This is all second draft stuff that hasn't incorporated notes and corrections from the editor yet, so don't worry about finding any typographical errors, they'll be ironed out.
Spinward Fringe Broadcast 10: Freeground Preview Part 4
Ayan had a lot to ponder after that first meeting. Guards in light navy blue beam repellent armor followed the small group into the transit car on the way back to the gunship they used to move from Freeground Alpha back to the Revenge. That made the trip through the station a quiet one. Jake had snapped a little, and she lost the opportunity to get the Freeground Nation’s Prime Minister’s attention as a result.
It irritated her, but the imposed silence gave her time to find out if there was real strategy behind intimidating the Prime Minister. It didn’t seem like Jake was bothered by the meeting at all. Ayan found the backwards politics of the station infuriating too. First they wanted to take from them, then they objected to the lucky alliance with the British they formed in the Rega Gain system, and the sense that the appearance of the Triton and the Revenge was more resented than celebrated hung thickly over the rest of the meeting. She was happy Oz was listening in on the whole thing, relaying the conversation to several Freeground Fleet captains. Hearing their opinions was something she looked forward to, especially since she may have found an ally in Admiral Jessica Rice.
The fact that she was the only person who seemed to appreciate the help they offered was surprising. The woman wasn’t Ayan’s biological mother anymore, she had been cut out of her genetic makeup and replaced with the barely edited genetics of a purer ancestor, but Jessica Rice certainly seemed like she wanted to make up for lost time anyway. That whole issue had to be put on hold, however.
There were bigger problems, mathematical and engineering problems that she had to make her priority. The Revenge was still damaged, and she had days, more likely weeks of work ahead of her if she wanted to implement the new shield technology properly and finish repairs. They still had so much to learn about all the technologies that worked in concert to make dimension drive travel possible, and political distractions were more irritating than ever.
The transit car finally arrived in the docking bay and they stood to leave. Stephanie laughed at the four guards who stood with them and shoved one down into his seat. “You four stay here.”
“Or what?” one of the guards asked.
“Or they’ll never find the bodies.” She replied, resting her hand on her sidearm.
The group of guards remained in the transit car as Jake, Ayan, Minh-Chu, Liara and then Stephanie left. The hangar was busy with the arrival and departure of narrow Freeground Fleet shuttles. They emerged from and disappeared into lower decks on elevation platforms. A few slipped into space through old airlock departure hatches, Ayan hadn’t seen that kind of basic technology since she was reborn – the rest of the galaxy had moved on. There was something special about the simple technologies though, there were larger parts that seemed naked in how you could understand how everything worked together just by watching them move. There was a lot of wear and tear, signs of quick repair that made it all look even older, and she started to wonder how everything else aboard Freeground Alpha was being kept together. By contrast, the Clever Class Gunship they used, the only one issued to the Revenge, looked new and sleek.
Ayan still got a little excited whenever she saw one. The new Triton Fleet Gunship was devised while Jake was still in stasis recovering, and was the combination of Lorander, Earth and many other technologies. Without the software aboard the Solar Forge the ship would not have been possible. She was one of the engineers who oversaw its development – a process that normally would have taken years – but thanks to the Solar Forge it only took weeks, and before Jake woke from his recovery, they were already being built along with a much smaller version. A smaller version that Minh-Chu and the Samurai Squadron had demonstrated were not resilient enough to fight the Order of Eden. The full sized Clever class gunship would be a different story, Ayan was sure of it.
It was a twenty-metre-long ship that broadened from its black and grey coloured nose. Inside there were two practical decks, one of which could be completely customized using interior modules that loaded from an elevator underneath the craft. The upper deck had permanent bunks for seven, a small common space, the heavily shielded mini-bridge, and access to many of the turrets that bristled the top and sides of the ship.
They passed under a thruster grid that ran like a band of yellow-red light across part of the front of the ship to wrap around the upper and lower hull in the fore section. They were Lorander technology and provided thrust in those directions while fortifying the shield projection systems. They were highly effective, but what Ayan liked most about them was how easy they were to fabricate and repair.
The main port side airlock opened and a ramp extended. “Welcome back, all systems are go on the Pursuit Three, Sir,” Carnie, a tall pilot with long scraggly blonde hair told Minh-Chu.
“We’re taking off right now,” Minh-Chu said, leading the way back to the small bridge. “When we get back to the Revenge, start prepping for a much longer trip.”
“Minh,” Jake called after him. “Show off for our new friends, do a loop around the fleet so they can see what kind of tech we’re upgrading to. Just a ten-minute joy ride, though.”
