The 929-f corvette-the Soldier of Fortune-sat undetected, it's passive sensors set to full sensitivity. Just forty kilometers away, a destroyer and two corvettes watched as the test ship practiced maneuvers. The Commonwealth's experimental PatCom; Tarnhelm was the test craft. The Tarnhelm was the most advanced stealth craft in existence. Not only did it have the ability to fool radar and thermal sensors, it's hull could change it's color, making it effectively invisible to the eye.
The lethal PatCom made another pass at one of the drone ships, which was not firing at all because it's targeting scanners saw absolutely nothing. In an instant, the drone's reactor went critical and detonated, temporarily bathing the area in radiation. At this moment, the Soldier of Fortune struck out at the Tarnhelm. A low power laser hit the PatCom near the waste heat array, causing virtually no damage. The laser burst had lasted less than a second, and was easily camouflaged by the reactor explosion. Having completed the first phase of the assignment, the Soldier of Fortune quietly left the testing area.
Three days later
Engineer Eliot grunted as he forced himself into the small engineering section of the Soldier of Fortune. One of the perks of the new 929-f was that it had a engineering station located in the bowels of the corvette, making repairs easier and more efficient. Radiation shielding had taken great strides since the first Dreadnaught class corvette. Though small, the station could fit two to three people inside of it.
Eliot suffered slightly from claustrophobia, and hated coming down here. Despite his objections, Tactical Officer Krause swore that the PBCs were slightly out of alignment, and the captain had ordered him to look into it.
"It would be my luck to fall into a group of mercenaries," he muttered to himself as he brought up the weapon's diagnostic. Eliot often said such things, but the truth was that he loved his career. He had always had wanted to be an engineer on a starship, but had hated the regulations of the Commonwealth Navy and didn't care about the Indie cause. Not only that, but the pay was better than in either navies.
"Well, I'll be damned. He was right." Eliot shook his head in disbelief. Krause never stopped amazing him. He was the best goddamn gunner that Eliot had ever met, and was always friendly and personable. Just six months ago, at G-kon, Krause saved Eliot from being arrested by the Peacekeepers and had dragged him aboard the Soldier of Fortune and changed his life.
Captain Rosen had wanted to dump him off at the next port, but Eliot had proved himself to be a competent engineer, and was allowed to stay onboard. He was also in luck that the ship's last engineer, May Bower, was killed a few weeks back in an attack.
Captain Rosen's harsh voice sounded over the ship intercom, "All personnel, attack stations. Eliot, finish up and get your ass to the bridge."
Eliot quickly entered the bridge and took his place at the engineering station. He glanced over the screens and saw that all systems were optimal.
"Analysis Eliot," commanded Rosen.
"Standard Navy corvette, sir. Weapons and shields are powered up, and the ship is hailing us."
"Let's hear what they have to say. Get ready to fire on my signal."
"This is the Commonwealth corvette Fairview CNV-375. Explain what you are doing in this system, your ship name, and your registry code."
Captain Rosen's voice was full of cold humor. "My ship is the Soldier of Fortune. Our intent in this system is to destroy you. Goodbye." Rosen turned to Krause, "Kill 'em."
Krause's hands swiftly flew over his control board, instantly targeting the Fairview's bridge. The Soldier of Fortune's Gattling cannon lanced out, collapsing the command module. Exactly as planned, the Commonwealth ship now had no bridge, and it would take time for the rest of the crew to figure out what just happened. The Soldier of Fortune docked to the hapless ship and accessed their computer files.
Eliot read off the computer's progress, "Computer files decrypted. Downloading Capsule Drive destination...mission files...security codes...we got their IFF code sir. I've implanted the virus. Let's get out of here."
Captain Rosen nodded, "Good work. Let's get a move on people."
The Soldier of Fortune moved away as the Fairview entered LDS. The virus that the mercenaries had implanted shut down all computer panels and life support. It also ordered the ship to crash into the nearest planet. This would prevent the Navy from finding the Fairview and would keep them in the dark.
The "Fairview" flashed into the Earth L5 point. Rosen immediately hailed Saltlake Base, and transmitted the security codes.
"Saltlake Base, this is the Fairview CNV-375 reporting for escort duty. Request clearance to formally enter the system, and receive orders."
The base didn't even hesitate. "This is S.T.C. You have clearance, and you are to report to G-kon. A squadron of PatComs are on station there waiting for your arrival; you'll take command and receive the Capsule Jump destination from the PatComs. Have a nice day."
