Snippets – The Prodigals

The Prodigals
The Tri-Cluster Confederation, Book 2

Chapter 1
SolSystem Periphery, 22 Sixmonth, 3205

Rear Admiral Roger Blankenship waited in his flag suite. The time to act was coming. Just a few minutes more. The central holo-monitor was split into several scenes. One was of the ship’s bridge. Another was a sensor display of SolSystem.

Not much traffic, he mused. SolSystem had changed. Major asteroids in the belt were missing, as was Titan, one of Saturn’s moons, and Deimos. The L5 and Lunar stations near earth were gone too. He sighed. The data displayed in the monitors was almost painful to absorb.

But SolSystem was no longer his concern. He had made his choice when he and the Thirty Houses fled to the Confederacy. He’d not expected to be sent back here to spy on his former home.

Colette ready?” he asked.

“Yes, sir, as is the rest of the task group,” Captain Morgan Fitzgerald reported via link.

“Execute, Fen.”

Captain Fitzgerald, commanding the TCNS battlecruiser Bainbridge, was, as commanding the task group’s flagship, also Blankenship’s flag captain. Earlier in his career, he was an intelligence agent known as Fen. He was no longer in navy intelligence but his nickname remained.

“Notify the fleet. Prepare to broach,” Fen said to his executive officer.

“Prepare to broach, aye,” came the reply from across the Bainbridge’s bridge as the order flashed to all hands on board and amber strobes flashed five times throughout the ship. “All hands. Seal suits and don helmets!”

The crew of the Bainbridge had been issued new battlesuits. Gone were skinsuits. They took to long to don in an emergency. The new suits, looking much like the standard shipsuit working uniform, could be donned, sealed, feet into boots, and helmet on and locked in less than thirty seconds. The new suits were another innovation from the Thirty Houses.

“All boards green,” a voice on the far side of the bridge announced. Fen’s executive officer glanced at his captain, and, at Fen’s nod, ordered, “Broach!”

Klaxons blared throughout the ship and on the link-net. The Bainbridge and her sister ships in the task group, quietly surfaced from subspace to normal space. The ships emerged on the edge of SolSystem, ten AUs outside the orbit of Pluto.

Blankenship watched the large holo-monitor with a view of the bridge. The Bainbridge‘s icon turned blue as did the other ships. An expanding sensor ring appeared around the ships and soon disappeared off the edge of the holo-monitor.

“All quiet, Captain,” the sensor officer reported.

“The task group has broached, Admiral,” Fen reported to Blankenship. “Nothing detected so far. Recommend launching the drones now.”

Blankenship nodded. “Follow the mission plan, Captain.”

***

Task Group 42 was a collection of ships that had been quickly gathered for an intelligence mission. The ships were survivors of the Battle of Caledonia eight months before. Included in the task group was a number of small House-built hybrid tunnel-ships who would stay behind gathering data from the sensor drones. The task group would seed the system with stealthy drones and a clandestine subspace repeater network that would provide near, real-time data of the state of SolSystem to the stay-behind ship. In this case, the ship was the House built TCNS(H) Colette. The Colette was the equivalent of a destroyer.

Blankenship opened a private link to Herman Goliola, Captain of the Colette, at one time, a protégé of Blankenship’s. “Everything set, Herm?”

<Aye, Admiral. We’re fully charged and can tunnel out if we’re found.>

“Good. I’ll expect you at the rendezvous in two months. The data is important but not as important as you and the Colette.”

<We’ll be there, sir.>

Blankenship nodded. Goliola was one of the few House, now Confederate, naval officers that had followed Blankenship to the Tri-Cluster Confederation. The captain, as well as the tunnel ship, was an important asset of the newly merged, House and Confederate navy. “Blankenship out.”

Task Group 42 pumped stealth drones by the hundreds down-system. The Bainbridge added AI controlled subspace communication repeaters. Those repeaters, unlike the omni-directional repeaters used by the System States, received data from the sensor drones and beamed the data over a whisker link to other Confederate repeaters and back to the data collection point, the Colette.

