Science Fiction: “Olympus Mons” by Rudolph Najar
by Rudolph Najar
A light blinked. “Yes?”
“It’s the Olympus Mons, sir.
“Thank you. Tell Captain Shimada I’ll return the call in fifteen minutes.”
Bauer leaned back and looked across his desk at Argunothan Runit Mensur. “That’s the last one,” he said.
The Kronlian nodded.
Kronlians looked human. There were differences; proportions not the same, eyes too far apart, a very thin nose, mouth a slit, and on the average two to three inches shorter than a human.
The Olympus Mons was the last of the Mountain-class of super dreadnoughts, a true monster among warships costing the entire annual gross economic output of a planet.
Policy changed and the emphasis went to smaller, quicker, more agile frigates designed for hit-and-run attacks.
Also, a loss was less costly, less devastating.
United Worlds Ship Olympus Mons sortied bravely twenty years earlier carrying the high expectations of the United Worlds Federation. She was to make the difference in the conflict with the Kronlians. Unfortunately, that did not occur. The United Worlds Federation asked for peace. The Kronlians agreed. Now the Olympus Mons was coming home, part of a defeated navy, part of a defeated star federation.
Elliot Kurt Bauer commanded base Tango Golf Alfa with its three subsidiaries Bravo, Charlie, Delta, collection points for the returning warships of the United Worlds fleet.
Why he Bauer sometimes wondered. Why was he of all people charged with the hideous task of gathering in the returning warships. He knew the answer.
Grand Admiral Kutak Liko suicided. As did Pawar Netti, Rimar and Tercoglu, all Fleet Admirals. Others. Officers vanished, not to be found. Bauer considered them to be casualties of war every bit as much as those who had fallen in combat. Defeat was painful, a deadening weight on the soul.
Captain Elliot Kurt Bauer was caught up in the temporary promotions to fill the vacated flag and upper ranks. Now he was Rear Admiral Elliot Kurt Bauer.
Of above average height, Bauer sported a full head of black hair. Eyes were a deep blue, features rather sharper than he liked. He put on weight easily but stayed lean with a rigorously controlled diet and regular visits to the gym.
He was fortunate to receive a two week leave before reporting to Tango Golf Alfa. First leave in five years.
He reconnected with Ellen and their two children, Michael and Marian, both also on leave. It was a difficult two weeks, getting reacquainted after years of separation.
They were all the better for it. Leaving again was still painful.
At Tango Golf Alfa, his men liked him or stayed out of his way. His senior staff was very competent and worked well together. He learned to stay out of their way.
* * *
The screens came on. Shimada smiled slightly when he saw Bauer.
“Welcome, Captain,” Bauer began. “It is a pleasure to welcome you home.”
“It is good to be back.” The tone was emotionless.
“Captain, let me introduce the personnel here.” Bauer named the Kronlians first, his own officers, and, finally Marchand and Zimmerman from Tango Golf Charlie.
Shimada introduced his staff.
“Captain,” Bauer continued. “You will dock at Tango Golf Charlie. The Harbormaster will guide you to your berth. The non-commissioned personnel will debark first. They will be sent to bases near their homes.
“Commissioned officers will be debriefed by United Worlds and Kronlian intelligence officers. They also will be transferred to bases near their homes.
“What we need from you, Captain, is your ship’s log, a roster of current personnel, and a complete inventory of armaments and munitions. Please beam them down to Charlie as soon as possible.
“Captain, I’ve told you what we need from you. What about you? Your vessel? Your crew? What do you need from us?”
Shimada was slow in answering. He looked exhausted.
His face was haggard, deeply lined, cadaverous.
“Admiral Bauer,” Shimada began slowly. “We were very badly damaged in our last two engagements. Lost two-thirds of our complement.”
Someone whistled softly.
“We’re down to about five hundred personnel, many injured. We’re barely able to man the Olympus Mons. Plus, we are coming home in defeat.
“Admiral, the crew is despondent, depressed, despairing. We need your psychologists to help them immediately. We’ve been plagued with suicides, even among the officers. I’m afraid there are more to come.”
Shimada could barely maintain his composure.
