December 16, 2183

Armstrong rubbed his eyes in a futile attempt to get rid of the sandpaper feeling. He pulled a tube of caffeine pills out of his belt pouch and popped one.

His seat swiveled on its gimbals as the transport changed acceleration, and he impatiently hit the button to return it to forward-facing and locked. He should have done that before; the seat’s movement was meant for comfortable orientation during sustained acceleration, not when it was nudging this way and that on approach to docking.

He should have slept during the last day. He knew that. He should be at his best when he met Star City’s governor, a meeting he intended to have immediately upon debarking. But he’d been worried the Colonies might try to interfere with the deployment. They held a conference call of all twenty-four offworld governors within minutes of the Offworld Force launching, and that had to be to discuss their response.

Armstrong didn’t know what they said in their conference call. It took place over civilian government channels, which the military was prohibited under the Constitution from tapping. The Terran government had intelligence agencies with the authority, given a court order, but if any of them had thought to listen they hadn’t passed on the intel to Armstrong or his staff.

There were so many ways the Colonies could block his transports from docking, or cause trouble for the companies after they debarked. If they did, there wasn’t much he could do under his mission rules, except report to the CMO that the Colonies had opened hostilities.

So far, nothing. He should have slept— at least, after the first few drops made clear the Colonies weren’t going to cause any immediate problems. Even with the greater efficiency of military transport compared to civilian, it had taken thirty-six hours for the transport to dock at each Colony in Earth orbit, then boost out to the L4 and make the round of the Colonies there. He’d watched every company leave the transport, listened to their signals reporting they’d established themselves at their respective Colonies’ military sections. He’d listened in while the second transport made its drops at the L5 and then headed out to Lunar orbit. No opposition, no difficulties.

“All crew, prepare for docking.” The transport captain’s voice came over the intercom. The ship’s crew moved to their appropriate stations. Behind him, Armstrong heard his single remaining company rustling about as they loosened belt clips and grabbed for their kits.

Star City just ahead. Destination for Company 8 of the Offworld Force, as well as for Commander Guerra’s L4 Regional Staff and Armstrong’s Force Command Staff. Final destination, as well, for the transport and its crew.

There was the faintest jar when the ship made contact, and then the hydraulic sound of docking clamps closing tight around the join between ship and Colony. Armstrong unclipped from his seat and grabbed an overhead handhold to turn back toward the troop compartment. The company was already lining up  along the zero-G handrail, ready to move out the moment the airlock opened. Captain Cole, Company 8’s CO, hovered closest to the hatch, though he kept precisely the correct distance away while the transport crew went through final docking checks.

Another couple of minutes, a final hiss of equalizing pressure, and the crew retracted the hatch. Cole immediately ordered, “All right, move out! Single file!” Two hundred Terran troops moved smartly through the airlock in near perfect zero-G parade form.

Armstrong smiled to himself. Not every company had shown such precision when moving out— not their fault, freefall training was a rarity for ground-based troops— but Cole had no doubt been mindful of the fact that his company would be the last to debark, and thus the most vulnerable to comparison with whatever standard the previous units set.

Not to mention, the only company that would operate under the direct view of the force commander. With that in mind, Armstrong hung back with his staff officers for a few minutes. He had no intention of letting his presence undermine Cole’s direct command of his company.

He turned and gestured to his chief of staff, Lieutenant Gillespie. “Jack, once we’re in the Colony we’re going directly to see the governor. You, me, the whole Force Command Staff. We’re going to inform Governor Safreth that we’re commandeering his office complex for the Offworld Force headquarters, immediately.”

Gillespie showed his surprise. “Yes, sir, but… that’s quite a provocation. You’ve emphasized from the start that you want to avoid an open confrontation.”

“A military confrontation,” Armstrong said. “I want to avoid having to use force against the civilian population. The best way to do that is to make the Colonial governments realize Earth’s not going to back down. Charles Safreth has been the visible leader of the offworlders’ … let’s say civil disobedience. If he’s forced to back down, it should kill a lot of their enthusiasm. And if I can push him to something that justifies his arrest, same result.”

“Or it could light the fuse on the confrontation you want to avoid.”

“It’s a risk,” Armstrong agreed. “I think it’s the best shot. We’ve got the legal authority, under a state of emergency— which the President has declared, whether the Colonies deny it’s legitimate or not. So if Safreth refuses, we can arrest him. If he agrees, he looks weak. Either way we’re running the Offworld Force out of the governor’s office. Appearances matter. A show of authority will help make the point that we have the authority, under Presidential orders, to get this evacuation properly under way.”

He turned to the L4 regional CO. “Commander Guerra, while we’re setting up the FCS headquarters, get your regional office set up here on base. I may want you to transfer your staff to the government office complex later, but not now. Get set up, establish contact with the other companies in the L4 region, and be prepared to report deployment status to me within the hour.”

“Yes, sir.” Guerra saluted and moved off, speaking quietly to his own staff.

The troops of Company 8 had by now all vanished through the airlock, and the transport crew was busy securing the ship. The constant background noise of the ship’s power systems cut out suddenly as the crew shut down the engines, the transport now connected to dockyard power.

