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fiction fridays 08 · "Command Prologue" by Dr. Philip Edward Kaldon

First Installment.

 
Command Prologue by Dr. Philip Edward Kaldon
 
   

Aboard Unified Star Fleet Battlecruiser

BCH-11 U.S.F.S. Serrano

May 2880 (Earth Reference Time)

The night before a deployment operation commences is very quiet. I sat at my station on the bridge for almost an hour, reviewing all the order queues. Nothing to happen before ShipTime 0600. I leaned back and turned my chair around. Nothing happening on the bridge either. The Exec sitting in the Command Chair absorbed in his writing. It could be anything, but most likely nothing to do with the deployment. The Captain and Second Officer Downside on the world below and only a station keeping crew staying on the control mounts on the bridge.

The bridge, or Command Center as it was known in the manual, is always lit the same, unlike much of the ship, but without more people it seemed darker than usual in the quiet. Nothing left to do here and yet I had hours left on my watch.

“Skip,” I spoke up, “This place is dead tonight. All the paperwork is squared away -- I’m going for a walk.”

“All right, Three,” the Exec said, without looking up. “Probably time to prowl anyway. Who’s up for Backup?”

“Six,” I replied. The Exec was in ultimate command at the moment and in the hot seat to boot. But he was relaxing in khakis right now, which required a fully suited command grade officer on the bridge as Backup, just in case. Space is a tough business and it doesn’t pay to be unprepared for disaster at any time, even with a fairly new and technologically advanced ship in orbit above a peaceful world. It is how the Space Services stay in business and young officers live long enough to be promoted to Third Officer.

The Exec nodded and quietly ordered, “Sixth Officer to the Bridge.”

“Acknowledged,” came the reply after a few seconds pause.

I closed my data files and restored the command screens. At the same time, I brought my helmet repeaters online. A command suit had a truly awesome array of systems. It was daunting to learn, but once you were comfortable with it, you wondered how a starship could ever function without them.

A white-suited figure strode onto the bridge. “Six reporting, Skip,” the helmet speaker said.

“Relieve Sam on Ready,” the Exec said.

“Yessir,” the sixth officer replied. “Walkabout?” Christine’s voice came over my headset on a closed command circuit.

“You got it, Six,” I replied as I got up from my station while she moved to her smaller station in the rear. A telltale toggled on my repeater, indicating the change in the command order. Six was on station.

“Anything critical?” I asked as I headed to the rear exit. You never knew what might’ve been interrupted when the Exec summoned.

“Nothing the Forward Chief can’t handle on his own, Third,” came the reply.

“Okay.”

“Good walk.”

Third Officer leaving Command Center,” intoned the vocal box as I walked through the hatch. I guess rank has its privileges. Third Officer is the lowest position acknowledged vocally by the computer-activated system.

Within a minute after clearing the Command Secure Perimeter, I was far into the ship. Here it was deep night -- at ShipTime 0031 not many people or machines stayed up and about. The corridors, passageways and workspaces were dimly lit.

Grav zero,” a vocal box warned as I stepped into one of the ubiquitous triangular connectingways which ran the length of the ship, and pushed myself along.

I was looking for the places where work was going on. It wasn’t a matter of blind searching, I had the readouts on my repeaters. Nor was it a matter that the monitors couldn’t handle -- I could probably know what was going on board the U.S.F.S. Serrano far better from Command Center. But it was important to come to the troops and take an interest in their activities -- keeping in touch with the people and the systems on board a ship as huge as the Serrano earned you bonus points later.

And it was huge. 65,000 persons aboard -- classified information, of course -- but the bulk consisted of 42,000 combat units, mostly suspended. So was most of the crew, though today we had nearly 10,000 awakeside in orbit and on the planet. Only outfitting would be more. Or war, I suppose. No one knew how many of those 65,000 we might ever have to support awakeside in a war. It had never yet been required.

Six had spoken correctly. The Forward Chief was working at Section AA-3 and his crew had matters well in hand. The chief gave me a momentary nod and I simply walked on by. Normal maintenance. Work that needed to be done and might as well be taken care of before all those order queues engaged.

