The Whitehall line-of-battle ship, as vast as a fixed base, was one of the largest class of Core Planets ships. She mounted a horrifying array of weapons. She had the kind of armor that allowed her to withstand a barrage from a fleet of frigates or scouts with impunity. She was Colonel Edward Cole’s assignment, and he had tried to make good use of the ship and crew. Currently, however, the Whitehall was idled in support of the construction of General William Johnson’s newest base.
Cole and the Whitehall had been ordered to support the attack on the Outer Rim base at Carillon. Under Johnson’s leadership, the attack on Carillon had dwindled into a construction project. The Whitehall, capable of vast destructive power, was being used as temporary quarters for the personnel that would, eventually, staff the Henry base. In Colonel Cole’s opinion, this was a bad use of a good ship: there were too many idlers on the ship, and discipline had begun to erode. There was drug use, fighting, gambling, and numerous infractions of military law. Cole was eager either to attack or unload the population of the base from his ship and get back into a fighting trim.
Since Whitehall scouts patrolled around Henry base, Cole’s intelligence staff was first to receive the confusing signals that hinted at an ambush. They had waited breathlessly until they received Whiting’s communication explaining the organized retreat. While he was aware that the situation continued to deteriorate, Cole knew that he had to back Johnson into a corner before Johnson would take appropriate action. Cole’s plan was to separate Johnson from his sycophants and intimidate him into making an active, aggressive defense.
The intelligence service required officers to arrange mutual code phrases they could use to identify the possibility of a leak or mole in the command staff. When Cole used the phrase “damaging background”, Johnson would understand that he had found evidence of a breach of security. It was the only way to prevent Johnson’s staff from filtering and distorting the materials, softening the impact of the information.
Cole and his intelligence staff selected elements of the communications that created a clear timeline of the ambush, showing the estimated time of the loss of each ship. Cole knew Williams and many of the ship commanders; the timeline was a painful litany of loss. While it would take his staff days to gather all the available recordings and make accurate determinations of the last time of transmission from some of the ships, for this presentation to Johnson, they simply logged all reports of breaching or landing. They also logged all calls to ships that went unanswered. The anguish of the marines in the first, most confused hours of battle was the most painful part of the recording to examine.
Once Whiting started giving orders, the chronology of the battle could be kept more accurately. As she went through the fleet by the numbers, they could confirm which ships were still fighting and which were lost. After that, the responses were clear, the losses noted and echoed formally by one of the intelligence crew on a Sacroon frigate. The record ended when Horicon Four Scout Two got out of reliable reception range. After that, it was a jumble of cannon fire and conjecture.
Cole found Johnson sitting at his vast desk jammed against the wall of the tiny office.
“Cole,” Johnson said, pointing at a chair. The furniture was too closely crowded for Cole to find a comfortable seat. Cole set his computer on the corner of Johnson’s desk.
“Have a seat,” Johnson said, putting on an expectant smile.
Cole realized that Johnson was prepared to listen politely but defend his core group of sycophants to the bitter end.
Cole’s presentation to Johnson began with the overall mission to drive the Outer Rim from their base at Carillon. This was background, delivered quickly and without editorial comment before Johnson could interrupt. Then he repeated the mission objectives that Williams had been assigned; Johnson had some comments, but Cole cut him off and coldly reviewed the ambush, spelling out the losses in precise and crushing detail. He enumerated the lost ships, listing each scout and frigate that had vanished. It was a risky approach, since it was an indictment of Williams’ leadership, and perhaps Johnson’s leadership, also. Cole, however, felt that the facts were always safe, as long as he never made a judgment or conclusion about mistakes that were the cause.
Cole concluded with the likely course of the Outer Rim fleet, expected time of arrival, probable number of ships. This was all conjecture, based on a quick analysis of the recordings. He did not include the details of his plan to use the Whitehall to support the retreat. Cole’s first hope was that Johnson would propose it, otherwise, he planned to suggest it; as a fall-back plan, he would insist on it.
