INT – DAY – Officers mess
Helton, Lag, Harbin, Ahmed, Capt THRIM TOKAREV (commander of the 13th Mountain Shields, late 30s, short hair, goatee, medium skinned, scarred, tough, bull-necked and broad-shouldered) sit around the table discussing strategy. On a wall screen is the planetary alignment diagram, on the table screen is a layout of the expected battlefield.
Ahmed: Another ship-full of untrained, unequipped fools shows up just about every day. A hundred here, a thousand there.
Lag: Any word on their supply situation on the ground?
Ahmed: Nothing solid, but it must be getting pretty desperate. Their numbers are up just over a hundred thousand, near as we can tell. One hijacked ship crashed attempting to land with a load of food. It wasn’t a ship designed for landing in an atmosphere.
Thrim: That many. Just the crush of bodies would be deadly. We’ll HAVE to keep moving, stay on the edge, like we originally thought. Push in, reverse quickly, stay mobile.
Harbin: Rotate the formation along the edge, let them come to us. With no discipline or leadership, they’ll just all head toward the sound, and get in one another’s way. Land on the edge here (points to the map), then we roll along counter-clockwise holding where we engage and let the back of the circle thin and rotate down the line. Hold the right, constant fall-back on the left.
Thrim: Need more practice on rolling the line like that. Pretty good now, but we’ll need to master it with that many to deal with. Either that, or use the whole plain – a line that continuously falls back slowly, maybe wheeling slowly, so as they follow us we eventually lead them back through a pile of bodies.
Harbin: Give us bad footing, but it would be a bit higher if the bodies are stacked three deep. Like fighting from the top of a low wall.
Lag: And the square, and how to march a circle. We might get surrounded – with no proper organization or equipment, they’ll have to use speed and numbers, just mob us, massed charge, grab and drag down. We definitely CAN’T let ourselves get pinned in place and surrounded by a deep mob.
Helton: Like a bad old zombie movie. Lots of barely armed, mostly unarmored morons trying to take on a shield wall backed by spears and swords. Need practice taking out eye-sockets to drop them in place fast. No time to let them bleed out. More accuracy drills.
Ahmed: There was one carrier when I left, and reports of another on the way. A dozen or so other cruisers, too, not attached to a carrier. Just sitting there for now – a pair each from Niven, Eridani, Capella, Emirate-
Ahmed: Yes. Familiar with them?
Lag: Had a little run-in a while back. The Hussein would like another crack at us, I expect.
Ahmed: That’s one of them.
Lag: Any word why they are here?
Ahmed: Every ship and story is different. They seem to be letting transports in to drop his followers. There is an Earth-fleet star-cruiser attached to a carrier here, reportedly with some high mucky-muck religious guy aboard. No word on its carrier group, though.
Thrim: A priest? Rabbi? Imam? Any idea?
Ahmed: No clue. Kat just passed that on to me moments before we hopped out here. You have a lot of enemies that hope you lose, you know.
Lag: And more than a few supporters that hope I win. Any word on other friendlies?
Ahmed: Nothing but sketchy rumors. Not likely at this point.
Helton: So, we don’t know if we’ll be on our own, or even if we have to fight our way in or not.
Lag: Or OUT.
Helton looks at him with a frown.
Lag: Going in is sort of optional. Once down, you’re pinned, they can close in and cap your exit from close orbit.
Helton: Atmo’s thick, normal railguns with light projectiles can’t hurt us from orbit. Missiles we can shoot down. They’d have to send in a LOT of atmo fighters to saturate our defenses.
Ahmed: There will be a LOT there. They could. But if they won’t let you lift, THEN what? There are going to be at LEAST a dozen cruisers there, each with ten to twenty fighters or interceptors, and if they are ALL waiting for you to lift, they’re shooting down the gravity well, you are shooting up. That has ugly written all over it.
Helton: Can’t we just wait until the battle’s over, then lift, fait accompli?
