Hunt for the Saiph (The Saiph Series Book 3) (5 page)

CHAPTER FOUR

Survey Command

 

CHARON BASE - ORBIT OF PLUTO - SOL SYSTEM

 

Christos Papadomas leaned back in his comfortable office chair, closed his weary eyes, and rubbed the bridge of his nose in what he knew was a futile effort to avert the dull pain behind his eyes from worsening. As he straightened back up, his eyes fell upon the small, silver-framed portrait standing in pride of place on his desk. The picture showed his three girls, Philippa, Maia, and Odysseia, playing in his mother’s garden on Crete with his wife, Kayla, hovering like a mother hen in the background. The picture had been taken fifteen years before when the children were so much younger and his life was so much happier and much less complicated. A veil of sadness descended on him as his eyes fixed on the beauty of Kayla.

Kayla had been a doctor working in the Lunar Colony’s Central Hospital when the attack came. Dedicated to her profession, she ensured the safety of her children in the deep mines before she returned to her post. A direct hit from an enemy missile on her workplace cut her life short and stole her from him and their children.

When Christos heard of her death, his heart was ripped from him and he became like a zombie. He withdrew to the seclusion of his quarters on his flagship, TDF
Cutlass,
rather than mix with his crew and the inevitable words of consolation and the sympathetic looks. When
Cutlass
arrived at the Lunar Colony and he left his quarters to head to the shuttle bay, crewmembers pressed themselves against bulkheads to move out of his way as the shell of what was once their smiling, happy commander walked past, his eyes vacant and unseeing.

Christos had vague memories of the shuttle ride down to the lunar surface with a worried Nicholas Schamu in the seat beside him. When the shuttle touched down and the sound of the engines died, Christos walked past the saluting crew chief without recognition and before he knew it, he was holding Maia and Odysseia in his arms. The tears finally came and he bared his soul to the world in a shuttle hangar surrounded by the hulking Persai form of Force Leader Verus and the six other equally intimidating Persai who challenged anyone to intrude on their commander’s grief.

The protective circle of Persai had opened to admit Nicholas Schamu and the short, elderly, apparently frail form of Mrs. Victoria Brown. Mrs. Brown had been the Schamu children's nanny and had shown them the love and affection their parents seemed incapable of. Over the coming days, Mrs. Brown was there to see to the needs of not only the Papadomas children, but also Christos.

Philippa had been on Earth during the attack and Nicholas moved heaven and earth to get Christos' eldest daughter passage on a shuttle to return her to the Lunar Colony. Mrs. Brown happened to mention to William Schamu, governor of the Lunar Colony and brother to Nicholas, that perhaps the family would like some privacy on the shuttle’s landing. When Christos and his youngest children arrived at the shuttleport to meet Philippa, they found the arrivals area secured by lunar police and the normally busy concourse completely empty. As the shuttle bay doors opened to admit Philippa, her father was glad of the privacy as once more, the tears came and his grief overwhelmed him.

Now, three years later, he had come to terms with the loss of Kayla. It wasn’t that he’d forgotten her, not a day passed when he didn’t think of her and her smiling face, but he no longer sat up alone late at night until he fell asleep in his armchair, only to find at some point Mrs. Brown had quietly entered the living room and placed a blanket over him. She always ensured she made just enough noise to accidentally wake him as she moved around the kitchen the following morning, preparing the children's breakfasts, so he had time to shower and change, making himself presentable before the children got out of bed.

Mrs. Brown’s foresight had saved him from embarrassment and probably saved his career a few months after the loss of his wife, when he received an unexpected visitor.

The chiming of the front doorbell was the signal for the customary mad rush by ten-year-old Odysseia in her mission to beat anyone else in the Papadomas household to the door. Christos shared a knowing look with Maia and Philippa as he pushed away from the breakfast table and headed for the door, passed by an unhappy Odysseia stamping back toward her cereal bowl.

"It’s for you, Poppa."