But the matter back in Companionway 17-I3 looked much more interesting. My repeaters indicated a scattering of Marines down in the Cryopodonics Section. That seemed odd -- soldiers wouldn’t normally be down there. I keyed up their codes -- only their officer was registered with the system. The Marines kept their own command and control structure. When I called up the codes on the cryopods in the area, the readouts listed mainly general maintenance types. It wasn’t a Marine battle section.

Persistence and rank eventually triumphs, and by the time I neared Companionway 17-I3, I had a screen on Lt. Michaels, USFMC, MC-896201-J5-311-2-BTM. The companionway itself was dark. Only a few telltales and two emergency strips at the next hatchway glowed. Enhanced vision picked up two helmeted and armed figures crouching twenty meters away. Closer, another military shape emerged from behind the bulkhead. The heads-up display indicated this was Michaels.

“Evening, Third,” he said as he knelt low again. I followed him down to the deck on one knee and patched into his headset code.

“What do we have here?” I asked softly.

“Exercise. We’ve got bad guys in the cryopods. The A-5 team is trying to get into position to take them out without collateral damage.”

“I trust you have those things on ‘tag’,” I commented, pointing a gloved finger at his weapon.

“Of course,” he said. I could see his grin with the enhanced vision.

“So, what kind of bad guys are they?” I asked, curious about the exercise. I probably would have inquired anyway, as part of my job, but my father was a Marine and I grew up around soldiering.

“We have a group of escaped Federal prisoners awakeside. Someone in a local ring boarded during this maintenance cycle and let them out. We need to stop them before they find a way to either leave the ship or hijack it.”

“And why aren’t you doing this exercise in the Marine cryopods?”

“Sir, the Marine cryopods are always under guard, since the men are kept armed and equipped. It is the regular Navy cryopods that are at risk.”

“Well,” I commented. “That’s not the worst scenario I’ve ever run across.”

“No, sir. It’s not so bad. Two dozen ring gang members managed to get aboard the Terrapin a month or so ago subjective, and tried to get the cryopods of their buddies off the ship.”

Yikes. If one ring tried that somewhere within a month of our current time, you could bet there would be more attempts as soon as civilian communications caught up with the fleet.

“So why isn’t this exercise on the duty list?” I asked, scanning my repeaters.

“I cleared it with the Second Officer,” Lt. Michaels replied.

“The Second Officer is Downside, as is the Captain. That leaves the Exec or me,” I informed him. “And anyway, why haven’t I heard about the Terrapin? Shouldn’t we’ve been planning around this? Beef up security?”

“It came through Marine channels, sir. We’ve already beefed up your security and added additional scanners. I had my orders to keep it discrete.”

“Uh-huh,” I grunted. Damn, the Marine/Navy rivalry rearing its ugly head. One side not wanting to tell the other. Or maybe, the Marines didn’t want to admit their fault in the Terrapin incident. Worse, I knew all about this rivalry through family. My last name is Chisholm. My father is that Colonel Chisholm, USFMC.

It also occurred to me why the Second Officer suddenly went Downside this afternoon.

“How long have you been at this?” I asked casually.

“Since ShipTime 1640. Actually, we flushed the bad guys once, but... ah, they’re holed up pretty good up there,” he admitted. “Stuart, Shelby. Move in, now!”

Two shadows emerged partway down the companionway and sprinted for the far hatch. They never made it. Two simulated shots rang out and their neural jamming webs brought them down in simulated kills.

“See? They’ve got it covered pretty well, sir,” Michaels said sheepishly. “Of course, we wouldn’t expect to be up against crack Marines in a real situation like this.”

“Uh-huh,” I said, pausing before I let out my hunch. “Let me guess you didn’t exactly ask the Second Officer for permission before you started this little exercise. That perhaps Second saw a whole lot of commotion here and came down to find out what the hell was going on. How am I doing, lieutenant?”

“Pretty good, sir,” he observed. “I keep trying to tell the Captain, my Marine Captain, those Navy command types aren’t dummies.”

