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Chapter One

"Evidence, including documents or physical evidence, which is under the control of the Government and which is relevant to the investigation . . . shall be produced if reasonably available."

Rule 405(g)(1)(b)
Rules for Courts-Martial
Manual for Courts-Martial, United States

"Every time I look at an intelligence report, it seems we're edging closer to war." Lieutenant Junior Grade Paul Sinclair leaned back and away from the Combat Information Center Officer's console, gazing somberly at the intelligence report displayed there.

"I thought young U.S. Navy officers like yourself looked forward to combat, Mr. Sinclair." Chief Imari grinned from where she sat at her own console.

Paul twisted one side of his mouth in a half-smile. "Not me, Chief. I'll do it if and when I have to, but I won't be looking forward to it."

Imari nodded. "It's not a pretty business, sir. Not like the games we play on these." She waved at the consoles cluttering Combat. "Realistic combat simulations, hell. I tell you, sir, no simulation of combat is realistic unless you're sweating like a pig and scared to death while you're running it."

"Thanks for cheering me up, Chief. But you know as well as I do that the simulations can only duplicate the physics of fighting in space. I depend on you to keep our happy sailors sweating and scared."

Imari grinned again. "Only if they screw up, sir."

Paul glanced toward one of the bulkheads, thinking of the endless dark which lay beyond the outer hull of the USS Michaelson. "There's a huge volume of space in the solar system, Chief. But the South Asian Alliance keeps demanding what it calls its 'fair share' of that space. What the hell is 'fair' for them or anybody else?"

"Beats me, sir. The U.S. Navy's never been big on 'fair,' so I don't know much about it. We're not the only one's the SASALs are pushing against, though."

Paul nodded, looking back at the intelligence report. "No, we're not. The SASAL pressure to expand back on Earth is pushing the Europeans toward us. It looks like we'll even have some joint maneuvers soon. That'd be different, operating with foreign warships in space. Have you ever worked with any, Chief?"

Chief Imari shrugged. "Just a couple, a few years ago. Some kind of Brotherhood of Humanity in Space crap to show everyone we were all happy campers up here together." She paused, screwing up her face in thought. "Let's see. There was a South African ship, and a Japanese, and a Brit. I don't remember any of 'em doing anything stupid."

Paul smiled. That last statement qualified as praise from Chief Imari. "Back on earth the Royal Navy has a good reputation."

"Oh, they're real good, sir. Never get in a drinking contest with 'em, though. Not if you're smart. They'll drink you three sheets to the wind and then convince you to play one of their crazy Brit games like naked zero-gravity rugby."

Paul felt his eyebrows rising. "Naked zero-gravity rugby?"

"Trust me, sir, it ain't as fun as it sounds. I hurt for a couple of weeks afterwards, and I was one of the lucky ones."

"I'll remember that, Chief." Paul reached over and closed out the intelligence report. Will we end up shooting at someone in earnest before this is all over? It'd been a year and a half since the Michaelson's former commanding officer had mistakenly ordered the destruction of a SASAL research ship, and Paul had never been able to shake the memory of the bodies he'd seen onboard the wreck afterwards. Maybe we'll have to destroy another ship, or maybe we'll take damage. He looked around Combat, a compartment he thought of as his after several months as Combat Information Center Officer, and imagined it riddled with holes from enemy lasers and particle beams, open to the vacuum of space, the bodies of his sailors drifting slack in their harnesses.

Chief Imari followed Paul's gaze, and as if reading his thoughts smiled reassuringly. "Don't you worry, Mr. Sinclair. If it comes to that, we'll kick butt. Ain't nobody gonna take down the Mike."

Paul grinned. "Not with the crew we've got." Then he laughed. "That sounds like something from a bad movie."

The Chief cocked an eyebrow at him. "Sir, I sorta know what you mean. But it's important to say it and mean it. Or sound like you mean it, anyway. When the crew hears it, they believe in themselves a little more. Yeah, it's corny and macho and all sorts of other stuff, but you've got to tell the crew you believe in them. They want to hear it."

Paul nodded slowly. "It helps them believe in themselves?"

"I guess you could say that. It's part of being an officer, Mr. Sinclair. The crew looks to you for that kind of stuff."