Christos tousled her hair as she passed. "One day it will be a vid star come to whisk you away."
Over my dead body,
thought Christos, pressing the door release as the beginnings of a smile tugged at his lips. All thoughts of vid stars fled his mind as the door slid aside to reveal the figure of Admiral Jing, newly appointed Chief of the Combined Joint Chiefs of Staff, standing in the corridor in a neat pinstriped suit he wore as if it was the uniform Christos was so used to seeing him in. The sight of the admiral in civilian attire caused Christos' brain to react slower than it should, but he recovered quickly and brought himself to attention like a first-year recruit at the academy.

With a wave of his hand Jing said, "Please relax, Christos. I am calling at your home so let’s dispense with the formalities, shall we?"

"Of course, sir... please come in. You'll have to excuse me, the children are just finishing their breakfast before going to school." Christos stepped back to allow the admiral entry and was surprised by the sight of Odysseia and Maia, school bags in hand, ready to leave. From the kitchen came the sounds of dishes being placed in the dishwasher and the table being wiped. Mrs. Brown appeared and with a "Good morning, Admiral Jing," shepherded the children out the door and away.

"Well, it appears the children are finished with breakfast and off to school." Christos let the door slide closed before leading the way into the living room, where he ushered Jing to a seat before turning to fetch them both coffee. Philippa, who was carrying a tray with two steaming coffee cups, cream, and sugar, stopped him in his tracks.

"Mrs. Brown told me you prefer decaf, Admiral," said Philippa as she placed the tray on the low table between Jing and Christos' seats. She retreated to her room as a wide-eyed Christos stared.

A small chuckle escaped Jing as he reached for his cup. "It would appear you’ve been the subject of a very well-executed ambush, Christos."

Taking his seat, Christos could only nod. "Mrs. Brown is very... formidable."

"Indeed," agreed Jing as he took an appreciative sip of his coffee. With a satisfied, "Ahh," he placed the cup down on the tray again. "She even managed to get my favorite brand. I didn't think they had this on the colony. I have to get mine shipped from Earth."

"Friends in low places, sir." Christos was going to have a few choice words with Nicholas Schamu the minute the admiral left. "So to what do I owe the pleasure, sir?"

Jing sat back in the padded armchair and his hands fell into his distinctive steepled pose.
Uh-oh,
thought Christos.

"I’ve a problem and I think you can assist."

"Any way I can, sir." Christos answered, waiting patiently for the other shoe to drop.

"The war is drawing down and there’s going to be a radical shift in government policy and, of course, the navy. Indeed, the whole of the armed services will have to adapt to meet the new policies."

Christos was confused. "What policy changes, sir?"

"Colonization, Christos. Colonization. Not one planet at a time, as with Janus, but mass colonization. A diaspora like we’ve never seen,” he paused. “Look, the people and big businesses were never slow to see the potential of the gravity drive – it’s opened the universe to us. Only the fear of the Others kept them reined in. When that threat goes, there are multiple planets in multiple systems, hundreds, possibly thousands of light years apart, that groups are eyeing as ripe for exploitation. For mining, colonization or both.”

“The president and other Commonwealth leaders are already in discussions to form a single colonization program with a single department to run it, the Bureau of Colonization I believe it’s called. Well, whatever they come up with, we need to radically rethink our own business."

Christos sat back in his chair and considered the impact of mass colonization. "The navy will be spread real thin trying to protect a whole array of new worlds, sir. We don't have enough ships for that. Even if we used every capital ship in every fleet, we wouldn’t be strong in any single system and would be exposed elsewhere."

Jing pointed a bony finger at him. "Exactly, Christos! If we spread ourselves too thin, we end up not covering the major planets in the Commonwealth and we place them all at risk. That solution is simply unacceptable."

Christos mulled on Jing's predicament while sipping his coffee.
If we break up the fleets and spread our main fighting power throughout the Commonwealth, it would take time, even with faster-than-light gravity drive communications drones, to reassemble the fleet ready to face down any threat. If you don’t disperse the fleet, the only solution is to build new ships to cover the colonies. With the war all but over, Jing will be hard-pressed to get a budget for new ships approved, never mind finding the personnel to crew them.

