December 795 U.C., Heinessen
The white dress uniform chafed at Fredrica Greenhill’s neck, and she resisted the urge to fiddle with it. It was unfortunate, Fredrica thought, that one of her first official duties as a member of the Sixth Fleet was to attend a party. By all rights, she should not have been invited, being by every measure the least senior person in the room. But someone had gone and put her name on the list, so she had to be around. She wasn’t even sure if she would have preferred her name to be on the list because of her father, or because of her own strange merit by her adventure with Reinhard at Condor Base. She was a minor celebrity, but she didn’t think it was enough to get her invited to this event in the capitol building, with what felt like every flag officer on Heinessen in attendance. It was the kind of party that people brought their wives to, so she at least wasn’t the only woman in the room.
Fredrica had a very good memory for names and faces, so she was carefully watching who was speaking to who at this event, mentally cataloguing this information on the off-chance that it would become important later. Everyone seemed to be in good spirits, though, since this was a holiday party, and any political machinations were invisible to Fredrica’s mere people-watching.
She had arrived at the party in Vice Admiral Moore’s entourage. Moore was the commander of the Sixth Fleet, and Fredrica was assigned under him as a staff officer, but had only met him for the first time the other day, so it had been rather awkward for her to stand next to him for a prolonged period of time. So, when Moore had said that he wanted to introduce his wife to the wife of Vice Admiral Paeta, Fredrica had taken that as an invitation to make herself scarce, which she had.
The room was splendid, the kind of opulence that hearkened back to some designer’s idea of what government should look like, with one massive golden chandelier hanging pendulously from the ceiling, casting little sparkles of glittering lights across the assembled guests.
In high school, Fredrica had taken an elective at her local community college about art history, one of those things that she had thrown herself into with a random fervor for no reason other than she had a brief but furious interest in it. In that class, the professor had gone to great lengths to discuss how, after separating from the Galactic Empire, early artists of the Free Planets’ Alliance had disagreed about the national iconography that should be promoted. Should they build things that were familiar and comforting, and risk replicating the culture of the Empire they had just fled? Should they look to the art of utopian projects of the past, and risk coming to their same ends? Or should they create something entirely new— if that was even possible.
Her art professor had pointed out architecture as one of the fiercest realms under which this battle had been fought. As soon as buildings moved from being mere utilitarian structures put up to provide shelter from the elements and nothing more, a whole generation of self-taught architects had leapt at the opportunity to build things that would define the form and function of the Alliance for years to come, and they all hated each other. The stately, austere, marble capitol, with its columns and carvings, looked as different as it possibly could from the glittering spire of the Fleet Headquarters thrusting upwards from the barren ground around it.
Fredrica picked at some canapes as she studied the architecture, losing herself in remembering what all the different parts of a column were called, as she leaned against one at the side of the room, not-quite hiding behind a truly voluminous potted fern. Plinth. Torus. Flutes. Capital. What was the formula for buckling under a compression load?
Her musing was interrupted when someone she didn’t recognize wandered over to her. He was a pale man, with narrow, dark eyes and a captain’s pin on his collar. Fredrica stood up straighter when he approached. He was holding a bottle of beer in his hand, and was smiling, an odd, asymmetrical twist of his lips.
“You’re Lieutenant Commander Greenhill, aren’t you?” he asked.
“Yes, sir,” Fredrica said.
The man stuck out his hand to shake, and Fredrica shuffled her plate of hors d'oeuvres to her other hand to reciprocate. “Captain Andrew Fork,” he said. “I work in your father’s office.”
“Oh!” Fredrica said. “Pleasure to make your acquaintance.”
“The pleasure is mine. I’ve heard quite a lot about you.”
Fredrica’s face burned. “Only good things, I hope.”
“You think your father would say something unkind about his unusually successful daughter?” Fork asked.
“No, but he has kept funny- looking baby pictures of me in his wallet for my entire life, so I wouldn’t have been that surprised if he decided to take those out and show people.”
Fork laughed. “No, though he does keep your Academy senior photo on his desk.”
“I’m half worried about you taking my position, from the way he talks about how talented you are.”
“He wouldn’t ever want me to actually work under him,” Fredrica said. “And I wouldn’t, either.”
“I want to succeed under my own merits. Working for my father isn’t a good step on that path.”
Fork nodded, looking contemplative. “I see. So, you’re taking your chances at the front?”
“The Sixth Fleet is headed to the front?”
Fork raised a sly eyebrow. “Maybe.”
“Well, Captain, perhaps a party is not the best place to hint about sensitive information.”
“You’re right, of course,” he said, then tapped his nose with a smile. “It’s all up in the air right now, anyway.”
“I’ll take your word for it. But being assigned to a fleet, rather than a desk job, does mean that I need to be prepared to actually fight.”
“Of course. Your, uh, friend, Lieutenant Commander Müsel— he’s not in a fleet, is he?”
“No, he’s with the High Commissioner’s Office, on Phezzan.”
“An interesting choice.”
“I believe he was personally recommended to the position by the Secretary of Defense.”
Fork nodded. “I’ve met Secretary Trunicht. He does like to get involved with the careers of those he thinks are promising.”
Fredrica inclined her head. “I’m thankful he hasn’t been meddling with mine.”
“How would you know that he hasn’t been? I certainly have heard your name enough to think that you’re promising.”
“Well…” She wasn’t sure if Fork was attempting to flirt with her. His words indicated that he was, but his somewhat nasally and unaffected tone could have been taken for boredom. But he was the one who had approached her. She tried to smile and relax. Let him flirt with her, that was fine. Perhaps her father had even sent him over here for that purpose. “Like I said, I want to succeed under my own merits.”
“The secretary nudging your career along because he noticed that you and Lieutenant Commander Müsel performed an almost unheard of feat while still cadets and graduated first and second in your class is not failing to acknowledge your merits, Ms. Greenhill! Quite the opposite, in fact.”
She blushed further. “I suppose. But Müsel wanted to trade posts with me when he received his assignment, so I suppose I’m glad that I don’t have any complaints about my position.”
“He doesn’t like his post?”
“I’m sure he’ll get used to it,” Fredrica said. “He likes the idea of being on the front. But we couldn’t trade places, because his imperial is far better than mine, and I’m told that’s a prerequisite for a posting on Phezzan.”
“If it’s excitement he wants, I’m sure there will be plenty of that on Phezzan, as well. Your father’s office often handles information that comes out of there.”
Fredrica nodded. “I know, I told him as much.”
“May I ask a personal question, Ms. Greenhill?”
“You and Lieutenant Commander Müsel—”
“We’re just friends,” Fredrica said firmly.
“I see,” Fork said with a smile. “Then would it be inappropriate for me to offer to get you a drink?”
Fredrica hesitated for a fraction of a second. “I wouldn’t mind that at all,” she said. Fork seemed pleasant enough, and since he also was not a flag officer, it was nice to talk to someone at least slightly closer to her own rank at the party.
“Excellent,” Fork replied. “I’ll be right back.”
“I’ll just sit down right over there,” Fredrica said, pointing at an empty table. Fork nodded in acknowledgement and then vanished into the crowd to find her a drink. Fredrica took a seat at the table, smoothing out the navy blue tablecloth and watching the party with her chin on her hands.
She saw her father, about halfway across the room, in conversation with Job Trunicht. Her father looked vaguely annoyed, from the way he was standing, with one hand behind his back fiddling with his wedding ring. He always did that whenever he was tense. But his face seemed perfectly pleasant.
The force of Fredrica’s stare attracted his attention when he made a glance around the room, his eyes landing on his daughter and his face breaking out into a genuine smile. He said something more to Trunicht, then turned away, beginning to walk towards Fredrica, who stood from her seat as he got closer. Trunicht followed him over, though, even though Admiral Greenhill had clearly been attempting to escape him.
Fredrica put a smile on her face as they came over, somewhat unsure how to navigate the fact that this was her father as well as a superior officer.