"Same to you S.T.C."
Eliot watched his engineering screen intently, "We've received the command access codes sir. I've altered our power output and thermal emissions to match a standard corvette. Passive sensors won't be able to see anything odd, but we should keep at least two kilometers away from all other ships. We're a bit bigger than a normal corvette, and then they might start an active scan."
Rosen nodded, "Alright. Pilot Sonenberg, engage LDS and move to the L4 point. Let's do this thing."
The "Fairview" disappeared in a flash of green light.
Eliot quickly began his task. The corvette would be in range of the other ships in just a few minutes. His job was to embed a destructive virus in the command protocols that would be transmitted to the PatComs and the freighter. Normally, a ships computer filtered out any potentially dangerous transmissions. Though with the Fairview's stolen codes and the command access given by Saltlake, it would be a simple matter to hide the virus. The program would be triggered by a Capsule Jump. After the Jump was complete, the virus program would lock out the computer and freeze all manual controls. The encryption code would be over 12,000 characters long, and only the remote link would still be active. The engineer thought that this would go without a hitch; Captain Rosen always planned very carefully, and rarely did he ever make a mistake.
"Approaching the rendezvous point. I'm seeing four PatComs and a heavy freighter. I'll put us about five kilometers away from the convoy," Sonenberg paused. "We're being hailed from Captain Spencer aboard the PatCom Solar Flare."
"Put him on. Ready the infected codes, Elliot."
A deep voice came over the speakers, "This is Captain Spencer here. We're all ready for the Jump. I'll hand over squadron command once I receive the proper codes."
"Certainly Captain Spencer; the codes are being transmitted now. We will follow you through the Point. Fairview out."
Rosen looked questioningly at Eliot, who nodded. Rosen, obviously relieved, turned to Sonenberg. "Take us through the LaGrange Point."
"Yessir. Powering Capsule Drive and moving to the Jump Point."
The Navy ships appeared through the L-point in rapid secession. As soon as the Soldier of Fortune entered the system, the PatComs joined formation with it. By using the remote link, Eliot locked a course into the Navy vessels computers.
"Approach the target zone at .2c; take us in using formation Alpha-4. Dump the freighter, we don't need it." Rosen commanded.
The mercenary ship and the four captive PatComs quickly closed the distance to target zone. Within minutes, a solitary Commonwealth destroyer appeared on the Soldier of Fortune's scanners. The destroyer didn't realize that anything was wrong as the small fleet came nearer.
"Use passive sensors to find the radiation signature that we imprinted on the Tarnhelm. It's here somewhere." ordered Captain Rosen.
Gunner Krause tapped commands into his panel. "Found the signature sir! The Tarnhelm is 2000 meters off the starboard side of the destroyer."
The captain calmly said, "Ram those damn PatComs into the destroyer. They might as well be some use to us. Jam radio signals and target the radiation signature and fire disrupters. We have to have that ship intact if we want things to go to plan."
Krause's fingers effortlessly entered the proper commands. "Three disrupters heading strait for the signature. Our PatComs are powering up engines and moving for the destroyer."
The destroyer had finally realized that something was not right. It had just powered up its weapons when the first PatCom struck the destroyer's upper hull. The other three gunboats struck the now crippled destroyer in quick succession. Within moments, the capital ship was turned into so much debris.
Grinning, Rosen said, "That was easy...let's take a look at our new ship."
The Tarnhelm was drifting without power. The disrupter blasts had interfered with the chameleon-like hull. To the naked eye, the sections of the ship seemed to be randomly appearing and disappearing as parts of the hull changed colors.
Eliot snorted, "That's what you get when you try to make some fancy pants hi-tech crap."
"Would you be able to fix it?" Rosen demanded.
With his eyebrows furrowed, he said, "Looks like a computer overload...I'm not familiar with that ship, of course, but I think I should be able to work with it."
"Good. Sonenberg, dock with the PatCom. We'll take it by force."
"Yessir." Sonenberg replied.
Soon after the Soldier of Fortune's crew had overcome those on the TarnhelmEliot linked the two ship's computers together. Efficiently, he rebooted the PatCom's CPU and programmed it's navigation controls. He then uploaded the paint scheme that the hull would create at the appropriate time. To test it, he ordered the PatCom to activate the design. Obediently, the Tarnhelm shimmered, then displayed the new paint design...a simple black and yellow striped scheme. Satisfied, Eliot typed in a few more commands and the Tarnhelm seemingly disappeared.
