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Starhome by Michael Z. Williamson - Baen Books


Starhome

Michael Z. Williamson


One didn't have to be involved in a war to suffer, nor even in line of fire. Collateral economic damage could destroy just as easily.

First Minister Jackson Bates looked over the smallest nation in space. From the window of his tower, he could view the entire territory of Starhome up above him. Centrifugal gravity meant the planetoid was "up," but he was used to it. It was a rock roughly a kilometer in diameter, tunneled through for habitat space, with its rotation adjusted to provide centrifugal G.

The window was part of a structure that had once been Jump Point Control for Earth's JP1. As orbits and jumplines shifted, and as technology advanced relentlessly on, it became cost-ineffective to use the station, and it was too small and antiquated for modern shipping. A new one was built, and this one "abandoned to space."

When the UNPF made that final assignation, his grandfather took a small ship with just enough supplies to let him occupy and declare it private territory. The tower became the family home and offices, and the control center for their business.

Agencies on Earth panicked, and there'd actually been a threat of military occupation. The UN courts had ruled the abandonment made it salvage, and the Bates' occupation was that salvage. The family owned a hollowed out planetoid of passages and compartments, and could do with it as they wished.

At once, the bureaus of Earth protested. BuSpace, BuMil, BuCommerce all took their shots. If they hadn't been so busy fighting each other, they'd have wiped out Starhome a century ago.

The family's entire livelihood was fringe, marginal and unglamorous. Actual smuggling would have made them a valid threat to be attacked. They were information brokers, dealing with untraceable data that was useful to someone, encoded heavily and carried through the jump point directly. Eventually, legitimate cargo transshipment began, since their docking rates were cheaper, just enough for the additional flight time to be offset for certain classes of ship. Tramp freighters came by, and finally a couple of fleets contracted gate space.

All of which had evaporated when Earth’s war with the Freehold of Grainne started. The UN bit down hard on tramp freighters, anything with a Freehold registry, and then started more in-depth monitoring of every jump point it could access directly or by treaty.

The last ship had docked a month before. Little was moving, and what was tended toward huge corporate ships who wouldn't waste time on Starhome. What were docking fees to them?

For now, Starhome had food and oxygen. When it ran low, they'd be forced to pay for direct delivery at extreme cost, or ultimately abandon the station and return to Earth. There'd already been inquiries from the UNPF to that effect, offering "rescue."

Jackson Bates wasn't going to do that. He might go as far as Jupiter's moons. He wouldn't step foot on Earth again if he could avoid it.

His phone chimed.

"Yes?" he answered. All forty-three staff and family knew who he was.

Engineer Paul Rofert said, "Sir, if you're not busy, I need to show you something at the dock tube."

"On my way," he said.

Starhome's docking system was a long gang tube with docking locks protruding. It was axial by design, so ships had to be balanced with each other or counterweights. In practice it was "mostly" axial. Over a couple of centuries, drift happened. That was a known issue, and he hoped that wasn't the problem now.

It took three minutes to run a trolley car down the tower, to the axis, and along it. He knew every centimeter of the route, every passage and compartment. Those had once been quarters for visiting VIPs, when just visiting a station was novel. That had been rec space, and still was, officially. There weren't enough people to make proper use of the gym, so some of the equipment had been relocated over there, to what was once commo gear for jump control. Everything a century or more out of date was aging in either vacuum or atmosphere and quaint at best. But, it was his home. Apart from four years in college in Georgia, this was the only place he'd ever lived. There was room enough for hundreds.

Rofert was waiting at the hub before the dock tube, which was still empty. Jackson's executive, Nicol Cante, was with him. He unstrapped from the car and shoved over in the near-zero G to give her more room.

"Chief," Jackson greeted and shook hands. Paul Rofert was tall, black with gray hair, and had worked for the family for three generations. He knew every bolt and fissure in the place.

"Sir," Rofert said with a nod and a firm shake back. "I hate to deliver more bad news, but . . . "

"Go ahead." It wasn't as if things could get much worse.

"The axis drift is worse than we'd anticipated. It has precessed enough the tube can't be considered axial anymore. We'll need to adjust rotation."

"Can our attitude jets do it?"

"No, we'll need external mounts and a lot of delta V over several days to avoid lateral stresses. And it has to be done soon or feedback oscillations will rip the dock apart."

"Then I guess we're out of business," he replied. He was surprised at how easily he said it. Apparently, he'd known the outcome and just been waiting for the cue. "We can't afford that."

Rofert said, "Sorry, sir."

He sighed. He was glad his father wasn't here to see that. They'd lasted two generations as an Independent Territory. Now they were done.