Paul nodded again. Now, that's a funny responsibility. I'm younger than most of the sailors in my division, and a whole lot less experienced in almost every way, but they look to me for guidance. For me to say I think they can kick butt when needed. Funny. But I'm sure Chief Imari knows what she's talking about. That's funny, too. I'm looking to her for some guidance while she's looking to me for other guidance. "I'll remember that, Chief. For what it's worth, I do have a lot of confidence in the crew, and in the division. I'll make sure I express that every once in a while."

Imari grinned at him. "Don't go overboard, sir. Just a little. Otherwise it'll make it harder for me to tell 'em how screwed up they are."

"Got it." Paul checked the time. "As far as preparing for combat goes, it probably wouldn't hurt if I managed to show up for religious services every once in a while."

"Can't hurt and it might help, sir. You never know."

"Later, Chief." Paul walked out of Combat, threading through the narrow hatch with the ease of long practice. He checked the time again, then shrugged. He'd spent too much time reviewing the intelligence summaries. No sense in trying to make Sunday morning worship services now. Instead, he started to head for the small compartment grandly labeled the officers' wardroom, but halted after a couple of steps and went down another passageway.

Being tied up at Franklin Naval Station always felt different than being underway. Part of it was the constant sensation of gravity imposed by Franklin's majestic rotation. But a bigger part, to Paul, was the nights and weekends when most of the crew went off the ship. Underway, it seemed the narrow passages and low overheads of the Michaelson were always crowded with sailors trying to dodge each other and all the wiring, equipment and controls almost covering every bulkhead and overhead. In port, on a slow Sunday morning, the Michaelson felt almost deserted by comparison.

Paul went through the ship, compartment after compartment, able after more than a year and half onboard to almost subconsciously evaluate the status of everything he saw from the knife edges of the airtight hatches to the inspection labels on the emergency survival suit lockers. Near the bow, where the hull tapered to a blunt cone, he absentmindedly tapped a spot on the forwardmost bulkhead where the metal had been worn smooth by countless fingers following the same ritual.

When Paul reached the hatch leading into Forward Engineering, he paused, listening for a moment, then walked steadily in and through the compartment, trying to focus on important details even though his ears kept straining for any untoward sounds until he was done and back out the hatch. That blasted compartment still spooks me. It shouldn't, but it does. And there's no way I'm admitting that to anybody.

Then back and forth, working aft, until he reached the "end of the world," the last bulkhead, and repeated the tap he'd given at the forwardmost bulkhead. Why do we do that, anyway? Funny ritual or superstition or whatever. It's like we're checking to make sure the last thing between us and empty space is really there. Or reassuring ourselves that those last barriers aren't ready to implode. Well, whatever the reason, like Chief Imari says, it can't hurt.

A bit worn from the tour of the Michaelson, Paul finally made his way to the officers wardroom. Inside the small compartment with the grand name, Lieutenant Sindh sat at the table sipping a drink labeled "chai – decaf – non-dairy – official issue – zero g." She looked up as Paul entered, waving a small greeting. "You look a little tired."

"Just took a tour of the ship." As he headed for the coffee, Paul flipped a half-salute toward Lieutenant Sindh. "I have the pleasure to report to the command duty officer that the ship is all secure, ma'am."

Sindh solemnly returned the salute. "Thank you, Mr. Sinclair. Paul, you don't have to check every compartment on the ship multiple times every duty day." Paul busied himself with the coffee to avoid answering. "It happened once. It wasn't your fault. I appreciate your thoroughness, but also fear you're driven by guilt you shouldn't carry."

Paul shrugged, still not looking her way. That's easy for her to say. She wasn't on duty when that fire started. She wasn't on duty when Chief Asher died. And she didn't get implicated as part of the cause in the initial investigation. The fact that the investigation's conclusions had been reached by his girlfriend's father still rankled even though those conclusions had been subsequently disproved. However, a friend like Sonya Sindh deserved some consideration for her concern. "It's okay. Really."

"There's much you've never shared about how that incident affected you, Paul. I'm a lay minister. We can talk."

Paul grinned at her. "Not my religion, Sonya. But thanks, anyway. For what it's worth, I've talked it over with Jen."

"Ah. That's worth something." Sindh smiled. "But both you and the inexhaustible Lieutenant Jen Shen are very close to the problem. A third party's advice might be of help."

"I've also talked it over with Commander Herdez a few times."

