Al nodded. “Yes, sir, it is.”
“Very well, then.” Cale rose from the chair. “That’s what we’re going to do. Mary, I want you to arrange to download the memory cores for the facility and for the station itself to the Holloway. We’ll need as much information as we can get if we’re going to find out who put this facility together and why.”
“Aye aye, sir,” Mary answered.
“The rest of you will continue to devote your efforts to repairing the battle damage from the assault. But while you’re doing that, I want you to do everything in your power to help Commander Donovan and Commander Carter with the transfer of the cloning facility. If there’s nothing further, then you’re all dismissed.”
One by one the officers of the Holloway filed out of the cargo bay to attend to their assigned tasks. Jeff hung back until Cale left the docking bay, and then fell into step behind him.
Well, I might as well get this over with now, Cale thought. “Do you have something to say, Commander?”
Jeff regarded his friend and commanding officer for a long moment, and then finally gave him a wry smile. “Actually, I was thinking that there’s something missing, and I was wondering if you could tell me what became of it.”
Cale shrugged. “Why don’t you tell me what’s missing.”
“Three things, actually,” Jeff answered. “What happened to your long hair, your beard, and your halo?”
Cale felt a surge of anger and fought to dampen it down. “What are you saying, Commander?”
Jeff looked down both sides of the corridor to ensure that the two of them were alone, and then stopped Cale by grabbing his arm and holding him in place. “What I’m saying,” Jeff began as he released his hold on Cale, “is that you’ve found yourself a cause, and that you’re determined to see it through to the bitter end whether or not it’s the right thing to do.”
“Of course it’s the right thing to do,” Cale protested. “How can it not be the right thing to do?”
Jeff stood silent and folded his arms across his chest. “Is that you or your parents talking?”
Cale leveled a finger at his executive officer, spitted him with an angry glare. “That’s below the belt,” he snapped.
“Is it?” Jeff returned. “Well, I guess if the truth has to come from below the belt, then so be it.”
“This has nothing to do with my parents,” Cale insisted.
“There you go, lying to yourself again,” Jeff parried. “Ever since that day that the New Edinburgh Police came to your doorstep and told you that your parents wouldn’t ever be coming home again you’ve been looking for a way to repent for the less than Christian life that you were leading. You’ve had yourself convinced that your parents were killed so that God could punish you for your lack of faith. When are you going to get it through your head that you have nothing to repent for?”
Jeff raised his arms in exasperation. “For God’s sake, Cale, you’re not the same person who took everything that he had for granted. You’re a devoted husband, a loving father, and a devout believer. Has it ever occurred to you that’s enough of a transformation for one man to go through in a lifetime? Has it ever occurred to you that God doesn’t want you to do anything more than what you have already done?”
“What do you know about God?” Cale demanded. “You’ve never believed a day in your life, and you have the arrogant presumption to tell me, of all people, what God wants of me? How dare you?”
“And how dare you presume to tell me that you know God’s will at all?” Jeff shot back.
And Cale was so floored by Jeff’s fusillade that he was actually pushed back a step by the force of his friend’s words. With a totally stunned expression on his face, for it never occurred to him that Jeff would be able to come up with that kind of reasoning, he stared at his executive officer with a newfound respect in his eyes. Maybe you don’t have to be a believer to understand that God moves in mysterious ways. But he’s right. How dare I presume to know God’s will?
The two men stared at each other in silence for a long moment.
Finally Cale shook his head sadly. “You’re right, I can’t presume to know God’s will. But I do know that God would not have put this challenge before me if he didn’t expect me to make a choice.”
“I can accept that,” Jeff said gently, “but does that mean that he expects you to take responsibility for them?”
Cale shrugged. “I don’t know,” he answered simply. “But I do know that I can’t just abandon them. They deserve a chance to live a normal life, Jeff.”
“Yes, they do,” Jeff agreed, “but no matter how hard you try to enlighten them, Imperial society will never accept ten thousand clones as ordinary citizens. They will be persecuted from day one simply because of what they are. And so they will rebel, and they will lash out at the system and at the people who make the system.
“And then you, Cale Sandorsen, will be recorded forever in the history books as the man who fathered the next Rebellion.”
* * *
In times of great stress Cale Sandorsen would tighten his normally loose hold on his officers and crew and begin to micro-manage them.
Most of the officers were fairly good natured about their commander looking over their shoulders constantly, but even if they felt otherwise it would have been unthinkable for them to show it. Cale was their Commodore and as long as the group was deployed his word was law. Besides, crew concerns were part of the reason why there was an Executive Officer.