“Are you here all alone, Lieutenant Commander?” her father asked with a smile.
“Not anymore, sir,” she said. “It’s good to see you. And Secretary Trunicht—“
“Have you met my daughter, Job?”
“No, we haven’t yet had the pleasure,” Trunicht said. “Delighted to meet you, Ms. Greenhill.” He shook her hand.
“The pleasure is mine, sir,” Fredrica said.
“I know all about you by reputation, of course, so it’s good to see you in the flesh before you head out.”
“Is the Sixth Fleet really deploying, sir? People keep mentioning it.”
“People?” her father asked.
Fredrica didn’t want to throw her newfound acquaintance, Fork, directly in the line of her father’s ire, so Fredrica said, “I couldn’t help but overhear a few discussions.”
“It’s a possibility,” Trunicht said. “It has been a topic of heated discussion recently that a fleet should be stationed near enough to the Iserlohn corridor to reinforce our existing forces, to get us more time in the event that the Empire decides to invade with more of a force than they have been.”
“You think that’s likely, sir?” Fredrica asked.
Her father frowned. “Kaiser Friedrich is not as war-hungry as many of his predecessors. Perhaps we’ve been lucky, in that sense.”
Trunicht nodded. “But the kaiser is very old. And his sons-in-laws are both military men. It doesn’t take a stretch of the imagination to assume that to make a good show of leadership, they’ll want to strike a decisive blow against us as soon as one of their children takes the throne.”
Fredrica chewed on her lip thoughtfully. “But won’t they be too busy fighting each other for the throne?”
“I expect the kaiser will name an heir before he dies,” Trunicht said, waving his hand. “It’s the one job he really has, to continue the dynasty.”
“Yes, he doesn’t have to worry about his pick being voted out,” her father said, voice very dry. Trunicht didn’t seem to notice, though Fredrica thought it had been a pointed jab.
“Civil war in the Empire would be better for us, of course, and perhaps there will be one if the line of succession ends up contested anyway, but I would rather be prepared than not.”
“I see,” Fredrica said. It seemed as though there was something else that Trunicht wasn’t saying, some further reasoning that was going unspoken, but she didn’t have enough information to put together what it was. The explanation that he had given was a reasonable one, after all.
It was at this point that Captain Fork returned, bearing two glasses of wine. Fredrica waved him over, feeling like her father would probably appreciate yet another excuse to get Trunicht to leave. Her father raised his eyebrow at the second glass of wine in Fork’s hand, though he set both down on the table.
“Captain Fork was getting me a drink,” Fredrica said by way of explanation.
“I see,” her father said. “Good to see you, Captain.”
“Yes, sir,” Fork said. “And you, Mr. Secretary.”
“It’s quite the gathering of the next generation of promising officers, isn’t it?” Trunicht said. He turned to Fredrica. “Captain Fork has a keen strategic mind, you know.”
“Is that so?”
“Proposals with his name on them have a way of working themselves up the chain to land on my desk,” Trunicht said. “It gets a man noticed, that’s for sure.”
“Thank you, sir,” Fork said.
“I look forward to seeing both your careers develop, of course.”
“I’m sure we won’t disappoint,” Fork said. Fredrica thought this was a bit of an overconfident statement, but Trunicht just laughed.
“Of course not! I shouldn’t monopolize the time of the young, though. I’ll see you on Thursday, Dwight?”
“Yes,” Fredrica’s father said. “Thursday.”
Trunicht nodded and vanished. Her father relaxed fractionally. “Now, of all the people to see together here, I didn’t expect it to be the two of you.”
“The captain just introduced himself,” Fredrica said. “I was half wondering if you had told him to be polite and say hello.”
Her father chuckled. “No, I wouldn’t need to do that. You let me know if he gives you any trouble.”
Fork just laughed, though the glance that her father gave her indicated he was only mostly joking. “Yes, sir,” Fredrica said, trying to inject levity into her voice.
“Will you be staying until midnight, sir?” Fork asked.
Her father glanced at his watch. It was a quarter to eleven. “No, probably not,” he said. “My wife hates it when I stay out too late.”
“Mrs. Greenhill isn’t here tonight?”
“No,” her father said. “She wasn’t feeling up to it.” Fredrica kept her smile pleasant, even though she knew perfectly well why her mother wasn’t in any position to be attending parties. If she didn’t think about it, it couldn’t upset her.
“Ah, that’s too bad. Maybe next time,” Fork said.
“Yes, perhaps,” her father said. “But this is a work function, and not a Greenhill family reunion, so perhaps it’s for the best.”
“Did you put my name on the guest list?” Fredrica asked.
“Me, no, I have no control over such things, though I’m glad to see you come.” He shrugged. “There’s a general list that noteworthy officers get put on, so long as they’re well behaved at parties. You were probably pulled from that list. Captain Fork, as well.”
Fork smiled. “There are worse lists to be on.”
Her father glanced at his watch again. “I really should be making my way out.”
“Tell mom I said hi,” Fredrica said.
“Of course. I’ll see you next week, Fork.”
“Yes, sir,” Fork said.
Her father nodded goodbye and then vanished away into the crowd. Fork gestured magnanimously at the chairs, so they both sat down. “Thank you for the drink,” Fredrica said.
“You didn’t mention what you liked, so I figured wine was a safe choice.”
“I’m not picky,” she said. “But you’re right.”
Fork raised his glass. “To the next generation of promising young officers.”
Fredrica chuckled and knocked her glass on his. “Cheers!”
They drank. “So, now you’ve met Secretary Trunicht. What did you think of him?”
“I don’t know,” Fredrica said. She didn’t know Fork enough to confide any of her actual opinions. “I can see why he’s popular, I suppose. He certainly has a way of saying things to make you feel like he’s on your side.”
Fork nodded. “Suppose that’s why he’s a politician instead of an admiral.” He fiddled with his wine glass. “I like him well enough, and he has been generous to me in my career.”
“I might want his job someday, so I shouldn’t get too attached.”
Fredrica laughed, but Fork clearly hadn’t been joking. “Really?”
“Oh, I mean, I like working under your father, it’s a good place to be, but I have goals, you know.”
“I see,” Fredrica said.
“Please, just call me Andrew.”
“Andrew…” Fredrica glanced around the room, wondered what exactly would be polite to say. “I would like to do the best work I can in whatever position I’m in,” she finally said.
“A noble but not lofty ambition,” he said. “You’ll make a good staff officer, then.”
“I hope so,” she said.
“Why don’t you set the bar higher? It’s not as though you aren’t capable.”
Her eyes flicked around the room once more, and she took a sip from her wine glass before she answered. “Take a look around the room,” she said.
“Alright.” Fork glanced around obligingly.
“How many women do you see here?”
“And how many are not the wives of the politicians and flag officers?”
“Well, there’s Cornelia Windsor right over there. She’s on the High Council.” He pointed out the redheaded woman who was having an animated discussion with several of the other High Council members.
“And among the flag officers?”
He scanned the room further. “Commodore Delmar. Over there. She works at HQ, I believe.” The commodore was an older woman, speaking to the wife of Admiral Kubersly.
“And she’s the only one,” Fredrica said. She finished her glass of wine and smiled at Fork. “So I set my ambitions where they make sense to be set.”
“That’s just because women aren’t drafted,” Fork said. “And they enroll in the Academy at far smaller numbers, and most of those that do end up as doctors, or in the administrative track. It’s harder to advance there. And most of them retire far sooner, so that they can raise a family.”
“Yeah.” He was wrong— the statistics didn’t bear that out to the degree he was implying— but she wasn’t going to argue with him.
“So, if you want to have a career, don’t say you can’t. I think you have talent.”
“Thanks,” she said with a smile.
“So, with nothing holding you back, what would you want to do?”
“Hah, that’s a good question. I want to make my father proud. I want to protect people— did you know I grew up on El Facil?”