“Aye, aye,” Minh-Chu said with a smirk. “I’ll give them something to talk about.”
“One more thing,” Jake said. “What do you think about this ship so far? Do you really think it’s ready?”
“It’s an untested ship,” Minh-Chu replied. “It takes tests well, but we won’t know anything for sure until we get her out there. I’ll take the mission if we can bring some extra parts and emergency gear. It’s better than sitting in a cockpit for a couple days.”
“If it works out, you could be charting the nebula for weeks,” Jake said.
Ayan saw the moment of hesitation in Minh-Chu, but he nodded. “You need a small crew, I can set up a small crew. If you want me to lead this personally, then I’ll do that too.”
“We’ll take care of your squadron from Flight Operations, they’ll do much shorter perimeter scouting,” Jake said. “The conditions here are changing so fast, I need someone I can trust running ahead of us.”
“I know,” Minh-Chu said. “I’m your man, but I get Finn riding along. He checked the core power systems once they were installed and signed off on the drydock tests. The only person who knows the design better is Ayan, and I know I can’t get her to ride along.”
“Finn?” Jake asked, surprised.
“Something is going to go wrong,” Minh-Chu said. “And I’m going to have my grease monkeys with me, but those three skitter bots can only do so much.”
“I’ll be able to cover for Finn, it gives me an excuse to stay aboard the Revenge,” Ayan said. “To make sure we do everything we can to make up for the damaged section.”
“Looks like Finn and a couple of his people are going on an adventure,” Jake said. “This is going to happen fast.”
“I know,” Minh-Chu said. “I’ll have Ashley bring my duffel down when we get back to the Revenge and I’ll address my fighter wing from here. Don’t worry about a crew for this boat, I already know who I’m taking.”
“I knew you would,” Jake said. “Thank you, Minh.”
“No problem.” He turned to Carnie and they started down the narrow upper deck corridor while everyone else headed aft. Ayan overheard him tell his young counterpart; “Looks like we’re explorers this week, you’d better start reading the manual, First Mate.”
“No kiddin’?” Carnie replied.
“No kidding, you’re going to my right hand on this trip,” Minh-Chu said. “So you can learn about all the bugs we’ll run into and the tweaks we’ll have to make while this bird leaves the nest far, far behind.”
Ayan was only slightly irked at the inference that the gunship might have problems, it probably would, most maiden voyage logs had a number of entries outlining adjustments and room for improvement. The ambitiously designed Clever Class Gunship line would be no different, she was sure. She could feel herself beginning to go through the ship’s system checklist in her head, double checking the work she did while the vessel was in the design and construction phases and stopped herself.
That data had been pored over by her and another dozen or so designers and technicians. Several people had to sign off on each new design and every aspect of the final build before it left the Solar Forge’s docks. She forced herself to return her thoughts to the present and regarded Jake. “Why did you corner the Prime Minister?” Ayan asked, unable to hold her question any longer.
“You’re the diplomat,” Jake told her gently. “They expect me to be a thug, so I played the part. As soon as I knew we wouldn’t get their respect, I made sure that they would expect nothing more from me because I need them to underestimate me so the last thing they expect is subtlety from my direction.”
“That’s why I did the same thing to those guards,” Stephanie added. “We’ve done this before when we wanted people to think that the crew of the Samson was nothing but muscle-heads. We didn’t have a galaxy-class diplomat to hide behind then, even though Ashley tried to pretend to be one once.”
“You could have let me in on it,” Ayan said, shaking her head. “I understand now, but you’ve dropped the diplomat duties in my lap and I already have too much to do. I know it’s going to be an uphill climb now, but you’re going to have to pick that up, especially since Freeground has already rejected me once.”
“I don’t know anything about Freeground Nation’s situation,” Jake said. “My information is much older than yours, I don’t know the players, I don’t even know the prevailing attitude of the civilian body, and the military is cooperating for now, but who knows how trustworthy they really are.”
“You don’t think I’m in the same situation? Everything’s changed since I left. When Minh and I set out to find you, we didn’t do so on good terms. I’m surprised they let me go aboard at all.”
“Ayan, you’re infinitely better at diplomacy than anyone here,” Jake said in a gentler tone. “I hate to tell you, but this is one of your talents. When I talk and think at the same time, people can tell, they know they’re talking to someone whose calculating. When they talk to you, it’s your grace they see, even though you’re thinking several moves ahead of them. I know you have your plate full with technical problems, taking on a shift as Chief, but we need your other skill set too, at least for now.”
