The days and weeks crawled past in a tedious, interminable slog of observations and inspections and regular reports to Earth. At least the Marine contingent could visit ships and stretch their legs. The spacers were confined to their duty stations and their quarters, unable to do anything that might compromise their protective posture.
The constant alertness took their toll. Tempers flared in the bowels of the ship. Fatigue rubbed nerves raw. Tension locked up muscles and joints. Waters had to conduct her first captain’s mast, some stupid quarrel between two junior astronauts that had escalated into a fistfight, sentencing both to extra duties, forfeiture of pay, and arrest in quarters. Not that there was anywhere to go until the mission was over, but the point had to be made. Discipline had to be maintained.
Life had stopped for Minas Station, and for the Terrans blockading the habitat. Outside the zone of stagnation, the people of SEL-5 continued their daily lives. Ships burned from station to station, system to system, carrying cargo and peoples to distant places.
Were the missing spacers and cargo aboard those ships? Silva hoped not. His operational charter extended to Minas Station, and Minas Station only. If Minas had hoodwinked Intelligence, somehow transferred the captives and cargo off-station, there was no way the Task Force could recover them, not unless they received ironclad intelligence of their current location and could justify a pursuit to the brass on Earth.
Silva had so much to do, so little he could do. He did what he could, and prayed that Minas would come to their senses.
And prepared the constellation for the alternative.
When they weren’t running inspections, Silva led the constellation through drills and simulations, mediated over the secure comms network. Not the same as orbital manouvres and live fire exercises, but it would do. He had to get the captains to operate independently yet interdependently, pursuing the mission objectives and preserving the constellation the best way they saw fit. In combat, Silva would be no time to micromanage his ships and officers. Most certainly not Hamilton.
The crew of the Orion now languished in Lexington’s brig. Really, it was little more than a spare pressure compartment with a sturdy lock. Despite repeated interrogations, the crew stuck to their story. For their part, Sedna Station rescinded the medical emergency, and refused to elaborate.
It was a test, Silva knew. Minas Station wanted to test the Terrans’ resolve. If they allowed the Orion to break the blockade, it was a sign of weakness. If they stopped the Orion, Minas would claim it was an atrocity. A no-win situation—for the Terrans.
At least by demonstrating the laser star’s capability, they had won a measure of respect from the inhabitants of SEL-5. They still didn’t welcome the Terrans, but now they treated them as part of the landscape, no more remarkable than a captured comet or asteroid. So long as they left Task Force 136 in peace, the Terrans were happy to return the favor.
More tests would come, Silva knew. It was only a matter of time.
Sure enough, on the twenty-second day of the blockade, the second test arrived.
Twelve ships hurtled towards SEL-5 at twenty-five kilometers per second. Across astronomical distances, it was a deceptively leisurely pace—but twenty-five kips was twenty-five kips, a velocity attainable only by nuclear fusion drives. Arranged in a neat spiderweb formation, all twelve ships flew the same flag: the Free Ceres Republic.
There were five other convoys en route to SEL-5. Their trajectories took them to all points of SEL-5, to link up with the mines, factories, depots and habitats that dotted the Lagrange Point. But not the Ceresians. Their vector placed them on an intercept course with Minas Station.
The Ceresians were a week out. At such stupendous distances, a tight-beam laser needed nearly three-quarters of an hour to travel from SEL-5 to their position. Silva took his time composing his message, making it count.
Ceresian convoy, this is the TSF Enterprise, flagship of Task Force 136. We have placed Minas Station under blockade. Minas Station is presently unlawfully holding the crew and cargo of the passenger ship Louisiana, and is sheltering the terrorists that hijacked the Louisiana in Earth orbit. All traffic to and from Minas Station is forbidden. Alter your trajectory and head for your nearest alternative destination.
The second Silva fired off his message, he popped into the compartment designated as the ship’s gym. Together with his junior officers and ratings, he sweated his way through a workout regimen designed to combat muscle atrophy and loss of bone density in space. More than just staying healthy, physical activity helped to burn off the stress that came from staying indefinitely on the razor’s edge in space. As the senior leader, he had to set the example.
