Bush Fires (a Core-verse story)

The first spin-off from The Terra Core (see http://www.movellas.com/en/book/read/201310281154034479-the-terra-core for the details), this story will take a look at the wider universe the Core stories inhabit- and take us into the world of the United Western Alliance military, as they deal with terrorists, insurgents and crumbling regimes.

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7. Holding the Line

The aftermath of the assaults had not been pretty. The Army had sent gunships in to clear the Rebel(?) attackers, and they had made their air superiority pay. Still, despite that, a few gunships were lost to surface-to-air launchers that unexpectedly opened fire.

Most of the Marines were evacuated successfully. However, several hundred had been killed and scores wounded. Many were also missing, assumed KIA, but with no body their deaths weren't confirmed.

Rear Admiral Hood and Lieutenant General Pilkvist were now in a vid-conference with Vice Admiral Sterling, planning their response.

"Do what you need to do gentlemen." Sterling said, seated in front of a monitor in her quarters. "We cannot allow an attack like this to go unanswered. We've only been here a few days and it will damage our mission and reputation if we do nothing. That said, find out exactly what we're dealing with and don't act rashly."

"We will get to the bottom of this Ma'am." Replied Hood. "You can count on it."

"I have no doubt. Good luck gentlemen, Hercules out." Sterling saluted, then closed the channel.

She sat back in her chair and rubbed her eyes, where a tension headache was building nicely. The news of the carnage on Free Sirius 3, after just a handful of days, was not helping her mood, and she knew that both FSP forces and the Opposition back home would have a field day with it. Still, perhap some rest...

"Vice Admiral Sterling, please report to the Command Deck." Came the voice of the Bosun over the conn. Sterling sighed, wondered if she could feign unawareness of the message, then sighed again and got up.

****

"We have a situation brewing." Remarked Rear Admiral Eichel, looking as gorgeous as ever. Sterling snapped herself out of her admiration and glanced across the Deck.

"What sort of situation?"

"Four ships, three freighters and a passenger liner, all approaching grid seventy-two and so far, they haven't squawked a single identity code. They are not answering the hails of the local forces either."

"I see. What do we have covering that area?" Asked Sterling.

"Three destroyers and one light cruiser from Alpha Fleet are currently covering that grid Ma'am."

"Enough to handle civilian traffic. Who is the local fleet commander?"

The ship's conn officer called up the data. "Captain Sonya Herschel Admiral." She announced.

Sterling's eyes flicked to Eichel. "Know her?"

"I've spoken to her once or twice. Level-headed, tad cautious, but competent."

"Well, let us hope level-headed gets us through this latest drama."

****

Light cruisers were not noted for their comfort. Small, somewhat cramped, everyone got to know everyone else very well over the course of a tour. Still, for Captain Herschel, it was a great and proud moment to be in command of her own little fleet.

Now though, came her first true test. Four vessels, which had so far ignored her hails, were about to enter restricted space. For all she knew, they were carrying all kinds of illicit cargo- cargo that would further the bloodshed on Free Sirius 3.

In fact, she was sure of it. Why else were they not heaving to? They would only run if they had something to hide- but there was nowhere to go.

"Range?" She asked.

"Two hundred thousand kilometres Captain." Reported the helmsman, Sub-Lieutenant Quentin Brodeur. The young man was nursing a bruise on his forehead, that looked nice and purple, contrasting with his light brown hair quite nicely. "They are continuing to ignore our hails."

"Hmm... any advice Commander?" She turned to her Executive Officer, Commander Martin Harris, who stood a full head taller than she.

The older man ran a hand through greying brown hair and fixed calm clear blue eyes on the display screen showing the positions of the ships. "I'd fire a warning shot. A couple of missiles, across their bow, to remind them who here has got weapons."

Herschel walked slowly across the Command Deck, but kept her eyes on the main display. The destroyers in her patrol were spread out, just over fifty thousand kilometres apart, with her cruiser floating back and forth behind them. Now Mystic and her crew had to wait just a little longer before deciding if they needed to intercept or just wait it out.

"When they get to within seventy-five thousand clicks, fire a warning shot. If they still don't answer hails or heave to by fifty thousand, we'll disable their engines with ion cannons."

"Aye Ma'am." Came the response from Guns. Lieutentant Thalia Maalouf replied.

They waited. The dreary blue walls of the Command Deck seemed to soak up tension and spit it back to the crew as the ships approached. Various control screens, smooth as silk, displayed high-def images of the freighters and the passenger liner, an odd collection of vessels to be sailing together.

A small alarm bell was ringing in Herschel's mind. Be careful, it seemed to warn. Something was sinister about all this.

"Ninety-thousand clicks and no sign of slowing Captain." Reported Brodeur.

"Understood. How'd you get that bruise Sub-Lieutenant?" She had to know.

"I ah, I misjudged a beam on the exercise course Ma'am." He turned and shrugged. "I was trying a little too hard to beat Commander Harris' time."

Harris laughed. "Sub-Lieutenant, no one is going to beat that time, not even me."

"We'll see sir." Replied Brodeur, a spark of humour in the younger man's hazel eyes.

Hershel let herself relax just a little. The atmosphere was still one of worry- what are those ships doing?- but she felt a little better.

The potential targets were all representing different companies that had registered offices within the Free Worlds of Sirius- specifically Free Sirius 1, the primary world of the United Sirius Party.

Yet they were on a heading that would allow them (once their engines had recharged) to head straight for Free Sirius 3.