"I'm Jackson to you, Paul. We're friends even when the news is bad." He continued, "My personal craft can take twenty if we have to use it. That will be the last one out. See what transport you can arrange, Nicol. Call Space Guard if you must, but I'd prefer we leave with dignity."

She swiped at her notepad. "On it, Boss. When should we plan for evacuation?"

"Part of me wants to get it over with, and part wants to hold out until the bitter end. Use your judgment."

"Got it."

Her judgment was exceptional. She had degrees in physics and finance. She'd offer him a grid of windows, costs and movements and guide him through the decision. That ability was why he'd hired her. No doubt she'd find other employment, but he felt he was cheating her by asking her to plan her own evacuation.

He'd sounded depressed and defeated. She'd been calm and solid.

#

Nicol's suggested schedule meant they'd start leaving in a week. There was one in-system charter willing to haul most of the staff at that time, and that would clean out much of the available credit. They were that deep in the hole. The command staff would go with him, as would a Demolition Crew, who'd strip cables, metals, food, anything aboard that could be salvaged. It would either go aboard, or in a planned orbit. Mass and material were commodities in space. At least with that and the proceeds from selling his boat he'd be able to reestablish on Titan, or if he had to, on Earth, somewhere reasonably still free. Chile, perhaps. Sulawan. New Doggerland.

He still wouldn't be in space then though, nor independent.

Nothing had docked this week, either. Nothing was going to, even if they could have. The dock and davits were silent, the workers helping tear out nonessential materials for recovery. What had been the old gym was now a pile of iron and aluminum for reuse, for the little value it held. The hatches were sealed, the oxygen recovered to stretch what was used in the working space.

His phone chimed, breaking his musing and his mood.

"What?" he answered.

"Inbound vessel, sir. Very stealthy. And it came from out and forward, not from the point."

He realized it was Astrogator Marie Duval in Docking Control. His estranged daughter-in-law by the son of his estranged wife. His wife and son were both back on Earth, just not the type for space. Marie had stayed.

A vessel? Not from the point?

"Human?" he asked as he started swimming that way, grabbing a loop on the cable that wound endlessly between hub and DC, as a cheap elevator.

She said, "Yes, it seems to be. Forceline propulsion, but tiny."

"Phase drive for interstellar, then?"

She replied, "No indication of that, no."

"I'm on my way across," he said. Centrifugal G increased as he was pulled outward.

He needed to see it. He worried without a conclusion until he arrived, pulled himself through the hatch, and looked at the monitors.

There it was, tiny and dark.

Marie said, "I tightbeamed them, sir. No response. Should I try laser?"

"Go ahead. How far are they?"

"Six light seconds. We saw them about six and a half."

That was close. No one had seen them until now?

A minute later she said, "Laser response, sir."

The audio said, "We are a private ship, offering trade."

Jackson responded with, "Approaching ship, be aware our docking facilities are compromised and unsafe. You cannot dock directly. Who are you and what are you offering?"

"We will avoid the dock tube. Please stand by for our arrival."

He shrugged. "Well, they're human, and talking. I can't imagine anyone wants to hijack this place."

Duval said, "That is a warship, though, sir."

"Based on the stealth?"

She nodded. "Yes, sir. It's stealthed stupid. No one tries to stay hidden in space without a reason."

"You're correct, but we can't do much. Prepare to zip a request to Space Guard if we have to."

"It's already queued, sir. The ship will be here in under an hour. Space Guard is at least four hours away after we call."

"Understood. I'll wait here for any updates." They could call him, but he wanted to show his support, and it would be faster if he could see screens directly. He made himself some coffee and found the cookie stash. The chairs were good, this being one of the few places with decent G levels. They were half a century old, repaired multiple times to avoid excess costs.

It was definitely a human ship, and it maneuvered in slowly. It had to have been en route at low thrust for a long time, or the energy signature would have shown.

It had no markings, no IFF. Active radar and other scans showed almost nothing, just bare ghosts. It was a hole in space as far as sensors were concerned.

It moved in almost to contact, then opened a hatch, deployed a line, and tethered to the base of the dock assembly. Three figures came out in V-suits, entered the maintenance lock and cycled through.

Jackson and Nicol had time to get placed to greet whoever it was, and four security personnel stood at angles with shotguns. "Stood" in near zero G by hooking to stanchions. It didn't seem there'd be need, but there was no proof there wouldn't be.

It was cold in the terminal. There was no reason to heat it, with no ships inbound.

The lock unlatched and swung. The three inside were youngish, fit, definitely human, and unarmed. They doffed helmets.

The woman in front said, "Greetings. First Minister Bates? I'm pleased to meet you and apologize for the circumstances. I'm Dr. Hazel Donahey. This is Dr. Andrew Tyson and Assistant True Hively."

