Cale gratefully accepted a mug of steaming coffee from his yeoman as he stepped down to the command deck and approached Jeff. Jeff was turning to face him and looked as if he were just about to rise when Cale waved for him to stay seated.
Cale stopped beside Jeff’s chair, turned so he could lean backwards against the console. “I believe that I owe you an apology,” he said without preamble.
Jeff made an impatient wave of his hand. “You don’t owe me anything,” he told Cale.
“On the contrary, I think that I do,” Cale returned. “You were just doing your duty, like you always do. It’s your job to point out options to me and to question my thought processes when they don’t make sense to anyone, including me. I try to pride myself on being an open-minded man, but there are times when I shut myself off from the wisdom of those around me. Just because I’m the fleet Commodore doesn’t mean I’m always right.”
Jeff leaned back in his chair and folded his arms across his chest as he regarded his commander speculatively. “Mind if I ask you a question?” he asked.
Cale shrugged. “Whether I mind or not has never stopped you before,” he answered. “Go ahead.”
Jeff cocked his head at Cale. “Tell me something. When are you going to break down and allow yourself to be a human being?” he asked.
Cale was taking an experimental sip of his coffee at the moment that Jeff asked his question, which startled Cale so profoundly that he almost performed a spit take, but managed to recover in time. “I beg your pardon,” he managed to choke out.
“You heard me,” Jeff told Cale. “It’s a simple enough question. It’s even a legitimate one.
“For most of your adult life,” Jeff continued, “you’ve been working on transforming yourself, completing a metamorphosis from the selfish and spoiled child you were to a man of God who thinks before he acts. You spend so much time considering consequences that sometimes you forget to act. You reach out and take hold of causes as if they were life lines, and maybe for you they are. But you have never allowed yourself the luxury of admitting that you’re a human being, and thus vulnerable to the same slings and arrows as the rest of the species.”
Cale shook his head. “I’ve never said I wasn’t human.”
“Not in words you haven’t,” Jeff countered. “But your actions convey exactly that message, and for no good reason. I’ve listened to your sermons, Cale. You preach every day of your life that God counsels forgiveness and mercy. You’re the first person to forgive someone else, to show mercy to a wounded enemy. But you’ve never forgiven yourself. Instead you sit there all high and mighty and holier than thou and blame yourself for something that was never your fault.”
Cale’s first reaction was anger, first because he could not believe that Jeff would have the arrogance to presume what was happening inside Cale’s head, and second because he was an honest enough man to acknowledge the fact that Jeff might be right. And he hated that Jeff might be right because it added up to another failure on his part, another mark for the wrong side of the balance sheet.
But if I hate myself for my failure do I have any right to take it out on Jeff? Cale thought to himself. There’s only one correct answer to that: an unarguable no.
So Cale stared into his Coffee mug for a long moment before nodding slowly. “You may very well be right,” he said at last.
Jeff shook his head. “If you’re as honest as I know you are, then you know that there isn’t any maybe about it,” he said. “You know I’m right. You know you’re much too hard on yourself. You know what happened wasn’t your fault. And you know that you continue to blame yourself for it anyway. That means that you also know that you’re the only one that can stop it.”
Cale continued to contemplate his coffee. “Maybe my refusal to let myself off the hook,” he suggested, “is how I keep myself honest. Maybe it’s such an ingrained part of my personality now that I don’t know how to be any other way.”
“And maybe you think that you still have so much to atone for.”
Cale smiled a half-hearted half-smile. “You know, there are times when your ability to get inside my head is more than a little bit uncomfortable.”
Jeff grinned. “Revelations are supposed to be uncomfortable. They wouldn’t be so profound if they weren’t.”
“I should transfer you to medical,” Cale said. “A little bit of training and education and I bet you would make a great ship’s psychologist.”
Jeff shrugged at that. “The possibility exists,” he acknowledged. “But ship’s psychologists can’t shoot anyone, so I find that the job lacks a certain amount of appeal.”
The two men sat together in silence for a long time. Finally Cale relinquished command of the bridge to Jeff and retired to his ready room. It would several hours before they came into contact with the rebel fleet, Cale reasoned. However, impending combat cannot stop the continuous flow of administration. The paperwork would always be there.
* * *
Cale wandered onto the bridge after finishing his paperwork and downing a quick snack to find the situation much as it was when he had left, but with one important difference. Now they were much closer to the Rebel flotilla. In fact they were almost within engagement range.
Cale took the conn and climbed up to the flag deck, dropped into his chair and brought up his monitors. “Signals alert all commands to sound battle stations,” he ordered.
Lieutenant Jonathon Morgan tapped a control on his console and an alarm klaxon sounded over the Holloway intercom system accompanied by a recorded voice which urged the crew to report to their stations and admonished them that this was not a drill.