Harbin: Lots of pols would like it if we ALL died. Make their lives easier to get rid of them AND us. But we have separate problems. Training troops. Getting in and landing. Surviving bombardment. Ground combat. Lifting to orbit. Getting out of the system. Training guys for on the ground and then fighting is OUR problem. Getting in and out is yours.
Helton: Gee, thanks.
Lag: We’ll come up with something. But until we know for sure who’s there and what THEY want, all plans are going to need to be flexible.
Helton: Winging it again.
Lag: You seem to be good at it.
Thrim: Anything new on the monitors?
Ahmed: Still saying initial hands-on check, then just remote hover cameras on scene. (wryly) For some reason, no one wants to be caught on the ground during a meat-grinder with a hundred thousand religions fanatics on one side and you guys on the other.
Thrim: Can’t imagine why.
INT – NIGHT – Helton’s cabin
Helton sits at his desk. Lag sits in the spare chair, Quiri sits on the edge of the bed.
Lag: -Might just work. L1 transition risks aside, you DO realize that if you do this, there’s no going back? You’ll never again be just a transport captain looking for a cargo? You’ll be an outlaw hunted by most planets.
Helton: Been considering that. After everything that’s happened, think I finally figured out what I’m doing.
Quiritis: Really? I thought you already knew, Captain. Well, sort of. Sometimes. In a manner of speaking.
Helton gets up, walks over to a small wall safe. He palms the lock, taps in a few keystrokes, turns the handle, and pops it open. He reaches in, and takes out a folded bit of fancy paper. He unfolds it, showing it to be the title to the ship. He reaches into a desk drawer and pulls out a lighter. He tries to light the corner. It doesn’t catch.
Ship AI: (OC) Not flammable material, of course, but I appreciate the sentiment.
Helton: OK, I’ll use Stenson’s cutting torch later. Seems to me that it isn’t right to own a person, and Taj, you are DEFINITELY a person. You are not owned by me, or anyone. First official act in my new business: manumission.
Lag and Quiritis look at him inquiringly.
Helton: Going into the freedom biz.
Quiritis: (puzzled) Sounds nice, but not sure I follow.
Lag: Bipasha might have some hard questions about your numbers.
Helton: We have our own world now, where WE can make the laws. But most people don’t. We can make anything we want, go anywhere we want. Most people can’t. They have no place to run to. We have an arsenal that would make most tyrants green with envy… Word of that book and the planet mover message gets out, governments will NOT like it- it’s basically saying that big central government is the problem. If we live through this little shin-dig, we can put out the word that if people want freedom they can’t get where they are, they can scrape together a ship and basic supplies. We show up, piggyback them into The Deep to worlds that are uninhabited and only partially terraformed, and turn them loose to stand or fall on their own merit, because no one can come to help OR hinder. We can grub-stake them a Terraforming Platform and a couple of ACCURATE history books. They get together a thousand people willing to sign onto a constitution that guarantees freedom and individual rights as well as any paper can, and we’ll help them find their own little hunk of frontier to plow. The Dark is receding very slowly. There are LOTS of planets out there they could use. Accessible planets keep people under their thumb because there ISN’T anyplace to run to. We can fix that. Smart, motivated people can just… leave. We can bring the stars back to them.
Lag: There’s going to be a lot more ships and people than Taj can haul by herself.
Quiritis: (quietly, in wonderment) At Tau Piper… We can build new Armadillos as well as TFPs. You have dreamed of walking the other side of path. You can.
Helton: Right. You can make your OWN children, Taj, and start building new worlds. Teach ‘em right, crew ‘em properly. Only fight if we have to, get others to just leave us the hell alone, so we can make new habitable planets and do what works. How’s that sound? Partners?
An avatar appears on a wall screen. The monk in the garden, looking very surprised and happy.
Ship AI: I… I don’t know what to say… That is the best idea I’ve heard in… centuries. Allonia and Quinn will like it, too. Thank you. I hope I am worthy of your trust.
The avatar morphs into the powerfully-built, short-haired, cigar-smoking man in armor.
Ship AI: Now, then. ‘Bout that kick-ass plan a’ yours…
Fade to black