Cale and Jeff traded a long look before Jeff arched his left brow and motioned for Cale to proceed. Cale leaned forward and rested his elbows on top of his desk. “I know that your orders don’t give you a lot of room to maneuver, and I know that what I’m about to ask you is a direct violation of those same orders. But it sounds to me like I’ve already been tried and found guilty, and the admiral is just waiting for a chance to get me in front of a firing squad. Someone needs to know what it is that we found out there, and it doesn’t look like the High Command is going to be telling anyone anytime soon. I’m not going to ask you to join us, because it wouldn’t be fair to you to end your career that way. But if you listen to what we have to say, then I will go along with whatever decision you decide to make in regards to your orders.”
David arched his left brow. “Meaning you’ll come along peacefully to New Chicago and face the music with the Admiral,” he said.
Cale nodded. “That’s exactly what I mean.”
David leaned back in his chair and took a deep breath. What Cale was suggesting flew in the face of the orders that David had been given, but hadn’t he already violated those orders? He had been aboard the Holloway for some time now and had though he had delivered part of the Admiral’s ultimatum he had not demanded an immediate answer. In addition he was allowing Cale to propose a compromise, and he was actually considering the compromise. He was already guilty of violating his orders. Would it really hurt to do this one little thing? And wasn’t it David who said that some things simply transcended the discipline of the service, and that friendship was one of them?
In the end David found that there was only one thing that he could do and still be able to look at himself in the mirror every morning. He decided to listen.
* * *
“What do you know about the start of the Formation Wars and the fall of the New United Nations?” Cale asked after his steward had served flagons of beer to the three officers.
David frowned as he fought to remember. The Spacegoing History of Man had been a required course at the Academy, and the Formation Wars had played a big part in that course, but those lectures were over thirty years in the past. “From what I remember, a big factor in the fall of the New United Nations was the rate of expansion. They sent out their colony ships too far, too fast, and eventually stopped being able to effectively govern the colonies.”
“That’s pretty close,” Jeff said. “The rate of expansion of the New United Nations played a pretty big part in what happened, but the biggest factor in the fall was eugenics.”
“Eugenics?” David repeated. “You mean genetic engineering?”
“Exactly,” Cale answered. “Somewhere along the line, a group of researchers discovered how to tamper with the human genome. Of course, all that really means is that they learned to tweak certain aspects of the genome to enhance certain built-in abilities. For example, a lot of the eugenics experiments focused on improving the human regenerative factor. Some experiments focused on increasing intelligence, while others focused on increasing physical strength.”
“Of course,” Jeff added, “the eugenics technology in and of itself was pretty much useless until one other piece of technology was perfected: total human cloning.”
“With eugenics and total human cloning,” Cale continued, “these researchers had the ability to provide a genetically-enhanced army to anyone with the resources to pay for it. Well, not only was there someone with the resources to pay for it, but this someone also knew how to use it. All of the soldiers on the Insurrectionist side of the Formation Wars were genetically engineered clones.”
“Thanks for the history review, but what does this have to do with Newton Station?” David wondered.
“When we went to Newton Station,” Jeff explained, “our orders were to investigate why the High Command had lost contact with the station and rectify the problem. When we arrived we discovered that the station was nearly destroyed. We also saw a Rebel cruiser legging it for one of the jump points. We went inward and docked with the station, at which time Cale sent over boarding parties to perform a battle damage assessment. One of the BDA teams gained entrance to one of the cargo bays and discovered a fully operational total human cloning facility, complete with a few thousand specimens almost ready to emerge from the tanks.”
“You found a total human cloning facility on an Imperial Deep Space Station?” David asked incredulously. “How can that be possible? Total human cloning has been illegal for centuries. How is it possible that something like that could go unnoticed?”
“See, now, that’s the thing,” Jeff answered. “I don’t think the facility went unnoticed.”
“What do you mean?” David demanded.
“He means,” Cale explained, “that while we were at Newton he started asking himself some questions, and when he found himself coming up with answers that almost scared it out of him he brought his dilemma to me.”