Jeff had seen Cale through these times of stress before and he knew that the secret to getting through them was patience. Cale would return to his normal self soon enough, he knew, and there was no sense in worrying about it unless his behavior lasted more than a week or so.
If Jeff had had the opportunity to explain this to Al Donovan, then the engineer may have been willing to give Cale that kind of leeway. But the fact of the matter was ever since the discovery of the cloning station in Cargo Bay 30 and the decision to move the clones to the Holloway, Cale had spent the majority of his time pacing from one end of engineering to the other, demanding progress reports every few hours or so and becoming surly when he wasn’t satisfied.
After two weeks of this Al was ready to feed his commanding officer to one of the ships fusion reactors.
However, the better angel of Al’s nature would not allow him to do this, and forced him instead to pursue a less drastic means of informing the Commodore of his concerns.
“Look, Skipper,” he began one day when Cale was being particularly annoying, “I know that you’re eager to get those clones moved, and I know that you’re eager for us to find out who put them here and why, but having you in here day after day is not going to make my men work any faster,”
“Well, they’re going to have to work faster,” Cale insisted. “The Rebels know by now that the cloning facility wasn’t destroyed. It’s only a matter of time before they come back and finish the job.”
“And time is exactly what I’m talking about,” Al returned. “Skipper, do you have any conception of the magnitude of the task you’ve set before us?”
By this point Cale’s impatience had crossed the boundaries of normal social niceties. “No, Commander, I don’t,” Cale drawled as he gave his engineer a withering look. “Perhaps you would like to spell it out for me?”
Just the opportunity I was looking for, Al thought. “You want us to transplant a cloning facility, but you don’t want to lose any of the clones. Fine, I can do it, but it takes a lot of time and a lot of work. First of all, we have to see if we can find the schematics for the facility in the computer. But even if we do, I don’t know that I can trust them, so I still have to have my guys go through the entire system, map out every circuit pathway and every component of the control and monitoring system, and build their own schematic. This took most of the first week, in spite of the fact that we got a lucky break when we discovered the schematic for the monitoring and control systems in the facility computer and they matched what my men and I had drawn up.
“Step one completed, now we have to build the thing,” Al continued. “First we have to run power from one of our fusion reactors into the pedestal the computer systems are going to be wired into. We also have to put enough filters and rectifiers on the power line so that the monitoring and control systems are getting exactly the power input they need. Then we have to build the computer systems. To save us the hassle of reprogramming the systems by hand we’re copying the memory cores from one system to the other.
“At the same time as we’re doing this, my men and I have to come up with a portable system that will feed power to the cloning tanks and run the monitoring systems long enough for us to transfer a tank from one cargo bay to another. We’re building twenty of these units. Plus we have to work out a procedure to switch over to the portable system in such a way that the power to the monitoring and life support systems for each individual tank isn’t compromised. This has taken all of the second week and we won’t be finished this for another three days.
“Now that we have the means to move the clones over without killing them, as per your orders, we have to work out the precise method by which we’re going to do that. I could strip out all the passenger seats from all of our shuttles and turn the things into giant cargo carriers, but that would waste fuel and I really have no desire to go skimming through the atmosphere of a gas giant just to fill our propellant tanks on this run, especially when we have to maneuver around an asteroid belt just to get to the local gas giant.
“So I consulted with Lieutenant Knight on the bridge and we came up with a workaround. We’re going to bring the Holloway alongside Newton Station and come to a full stop relative to the station when the airlock for our number ten cargo bay, the bay where I’m rebuilding your cloning facility, is lined up with the airlock for the number thirty cargo bay on Newton Station. We’re going to extend a cofferdam between the two airlocks and build a solid deck into the cofferdam. Then we can just wheel the cloning tanks directly from one cargo bay to another. The actual transfer of the cloning tanks could take as little as two weeks, barring any major problems.”
Al bored his gaze directly into Cale’s eyes, knew that he was hitting home with what he was saying. “Now, this approach allows us little to no room for testing, which means that anything could happen from the time we start building the facility to the time we off load it wherever it is that you intend to take it. A single system failure could kill the entire population of the facility, and we wouldn’t know about it until it was too late.”
Al could see that Cale had taken a mental step back to consider what his engineer had told him. So Al took advantage of the moment to administer the grand finale. “Nothing that you can say or do, Commodore, is going to enable us or motivate us to do this job any faster because we’re already doing it as fast as we can. If I could do this job faster I would love to, but it just isn’t in the cards, sir. Now if you’ll excuse me, my men and I have a lot of work ahead of us.” Al saluted and strode deeper into the cavernous engine room, leaving behind a thoroughly flabbergasted Cale Sandorsen.