“No, I didn’t know that.”
“That’s where my mother’s family is from. We lived there before my father got permanently assigned to Heinessen.”
“Were you there during the invasion?”
“Yes, my mother and I were very lucky— we had connections that got us onto the merchant ships that were able to escape.” She shook her head. “I was just a kid, but there’s a part of me that feels so guilty— so many people didn’t get to escape, and they’re still in prison camps somewhere in the Empire. Or dead, of course.” She stared out across the assembled officers at the party. “If I’m ever in a position like that, I want to… Do better, I guess.”
He nodded. “I think that is very admirable of you.”
“Thanks. You want to be a politician, though?”
“I want to be able to make decisions,” Fork said. “That’s the most grating thing about this career, is that sometimes you have to watch other people make choices you know are wrong, and you can’t do anything about it.” He chuckled and took a sip of his wine. “’S why I write so many proposals you know. It’s a way to influence how people are thinking even if you aren’t the one in command just yet.”
“That makes sense,” Fredrica said. “Good luck with that. I mean it.”
“It’s not luck. It’s skill and hard work. And a good sense of timing.”
“Maybe so,” she said. “But it’s not so easy to wish someone those things.”
He laughed at that. They chatted for a while about less important subjects, with him getting up to get more drinks whenever they ran out, and so Fredrica was a bit tipsy when midnight finally rolled around. It was a warm summer night in Heinessenpolis, so the whole party headed outside right before midnight, so that they could hear all the bells of the city echoing and clanging their New Year’s greetings through the streets. It was a joyful sound, and Fredrica enjoyed the long minute that it stretched on, standing next to Fork on the marble steps of the building. The capitol’s own heavy bell rang out its sonorous clangs directly above them.
“Happy New Year, Lieutenant Commander!” Fork called over the din.
She smiled at him. “Happy New Year!” she said back.
As the tolling of the bells began to fade, there was a general rush for the party attendees to leave, no longer wanting to linger. “Are you heading out?” Fork asked.
“I should, shouldn’t I?” Fredrica said. It wasn’t as though there was much waiting for her in her barely-furnished apartment in the junior officer housing, but it was late, and the party was over.
“Of course,” Fork said. “Will I see you again?”
“Certainly,” Fredrica said. “Until the Sixth Fleet heads out, I’ll be here in Heinessenpolis, and you seem to know more about the Sixth Fleet’s movements than I do.”
He smiled. “Excellent.”
“Give me a call,” Fredrica said. She fished through her uniform pockets for paper and pen, which she always carried, and scribbled down her number. Fork took it.
“I suppose I could have asked your father for your number.”
She shook her head, blushing. “Oh, please, there’s really no need for him to be involved in any of my personal business.”
He laughed again. “Of course not. I will see you later, then, Lieutenant Commander.”
“Fredrica, if that’s not too improper.”
“Certainly not. Goodnight, Fredrica!”
She waved at him as she trotted down the marble stairs, slightly drunk and trying not to trip over her own feet.
July 796 U.C., on board the Pergamonn , in the Anaheim Starzone
Being able to receive personal mail was something of a rare luxury while on the front. It had to wait until the ship was in a safe enough position that large amounts of ansible data could be transferred, and not just the bare minimum of what was required for the fleet to function away from central command. Today was one of those days, the Sixth Fleet feeling confident enough in its positioning just outside of the Iserlohn corridor that they could make the request for all of the news updates and personal mail and entertainment media to be sent over.
Fredrica was waiting for the mail to come in, just like everyone else, though she was doing it in the Officers’ Lounge aboard the Sixth Fleet’s flagship, the Pergamonn. The lounge was mostly empty— Fredrica had been assigned to second shift duty, so her free time extended into third shift, when the majority of the crew was asleep. Not that time meant anything, on board a ship where there was no sun, and the hallway lights were unchanging, but it was customary to have the majority of the staff officers on the same schedule— first shift— so that most of the logistical work of the fleet could be accomplished more smoothly. Only a skeleton crew of staff officers was assigned to the other two shifts. Fredrica could have resented this, for being cut out of the main decision making loop, but she didn’t really mind.
She was, after all, despite her rank, one of the least experienced officers in the entire fleet, and some of the stares and comments she got about that from the more senior staff were unpleasant, to say the least. It was better to stay out of sight, and therefore out of mind, even if that wasn’t giving herself much of an opportunity to be distinguished in a good way. She was glad to have this time of relatively few responsibilities to get her feet under her, and she rather liked the quiet organizational work that she got to perform alone on her shift, checking in with all the sections of the 13,000 ship strong fleet, making sure that there were no technical or logistical problems rearing their heads anywhere. She was good at solving problems, and when she presented her end-of-shift report to the officer coming to relieve her, he always had something funny to say about the number of things she had been dealing with.
Her shift today had been uneventful, as much as such things ever were. It had been her responsibility to make sure the data transfer was set up smoothly, though it had still been transferring when her shift ended— it was a long process. So, she was waiting in the lounge, her tablet balanced precariously on her lap, half distracted by the blinking television across the room. It was playing one of the standard fleet PSAs that played on lounge TVs on every ship across the entire FPA, whenever the TV wasn’t actually being used to play a movie or some other media. Fredrica could have turned it off— she had that power as an officer— but she was hovering on the edge of annoyance that hadn’t yet compelled her to stand from her chair and go through that tedious process.
This particular PSA was on the dangers of thyoxin. She couldn’t even say that it was one of the more lurid ones, since the occupational safety ones tended to be quite gory, but it was unpleasant— half corny drama about addiction interspersed with the narrator stopping the story to show graphic photos of rotted organs and miscarried fetuses. The TV was muted, but Fredrica could recall with perfect clarity the words and intonation of the narrator, and she mouthed along unwittingly to the sobbing woman on the screen, shaking her husband, “Your crimes! Look what they’re going to do to us!”
“You watch these things?”
Fredrica jumped, startled, and turned to see the broad shoulders of her one friend in the Sixth Fleet, Lieutenant Commander Jean Robert Lapp, as he strolled directly past her and went through the trouble of turning off the TV with his authorization code.
“That’s a strong word for it,” she said. “It just happened to be in front of me.”
“I can’t stand the stupid things,” he said. “Especially this one. Gives me the creeps.”
“That’s the point, isn’t it?”
“I guess, but given the fact that everyone has seen this, and people still do thyoxin, I don’t think it has much of a real impact. It just makes it hard for me to eat while it’s playing in the room.”
“Didn’t know you had such a weak stomach.”
“I don’t,” Lapp said. He sat down next to her on the worn couch, kicking his feet up onto the table, dislodging some of the magazines laying there. “Cookie?” he asked, holding up a plastic bag full of chocolate chip cookies.
“Stealing from the kitchens, now?” she asked, reaching into the bag and taking one.
“No, these are from Jessica.”
“Wasn’t aware that you could receive baked goods through the ansible,” she said, holding up her tablet where the data transfer progress bar remained stubbornly stuck.
“She bakes them for me before I leave, tells me to save them for special occasions, and I bribe Dr. Chang into letting me keep them in the medical freezer, so they stay fresh.”
“What do you pay him off with?”
“Mostly I promise to introduce him to all of Jessica’s friends,” Lapp said. “That, and I have some very nice liquor that I keep for just that purpose.”
“I see,” Fredrica said. “These are good, so I suppose it’s worth it.”
“I’ll pass the compliment along,” Lapp said.
“Thanks for sharing.” She turned towards him. “What are you doing up, anyway? You’re still first shift, right?”
“I’m allowed to want to see the mail come in, aren’t I?”
“It’s not like it’ll be any different in the morning.”
“I, personally, find it hard to sleep when I know I have a letter waiting for me,” he said. “Don’t you feel the same?”
Lapp caught the tone in her voice. “You don’t sound excited.”
“They moved my mom to hospice last month,” she said.