“What I noticed,” Jeff put in,” is that according to the station’s logs, the defense grid was never engaged when the Rebel cruiser came through the jump point and made her approach. Given that the protocols for recognizing Rebel starships are all coded into the vessel recognition databases on every Imperial starship and outpost, it seemed illogical that the crew manning the stations operations deck would not recognize the cruiser as a threat. Under normal circumstances, a Rebel cruiser coming out of a jump point and approaching an Imperial deep space outpost would most certainly be considered a threat. But what if that cruiser had been to the station before? What if it had docked there, even, and delivered or received cargo? Under circumstances like that, then, the operations crew would be inclined to think of the cruiser as a friendly contact, not a hostile one.”
David leaned back in his chair and frowned. “You’re suggesting a conspiracy,” he said. “In order for your scenario to be plausible the Command staff on the station would have to be in on it, as would the watch crews in Station Operations and the crews manning whatever docking port the cruiser moored to.”
“I was a bit skeptical when Jeff came to me with his concerns,” Cale explained, “but when he explained the logic behind them I became a believer.”
David grinned. “You’re already a believer,” he said.
Cale returned the grin and shrugged. “Details.”
“The bottom line,” Jeff interjected, “is that the facility had to be there for a reason, and I think that the Rebels are using cloned soldiers. I’ll bet you even money that there are at least five more facilities like this one somewhere out there and they’re turning out cloned soldiers even as we speak. We need to find out where the Rebels got the genetic material to make the clones. We also need to know what genetic modifications they’re making, if any. And we also need to find out where the rest of the cloning facilities are located. To win this war we need to take out their ability to replenish their forces.”
Now it was David’s turn to whistle appreciatively. “My God, you two have a talent for tripping over the really interesting problems, don’t you?” he asked rhetorically. Then he turned to Cale. “Did you report your findings to the High Command?”
“First thing,” Cale answered. “That’s when they started ordering us back to New Chicago.”
“And that’s when you started disobeying orders,” David said. “Okay, we have a list of questions that need to be answered, and a final objective of eliminating the Rebel’s ability to clone new soldiers. Now, we both know that one single battle group isn’t going to be able to accomplish that mission by itself, so by my reckoning that means the two of you have a plan of some kind. What I want to know is, what do you intend to accomplish and how do you intend to do it?”
Cale blew out a breath. “Well, before the Rebels made their repeat appearance and blew the station out from under me, I ordered the data cores for the station’s central computer and the computer that was running the cloning facility copied into archive storage here on the Holloway. We’ve been going through that data and using it to identify which ships listed in the port authority database had dealings with the cargo bay where the cloning facility was based. We’ve been able to make a list of freighters that made deliveries to and took consignments from that cargo bay, and we ran that list through the Imperial Data Net. We now have the flight plans for those ships and we’ve scattered the rest of our battle group to go and intercept them.”
“Did you tell your captains what they were getting themselves into before you sent them out?” David wanted to know.
“Of course,” Jeff said. “We gave them the chance to refuse the mission and return to Imperial authority. No one took advantage of the opportunity.”
“Their orders,” Cale cut in, “are to intercept and board the freighters on the list. Once aboard they’re to take the crews into custody and copy the contents of the data cores to their own archival storage. With the data banks and the freighter crews in custody they’re to proceed to a preselected rendezvous point. Once we’ve got all the data gathered together we’ll go through it and figure out where to go next.”
“I take it,” David said, “that you intend to locate the base that the original tissue samples for the clones are coming from.”
“That’s right,” Jeff confirmed. “We’re hoping that when we find that facility we’ll also find out whether or not they’re engineering their soldiers. If we take out that base we take out their ability to replenish their forces.”
“You’re assuming that they only have one eugenics base,” David pointed out. “You’re also assuming that there is a eugenics base.” He leaned back in his chair and took a long pull of his beer. “Well, that certainly explains why you’re disobeying orders like this, and under the circumstances I can’t say that I blame you.”
“It certainly seems as if the High Command is intent on ignoring this one, doesn’t it?” Cale offered. “That alone makes me inclined to investigate further.”