Over the next few minutes Cale listened as the various stations throughout the ship reported that all hands were present and accounted for, and that they were battle-ready. He also watched as similar reports from the other ships in the group scrolled across his screen.
Cale called up a tactical display on his center monitor and took a moment to assess the situation.
The Holloway Battle Group was comprised of ten vessels. Four of these were frigates, three of them were destroyers, and two of them were gunships. The Holloway was the most powerful starship in the group and served as flagship.
As the group had begun decelerating for their interception Jeff had strung them out into a picket line formation with the two gunships on the outside, with a destroyer each next to them, and the four frigates flanking the Holloway, two on either side. The third destroyer was several kilometers in front of the group. The Rebel flotilla, which was comprised of twenty cruisers, had assumed a similar pose and had also decelerated for the intercept.
Now the two groups were approaching head on and were almost within striking range.
The sequence of events, Cale knew, would be quite simple. After signaling the flotilla to abandon their approach to the station and withdraw the Holloway group would launch their missiles. The Underground would likely do the same thing. Most of the missiles launched on both sides would be accounted for by each ships defensive countermeasures, but a few would get through and do significant amounts of damage to the ships they hit.
While both groups were dealing with the approaching missiles the distance between the two forces would decrease, and by the time all of the missiles launched were accounted for the two opposing forces would be in close enough range to allow them to bring their guns and their torpedo launchers to bear.
In short, it was going to be a slugging match.
Cale hated slugging matches.
“Time to firing range?” Cale asked.
Jeff looked up from his board and turned to Cale. “Sixty seconds, Commodore.”
“Very well.” Cale leaned back in his chair and took a deep breath, watched his monitor as the countdown drifted closer and closer to zero. “Make the signal,” he ordered when the counter reached thirty seconds.”
“Aye aye, sir.” Lieutenant Morgan transmitted the prearranged signal to the flotilla and waited a few moments before turning to Cale and reporting, “No response, Commodore.”
Then the counter dropped to zero and it was time.
“Alert all commands,” Cale commanded. “Fire at will.”
Jonathon jabbed the firing controls on his console as Jeff relayed the fire command to the other ships of the battle group. Almost in unison the outer hatches for each missile launcher on each ship in the group opened and unleashed its deadly cargo into the void. Cale watched on his monitor as the salvos lanced out away from the Holloway and her escorts and closed the distance to their targets, gripped the arms of his chair and braced himself for the return salvo he knew the Rebels would be sending their way.
But then Cale leaned forward and frowned at the image he was seeing on his screen. “What the devil is this guy doing?” he whispered to himself.
Jeff turned away from his board and faced Cale. “I don’t think that this is what you were expecting them to do,” he commented.
“No,” Cale agreed, “it isn’t.”
Apparently the Rebel commander hated slugging matches as much as Cale did, for instead of returning fire and committing himself to battle against the Holloway battle group he decided to take advantage of Cale’s aggressive attack on his own formation.
Instead of returning fire, the Rebel commander ordered his forces to take evasive action against the missile barrage. For the most part the evasion tactics were successful, resulting in a number of missiles soaring past their intended targets without impacting. A large percentage of the missiles that didn’t fly harmlessly past their targets were quickly swallowed by the countermeasures employed by the enemy cruisers and exploded harmlessly well short of their intended targets.
The rest of the missiles struck their targets straight and true, causing severe damage to several of the cruisers, destroying two of them in a blink of an eye.
But the Rebel commander’s strategy didn’t stop with a simple evasion. Rather than commit himself to a battle that he may or may not be able to win, the commander ordered his surviving ships to discontinue their deceleration and resume accelerating towards Newton Station, resulting in their sailing right past the Holloway and her escorts.
Though it took every shred of self control that Cale had, he managed not to curse the ingenuity of his opponent. However, it meant that he now had to take action to ensure that the Rebel could not achieve their intended objective.
“Come hard about,” Cale snapped. “Pursuit course, all ahead flank!”
Even as he issued his orders, though, Cale could not shake the feeling that it was too little too late. The Rebels had never decelerated to a full stop, and had resumed their acceleration almost as soon as they had passed the Holloway battle group. Judging by the vectors Cale was seeing on his tactical plot it was plain to see that the cruisers were accelerating for all they were worth, fighting to get to Newton Station before the Holloway had a chance to catch up and even the score.
It would take time to bring the fleet around onto a pursuit course, and they couldn’t accelerate while they were turning. They would not be able to accelerate until they had matched the Undergrounds heading to the station, and even then the best acceleration they could manage was four gravities.
It would be impossible for them to catch up. Unless a miracle happened, of course.
Cale keyed his intercom control. “Engineering, conn.”