It’s really quite something to see a thoroughly flabbergasted Fleet Commodore wander aimlessly through the corridors of his command, and for almost two hours after his conversation with Al Donovan that’s exactly what Cale did. He very likely would have continued to wander if Jeff had not intervened.
Jeff caught up with Cale on deck ten outside the number four officer’s mess. “I hear you had a little run-in with Al,” Jeff commented as he fell into step beside Cale.
Cale shook his head. “I don’t think that run-in is quite the way that I would describe it,” he commented. “I think that I would use the term ambush instead. And I walked right into it too.”
Cale turned to face his executive. “For the last two weeks I have been pacing from one end of engineering to the other, pestering the engineers and generally getting in the way, and for what? I can’t make them work any faster or any harder than they already are. And yet there I am making a holy nuisance of myself, doing all the things that I swore up and down that I would never do to my crew.”
Jeff shrugged. “I suppose it makes a certain amount of sense,” he said.
“What makes sense?” Cale asked.
“Sometimes the holiest men make the holiest nuisances,” Jeff answered deadpan.
Cale shot Jeff a glare. “You’re a big help, you are.”
Jeff shrugged. “Well, what can I say? We all have at least one talent. I say, go with what you’re good at. In my case, I have a talent for abusing commanding officers.”
“Which explains some of your past fitness reports,” Cale muttered.
“What was that, Commodore?”
“Nothing, Commander. Nothing at all.”
Jeff managed to stifle a grin. If Cale was actually feeling well enough to return fire it was a good sign. “Look, it’s normal for you to be under stress. And it’s normal for you to take some of that stress out on the crew. That’s what commanding officers do. They have to take their stress out on the crew because there isn’t anyone else for them to take it out on. And sometimes it just isn’t obvious whether or not God is listening.”
Cale looked at his executive sidelong, felt his left brow arch. “You sound like you actually believe that there is one.”
Jeff shook his head. “What I believe isn’t the issue,” he said. “What you believe is the issue.”
Cale jammed his hands into his trouser pockets. “What I believe is that I owe Al Donovan an apology.”
Cale felt his left brow arch at that. “Really?” he asked. “Why not?”
“Because Al is a professional, just like we are,” Jeff explained. “And just like we do he understands that mood swings pass. Things will be back to normal soon enough.”
The enunciator whistle for the intercom sounded through the corridors followed by the voice of one of the signals ratings. “Commodore Sandorsen, please contact the bridge. Commodore Sandorsen, please contact the bridge.”
Cale frowned and tapped the controls of the com set unit on his wrist; spoke into the microphone of his headset. “Conn, Commodore Sandorsen. Report.”
IT was Mary Carter who answered, “Commodore, scanners are detecting a graviton spike at one of the local jump points. It looks like we have company coming.”
“Can you identify them?” Cale asked.
“They’re too far away for us to identify class,” Mary answered, “and they’re not broadcasting transponder signals.”
It’s not one of ours, then, Cale thought, or else they would be broadcasting a transponder. That makes them rebels or privateers, and there’s never been a privateer problem in this sector. “Very well,” Cale responded. “Sound general quarters, if you please. I’m on my way to the bridge.”
* * *
Cale and Jeff stepped through the access way onto the bridge and took their positions. Cale called up a tactical display on his monitors and glanced at the image. “Report,” he called out.
Jeff looked up from the station where he was consulting with Mary. “Incoming contacts have been identified as hostile,” he reported, “and it’s not just one contact, it’s several. Computer makes it as twenty different sensor contacts, all with the same profile.”
“What kind of profile?” Cale asked.
“Computer is tentatively identifying incoming contacts as Rebel cruisers, sir.”
“I thought you said we were too far away to identify them,” Cale said to Mary.
Mary shrugged. “Newton Station has better scanners than we do, so I tapped into their systems and let them do the detection for us. Those cruisers are incoming, velocity point eight sublight.”
“Are they coming in hot?” Cale wanted to know.
Mary nodded. “Gun ports are open and we’re reading power spikes consistent with engaged weapons.”
“I hate it when I’m right,” Cale muttered. “How long until they get here?”
Mary glanced down at her board. “The jump point is fifteen billion kilometers away and their speed is point eight sublight, ETA is just over seventeen hours.”
“Very well,” Cale said. He transferred the tactical display to the situation table built behind his station and motioned for Jeff and Mary to join him on the flag deck. “I would like your opinions.”