“We watched when the Kilimanjaro exploded. After the recall, we passed the derelicts of the Battleaxe and the Isandlwana and an Omicron-class Kronlian corvette. All were dead, lifeless, burned out husks.
“It’s been a very difficult voyage back, Admiral. Our long-range FTL communications were destroyed. We could not even beam you that we were returning.
“We are in a very, very bad shape.”
There was a long pause. “Captain Shimada, be assured that our medical personnel will be alerted to your situation and will be at Charlie ready to receive your people.”
The conference call ended. Only Bauer and Shimada had spoken.
* * *
Bauer and Mensur met with their intelligence officers, Commander Juan Lopez Cisneros and Officer Two Saleh Targun Scranisar.
Cisneros was lean, average height, and generally jovial, a graduate of the West European Academies at Barcelona. His service record began on the Granicus and ended on the Kangchenjunga. At the end of hostilities, he joined Bauer at Tango Golf Alfa.
“We’ve examined the log of the last sortie from replenishment base Echo Oscar Lima three years ago.
“Several items are important. The destruction of the Kilimanjaro is dated two years ago, which explains why it missed a replenishment visit to Echo Oscar Lima.
“On the same engagement, the Olympus Mons suffered major damage, heavy personnel losses, large sections rendered unusable, communications destroyed.
“The Kronlian vessels were destroyed, a Sigma-class cruiser and two Upsilon-class destroyers.”
“Can you confirm that?” Bauer asked Scranisar.
“No, sir. The records we have for the sector UWS Olympus Mons patrolled are incomplete. I’ve asked Central for an expedited response.”
“Anything else?” Bauer asked Cisneros.
“Yes. There was a second engagement about six months later with a Sigma-class cruiser and two Omicron-class corvettes. The Olympus Mons suffered additional hits but was able to inflict major damage before the Kronlians withdrew. The Olympus Mons could not pursue them”
* * *
Bauer, Mensur, Marchand and their staffs met the Olympus Mons when it docked at Tango Golf Charlie. Bauer was appalled at the damage. Marchand pointed out some not-so-obvious scars. Laser slashes. Internal explosions that holed large parts of the vessel.
Power umbilicals snaked out from the dock. Gangways reached the airlocks. Medical personnel swarmed on board the ship.
A long wait. The non-commissioned personnel debarked, a trickle, small knots, finally, a steady stream. They carried or dragged rucksacks and bags. They are refugees from a dying country Bauer thought.
The lines petered out. Ended. Then came the wounded, in wheelchairs, gurneys. Straight jackets!
“They’re too many.” Marchand.
“Not considering the total casualties,” Bauer said.
“It’s time. Let’s go down.”
The receiving officers formed ranks on the dock, Mensur’s apart from Bauer’s. The debarking Olympus Mons officers formed ranks facing Bauer. Shimada was last.
Bauer stepped forward, saluted. The decommissioning protocol was short. Bauer spoke the required words. Shimada gave him the command pennant. It was over. The career of the Olympus Mons was history.
Decommissioning crews boarded the Olympus Mons. After inspecting the ship and removing all munitions andsupplies, they would move it to a parking orbit around Tango Golf Charlie.
* * *
They dined, just the two of them, in Bauer’s private quarters. Food and wine were the best available on Tango Golf Alfa, a standing rib roast done just right with a superb Malacca vintage.
Shimada’s features were lined and drawn. He’ll need extensive rest and rehabilitation Bauer thought. He remembered Shimada from Advanced Command College in Bangalore, a robust, energetic person, taller than Bauer with a perpetual hearty laugh. Now he was shrunken, bent over, aged, somber, and slow to speak.
The conversation wandered aimlessly, desultorily over innocuous topics, family, old friends. Finally, Shimada came to the point, “Elliot, why did we lose? We were totally on top of things! Victory was in our grasp!” His voice broke.
Bauer slowly sipped his wine, wondering how best to answer the emotion-laden question. “There’s no simple answer,” he said slowly.
“Technologically we were very even. We were ahead in some aspects; they, in others. Not enough to make a difference.
“Where they excelled was in responding to circumstances, in changing tactics and reacting to the specific situation. They quickly learned to avoid the Mountain-class unless they had overwhelming superiority.