"Doctor," he agreed and shook hands. "This is my executive, Dr. Nicol Cante." If they were going to use titles, so was he.

He asked, "What can I do for you?"

Dr. Donahey said, "We need a research base for stellar and deep space observations. You have a habitat that's unfortunately rather quiet, but that suits our needs." She didn't look threatening, and certainly could be an academic. Space-short hair, no jewelry, no wasted movement.

He wanted to accuse them of being vultures, but he didn't have a great bargaining position.

He said, "It is quiet, and I wish it wasn't. I regret that I don't even have functional facilities anymore."

Donahey said, "Our budget isn't large, but is underwritten, and we can provide a certain amount of oxygen, food and power beyond our own needs. We'll also have available people with technical training to assist in overhaul."

So what did they want?

"You said you need observations?" He gestured for them to follow. There was no imminent threat, and there were frames at the edge of the bay.

She spoke as they pulled themselves along. "Yes. Sol is unique in many ways, including the still-elusive intelligent life. There are several competing theories on its stellar development. Then, drive research is notably concerned with terminal effects around jump points. The deep space, but still heliospace is critical, and again, this is a very convenient place to operate from."

Nicol asked, "Why not just use a leased liner? And who do you represent?" She draped across a frame with the casual sprawl of someone who had spent years in space.

"Liners have tremendous operating costs. We're from Brandt's research arm. We are strictly private."

He said, "And we're supposed to overlook that Brandt is based in Grainne, the UN has occupied your system, and you're magically here near a jump point for 'observations'?"

Donahey shrugged and tucked into the frame, as did her assistants. "Science is about knowledge, sir. This is a project we've worked on for a long time. I can make the data files available if you wish. We were using a remote site in Salin, but there's a significant difference in stellar environments between a K Three and a G Two star."

He hung from one stanchion, just to have some sort of base. He noted Nicol wasn't in the same orientation as the rest. She liked to get angled views on things to spot discrepancies.

On the one hand he wanted to believe them. On the other, they had a stealth ship, probably military. On the other, he really owed nothing to Earth at this point. They'd tried everything they could to kill his family's dream. On the other, there was a difference between not owing Earth and assisting possible espionage. On yet another hand, he needed operating cash even if he was shutting down, and the food and oxy they promised would close out two costs on his accounts.

"Let's go to my office," he said.

They were experienced spacers. They followed easily in low and no G. Everyone was quiet on the trolley, and he was embarrassed at the worn, out-of-date seating. He was glad to get to his office. That wasn't more than a decade out-of-date, and it had enough G.

He offered his restroom so they could change into shipsuits and shlippers instead of V-suits and grips.

When they came back in coveralls, he asked, "May I get you anything? Hard or soft."

"Hot tea with lemon would be very nice," Dr. Donahey said.

"Two."

"Three, please."

He nodded. Even a short EVA could be cold out here. The terminal wasn't kept warm anymore either, relying on waste heat from equipment to heat it and now the equipment wasn't in use.

"Tea all around, and drinks later, please, Frank," he said to his grandson, the Factotum On Duty. That was a fancy title for "gopher." Though they did more than just gophering.

His title of First Minister was a fancy way of saying, "owner." It just gave a political spin. In reality, his leadership was smaller than any but the tiniest rural villages on Earth. But the volume of nothing he commanded . . . 

"You do understand I'm nervous, with the war on," he said.

Donahey said, "Understandable. If you prefer, we can negotiate with Earth and occupy after you leave. The only problem is it would take several months to get approval, but since we're a recognized research institute, there's no real problem. And of course, you wouldn't be benefitting."

Yeah, there was that. Everyone had plans for the station, when he finally left. It made him stubborn.

Frank brought back the tea, and he took the moment it was being served to signal to Nicol, who asked, "So what do you think of Carnahan's hypothesis on jump point eddy currents during the reset phase?"

Donahey said, "That's more Andy's area."

Andrew Tyson said, "Bluntly, the man's deluding himself. Those currents occurred twice, during a specific combination of ship and point, and similar but far smaller effects were identified with the same class ship in an earlier generation of the same point mechanism. It's purely an artifact of circumstance, not a general effect. But that is the sort of thing we want to test."

Nicol nodded and asked, "What was the Delta X on that ship?"

"Well, it was forceline propulsion, so the Delta X was almost entirely within the hull. Induction field harmonics are more important, and it was under a k-value of six."

"Fair enough," Nicol said. "So you at least understand physics. Would you mind if I observed your findings?"

"By all means," Donahey said. "We'd want an NDA for discretion, but you're quite welcome to observe the process."

Jackson caught Nicol's signal back.

