Part Two: Kingdom of Free Madrid, Wilderness Space, Galactic North, 13/02/4480
"Commander Hart, how good to see you again." Admiral Alfredo Caldera smiled with genuine warmth on the main viewing screen as Hart's squadron entered the inner sensor envelope of the Free Madrid system, some seven parsecs beyond the system itself. "I trust that the Harpies have had good hunting?" he added, referring to the unofficial name of Hart's squadron.
"Very good, thankyou Admiral." Hart smiled warmly back. "And yes: dozen converted freighters and three dedicated destroyer-types. I'll tell you about the cruiser in person."
"A cruiser?" Caldera couldn't keep the surprise out of his voice. "Now that you must tell me about - I insist!"
"Three point zero two minutes until arrival," interrupted Stevenson.
"Then I'll see you in thirty," added Caldera. "Free Madrid out."
As the image of the deeply tanned admiral vanished, Hart mentally ran over her list for Free Madrid. Established in 2912 - rather late as far as independent human colonies went - Free Madrid had initially been one of those ideologically-driven colonies determined to avoid being reduced to subservience to the Terran Alliance like so many others. Perhaps inevitably, things hadn't turned out that way, but the Free Spanish, as they confusingly called themselves, had eventually come to accept that the benefits of good relations and trade with the Alliance outweighed the costs. Alliance Navy patrols along 'Route North-442.116' was just one of those benefits: a monthly visit by ships of the galaxy's largest and most advanced navy had helped drive most of the pirates from Free Madrid's neighbourhood - and deterred other local powers from engaging in any wars of conquest. The Harpies would spend a day in the system, showing the flag and renewing old friendships, before moving on to Lambert's Star. Despite the prospect of exercises against what was actually a very good local navy, Free Madrid was looking distinctly like the quiet point of their patrol.
The minutes ticked by, until the five-ship squadron arrived, several lightseconds from the Free Madrid capital world. Or rather, from the co-ordinates in hyperspace that corresponded to the capital world, for without precise maps, computers and scanners, hyperspace was essentially the same wherever you were in it. One moment, the ships were surrounded by the twisting lights of hyperspace and the various civilian ships travelling to and from the tiny one-system kingdom, the next they had rotated out of that alien realm and back into ordinary space. Ahead blazed a sun that could have been Sol's twin sister, whilst Hart could just make out a faint blue tinge to what looked otherwise like a distant star - their destination.
"We've arrived, Commander. Current position is six point zero lightseconds from number three, decreasing at a rate of one one two point zero K's," reported Stevenson.
"Lieutenant Stevenson, plasma drives until the turnover point, then gravitics on the way in."
"Aye sir. Squadron acknowledges orders. Permission to go to manual?" he asked, twisting in his chair to look back and up at his commander.
Hart made a show of rolling her eyes. Everyone in the squadron knew of Stevenson's love of manual flight - but Hart had to admit he was one of the best she'd seen, especially for a starship that massed over a two point six million tonnes. "Very well then Lieutenant," she said at last, before adding: "Try not to break anything."
"Like hell - sir." Stevenson retorted, as his screen switched to display everything he'd need to control the destroyer.
Deep inside massive, cylindrical engines, arcane devices again came to life, converting raw energy into matter before accelerating the newly-formed particles out at nearly lightspeed. Even with modern engineering it was a horrendously wasteful means of propulsion, possible only to civilisations that could tap the literally unlimited energies of hyperspace and which were determined to do away with the logistics that fuel or reaction mass would have required. Even using the engines as photon drives was more efficient, but past disasters had shown the danger of using what were effectively giant lasers anywhere near an inhabited planet. The current plasma drive technology by contrast produced equally large particle beams - but unlike with photons, charged particles tended to disperse much more rapidly, making them much safer by comparison. Still, the danger to inhabited worlds and other starships was very real - hence why, a little short of the halfway point between the five Alliance destroyers and the Free Madrid world, Stevenson shut off the plasma drives and switched to the gravitic drive. Although less powerful and requiring a suitably massive celestial body nearby, gravitic drives were far safer nearer planets: like a tractor or pressor beam, they used the massive bulk of the planet itself as reaction mass.
Two minutes after having appeared within the Free Madrid system, Hart's five destroyers had docked with the north polar orbital fort.
+ + +
"So my dear," Caldera began, as he offered her the glass of what looked like whiskey, "what can you tell an old man about the wonders of this galaxy?"
Hart settled down and sipped, then looked up in surprise. "Tayan whiskey? You're doing well for yourself," she added, narrowing her eyes slyly. "Retirement present, 'old man'?"
