The Ishtar Investigation
Chapter 2: A New Assignment
It was a short walk to the Miwa Township teleport pod, and to my surprise I was given priority in the transfer line, arriving at Borneo Headquarters almost immediately. The entryway was crowded with troops, and I could hear a well-voiced master sergeant calling out names. It appeared that a major offensive was being prepared and a number of briefings were about to begin. I struggled through the mass of troops until I could reach the reception desk where a young looking female sergeant was sitting. She saw my uniform and saluted. "Greetings Commander. By your insignia I can see you are in Internal Affairs. Might you be Commander Nelson?"
"I am," I replied. "I'm here on General Montgomery's orders."
The sergeant nodded. "I should warn you that it's a bit hectic right now. High Command wants to hear that we've had some success slowing the Sa'arm, so the General is under a lot of pressure. Whatever has got him going is likely to be ugly."
I fought back the urge to shrug. "That isn't a huge surprise. I am rarely called in when it's a simple problem. But I don't mind dealing with a challenge. Should I go back?"
The sergeant waited a moment and then an ensign emerged from a doorway behind her. From the lack of medals on his chest I was clear that he had only recently arrived on Borneo and I had to smile as the sergeant waved him over. "Ensign Griggs, this is Commander Nelson. The General has ordered the Commander to attend him, so you might want to lead him there immediately."
I stepped up to the ensign who led me back through the doorway without speaking. Once the door closed he started grumbling about sergeants who did not understand the chain of command, keeping up his bitter litany until I laughed.
"What?" the man said as his face turned red. "She talked to me like she was giving the orders. I thought I was supposed to be the officer!"
I composed my face, but continued to smile inside. "Son, you must be new to the military. Pay attention for a while and you'll find that a good sergeant does most of the work. She knew what needed to be done and made sure that someone completed the task. You suffered no harm, and no one in that room was going to look down on you. But they will if you keep up the attitude."
The ensign stopped his tirade and led me the rest of the way in silence. We passed into the outer chamber of the General's office and I saluted the major at the desk as he and three lieutenants reviewed some reports. The major looked up and nodded. "Ensign Griggs, you need to report to Commander Sugita in briefing room four. He will have additional orders for you."
The ensign gave the major a sharp salute before turning and leaving the room. The major nodded at me and then pressed a button at the desk. "General, Commander Nelson is here as ordered," he said.
"Send him in," a voice growled back.
I stepped into the room and looked up at a man I had talked to occasionally, but had never met in person. General Kenneth Montgomery was already becoming a legend in the military. He was a hard charging general who liked to lead his men by example. His aggressiveness was talked about in every barracks under his command, and yet, every marine serving in his command loved that his orders were always designed to minimize unnecessary risks. The respect he received was incredible, and had only increased when the rumor mill started to report that he had refused a promotion, saying that his men and district needed him more than Central Command needed another desk jockey.
But that same personality left me wondering what he needed me for. Most of his subordinates were cut from the same cloth as him, and fiercely loyal. I could not imagine any situation on Borneo where a military inspector would be valuable. I was still trying to come up with an answer when the General waved me to a chair.
"Sit," he growled again. "It will save you having to sink into the chair when the shock of what I'm going to say registers." I carefully sat in the chair and looked at the general. "Sir? What could be so alarming?"
The General was looking at me and then pressed a button causing a screen on the wall to my left to light up as a report was projected on it. The report appeared standard and I turned back to the General after a brief glance. "A standard report?"
The General laughed bitterly. "Not exactly standard. Read the source information."
I looked at the report again. It was obviously produced by the AI to confirm information received earlier. At first I could not understand what General Montgomery was upset about, but then noticed the header line for the source colony.
"Ishtar? Where is Ishtar?" I asked.
The screen flickered. A moment later a spatial hologram of the Borneo Military District lit up over the general's desk. The current Confederacy systems immediately turned blue as known Sa'arm systems turned red. To my surprise one blue star appeared about one hundred light years deep into the red-marked Sa'arm territory. I gasped. "That's?"
The General growled. "Ishtar, a colony that was set up on a world with an acidic atmosphere deep inside Swarm-held space. It was found eighteen months ago when we first scouted the region, but Admiral Himmel and I decided that putting any kind of colony there would be throwing the colonists away. Yet that report and one other that crossed my desk a few days ago both came from Ishtar." "A colony there? But is that map is accurate?" I replied.
"Its eight days at top speed for most of our ships. A Patrician can do it in seven and a Stagecoach at top speed can make it in five. What I want to know is simple: How in hell did a colony end up there!"
"Do the colonists know how exposed they are?" I asked.
The General snorted. "Probably. One of the two reports I have is an after-action report where a Sa'arm scout showed up and tried to enter the atmosphere to attack the colony. Someone involved with the colony setup was thinking because the planet has a couple of ground-based lasers they used to destroy the attacker."
I thought for a moment. "Wait you said that the atmosphere is acidic? How is there a colony there?"