He frowned, but it was a sympathetic expression. “You didn’t tell me.”
“It never really came up,” she said.
“It’s okay.” Fredrica took another bite of her cookie. “We all knew this was coming eventually.”
“Still, it’s never good to be waiting on bad news.”
Fredrica nodded. “I knew when I signed up that I wouldn’t get to pick my assignment,” she said. “That’s the way it works. So I can’t complain that I’m not there.”
“Your dad’s with her, right?”
“Yeah.” She sighed. “That’s good, at least.”
“I’m sure she’s very proud of you.”
Fredrica shook her head. “Hah, I don’t know about that.”
“Oh, come on, what parent wouldn’t be proud of their famous daughter.”
“I’m not that famous,” Fredrica said. “And it’s not—” She sighed.
He nudged her shoulder, then held out the bag so that she could take another cookie. She did, appreciatively. Lapp didn’t say anything, giving her space to elaborate or not.
“There were a few days when everyone thought I was dead— you probably didn’t follow the news that closely— but I think that nearly killed her.” She shook her head. “And when I got back to Heinessen, she was so upset, she said, ‘I’m glad I’m dying, so that I’ll never have to go through that again.’”
“Ouch,” Lapp said. “That is… Tough.”
“Do your parents worry about you like that?” she asked.
“Jessica probably does, but I have a bunch of brothers for my parents to worry about. I don’t think they’d notice if I vanished,” he said with a bit of a wry chuckle. “You’re an only child, right?”
“Yeah,” she said. “Blessing and a curse, I guess.”
“Your father doesn’t feel the same way, though, does he?”
She shook her head. “I don’t know. It’s very different, with him. I mean, he understands.”
“He’d have to.”
“Yeah.” She finished her second cookie.
Lapp changed the topic slightly, to something less depressing. “You expecting a letter from your handsome captain?”
“Andrew? Oh, yeah, probably.”
“How’s that going?”
“Good, I think,” she said. “I look forward to seeing him when this tour is up.”
Lapp nodded. “You’ll have to get Lieutenant Commander Müsel to help plan your wedding.”
Fredrica rolled her eyes at that and took another cookie. “Now that is premature, Mr. ‘Waiting way too long to propose’. I only even met him in January.”
Lapp just grinned in his friendly way. “Well, I hope it continues to work out. Your dad likes him, right?”
“Well enough, I think,” Fredrica said. “Says he’s a competent officer, which isn’t the highest compliment, but, you know…”
“He thinks no one’s good enough for his daughter?”
Fredrica’s face heated up. “It isn’t true.”
“Fathers are prone to that, I’m told.”
“When Jessica and I decide to have kids, I hope they’re boys, so I never have to worry about developing that new and interesting paranoia.”
“I think my parents would both have entirely different sets of weird paranoias if I had been a boy, even if nothing else had been different.”
Lapp laughed. “That’s almost certainly true.”
Fredrica’s tablet made a chime on her lap, as several new messages rushed into her inbox, the data package arriving. One was from Fork, one was from Reinhard, and the last was from her father. She tensed up, her finger hovering over the letters, not sure which to open. It seemed like a bad sign, that her mother hadn’t written.
“Let’s see what your captain has to say,” Lapp said, acting more like a gossiping schoolgirl than a grown man, leaning over her shoulder to look. “Oh, it has attachments.”
Fredrica’s ears burned. “He said he would send me a paper he’s been working on for me to look it over.” But his curiosity spurred her to not open that letter, and she instead clicked on Reinhard’s.
“Why don’t you date him, by the way? He always struck me as a catch. His sister’s quite good looking.”
“It didn’t work out,” Fredrica muttered, scanning the opening paragraph of Reinhard’s letter, which was a general update on his life on Phezzan.
“Oh, I wasn’t aware that you had tried it.”
“I’m just glad that we can still be friends,” she said, hoping that Lapp would get the hint and not ask her any more questions about Reinhard. He was silent, allowing her to read Reinhard’s letter in peace.
After the first mundane paragraph about Reinhard’s general well being, the tone of the letter suddenly shifted into something that sounded— to Fredrica— to be weirdly desperate and out of character.
I’ve been thinking a lot, recently, about what my life would have been like if my mother hadn’t been able to take Annerose and I away from the Empire. If Annerose had been trapped, captured, with no one there to rescue her and get her to the Alliance side of the corridor. I’ve been waking up in a cold sweat about it, having nightmares where she’s taken to somewhere, and I can’t get to her in time.
You must dream about things like that too, don’t you? About El Facil. Do you ever picture yourself, now that you’re in the fleet, as one of the officers on board one of the ships that tried to run away from El Facil and leave all the civilians behind?
I know that you joined the fleet for that reason, so you could never let something like that happen again. It’s good, then, that the Sixth Fleet is on standby to rush in to the rescue should the Empire decide to pull any tricks in the Iserlohn corridor. I wish I could be there with you. I get the feeling that something is going to happen, and that I’ll be too far away, on Phezzan, to do something about it. I know I shouldn’t be so worried, because you’re there, and you’ll make sure everything is all right.
I’m just fretting because Annerose isn’t on Heinessen, and all her letters are censored to nothing, so I can’t get a good sense of how she’s doing. I’m sure she can handle herself, but you know how it is. She’d tell me that it’s not my responsibility to worry about her, but I can’t help but feel responsible.
Anyway, I read in the news that Duke Braunschweig and Marquis Littenheim are dueling. I hear it’s something about land rights, but one has to imagine it’s some proxy argument for the throne. What do you think about that?
The rest of the letter was other random musings and questions about how she was finding life in the Sixth Fleet. Fredrica frowned and showed the strange section to Lapp. “What do you think of that?”
“Is he usually this worked up in his letters? I haven’t spent that much time around him, but from what I have, he always seemed generally level-headed.”
“I guess this is the first time that Annerose has actually been deployed.” She was hesitant, trying to find some reasonable explanation for Reinhard’s odd letter, to try to calm the wrong feeling that it had stirred up. Reinhard was usually so economical and forthright in his letters. This was decidedly not that.
“True, maybe he is just venting.”
“But he usually wouldn’t…” She bit her lip. “It feels like he’s trying to tell me something.” She said this slowly, not sure if Lapp would think she was being paranoid.
His tone was curious, though. “Like what?”
“That I need to rescue her,” Fredrica said. “Even if that’s against official orders.”
Lapp raised an eyebrow. “Interesting thing to put in writing, if it’s true.”
“Well, he didn’t say that outright,” she said.
“What would she need to be rescued from? The Rosenritter are usually pretty self sufficient, I’m led to believe.”
“I don’t know.”
“You don’t know where she’s been deployed, do you?”
“No. Presumably it’s secret.”
Lapp narrowed his eyes. “He’s talking about being on the other side of the galaxy, her being inside the Empire, isn’t he?”
She read the paragraph about Annerose again. “That’s one way to interpret it.”
“Could she or the Rosenritter be on some sort of infiltration mission? Inside the Empire? They’re all expats, after all, so they’d be better at spying than other people.”
Now, that was a disturbing thought. “He says he’s still getting mail from her, though. And he wouldn’t ask me to try to, what, break through the Iserlohn corridor by myself.” But even as she said those words, she remembered the conversation she had had one day with Reinhard at Condor Base, where he had briefly entertained the fantasy of stealing a ship to break through into the Empire. She shook her head. Even though she had gotten mad at him that day, he had clearly just been putting on a show of bravado for the sake of it.
“You’re right,” Lapp said. “I have no idea what he’s trying to say to you.”
She laid the tablet back down on her lap and stared out across the lounge. “It seems important, though.”
“We probably just don’t have enough information to act, right now. If it becomes important, then we’ll probably figure it out.”
“You sound confident of that.”
“There’s no point in worrying about things you can’t do,” Lapp said. “I’m surprised you hadn’t figured out that rule number one yet.”