So, they were legitimate, just here in odd circumstances.

"What do you need and what specifically are you offering?"

Donahey said, "We'd need lodging for ourselves—there are twelve—and boat crews as they come through. We'd need access to two divergent points—the end of the dock assembly, and the antipodean point on the outside. We'll be occasionally pulling a lot of power from your reactor. We'll make up the mass."

"And what do we get?"

"Oxygen, food, fuel, metals and organics. Everything a small habitat needs, since we need it functional too. We assumed occupancy and support for a hundred."

Jackson thought about asking for money, too, but that really was a generous offer. It was twice current crewing level, so should last a bit. He hated being forced to take it, though.

"Our docking gantry is no longer axial, and in danger of catastrophic failure from oscillations," he admitted.

The three looked at each other and seemed to swap expressions.

True Hively said, "I should be able to coordinate that. It's a significant amount of reaction mass and maneuvering engine, though."

Donahey said, "We'd consider that our top offer."

Really, it was fair, in that Starhome would remain functional for as long as this took, and docking facilities would be back online.

It wasn't fair in that it only prolonged the inevitable.

Since he'd be returning to Earth's economy even on Titan, and taxed again, he wondered what kind of write off he could get for donating the rock to them.

"How long is the project?"

Donahey said, "Our current funding allows seventeen months."

"Deal," he said.

It gave everyone seventeen more months of employment and distance from Earth. He'd have to keep paying them from shrinking capital, but he wouldn't have to turn them out.

Donahey said, "Then we'll return to our ship, and arrange to move into your ante section, as you called it. Thank you very much for your hospitality. And you, Dr. Cante."

Right after the visitors were escorted out, he got notice of an incoming transmission from Space Guard. It was an offer to evacuate his people now, pending acceptance of . . . 

"Nicol, do we have some sort of demand from the UN?"

"It just came in," she said. "Apparently these idiots can't even coordinate their own memos."

"What is it?"

"It's a salvage price offer to buy you out and relocate us."

"Bastards."

He took a moment to calm himself, and said, "I wonder if Prescot will pick up my request. It seems like the scavengers aren't even waiting for us to die."

#

The scientists and crew started moving stuff at once. They had supplies for themselves, crates of technical gear. They took accommodations in the other privately owned lodging Starhome had already sealed off, and brought it back online themselves. Their ship transferred reactor fuel cells.

They double sealed the passages to that section by physically locking airtight hatches. They requested no one approach the ante pole during outside maintenance, either.

"We can do that for you," True Hively said. "Our sensors are easily disrupted."

A week later, a freighter arrived with cargo pods of oxygen, food and attitude engines. It was good to look out his office ports and see a ship again. Even only one ship. It approached in a long arc to dockside only, which was costly in fuel.

"I don't like it," Nicol said.

Jackson said, "It's all from Govannon, and all properly marked. Legitimately purchased."

"Yes, and I suppose they may have phase drive to explain how they came in the back way. You haven't asked about that."

"I haven't," he agreed. "I wanted to see if the deal was real, and if it would help. We have a year and a half to hope things turn around, or to withdraw in stages."

She said, "I'm still bothered by a heavily stealthed boat from deep space, and the lack of advance notice. So is Marie. They really don't want to be seen."

"Their credentials checked out with Brandt, didn't they?"

"They did," she admitted. "Then I messaged my friend Travis in R and D over there. He's never heard of them. Corporate says they're legit. Operations isn't aware."

"I suppose it was classified research."

She said, "And if so, it was for Grainne . . . who we are now at war with."

"We are? Earth is. We're neutral."

She said, firmly, "Boss, neutral status goes away if you aid a hostile power."

"Have they done anything illicit?"

"No. They really are making solar observations, but you realize they could be tracking ships, habitats, commo and anything else as well, right? They're in-system, with shaky credentials and sensors that can image fireflies in Iowa from here."

Jackson was enjoying really good French bread, baked by his staff using wheat that came in aboard the researchers' supply ship.

He checked off points. "Grainne's jump point with Earth is down. No one is going to let them jump warships around. They had phase drive of course, since Brandt is located there, but only a few ships. They can't stage an attack here, they no longer exist as an independent system. Even if these people are spying, it's not going to do any good."

Nicol said, "I more wonder if they contracted to NovRos or even the Prescots. The UN is building infrastructure everywhere against other independence movements. The Colonial Alliance can't do anything the UN doesn't want to allow. It's more likely corporate or political espionage than military."

"Exactly."

She said, "Either way, we'd still wind up in jail for life for helping. Even if they've locked us out of our own habitat, we can't claim we didn't know."

"Do you want out?" he asked. This was important.

