immensely proud of his ship and ensured it was kept in tip top condition, though, it was times like this when he wished she was equipped with military grade sensors.
Vela forced himself to keep a calm exterior as the three unidentified ships closed on his position. Despite repeated hails the ships continued their approach in total silence. Either they did not understand his hail or they were intentionally ignoring them.
As the ships closed the distance between them and the Charlotte Dundas, the merchant ship’s sensors at last got a good read on them. What they revealed made Vela's blood run cold. These were no pirate ships.
Each of the approaching ships were identical and they flew in tight formation. A typical pirate ship was a hotchpotch of converted merchant ship and scrounged or stolen military hardware.
Vela looked again at the sleek lines of the ships he was facing. A bulbous bow swept rearward before breaking into five pylons sharply angled away from the main body of the ship. Vela overheard one of the bridge crew liken them to starfish. He could see the resemblance, however, these starfish were colored a deep red and weighed in at around 70,000 tonnes. Vela's ship could easily outweigh all three of the starfish ships combined, but the grazer points at the end of each of the pylons and the missile tube covers spaced in two rows evenly spread along the main body of each ship meant the Charlotte Dundas' meager point defense system was vastly outmatched.
"They’re slowing Captain."
Vela checked his repeater display to confirm his navigators call. Yes there was no doubt about it they had slowed their approach. What the hell were they up to? They were already easily within any conventional weapons range.
The next few minutes seemed to stretch as the three warships slowed and eventually came to a halt less than 100,000 kilometers from the hovering Charlotte Dundas.
"Incoming signal! Audio only."
Vela anxiously leaned forward in his seat, "Let’s hear it."
A strident, un-intonated voice in Standard English filled the bridge, "You have infringed on the territory of the Turak. You will remove yourselves within one rotation of the planet or suffer the consequences."
The bridge was silent for a heartbeat after the message ended, then burst into a cacophony of noise as the whole crew attempted to talk at once.
"Silence!" With Vela’s single command peace returned.
"Communications. Open a link." Vela swallowed to wet his dry throat as the link was established.
"This is Captain Lucio Vela of the Commonwealth Union of Planets’ starship Charlotte Dundas. We were unaware you have laid claim to this planet. We operate under a license to colonize the planet, issued by the Commonwealth Bureau of Colonization. May we meet to discuss this misunderstanding?"
Silence, interrupted by bursts of static was the only reply. A nod from the comms section senior bosun confirmed the link was still open. The silence stretched on until Vela gave the bosun a throat slicing motion and the link was terminated.
Think Lucio. Think. One rotation of Selena was around twenty-six hours. Without moving in his seat Vela called out. "Options Diane?"
Diane Williams, second-in-command of the Charlotte Dundas, uncurled herself from where she was sitting to one side of the bridge watching the unfolding situation and slowly began pacing back and forth across the small bridge, "Before I answer your question Captain perhaps it would be wise to consider what we know so far."
"We are facing three warships which our sensors tell us easily outgun us."
"Agreed," Vela replied grimly.
Diane got into her stride, "For whatever reason they decided to mask their approach by concealing themselves in the shadow of the second moon."
"OK. If I wanted to ambush a ship I would want to get in as close as possible without being detected. It’s just good tactics."
"True, though, in itself it also shows prudence on their part. A reluctance to expose themselves too early."
"Again Diane, good tactics. They couldn’t have had any idea of our capabilities until they got close enough to get a good sensor read on us and discover we are only a freighter."
"My point exactly Captain. They weren't sure what we were until they got closer... so how did they know to hail us in Standard English?"
The silence Vela enforced on the bridge evaporated, he allowed the animated discussion to continue while he grappled with Diane's statement. If you followed her line of thinking it could only mean the Turak had been observing the Commonwealth for some time but had not made a move until the Charlotte Dundas encroached on their territory. A flick of his wrist signaled Diane to continue.
"Option One. Do nothing. Wait for the navy to arrive and see what happens next."
Lucio smiled despite himself. "Somehow I get the feeling the Turak mean business. Next?"
"Option Two. Evacuate the colonists from the planet. Get as many back on board as possible within the time constraints and high tail it out of here."
Vela shook his head slowly, "Diane you know as well as I we have nearly 4500 colonists spread over the entire planet. We simply don't have the lift capability to get all of them and their equipment back on board in time. Is there an option three?"
Diane stopped her pacing directly in front of Vela. As his second-in-command and alter ego it was her job to lay out all the options. No matter how unpalatable they were. Steeling herself she forced herself to speak, her voice coming out tautly. "Option Three. Abandon the colonists and head for home."
The shocked expression on the face of the captain caused any who heard Diane's final option to turn away in distaste.