So it went.”
“We expected the Mountain-class to turn the tide.” Shimada almost screamed.
“We all did,” Bauer said softly. “For a time, it seemed to do so. Then the Kronlians brought in more and more forces. Our losses increased. They quickly exceeded our replacement rates. Soon they were more than twice our replacement rates. We knew it was time to end hostilities.”
“Elliot, you can’t imagine the change in Olympus Mons when the recall came. We had suffered in our engagements, but the morale was high. We were inflicting major damage to the Kronlians.”
Shimada paused, trying to pull together a host of painful memories.
“The ship became a tomb. No one spoke to anyone else, least of all about the recall. Then the suicides began, officers and ordinary personnel. I appealed to their sense of duty and to their patriotism. The suicides stopped.”
“You did what you had to do, Hideki.”
“I tell you, Elliot, I seriously considered suicide myself. I couldn’t do it. It was too much of a burden to lay on my crew. How could I commit suicide after asking them not to?”
“I’m glad you didn’t. We need all the survivors there are. Matters are strange here. I can’t put my finger on it, but I feel we will need all the veterans we have.”
Shimada stared at Bauer for a long time. At last, “I’m confused, Elliot. Very confused.”
* * *
Sir, it’s Lieutenant Farkas. Wants to talk to you. Says it’s very important.”
“Put him on.”
Austin Farkas was African-American, tall, wiry, soft-spoken, a product of the North American Air Force Academy. He was the most intelligent person Bauer had ever met.
“Admiral, sir. We found something Commander Cisneros thinks you should know about immediately. We need a half-hour whenever you can see us.”
“We’ll be there.”
Cisneros and Farkas arrived with Saleh Targun Scranisar and Officer Three Ganisal Jauraina Matesa. Bauer knew Matesa on sight but was not otherwise familiar with him.
Farkas began. “Sir. Officer Three Matesa and I lead the team reviewing the AI and ship’s log on the Olympus Mons. We’ve found an inconsistency.”
He pulled up an image on the screen. “This is the Omicron-class corvette they saw.” The Kronlian warship was badly damaged, tumbling in space.
“The markings are not readable. They’re scorched and scoured. Officer Matesa and his people have not been able to identify it yet.”
Bauer glanced at Matesa.
“That correct, sir,” Matesa said.
Farkas brought up another picture, again a vessel slowly turning in space. Another derelict.
“The log identifies this ship as the Weapons-class frigate Battleaxe. It’s severely damaged, the exterior scorched, most markings illegible just like on the corvette. Notice, however, that the identification letters and numbers are clearly legible.”
Another ship appeared on the screen. “This is supposedly the Battle-class frigate Isandlwana. Again, identification markings are clearly visible but all others are illegible.”
“Admiral,” Cisneros broke in. “Battle-class and Weapons-class frigates are very similar. There are slight external differences if you know where to look. Lieutenant Farkas and I believe that the two frigates in the log are not only the same class, they are the same ship.”
Bauer stared at Cisneros in amazement. “You mean . . . . You mean. . . .” He couldn’t get the words out.
“Sir?” Cisneros paused, then continued slowly. “We’ve examined the videos minutely, backward and forward, at different speeds. The ships are identical except for the identification marks. The videos were recorded at different speeds to show different tumbling rates and with different star field backgrounds. Otherwise everything matches.”
A long pause. Bauer turned to stare at the wall. The others waited. They could sense a growing anger, frustration, even fear. Finally, he turned to Cisneros.
“So somebody tampered with the AI and the log. Who could have done it? Who on the ship had the talent or competence to do that?”
“Admiral, I asked Ensor to detain all personnel assigned to the AI and log sections. Not to let any leave, and to sequester them. Isolate them.”
“Good!” Bauer stood up. He stared into the distance.
It had been too easy, this gathering in of the returning ships. Nothing untoward had happened. Deep down in his consciousness, he had anticipated some explosive development, mutiny, desertion, rogue elements fighting on.
Nothing yet! He had felt relieved.
It just could not be that easy. Something had to happen, and it did. With the last ship! With Shimada!