He returned to his console in time to receive a reply.
TSF Enterprise, this is the Evergreen of CESS, convoy representative. We acknowledge your blockade of Minas Station. We are carrying cargo essential to life to the people of Minas, including a shipment of phosphorus. We request that an exception be made for our convoy.
Silva’s mood soured. Phosphorus was the bottleneck of life. Without phosphorus, there could be no fertilizer. Without fertilizer, there could be no food, no plants, no life. Off-Earth, phosphorus was as vital as water and reactor fuel. Perhaps more so.
For decades, Earth had commanded an absolute monopoly on phosphorus, by virtue of being the only readily available source of the vital mineral in the Solar System. With that monopoly, Earth exercised absolute dominion over her far-flung colonies.
Then the Ceresians discovered a C-type asteroid rich in phosphorus.
Since then, the Ceresians had become a major space power, parlaying their position as an alternative supplier of phosphorus into wealth, power and influence. To control the exports of phosphorus from Ceres, the government founded CESS, the Ceresian Shipping Service, the official state phosphorus shipping monopoly.
Bad enough that Minasian terrorists had hijacked the Louisiana. The last thing Silva needed was to spark an interplanetary incident.
Silva sucked on a bulb of ship coffee, mulling over his response. Only after draining the last drops of the black, bitter fluid did he reply.
We acknowledge your previous message. Our orders forbid us from making an exception for merchant convoys, even for a shipment of phosphorus. We advise that you off-load your cargo at another station instead. We further advise that any attempt to violate the blockade will be met with force.
The second he sent the message, he composed a report for his superiors on Earth, over 80 light-minutes away. The Ceresian’s response arrived while his report was still riding on a beam of light.
We are contracted to deliver cargo essential to life to Minas Station. We will carry it out. Be advised that any use of force against us will be seen as an attack on the people and the state of Ceres. Be further advised that we are capable of defending ourselves. We are not harmless, unarmed freighters.
Silva cursed softly under his breath.
There was no point asking for an intelligence analysis. Even with the Enterprise’s most powerful sensors, at this distance the convoy were little more than specks of light. There would be no way to tell what they were armed with, if they were armed, until they had arrived in SEL-5. And by then, the Terrans would have even fewer options.
He would have to take the Ceresians at their word. While they maintained a small space force, their merchantmen routinely traveled armed. Phosphorus was worth its weight in gold on the interplanetary market. Freighters carrying phosphorus were prime targets for pirates.
Even if all they had were lightweight kinetics and small lasers, it would be enough to dislodge the Terran blockade. And who was to say that they didn’t have a military escort too? Or, worse, a Q-ship, carrying not a load of phosphorus but an arsenal of kinetics, lasers and drones.
The big question was whether Ceres had the stones to confront Earth to ensure its shipment went through. And, for that matter, whether Earth would do the same to Ceres over the crew of a single captured ship. Everybody knew that every major space power would do everything they could to avoid all-out war—and what everybody knew had a tendency to remain true until it stopped being so.
Phosphorus aside, Ceres had no quarrels with Earth, and vice versa. There was no reason for open conflict. But here, millions of kilometers from home, in a complex and volatile AO, anything could happen.
As he pondered his options, Silva received a response from Earth.
Do not confront the Ceresians with force, but do not allow them to break the blockade. All other combatant ships are urgently needed elsewhere. We are unable to dispatch reinforcements or additional supplies at this time.
You have carte blanche to resolve the situation before the Ceresians arrive.
Silva sighed. In relief, in resignation, in resolve.
The brass had reached the same conclusions as Silva. No one wanted a war with Ceres. Not over a pirate station at the furthest reaches of civilised space. The only way to do that was to get the hostages back before the Ceresians forced the Terrans’ hand.
And to do that, Silva would have to escalate.
So be it. He was prepared for this moment since the day he had set off. Now it was upon him. He would carry out his duty to the bitter end.
“Captain Waters,” Silva said.
The edge in his voice caused her to prick up and turn to him, a look of expectation on her face.
“Aye, Commodore,” she said.
“Organize a secure conference with the other captains of TF 136,” Silva replied. “We’re going to bring our people home.”
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