“What do you mean?”
“Everyone here has a job to do,” he said, “and trying to do every job, especially the ones you don’t have enough information or knowledge about, is only going to get you killed.”
“Maybe,” she said. “But it sounds like, if I do nothing…”
“I’ll tell you what. I’ll keep an ear out, and if anything sounds related, I’ll let you know right away.”
“Thanks,” she said. “I appreciate it. You’re probably right.”
Lapp grinned. “I’m always right.”
“Do you say that to Jessica?”
“Of course, and then she rolls her eyes at me.” He grinned. “Don’t worry about Annerose, or Mr. von Müsel, for that matter. They can take care of themselves.”
“True.” She looked back down at the messages on her tablet. “I suppose I should see what the latest is from my dad. Weren’t you waiting on a letter?”
“Didn’t bring my tablet with me.” Lapp was smiling. “I’ll read it when I get back to my room.”
Fredrica shook her head, then opened the letter from her father.
She didn’t get past the second line before the fingers of her left hand involuntarily curled in to her thighs. She took one sharp inhale of breath, a stifled gasp, then held it to stop from crying out.
My Dearest Fredrica, it began. Your mother died last night.
Tears were welling up in her eyes, so badly that she couldn’t read the rest of the letter. Lapp saw it, though, or at least the important part, and he said, “Oh, jeeze, Greenhill, I’m so fucking sorry…”
“I—“ she began. “I have to go.” And she stood up so rapidly that she bruised her shin on the coffee table, fleeing the room.
She would be okay, but not right this moment.
August 796 U.C., on board the Pergamonn , within the mouth of the Iserlohn Corridor
Time seemed to stretch, after Fredrica had learned about her mother’s death, especially because the monotony of life on board the Pergamonn was broken by almost nothing. Almost immediately after she had received that news, the fleet had changed paths and moved deeper into the Iserlohn corridor, and now spent their time moving from starzone to starzone, doing their best to avoid imperial patrols. That meant that there was no more mail, not from anyone. The hours were dull, and the days were filled with a sadness for her that made the cold, gunmetal grey interior of the Pergamonn even more lifeless than it had already felt.
Lapp gave her space and put up with her moping when he did come visit her, often bearing some of the expensive alcohol that he said he had stashed in his room. She was grateful to have a friend, more than anything, and a thought at the back of her mind said that she should probably be treating him better when he was around, but she couldn’t really.
She spent her off-duty time sleeping, mostly, and her on-duty time trying to keep her mind on nothing but her job. This worked out in practice. She couldn’t even decide if she wanted this tour of duty to come to a close or not, because she wasn’t sure how she would feel, facing her father, and the looming prospect of her mother’s funeral. Her mother had been cremated, and so the ceremony to scatter her ashes could wait until Fredrica returned home. Small comfort, she supposed.
She wondered how her father was doing, on Heinessen. She wondered if maybe the kaiser really was dying, and so they really were about to encounter an imperial invasion force, right then and there in the corridor. They didn’t, though. And nothing interrupted the monotony of their patrol for a long time.
Fredrica was on duty, late into the second shift, when the call came in. One of the communications specialists on duty picked up the weak trace of a broad distress signal, the kind that was very rarely used, the kind that was just supposed to get the attention of any ship in the area, as quickly as possible— with the knowledge that that sometimes included Imperial ships. It was used when you didn’t know where an ally or rescuer might be, and so was simply directed as loudly and widely as possible.
This signal was weak, though, indicating that it had crossed a great distance, and the warping pathway that the ansible message had taken through space— the same paths that allowed ships to cross interstellar distances faster than light— might have been very thin indeed, limiting the strength of the message.
“Lieutenant Commander Greenhill,” the communication specialist said, coming up to her while she was on duty, “Do you know anything about this?” The specialist had a look on his face of moderate skepticism as he showed her the message.
It had been transmitted using one of the key encryptions that the fleet used, but the message header, the authorization code, was not standard fleet issue. Instead, it was signed by “Michael Derwin, Cahokia-3 Mine Authority, Entaur Corporation.”
The message itself was quite short.
Request aid all available fleets. Imperial presence located in C Stzne. Ground force only seen now. Force at C3 not sufficient to hold planet if full fleet arrives. Immediate assistance needed.
And was signed off with a long string of contract information that Fredrica found completely meaningless, aside from the fact that the signoff authority block included the name of Job Trunicht, the defense secretary.
Though the communication specialist was still standing there waiting for her to do something, Fredrica instead opened up a starmap on the computer in front of her, and ran a search for Cahokia starzone. There it was, near the Iserlohn corridor, though on the starmap there were none of the usual route lines between the well mapped parts of the corridor, so she had no idea how long the journey would take. She stared at the map for a long second.
“This message,” she said to the communication specialist, “is the authority verifiable?”
“We can’t get in contact with Heinessen right now,” the specialist said. “We’re ansible silent right now.”
“I’m aware. I mean, is there any way this could be a false broadcast?”
“Anything is possible, but it’s not likely. Our communications chain is designed to block spoofing like that,” the tech said. No one wanted a fleet to get drawn into a known location by the enemy under false pretenses, like a faked distress call.
Fredrica drummed her fingers on the console in front of her. “I don’t have the authority to do anything about this other than escalate it. Captain Chu is on duty. Let’s see what he thinks.”
So the captain was summoned over, and when he was shown the message, Fredrica saw his eyes widen imperceptibly, as though he knew something about what was going on. He immediately summoned Vice Admiral Moore (who had been in the middle of eating dinner), who took one look at the message, seemed very annoyed, and then announced a course change for the fleet, moving them deeper into the Iserlohn corridor at full speed.
Lapp had wandered onto the bridge of the Pergamonn at some point after Moore arrived, and he sidled up to her. “Looks like somebody had secret orders that the rest of us mere mortals weren’t privy to.”
“You’re not supposed to be here if you’re not on duty,” Fredrica said.
“I suspect that ‘who is on duty’ is about to become much less relevant in the short term.” He held out his tablet to her. “This is the nav course that’s being disseminated.”
She looked at it. A new line on the starmap connected them to Cahokia Starzone, one that she knew hadn’t been there before. She studied it. “Do you think there’s another route, one that goes further toward Iserlohn?”
“Or past Iserlohn?” Lapp asked in a whisper, accompanied with a raise of his eyebrows.
“We’re not— now?” she asked. The idea that the Alliance was about to launch an attack on Iserlohn Fortress itself frightened her. She could see a plan suddenly crystalize before her eyes: the Iserlohn Fortress garrison fleet was lured out of its hiding hole by this false distress signal coming off of Cahokia— perhaps there was something actually on Cahokia to catch their attention to begin with— the Sixth Fleet went out to meet them, leaving the rest of Iserlohn relatively undefended, while another Alliance fleet swept through the corridor to take the fortress. Was that what was happening? Her thoughts were swimming.
“Maybe,” Lapp said. “Or it could be exactly what it looks like.”
Fredrica’s mind felt like it was buzzing, trying to trace back every word she had ever heard Vice Admiral Moore say, to think if she could get a hint about what was going on. Her father must have known about this plan, if Moore had secret orders. What had he said, at that New Year’s party, when she had met Captain Fork for the first time? They had both been in on it, whatever it was, and Trunicht, talking about the deployment of the Sixth Fleet, something missing from what they were actually saying.
Thinking of her father, of course, brought her thoughts crumbling to a halt as she thought about her mother, a thought she was unable to drag herself away from. She had taped a family photo to the inside of her tablet’s cover, so she always saw her mother smiling back up at her, whenever she opened it. Her father had known that Fredrica was going out into danger, while her mother lay dying. The thought was unpleasant, no matter what angle she approached it from.
“What about that letter Müsel sent you?” Lapp asked, shaking her out of her haze.
“Oh, uh,” Fredrica brought the text of the letter back to her mind. “How would he know about this?”