Sindh's eyebrows shot up. "Our former Executive Officer From Hell as trauma counselor? I assume our old XO recommended hard work at least twenty hours every day as the best means to recover from your experience?"

This time, Paul laughed. "I think she actually recommended at least twenty-two hours a day of hard work. Minimum."

Sindh's smile widened. "It's good to hear she's not slacking off while on shore duty. Everyone else should suffer as we did. Have you seen this?" she asked, indicating her data pad's screen.

Paul came closer to peer at the information. "Orders for someone?" He read through the standard format, looking for the key pieces of information. Lieutenant Sonya Sindh. . .when directed detach from USS Michaelson (CLE(S)-3), proceed to Joint Forces Training Command, Norfolk, Virginia . . . upon arrival report Commanding Officer for duty. "Oh. You're leaving"

"In about a month. Aren't you happy for me?"

Paul settled into the nearest chair, pushing aside the straps officers used to fasten themselves into their seats while the Michaelson was underway and no longer benefiting from Franklin's induced gravity. "I am. But you're a friend and a good officer, so I hate to see you go."

She smiled. "If you really thought of me as a friend you'd be thrilled I was heading for nice, relaxing shore duty. Earthside shore duty! Blue sky! Atmosphere! Constant gravity!"

"Insects. Bad weather. Pollen."

"Real food."

"That's a big one. Okay, I'm happy for you. But, you know, it's hard to see people leave the ship. We're kind of a—"

"Please don't say 'family.'" It was Sindh's turn to shrug. "Officers come, officers go. That's the Navy. We're on our third captain since you reported aboard, and our second executive officer."

"Yeah, but I don't work directly with the CO and XO like I do with you or the other junior officers."

"Look at it this way. Someday our fellow junior officer and dear friend Sam Yarrow will also leave. Isn't that nice?"

Paul laughed. "I don't know what I'll do when I don't have to worry about Smilin' Sam sliding a knife into my back."

"I'm sure you'll find plenty of things to fill your time," Sindh observed dryly.

Another laugh. "Oh, yeah. And if I don't, I'm sure Garcia will help."

Sindh took another drink, then made a face. "I'll also be able to get real chai again Earthside, instead of whatever this stuff is that they feed us. I wonder what real coffee will taste like after years of Navy coffee? But I digress. Paul, the job of a department head is to keep junior officers gainfully employed. Commander Garcia just happens to be a little bit incendiary in his approach to that."

"Incendiary? Hell, Sonya, there's been times I was sure he was going to strangle me for making him look bad because I'd screwed something up. And that's just when I screw up in my primary job as CIC Officer. Garcia hates my collateral duty with a passion."

"Duty?" Sindh looked up questioningly. "You have more than one collateral duty."

"Yeah, but the one that torques Garcia off is the legal officer job. You know that. He hates the time I have to spend on it and he hates that I go directly to the Captain or XO for stuff related to ship legal matters."

"If you'd manage to stay away from courts-martial for a few months at a stretch it wouldn't be such a burden and Garcia wouldn't be so sensitive about it." Sindh grinned again.

Paul smiled back. "It's been six months since the last court-martial. I'm not planning on getting involved in any more."

"You didn't plan on getting involved in the first two. Or did you? I ought to ask Jen. She'll know the truth. And, speaking of Jen, is she coming over tonight?"

Paul's smile turned rueful. "No. Jen's got duty, too. The Maury's gone to three sections, so Jen's got duty every third day."

"Three sections? That's not pleasant. What happened?"

"They're trying to get the Sorry Maury working after that yard period. The modifications to engineering are driving Jen nuts. She's working overtime because of them."

"Paul, we're space warfare officers. We always work overtime." Sindh let out a sigh. "I was hoping Jen could bring some carry-out onboard so we wouldn't have to eat wardroom food tonight. Not that carry-out on the station is that great, but it's better than rations."

"Nope. I guess we're stuck with Navy cuisine."

Lieutenant Sindh paused in thought, then tapped her data unit. "Chief Imari. Do you have a meal run planned? I expected as much. Please contact Mr. Sinclair and myself prior to the run so we can place orders as well. Thank you." She settled back with a satisfied smile. "When in doubt, always check with the chiefs. They may've already solved your problem."

Paul rose and bowed toward her. "Thank you, Master. I still have much to learn."