“We have no idea who may be involved. Ask Commander Ensor to review all personnel files for people skilled in code writing and in hacking computer systems. Detain them!
“Try to keep a lid on this. Though I’m sure it will leak out once you start questioning personnel.”
To Scranisar. “Get all records of Kronlian vessels in the regions patrolled by the Olympus Mons. We must identify the corvette.”
* * *
“Of all our officers, Shimada is the most imaginative, reliable and trustworthy. I’d entrust the most difficult task to him, knowing he would follow through on it.”
“What is he doing? What is he up to? Officer Scranisar tells me that changing the log and the AI on Olympus Mons requires knowledge and talent few have. No one in our military has the ability.”
Bauer was frustrated. “Officer Mensur, I don’t know what’s happening. Lieutenant Farkas says it would take him hundreds of hours to make the changes. And he’s our smartest! He fears there are more.”
“More?” Mensur was startled. “What more could there be?”
“I don’t know. I don’t know what to expect.” Bauer paced. A caged tiger. He wanted something he could put his hands on, something he could sink his teeth into. Nothing. Waiting was the hardest. Uncertainty was next.
“Admiral Bauer,” Mensur’s voice took on a measured tone. “The one outcome your leadership and ours feared most was that a military contingent would desert. Refuse to surrender. Carry on the fight. Perhaps a suicide attack somewhere. Or just simply disappear, never to be found, never to be accounted for.”
“Exactly what I’m thinking,” Bauer commented. “Except here everyone’s accounted for.
* * *
Days followed slowly. Bauer roamed the station, using any activity however useless to fill up his time. He dropped in on Intelligence, on Medical, on Personnel, on Communications, hoping that his presence would move matters forward. He knew he was becoming a pest. He could sense people’s irritation when they saw him coming. They felt his frustration.
Intelligence had no new information. Questioning the AI and log personnel had been fruitless. Medical reported no suicides – a good development. Personnel processed the non-commissioned crew members efficiently and was ready to ship the first contingent home. Communications reported only routine chatter from command and other assembly stations.
As it stood, the matter was his to solve. It was a local problem. However frustrating it was his problem. If anything new and significant surfaced, he would notify superiors up the line.
He kept Captain Cartier, the executive officer, informed. Cartier took a grim view, frankly expecting the worst. He considered tampering with the AI and the log very serious, a symptom of more dangerous activity lurking behind the obvious deception.
“It’s Commander Cisneros, sir.”
“Admiral, sir. We found evidence of more manipulation of the log.”
“Should I come down?”
“If you please, admiral. The screening room.”
Farkas, Scranisar and Matesa waited with Cisneros. On the screen were side-by-side images of the frigates.
“Admiral, sir.” Cisneros began the briefing. “First, the quick one. We’ve identified the frigate. It’s the Morgenstern an early Weapons-class frigate. Badly damaged in combat and abandoned fifteen years ago.”
“Not destroyed?” Bauer was surprised.
“No. Explosives were set but did not detonate. The accompanying vessels were under heavy attack and did not want to use any munitions to destroy the Morgenstern. We found old videos which had been widely circulated.”
“Well, that’s one down. What else?”
“Bad, sir. The video of the Kilimanjaro is also a fraud.”
“What?” Bauer exploded.
“It’s the video of a very early test, an atomic explosion to blow up a heavy cruiser, the Chiricahua.
About twenty-five years ago. Lieutenant Farkas remembered hearing about those tests. We found it in old records.”
Bauer looked at Farkas, seeking some way to show his appreciation. Bauer could only shake his head, still in denial. He glanced at Scranisar.
“We brief Officer Mensur next,” the Kronlian said.
“Good! I want to talk to him.” Bauer turned to Cisneros. “I will inform Vice Admiral Brewster immediately. You’re absolutely sure of your analysis?”
“Then I don’t need to see the evidence. Continue questioning the AI and log personnel. I’ll get back to you when Brewster responds.”
He stared ahead blankly, slowly shaking his head, quickly lost in thought at the possibilities.