“And you had to explain to Second,” I continued, “So why it was you suddenly needed to try this little exercise while we were still in orbit and before we deployed?”

“Yessir.”

“Well, you will be happy to know the Second Officer is most likely Downside telling the Captain what is going on and why.”

“I expect so, sir.”

“Further, I think you should understand the Marines are not the only security on this ship. You are lucky the Intruder systems didn’t interfere with your exercise.”

“Well, sir, that’s kind of how the Second Officer got involved, sir,” Lt. Michaels conceded.

“Oh dear,” I laughed lightly. “Well, Lt. Michaels, why don’t you carry on for the moment... under my authorization for now, and we’ll wait for the fallout to settle later.”

“Yessir,” he saluted.

“And lieutenant...”

“Yes, sir?”

“You might want to drag those two men out and get those bad guys before 0600. Your team is scheduled for the freezer after breakfast.”

“Yessir,” he gulped.

I eased out of the way and disconnected from their comm net. As I returned to the major corridor, I keyed in the exercise and called into the Exec.

“I take it you found the intrepid Marines, Sam?” the First Officer asked.

“I take it you knew they were there, Skip?” I replied.

“Well, I wanted to prove that every single duty command officer on this Navy ship could figure out there were ‘intruders’ in the cryopods,” he commented. “Just in case the Marines were wondering if we were on our toes.”

“What do you think of the threat?” I asked.

“Seems real enough,” he commented. “I am a bit miffed the Marines communicated this to their own on the last messenger flight and still didn’t tell us.”

“Interfraternal fighting, I guess,” citing the standard excuse.

“Well, Second has been noting an increased security presence by the Marines to the Captain for the past two weeks. I guess he figured it had to do with the messenger and he would hear about it sometime.”

“Poor Michaels,” I observed as I reached Sub-Hangar 14L.

“Who?”

“Lt. Michaels. The Marine officer who seems to have let the cat out of the bag,” I told him. “I suspect his C.O. won’t be thrilled when he finds out that the shit has hit the fan.”

“No doubt, Sam.”

The commlink cleared. I scanned the hangar space in front of me from the service catwalk. 14L was dimly lit, but I could clearly see all the equipment racks open and ready to stow all the Downside gear from the returning workcrews. My telltales said all was secure. Passing through a multi-lock I came into Sub-Hangar 15L. Here the overhead light panel shone bright white and the scene was one of quiet dedicated work. Below me a dozen men and women busily set up a variety of stations around the perimeter of the room -- Medical, Customs and Declaration, Provost Marshall’s Office, Decontamination, Property Stowage and a breakfast line. Part of the food line was already open and a handful of spacemen were getting trays of hot steaming food.

Dropping down the transit tube, I stepped out onto the main floor. I was not the only suited figure. This was a hangar, after all, and all the personnel working in the main hatch area were in suits. Not all had their helmets secured, but it was regulation. Once the hangar was operational, all the people on the deck would be suited. I paused to let a floater skim by with a heavy load, returned a salute or two, then wandered over to the food line.

“Steak and eggs for breakfast?” I asked the cook who was inventorying the big modular containers stacked by the line.

“Yessir, Mr. Third Officer. Just what the Captain ordered for the crews coming back Upside,” the cook laughed as he turned around.

“’Course,” he continued, pointing his clipboard at the crews in line, “These late shifters are getting a good hot meal of beans and rice and apple pie now.”

“Sounds good,” I commented.

“It is good,” he winked. “Too bad you’re stuck on rations in that suit.”

“No problem,” I assured him. “I ate before my watch.”

The cook laughed again and turned back to his containers. The men and women eating nodded at my presence as I motioned for them to stay put. In the spacemen’s mess it might be different -- an officer on the deck meant attention. But meals on the work floor were considered an exception.

Sub-Hangars 16L and 17L were calm, empty and dark. All the support and emergency equipment stood neatly arrayed along the walls. When the crew shuttles came in, they would be brought into these two hangars, where the returning crews would then be herded into 15L and then 14L for processing. It would be a symphony of organization with an undertone of confusion. Some of the spacecrews would have been off duty for as long as two months. Plenty of time to either get into trouble or out of the habits of military life.