She shook her head. "No, Boss, I'll stay. I'm curious. I just wanted to make sure you realized the risks."

"Always," he said.

She said, "At least I have work again, monitoring our guests. They pass down the axis daily and are making observations. I'd sure like to see their other end, though."

"Have they furnished the data for you to review?" he asked.

"They have. It's too detailed and esoteric for my skillset, but looks real, and even if I understood it, I'm holding with the NDA unless it's relevant to our safety."

"Well done, thank you."

He couldn't run the place without her.

#

The next ship was a week later, with more supplies and more personnel. They graciously offered other upgrades, those sponsored by Prescot Deep Space in Govannon. It irritated Jackson more. Prescot had refused a previous deal, hadn't responded to his new one, but were willing to send stuff if someone else paid for it. That defined his status.

The station rumbled with the low hum of reaction engines nudging it back into alignment, with a promise that the docks could reopen in less than two weeks. Assuming, of course, there were any other ships.

Dr. Donahey visited his office every two or three days. She was on the schedule for today.

"Good morning, Jackson," she said on arriving. He'd been clear he was not "Sir" or "First Minister."

"Good morning, Hazel." He pointed to the tea.

"Thank you," she said and took a cup. "I just came back from the sensors at the end of the docking tube, and checked with True on my way. Did you see your terminal should be online next week?"

"I did," he said. "I appreciate it greatly, even if we never get to use it. At least we won't be abandoning the place."

"I like it," she said. "It's old, but has character. Have you thought of asking Prescot if they could use it?"

"I have. They're not interested."

"That's odd," she said. "I thought they'd find it useful, especially as they built it originally."

She seemed bothered.

He asked, "Can you tell me about your project? I'm an educated layman."

She took a deep breath and said, "Well, we're working on several things. In my case, we're watching the chromosphere currents and variable fluctuations of the Sun, and running hefty simulations backward on how it was at the time life first evolved, and the varying radiation there would have been. That's to see if any of it might be significant to stages of the evolution of life. So far, we've found lots of habitable planets to terraform, a handful with their own life, and few that have any advanced organisms. Any number of factors could affect it. So I'm a physicist, dealing with life scientists. Mine is all 'how?', theirs is all 'what if?'"

"What cycles are you tracking?" he asked, and had some tea. That was an expensive import here, too.

"Milankovitch, Rujuwa, the neutrino flux variation, among others."

"Interesting. Are you religious at all, Hazel?"

She shook her head. "Not at all, but I would enjoy exploring outside influence on it all, if there was any way to determine its existence. Are you?"

"No, but I often wonder."

"That seems to be human nature—and how the supernatural came to be created. Humans recognized a pattern, couldn't find a reason for it, so created one."

"How is Andy doing on his projects?"

"He has a lot of people building processors and setting sensors. Still. What he's looking for is very subtle, and it's annoying having to work around it. That's why we sealed the entire ante third of the station."

He said, "Yeah, I signed off on that, after a lengthy tour. As much as I want to help, being locked out of my own home is a tough call." He also had Paul using an abandoned conduit to check on them. The engineer reported everything to be good.

She replied, "It affects my observations, too, but even though I'm nominally in charge, both Prescot and Brandt want his data. So I have to make do."

"What do I need to know about anything upcoming?" he asked.

"Well, once you can operate again, Andy has a clear zone we really need kept free of trajectories, if you can manage it at all. He's very firm on this, but of course, it's your station. Keeping in mind if his team pulls out we have to renegotiate our terms." She seemed embarrassed. "There's another large pod train coming in with additional gear, stocks for you, and a few more personnel."

"Understood. As long as Operations has it, I have no problem. It's not as if it's an astrogation hazard. One other question, if I may."

"Go ahead."

"Why did you arrive in what's essentially a stealth military vessel from deep space?"

She made a face.

"Andy's work, again. They were explicit that we not disrupt space any more than necessary so we could get a clean baseline for examining forcelines and other structures. We were towed around by a tug, and he made them detach farther out than I was comfortable with. The boat is secured against as much leakage as possible. It's basically the equivalent of a clean room. You notice the supply vessels only come in from the docking pole vector."

"So am I even going to be able to resume docking ops, then?"

She looked really embarrassed.

"Yes. Andy will be very unhappy, but at that point, he has to make do. We've accommodated him as much as we can. That decision's up to me, and that's why I'm in charge even though his research has priority."

"Administration and politics," he said, feeling empathy for her.

"Exactly. Thanks for the tea. Shall I check in on Friday?"

"That should be fine."

He didn't bring up that Brandt wasn't clear on their status. He'd save that a bit longer.

After she left, he called Rofert.

"I have a favor for next week," he said.

"Yes, Boss?"