“Engineering, aye,” Al Donovan responded from the bowels of the ship.
“Is there any chance of us squeezing a few extra kilometers per second out of the engines?” Cale asked.
The regret in Al’s voice when he answered struck Cale as if it had been a physical blow. “I wish that I could, Commodore,” he answered. “The engines themselves are certainly capable of handling the extra thrust, and we could probably divert extra power from the batteries to reinforce the inertial dampeners, but the problem isn’t the engines or the dampeners. The fuel pumps aren’t capable of pumping enough additional hydrogen into the reaction chambers. They’re already running at capacity and then some, and if we increase the fuel flow we run the risk of rupturing the fuel lines, thus causing a hydrogen explosion of sufficient strength to destroy the engines and rupture the containment vessels for the ships fusion reactors.”
“In other words we’ll destroy the ship if we try,” Cale paraphrased.
“That’s correct, sir,” Al answered. “I could try to get us up to point eight one sublight, but I’ll bet you even money that the instant we do that they’ll match us.”
Cale shook his head sadly. “Are any other ships in our fleet capable of that extra acceleration?” he wanted to know.
“No, sir. The entire task force uses the same engine designs as we do.”
Cale drove his fist down onto the arm of his chair in frustration. Then he rose from his chair and caught Jeffs attention. “Maintain course and speed,” he ordered. “We may not be able to catch them but I am not going to let them go without a fight.”
“Aye aye, sir,” Jeff answered.
Cale took a deep breath and let it out slowly, shook his head sadly. “You were right about them making an end run around us,” he admitted. “I should have listened to you.”
* * *
“You know, I could just as easily have been wrong,” Jeff said as he walked up to Cale’s station on the bridge.
Cale nodded sadly as he watched the tactical plot on one of his monitors. Engineering had managed to squeeze some extra speed from the engines, but as Al had predicted it hadn’t been enough. The Rebel fleet was still maintaining their distance ahead of the Holloway Battle Group, only now they were four hours closer to the station.
“I know you could have,” Cale said, “and I’m not mad at you. Sure, I was, when you proposed leaving the clones behind and making a run for it, but I’m not now.”
“Then what are you mad at?” Jeff answered.
Cale turned in his chair and looked up at Jeff with an expression of deep sadness on his face. “I don’t know what I’m mad at, that’s the whole thing. I mean, it makes me angry that the Rebels got the better of us back there, and it makes me angry that they’re going to take the station despite my best efforts to protect it, and it makes me even angrier that they’re going to kill the clones. But beyond that I don’t know. I just know that something is horribly, terribly wrong with this entire situation, and I can’t for the life of me figure out what it is.”
Jeff grimaced as he leaned against the console and folded his arms across his chest. “I’m glad to see that you’re thinking along those lines, because that’s kind of the reason why I came up here.”
Cale frowned. “What do you mean?”
“I mean I had an evil idea.”
“Tell me,” Cale commanded.
“All right,” Jeff answered. “I’ve been thinking about all the ways in which one lone cruiser could take down the defenses of an Imperial Deep Space Station and lay waste to it, and the only way I can see that happening is if the defenses were never brought to bear against the cruiser.”
“Why wouldn’t the defenses be brought to bear?” Cale wondered, and in that instant he knew he wasn’t going to like where Jeff’s reasoning was leading him.
“The only way I could see that happening is if the cruiser wasn’t recognized as a threat,” Jeff explained. “And the only way I could see that happening is if the cruiser had been to the station before.”
“If that was the case, though, the High Command would have heard about it,” Cale protested. “Wouldn’t they?”
Jeff shrugged. “Well, now, that depends. See, the way I see it the only people who would know about the cruiser at all would be the officers and ratings on watch on the station’s Operations Deck, and the people working in Cargo Bay Thirty.”
Cale frowned. “Do you have any idea what you’re saying?” he demanded. “You’re suggesting that officers and enlisted ratings loyal to the Empire would be engaged in covert dealings with the Rebellion.”
“That’s exactly what I’m suggesting,” Jeff agreed. “Think about it, that’s the only way that one single cruiser could have done that much damage to the station. I checked the logs. The fighter squadrons were never launched, the weapons were never brought online, and neither was the station’s point defense. The only way that could have happened is if the cruiser was never recognized as a threat, and that implies a conspiracy. And that’s not all, either. What if this is just the tip of the iceberg?”
Cale’s frown deepened. “What do you mean?”