Mary studied the display for a moment. “It seems to me that protecting the station and the clones are the highest priority,” she said. “If we hold position and engage them closer to the station then we can use the station’s weapons to backstop us.”
Jeff shook his head. “That would be a mistake,” he said. “It would be easy enough for us to form a defensive perimeter around the station, but the instant we do that, we lose. Our forces will be spread so thin that they won’t have a problem breaking through our lines. If they break through our lines, then the station is doomed. It’s got good defenses, but not good enough to repel a concerted attack by a flotilla of cruisers. And while they’re pounding the station, we’re going to have to reposition ourselves to harass them and harass the ones that haven’t broken through yet. That means we’re fighting on two fronts, which is never a good idea.”
“The Holloway is easily the equal of any five of those cruisers,” Mary countered. “The frigates and destroyers can take any two of those cruisers each and the gun ships can mop up the rest in one on one engagement. We’ll take damage, but there’s no reason why we can’t hold the line. Besides which, we can launch our own fighters and task them with aiding the station’s defenses.”
“All well and good, but those cruisers are a lot more maneuverable than most of the ships in this fleet,” Jeff shot back. “We form a defensive perimeter and we’re dead that much faster, and so are our fighters. They outnumber us two to one and they can fly circles around us.”
“Then what do you suggest,” Mary demanded.
Jeff looked at her and shrugged. “Why do we need to do anything about them at all?” he asked. “Saving the clones has always been a desirable objective, but the logs from the survey teams have all the evidence we need to prove the existence of the facility. As for the station, we can technically make a case for staying and defending her because she’s Imperial property. But there’s little or no strategic or tactical importance attached to her survival. And it’s not like we don’t have other places to be and other things to do.”
Cale leveled a glare at his executive. “How can you suggest abandoning the station?” he demanded. “Did all the things I said when we discovered the lab mean nothing to you? Have all of my efforts to protect these people been for nothing?”
“Of course they haven’t,” Jeff answered, “and you know it. What you’re trying to do for them is good and admirable, and there aren’t a lot of officers in this fleet who would have the stones to take the stand you’re taking. But our orders were to determine what happened to the station and then report back. We’ve fulfilled our objectives.”
“We haven’t fulfilled all of them,” Cale countered. “We still have to get the clones and their equipment transferred to the Holloway.”
Jeff shook his head. “That’s not a High Command objective, that’s a Cale Sandorsen objective.”
Cale’s glare intensified as his anger rose in response to Jeff’s words. “Given that the High Command is a thousand and some odd light years in the general direction of Sol, I fail to see any distinction between the two.”
Jeff matched Cale’s glare. “It isn’t enough to protect this outpost because you have a desire to be a savior to a group of clones that don’t even know we’re here.”
Cale drew himself up even straighter and bored daggers into Jeff with his eyes. “Commander MacIntyre, this battle group is going to protect this station and its contents, as per my orders. I have called you up here to provide me with a strategy to help me accomplish this objective. If you can’t do that then you’re useless to me right now.”
Jeff shrugged and gestured to the tactical display. “All right, then,” he said. “It’s suicide for us to make a stand here, but we have the objective of protecting the station to consider, so to my mind that leaves us with one strategy. If we can’t protect the station from here, then we need to protect it from out there, and that means meeting that flotilla halfway and engaging them where we have some room to maneuver.”
“They can still outmaneuver us out there,” Mary pointed out. “It would be really easy for them to do an end run around us and continue on to the station. We won’t be able to stop them if they do.”
“That is a possibility, yes,” Jeff conceded, “but if we lose out there, at least we’re within reach of a jump point.”
“How long will it take us to recall our crews from the station?” Cale asked.
“Not long,” Mary answered. “We can have Newton buttoned up tight and all hands accounted for in two hours.”
“Very well,” Cale said. “This is what we’re going to do. Recall all personnel from the station. Tap into the station’s computer and program the defense grid to engage any vessel that isn’t identified as friendly. We’re going to muster the fleet and meet them halfway, engage them out there where we can maneuver.”
Jeff nodded. “Are we going to provide the station with fighter support?” he asked.
Cale shook his head. “I would love to, but I get the feeling that we might just need those fighters ourselves, and I’d rather not be without them.”
“Logical,” Jeff commented and stepped down to the command deck to start issuing orders.
Mary stepped up beside Cale and squeezed his arm gently. “It’s going to be all right, Cale,” she said. “We won’t let anything happen to those clones, not if we can help it.”
Cale smiled down at Mary. “I pray to God that you’re right.”
* * *
To be continued...
Copyright © 2003 by Michael J. A. Tyzuk