Vela leaned in close to Diane fighting to control his anger. "I will not abandon these people to their fate, Diane. I don't care how you do it, you get every last one of them off that rock and back on board. Do you understand me?"
Diane nodded her understanding. Nothing further was needed, the captain had given his orders.
Vela took a deep breath as he regained control of himself. "Communications. Open a link to those ships,” comms quickly obliged, “This is Captain Vela. I’m about to launch shuttles to recover the colonists. This is not a sign of aggression. I repeat. It is not a sign of aggression, I’m simply doing as you requested. I’ll also launch a communications drone to inform my superiors of your request, there are no weapons onboard and it is of no threat to you. Please acknowledge."
Only stony silence broken by moments of static came from the bridge speakers. Nothing more than Vela expected, he cut the link and addressed his bridge crew "OK people, we are about to get really busy, really soon. A lot of angry colonists will be arriving here soon so let’s be as pleasant as we can but remember! We are on the clock. Let's get it done!"
The previous six hours passed at an accelerated rate as the shuttles raced back and forth between the massive freighter and the surface of Selena in a vain attempt to corral the widespread colonists.
Vela had to admit, Diane performed minor miracles as she planned pick up points and timetables for the colonists to converge on them on the hoof. All the time under the open mouth of the Turak warships guns. It took only one hard look at the numbers in his display to tell Vela everything he needed to know.
Despite Diane’s and the shuttle pilot’s heroic efforts they simply were not getting the colonists aboard at the breakneck speed they needed to. Current projections overran the Turak deadline by at least nine hours.
"Status on the Turak ships?"
"No change Captain. All three remain stationary at 100,000 kilometers off our starboard quarter. No reply to our hails and our sensors have detected no transmissions between them."
Vela ground his teeth in frustration. He was trying to raise the Turak to explain his need for an extension on their deadline but the ships remained stoically silent. Well the Turak could go to hell. The Charlotte Dundas was staying exactly where she was until the colonists were safely back on board and that was the end of it!
In the blink of an eye the tactical read out in the holo cube changed.
"Status change! Fifteen new contacts... correction twenty... computer is calling them warships Captain."
Vela’s shoulders’ slumped. His ship had little chance of defying three Turak warships but twenty-three?
"Receiving a general broadcast sir."
"Put it through the bridge speakers" said Vela as he resigned himself and the colonists to their fate.
"Turak warships this is Admiral Analisa Chavez, Commanding Officer of First Fleet, Commonwealth Union of Planets. The SS Charlotte Dundas and the colonists on the planet below are under my protection. Any attempt to fire on either the Charlotte Dundas, the planet’s surface or my vessels will result in my immediate and deadly retaliation. I order you to withdraw your vessels beyond the orbit of the second moon where you may remain and observe the evacuation of the planet. Failure to comply with my orders will result in the use of deadly force. You have five minutes to comply. Chavez clear."
The loud cheer echoing round the cramped bridge was nothing compared to the relief Vela relished in. For the first time today he allowed himself a smile, "Communications. Update First Fleet on the status of our recovery operations and our projected timetable." Addressing the bridge in general, he said, "Back to work people we still have a lot of colonists to move."
TDF RESOLUTION, SELENE SYSTEM - 272 LIGHT YEARS FROM EARTH
"Admiral. The Cutlass is signaling its arrival. Ambassador Schamu reports he is ready to proceed."
Analisa Chavez lifted her eyes from her tactical repeater where she was reviewing the latest from her intelligence section’s best guess of the Turak ships weapons and capabilities. The section chief came to some surprising conclusions. In his estimation the Turak were also equipped with a form of gravity drive not too dissimilar to those employed by the CUOP. The data collected by Captain Vela regarding the Turak weapon capabilities were not too far off the mark either. Each ship had two rows of missile tubes, the covering for each launch tube was smaller than those on an equivalent CUOP heavy cruiser which meant the missile itself had to be smaller, however, there were more missile tubes on the Turak ships.
The section chief, however, highlighted the number of heavy grazer points. With five grazers a Turak cruiser would outgun one of her cruisers five to three meaning at energy weapon ranges the Turak would have the advantage but at longer ranges her cruisers could throw a heavier missile weight.
At this particular moment in time it was a moot point. When the flash signal from the Hub was received at First Fleet it had been akin to kicking over an ants nest. First Fleet forwarded the flash signal to the Combined Joint Chiefs where Admiral Jing was heard to repeatedly curse CSG Itus, the unit specifically designed to deal with exactly this kind of incident which was still three months from being operational.