At the WEP station Krause called out, "Two UIVs just appeared off our starboard bow."
Nodding, Rosen said, "Right on time! I love that in a person. Hail them and send a standard greeting."
"We are receiving a reply."
A mechanical, yet menacing voice played over the speakers, "Greetings. We assume that everything went to plan. We are transmitting you an official Indie identity code. With it, you should be able to gain access to the system. Because the captain of the vessel was female, we are also transmitting an AI program that will give appropriate responses when questioned. You have less than one half hour to complete this mission. Out."
Eliot remarked, "Friendly, aren't they?"
Rosen shrugged, "With the money they are paying, they can act anyway they want. Is everything ready?"
"Certainly, sir. I've had the crew paint our upper and lower hulls with a simple Indie design. Power output match us with a standard corvette and the Tarnhelm has been programmed. One thing that I couldn't fix on the PatCom was the LDAs. It seems they were fried by the missiles. Damn prototype technology. All we need to do is lead it into the system and the program will take it from there." Eliot reported.
Rosen ordered, "Best speed for the L-point. Activate the identity code."
"Identity code activated sir. Goodbye Soldier of Fortune...hello Lesser Evil.
The Lesser Evil flashed into normal space. Right behind it came the virtually invisible Tarnhelm. Having arrived at the point, the Tarnhelm banked away from the Lesser Evil and plotted a course toward the peace conference base.
Leaning back in his command chair, Rosen said, "Monitor the Security Patrol frequencies and broadcast them over the bridge. Take the Soldier of For-, I mean, Lesser Evil on a slow course for the Peace Station. Low LDS speeds."
Navigator Sonenberg nodded, "Broadcasting SecPat and moving for the base."
The Security Patrol broadcast's filled the bridge. "THIS IS YARWOOD. I'M STILL MONITORING THE CONFERENCE PRECEDING. THINGS ARE GETTING A BIT HEATED IN THERE. PRESIDENT KING SEEMS TO BE GETTING AGITATED ABOUT THE ISSUE OF POLITICAL INDEPENDENCE OF THE COLONIES. I'LL KEEP YOU INFORMED."
"President King is an impotent jerk," Sonenberg commented. He was rewarded with snickers around the bridge.
"We've been spotted. A SecPat tug and a corvette on intercept. Identities are the No Surrender and the Dreadnaught!" Krause reported.
Rosen raised an eyebrow, "We should feel honored. We're in the presence of a legend." This won more chuckles. "Relax everyone. Drop out of LDS and keep our heading. 1000 m/s. Activate the A.I. program. We'll let it do the talking."
The bridge crew quieted down as the program addressed the SecPat vessel in a female voice, "Aha! The much famed Security Patrol fleet!"
DREADNAUGHT: "That would be us-Security Patrol vessel Dreadnaught. What's your business in this system?"
PROGRAM: "We're official observers for the Indie council. While we hope everything can be worked out peacefully, we're here in case it can't."
DREADNAUGHT: "That sounds like a threat."
PROGRAM: "Oh, far from it. We will abide by the agreements made here. We're just concerned by the possibility that this might be a trap."
DREADNAUGHT: "Ok-Dreadnaught to Lesser Evil be on your way."
PROGRAM: "Thank you."
Another SecPat broadcast flooded the bridge, "THIS IS YARWOOD. KING HAS JUST STORMED OUT OF THE CONFERENCE. EVERYONE OUT THERE-JUST STAY CALM."
The SecPat corvette and tug leaped ahead of the Lesser Evil, their destination obvious. Meanwhile, Sonenberg looked toward Rosen with a look of disbelief on his face, "That was the great captain of the Dreadnaught?"
Laughing, Rosen replied, "Not hardly! The captain that I remember is the great Jefferson Clay. Once, in Venturi, I got in a bar fight with him. He kicked my ass! The second time that I met him was down in Metallake when-"
Eliot suddenly interrupted the conversation, "The Tarnhelm is finalizing it's approach! It will fire in a few seconds. I think that we are just about finished here."
Thousands of kilometers away a lone black and yellow striped PatCom seemed to appear out of nowhere. It slowed to a stop near the cruiser. At less then fifteen percent capasity, it's PBC fired again and again at the mamoth ship. It then stopped...waiting. It didn't have long to wait. In a huge blast of energy, the cruiser struck back. In only one strike, the PatCom was vaporized. In the chaos that followed, no one noticed the absence of one Indie corvette.