The largest of the four ships was a freighter nearly as large as a battle cruiser and almost as ugly. Grey, bulky and cumbersome, scans revealed it was carrying large quantities of trade goods (new tablet computers, foodstuffs, and other amenities). Nothing out of the ordinary- so why were they steaming toward them without answering hails?

It was a problem that applied to the other two freighters- each about the size of a UWAN heavy cruiser, laden with what appeared to be construction materials. Finally came the passenger liner, a more attractive ship, which curved more gracefully, and sat in between the large freighter and its smaller cousins in size. Over three thousand people were (if the scans were accurate) aboard her.

A lot lives were potentially at risk.

"Eighty thousand kilometres." Brodeur's Parisian voice warned.

At least sensors had picked up no signs of military hardware. They could launch a missile or two from a greater distance than they'd usually attempt, without having to worry about interceptions.

"Guns, prepare two missiles, and have them come within five thousand clicks of the large freighter. Mr Brodeur, open a channel to them."

Twinned 'yes Ma'ams' rang out and Herschel was on.

"This is Captain Sonya Herschel, of the UWAN crusier Mystic. I repeat those details in case, somehow, you have not received them. I also repeat, once more, that you are required to heave to and submit to inspections of your cargos and manifests. If you do not comply, once you are within seventy-five thousand kilometres I will fire warning shots across your bow. If you still do not comply, upon reaching fifty thousand kilometres, I will use my ion cannons to disable your sublight engines. I will not issue any further warnings."

Brodeur cut the channel, and they continued to wait. Harris looked over at his Captain, still pacing the Command Deck like a restless wolve.

"They might yet show some good sense."

"Ha!" She scoffed. "If they haven't yet I don't hold out much hope that they will. You never know but I doubt it."

The main display showed the civilian ships reach the mark of seventy-five thousand clicks. Herschel sighed.

"Any signs of co-operation?" She asked.

"Fraid not Captain." Replied Brodeur, tapping at his controls.

"Very well then, Miss Maalouf, fire a pair of missiles, detonate them at five thousand clicks from the lead freighter. Hopefully that will scare them into talking."

"Aye Ma'am, missiles away... now!"

The two birds shot away into the darkess of space. It would take three minutes to cross the distance between Mystic and the incoming ships (well, less than three minutes, as the civilian vessels were getting closer). Detonating at just five thousand clocks meant leaving it to the remote detonation software, as there was a pretty fine line between a light show and tearing a ship's hull wide open. It was also bold, and hopefully, a strong statement of intent.

"This should rattle a few feathers." Remarked Commander Harris. He stood as still as a statue, but his eyes twinkled with satisfaction. He was a military man who preferred direct action over talking any day.

Seconds went by. The missiles drew closer, and the ships... did nothing.

"Time is against them." Spoke Maalouf quietly.

"Detenation in one minute." Brodeur was providing a countdown.

Time was indeed against them. At five thousand clicks the missiles exploded, albeit at a reduced yield. Herschel was pretty confident the occupants of the civilian vessels would be rocked by the blasts but sensors indicated their ships were undamaged.

"If anyone was asleep over there they won't be now." Remarked Commander Harris.

"Captain, we are receiving a signal. It's coming from the passenger liner." Brodeur said.

Herschel clasped her hands together and returned to her chair. She grinned at Harris.

"I think we finally have their attention."

Harris snorted. "About time. I bet they grovel."

"I think they'll protest they know nothing of the treaty." Maalouf put in her two cents.

"They'll claim to be providing urgent aid to the beleaguered population." Chipped in Brodeur.

"Put them on screen." Ordered Herschel.

The main viewer's tactical display was replaced by the image of an angry looking man, a white male who at first glance appeared to be in his early fifties. Bags under his eyes looked big enough to hold a week's worth of groceries, and the lines on his forehead were many. His skin looking a tad blotchy- like he was unwell, and his short chin had a scar on it. All in all, he was not a pretty sight.

"This is Captain Patrick McKay of the FWS passenger ship Peaceful Voyage. I demand to know why are you firing at unarmed vessels!" He had a deep voice, but it held a touch of soprano as he spat the words out.

Herschel leaned forward. "Seeing as we have hailed you again and again and again, repeating ourselves, I would say you are already fully aware as to why. I would like to know why you have repeatedly ignored our messages."

"We do not recognise UWA authority in our space." Reported McKay. "We are entitled to travel between the worlds of the FWS as we please."

"Actually, as you are no doubt aware, your government signed a treaty. That treaty grants us the power to inspect all ships entering FWS space for contraband. It will allow us, if the situation arises, to use whatever means necessary to ensure inspections can be carried out. This includes firing upon vessels that do not stop for inspection. In defying our request you are also defying the will of your government."

McKay glowered. His eyes looked full of defiance. "This entire mess is the doing of the UWA! Had you not tried to ruin our economy we would never have needed you here! This is an attempt to undermine the legitimate government and claim Free Sirius 3 as your own world! It wouldn't surprise me if the UWA created the ODM itself!"

Herschel sighed. She had little interest in politics and certainly no desire to get involved in a heated discussion about the subject.

"Captain McKay, I do not care one way or the other about the USP or the ODM. I do care about carrying out my orders. If you do not heave to, my next act will be to disable your engines and leave you stranded until such a time that you comply with the conditions of the treaty. That's the choice I leave you with- compliance and then you can be on your way, or you can continue to pursue your current course and I can shoot holes in your engines and leave you drifting. Make up your mind Captain."

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