Never a man to hesitate when time was of the essence Jing ordered Analisa, his replacement as CO First Fleet, to assume command of the ready BatFor and prepare for immediate departure. Analisa's and the navy's speedy response had all been for naught as the Commonwealth Council refused permission for the fleets deployment.
Wary of repeating their mistake in sending First Fleet rushing to the defense of Alona during the war against the Others. A move which left the Earth open to the surprise attack which ended in the destruction of Fifth Fleet and the near extinction of the human race. The Council was refusing to authorize the deployment of a single BatFor until each of the member states of the Commonwealth agreed.
Even with the speedy comms drones feeding information to politicians the Council decision delayed any action until each government considered the pros and cons of deployment. Minutes became hours while Analisa and her relief force could only cool their heels and await their political master’s decision. When it came, a long five hours later, Analisa did not wait for Jing to terminate the communications link before she folded for Selene.
Much to her relief she arrived to find the stalemate between the hulking freighter and the Turak still in place. With the firepower of an entire BatFor to back up her demands for the Turak to withdraw whoever was in charge over there decided withdrawal was the better part of valor. The three warships withdrew to just beyond the second moon where they had remained, silently, for the last thirteen hours.
Analisa's sensors detected numerous launches from the center vessel of the three ship formation, the analysts called it the flagship. The frequent launches they figured, and Analisa agreed, were most likely communications drones as almost immediately after launch they accelerated sharply and disappeared into fold space. Analisa wondered if they were calling for back up. She could be in for a shooting war yet. The main reason she greeted the news of the Cutlass' arrival with a sense of relief.
"Inform the ambassador he may continue." Unconsciously Analisa's fingers sought out the delicate gold necklace she always wore. A gift from the widow of her late mentor and friend Stephano Ricco, killed at the bloodbath of 70 Ophiuchi four years previously. The blue icon representing the Cutlass moved away from the massed ships of her BatFor on course for the three unmoving Turak cruisers. Good luck Ambassador. For all our sakes.
Nicholas Schamu appeared outwardly like he did not have a care in the world as he sat on one of the few spare seats on the bridge of SurvFlot One’s flagship, TDF Cutlass. Only two hours ago Nicholas had been enjoying... perhaps enjoying was too strong a word... dinner with his sister Madeleine and her insufferable husband, Senator Mathias Grant the Third. A priority call summoning him to the austere offices of the Head of the Diplomatic Corps himself had come at a most opportune moment as he had about had enough of the self-inflated ego of Mathias Grant the Third and he was just one more bland sound bite away from telling him where he could politely shove his ideas of the Earth First movement.
The military flyer which landed on the back lawn of his sister’s house made an unsightly mess of the blustering senator’s immaculate rose bed and brought a chortle from the normally mirthless ambassador as he watched the politician mouthing a curse while shaking a fist at the flyer as it took off. The last remaining heads of the roses were separated from their stalks and blown across the neat, now scorched, lawn.
Whatever small amount of joy Nicholas may have taken from his brother-in-law’s futile efforts to save his beloved rose petals was thoroughly suffocated as he opened the secure briefing package on the PAD the crew chief handed to him on boarding. Nicholas, over the years, developed a talent for speed reading any document and picking out the salient points. In his opinion the situation at Selene was a hairs breath away from going from a standoff to armed conflict. As the flyer broke the sound barrier in its headlong dash for distant Geneva Nicholas tapped a key on his armrest activating his link to the flyers pilot.
"Change of destination. Get me to Geneva spaceport and don’t spare the horses."
"But Ambassador I have direct orders from Secretary Beckett to take you to the Diplomatic Corps headquarters."
Ah these military types always following orders. "And I'm changing those orders. Don’t worry I’ll sort it out with the Secretary just get me to the spaceport tout de suite."
Terminating the link Nicholas could tell the pilot was not happy but he felt the little flyer bank and knew he was on course for his new destination. A few more taps of his armrest controls and he established a link to Secretary Beckett's private number. The lined, balding head of Aaron Beckett appeared in the display mounted in the headrest in front of Nicholas. Before he could say anything the Secretary wrong footed him.
"I see you’re headed for the spaceport then Nicholas. Lucky I requisitioned a courier ship and it’s warming up on the landing pad."
Instead of replying immediately Nicholas gave one of his rare chuckles. "I see you understand the importance of haste in the current situation Mister Secretary."
Now it was Aaron's turn to laugh. "I only ordered the flyer to bring you here to see if you were still willing to follow your gut instead of blindly following your superiors’ instructions. I'm glad to see, even after knowing you for thirty odd years, you are still willing to question if not downright ignore my instructions."
Nicholas tipped an imaginary hat at the pick up. "I learned from the best Mister Secretary."