Johnson was crushed by the news. Cole had expected Johnson to be disturbed. Cole had seen Johnson angry and belligerent, blowing up at senior staff over small mistakes in judgment. Cole had never seen someone collapse. Johnson slumped, deeper and deeper into his seat, as the presentation wound down to the bitter, horrible conclusion.
“The remains of the fleet will be here in half a day or less,” Cole finished.
Johnson stared idly at the display, doing nothing for a long minute. He stirred and looked around before saying “Pretty bad situation.”
Cole nodded, “Yes, sir.”
Johnson sighed and sat up. “What went wrong?” “That’s really not at issue,” Cole began slowly. “We need to prep the base and planet for an all-out assault by the Outer Rim.” Warily, Johnson eyed Cole. “You may not care, but that report paints a pretty bleak picture of Williams’ leadership — of Williams’ legacy. You know how many planets his family operates?” Cole looked over Johnson’s shoulder. “I’m not fit to judge the leadership of anyone involved. I’m just presenting the facts I have. In my opinion, sir, you should organize our defenses.” “Are you calling my judgment faulty?”
This was the conversation Cole specifically wanted to avoid. Through the whole numbing presentation, the list of ships destroyed and people killed, he made sure that there was no judgment made. Cole didn’t want to imply anything, merely recite the facts and organize defenses.
“Our mission is to destroy the Outer Rim Carillon base,” Cole said, staring at an engineering status panel just over Johnson’s shoulder.
“And we will,” Johnson echoed, with little real conviction.
Cole’s reserve snapped. He looked at Johnson with all of the military ferocity he kept in reserve for intimidating marine riflemen. “But we’re not. You’re building a base as a goddamn legacy in this cluster. You sent Williams straight into an Outer Rim trap,” he said. Then added, “Sir.”
Johnson slumped back down. “Trap?” he echoed, staring at the console.
Cole rested his arms on the desk. He felt that another tack might help work his way into Johnson’s confidence. He looked at Johnson closely. Johnson didn’t look prepared to take action, or even respond appropriately.
“Trap,” Cole said quietly. “Dieskau’s a tough opponent. I’m going to cover the retreat, Bill.”
Johnson shook his head weakly. “You’ll leave me exposed.” Cole stood up. He realized that the personal tack wasn’t likely to work; it was time to come about and start firing. He stood, looming over Johnson.
“Then put some defenses together,” he said. “You’ve got about a day.” Johnson leaned forward, dropping his head into his hands. “You can’t,” he began.
“I am,” Cole said, cutting him off. “You want defenses? Get building. Don’t waste my time arguing. I’ve got to go. Sir.”
Johnson sat, staring at the final piece of recording, a looping film clip of a Core Frigate, possibly Horicon Four being torn apart by Outer Rim ships. Cole grabbed his computer. His lighter crew and executive officer had been standing by, waiting for word to put their plans into motion. Cole opened the channel, stopping the situation display.
“I need the Whitehall moving as soon as I’m back,” Cole barked into his communicator. “Scouts and frigates as an advanced guard. The other line of battle ships to engage as needed. We’ll keep the Whitehall herself as a reserve.”
Cole continued giving orders as Johnson’s office door shut behind him. Johnson sat, staring at the projector, angry at Williams and Cole. They had each done something stupid that would put his base at risk. All of it had been put in motion by Whiting, who may have unwittingly betrayed them to the Outer Rim.
As soon as Cole had started moving the Whitehall, Johnson convened his core group of advisors and detailed the situation. He made it perfectly clear that Cole was insubordinate and was acting on his own with no authority from Johnson. He also made it very clear that Whiting was a collaborator with Dieskau, a double agent, merely appearing as an unwitting tool, mislead by Dieskau’s intelligence service.
Johnson ordered Phineas back to the base for a conference. Pomeroy volunteered to track down the base’s design engineer, Eyre. To save time, they would meet in the loading dock area.
Hours later, Phineas pushed his way through the outer airlock wearing the padded environmental suit that soldiers wore under the armor to regulate body temperature. The environmental suit made him look like a marine just coming off duty, not a command officer.
“It’s about damn time!” Johnson barked at Phineas.