Sindh smiled and made a brief bow back. "Much more than you realize, Grasshopper."

About twelve hours later, Paul rolled out of his bunk, taking care to keep his body low so he wouldn't hit any of the pipes and ducting positioned just above his sleeping area. Yawning as he pulled on his uniform, Paul gave the digits on his watch a sour look. Half-an-hour until midnight, and I'm getting up to spend four hours standing watch. The glamorous life of a naval officer. Checking his appearance to make sure he looked fit to stand watch, Paul stumbled to the quarterdeck.

Petty Officer First Class Fontanelli was rubbing his eyes as Paul came up. "Sir, I don't mind telling you that you're a sight for sore eyes."

"Yeah. But you get to rest yours now and I don't. What's up?"

Fontanelli ran through the status of the ship, telling Paul nothing he didn't already know, advised that Captain Hayes and the ship's current executive officer, Commander Kwan, had both returned to the ship after taps, and closed his turnover with a warning to Paul that there'd been Franklin Station personnel conducting unannounced security checks of quarterdeck watches. Paul listened through it all, then straightened and raised his right hand, touching his brow in a casual salute. "Okay. I got it."

The petty officer returned the gesture. "I stand relieved." Fontanelli hoisted the heavy old-fashioned brass telescope called a long glass which signified his status as officer of the deck import and passed it to Paul. "Have fun, sir."

"Thanks." Paul put down the long glass and leaned on the watch desk as the petty officer of the watch finished turning over with his relief.

"Mr. Sinclair, I have the watch." The third class petty officer saluted Paul with the same kind of weary salute Paul had used earlier. "Any special instructions, sir?"

"Yeah, if I start to fall asleep, kick me."

The petty officer grinned. "Yes, sir. It'll be a pleasure."

About four long and essentially uneventful hours later, the hatch onto the quarterdeck opened and Chief Imari stepped out, yawning. "Have a fun mid-watch, sir?"

"They're always fun, Chief."

"Oh, yes, sir. Anything happen?"


"Of course, if something did happen, we'd be a lot unhappier than we are with nothing happening," Chief Imari observed.

Paul snorted and nodded. "Yeah, 'cause anything that happens at O-dark-thirty is bound to be bad." He briefed the chief just as he'd been briefed four hours before, exchanged salutes as Chief Imari relieved him, then walked slowly back to his stateroom and peered at the time. Zero four hundred. Two hours until reveille, when he and the rest of the crew would have to officially wake up, and when the lighting on the Michaelson and Franklin Station would brighten for the artificial day. Paul shrugged out of his uniform and pulled himself up into his bunk, ducking and rolling as he did so to avoid hitting the obstacles on the overhead.

It seemed only moments later that the piercing sound of a bosun's pipe wailed through the ship, followed by the announcement made every morning. "Reveille, reveille. All hands turn to and trice up."

One of Paul's four roommates in the starboard ensign locker staggered up and hit the stateroom lights. Three groans from those still in their bunks answered the brightness. Paul kept his eyes closed for a moment, trying to extend his sleep a few precious seconds longer. Trice up. Why do they keep telling the crew to trice up? That's what you do with hammocks. The crew doesn't sleep in hammocks. Crews haven't slept in hammocks for who knows how long. Centuries? But if they ever sleep in them again, they'll know now is when they're supposed to trice those suckers up.

"Hey, Paul!"

Paul kept his eyes closed. "Yeah, Sam." Lieutenant Junior Grade Yarrow, nicknamed Smilin' Sam by his fellow junior officers in recognition of his untrustworthy nature and false front of camaraderie, sounded unhappy, a fact which bothered Paul not at all given the many times Yarrow had caused problems for Paul.

"Did the guys in my division who had duty yesterday get their spaces cleaned up like I told them?"

"I don't know, Sam. Why don't you ask them?"

"You had duty! You should know."

"Sam, my duty responsibilities don't include supervising your division's internal tasking."

"Lousy attitude, Sinclair. Thanks for nothing." The hatch opened, then slammed shut.

Paul sighed, finally opened his eyes and rolled out of his bunk again, landing on the deck and groping for his uniform once more.

Ensign Jack Abacha stared after Yarrow, then at Paul.