"Ha! No doubt the King would like me to by now," Caldera admitted, "but I'm not going anywhere whilst that idiot Fernandez is still gunning for my job. No, we found a dozen crates of this stuff being smuggled about, oh, two weeks ago, and..." he shrugged. "You've been holding out on me, Commander. I never knew the Alliance had such treasures. Now, answer my question."
"All right." Settling down into the armchair, Hart closed here eyes and thought back. "The route's been quiet last time, except around the cluster," she began, referring to the small cluster of young stars that lay halfway along her patrol route and some thousand parsecs from Free Madrid. Caldera would know which one she was referring to. "We got those three destroyer-types there."
"How'd you manage that then? I thought the pirates around there were always too cautious to come out."
Hart nodded. "They are, but I had the Aello play the damaged freighter and the other ships except mine act as the rest of a priority convoy. The Strophades was their lone escort. From Free Madrid, as I recall. It was touch-and-go whether or not we'd fooled their scanners for a while though."
Caldera nodded in understanding. Even with the best in subspace technology, it was difficult to fool another starship's scanners. Had the pirates had more modern or larger scanners they would likely have seen through Hart's trick. "So they rushed in to grab your ships before any other escorts nearby could respond, and bit off more than they could chew. I trust the Royal Space Navy's Strophades performed well."
"She certainly did," Hart agreed, grinning. "It looks like whichever band is operating out of the cluster is using old Conglomerate ships. You might want to make sure that gets out by the way, if you don't know already. Anyway, what else... the Namrin are squabbling amongst themselves again, Koros refugees are trying to escape from the war at Voon'cha, and a Ban caravan was mistaken for smugglers by Tanner's Star, so the Ban are calling for holy war, although they may be at it by now."
"The usual then," Caldera said once it was clear Hart had stopped, and the Alliance Navy officer nodded. "You've also heard about the situation at Lambert's Star I assume?"
"Only that there was fighting there after a relativistic strike on the capital. I'm still wondering how they managed to do that."
"So are we, but someone there instituted a total lockdown on the system. Nobody's allowed in or out, comms are jammed, and as they're not a part of the League..." Caldera shrugged. "I'm afraid we don't know much more than you do. We did manage to get some news out though, from a high speed freighter that was leaving the system when the fighting broke out. Apparently the groups in the outer planets there are fighting amongst themselves as well, and a lot of damage has been done to the orbital shipyards and forts as well."
"So they're even more vulnerable to the usual opportunistic raiders... and it wasn't a co-ordinated strike either. Interesting."
+ + +
The rest of Hart's day in the star system passed the way most such trips did, with Free Madrid's Royal Space Navy engaging in exercises with the Alliance destroyers, and Hart's customary visit to the Terran Alliance embassy in the capital, Corombo. Closer to its sun than Terra was to Sol, Free Madrid III, or Valencia, was considerably hotter for most of the year, and Hart was grateful for the official aircar that Admiral Caldera always made available for her. She knew her Navy-modded body could handle temperatures well in excess of the forty-five degrees in the capital without trouble, but the aircar allowed her to travel quickly and in comfort without rubbing in the fact that she was better suited to the environment than the locals were.
The sound of air rushing past the aircar returned suddenly as the automated vehicle slowed and exited the vacuum-tunnel that let it achieve hypersonic speeds in the middle of a city, and slowed to a stop just outside the gates of a walled compound: the Alliance embassy. "Morning Commander. Ambassador Fisher's expecting you," said the Alliance Guard lance-corporal on duty outside the gates as Hart approached.
"Thanks Harry. Anything interesting happening?"
"Nothing much Nat," the lance-corporal admitted, his eyes never leaving the unending stream of vehicles and pedestrians that flowed past the compound. "Busy day though."
"I can see," replied Hart, looking past the gates and at the queue extending outside the main building. "Trade permits again?"
"Yeah, think so. Plus the locals just took in another bunch of those poor Koros buggers a day ago, and we've got the lion's share. Anyway you'd best be getting in; I'll see you on the way out."
"Cya then." Smiling, Hart gave the guard a final nod and strode quickly through the compound.
Almost immediately, several of the Koros saw her navy blue uniform and hurried over, hooting and whistling away in their own language, ignoring the embassy holograms and their attempts to hand out aid packages. A few made an attempt to speak English, but even Hart struggled to understand their attempts. Most of them seemed to be asking for asylum, if Hart understood them correctly. Holding up her hands to ward off the diminutive centaurs and repeating apologies that she could not help them, she hurried through the crowd and slipped past a pair of Borltan merchants at the doors, pretending not to notice the flashes of angry orange rippling across their fur as her uniform got her past the queue.