David rose from his chair and started to pace the ready room. Cale and Jeff shared a long questioning look before Cale finally shrugged and leaned back in his chair. Whatever was to come would come, and there wasn’t anything Cale could do about it. But at least someone else knew the truth now.
Finally David turned and faced Cale. “This isn’t just another one of your causes, is it?” he asked.
It was a logical enough question, for Cale was well known for taking on hopeless causes, defending those who couldn’t defend themselves. This business with the clones was classic Cale. If this was just another one of Cale’s causes then it would almost serve him right to be taken back to the High Command in chains. But what if it wasn’t just another one of Cale’s causes? What if there really was something more to it than that?
If Cale and Jeff were right, if the Rebels were genetically engineering and cloning their soldiers, then the whole game was different. All of a sudden the Rebels were a lot more dangerous, and they were plenty dangerous enough as it was. Add to that the fact that the High Command really didn’t seem all that interested in doing anything about it, and David had to admit that Cale and Jeff had themselves a real problem. In a way it was a mark in their favor that they had decided to do something about it.
And yet the fact still remained that David had orders to return Cale New Chicago along with the rest of the Holloway battle group. On the one hand if he disobeyed those orders then he was setting himself up for his own court martial, and in times of war most courts martial had a tendency to end with a firing squad. On the other hand even with a battle group behind them Cale and Jeff really didn’t stand a chance in hell of taking on the entire Rebellion all by themselves, and if David didn’t take them back then he was just sentencing them to a death that they didn’t deserve.
On the gripping hand they had uncovered a clear and present danger to the safety and security of the Terran Empire, and as an officer in the Imperial Navy David had a responsibility to eliminate that threat. Besides, adding a second battle group to Cale’s efforts would double his chances of success and survival. And hadn’t David been the one to say that there were simply some things that transcended the discipline of the service?
David turned on Cale and leveled a finger at him. “If this is just another one of your causes,” he said, “I swear I am going to take you back to Earth in irons.”
Cale grinned. “If that means what I think it does, then you’re on.”
David shook his head. “Don’t speak up so fast,” he cautioned. “You might not like my conditions.”
Cale frowned. “What do you have in mind?” he asked.
“I think that you have enough here to warrant further investigation,” David said. “And that’s exactly what I intend to do. But at the same time I have orders from the Admiral that I simply can’t ignore, and it occurs to me that there is a way for me to have my cake and eat it too.”
“What do you propose?” Jeff asked.
“Well, sooner or later I’m going to have to justify what I do,” David explained. “If I undertake this little investigation without bothering to follow even part of my orders, the powers that be are going to shoot me right after they shoot the two of you. So what I want to do is take Cale with me aboard the Zapata and leave you in command of the Holloway while we’re gone.”
“Okay,” Jeff said. “And where will the two of you be going?”
“We’ll be going after one of the freighters on the list,” Cale supplied.
“And what will I be doing while the two of you are off chasing freighters?”
“You’ll be taking the Holloway to the rendezvous point with my battle group as an escort,” David explained. “I’ll explain to my captains that you’ve given me your parole and that you’ll all be going to a rendezvous point to gather the rest of Cale’s battle group.”
“And how are you going to explain your absence?” Cale asked.
David shrugged. “Simple. I’m going to tell my captains the truth.”
Cale smiled at that. “And what version of the truth will you tell them?”
David grinned. “Mine. What other version would I tell them?”
Three hours later, after Cale had uploaded a copy of the Newton Station database to the Zapata, David returned to his ship with Cale beside him. Cale was assigned to guest quarters, and a guard was posted outside the door. The Zapata pulled away from her battle group and made for the jump point.
The agreement between Cale and David was simple. If David was able to find evidence to support Cale’s theory when the Zapata intercepted her chosen freighter, then David would help Cale assemble the intelligence he needed to take out the source of the cloning material. If there was no evidence to be found, then Cale agreed to order his battle group to surrender and to relinquish his command to David so that he could be arrested and taken into custody.