Paul shook his head. "Don't worry about it, Jack. Once you've been screwed over by Sam as much as the rest of us have, you won't worry in the slightest about hurting his feelings." Abacha nodded, his uncertainty obvious. Was it only eighteen months ago that I reported aboard the Merry Mike and was exactly like Jack Abacha? Overwhelmed and stunned by everything, wondering what I'd gotten myself into. Hell, I still haven't figured out what I've gotten myself into. "Really, Jack. It's okay. Don't let Sam dump any of his work on you. He'll try to lay a guilt trip on you, but don't fall for it. Sam'll still try to take credit for whatever you did right and blame you for anything he does wrong."

"Okay. Thanks." Abacha hesitated. "Do I have to tell him off like that?"

Paul gave the new ensign an encouraging smile. He only reported aboard two days ago. Two days after I joined the ship I still couldn't find my way around. "Naw. When you realize he's trying to do it, tell him that you're too busy to talk and run off. He won't like it, but we're all usually too busy to talk, so Sam won't be able to tell if you're blowing him off." Carl Meadows used to give me that kind of advice before he was transferred off the ship. I wonder how Carl's doing in his tour at the Pentagon?

Zero seven hundred. Paul walked into Combat, where the rest of the officers from the Operations Department had already gathered for officer's call. Commander Garcia looked up from his data unit and scowled at Paul. Oh, great. Now what'd I do?

"Nice to see you made it, Sinclair."

"Sorry, sir. The XO—"

"I didn't ask for an excuse."

Paul took up position near the other officers. Ensign Taylor, the Electronic Materials Officer, gave Paul a sardonic wink. Taylor was a mustang, an officer who'd worked her way up through the enlisted ranks to officer status, and as a result knew her job and the Navy so well she could run rings around much more senior officers. Kris Denaldo, like Paul a lieutenant junior grade and now serving as the Michaelson's communications officer, glanced toward Garcia and rolled her eyes meaningfully. Paul nodded to both of them. And so another Monday in the glamorous Space Navy begins. How come in the movies Captain Hardy Stud of the Starship Spurious never has Mondays?

Garcia glowered at the three officers. Paul and Kris looked back with carefully neutral expressions, while Taylor returned a respectful but unmistakably not-intimidated gaze. "There's been a schedule change. Instead of spending the next two weeks in restricted availability to catch up on equipment maintenance, we have one week. The week after that, we're going out on as-yet-unspecified operations."

Paul barely managed to keep his exasperation from showing. Kris made notes on her data pad and shook her head.

Taylor raised both her hands heavenward. "Sir, just how am I supposed to get two weeks of work out of one week? We've got gear that's overdue for upkeep now."

Garcia focused directly on Taylor and intensified his glower. "You prioritize and you work as hard as you have to. These ops next week are high-priority and high-interest. That's all I can say right now, but saying we can't get underway for them is not an option."

Taylor shrugged as if unaware of Garcia's expression. "We'll be ready to get underway, but everything's not gonna get done. I'll shoot you my prioritized list and if there's anything that hasta be moved up on it, you tell me, sir."


Paul surreptitiously glanced from Garcia to Ensign Taylor. Odds were nobody but Taylor really knew for sure how important each item on that list was, and odds were Garcia knew that. Unfortunately, Garcia does know a lot about all the items on my division's work list.

"Do either of you two have any comments?" Garcia eyed Paul and Kris, but both had learned enough by now not to say a word. "There's an all officers meeting in the wardroom at ten hundred."

"Sir?" Kris Denaldo looked like she'd instantly regretted blurting out the word.


"Uh, sir, about a third of the wardroom is sealed off today while they work on gear on the other side of one of the bulkheads."


"It'll be very hard to squeeze all of us into the remaining space, sir."

"What's the matter, Denaldo? Putting on weight?" Garcia grinned humorlessly. "The meeting's in the wardroom. Period."

Denaldo flushed but kept her voice level. "Yes, sir."


Paul braced himself mentally, shifting his stance slightly as if he were preparing for actual physical attack. "Yes, sir."

"Where's that operational events summary? It was due yesterday."

"I'll have to you before the meeting in the wardroom, sir."

"It was due yesterday."

Paul nodded, even though he felt like snarling back at Garcia. "Yes, sir." An excuse wouldn't do any good. In fact, it'd be certain to just make Garcia madder. Not trying to make excuses was one thing the Naval Academy had taught him that had proven important in the fleet.