Phineas was not prepared for this kind of onslaught. His face hardened and he stopped short.
“Do you know what’s going on?” Johnson asked.
Phineas looked around. He could list a large number of things that would anger Johnson because they were going wrong. Construction was behind schedule. It was difficult getting parts or supplies. Johnson had been fuming about the gambling and drinking on the Whitehall when he left. Phineas wondered if it was the court martial on the Whitehall.
“The Outer Rim ambushed Williams’ fleet,” Johnson announced. “Destroyed most of it.” Assuming the entire fleet was disabled, Phineas mentally cut the Core Planets force in this cluster in half; Dieskau had now tipped the odds in his favor. Phineas looked around at Pomeroy and the engineer, Eyre. They looked just as blankly at Phineas. Johnson stared at them in helpless, belligerent fury.
“Cole gave me the heads up,” Phineas began. “I was trying to arrange.”
“Cole!” Johnson shouted. “That bastard! Who runs this operation?” Phineas was almost embarrassed at having Johnson shouting like some lunatic, haunted by invisible enemies behind every event.
“You do, sir,” Phineas growled. He wanted to say more, but it would only take precious time away from the defensive preparations. “This situation calls for immediate—”
Johnson crowded into Phineas face, shouting, “Not you, too?”
“Sir! Immediate action,” Phineas continued, ignoring Johnson, shouting right through the old man to the group surrounding him. “I took the action that was required!”
Johnson backed down a step. He glanced nervously at the crowd around him. He edged toward a gap in the group, and turned so he could face all of them at once. He looked wary and anxious, measuring the distances and checking sidearms. Phineas fought the urge to touch his sidearm. He folded his arms, trying to appear casual.
“Should I prepare to move the rest of the force to support Lyman?” Pomeroy ventured.
Johnson closed with Pomeroy. “Do you know something I don’t know?” Pomeroy took a step back. He had no answer to the question. It was more of an accusation, and there was no proper answer. Pomeroy opted for contrite silence.
Johnson stepped into the center of the group, and turned to face them. “I will not lose this base. Is that clear?”
Pomeroy’s face fell as he recognized his mistake. He realized that he had misjudged Johnson’s preferences. With Williams’ fleet destroyed, everyone expected the Outer Rim to destroy the strategically important Lyman base. However, Pomeroy had failed to anticipate that Johnson was still focused on defending Henry base.
“What have you got?” Johnson asked Phineas.
“If I get back out there, I can get six out of the eight fully operational,” Phineas said, trying to act calm and rational.
Keeping six guns fully operational meant that his men would use the remaining two guns as spare parts depots. Phineas hated to cannibalize guns, but this far into the frontier it was his only supply of parts.
“Eight guns would barely cover us. Dieskau’s got us outnumbered,” Johnson said.
Phineas was unsure what else he could say or do. The guns were not working and there were no additional parts. He could hound his men, but that would only make them resentful. He looked at Johnson, who was still frowning in thought.
Pomeroy edged in between Phineas and Johnson. “I think the General wants you to find some creative way to extend your capabilities.”
Phineas glared at Pomeroy. Phineas’ only option was to send a convoy down to Lyman base to get the remaining ion cannon components, but with the Outer Rim in the way, there wasn’t much point in even trying.
“That’s just not possible,” Phineas said. “I’ve got six working guns. Do you have parts for the other two?”
Pomeroy scowled. “There’s no reason to get emotional.” Phineas took a step toward Pomeroy, forcing him to back up. “There’s no reason to be an idiot,” Phineas barked.
Pomeroy looked at Johnson for support. Johnson was staring at the far side of the landing bay, shaking his head. Pomeroy was desperately chasing the last shreds of his military career. He needed to find a way to take charge of the situation so that Johnson would recognize his value.
“Help me understand the issues here,” Pomeroy began.
Phineas squinted closely at Pomeroy.
“It’s pretty simple,” Phineas said quietly. “Two of the guns don’t fucking work!” He shouted at Pomeroy.