By ShipTime 0220 I was wandering through a maze of empty crew bunk areas. I always paid special attention to the unused areas of the ship on my walkabouts. Such areas tended to attract various illegal or illicit activities. It wasn’t so much that we were after the crew to behave all the time, as it was to try to keep the inevitable games, gambling and sex from going underground. If we kept the regular public and private spaces occupied, things wouldn’t get out of hand. Once, when I served on the Tamarack, a still had been installed in an unused engineering space. That wasn’t so bad until a bar sprang up in an unused bunk area. Too many crewmen kept disappearing from their assigned areas, so the Captain ordered the operation shut down.

Tonight I found no evidence of trouble. Sealed compartments remained sealed. Open compartments were still clean, ready to be filled with hundreds of spacemen shortly after they were brought awakeside out of the cryopods.

“Third, this is Six,” a voice came over my headset. “Looks like we have company. The Drop tank records a small ship, probably a messenger, dropping into normal space about twenty radii out.”

Odd. We’d had a messenger flight only two weeks ago and were on a twenty-four schedule to leave this planet. Surely FLEETCOM was aware of this -- which meant perhaps something important was happening, somewhere we were needed.

“What’s the ETA for inbound data?” I asked.

“Two hours, more or less,” the Sixth Officer replied.

Communications couldn’t go faster-than-light. Only ships could. So Fleet communications were done by small FTL messenger ships. We knew a messenger had popped into normal space less than two light hours from us because of a ripple in a quasi-spatial drop tank, but other than the probable size and direction of its entry, there could be no direct communication until we established visual or radio contact with it at the speed of light. Relativity ruled in normal space. It was a bitch.

“Captain been notified?” I asked.

“It’s on his message board. Skip decided to let him get two hours of sleep. He’s letting Second fret on it, though.”

“‘What else are junior officers for?’“ I quipped.

“I roger that,” Christine Jenkins laughed. “Out.”

What could FLEETCOM want with us? Well, one thing for sure, the ship could be made as ready as possible. I moved on to Auxiliary Center.

Third Officer on deck, Auxiliary Center,” the vocal box noted as I entered the last of the three security hatches.

Auxiliary Center was an emergency version of the bridge. Command Center, the regular bridge, was well protected, but in keeping with the redundant design criteria of all starships, the A.C. provided a compact and efficient, if less comfortable, alternative. It was kept in reduced lighting mode most of the time. No point in training for wasting power. A variety of junior officers rotated between A.C. and their normal duties.

“‘Evening, Sam,” Fourth Officer Mark Langhorn drawled from the Command Chair in which he lay sprawled.

“Good evening, Four,” I replied as I perched on one of the consoles.

“Welcome to my dungeon, to my vast empire,” he mocked, as he waved a hand over all he surveyed. The only other person in A.C. was a young spaceman sitting at the helm control mount reading a book.

“Pretty quiet down here,” I agreed. “You hear about our messenger?”

“Yup,” he said. “We get all the good news.”

“Think you’re a little understaffed?”

“Actually, Spaceman Allen is using the head right now. And I’ve roused two full-suiters to come up and join in the fun and games. They should be thrilled.”

If bridge duty was boring while station keeping in orbit, A.C. duty was even worse. We all made a lot of jokes about serving time in A.C. You can’t drill and run simulations all the time. Sometimes you just keep watch and read or otherwise pass the time. In theory, of course, command could transfer to A.C. at any moment, and someone like the Fourth Officer could find themselves owning a starship if the regular brain trust somehow is wiped out in the Command Center. Actually, training is rigorous enough that the officers could probably make the transition fast enough. Whether one could grow into the Captain’s shoes in five minutes in the heat of disaster is a different matter.

Spaceman Allen returned from behind the divider and resumed his station at the weapons mount. He had been running a defense program in simulation and was now looking to see the results.

“And how did our sharpshooter programmer do this time?” Mark asked.

“Fifty-three percent efficiency, sir.”

“Not too bad. What was that? Ten-to-one odds?”

“Yessir.”