"Can one of your inspection tugs make an orbit around the station?"

"Not an orbit per se, in any reasonable time, but we have enough juice in one to pull a loop, yes."

"Thanks, I'll get with you."

He thought about contacting Space Guard and reporting on events, but he was officially a neutral nation. Contacting them put him more under Earth's thumb and less in the independent category. As curious as he was, he was still a head of state. If Earth stepped in, even the courts might revoke his status.

They were demanding a response to their previous offer, too. The UN Bureau of Space Development understood he controlled a station, etc, and were pleased to extend an offer of salvage cost for the low-use asset, etc, in lieu of further action to assess a bunch of issues that could result in fines.

He needed something soon or they were just going to show up and drag him to Earth.

Could Govannon or Brandt run some public ships here and put up a pretense of interest?

He called back, "Paul, and Nicol, we need to have a meeting on this."

Rofert replied, "On my way."

Nicol said, "Right here." She stepped through from her office.

With everyone seated in G, and something stronger than tea to drink, he opened the discussion.

"The UN, Earth specifically, is trying to hurry us into abandonment. They don't seem to be willing to wait, and they're pestering us. Govannon hasn't expressed interest, but is happy to support a Brandt operation here. We've got speculation that Grainne, if they remain this 'Freehold,' is interested. I need input."

Paul Rofert sipped whisky and said, "Prescot has plenty of resources and might like a remote maintenance facility. You and I have discussed this. If that offer wasn't good then, it doesn't mean it might not be good again soon. They value privacy, too."

Nicol said, "The problem is, they have everything they need on their side. On our side, Frontier Station isn't presently doing enough business to get in the way of maintenance docking, and they have lease agreements for dock space."

"And Grainne?" he asked.

Paul twisted his mouth.

"That all depends on them surviving a war and remaining independent."

"Yes," Jackson said. "The same applies to us. We're smaller, and even more readily occupied. But I don't want to throw in with what may be the losing side."

"Will almost certainly be," Nicol said. "They don't have the infrastructure to fight for long. The UN, meaning Earth, is stupidly focusing on the planet more than on space resources, but still, they can't do it."

Paul said, "The guests are straightforward to deal with. But the scientists can't speak for the government, and what government they had is in hiding."

Nicol said, "That still may have been a warship they were in. It was probably repurposed, but I still don't trust them."

"Why not?" he asked.

"Business as usual, oh, and by the way, can we set up clandestinely with you, right next to our enemy? I don't like it."

"Any more word on their bona fides?"

She said, "The scientists have written peer reviewed papers and appear to be legitimate, but I'd be hard pressed to say they have the seniority for a mission like this."

"Meaning?"

She said, "Meaning they could have been hired as a front."

Paul said, "Possibly they were the only ones available?"

She shook her head. "You'd still send them, but someone with more field time would be in charge."

Jackson said, "The issue is, this is our only income at present, and while it covers some essentials, we're not making any money. I'm paying everyone out of company capital. I can't do that for long. So we still come down to, do we close shop now, hold out until this science mission runs out and hope something comes along, or do something else?"

Nicol said, "You've been honest with everyone about when it might roll over us. Don't worry about that."

"But I do," he said. "Stringing it out isn't fair and doesn't make sense, unless we have a good chance of succeeding."

She said, "I suppose I should be honest and admit I sent my resume to Prescot for any relevant position."

"I don't blame you," he said. He didn't, but damn, if she didn't see an out, and he didn't, it was all over. "I guess in that case, when you get an acceptance, I take that as the turning point and close up."

Paul sat very still and said, "I'll remain until the end. There's nothing for me on Earth."

Jackson remembered that Rofert had been in space since his family died in a "pacification" conflict. All cultures were equal on Earth. But occasionally a culture was deemed troublesome and "reintegrated."

He looked at his engineer and lifelong friend. The man had been working here before he was born. "You will ride with me, and we'll go to Titan. And I guess I know what I have to do. Nicol, tell everyone we'll resume departure plans. Paul, your people will need to stay. And I still want to make that survey. Call it nostalgia."

"Understood."

"Got it."

#

The incoming ship did have a lot more supplies, and more personnel.

It was getting very suspicious. What did a group of researchers need with so many technical assistants? Yes, they'd helped do a lot of equipment overhaul, even to the point of surface treatments and duct cleaning. But why?

If they wanted a hostile takeover, this was a slow way about it, and what point would it serve? If tramp freighters didn't need his station, no larger group would. Few corporations had the funds to waste, and those would have just offered to buy him out and grant him a bunch of favors. The actual governments just wanted to ignore him or exercise eminent domain.

He was going to make that orbit, and Andy's research be damned.