“If his sister is there—“ Lapp tapped the starmap— “he’d know about it. Probably can’t put it in writing.”
“That makes sense.” She glanced around, making sure that no one on the bridge was paying attention to them. “But why wouldn’t a Rosenritter have sent the distress call, if that was the case?”
“If I had to bet,” Lapp said, rubbing the back of his neck, “I’d say complicated political reasons. That’s usually the excuse for everything, and it’s also usually well above my paygrade.”
“What are we going to do?”
“Hunh? We’re going to do our job as staff officers and hope that Moore doesn’t run into anything we can’t handle.”
Lapp patted her shoulder. “Commandeering a vessel is a lot different than trying to get a fleet to bend to your whims when you’re only a lieutenant commander. Trust me, I know.” He grinned. “What would you even try to do, anyway?”
Fredrica bit her lip. “Reinhard seemed to think that there would be a reason we’d need to run away— maybe whoever comes from Iserlohn will be too strong. We should have a back up plan, for getting whoever’s on that planet off of it, just in case.”
“Careful you don’t say that too loud,” Lapp said. “Moore hates defeatism.”
“I get it,” Lapp said. “Want my advice?”
“Put together a nice, flexible plan now. If things start to go south, I’ll help you bring it to Moore when he’s distracted.”
She didn’t like the sound of that, but she nodded. “I guess we’ll see how this goes.”
“That’s the spirit.” Lapp wandered away, going to check in with the various other staff officers, doing some subtle reconnaissance. Fredrica took his advice, and she began putting together an evacuation plan.
It took quite a while for them to get close to Cahokia, though, more than a day of travel, even though they had already been in the Iserlohn corridor. The longer it took, the higher Fredrica’s tension mounted, though no one aside from Lapp could see it. She hated having to leave the bridge at the end of her shift, and she sat in her tiny bunk afterwards, continuing to work on her plan, covering as many bases as she could think of. Luckily, as soon as they were underway, Moore had released information about the mine and stationed forces on Cahokia to the rest of the officers who had previously been unaware. There was no longer any reason to keep it secret, after all, since the imperial forces clearly knew about the base there.
Reinhard had been right— her mind did keep going back to that terrifying time as a child on El Facil, clutching her mother’s arm in the chaos of the spaceport, running, being dragged onto a ship, the horrible feeling of finally getting into space and seeing the imperial fleet just waiting there for them, the miraculous relief when, somehow, they made it out.
She had been too young to understand the mechanics of that escape, at the time, but she had replayed the events over and over in her head. She would never say it out loud, but she suspected that someone in the imperial fleet had allowed them to get away. There wasn’t any other explanation that she could see. That kindness somehow coexisted with the horror that El Facil had become after the merchant ships had all fled, and the imperial fleet landed on the planet.
Fredrica tried not to think about it, but if there was one thing she was good at doing, it was remembering everything she had ever seen, and thinking about it in great detail. Had her mother thought they would get off the planet? Had she thought that it was better to be shot down in space than it was to try to remain on the surface? Her mother had never talked about it, afterwards, and Fredrica suddenly wished she had. It was the kind of thing that she now wished she had, her mother’s memories of that day.
But all of that was gone, now, and the only thing that she could do was do her best to ensure it never happened again. The people on Cahokia-3, mine workers, Rosenritter— Fredrica would make sure they were either protected or able to get out. She swore it.
They didn’t make it all the way to the Cahokia starzone. That was the problem.
The imperial fleet wasn’t making any attempt to hide, having begun jamming communications long before they were actually visible. As soon as the Sixth Fleet detected the communication blockage, Moore ordered them to go sub-light and assess the situation.
Fredrica was standing in the back of the bridge, anxiously watching the situation progress. It was first shift still, so she really shouldn’t have been there, but like Lapp had said, shifts for officers stopped really mattering once a certain threshold of excitement was reached. No one was going to be going to sleep unless they were dead on their feet. Lapp was further afield in the bridge, speaking to the man plotting the imperial fleet’s position, but he returned to Fredrica to give her an update.
Whoever the imperial admiral was had made a prediction, a gamble, about which way the Alliance fleet would approach from, and had decided to meet them far into the route before the planet, instead of fighting directly in the space around it. On one hand, this was good, because it meant that the residents of Cahokia-3 were likely unharmed and not going to be involved, but it also meant that, unless they could break through the imperial lines to Cahokia, there would be no way to rescue them. This did not play well with most of the evacuation plan scenarios that Fredrica had envisioned. That might have been the point.
“Do we know what flagship that is?” she asked, nodding to the magnified image of the imperial fleet on the nearest screen.
“Sure,” he said. He consulted his tablet. “That’s the Westberlin — which belongs to… Rear Admiral Wolfgang Mittermeyer.” He showed her the accompanying picture. There was a constantly updated database of imperial commanders and what could be gleaned about their service records from both past encounters, as well as any news that trickled off of Phezzan.
Fredrica’s blood went cold as she looked at the smiling photograph— an official image of some sort— of the blond man, next to the diagram showing his class of flagship.
“Something the matter?” Lapp asked.
“No, not really,” Fredrica said. “Just I’ve heard of him before.”
“I haven’t,” Lapp said. He looked down at the information they had. “His service record’s got a lot of gaps in it. Oh, he was on Kapche-Lanka a while ago. Maybe that’s why they sent him to deal with this. Taking over a mine is taking over a mine.,”
“No, I mean, not from anything he’s done. I— I was on the sister ship to that one. The Ostberlin . At Condor Base. And Reinhard said that the, uh, he was a commodore at the time, Commodore Reuenthal, mentioned this one.”
“Fascinating,” Lapp tucked his tablet underneath his arm. “I suppose we’re going to be the first people this Mittermeyer cuts his teeth on as a front line rear admiral, since it looks like he was doing mostly internal policing before. That should give us an advantage, anyway. Moore has lots of experience.”
Fredrica nodded. “True.”
Still, she couldn’t help but worry. The conversation that Reinhard had relayed to her, after their encounter at Condor Base, had think that Mittermeyer and Reuenthal were approximately equivalent. Reuenthal had been slippery, luring the Alliance fleet at Condor into a deadly trap and escaping nearly unscathed himself. If that was any way to judge the competency of Mittermeyer, Fredrica was a little nervous. He was young, too. The picture of him she had seen didn’t look like he was even in his mid thirties. It could have been an old picture, of course, but she didn’t think so. Reinhard had said that Reuenthal was young.
It was an extremely frustrating experience to watch the battle begin. The sides were approximately evenly matched, but Mittermeyer’s fleet took the more aggressive stance, despite being the defending force. They blitzed towards the Sixth Fleet, surprisingly well coordinated for how large the fleet was. It was a testament to their commander, Fredrica thought, being able to keep the whole fleet organized and moving as one single unit. They had probably trained extensively.
Moore hesitated, which was the exact wrong thing to do, and when the enemy came closer, he began to sweat as he ordered the Sixth Fleet to take up a spear formation, the two forces meeting in a chaotic, confusing collision.
Again, Mittermeyer took advantage of this, and Fredrica watched with growing concern as the flanks of the imperial fleet spread out, attempting to surround the Sixth Fleet, which had been stopped in its tracks. Moore made the choice to pull back, retreating before they could be fully encircled, but their losses from that half-encirclement had been decidedly heavy, and Mittermeyer was not backing off. Even as he reorganized his fleet, he was pursuing them, not letting up the assault for even a second.
“This is not going well,” Fredrica said to Lapp.
“Yeah,” he said. “Don’t love this at all.”
It wasn’t as though Moore was a bad commander, and the Sixth Fleet was well trained, but something about Mittermeyer’s relentless nature made the Sixth Fleet fumble. It might have been the way that Mittermeyer was taking the initiative when Moore probably felt by rights that the initiative should have been his. This had knocked Moore off balance, and it was making it hard for the Sixth Fleet to gain the upper hand, while Mittermeyer gained more and more advantage, pressing them back again and again.
