March 2009


"They did not fight me," the voice of Beta said, sounding almost disappointed.

"From what you've shown me," Crawford said, "they don't have the combat power. They won't throw their ships away in a useless battle they know they cannot win. That cruiser is very fast, faster than anything I've ever seen. It can get around you, even at your best speed, and evacuate anything you threaten. They're still waiting until you threaten something they have to fight for, or until they have enough ships to win, and win quickly."

"I understand," said the voice of Beta. "Is the synthesized food adequate?"

"Yes," said Crawford. "At least, it doesn't make me sick and I don't feel hungry."

"I have no means to judge your health," the voice of Beta said. "You will have to advise me if problems develop."

"What's his game?" Williams asked of no one in particular.

"Target of opportunity," the Weapons Officer said. "That mining station wasn't that far off of his route to Arcturus. The Juggernaut is all about death and destruction. It was a chance to add to his score."

"I cannot agree," the XO said. "I have read the reports in detail. I went back and got the interviews, even the ones from the Tholians and Klingons. The first words of Juggernaut Alpha were 'At last, the champions are gathered...' He's not about destruction; he's about testing himself in combat against our starships. Maybe he's a robot gone mad, or maybe he's a scout for a future invasion, but in either case he's here to fight starships. His attack on that mining post was to goad us into fighting now, either because he's bored without a battle or because he wants to destroy Star Fleet in small groups without letting us make the rules when we get to Arcturus.

"That theory, I'll take," Williams said. "He knows that the longer until the battle, the lower his odds. He may want to 'test himself' but not against an overwhelming force. Like every military commander, he wants to be the one who defines the battle. I understand him now.

"Set up the strategic display," she commanded, "from here to Arcturus. Main screen, if you please."

On the main viewer, the strategic situation appeared. It took a few seconds for the computers to look up and display every star, mining facility, known freighter, and ship.

"Now, calculate the areas through which the Juggernaut could pass if it maintains its current speed but accepts a 5% delay in reaching Arcturus."

"The golden thread that had been the Juggernaut's assumed route expanded into a long, thin ellipse with a point on each end, the left end being the Juggernaut's current position, the right end being Arcturus.

"Every freighter within the threatened zone has already left," the XO noted, "except for the ones at Trading Post 2715TPG. But there are seven mining stations - and that trading post - between here and Arcturus, more of them if he's willing to take a wider detour."

"Very well," Williams said. "Contact those two incoming police ships and have them evacuate these three mining facilities. Get this freighter here," she indicated the ship with the cursor controlled from her chair's arm, "to pick up everybody at this station," she shifted the cursor to one of the marked mining stations. "Get the Arcturans to send something to these two mining posts close to Arcturus and evacuate them, and we'll slip over to one side and get the seventh post. Order the trading post to evacuate everybody with the ships on hand.

"Have every one of these posts leave their transmitters on at full power, broadcasting random transmissions. And see if there are a couple of freighters we can commandeer. Get the crews evacuated to other ships, set the transmitters on full power, and send them back across the Juggernaut's path.

"If we can give him enough things to attack, things he thinks we will fight for, we may buy an extra day for Arcturus."

Only later did she think that particular choice of words may have been a poor one.

"Again, they do not fight," the voice of Beta said. "Why?"

"They continue to gather their forces," Crawford said. He had, during the previous night, decided on a strategy to confuse the Juggernaut. "The ships are owned by planets very far from here," Crawford explained. "These small mining stations are owned by other peoples, by other planets. The ships protect the trade routes, but not the planets and mining stations. They want to destroy you, of course, but they will not let themselves be destroyed to protect the property and citizens of other planets. You may as well stop attacking the stations," Crawford said. "In fact, there is really no reason to go to Arcturus, since Star Fleet will not fight you even there if they are not ready to do so. You may as well stay here, and circle, and let them come to you. You will not have a fight until they are ready to give you one."