Garcia wasn't calmed by Paul's reply. "The XO already asked me where it was this morning."

"Yes, sir."

"Is anything else going to be late, Mr. Sinclair?"

"No, sir."

"It better not be. Get to work. I won't tolerate any excuses for not having every important piece of equipment on this ship ready to go before we get underway next week." Garcia spun on one foot, moving away with his habitually angry stomp.

After Garcia had cleared Combat, Paul glanced over at Taylor. "Akesha, is there any piece of equipment on this ship that isn't important?"

Taylor pretended to consider Paul's question. "Can't think of any. But I'm sure as hell going to talk to the snipes in engineering about making sure that little dingus that heats up the coffee containers in the wardroom is working. As far as I'm concerned, that's the most important thing on this ship. See you kids later."

Denaldo stared after Taylor's retreating back. "God help the supply department if this ship ever runs out of coffee."

Paul shook his head, laughing. "No worry. Commander Sykes wouldn't survive without coffee, either, so no way he's going to let us get underway without enough caffeine to float a cruiser back on Earth."


"You okay, Kris?"

"I'm pissed off. It's Monday. I'm working for an ass. How are you?"

"The same. And I had the mid-watch last night."

"You win."

Five minutes later Paul stood before the enlisted sailors in his division, Chief Imari taking notes from Paul's words just as he'd earlier taken notes from Garcia's. Not very efficient, I guess. But redundancy beats efficiency when lives depend on it. Might as well get the worst over with first. "Ladies and gentlemen, we'll be getting underway in one week." He paused to let it sink in. "Our orders are to get all necessary maintenance carried out before then."

A chorus of groans erupted. "There goes the whole damn weekend," someone in the back said.

Chief Imari sighed. "Okay, sir."

The voice in the back came again. "It ain't all gonna get done!"

Imari turned slightly. "Fastow, see me after morning quarters." The grumbling from the other sailors faded away. She faced Paul again. "What else, sir?"

Paul cleared his throat, grateful that the Chief had backed him up. "We haven't been told what we'll be doing when we get underway, but that it's something high priority."

"We going to war?" another voice asked, this time in a tone that was hushed instead of angry.

"I don't know." Paul looked at the faces before him. All of them looked back with varying expressions, some worried, some curious, some eager as if they were heading for a softball game. "I've got a meeting at ten hundred. I'll let the chief know if I find out anything I can tell you." He caught a brief flash of disapproval on Imari's face.

A few minutes later Paul wrapped up his instructions for the day. "That's it. Chief, can I see you for a minute?"

"Sure, sir." Imari gave the sailors a hard look. "You all be waiting here when I get back."

Paul led the way out into the passageway. "Chief, I noticed you seemed a little unhappy in there at one point."

Imari screwed up her face. "Yes, sir. Uh, telling the division about that meeting of yours at ten hundred. I wouldn't have done that, Mr. Sinclair. Now the guys are gonna be expecting to hear something this morning. They're gonna be pestering me about it, and they're gonna be thinking and talking about what you might tell them instead of concentrating on their work, and we've got a lot of work to do and not much time to do it in. If you do hear something and can't tell them, they're gonna be even more wound up."

Well, hell. Paul felt himself getting angry at the chief and forced himself to backtrack. And she's right about all of it. Dammit. "Sorry, Chief. That didn't occur to me."

"You don't have to apologize to me, Mr. Sinclair. But you asked and I told you."

"And I appreciate that, Chief."

Chief Imari hesitated. "Sir, you do know all that work ain't gonna get done."

"We need to try, Chief."

"Yes, sir. But it's either do it all half-assed or do a bit more than half of it right."

Paul closed his eyes while he thought. Let's see. If I report to Garcia that maybe half of the planned maintenance hasn't been done, he's going to go into screamer mode on me. I don't want that. But if I say I got it all done and some of the 'fixed' stuff doesn't work when we need it while we're on these high-priority ops, then Garcia, the XO and the captain will all be after my hide. Maybe nothing'd break, though. Then I'd be in the clear and my sailors would have time to fix everything right. Yeah, right. When would I be sure they could do that? And if something doesn't work that I said had been fixed . . . people remember stuff like that.