The General smiled. "Took me a moment as well. I've checked the records. The system Ishtar is in is very young and the planet still evolving. Left alone the atmosphere would remain acidic for millions of years, but about a year ago someone from high command had a colony center dropped. The colony center included a full terraforming unit. In less than four years, the atmosphere will be almost earthlike. Currently I expect that the colonists are living underground. The soil provides insulation from the atmosphere according to the few samples we obtained when the scout ship investigated. We really don't have much information, and the colony center was dropped by one of the automated ships we use to get terraforming started on marginal worlds."
"So there was a plan to colonize the system?" I asked.
The General laughed. "It's the only system within a ninety light year sphere that has a planet which can someday support humans without suits. The two worlds we are fighting the Sa'arm over have atmospheres too dense to allow unprotected humans to walk freely, but are resource rich. But, when the Sa'arm showed up at Wolf three-six-seven ten months ago we dropped the plans to colonize the planet. The Wolf system makes a third resource rich system the Sa'arm have a foothold in and preventing the Sa'arm from turning those resources into new hive ships takes priority. We are the last line of defense for this sector and should the Sa'arm wipe out the four planets that make our district they will hit three worlds that we were informed belong to races of the Confederacy. So we have changed our tactics to be more assertive in stopping the Sa'arm depredations. But sometime in the last three months, a colony was founded on Ishtar."
"I think I understand," I replied cautiously. "So we have an unauthorized colony at Ishtar. What do you need me to investigate?"
"Everything!" The General snarled. "We cannot protect the colony. Right now the air is too acidic and even our best battle armor lasts mere minutes under exposure. Once the air is fixed, we won't be able to base enough troops to stop a hive sphere. But for now, that same atmosphere is the only reason the colonists are alive. The place is also far too isolated for any relief force to arrive in time to save the planet should it be attacked. Those colonists are destined to be Sa'arm fodder unless a miracle happens. Someone was thinking if the colony has defense lasers, but that's the only real defense the place has. But that's not the only part of the report that concerns me. I've talked very briefly with James Rabb, who is the primary contact on Ishtar according to a footnote on both reports. After the second report arrived, I was a bit upset, especially since no one from Ishtar had formally reported to Borneo Command, so I called Ishtar right after receiving it. The first report was simply a general need-to-inform and sent back to High Command. You are looking at the second and even that one doesn't name a command recipient, it's just a general notice to both High and Borneo Commands."
I hesitated to reply while thinking what had just been said. "Wait. You said you had spoken with someone on Ishtar, but that they never officially contacted Borneo command."
The General nodded. "Correct. That was another issue I looked into. Ishtar is within what is officially the Borneo Military District, but they are not part of any official command tree. The colony is not supposed to be there at all. But unless the AI is playing a very elaborate game, we have two reports from them as well as at least one voice communication I participated in. And from the short talk I just had with them, they are trying to assist a stricken corvette right now!"
"I can understand a need to investigate," I replied. "What more can you tell me."
"Not much," the General sighed. "When I called, James was rather curt with me. Apparently there were two crises going on, and while he was willing to give me a very brief report he could not spare much time. What he did say shocked me. Originally there were one hundred citizens who were dropped to form the colony, but there was some kind of schism even before they landed. It sounds like fewer than eighty citizens are left alive, and only eighteen or so are part of an enclave that is trying to hold to the original orders they were given."
"One hundred?" I gasped. "But how can that be enough for any kind of military base?"
"I don't think it was supposed to ever be a successful colony," the General growled. "Think about it, I'm the local commander of marines, and I should have been informed of any new colonists so I could arrange for experienced leadership to assist in training. Instead I find out because of a need-to-inform report that dealt with a Sa'arm visit to the system. I'll be blunt. I don't care much about Ishtar itself, the colony is there and it's the Navy's problem now. But I do want to know who authorized the creation of the colony and dumped one hundred colonists in my backyard. They broke more than a dozen regulations when they dropped those colonists, and who knows if they even have proper training. If it weren't for those reports, I wouldn't even know the colony exists, and it's in my military district! I'm supposed to protect those colonists and it's just not possible. So, go find out who did it, how they bypassed the district command and bring me his head!"
I leaned back into the chair in shock. Part of me was unsurprised as I had worked as a corporate trouble-shooter back on Earth before my pickup and had encountered more than a few executives who happily bypassed channels when they thought they could produce better results. However, the possible cost of this action in human lives stunned me. One hundred citizens meant at least two hundred concubines and probably another one hundred children. Someone had all but doomed four hundred human beings by placing them on a planet deep within Sa'arm space. The Sa'arm would happily wipe out the colony as soon as they discovered it, and that deep in their territory discovery was almost guaranteed from the start, the only surprise was that the colony had survived the initial discovery of their presence by the Sa'arm. I found myself reviewing possible investigation paths and finally nodded to the General. "It's going to take time. I need to review what you have and probably will need to travel to Earth at some point to interview some of the people involved in pickups. Do they still have the command base in orbit around Mars?"