"Commander Crawford," the voice of Beta said, "you are lying to me. The other prisoner has given data inconsistent with your last statement, and the data I have extracted from destroyed stations and destroyed freighters contradicts you. Moreover, the ships that destroyed Alpha months ago fought very hard to protect much smaller colony worlds. And finally, your pulse and skin temperature show signs of stress. You are lying to me."

"My apologies," Crawford said. "You cannot blame me for trying."

"No one can blame anyone for their nature," the voice of Beta said. "Just as you cannot blame me for mine."

"So what happens now?" Crawford asked. "Do you execute me, or just turn off the speakers?"

"Nothing of the kind," the voice of Beta said. "Even when you lie to me, I learn from you. Shall we play another game of 'GO' or do you wish to rest?"

"Fine, another game it is," Crawford said, "but only if I get four stones to start."

"None of them may touch another," the voice of Beta said. "You may set your stones."

"Police cutter Richard Simms has picked up the miners from station 2715MPT," the Communications Officer reported. "Police cutter Mark Majors has picked up the miners from station 2715MRL and is headed for 2715MBC. Both have arranged to transfer their passengers and then join us tomorrow. Rigellian National Guard destroyer Akerlon is still on station with the Kearsarge. Fleet armed auxiliary Jerry James has been sent to evacuate the stations the Arcturans refuse to help."

"What about forces at Arcturus?" Williams asked.

"Frigate Arcturian is in orbit, as is Orion National Police Destroyer Dorado, and the monitor Dien Bien Phu. They have four armed auxiliaries with them, as well as the base and the fighters. The Arcturan police have the cutter Osterhout on station, plus a half-dozen customs skiffs. Star Fleet tried to hire a couple of Orion pirate ships but they ran away, very fast."

"That is pretty much all there is," Williams said. "It will have to be enough."

"What about the power relays?" the XO asked.

"Not repairable," the Vulcan chief engineer answered. "Tests and simulations have shown that the crystallization is, indeed, present in every bus bar, and is, in fact, the cause of the problems. I have replaced the two bus bars closest to the 360 phaser battery, as per the Captain's directive, and by tomorrow will use the two bus bars from Kearsarge to replace one of the relays near the forward phaser battery. But I must say that having done so is probably not effective, as the energy frequencies from firing phasers might burn out any relay on the ship. The only thing I know for certain is that firing the photons will have a high probability of causing a relay failure."

"Damn the shipyard," the Weapons Officer spat.

"Plan you have is what?" the Navigator asked.

"The Juggernaut hasn't changed," Williams said. "The most vulnerable spot is the tail, where there is no armor on the engine outlets. The Eagle, Kearsarge, and Akerlon, along with the two Federation police cutters, will make a run for the tail from two directions, so that one of us gets a clear shot. The Arcturan defenses will attack the Juggernaut head on, and try to either drive it away or at least force it to swing its rotating shield out of our way."

"Not subtle," the XO said, "but this seems to be a time for brute force."

"Indeed," said the Weapons Officer. "How am I supposed to make an attack without photons? And am I supposed to roll the dice every time I fire a phaser?"

"No," Williams said. "Eagle will lead the attack on the Juggernaut's engines, but without firing our weapons. We'll run at the best speed Kearsarge can make and put all of our extra power into the forward shield. We'll draw the Juggernaut's fire and let the Kearsarge fly behind us and deliver the crippling blow."

"If I may make an observation?" Lieutenant Kezlok asked.

"Go ahead," Williams said.

"You plan to leave the local defenses under their own command?" the Klingon asked.

"Of course," Williams answered. "They're not under fleet control. Well, the monitor and a couple of the auxiliaries are, but those cannot link up with us because they're too slow."

"From what I have seen," Kezlok said, "the local defenses will either wait for the Juggernaut, or at best will attack as a disorganized ... crowd? ... mob?"

"Armed mob," the Weapons Officer said. "The term you are looking for is 'armed mob'. Militia, rabble, local cops, all the same thing. There will be enough of them, attacking in a herd, to accomplish what we need."

"This will be less than effective," Kezlok said. "In the Empire, fleet commanders can seize control of local defenses, within the parameters of the mission, of course."