Christos had never served under Admiral Jing personally, but his reputation preceded him. Jing was a planner. If he was here speaking to him, then he already had a solution in mind and was just waiting for the right moment to reveal it.
Mrs. Brown and the admiral must have been cut from the same cloth,
thought Christos.

"I take it you have a cunning plan, sir."

A lopsided grin broke Jing’s serious expression. "Well, of course I have, Christos. We’re going to speed up the construction of Fortress Command. Dedicated capital ship units will supplement the forts, with their fixed defenses. Smaller than the current fleets, we have protecting the major planets at the moment, but their lack of numbers will be offset by the added firepower of the forts. As and when the Colossus carriers come on line, they will become the core of a new type of fleet unit, one which hasn't been seen since the last major wet navy engagements of the late 21st century. The Carrier Strike Group,” he paused. “Each CSG will be completely self-sufficient. The Colossus carriers will carry a complement of seventy-two Mosquito space fighters, have their own dedicated escorts, and two complete BatFors to give them some added heavy firepower. In case there is a need for a surface action, the CSGs will have an integral marine element of one assault ship carrying a complete Marine Expeditionary Unit. As the CSG may have to operate at some distance from a fleet base, there will also be a fleet train of fast colliers carrying everything from food and water to missiles and reaction mass for the ion drives."

"That’s a hard-hitting package," said Christos, impressed by the admiral’s plans. "The reduction in the size of the standing fleets will free up the personnel and ships required to equip the CSGs. The Only problem I foresee, is if we start colonizing on a large scale, surely the CSGs can't be everywhere?"

Jing nodded sagely. "That’s where, unfortunately, we must live within our means, Christos. There’s no way we can build and crew enough CSGs for every world we’re going to colonize. So, I've come up with a stopgap solution. It’s not perfect by any means, but we'll just have to make do. As you know, running a single Bismarck battleship is an expensive business. Just the routine maintenance, never mind upgrades, costs a small fortune. My bean counters tell me for every battleship I put into mothballs or cancel construction of outright I could build and run four light cruisers. So that’s exactly what I intend to do."

Christos snapped his fingers as he realized what Jing intended. "You’re taking a leaf from the old colonial navies of Earth’s books. You cannot have battleships everywhere but you can send independent cruiser squadrons on long cruises where they do multiple port visits of the colonies. Basically, you’re going to fly the flag and if the cruisers come up against anything too big to handle, they call up a Carrier Strike Group who bring in the big guns."

Jing sat back with that grin on his face, watching Christos work through the plan in his head and after a few moments’ thought, Christos was ready to ask his next question.

"So if you’re going to have these cruiser squadrons running around the colonies, presumably they have to have a central base to work out of, say, within a single sustainable fold, giving them a maximum area of operations around 5000 light years in diameter, dependent of course on how many colonized worlds are within that area. The more colonized worlds, the smaller the area of operations. And that central base in turn would be where the CSG is stationed."

"Correct, Christos. As each quadrant is colonized, there will naturally be a single planet that becomes the center of that quadrant. The fleet will establish a base there, which will expand in line with the size and importance of the colony. Once the colony reaches sufficient size and economic capability, like Janus, the planet’s defense will be handed over to Fortress Command and the CSG will move on to the next quadrant, ready to repeat the process."

"I'm impressed, sir. You really have thought this one through."

Jing let out a soft laugh. "Believe me, Christos it wasn’t all my doing. There are quite a few staff officers who have been working day and night to make my ideas into reality."

As Jing's laugh subsided a frown wrinkled Christos' brow. "I'm sorry, sir, I still don't see where I fit into all this." The frown disappeared as Christos sat upright in his seat and his face took on a worried expression. "With all these new units, you’re going to need experienced commanders, sir. If you intend to appoint me to a position that takes me away from my children, then I must politely refuse. If you insist on it, I’ll put my refusal in writing and my request to resign my commission. My children come first now, sir, my family and I have given enough."

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