“Well, the Rebellion hasn’t been active for very long,” Jeff pointed out. “In spite of their relative youth, however, they have demonstrated that they have a widespread fleet of at least one hundred capital ships, plus a proportionate amount of Marines and other ground forces. They’re very well equipped, but even if they were operating all of those resources on skeleton crews, that would still require an investment in manpower of some several hundred thousand persons. Now, we haven’t heard anything about mass defections from any of our colony worlds, especially those closest to the front lines. As a matter of fact there haven’t been any demonstrations of any kind in favor of the Rebellion on any of our colony worlds. So where are they getting their manpower from?”
“You think they’re cloning their soldiers,” Cale said.
“That’s exactly what I think,” Jeff agreed.
Cale leaned back in his chair with a stunned expression on his face. If Jeff was right and the Rebellion was cloning its soldiers, then there could be a thousand other cloning facilities scattered throughout explored space and beyond. That meant that what was happening here at Newton Station had less to do with preserving the rights of sentient beings and more to do with putting an end to a threat that could conceivably be the end of the Empire.
And that wasn’t exaggeration, either. With that many soldiers at their command, the Rebels could easily overwhelm anything that the Empire could afford to throw at them. And then there was always the potential for the Rebels to ally themselves with Pirate groups and other fringe elements. With those resources at their disposal the Rebels suddenly become a much larger threat.
Suddenly the situation had changed. Cale now had to consider the possibility that the Rebel fleet might not be there to destroy Newton Station, but rather to occupy her. But he had to admit that line of reasoning didn’t really make a lot of sense, for the Empire knew that there was a cloning facility here now, and by garrisoning the outpost the Rebels would just ensure a return trip by a much larger Naval force.
No matter what the Rebels’ eventual objective at Newton Station was, however, Cale was finding himself faced with a dilemma, for it could be said that the clones represented a clear and present danger to the security of the Empire. By definition, Cale’s mission must now be to track down and destroy all the cloning centers. But he also had a mission to prevent the Rebels from taking advantage of the clones.
Or did he? On the one hand the clones were the threat. On the other hand, it wasn’t the clones themselves that were the threat but the use to which the clones would be put. If Cale stepped one way, then he had one set of mission objectives to contend with, and if he stepped the other then the mission objectives would change drastically.
A part of Cale wanted to contact the High Command and ask for guidance, but he knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that if he did that the Rebels would twig to the fact that the Empire now knew about the clones and they would never find the source of the clone traffic.
Cale looked up at Jeff after a moment. “Did Mary finish that download from the station’s computer core?” he asked.
Jeff nodded. “Aye that she did, along with the computer core in the cloning center. Why?”
Cale straightened up in his chair. “Because our mission just changed, that’s why,” he said.
“How do you mean changed?” Jeff asked.
Cale nodded at the tactical display. “Up until now I’ve been concerned with protecting the rights of those clones, and while that wasn’t a wrong thing to do in this case it turns out that it isn’t the right thing to do, because it’s the clones themselves that are the threat. Or at least, they could be. What we need to do is determine, once and for all, whether or not they are.”
“And how are you planning on doing that?” Jeff wanted to know.
Cale shrugged. “It’s simple, really. We’re going to sift through the data from those computer cores and we’re going to identify all of the ships that have had any dealings of any kind with Cargo Bay Thirty. Then we’re going to find those ships and put together a list of all the planets and agencies that they’ve been dealing with. And then we’re going to sift through all that data and see about finding the source of the clone traffic.”
Jeff grinned. “You make it sound so simple.”
Cale shook his head. “Simple, it will not be. Even though I intend to inform the High Command of our intentions, the odds of them sanctioning this mission are slim to none. I can’t let that stop us, however. We have to do this anyway.”
“You’re talking about disobeying orders,” Jeff reminded him. “That’s a court-martial offense. They dishonorably discharge people for things like that.”
“Yes they do,” Cale said. “And that’s a chance that I’m going to have to take. There’s just too much at stake if I don’t.”
Even Jeff had to agree with that. “So,” he said, “what are my orders?”
Cale blew out a breath. “First I want you to get Mary started on that data retrieval and analysis. She has my authority to use whatever resources she requires to get us that information. Secondly, I want you to have a word with Engineering and see about getting another few meters per second out of the engines. We’re not going to be able to catch the Rebels before they make it to firing range on the station, but I want them to see that I’m not going to give up.”
“And third?” Jeff prompted.
“After we finish with Newton Station I want to gather all the battle group captains in Conference Room One. They deserve to know what they’re in for, and I want to make sure each and every one of them has a chance to make a choice about whether or not they want to be involved with this. Each and every one of them deserves a chance to preserve his career, because if they do join up with us they’ll lose their commands for sure.”
Jeff nodded and went back to his station, and Cale turned back to his own console and stared into the tactical repeater. His life was about to change, for better or for worse, and he prayed that he had the strength to meet the challenge ahead of him.
Copyright © 2003 by Michael J. A. Tyzuk