"What more effective plan can you propose?" Williams asked.

"Divide the forces into two groups, those armed with drones and those armed with torpedoes," Kezlok proposed. "The drone-armed ships must stay in rigid formation, launching more and more drones into an overwhelming mass. The Juggernaut does not use the electronic defenses we use, but relies on its armor and phasers, and these can be overwhelmed. If you do not force the defenses to combine all of their drones into a massive wave, they may as well not launch them at all.

"The torpedo ships will then form a second strike," he said, "to be executed on your command. If the drone attack fails, the salvo of torpedoes will be your last method to swing the shield away from the engines."

Williams took a moment to favor the Klingon with a smile. "You are clever, Kezlok, but I have been doing this longer than you have. Forces define operations. There is an obvious way to use the forces available, and you and I and others have already seen it. In fact, I have already proposed a very similar plan to the local commander," Williams said, "but I cannot impose it on him."

"Will not common sense prevail?" Kezlok asked. "Is not the logic of a coordinated effort inescapable?

"Local politics will prevail," the Weapons Officer said. "This is the Federation, after all. General Argelian wants to save his planet but at the minimum cost to his own forces. He will let Star Fleet do most of the fighting."

"This plan is doomed," Kezlok said. "An uncoordinated frontal attack cannot guarantee to draw the shield away. Standing on the defense will do no better!"

"Let me deal with the local commander," Williams said. "As I said, I have been doing this for some time now."

"You will how soon the Juggernaut attack and destroy?" General Argelian asked.

"About the time he passes the orbit of Arcturus-V," Williams said. "Still a long way from your planet."

"Acceptable is this not!" the General said. "Destroy and attack now you must! Immediately! Reaches Arcturian System must you not allow."

"I lack sufficient forces to attack at this time," Williams said.

"Five ships you have now," Argelian said. "Not is enough?"

"Negative," Williams said. "Five are not enough."

"Four Grey did have," Argelian returned.

"Bigger ships," Williams reminded him.

"Captains braver they were," Argelian fired back. "Not to fight are afraid Tholians and Klingons were."

"We fight with what we have, not with what we want to have," Williams said, ignoring the insult. "Until I link up with your forces, there is not sufficient firepower. You could send most of your ships out to meet us, say a light year or two from Arcturus."

"Must Arcturans be at Arcturus for to defend!" Argelian replied, almost screaming.

"I have already sent you a battle plan," Williams said. "You must organize your forces in two groups, one to launch a massive drone strike and the other to fire a volley of photon torpedoes on my command."

"Not to command my forces you are!" General Argelian shouted. "To command my forces I know best way. Will we a final defensive form line. You destroy Juggernaut will do before reaches my ships does it."

"I do not have enough ships to destroy him now," Williams said, "and I won't have any more ships until your forces join mine. You must meet the Juggernaut at a point where his weapons cannot strike your planet. You must confront him with all the forces you can, and give me the opportunity to strike the killing blow."

"The glory you for yourself to take!" Argelian sneered. "To fight your battle you will; to fight shall I my battle!"

"Organize your forces as I have said," Captain Williams said. "I shall be there in three days, and so will the Juggernaut."

"Three mining facilities have I destroyed," the voice of Beta said, "and two freighters. They have not fought me. Two ships are within my range but I can detect others farther away. Are they indeed waiting to fight at the planet?"

"Your guess is as good as any," Crawford said, dejectedly, "but that sounds plausible."

"What alternatives do I have?" the voice of Beta asked.

"None I can see," Crawford said. "If you turn aside and continue to attack minor colonies and stations, they will continue to gather ships until they choose to attack you."

"I seek battle, the trial of arms," the voice of Beta said. "It shall be found in two days. Would you like another game?"

"Perhaps," Crawford said, "you would be interested in a different game? I know a game called 'poker'. We could try that."

"Is it difficult to create the images?" the voice of Beta asked.

"Not at all," Crawford replies. "First, you need a set of 52 images. We call them 'cards'. There are four sets of ..."