The Opponents

August 2, 2184— Industrial Platform (Low Orbit) 380A/X— continued

Commander Jeanette Wheeler, until recently a captain in Warren Armstrong’s Offworld Force and CO of its Sixth Company (assigned to Nova Colony), kept her eyes on her screens as her troops continued their deployment across the factory platform. She’d stationed herself in the local IT room beside the loading dock, where her tech staff were at work taking control of the platform’s automation and computer systems. She could monitor the deployment from there as well as anywhere: already the techs had piped the platform’s security feeds into her tac unit.

The sound of gunfire echoed down the corridor, the first since boarding began. The electric crackle of space-safe weapons, designed not to puncture bulkheads or hull plates, was entirely different from conventional guns, but just as easily recognizable.

“Forward team report,” she said into her headset. “What’s that firing? Was it you?”

“Negative, Commander,” came the reply from the lieutenant on the scene. “We’ve got disorganized fire from behind some barricades up ahead. Permission to return fire?”

Mission orders said he had to ask, and Wheeler knew her commanding officer well enough to know he’d expect careful inquiries. That wouldn’t have been Wheeler’s own inclination. Blow the dusted rebels away. She still went rigid with fury when she thought about the events of last May.

On that day of confusion, when the President of the Terran Federation ordered military forces on the Colonies to open fire in order to compel the offworlders to evacuate, and her then Commander, Warren Armstrong, had ordered them to stand down instead, Jeanette Wheeler’s company had been the only one to put up a real fight. Like most of the twenty-four companies, nearly half her people sided with Armstrong: a percentage that would burn her with shame if not for the later discovery that her loyal half was the only one to really fight it out against the mutiny. There were half-hearted brawls and confused arguments everywhere, a few shots fired, on Galileo three soldiers were injured by strays.

But Wheeler’s loyal company fought it out for six hours before she was finally forces to understand the situation was hopeless, and told her troops to stand down. The cost of the fight was fifteen Terran military injured— divided nine and six between her loyalists and the mutineers, and five of Nova’s civilian police. A tiny engagement by the history of war, but the only real attempt by any of Armstrong’s companies to obey the Presidential order that day.

In the wake of the fight, the offworld cops had seen the loyal troops and officers back to whatever transport was available to deport them back to Earth.

Her actions on the day of the mutiny earned her promotion, from Captain to Commander, and a position as second-in-command of the Second Offworld Expeditionary Force. A posting which had brought her, today, back into space , where she was determined to avenge the humiliation of her last visit. She would be there when it was the offworlders, every last rebellious one of them, marched into transports, for their one-way trips back to Earth where they belonged. She would be there, watching, and especially so when the traitorous members of her own former company marched past, in irons. The offworld civilians would be headed to the relocation camps the Terran government already had prepared to house them. The soldiers would be on their way to courts martial for mutiny and treason. Commander Jeanette Wheeler would be there to see it.

But first, she had the present mission to accomplish, and a commanding officer determined to accomplish it with the minimum possible bloodshed. And her lieutenant was waiting word on permission to fire.

She wanted to say yes. But she had her orders. She had to inquire. “Who’s shooting? The tac report says the onboard security was diverted away from our position.”

“It looks like some of the factory crew, they must have passed weapons around out of the armory in the security office.”

Why would the factory workers be shooting? Wheeler would have expected them to just keep their heads down.

Perhaps thinking the same thing, one of the techs looked up from the console he was working. “Commander, before we cut the intercom we heard the platform supervisor issue a warning: they think we’re pirates on a raid.”

“Dust!” Pirates would kill everyone on board as a mater of course, giving themselves leisure to steal as much as they wanted, and leaving no witnesses who could identify them. If the crew thought that’s who the boarders were, then of course they’d think they had no choice but to fight to the death. That would become a self-fulfilling prophecy for the unfortunate crew, and a source of unacceptable delay for the mission.

“Lieutenant, the crew think this is a pirate raid. Tell ’em who you are, wave a flag or something— try to get the bloody idiots to see what’s actually going on. If they won’t stand down, use whatever force necessary to secure the area on schedule. But try talking first.”

She thumbed off her coms without waiting for an acknowledgement. To the tech, she said: “Report your status.”

“Everything’s five-oh here,” he said. “No problem getting into the system, civilian net security’s a joke even up here. We’ve already cut off existing crew access, and the new software for the factory automation is uploading as we speak.”

“Good. Carry on, I’ve gotta report to the Admiral.”

Wheeler left the IT room, made her way through dockyard Ops and out into the airlock corridor. A few meters down the hatchway into the transport ship stood open.

The ship was designed for unmanned operation, and its lifesystem areas existed primarily for maintenance access. The normal interior was a network of winding corridors threading in among the ship’s systems, punctuated by banks of status monitors and small workrooms where maintenance crews could get to work on whatever needed fixing. A small control room would allow the transport to be piloted on manual in a pinch, but it was little more than an afterthought.

That was normally. Before launch, the transport’s lifesystem deck had been refitted almost beyond recognition. Interior bulkheads knocked down, new screens installed, passages cut through into several of the transport containers the ship carried, which had also been refitted. Instead of the cramped maintenance space, the transport’s interior was now a full (if inelegantly designed) CIC for running the military operation now under way all through the low orbit corridor.

Admiral Richard Gali, commanding officer in charge of the Second Offworld Expeditionary Force, stood by the main tactical display, studying the reports coming in from the other boarding parties.

Wheeler saluted. “Our troops have encountered some resistance from the platform crew,” she said. “Word got around that we were pirates so the crew thinks they have to fight it out.”

“Get them straightened out, we didn’t come up here for a bloodbath,” Gali said.

“Yes, sir. I’ve already told Lieutenant Renner to wave the flag at them. It shouldn’t be a problem for long.”

“Boarding parties at platforms 187, 203 and 492 report they’re already secure, Commander,” he said. “I don’t expect my flag unit to lag behind.”

“No, sir.”

“Coms says this platform got off a message to Colonial Flight Control before we cut them off,” he continued. “That’s a potential problem. We didn’t hear what they said, we don’t know how much of the message got picked up. There’s two weeks until the next scheduled crew rotation, we’ve counted on that time before the offworlders find out what’s happened. If a message got out, we could have attention on us before we want it. We need to get set up ASAP.”

“The tech team’s already uploading the new software,” Wheeler said. “That gets the refit started right away, whether the crew’s been secured or not. My engineering teams are ready to move out and do the rest, the moment we get the all clear. I don’t think we’re going to have a problem.” She hesitated, and then added, “And, Admiral, my compliments to the teams at 187, 203 and 492, but I predict we’ll have our refit done before any of them, pirate-obsessed crew or not.”

“Not that this is a race, of course.” Gali allowed himself a slight smile.

“Of course not. A little inter-unit competition is good for morale, but accomplishing the mission is what matters, not which team finishes first.” Wheeler knew better than to return the smile, but she knew the Admiral would hear it in her voice. “Although it’ll be us.”

“Carry on, Commander.”

“Admiral.” Wheeler saluted, then turned and left the CIC. When her back was to the Admiral, she let the smile play fully across her face. Those dusted offworlders would never know what hit ’em.