Mark made an approving grimace and shrugged at me.

“See? We’re ready.”

I laughed. Scoring a fifty-three percent against the simulation wasn’t bad under those conditions. It still meant you probably lost the ship and the entire crew. But in a real battle, you probably wouldn’t do nearly so well at ten-to-one odds. You’d be ‘playing’ against other real opponents. Still, there was little in space to challenge a Serrano-class heavy battlecruiser.

“Mister Allen, why don’t you try twenty-to-one odds and run it again? From the top,” the Fourth Officer winked at me.

“Yessir,” came the no nonsense reply.

“You score better than twenty-three percent and you’ll win a prize.”

“You’re on!”

“Crew Entry Request,” intoned the vocal box. A wall repeater ID’ed two crewmen.

“Let ‘em in,” Mark ordered, and the two spacemen in full black suits entered A.C.

“Well, I’ll leave you to defending the ship against hopeless odds, Four,” I said hopping off the console.

“I roger that, Three,” he replied, tossing a small salute which I returned. I resumed prowling the bowels of the Serrano.

At ShipTime 0410 I was heading back to Companionway 17-I3 to check up on Lt. Michaels and his ‘bad guys’, when a major telltale in my helmet went yellow indicating an alert status. I immediately keyed the bridge. Six answered.

“Three, we just received a commlink from the messenger at point of entry. It was one letter: ‘Q’. The Exec has put us on alert right now.”

“Roger, Six. I am returning to the bridge,” I replied.

A minute passed as I took a fast shaft toward the bridge. Almost two hours ago a messenger ship had popped into this star system and as usual, it immediately sent out a signal. But instead of a long message, it contained only one code letter. This was standard procedure in an emergency -- the farther away you are, the wider the broadcast must be and the easier time an enemy has either intercepting the message or locating the sender. One would normally expect the messenger to slow as it came inbound, but under a Q-status, it would likely continue at near-light speed. In this case, the messenger lagged three minutes and forty-three seconds behind its signal.

The Exec came on the line, “Third, the Captain has been informed of the alert and is preparing for immediate return. I need you up here.”

“ETA thirty seconds,” I replied, checking my repeaters.

Third Officer entering Command Center,” announced the vocal box when I made it in. The lighting and the crew on the bridge were the same as when I left, but the atmosphere had become intensely charged. Reports were starting to come in.

“We have a lock on the messenger,” reported Data/Analysis. “I don’t believe he’s going to stay.”

“Still no message on commlink.”

I arrived at my station and logged in. While I off-lined my repeaters and opened my helmet visor I read the summary screens. Computer projection had the messenger inbound toward the sun on a cosmic bank shot. New notes displayed on my screen.

“We have photon emission. Definite thrust vector. Messenger has not changed course. Definite message probe launch.”

“Captain, we have definite probe launch,” the Exec relayed to the C.O. still Downside.

“This is Auxiliary Center. We’re set up to catch the probe, Skip,” Mark’s voice came in.

“Go for it,” the Exec replied. He smiled at the two crewmen forward. “Sorry guys, they were ready first.”

A messenger has four ways to relay information: it can broadcast a message from far away, it can broadcast a message close in as it streaks past, it can match vectors with the ship and be brought aboard or it can send out a small probe. For whatever reasons, Command was using the last method. The probe would also be traveling at close to the speed of light, and knowing the manual, probably on a direct course to the sun. We’d have one chance to snag the thing in a deceleration field as it passed by. The procedure was mostly automatic, you simply don’t have the reaction time to do it manually, but you still have to set up the approach and the program selection. Mark obviously anticipated the probe down in A.C. and had his crew calculating the solution from the start. They were privy to the same data the bridge had. Quick thinking would earn them a commendation -- and give them something to do.

“Contact!”

“We’re on it...”

“System powering up,” Six reported.

“Got it!” Mark roared.

“Snag successful, system off-line.”

“Bay 35, Skip. I’ve dispatched Eight to receive,” the Fourth Officer reported.