The interior was considerably cooler than outside, and Hart glanced briefly about the white marble interior. A group of short, heavily-built Dren were engaged in an animated conversation with some of the staff over what sounded like problems with their visas, but other than that the reception radiated a sense of hushed order. Satisfied that Fisher wasn't waiting for her down here, Hart turned and headed for the lift to the sixth floor and his office.
+ + +
"Come in and have a seat, Natalya. The trip from Liberty was good I take it?" Ambassador Fisher waved languidly towards a chair and dismissed the holoscreen in front of him with a thought. Like most humans in the Alliance, Alan Fisher was - or rather, appeared to be - no more than about thirty, although Hart noticed that he'd shaved off the fuzz of hair he'd been sporting during her last visit. At almost nine hundred years old though, he was probably the oldest human living in the entire system, and he'd spent most of that time working in the Foreign Office in one system or another, and in his dull grey suit and tie, could have come from almost any period in the last two and a half thousand years or so.
"Thanks Alan. We came here from Athens though." At his querying look, Hart continued. "Oh, nothing much. Just decided to shake up our usual routine and escort a couple of dozen bulk freighters from the Podavi Protectorate to the station, before they picked up their proper escort. Does the bad guys good to keep guessing as to quite when we'll turn up around here. Didn't meet any though," she added.
"Ah well. Anyway, it's good to see you again, although I see you've still not taken my advice."
"Says the man whose head is so bald you could reflect comms lasers off it," Hart responded. "You may like to see me with three feet of hair, but I have no intention of having to deal with that every morning."
"So get your ship to deal with it then." Fisher grinned openly.
"You don't play fair."
"Of course not, that's why I'm an ambassador and you're just a Navy officer." Hart had to chuckle at that, and Fisher leant back as she did so. "Ah well. If we had time later on I'd take you out to that nice Garamorian restaurant I told you about last time and we can swap stories there. However... you've heard about Lambert's Star?"
Hart nodded. "Only that there's a civil war and that I'm not to get my ships involved. Admiral Caldera said that someone there has locked down the system entirely, and that the independence movements were fighting one another."
"Pretty much, although it's not a total lockdown. I'm told that DI One still has a network in place there," began Fisher, referring to the Department of Intelligence's foreign espionage section. "I'm not privy to much of what they know, but they did discover that my opposite number, Tom Schwarzschild, survived."
"He did? Well, we all know how hard it is to kill a Marine, even an ex-Marine. He can't have been at the embassy though."
"No, apparently he'd been given a tour of some new project or something... whatever," Fisher waved a hand dismissively. "Point is, he survived, but one of the local groups now has him prisoner." He opened a draw and fished out a datapad. "Here's your official orders - Navy Command wants him rescued if possible, but doesn't want you to interfere with their little war if you can avoid it."
Hart skimmed through the message. As she'd hoped, this one was considerably more informative, although if the reports on the fighting were any indication it'd be out of date by the time she arrived in-system. "Hmm... without interfering in things? I take it the Foreign Office is still deciding what to do then."
"Pretty much," Fisher responded. "I think you'd actually need to lose a star nation out here for Terra to notice sometimes. My sources back home say we'll probably just send some ships, wave a big stick around and maybe hit a few of the factions with it until the rest get the message."
"Nothing flashy, huh," commented Hart, noticing Fisher's sour tone at the thought of more Alliance 'gunboat diplomacy'.
"Or clever," he added. "Not like whoever comes up with these ideas is the one who has to spend the next few decades trying to convince the survivors that we're nice guys really." Fisher shook himself, and sat up a little straighter. "Still, you mustn't let me get you depressed as well. We've still got a few minutes left before my next appointment, so fill me in on what's been happening in your neck of space."
+ + +
"Commander on deck."
"I have the conn." Hart nodded to Stevenson as he vacated her chair, and settled down into it. "Lieutenant Tang, inform the squadron that due to the situation at Lambert's Star we will be departing immediately, then apologise to Admiral Caldera's office for the disruption to his exercises. Lieutenant Stevenson, plot our course and get us to Lambert's Star. Cassandra, call up the other ships: Navy Command's just handed us one of those delicate situations we all so love."
"ETA Lambert's Star, six point two hours," announced Stevenson, as the bridge crew went into action.
A few moments later, the five Alliance destroyers rotated into hyperspace, but this time Hart was concentrating not on the view, but instead the four faces hovering on holoscreens around her chair.