#

Later that day, Jackson realized he needed a new V-suit. He hadn't gained much weight, but a decade had changed his shape. This one pinched and rubbed. It would last the trip, though.

Rofert personally flew him. They had to inspect the docking array anyway. They ungrappled and slowly accelerated out from the axis.

Pointing to the dock through the port, Rofert said, "It's aligned within very close tolerances, about point five mils."

"Impressive," he said. The visitors' work was honest, no matter what else was going on.

"Now aft and ante," Rofert said.

They overshot the dock while decelerating, got a good scan of the outer terminal and beacon, then slowly moved back. There were workers in the pools of illumination on the scaffolding, some his, more of them visitors. There were over fifty of them now, and it made no sense.

"Let's see what the sneaky bastards are up to," Rofert said as they reached relative zero and started moving back. "Control, Engineer One stating intent to change trajectory and proceed ante for scheduled observation."

"Engineer One, Control confirms, proceed."

The docking pylon, then the melted regolith moved a hundred meters below, punctuated with ports and structures of the lodge, of old construction locks and the control tower and his residence. It really was a tiny station, and a tiny nation. It couldn't be relevant to anyone, and long term it was doomed anyway.

There was nothing significant visible as they passed the irregular lump that marked the arbitrary equator, but then . . . 

"Holy crap," he muttered. "Did you see all this, Paul?"

The entire ante polar region had been built on. There were scaffolds, gantries, three docked tugs he could see in addition to the regular boat. There were a lot more than a hundred personnel here, too, because he could see close to that many swarming around building stuff.

In one way or another, it was a hostile takeover.

Then everything went black.

Rofert said, "I'm afraid I did, sir."

"'Sir'? Are we down to that, then?"

Sweat suddenly burst from him. It was a sellout, and it was hostile. Paul had been in on whatever it was.

"We're not low on power," Paul said. "We've been disrupted." He pulled out a rescue light and started flashing it, just as something obscured the view.

It was a stealth boat, bay open, maneuvering to intercept.

"Paul . . . this was not cool. Not at all."

"Hold on, please, sir. You need to see this." He sounded earnest and urgent.

The invading force, because that's what it was, had turned the rear third of his castle into a combat operations center. He'd seen what he needed to.

He kept quiet, because his life might depend on not irritating anyone. He'd let them have the rock, as long as they let his people go, even if it meant detention for a while first.

Detention, at least, would still be in space. Arguably better than being "free" on Earth.

Whoever was in the boat was cautious and careful. It was long minutes before they were ensconced in the bay. It closed, blacker inside than out, the stars and station disappearing.

There were bumps, and lights came back on. Hanging off the davit holding them were several armed troops.

The one in front waved for attention and spoke through a contact mic. "Mr. Bates and Mr. Rofert, if you will please open and disembark, the atmosphere is safe."

Rofert looked at him, shrugged and unlatched the hatch port.

They were allowed to maneuver to the forward end of the bay, where actual deck was, and tie to stanchions. When the bay was pressurized the others unmasked, so Jackson did, too.

The nearest man said, "We apologize for the circumstances. We'd hoped to delay this a bit longer." He looked Hawaiian in ancestry. And broad. About fifty. His accent was from the Grainne Freehold Halo.

Jackson replied, "I'm sorry to have hindered your war."

From the other, "Who said anything about war?"

"It's obvious you're from Grainne and using my home as at least an intel base. It's already set up for that, and I don't have any way to stop you." He should be furious. He'd had suspicions and at this point, it didn't change the outcome of losing his livelihood. Both sides could die, for all he cared. And Paul . . . had obviously seen this in his conduit crawl, and why hadn't Jackson insisted on going along, too?

He turned, "Paul? Why?"

Paul said, "Sir, I know you don't want to abandon your home. Earth would kill you whether intentionally or not. I promised your father I'd maintain it and keep it. This is the only outlet we have, for now."

The officer said, "We intend no violence against you."

He asked, "Do you intend violence against Earth?"

The man responded, "At present, we are gathering scientific information."

"That doesn't answer my question."

"How many questions about the data you transfer have you answered? Or even asked?"

That was valid. He knew much of the data they handled was questionable, if not outright illicit. This, though, pushed the envelope of plausible deniability.

He said, "I acted in good faith. Even though your presentation was questionable."

The man said, "You acted in your own self interest. You still can. The scientists are doing so."

"So you're funding them?"

"They're funded by Brandt and Prescot, as they said. We're furnishing labor and transport."

He'd accuse them of being cheap, but he knew what charter transport would cost.

The man added, "We're also providing your supplies, at present."

There was the offer. "What do you require me to do?"