* * *
Vice Admiral Sir Kevin Montford Brewster, O.B.E., commanded Sargo Hotel Lima base and was Bauer’s immediate superior. It took a half-hour to compose a message detailing the discoveries Intelligence had unearthed and the measures Bauer had taken. He contacted Mensur’s office. Yes, he was free and would see him. On the way, Bauer collected Cartier.
“We had everything in nice, neat order. Every vessel was accounted for. All personnel in place. Now, . . . Well, I informed Vice Admiral Brewster of all we know and of my belief that Kilimanjaro has definitely gone rogue. Perhaps also Battleaxe and Isandlwana. I’m not so sure of the two frigates.”
“Have you talked to Captain Shimada?” Mensur asked.
“Not yet. I was hoping for hard information about the Kilimanjaro before confronting him.”
“Can you wait, sir?” Cartier asked.
“I’ll wait for Brewster’s response.”
“Is there any way to move the interrogations along faster?” Mensur asked.
“I’ve asked Brewster for permission to use intensive interrogations even on Shimada.”
Cartier arched his eyebrows in surprise. Intensive interrogation? On Shimada?
“What is that?” Scranisar.
“Heavy drugging. The normal checks and balances of the brain are overridden. The subject will answer any questions. We avoid using it since it has extremely bad side effects.”
Brewster’s response gave permission for intensive interrogations. His final comment, “We approve of what you have done and your plans for further action and look forward to a successful resolution of this matter,” told Bauer that he was responsible. He was sure Brewster had forwarded his message up the line of command to land on Grand Admiral Contarini’s desk. Everyone would look down over his shoulder. No one wanted responsibility.
Bauer ordered Cisneros, Stahlmann, and Ensor to proceed with the interrogations, and to isolate Shimada.
Shimada reacted quickly. “What’s going on, Elliot? I can’t leave my quarters. I can’t communicate with any of my people. I don’t like it.”
“Sorry, Hideki. We found irregularities that must be resolved. It’s best if you don’t communicate with your people right now.”
“I can’t imagine what the irregularities are,” Shimada said almost sarcastically.
He knows Bauer thought. The anger and self- righteousness are a mask.
“Don’t hurt my people, Elliot,” Shimada said forcefully. Under different circumstances, it would have been a threat. Now it was a plea.
Bauer had always liked and trusted Shimada. The Shimada he saw now was a stranger. He presented a threat. It disturbed him. He hoped that intensive interrogation would not be necessary with Shimada. The possibility was there. He called Security to place a suicide watch on Shimada.
* * *
Cisneros called to say that the intensive interrogations could not begin for two days. Although Bauer fretted at the delay, he understood. Possible reactions included severe vertigo, disorientation, and personality disorders that could last weeks. Medical needed two days to prepare for any eventualities.
Bauer again roamed the station. He cursed his misfortune at having to treat his own countrymen so abysmally. He cursed Shimada for initiating a course of action that could have very dire outcomes. He cursed Brewster for not giving more guidance. He cursed himself for accepting the promotion and posting. He cursed the station.
* * *
Stahlmann called, obviously agitated. “Admiral, sir. Dr. Mitropolitanski has made a very disturbing discovery.”
An aging, rotund, nearly bald man in a white lab coat came into view. He kept pushing his glasses up and was obviously uncomfortable talking to a superior.
“Admiral, sir,” He began slowly. “I’m in the medical section that performs a physical examination of each member of the Olympus Mons. On a few we do a DNA analysis. It’s a slow process so we do it only on a small fraction of the personnel. It’s very labor intensive, . . . .”
He was starting to ramble. Bauer knew he would digress into explaining the process. “Please, doctor, what did you find out?” he asked gently.
Mitropolitanski glanced at Stahlmann, took a deep breath, and said rapidly, “One officer is not who he says he is.”
Bauer started. This was not good. He glanced at Stahlmann who took over. “Yes, admiral. Lieutenant
Kampande is misidentified.”
“Who is he? Really?”
“Lieutenant Londisizwe Buthelezi of the Isandlwana.”
Bauer couldn’t believe what he was hearing. “What do we know about him?”
“He was in charge of the AI and log section on the Isandlwana and is a top computer expert, one of the best in the fleet.”
“Is he the one who altered the AI and log?”