Skye Harbor Station, Caledonia System, 22 Sixmonth, 3205

Skritch. Skritch. Skritch. Senior Lieutenant Marcus Tolliver feet noisily spoke as he walked through the tunnels of Ériu Data and Communications mentally. Pseudo-gravity was low in this part of the station requiring the use of ship-shoes to prevent bouncing off the tunnel walls. Tolliver mentally reviewed his arguments to be assigned to Project Prometheus. Few knew that EDC, as it was called, was the Confederation’s Research Development & Communications organization.

Tolliver’s project was part of the plan to install the first interstellar FTL communications network in the Confederacy. None of the other star-faring nations had anything like it…he hoped. The key research was thousands of years old but it took Marilee Harris and an AI, Elizabeth Harris, to find the key that made feasible instant communications between stellar systems. Current theory said distance was no barrier.

The communicator was the discovery of Marilee Harris, now six hundred years dead. Elizabeth Harris, her legacy, finished the development of the device.

Project Prometheus was the field deployment of quantum transceiver/receiver pairs. The plan called for several hubs to collect and resend the data to its proper destination; a store and forward network. The fleetbases of the Confederation Navy would be the first to receive the FTL communicators. Ships of the navy, the major ones, at least, would be next. The individual members of the Confederacy would follow the navy. Tolliver had been leading one of the engineering teams, and now, with the development project nearing completion, he wanted to be in on the actual creation of the network.

He had been walking, lost in his thoughts until he found himself standing outside the office of Vice Admiral Arlen Strait, the Chief of Confederation RD&C. Before Tolliver could say a word, the office door slid open and a voice from inside said, “Enter.”

Inside the office, the admiral waited. “Come in and close the door, Tolliver!”

Tolliver did so. The admiral was sitting behind his desk in an undress naval uniform; his tunic hanging inside an open wall closet behind the desk. Before the desk were two high-back chairs. One turned around. Tolliver recognized the other person in the office. Elizabeth Harris, herself. She pointed to the other chair and waved at him to sit.

“Do you have a solution to our little problem?” she asked.

“Uh, uh, yes ma’am,” he stammered. He had come to make an argument with the admiral for his next assignment. Instead, he found himself blindsided by the unexpected question.

“And that is?”

“Magazines, ma’am. It was in my report.”

“Assume I know nothing. Explain your solution.”

“Well, first, it’s not an engineering issue but a logistical one.”

Elizabeth Harris nodded for him to continue. Admiral Strait glared at Tolliver, waiting for him to get past the obvious.

“It’s an alternate view of the mission statement. What was wanted was instant, continuous communication across interstellar distances. It’s like the old engineering meme, you can be on time or on budget. Pick one. Here, we have the solution for instant communication, and across interstellar distances. What we don’t have is continuous communication.”

“That lack can be alleviated by storing transmitter/receiver meshes in magazines. The communicator will pair one mesh in a magazine with its opposite in the other, distant location. When a data packet is sent, both meshes disintegrate and the next mesh in the magazine is selected.”

“And how is that controlled, the pairing of the transmitter-receiver meshes?” Elizabeth asked.

“It’s part of the initial linking protocol.”

“And how large is the magazine?”

“This first phase calls for two-hundred-fifty transmitter, receiver pairs per magazine. Later versions will be larger, more capacity. The installation plan for Caledonia is two hundred communicators emplaced around the system. Each communicator would have fifty magazines, a total of sixty-two thousand, five hundred messes, enough for a year’s service for each communicator if we stick to the hourly rate. One transmit-receive data packet swap every hour.”

Arlen Strait leaned back in his chair and put his feet up on the desk. “Toldja,” he said to Elizabeth Harris. “How fast could the swaps occur in an emergency, Tolliver?”

“One per second, but that is limited by buffer capacity and that of the magazine. A one packet swap per second would burn through the all the communicator’s magazines in a day or so. You’d have to replenish the empty magazines several times a week, each. I don’t think our logistics capability could support that rate of transmission without larger…much larger magazines.”