For some reason I suddenly remembered Lt. Michael and his Marines -- I had been heading back to check on them when this started. I keyed him up. “Michaels, this is Three. We’re on an alert status. Call off your exercise and get your men back on station. Now.”

A surprised looking Lt. Michaels showed up on an inset screen. “Uh, Roger, Third Officer. Disengaging exercise.”

“Probe inbound. Secure datalink established to Bay 35,” came in a report.

The Exec stood up and looked at me, “Three, you have the conn. Relay the message directly to the Captain’s office.”

“Aye-aye, sir,” I replied, and logged off of my station. The center hot seat was mine and I rose up to take it. Sitting in the Command Chair in a suit is not recommended for comfort. You don’t get the full effect of ‘the chair of power’, as one of my Academy instructors put it. Any of the Command Officers are expected to sit in the Command Chair as needed, but it was a rare occurrence for junior officers. Our new Ninth Officer had spent several shifts there during the middle of this boring station keeping duty. As Third Officer, it was periodically my duty to take the conn while underway, but this was the biggest situation I had ever dealt with. Well, if I blew it I guess I would hear about it later.

“Status, Mister Enslein,” I asked the OOD as I settled down in the Command Chair, following standard procedure. I reached up to my neck and released my helmet. Command definitely had its privileges. A yeoman immediately appeared at the change in conn and was ready to take my helmet and stow it beside me. I shook my hair out. Lt. Samantha L. Chisholm was now in command.

“Messenger ship inbound on probable boomerang trajectory out of this system. Message probe inbound to Bay 35 for capture and reading. Ship is on alert status, at minimal station keeping power level, crew at minimal nightime staffing.”

“Command chain,” I asked.

“Captain Downside, preparing for immediate return. Launch in two minutes, ETA 17 minutes. First Officer in the Captain’s Office. Second Officer Downside, preparing for deployment operation. Third Officer at the conn. Fourth Officer at the Auxiliary conn. Fifth Officer in quarters. Sixth Officer on the bridge. Seventh Officer in quarters. Eighth Officer in Bay 35. Ninth Officer Downside, in quarters. Tenth Officer in Lower Engineering Spaces,” the crewman recited. “And the Junior Officer is en route to Hangar 1.

“Your orders, sir?” I was asked.

Well, what were my orders? To tell the truth, there was already a lot of activity in place. With a large number of the crew Downside, there was little we could do to deploy immediately. Unless the Captain wanted to strand them all and simply revive a new crew. Well, that was an option to consider.

“Get Seven up here. We need someone at the Logistics station,” I ordered, calling my own lieutenant to the bridge. “Better get Five up here, too.”

“Sir, the Fifth Officer is over his 24 hour limit,” the OOD observed.

“Doesn’t matter, Nine is Downside. We’re on alert and Five can catch a nap in the Boardroom if the Captain doesn’t want him immediately,” I replied and then explained. “If the news is really bad, the Captain should have the option to strand the Downside crew. We need someone in Personnel Command up here. Tell Five that.”

“Yessir.”

Well, two minutes on the job in the hot seat and all I had done was wake up a few people.

“Captain’s Barge is launched. ETA 17 minutes. Entry in Hangar 1.”

“Acknowledged,” I replied as I pulled over the command console and logged in. THIRD OFFICER AT CONN - 0421 HRS - DAY 1417 - USFS SERRANO, the command console glowed at the top status line.

“Eight,” I called out to the air, knowing Communications would route the call. “What’s your probe’s ETA?”

“Three or four more minutes, Bridge,” came the reply.

“Who’s in Combat?” I asked the OOD.

“Nelson and Dickinson, sir.”

“Who’s in the Vision tank?”

“No one, sir. The tank is clear.”

“Who’s supposed to be in the tank?” I asked.

“Riley, sir. He’s in the head.”

“Out of the head and into the tank, now, sir,” Tactical reported. “Riley’s online.”

“Very good. Anyone else on the Bridge need the head do it now. I don’t know how busy we’re going to be in two minutes.”

I noted with satisfaction that two of the crewmen stepped out. Temp reliefs came in from the yeoman’s pen.

Serrano, what is your status?” came the Captain’s voice overhead.