“So I’ll be doing the talking for now, then.” Ayan said, still unwilling to let Jake off the hook. Seeing that he wanted to sit back and play dumb was deeply irritating, she could slap him, but she decided to make sure it wouldn’t last instead. “You’re going to pick up your end of the load soon though, before the act becomes reality.”
Ayan only felt a tinge of regret at the barb, which resulted in Jake’s expression turning stony and Stephanie flinching visibly. No one missed it, but no one commented on it either. She looked at the status of Oz’s connection on the screen of her command and control unit. He was on mute, but there was an indication that he was speaking with eight other people on Freeground ships. None of them could hear the private conversation she was having with Jake and his people. “Looks like the real debate is happening between Oz and the rest of Freeground Fleet’s leadership.”
“I noticed that he was listening in,” Liara said.
They continued to the rear of the gunship, arriving at the middle of the main crew berthing. The circular gathering space for the main crew, which would have numbered seven during a full mission, was empty except for the chattering of several holographic captains standing around the edge of the table in the middle.
Narrow hatches lead to bunks that were stacked two high except for the Captain’s cabin, which was a single bed with extra storage and head room. All the small crew bunks doubled as escape pods that launched through the dorsal side of the ship.
“I’m just wondering,” Liara said to Stephanie. “That time Jake played dumb and Ashley pretended she was a diplomat – how did that work out?”
“Actually, she was pretending to be an ambassador. It was a disaster,” Stephanie chuckled. “It wasn’t her fault though. Her boyfriend at the time, Silver, screwed it up when he introduced her as the ambassador of a world he knew really well, but Ashley knew nothing about. There must be over a thousand worlds in that girl’s head, all with good facts and details to draw on, but he happened to pick one of the few in that sector that she had never even read about. We still got access to the young Duke of Inla though, mostly because he thought Ashley was hotter than a calendar girl.”
“That turned into a good bounty,” Jake said. “The first and last time we stunned an entire royal court too.”
“You collected a bounty on a Duke?” Ayan asked.
“We did, but it was more a child retrieval job. His mother wanted custody but the authorities couldn’t do anything about it because the Duke was outside of her jurisdiction of enforcement. We just had to get him across an invisible line in space.”
“It wasn’t a simple or easy job, though,” Stephanie said.
“You’re going to have to start telling me more stories about your time as a hunter,” Ayan said.
“Definitely, when things quiet down,” he replied.
“Let’s join Oz’s discussion with the fleet,” Ayan said.
The roar of the main engines of the Pursuit III rolled through the cabin like thunder as it accelerated away from Freeground Alpha. Sound cancelling systems engaged automatically do dampen all but the low rumble of the ship’s thrusters. Ayan was sure Minh-Chu and his co-pilot were about to give Freeground Fleet a good show.
“If I can make a suggestion?” Liara asked.
“It may be best if you only display you and Captain Valent. Too many people in the background from our end could be distracting.”
“Good idea.” Ayan set the emitter on her comm unit up to project onto the table and activated it.
A small holographic image of Oz appeared in the middle with eight Freeground Commanders standing along the edge. “So you have five Sunspire Class ships left including the Sunspire?” he asked an admiral who had a short-cropped black beard.
“Confirmed,” he replied. “They’re all in pretty good shape, even though some are still regenerating the outer sections of their hull. I expect my group will be ready in two days.”
“The main carriers are a different matter,” said Admiral Rice as her holographic avatar appeared on the outer edge of the table top. “We have three and they are all in poor condition. Only one of them can reliably launch fighters, of which we have precious few, and they are all in need of repair materials.”
“Thank you for joining us, Admiral Rice,” a black bearded Admiral said. “And the same goes for Captains Ayan Anderson and Jacob Valent. We are grateful for your direction in this difficult time. I’m sorry the political climate is so toxic, but it has been that way for years.”
“It’s the people of Freeground who suffer the most, Admiral,” Ayan said. “Thank you for your warm welcome. Do all your ships have the temporary emergency jump coordinates?”
“Admiral McPatrick’s people sent them to us as soon as they finished calculating them. I’m Admiral Urin, by the way, Admiral Rice’s counterpart in Freeground Fleet.”
“You’re down to two Admirals for the entire fleet?” Jake asked.
“Yes, the bombing was a devastating blow that cost us some of our best. I’m sorry about your uncle, Admiral McPatrick,” Admiral Rice said to Oz.
“Thank you, Admiral,” he replied. “We don’t have much time for condolences. How secure do you estimate your position is here?”
“We are preparing for the possibility that the Order of Eden will discover our position sometime before Freeground Alpha is ready to make the next wormhole transit,” Admiral Urin replied. “We’re doing our best to coordinate a defence, but any major attack could mean the end of the station.”
