Shadow Of Freedom – Snippet 36

Chapter Ten

“Well, Hosea, I hope you’ve completed your homework assignment,” Naomi Kaplan said dryly as HMS Tristram bored through hyper-space, twelve hours after leaving Montana orbit. “I’d like to sound like I’ve got some clue what I’m talking about for the Commodore’s conference.”

“I wouldn’t say I’m happy about the amount of detail I’ve managed to turn up, Skipper,” Lieutenant Hosea Simpkins, Tristram’s astrogator replied with a wry smile. “I’ve pulled everything I could find out of the files, but Tester knows it isn’t much.”

“Somehow, I’m not surprised.” Commander Kaplan shrugged and leaned back in her chair at the head of the briefing room’s conference table. “Go ahead and give us what you’ve got, though.”

“Yes, Ma’am.” Kaplan’s Grayson-born astrogator didn’t bother to consult his notes. “Technically, Saltash’s an independent star system. Actually, it’s been an OFS client for about sixty T-years. The single habitable planet is called Cinnamon. Orbital radius is about nine light-minutes, population’s just under two-point-five billion. Planetary diameter’s only point-nine-six Old Earth, but gravity’s almost a full standard gravity, so it’s obviously a little denser than most. Hydrosphere is right on seventy-three percent, and its axial inclination’s only nine degrees, so it sounds like a fairly nice place to live.

“Unfortunately, the local political structure was a real mess sixty or seventy T-years back. The Republic of McPhee and the Republic of Lochore both claimed to be the sole legitimate system government, and they’d fought two or three wars without settling things. They were headed towards another war, and all indications were it was going to be a really ugly affair this time around, when the president of MacPhee called in Frontier Security to play referee.”

“Where have we heard this story before?” Lieutenant Commander Alvin Tallman muttered with a scowling expression.

“I hate to say it, Sir,” Simpkins told Tristram’s executive officer, “but in this case OFS really did end up doing one of the things it was ostensibly created to do. I’m not saying it did it out of the goodness of its heart, you understand, but if the League hadn’t intervened, McPhee and Lochore were probably getting ready to pretty well sterilize Cinnamon. That’s how bitter the situation had gotten.”

“Any idea why things were that bad, Hosea?” Kaplan asked, her eyes intent, and Simpkins shrugged.

“Not really, Ma’am. Given the intensity of the last war they actually fought, these people were as unreasonable as we Graysons were before we exiled the Faithful to Masada, but it doesn’t seem like religion was behind the antagonism in Saltash’s case. The only thing I can tell you for sure is that the two sides had obviously hated each other for a long time, and it looks like they’d simply reached the point of being so pissed off, if you’ll pardon my language, that they were ready to pull the trigger even knowing there was a pretty good chance they’d wreck the entire planet.”

“Well, that sounds promising as hell,” Lieutenant Vincenzo Fonzarelli sighed.

“It might not be that bad, Vincenzo,” Abigail Hearns said, smiling slightly at Tristram’s chief engineer. Fonzarelli looked back at her skeptically, and she shrugged. “We’re not really here to deal with the Saltashans directly, so it doesn’t matter if they’re as crazy as the Faithful…or even Graysons.” Her smile turned dimpled. “All we have to worry about is the OFS presence in the system.”

“That’s a reassuring thought,” Lieutenant Wanda O’Reilly observed waspishly. The communications officer’s resentment of Abigail’s promotion and (in her opinion) privileged status had abated — slightly — but it still rankled, and no one was ever going to accuse O’Reilly of giving up a sense of antagonism easily.

“I could wish we weren’t here to confront the Sollies, too, Wanda,” Kaplan said mildly. “Unfortunately, we wouldn’t be making the trip if there weren’t Sollies at the other end of it, now would we?”

“No, Ma’am,” O’Reilly acknowledged.

“So how much system infrastructure is there, Hosea?” Kaplan asked, turning her attention back to the astrogator.

“Not much, actually.” This time the Grayson did look down at his notes. “There’s some mining in the Casper Belt between Saltash Delta and Himalaya, the system’s only gas giant, although the total belter population — work force and dependents, combined — is way under a half million. And there’s a gas extraction plant orbiting Himalaya itself. There doesn’t seem to be much local heavy industry, though, and the system’s only real cargo transfer platform is Shona Station. Which also happens to be Cinnamon’s only significant orbital habitat.”

“How big a population does it have, Hosea?” Abigail asked with a frown, and Simpkins checked his notes again.

“Almost a quarter million,” he said, and Abigail’s frown deepened.

“Something bothering you, Abigail?” Kaplan inquired, and Abigail gave herself a slight shake.

“Only that that’s a lot of civilians to be potentially getting in harm’s way, Ma’am,” she said. “I was just thinking about how ugly things almost got in Monica.”

Kaplan gazed at her for a moment, then nodded.

“I see your point. Hopefully nobody’s going to be stupid enough for us to have to start throwing missiles around this time, though.”

“Hopefully, Ma’am,” Abigail agreed, and Kaplan turned back to Simpkins.

“Should I take it there’s no indication that this Shona Station’s armed?”

“Not according to anything in the files, Ma’am.”

“Then given the Sollies’ well demonstrated ability to screw things up by the numbers, I suppose we’d better hope the files are accurate in this case,” Kaplan said dryly.

A flicker of laughter ran around the conference table, and Tallman cocked his head at his commanding officer.

“Do we actually know whether this Dueñas character is likely to be reasonable or not when we turn up, Skipper?”

“That is the million-dollar question, isn’t it?” Kaplan’s smile was thinner than ever. “And the answer, I’m afraid, is that we don’t have a clue. Our bio data on him is even thinner than Hosea’s info on the star system. Officially, he’s not the system’s governor — legally it’s only a ‘courtesy title,’ it says here — ” she tapped her copy of the squadron’s orders from Michelle Henke and rolled her eyes, “but from what Hosea’s said, when he says ‘jump’ the only question anyone in Saltash asks is ‘how high.'”

“That’s about right, from everything I’ve been able to find, Ma’am,” Simpkins put in. She cocked an eyebrow at him, and he shrugged. “Under the terms of the Frontier Security ‘peacekeeping agreement,’ OFS was assigned responsibility for managing the system’s local and interstellar traffic. Just to make sure no one was sneaking any warships into position for attacks, you understand. Of course, it was necessary for Frontier Security to levy a slight service fee for looking after Saltash’s security that way.”

“How big a service fee?”

“Try thirty-five percent…of the gross, Ma’am,” Simpkins replied grimly, and Kaplan’s lips pursed in a silent whistle. That was steep, even for OFS.

“Do you know if that level was part of the original agreement?” she asked. “Or did Dueñas and his predecessors crank it up to give them a better level of graft after they were in place?”

“That I couldn’t tell you, Ma’am. Sorry.”