"Sycophant." Laughed Aaron before his demeanor became all business again. "Back to the matter in hand, Nicholas. The courier ship will take you to Charon Base where Admiral Papadomas has put the Cutlass at your disposal..."
Aaron must have seen the quizzical look on Nicholas' face.
"The admiral was quite insistent. If you are going into a potential war zone then you will be aboard one of his cruisers, not an unarmed courier ship. He made some reference to a Benii carrier and a shuttle craft as I recall"
Nicholas smiled ruefully. "Yes. Christos will never let me live that one down I fear. But in this case he may be right. Tensions appear quite high and perhaps being on board an armored warship is better than being on a defenseless shuttle craft."
"Let's hope you don't have to find out Nicholas. But enough of this melancholy talk. Cutlass will be at your disposal and I've already sent word to Admiral Chavez, you will be joining her as expeditiously as you can. All the latest information we have is already loaded onto your PAD including your mission specifics."
Nicholas cocked an eyebrow at the image of the Secretary in his display. “Which are?"
"In a nutshell to make sure we don't find ourselves in another shooting war. Find out as much about these people as you can and try to establish some form of peaceful relations with them."
"From what I've seen the Turak come across as pretty belligerent Mister Secretary."
Aaron frowned and the mood turned somber. "That’s what I'm afraid of Nicholas. Do your best."
Nicholas looked into the tired eyes of his friend for a second before replying. "Yes, of course, you shall have it Mister Secretary."
With a nod Aaron terminated the link. Nicholas picked up the PAD again and began going through the data line by line hoping to glean even the smallest detail which could help him with the Turak as the flyer sped on-wards.
"All stop aye Captain."
Captain Denise Nicholls spun her chair till she faced the dapper diplomat in his seat along the rear bulkhead of the Cutlass. To her surprise he was sipping tea from a bone china cup and looked as if he was completely unperturbed by the sight of the three Turak warships hovering 500,000 kilometers dead ahead. Admiral Papadomas gave her strict instructions before departing Charon regarding the ambassador’s well-being.
Ambassador Schamu was in charge of the mission and she was to follow his orders to the letter. However, if the ambassador’s orders compromised the safety of the Cutlass and her crew, the admiral would take a very dim view if she were to allow said ambassador to come to any harm by reckless behavior, by say, taking an unarmed shuttle and heading out to meet three warships. If Schamu's reputation for grandiose gestures were anything to go by those instructions may prove a hard task to complete.
"We are at the limit of what we think is the Turak effective weapons envelope Ambassador."
Schamu put his cup down carefully on a small table by his chair and put on his best game face. "Thank you Captain. Perhaps you would open a video and audio link to the Turak ships."
Nicholls gave her comms officer a nod and the link was established.
"Turak vessels. I am Ambassador Nicholas Schamu of the Commonwealth Union of Planets and I have come here at the request of the Commonwealth to hopefully establish peaceful relations between our peoples and avert any accidental misunderstandings."
There was no reply from the Turak just stony silence.
"Comms are we sure the link is still open?" Asked Nicholls.
"Yes Ma'am. My board shows the link is good. The Turak are receiving both our audio and video feed."
"Let’s give it a minute Captain if you please," said Schamu.
The seconds crept by and as the bridge clock reached four minutes the harsh, Standard English of the Turak erupted from the bridge speakers.
"You have infringed on the territory of the Turak. You will remove yourselves from the planet or suffer the consequences."
"As you can see we are doing as you ask and we apologize for any offense we may have caused. We did not know this system was claimed by the Turak. If I may make a suggestion? So we may avoid any further misunderstandings in the future perhaps an exchange of information, a list of systems under Turak control in this quadrant of space to prevent any unintentional ingress. We would of course reciprocate and supply you with a list of systems occupied by the Commonwealth." With a small nod from Schamu the comms officer transmitted the pre prepared data.
Again the seconds seemed to stretch as Schamu awaited the Turak's reply.
"Captain we're receiving a data packet from the Turak... looks like navigational data."
Schamu let out a small sigh. Progress at last. "Thank you. May I request we establish video communications as well as audio?"
The answer this time was immediate. "No. We have supplied the data you need. Ensure there are no more intrusions into Turak territory. Next time no opportunity to retreat will be given and if you believe we have taken no action because of the presence of your warships behold the strength of the Turak!"
The wailing of alarms filled the bridge of the Cutlass and the tactical holo cube filled with the blood red icons of Turak ships. Ten. Twenty. Thirty. Forty. Fifty capital ships, each the size of a Bismarck class battle ship filled the holo cube.
Mocking laughter reached Schamu through the sound of the alarms. "Go now and do not return unless you want war!"
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The Saiph Series (4 book series)