Personally, David hoped that it wouldn’t come to that. But if it did then he was prepared to do his duty, regardless of the personal cost.
* * *
It took longer for the Zapata to make her rendezvous with her target freighter than it took David’s navigator to determine the best point at which to make the rendezvous.
David had no doubt that the freighter saw them coming, for he wasn’t going to any real lengths to conceal his approach. Thus far the freighter was reacting exactly as she should under normal circumstances, continuing on her chosen course as if the Zapata simply were not there.
Still and all, though, something was making the hair on the back of David neck stand up, so he decided that some precautions should be taken. He didn’t want to be caught with his pants down, after all, especially not with a fellow flag officer aboard.
Before the Zapata came within visual range of her target freighter, David brought the ship to General Quarters and placed a flight of four fighters on alert status on the flight deck. The defense grid was powered up and primed, as were the weapons. The latter was simply part of the precautions, for David knew that if he was called upon to fire even one of his ship’s guns he would end up destroying the freighter before he had a chance to board her, and that was not something he wanted to do. Destroying the freighter would do nothing to prove that Cale was right.
David toyed with the notion of bringing Cale to the bridge to witness the proceedings, but in the end he decided against it. If things went sour, Cale would probably be safer in his quest quarters than he would be on the bridge, and his safety was just as important as whatever information the freighter might potentially be carrying.
“Coming up on forty thousand meters,” the navigator reported.
“Very well,” David acknowledged. “Signals, issue the challenge.”
“Issue the challenge, aye aye, sir.” The signals officer turned to his board and tapped in a command string. “Freighter Lucky Strike, this is the battle cruiser Zapata. Heave to and stand for inspection.”
David leaned back in his chair and watched the tiny freighter on his screens. The visual representation showed the freighter just sitting there, but the sensor repeaters showed a different story. As David watched the screens he could see indications of increased power generation aboard the freighter. What are you powering up? He asked himself. And, more importantly, what are you going to do with it?
The signals officer turned to David. “Commodore, the freighter is not responding to hails.”
“Very well. Navigator, bring us up alongside and match velocities. Prepare for docking maneuver.”
“Aye aye, sir.”
David knew that his message was being received. He also knew that Imperial law called for merchant captains to respect the Navy’s Right of Inspection. Just because the freighter hadn’t come to a halt was insufficient reason in and of itself to become suspicious, but those hairs were still standing up on the back of David’s neck.
The Zapata drew herself up alongside the freighter and matched velocities with her, and then the navigator began to maneuver the ship so that she could extend a cofferdam from one of her airlocks and dock with the freighter.
And that’s when things started to get interesting.
David’s sensors registered a power spike aboard the freighter, which then accelerated to her maximum rated speed and assumed a course away from the Zapata. David opened his mouth to give the order to pursue, but then he noticed two launch traces coming from the aft end of the freighter.
“Incoming missiles!” David snapped. “Countermeasures!”
“Countermeasures, aye!” the tactical action officer answered and started to work his controls. Instantly a series of ports opened on the battle cruisers outer hull, disgorging hordes of anti-missile decoys which clustered in front of the Zapata like a cloud. The decoys caught the missiles and detonated them harmlessly some five hundred meters in front of the Zapata’s bow.
“Navigator, lateral thrust,” David ordered. “Come starboard five thousand meters.”
“Starboard lateral thrust, five kay meters, aye aye, sir.”
The Zapata slipped to the side and peeked out from behind her cloud of decoys just in time to see the freighter come about and accelerate toward her. “Commodore, they’re assuming attack position and accelerating,” the tactical officer reported.
“I see them.” Had David been in command of the freighter and intent on fighting a much larger and much stronger Navy battle cruiser, he knew what his strategy would be. He would close to point blank range, so close that the larger ship’s guns couldn’t track him, and use his own guns to cut deep furrows into the other ship’s hull. Once he had deprived the larger ship of power he would then leg it for the jump point, before they had a chance to affect repairs and come after him. Well, there was only one way that he knew of to keep that from happening.
To be continued...
Copyright © 2003 by Michael J A Tyzuk