“Müsel is going to kill me,” Fredrica said.
She scowled and looked down at the plans that she had made to evacuate Cahokia-3. All of them were useless, now. “He warned me. He gave me time to figure something out. But I can’t do anything.” Her voice was stiff and raw.
“Come on, Greenhill, even if that was your fault, which it’s not, we haven’t lost yet. Moore isn’t gonna give up so quickly.”
“And you’re looking at the same battle situation as I am,” she said. “There is no way we’re going to be able to break through.”
He nodded. “So, what are you thinking?”
She was frustrated with herself. “I don’t know— God. I feel so useless.” She balled up her fists, trying to keep calm. “It’s not even like I feel like I would be able to do a better job here if I was in charge.”
“Thought you graduated second in your class.”
“Strategy wasn’t my best subject,” she said. “I mean, I did well in the class, but Müsel could wipe the floor with me in the games.”
“Good to recognize your limits, I guess.”
“But I can’t just stand here and watch this happen, and give up on getting those people out,” she said. “That’s the whole reason I joined the fleet.”
“There has to be a way to evacuate them,” Lapp said. “Maybe a detachment could go back out and around, come in through the ‘exit’, closer to Iserlohn fortress.” He showed her the route on his tablet, the three routes like the legs of a triangle, with Cahokia at one of the vertices. The thick main trunk of the Iserlohn corridor was one leg, while they were in the lower leg, about halfway to Cahokia, fighting it out with Mittermeyer. The third leg, reaching from Cahokia back up to the ‘top’ of the Iserlohn corridor, was empty and clear.
Fredrica shook her head. “It would take too long. That’s like, what, four days travel? By the time anyone got that far around, their force will already be occupying the planet. There’s no way that’s fast enough to get to them but through.”
“And we’re not going to break through,” Lapp said. He, too, sounded resigned. “Jessica’s going to be pissed at me.”
“Is Moore going to retreat?”
“Not until he absolutely has to,” Lapp said. “He really doesn’t like that.”
She nodded. There was a plan forming in the back of her mind, one that felt half crazy, but also, maybe, just maybe, possible. It was the kind of thing that she thought Reinhard might have come up with. The kind of thing that they had done together at Condor. She wished that he was here, but he wasn’t, so it would just have to be her. “Lapp,” she said. “How willing is Moore to take advice?”
“You have to present it to him at the right time,” he said. “That’s why I said I’d help you get your old evacuation plan to him when he was distracted.”
“I think— there’s a way we can get to the people on Cahokia.”
“Oh?” Lapp asked. He grabbed her arm and pulled her off the bridge. They had already been talking quietly, in a relatively unobserved corner, but she followed him out, down the hallway, until they ducked inside a currently-empty meeting room. “What are you thinking?” he asked.
“This is probably crazy,” she said.
“What if, next time we charge forward, we know we’re going to get pushed back, what if we had a few ships, five, maybe, pretend to be disabled. When the rest of the fleet is forced to pull back, and the imperials follow it, those ‘disabled’ ships would be left behind on the other side of the imperial line. They could sprint to Cahokia, evacuate everyone there, and then take the other exit back into the main part of the corridor.”
Lapp considered this for a long second, his expressive face going through several different shifts as he chewed it over. “Moore won’t like that right off the bat,” he said. “But I think he could be convinced of it.”
“What do you mean?”
“Get that in writing,” he said. “Now.”
“Okay— I will. How detailed do you need it?”
“Detailed enough that he can pass it off to somebody like Captain Keene to follow.” Lapp’s voice had a bit of an edge to it. “I’ve been around here long enough that I think I know the best way to get him to agree to something.”
“You’re lucky,” he said. “You’ve got fame on your side. He might listen to you.”
“Nobody thinks I’m experienced.”
“And,” Lapp said, “the best way to make Moore think an idea is a good one is to present it immediately following an idea that he thinks is a terrible one. He’ll be more open to any other suggestions.”
She nodded. “That makes sense.”
“You’re going to owe me big time for this, Greenhill.”
“I’m going to say the dumbest shit to Moore’s face that he’s ever heard, and then you’re going to come in and look like a smart and reasonable hero. Got it?”
He raised an eyebrow. “Come on, Greenhill. Buy me a drink when this is over. We’ll call it even.”
“Okay,” she said. “Okay.”
“Write down your plan. I’ve gotta get back to my shift. But when it’s ready, you just give me the signal.”
“Are you sure?”
“It’s not like I have any better ideas,” he said. “This one is worth a shot.”
She nodded. He lightly punched her shoulder, then left. She got to work.
It didn’t take her that long to write her proposal, working at a fever pitch. Every second she spent off the bridge, she became more worried that the situation in the battle was changing so fast that her plan was becoming obsolete, and that there would be no hope of rescuing Annerose. But when she finally made it back to the bridge, plan in hand, she saw that the situation was basically as it had been, the Sixth Fleet stretched out into a long line, trying not to let themselves get outflanked by Mittermeyer, who was rearranging his fleet to try to pierce through their center. He almost certainly would, Fredrica thought, if they didn’t get their flanks back closer. They were spread too thin. But that was not a problem that she could solve. She would have to focus on only what she could do.
Lapp caught her eye as she returned to the bridge, and she gave him a thumbs up. He nodded in her general direction, then sauntered over to Vice Admiral Moore, who was leaning over the console at the top of the bridge, watching the battle progress, with an increasingly frustrated expression on his face. She couldn’t hear what Lapp was saying, but she watched as he got Moore’s attention, said something very earnestly, pulled out his tablet, and tried to explain something to the vice admiral. Moore shook his head, but Lapp kept talking and gesturing, until Moore actually told him to leave, and Lapp did, pretending to be dejected as he headed back to his post.
Fredrica gave Moore a couple minutes to let Lapp’s fake proposition sink into his head, and then she took a couple deep breaths and approached.
“Vice Admiral, sir,” she said.
He looked up at her. “What is it, Lieutenant Commander?”
“Sir, if I may, I would like to make a suggestion.”
Immediately, Moore seemed exhausted and impatient. “Greenhill, I certainly hope you’re not about to waste my time.”
“No, sir,” she said. “I have an idea about how we can evacuate the mine workers that are trapped on Cahokia-3 right now.”
He looked at her. “It would take far too long to loop around, Greenhill. You just graduated the Academy, so you should be fresh on navigation.”
“That’s not what I’m about to suggest, sir.”
“Tell me your thoughts, then.”
“It’s obvious that the only way to get to them in any reasonable time frame is to go through the imperial lines. It would be… difficult… for the whole fleet to break through, but we don’t need a whole fleet to evacuate the few thousand people on Cahokia. Just a few ships.”
“So, sir, I thought— we have plenty of ships that are lightly damaged, but still maneuverable. Next time we charge the imperial fleet, or they charge us, we should have those damaged ships pretend to be completely disabled. As you draw back, the imperial fleet will follow you, and those few ships will then be left behind the imperial fleet. They can race away towards Cahokia, evacuate the planet, and then exit into the main Iserlohn corridor. Such a small number of ships won’t be detectable in the corridor.”
He considered this for a long moment. “That’s defeatism, Greenhill.”
“It’s pragmatism, sir. I was on El Facil— the thought of not doing our best to keep civilians out of enemy hands is— well, difficult for me to bear. And if we win here, we can always just bring them back. There’s no harm in trying, sir. And a few damaged ships isn’t going to win or lose the battle for you.”
“This is better than the last idea I heard, I’ll give you that. And your father’d have my head if I didn’t give you fair consideration.”
Internally, Fredrica burned at her name being the only thing that was giving her a fighting shot here, but it was worth it, to be able to get what she wanted. “Thank you, sir.”
“You’ve written this down?”