“We have to move quickly! Call Cisneros! Tell him to begin questioning Buthelezi, or Kampande, whoever he is, under intensive interrogation immediately. DNA test all personnel. I don’t care how long it takes. No one leaves this base until their identity is verified. Understand?”
They nodded. It was a daunting task. There was nothing else to do.
* * *
Bauer, Cisneros, Mensur, and Scranisar looked through the one-way window as Farkas began questioning Kampande-Buthelezi. It was an initial questioning, not yet at the ‘intensive’ stage.
“For your information, this interrogation is being conducted pursuant to, . . . .” Farkas quoted the Naval Code of Conduct.
“I am not under oath?” Kampande-Buthelezi asked. He looked very calm and self-possessed, self-assured Bauer thought. The bastard knows what’s happening and will hold out as long as possible.
“No. But under the Code lying is considered perjury and subject to the penalties of perjury. Name, rank, and assignment, please”
“Lieutenant Mangosuthu Kampande, assigned to armaments, fire control on the UWS Olympus Mons.”
There followed a series of questions about the personal history of the real Lieutenant Kampande and about the personnel of the Olympus Mons. To many questions, even personal ones, Kampande-Buthelezi answered, “I don’t remember” or “I do not know.”
Finally, the critical question. “You are not Lieutenant Mangosuthu Kampande of the UWS Olympus Mons. You are Lieutenant Londisizwe Buthelezi of the UWS Isandlwana. Do you deny that?”
“Yes, I do. Emphatically.” His voice was rising, in mock anger.
“Your identity was established by DNA analysis.”
“I still deny it.”
“You are committing perjury.”
“I am not!”
“You tampered with the AI and log of the Olympus Mons and inserted false information, including videos of actions that did not occur.”
“I did not.”
Bauer watched for another fifteen minutes, then took Cisneros outside the viewing room. “You and Farkas have two hours. If he doesn’t confess, go to intensive interrogation. Notify Stahlmann.”
* * *
On his way to his office, Bauer collected Cartier. He needed to talk to the executive officer.
Bauer stood before the large picture window in his office, the only external window in the station, with a remarkable view of the star field. As the station rotated, the view covered 75% of the sky. When not roaming the station, he liked to stand there ruminating over the latest problem. It facilitated his thinking.
“I believe Kilimanjaro, Battleaxe and Isandlwana went rogue,” Bauer began.
“Yes, possibly others. Are any vessels of the entire fleet unaccounted for? Does Central know?”
“They do, sir,” Cartier responded. “Task Force XLIV, the cruiser Yakima and the Knight-class corvettes Tannhauser and Gawain. They sortied from Echo Oscar Lima on a long-range silent search mission deep into Kronlian territory three years ago. They were never heard from again.”
“Echo Oscar Lima? Three years ago? That was Olympus Mons last replenishment stop. Could they have communicated with each other?”
“Possibly, sir. They were in neighboring sectors. XLIV left first by about a month at very high speed. Communications were possible, but Echo Oscar Lima would have heard and recorded them.”
“Do the Kronlians record any contact with XLIV?”
“None, sir. Officer Scranisar and I reviewed their records carefully. Absolutely no evidence of any contact with XLIV.”
“What does Central say?”
“Nothing. They’re content to wait another year for their return”
“That’s wishful thinking! Stupid! I’ll update Brewster on what we’ve learned and our suspicions about XLIV.”
The interrogation of Lieutenant Buthelezi, now in the intensive stage, was proceeding very slowly. He was reacting very badly to the drugs and the doctors feared profound and permanent damage to his psyche. He had confessed to subverting the Olympus Mons AI and log. The extent was yet to be determined.
Brewster was very slow in replying, more than a day. Had to check up the line Bauer thought and protect his ass. Continue what you’re doing. Keep us informed. Don’t be concerned about Task Force XLIV. They will show up.
“What stupidity! No directions! Just continue what you’re doing! Keep us informed! Don’t concern yourself with XLIV!” Bauer was shouting, hitting the wall in frustration. Cartier had never seen his commander so disturbed. He looked tired, harried.