“Third Officer at the conn,” I replied. “Sitting around waiting for something to happen, Captain.”

The Captain chuckled. “And my Exec?”

“He’s in your office waiting for the probe’s information.”

“Very good, Three. Carry on.”

“Yes, sir,” I replied. One minute or so until the probe was aboard. “Auxiliary, did you win?”

“Yessir, Three. Or as close as you can at twenty-to-one.”

“Good, now clear those simulations off your boards.”

“Program just finished, disengaging. Our boards are clear, Three. We’re waiting just like you.”

I sighed and looked around. Not much else I could do at the moment.

“Bridge, probe aboard and transmitting,” the report came in.

“Route to the Exec in the Captain’s Office,” I reminded.

The Fifth Officer, Otis Chang, arrived yawning in crumpled khakis.

“Morning, Sam,” he greeted me as he went to his station.

“Morning, Otis. Hope you get to bed soon,” I told him.

Otis waved a reply as he sat and yawned again. The Seventh Officer, Peter Burke, who works for me, came in -- his hair ‘quick combed’ and plastered wetly on his head. His khakis were clean and pressed at least, though he was tucking in his shirt as he took the two steps to his station behind Five and Six.

“Better call up the options, Seven,” I told him. “And start figuring out what we missed. Like stranding the Downside crew.”

“Aye-aye, sir. That will make it Option 8.”

The Exec came to the office doorway. I stood up.

“Sam,” he asked, “Are those options of yours in the queue all valid?”

“All the ones that are online,” I replied.

“Put the main pointer on Option 3 but keep the queue set for 0600,” he said, then added, “For now.”

“Yessir,” I said, sitting back down as he disappeared again. “You heard him, Seven. Option 3.”

“Yes, sir.”

Option 3. Active War Deployment. Active War? There had never been an Active War before. Fleet wasn’t even entirely sure you could fight an active interstellar war. Oh sure, we had local skirmishes and minor rebellions. Send in the fleet or a few thousand troops, police the area, mop up the resistance. But an interstellar war? Against who? I mean, against what? Or...

The bridge crew snuck glances at me. Clearly I was privy to important knowledge that they didn’t have access to. Option 3 was one of those standard things we plan for, yet I never expected it. I had figured on search and rescue, or a rebellion, or perhaps a major environmental disaster somewhere. An errant comet that needed to be disposed of by the massive firepower of the Serrano. You know, the usual type of emergency.

Meanwhile, all I could do was tell Five to sack out in the Boardroom while I called up the Option 3 orders and reviewed them again. Eventually the Captain’s Barge arrived and docked in Hangar 1. At ShipTime 0447, the Captain entered the Bridge. I rose, but he disappeared straight into his office. In a few minutes he returned.

“Three, what is the minimum time for this Option 3 deployment?” he demanded to know.

“Seventeen hours,” I replied. “Twenty-two if you allow for daylight launches from the Eastern Continent, sir.”

“Hmmm,” he stood thinking for a moment, then turned away.

In a moment he was back, striding across the bridge to the Boardroom.

“Yeoman!” he bellowed, beginning to give orders even before the yeoman arrived. “Breakfast for all Upside Command Officers at 0630. Make it a good one, full service.

“Five, either get up or go sleep in your quarters. There’ll be no stranding of the Downside crew.

“Three,” he said, turning to me. “Option 3 in the order queue for 0600. Seventeen hour schedule. We deploy at 0000. Destination Pica N9.

“Oh, and general crew announcement call at 0800.”

He strode back to his office.

“Navigator, call up destination Pica N9. Begin programming. Peter, queue up Option 3. Yeoman, schedule reveille at 0600 and general crew announcement from the Captain at 0800.”

Pica N9. I looked it up on my screen. That was a long way away. Still, the Current Deployed Status charts from the fleet indicated we were one of the three closest warships to Pica N9, and by far the largest with the most Marines to deploy. Two weeks to jump speed. The computer suggested this messenger ship was probably en route to the U.S.F.S. Bisqueyne from here.

 

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©2008 · Dr. Philip Edward Kaldon

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