Eyre waved his hand in a huge arc to scratch the back of his head. For people who knew him, it was a characteristic gesture. He was an engineer and a thinker; he made large but pointless gestures when he talked. He was acknowledged to be a good military engineer, but sometimes hard to work with. He read widely, on a broad range of subjects, and was easily distracted.
“Ummm,” Eyre began, rolling his eyes around at the group to be sure everyone was watching him as he talked. “Just cover the approach they’ll be taking while pursuing” he said, then waved his hands and added “our fleet.”
Johnson looked at Eyre carefully. Johnson had risked his career on Eyre’s vision of building vast defensive structures based on the Outer Rim’s typical plans. Eyre’s opinion carried a huge amount of weight.
“Okay,” Johnson started, as Eyre’s idea began to make some kind of sense to him. “Okay. The fleet’s leading the Outer Rim straight to us. Good thinking Eyre.” Johnson looked at Phineas and Pomeroy. “Can we do this?”
Phineas didn’t understand the idea at all. He was short two cannons, a full quarter of his force.
“They’ll just fly around me,” Phineas barked at Eyre.
Eyre flinched back. “Not if,” he began and stopped, waving his fingers in front of his eyes.
“Not if what,” Johnson said, gently, peering at Eyre.
“You know,” Eyre said. Everyone stared. “If you appear completely non-functional. Shut off,” he said, waving his fingers again, “your sensors.”
Phineas shook his head. It was a Cephalopod trick, and was too much like an ambush or terrorism. He could, he supposed, line up his cannon along the route of the fleet. If he had enough time, he might be able to put the two non-working cannon in a position to mask the fact that they couldn’t be fired. Sometimes a show of force was as important as the force itself.
“This had best work,” Phineas barked. He had seen enough combat to know that it didn’t matter if the original plan was practical or even marginal. The most important thing was to be prepared for the onslaught, ready to change plans as the battle evolved.
Phineas glared at Pomeroy. Pomeroy looked like he’d taken a crap in his uniform.
“Phineas, you put the plasma cannons into position,” Johnson said. “Eyre, you dig in down here.”
That was definitive enough for Phineas. It was hard to say how long the six guns could hold out against Dieskau’s fleet. They would need every available scout to be sure that they weren’t being misled by Dieskau. Phineas turned, taking out his communicator.
“I’m on my way,” Phineas told his executive officer. “Send the gun commanders to Gun One with defensive plans.”
Phineas walked over to one of the surface shuttles to get a ride back to his lighter.
Pomeroy saw the meeting breaking up. The only position left was to coordinate the various elements of the defense. He told Phineas’ retreating back that he would personally follow up on the general’s behalf.
Johnson walked back to his ship, leaving Eyre standing, scratching his head, alone. “We’ll need cover on these structures to deny them,” Eyre said, waving his hand over his head, “surface targets.”
“Sir,” Pomeroy said, chasing Johnson. “I’ll see to it that you get status reports on the defensive preparations.” Pomeroy hoped this would keep him out of combat, and possibly make him a critical resource in the coming battle.
Johnson stopped and turned. He looked at Pomeroy with some confusion. He gestured for Pomeroy to come closer.
Johnson leaned over and whispered into Pomeroy’s ear, “Seth, you’d better take care of Eyre. He’s a helluvan engineer, but he’s no officer. Stay down here, figure out what he means by denying them targets and get it done.” Johnson glanced over at Eyre, who had taken out a communicator and was talking with someone.
Pomeroy glanced over his shoulder at Eyre, also. He was grateful that Johnson had assigned him duty on the planet surface. Survival on the surface was virtually guaranteed. Survival in space was a matter of luck; a ship could have a hole blown through it, killing members of the crew at random. It was never clear why some lived and some died.
Pomeroy also knew that the surface of the planet could become a protracted hand-to-hand assault. They would have to plan for an orderly evacuation in the very real event of a Cephalopod landing. He knew that the Cephalopods didn’t consider evacuation as victory. They only considered it victory when their opponents were dead. Pomeroy knew that if the Core Planets’ failed to defend themselves from space, the slaughter on the planet would be complete and ruthless.