Armstrong led the way out the hatch, pulling hand-over-hand along the zero-G handrail. He experienced a moment’s vertigo when he emerged into the dock, as his mind tried to pick an orientation. Conscious knowledge did nothing to override the visual centers of the brain, which insisted there had to be an “up” and “down” somewhere. He’d seen the short airlock corridor as horizontal while he pulled himself along it, and for a split second saw the dock as a dizzyingly-deep, vertical pit suddenly opening at his feet. But as he swung himself around, the picture shifted and the dock became horizontal, the airlock a vertical pit in the deck he’d just climbed out of.

He was looking down what seemed like an infinite corridor with a distinctive upward slope in the distance, eventually vanishing around an overhead “horizon” formed by the ceiling panels. A slight hum of maglev bearings rumbled in the background, a smoother and deeper sound than the power systems in the transport behind. In fact the corridor was a ring entirely enclosing the Colony’s six-kilometer diameter, rotating opposite the Colony’s spin to remain in freefall. Ships could dock without fighting the full G of simulated gravity that prevailed in the Colony proper.

Along one side of the docking corridor— to Armstrong’s left, the way he happened to face after coming out of the airlock— rows of doors marked the access to the transfer lifts. A few slid closed behind the last of the Company 8 troops as Armstrong and his officers followed. He let one of his junior staffers hurry forward and hit the call button: it would take a few minutes for the lifts to reach their destinations and return.

No one else was in view along the docking corridor, except those of the transport crew who’d gone through first to open the airlock. This dock served only Star City’s military base, not its civilian spaceport, so no bustle of passengers waited for their flights, no customer service people to shepherd disorganized civilians from point A to point B— and no ground crews on the scene, since dockyard operations were automated. Somewhere there’d be an official monitoring the docks, but whoever it was would be working out of the Colony’s main traffic control office, not standing by the airlock.

It felt like something out of a ghost town. Every Colony had a military sector, and every one— like all parts of the O’Neill Colony design— was built in anticipation of future population growth. That explained the emptiness. Even the 200 troops dropped off at each Colony wouldn’t fill their base housing, standing empty and ready for future occupation. Still, to Armstrong the deserted dock felt more like abandoned than anticipatory. Perhaps it was because the expected future occupation would now never happen. At least, not if the President had his way.

With a chime the transfer lifts opened again, shaking Armstrong out of his depressing thoughts. He and his staff pulled along the handrails into several different lifts— they were too many for just one— and after a few moments the doors slid closed and he felt the sideways pressure as the lifts accelerated on their rails to catch up to the Colony’s rotation. Gravity appeared at once, slight and first and then building, up to a full G. Now locked on to the main bulk of Star City, the lift rose— up and down were real now— through the outer shielding and machine decks to reach the main deck of the military base.

The doors slid open again and Armstrong stepped out. Sunlight shafted down from overhead skylights: the main level was just below the open interior of the Colony, and glass doors at the top of a flight of metal stairs marked the main entrance to the base from Star City proper. In the reception area, the troops of Company 8 were lined up in orderly rows, waiting to be directed to quarters. Armstrong spotted two officers he didn’t know speaking to Captain Cole. They’d be part of Star City’s tiny permanent unit. Probably the base commander herself— Lieutenant Greene, he recalled, who until now had only to supervise a tiny staff that did double duty of monitoring the communications network, and providing the required honor guard at election polling places.

There’d be time to meet Green later. For now, making sure she’d prepared the base for the company’s arrival was Captain Cole’s business. Armstrong wanted to waste no time making his visit to the governor’s office.

With Gillespie and the FCS officers following, Armstrong made directly for the stairs up to the main entrance. Outside, the glass doors opened onto what looked like parkland. It was something Armstrong remembered from growing up in Star City: any green plant contributed to the Colony’s lifesystems, and while the contribution wasn’t much compared to the algae tanks designed for the purpose, Colony designers still liked to cover every possible horizontal surface in the interior with green space. Here, a straight white walkway led away from the doors, between two well-manicured shrubs, to an intersecting walkway that led off to either side.

He was in the dome-shaped end cap of the Colony— “Sunward Dome,” the center of business and government offices in the Colony. Behind him as he came through the doors, balconies rose in staggered rows, their curvature more obvious the higher they rose, breaking the inside of the dome into a series of terraces. Trees and shrubs showed on every terrace, and here and there climbing vines worked their way untidily over the edges. Sunlight, reflected from outside by carefully angled mirrors, lit up everything in bright white. The air smelled like the outdoors on Earth.

But Armstrong didn’t have time to admire the view on his return to his hometown. Star City’s government complex occupied the first level up from “ground,” and the governor’s office would be about ninety degrees clockwise from the military base entrance. Armstrong wanted his arrival there to be as soon after his arrival as he could make it. The more impatient, the more forceful he could appear when barging in on whatever the governor might be doing, the better he would make the necessary impression.

But Armstrong got the first surprise of his mission when he strode down the walkway and turned toward the government offices. The moment he rounded the corner he saw, lounging casually against the trunk of a tree beside the walkway, Charles Safreth himself.

“Hello Warren,” Safreth said. “Welcome home. If I’m not mistaken, you haven’t been back since you graduated from high school.” He straightened, stepping away from the tree. “I gather we need to talk.”


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