"Nothing at all. Just tell no one. We'll continue to cover your operating costs, and we hope the war will end shortly. At that point, you resume being a private exchange and transshipment point."

He believed that was true and honest. He wasn't sure it was something the man could realistically promise.

He replied, "So I have to choose which side I take, in a war I didn't want any part of."

"I guess that's up to you," his counterpart said. "When a landslide starts, the pebbles don't get a vote. The war has started, but the hostilities haven't reached here yet. You not only get a vote, you must vote."

He could be their ally, or their prisoner. Either way, Earth would regard him as hostile and treat him accordingly. They'd wanted Starhome back from the moment his father claimed it.

"I'd have to tell my exec," he warned.

The man nodded. "Yes, just face to face. No transmissions, and none of the inside staff."

It wasn't as if he could call anyone. If he managed to get a message to Earth, even if they believed it, they'd destroy everything his family had, and likely charge him anyway.

Earth had attacked a small nation with a lot of resources because it offered political leverage against others. They in turn had occupied his home because it offered leverage back.

"I wanted to be neutral," he said.

Very seriously, the man said, "So did we, sir."

The parallel was ironic.

Jackson said, "I have nothing to lose. At the same time, I have nothing to gain. What bargaining position do you have, sir?"

The big officer flexed as he moved. It wasn't intimidation. He was just that big with muscle. He pulled out a flask, took a swig, and offered it.

"Silver Birch. Some consider it our finest liquor."

It was informal, but they were in a cargo bay, on a deck surrounded by loading equipment. He accepted with a nod, took a drink, and damn, that was smooth. He'd heard of it, but even the head of state of a rock couldn't afford such imports.

"Very nice," he said.

The officer said, "For now, I can increase cash payments somewhat, to cover our 'maintenance facility.' And I assure you only noncombatant craft will dock here for the duration. That's to our benefit and yours. If you'll tell me what you need for payroll and other overhead, I can approve it."

That was a significant shift. However, if he was selling out, he wasn't going to sell out cheap.

He asked, "What if I am attacked by the UN forces?"

"We'd be attacked as well, in that case."

"Yes, but what is my status?" he prompted.

"At that point, you are an engaged ally, and we'd do our best to defend you as well. Since we’d need the facilities for retreat and repair."

Jackson said, "I'll have my exec draft that as a formal agreement, if you don't mind, holding you to tenant status." He wanted his people drafting the agreement on his terms.

"Fair," the man agreed.

Yes, but . . . "And after the war, then what?"

"What do you want?"

"First refusal on docking rights for any Freehold flagged freighter."

The officer shook his head. "That would be impossible to enforce, given our legal system."

"What instead, then?"

The man said, "We can strongly recommend that our vessels use your services. If you've studied our culture, we're very big on social connections and support of friends."

"Well and good," Jackson said. "But I need something stronger than recommendations."

The man sat and thought for a moment, and Jackson let him. He looked around. The other personnel were still on alert, ready to react to orders. He figured this guy was the officer in charge of the project.

Finally, the man said, "I can guarantee ten years of baseline support of your operation at its present size. Expansion is up to you."

That did it. He was subsidized and beholden, but still independent. They hadn't taken, hadn't threatened, and hadn't tried to buy him out. They respected his sovereignty and circumstances.

First Minister Bates addressed the foreign officer officially. "Reluctantly, and under protest, I accept this pending signature, and offer you continued sanctuary, with the expectation that my people will be given proper treatment as both noncombatants and nonparticipants in our agreement."

"Then, sir," the man said, extending his hand, "you have my word as a Freehold officer."

He shook, and wasn't sure what to say next. He turned to Paul and said, "Whether we live or die, Paul, it will be here, in our home."

His friend grinned back. "That's the only way it should be, sir."


Copyright © 2016 Michael Z. Williamson


Michael Z. Williamson is retired military, having served twenty-five years in the U.S. Army and the U.S. Air Force. He was deployed for Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Desert Fox. Williamson is a state-ranked competitive shooter in combat rifle and combat pistol. He has consulted on military matters, weapons, and disaster preparedness for Discovery Channel and Outdoor Channel productions and is Editor-at-Large for Survivalblog, with 300,000 weekly readers. In addition, Williamson tests and reviews firearms and gear for manufacturers. Williamson’s books set in his Freehold Universe include FreeholdThe Weapon, Rogue, Better to Beg Forgiveness, Do Unto Others, When Diplomacy Fails . . . , and the upcoming Angeleyes. He is also the author of time travel novel A Long Time Until Now, as well as The Hero—the latter written in collaboration with New York Times best-selling author John Ringo. Williamson was born in England, raised in Liverpool and Toronto, Canada, and now resides in Indianapolis with his two children.