The interrogation of Buthelezi continued more and more slowly with no new results. Cisneros asked to suspend it. Bauer agreed. Begin intensively interrogating the Olympus Mons AI and log officers.
Daily the medical staff discovered one or two more misidentified personnel, an occasional officer. None skilled enough to assist Buthelezi. Developments were agonizingly slow.
* * *
“There’s nothing to do but wait, sir,” Cartier ventured. “Sooner or later Cisneros will turn up some solid information.”
“I know,” Bauer answered testily. “It’s just too hard to wait.”
A light blinked on Cartier’s desk. “Yes?” A pause.
“It’s for you, Admiral.”
Bauer turned on the speaker. “Yes?”
“It’s the Harbormaster, sir. Says it’s urgent!”
The Harbormaster spoke rapidly, almost shouting, voice pitched high with tension. “Sir, I just got a message from the Olympus Mons. The AI spoke to the decom crew.” He looked at notes. “Said, ‘Warning! Warning! The Olympus Mons will self-destruct in six hours. Abandon ship!’ Repeats every minute with a countdown.”
“Whose in charge there?”
“Lieutenant Singh, sir.”
“Tell Lieutenant Singh to take the message seriously. Get the ship away from Charlie. Get everyone off, even if they have to bail out in power suits.”
“Yes, sir. Immediately.”
Bauer glanced at Cartier. “It had to come to this.” Cartier nodded. Bauer called security. “Get Shimada immediately. He may try suicide. Break down his door!”
Shimada appeared at his desk. “What is it, Elliot?” he asked innocently. He knows thought Bauer.
Bauer told Shimada of the explosion threat. “What’s going on, Hideki?”
“How should I know, Elliot?” There was a hint of a smirk. “I’ve been isolated, you know.”
“What’s going on, Hideki?” Bauer shouted.
A pause. “Your people must have opened the AI,” he said. “Shouldn’t do that. It’s a ‘No! No!’ Shouldn’t do that, Elliot.” He was lecturing a small child.
Bauer was exasperated, impatient. Where was Security? “HIDEKI!”
There was a noise off camera. “I seem to have insistent visitors, Elliot. Excuse me while I check.” Shimada moved away.
The noise increased to become the steady thud, thud of a battering ram. A crash. A pause.
A Security officer appeared on the screen. “Admiral, sir. We were too late. He’s dead.”
“How did he die?”
“Disruptor, sir. Small, palm-sized one, easy to sneak past any search.”
* * *
As if on cue, the Olympus Mons exploded. From Bauer’s office, it appeared as an intolerably bright spot that grew and faded through violet, blue, yellow, red. A cloud of debris and gas expanded. The Olympus Mons was more than a thousand klicks from Charlie, from the parked vessels, from the crew that had left it and were picked up by small craft. It was truly the end of an era thought Bauer. Had he passed a crisis point?
* * *
EPILOGUE: Bauer, Cartier, Mensur, and Scranisar gathered for their weekly dinner-discussion. Food was plentiful for all tastes and biosystems. Bauer and Cartier indulged in fine Arakan wines. The Kronlians did not drink beer or wine. Scotch, vodka, and sweet liqueurs were more to their
“Once word spread of Shimada’s suicide, everyone talked.” Cartier was explaining the final developments.
“Everyone knew that a contingent was not coming home. They were free to choose to come home or to desert. Shimada returned to give the semblance of a normal drawdown.”
“So they went rogue?” Mensur asked.
“There was no intent to continue with any sort of military action. Someone had found an earthlike planet at the extreme limits of their range where they hoped to land. Far from United Worlds Federation territory. Even beyond the Kronlian region. Numbers were good, about two thousand with ample supplies. Enough resources to start a settlement.”
“What about Task Force XLIV?”
“We don’t know. Unless they return, we will never know.”
“Are you satisfied with the outcome?”
“No! There is too much we don’t know. We can’t even guess at the final result.”
“Admiral Bauer,” Mensur interjected. “They are not safe. That is not Kronlian territory. They are well into a region controlled by a third party, one that has slagged several of our smaller colonies. We know little about them. Few ship-to-ship contacts. Task Force XLIV could also have encountered them. It’s a very dangerous universe out there.”