“I don’t believe that we’ll be facing a large attacking force before the station can leave. So far, we haven’t discovered a single large fleet of Order ships, but smaller groups and individual vessels. If that trend holds, and their ships are spread out so they have a better chance at finding us, then we should be able to hold against whatever small force they bring to bear,” Admiral Rice said. “What we need to dedicate some resources to is discovering their true purpose here. I’m sure Freeground Alpha is a minor footnote in a greater campaign. We’ve already found evidence of three advance outposts, including the one Triton Fleet ran into.”
“Regardless of their intentions here, we need to get ships out there, scouting ahead and gathering information. It’s the only way we’ll be able to provide good jump coordinates and have a chance at finding supplies and equipment for the station,” Ayan said.
“That’s if we take it with us for the long term,” said one of the Captains on the table. She was a tall, blonde woman with pointed features. “Excuse my interruption and appearance, I’m undergoing an aggressive rollback procedure so I can keep up with all these younger officers. I am Captain Eres of the Georgia.”
“Stop apologizing, Gwen,” Admiral Urin said. “My beard isn’t black because it’s dyed that way, most of us are rolling back thirty or forty years. Maybe it’s time you share your thoughts with everyone.”
More captains were appearing along the edge of the table, Ayan counted thirty-four at a glance. That was almost the entire Freeground Fleet.
“As I’ve already shared with the Admiral,” Captain Eres said, “We need to follow Captain Valent’s well known example and capture several enemy ships. The cost in terms of fleet casualties may be significant, but it may be the only way we can leave Freeground Alpha behind. The new ships would be more mobile, and we may be able to evade much more effectively. I know this seems like a sacrilege, but it may be our only hope of saving our people.”
“Your chance of success depends on,” Jake seemed to catch himself before offering something too useful, and he finished his statement early. “Well, it depends on numbers.”
Ayan caught his meaning and explained. “He’s right. If we can vastly outnumber the enemy in small engagements, say, taking a battlecruiser with five Freeground ships and the Triton, then we may be able to force the enemy to evacuate.”
“No offense,” Admiral Urin said. “But we’d prefer to make capture attempts without the assistance of the Triton or Revenge. We don’t want to muddy the waters in terms of ownership once the deed is done. What we need is all the information you have from your successful captures so we can formulate a solid plan.”
“We can send that to you,” Oz said. “Just be careful, the Order will scuttle a ship unless you disable the self destruct devices in time. Their computer systems may also be unreliable, so replacing the main terminals using our specifications could be essential.”
“I think we understand,” Admiral Rice said. “Let’s put the idea of evacuating Freeground Alpha aside for now. We don’t have the ships. Regardless of our intentions with new ships, we need them. We have crews who can reprogram them, man them, even take them, we just need the intelligence necessary to create the right opportunity. Do you think Triton Fleet can try and provide that while you scout ahead?”
“Yes,” Oz said. “We have the resources to scout far and wide, more so than you expect, I’m sure.”
“When can you get started?” Admiral Urin asked.
“I believe we can start sending scouts out in six hours,” Oz hesitated for a moment, as though listening to someone outside of his transmission. “A portion of our scouts will be looking for targets of opportunity for the Triton. My ship is powerful enough to perform several strike and fade attacks that could lead the Order away from Freeground Alpha. We can match the signature of some of our weapon emplacements so it looks like ships from Freeground Fleet were a part of our strike group.”
“We could send a pair of ships with you instead, so they are seen and recorded during the encounters,” Admiral Urin said.
“They can’t make the jumps we can, it will have to be the Triton on its own,” Oz said. “As a secondary objective, I could lead any Order forces away from Freeground Alpha if they are getting too close.”
“I was just about to make that recommendation, Admiral,” Admiral Rice said with a thin lipped smile. “Just don’t allow yourself to be forced into an engagement you can’t win or run from.”
“Don’t worry about us, Admiral,” Oz replied. “You’ll find we’re extremely capable.”
“Captain Valent, when do you think the Revenge will be ready to begin scouting missions?”
“Three to four hours. We will scout ahead and avoid any engagements until repairs are complete. Hopefully our main guns will be fully automated by then as well, and we can start hunting.”
“One thing at a time, Captain,” Oz replied. “Your priority will be to scout ahead, find safe harbours and chart good jump routes.”
“Yes, Admiral,” Jake replied.
“Thank you, Triton Fleet,” Admiral Rice said. “You’ve given us all new hope. We’ll do our best to hold out here.”