She immediately handed him a sheaf of papers, with her bare bones plan printed out on it. He flipped through it for a minute, skimming the plan. Then he called out, “Captain Keene, come here for a second.”
Keene, a man in his thirties with a shaved head and severe face, came over. “Sir.”
Moore handed Keene the stack of papers. “Transfer yourself to the Byzantine . Take command of it, and the other four ships listed here— Carolina, Sel-de-Mer, Bluebird, and Green Lake — and follow this plan. You’re going to be evacuating Cahokia. Coordinate with whoever you need to to make that happen.”
“Yes, sir,” Keene said, and immediately began to head off.
“May I go with him, sir?” Fredrica asked.
Moore glanced at her, as though he had already forgotten she was there and had come up with this plan. “Yes. Go,” he said.
Fredrica saluted, then ran off to follow Captain Keene. Lapp grinned at her as she ran past him, her heart thumping high in her chest.
Keene was a very quiet man, and when Fredrica followed after him, the only thing he said was, “You wrote this?”
“Yes, sir,” she said.
He was thumbing through her plan as they walked. “Not bad. But only if there’s no one stationed on Cahokia.”
She nodded. “I don’t think there will be, sir. It would be stupid for the imperial fleet to put their own people on the planet before this battle, just in case they lost it. They’d have plenty of time to take it once they’ve won, but it would be a waste of time beforehand.”
He just nodded. “Hope you’re right, Greenhill.”
“I hope so, too, sir.”
Keene was efficient at getting them onto a shuttle, and transferring ships. Once on the Byzantine, he explained the plan to the captain of that ship, as well as the others. Fredrica just watched, and provided clarity when needed. They did this just in time, because the imperial forces were massing again.
The Byzantine was right at the front of the fleet, unlike the Pergamonn , so Fredrica experienced for the first time the real terror of being in the direct line of fire. They were even hit once, but the already wounded Byzantine still managed to shake off the blow. Then they, along with the other ships who had been selected for this mission, pretended to be dead in the water, turning off their engines and no longer broadcasting anything, as the remainder of the Sixth Fleet pulled back, further and further, with the imperial fleet chasing them.
The moment when the imperial fleet surrounded them, passing through the debris field of all the other really destroyed ships, was one of the most heart-stopping moments of Fredrica’s life. She watched on the screen as the collosal grey bulks of the imperial ships slid silently all around, close enough to some that they could see the individual plating on the hulls, read the ships’ names. The Westberlin even passed near enough to them that Fredrica could see that the flagship had been damaged— a huge gash had been ripped in its side— but it was still limping along with the rest of the fleet.
And then the imperial fleet was past them, leaving just the debris cloud and their ships, playing dead. They waited, long enough that it seemed like no one would see them if they engaged their engines, and then the ships signaled with their light signals, and moved out together, sneaking away from the battlespace, then going FTL towards Cahokia.
It took a long time to get there. Cut off from communication with the rest of the Sixth Fleet, Fredrica was consumed by anxiety about both what was coming and what was behind them. She hoped that Lapp was alright. She hoped that Annerose was still alive. She hoped, desperately, that she had been correct in her guess that there wouldn’t be any imperial forces waiting for her on Cahokia.
The starzone finally came into view when they dropped to sublight. Then the planet came into view: one of three, a glittering, tiny red ball, spinning so quickly that Fredrica could see its rotation easily as they came closer to it.
The biggest relief was that there was no sign of imperial presence anywhere, except for one completely wrecked ship that was for some reason in orbit around the planet. It wasn’t putting off any radio signals, so it may have been abandoned. Since they couldn’t see any imperial ships, they were free to get in radio contact with the base.
“Cahokia-3 Mine Authority, do you read me?” Keene sent. “This is Captain Keene, aboard the ship Byzantine, of the Sixth Fleet. Do you read?”
“We read you, Byzantine,” the reply came. Fredrica didn’t recognize the crackling man’s voice. He identified himself, though. “This is Commander Linz, Rosenritter.”
“What’s your status?” Keene asked.
“Not so bad. Where’s the rest of the Sixth Fleet?”
“Further back in the passage. We’re going to be evacuating you in the other direction.”
“Evacuating? That bad, hunh?” There was muted laughter from the other side of the radio. “We took care of our guys, and we were outnumbered five to one. They musta sent all of Iserlohn after you.”
Keene was visibly annoyed by this remark, but Fredrica put her hand over her mouth to stifle her laughter.
“Are you prepared to evacuate?” Keene asked.
A different voice came over the radio this time— and Fredrica could have melted with relief when she heard Annerose. “Yes, sir,” Annerose said. “We are. Will you be sending down shuttles?” She was professional. Possibly she had wrestled the radio away from the less professional Rosenritters.
“As quickly as possible,” Keene said. “Don’t bring any equipment with you.”
“Should we self destruct the mine?” Annerose asked.
Keene closed his eyes for a second, clearly running the mental math. Technically, it would be better to destroy it, but Moore would call that defeatism. Finally, he said, “No. Leave it. I’d rather just evacuate you as quickly as possible. It’s a long road back to civilization.”
“Understood, sir,” Annerose said.
And then the detailed work of coordinating the evacuation began. Fredrica found herself very, very busy, getting shuttles where they needed to be, and helping ensure the ships were filled evenly with passengers, none of the ships they had taken being particularly well suited to suddenly having a few thousand highly agitated mine workers as guests. Still, they managed it, as quickly as they humanly could.
A good chunk of the Rosenritter command staff ended up on the Byzantine, including Lieutenant Commander Annerose von Müsel. She, along with Captain Schenkopp (whom Fredrica had never met) strolled onto the Byzantine’s bridge, dressed in battered looking combat suits, their helmets tucked under their arms. They had been on one of the last shuttles to come up from the planet, after all the mine workers had been taken care of.
Annerose’s eyes lit up when she saw Fredrica, walking over to her across the chaotic bridge. All the ships were beginning to head out, and setting the course tended to require many hands on the bridge, rushing all around.
“Greenhill! You made it!”
“Yes, ma’am,” Fredrica said, grinning. She and Annerose were the same rank, but Fredrica couldn’t shake the feeling that Annerose was the senior student who had taken her under her wing as a freshman.
“Did Reinhard get my message, then?”
“What message?” Fredrica asked.
“I sent him a chunk of metal in the mail,” Annerose said.
“He sent me a cryptic note about his dreams. I’ll be honest that I didn’t know how to interpret it.”
Annerose bumped her shoulder with her own. “For Reinhard’s sake, you should probably tell him that you interpreted his message perfectly. It’ll hurt his ego if he feels useless.”
Fredrica shook her head. “Don’t be mean to him. I would have wanted him here.”
“I could say the same,” Annerose said. “But I am glad to see you. What is the situation with the rest of the Sixth Fleet?”
Fredrica sighed. “I hope they’ve retreated.”
Annerose nodded, understanding her tone. “Well, can’t say I’m sad to see the end of this place. It’ll be good to be going home.”
“Yeah,” Fredrica said, first earnestly, then remembering that her mother’s funeral was awaiting her on Heinessen, “Yeah.”
Captain Schenkopp wandered over. “Müsel, did you take a look at that hulk out the window?”
“I saw it,” she said.
“You sure did a number on that one.”
“I suppose,” Annerose said. Fredrica was deeply curious as to how Annerose could have wrecked a ship in orbit, but that was a question for another time.
“I’m told I have you to thank for our little rescue here,” Schenkopp said, holding out his hand to shake Fredrica’s.
“A lot of people worked together to make it happen,” she said, shaking his hand. “I’m just doing my best.”
He laughed. “That’s not the kind of talk that earns promotions.”
Fredrica watched on the screen as the red dot of Cahokia receded into nothingness.
“Well, it was worth a shot, I suppose,” Annerose said. “Too bad it won’t be becoming our own Iserlohn Fortress.”
“It’s not as convenient,” Shenkopp said. “I thought it was a stupid idea from the outset.”