Strait nodded. “That was my estimate, too. And,” he said turning toward Elizabeth, “you thought I was slipping in my dotage.”

“Nonsense, Arlen. You’re a peppy as you were seventy years ago.”

The admiral snorted. Turning back to Tolliver, he said,” And you think you’re ready to head an installation team?”

“Yes, sir, I do.”

“Well, so do I, boy, but I’ve another project for you. The Ophiuchi Line.”

SolSystem Periphery, 23 Sixmonth, 3205

“Here you are, sir.” Roger Blankenship’s steward laid a plate of sandwiches and tea service on the side table next to the admiral’s desk in his quarters.

Fen and Lieutenant Lena Descheall, Blankenship’s flag secretary, sat across from him. He glanced at his link, noticing it was well past lunchtime. “I apologize forgetting the time. My steward, thankfully, remembered. Dig in.”

Fen, by habit from his days as a spy, was first to snatch a sandwich. “‘Scuse, me, Lena.”

The admiral laughed. He was used to Fen’s habits. Lena Descheall, was not. Counting Fen, Blankenship had a sparse staff. Just the two sitting before him. He’d acquire a Chief of Staff and a Flag Lieutenant when they returned to Weyland Fleetbase at the end of their mission. “If you wait, Lena,” he said snatching a sandwich for himself, “you’ll be without. Never miss an opportunity to eat, sleep, or—”

“I understand, sir,” she replied taking two sandwiches from the plate.

Fen raised an eye when she did so. “Umm,” he decided not to speak but instead pointed to the tea service. The steward passed him a cup of tea.

“I’m from Trinidad,” she said. “We have high metabolic rates, “and also accepted a cup from the steward.

A half-hour later, with the scattered remains of lunch cleared, Blankenship said, “Back to business. What have we learned, Fen?”

“Well, for one, their deep-space arrays have been destroyed. Else, they’d know we’re here. We’ve detected almost no ship movements. In fact, there isn’t much activity at all. There’s one ship on a hyperbolic orbit from Mars to Earth. We estimate its trip time is forty-five days. I suspect it’s unmanned. There is some radio transmissions from Earth and some from Mars but the subspace bands are silent. Their subspace repeater network is either shut down or destroyed. We’ve found no active habitats, although that might change when our sensor platforms reach the belt.”

“No warships?”

“None detected yet. It’s possible there may be some running silent or coasting, but…my gut says, no. Are you thinking about going in?”

“It’s an option. My orders give me the leeway if I think it’s worth it. We’re here to observe. We don’t have the capability for any humanitarian aid. Let’s let the drones move in and collect data.” He nodded his head. “We’ll meet again, tomorrow.”

The two rose and walked out, Fen to the bridge and Descheall to her desk in Blankenship’s flag plot. When the hatch slid shut, he brought up the sensor view of SolSystem and let his depression, usually under tight control, loose.

His thoughts flew back some forty years ago when he had left his home station in Pallas to go to the System States Naval Academy. The trip’s first leg was from Pallas to Hellasport on Mars, and from there to Luna Upper, via Aldrin on Luna, to board a freighter bound for Tau Ceti and the academy. He had had time to tour Hellasport with its interlocking domes and underground city of Aldrin on Luna before boarding ship.

As a stationer, a spaceborn, he’d not been allowed to visit Earth. There was nothing to see there now with a quarter of the planet scorched and lifeless. Gone, too, was Hellasport and all of the lunar cities, save one. Not a civil war. Ethnic cleansing.

He sighed and closed the holomonitor over his desk and opened the large monitor on his office wall showing the ship’s external view. He was surprised to discover he had no homesickness, no sense of whimsy for SolSystem. His home was in the Confederacy now. This place never was home.

Enough of that. Our mission here is finished…except for Colette. I should have ordered Fen to commence phase two when he was here. He tapped his link and said, “Captain Fitzgerald? Execute Phase Two.”

Fen answered quickly. <Aye, aye, sir.>


I hope this snippet has tantalized you. I may post some more snippets from time to time.

Enjoy.