Oh, great. I'm thinking of this all in terms of covering my butt. Hey, LTJG Sinclair, you jerk, maybe it oughta be about getting the job done? So what should I . . . hell, I ought to do what Taylor said she'd do. He opened his eyes. "Chief, put together a priority list for me. What we intend doing in what order given that we know we're getting underway in a week." Do I send a copy of the list to Garcia? He'll be sure to raise hell and rearrange the list just for the sake of asserting authority. But if he signs off on that list, he'll have to admit it to the captain. I think. At least I'll have proof I told Garcia about it all.

Imari nodded. "Okay, sir. I'll have it to you as soon as I can."

"Thanks, Chief." Paul spent the next two hours sweating over the operational events summary. He knew from painful experience that every officer superior to him in the chain of command was certain to remember any event he might neglect to include, but he also was required to only include "significant" events in the summary. No matter what I put in, Garcia or the XO is going to say I didn't put in something significant or did put in something insignificant. Okay. Fine. Paul punched the command to send the report to his department head. If I'm going to lose no matter what, why waste any more time on it? It's as good as I can make it.

Paul glanced at the time. Enough remained before ten hundred for him to get into the wardroom and suck down some coffee to help stay awake through the meeting. Hopefully the subject would be interesting, but even interesting subjects could be sleep inducing when presented in a dull way in small, warm compartments.

"Commander Sykes." Paul greeted the supply officer, who was seated in his usual place, drinking coffee.

"Good morning, young Sinclair. Bright and early this morning, I see."

Paul shook his head. "Just early, Suppo. It's already been a long day."

"Ah." Sykes leaned back a little more and took a slow drink. "The travails of line officers. I feel for you. Truly."

"Yeah." Paul grinned as he got his own coffee. He'd learned from experience that Sykes only pretended to be lazing about the wardroom, and only pretended to revel in his status as a limited duty officer without the command and combat responsibilities of line officers like Paul. At least, I think he's only pretending to revel in it. "Any idea what the meeting's about, Suppo?"

"How would I be aware of the meeting's subject?"

Paul sat down. "Because you know everything important that goes on so you never get caught unable to meet the ship's supply needs."

Sykes looked horrified. "You've discovered my secret. Now, of course, you must die. Sorry about that."

"How are you going to do it? Are you going to serve some more of that Syrian beef stew for dinner?"

"The captain's forbidden me to serve any more of that particular item, you insolent young pup. However, I do know where I can get some artificial shark steaks."

Paul swallowed and gave Sykes a curious look. "Artificial shark steaks?"

"Yes. The real article, the sharks that is, are rare enough that what steaks actually exist are far too expensive for the Navy to serve its wretched masses, so instead we have the joy of receiving artificial shark. Made from pure vat-cultured protein and assorted artificial flavors which I am assured produce a result at least superficially similar to the real article. In taste, at least. I understand the toughness of the artificial shark steaks is legendary."

"You make it sound so yummy." Paul only partially faked a shudder. "I abjectly apologize, Commander Sykes, sir. Your secret is safe with me. Now, do you have an idea what this meeting is about?"

Sykes grinned. "Matters dark and devious. I can say no more."

Kris Denaldo entered. "I'm going to try to get a corner to wedge myself into before everyone else tries to pack in here." She glared at Paul. "And if I hear any comments from you like I did from Garcia . . ."

"Chris, I'm not that rude. Or stupid."

"I hope not." She grabbed something to drink and chose a corner, bracing herself in the angle where two bulkheads met.

Ensign Taylor came in next and sat next to Commander Sykes without any regard for the technically more senior junior officers. "Hey, Paul, Chief Imari got with me about that priority list of yours." Taylor grinned. "Where'd get a good idea like that?"

"I've learned to follow the example of mustang ensigns. You learn things that way."

"Uh-oh. Do that while I'm on liberty and you'll learn a few things you probably never imagined."

Paul felt his face warming and knew he was blushing from the way Taylor laughed. Fortunately, more officers started arriving and diverted Paul from having to come up with a response to Taylor's gibe.

As Kris Denaldo had predicted, the number of officers quickly exceeded the capacity of the wardroom. The Michaelson's wardroom never felt like a large space, even when only a few officers were present. With one third of the compartment blocked off and every officer on the Michaelson crammed in, Paul wondered whether claustrophobia or lack of oxygen posed the greatest hazard. The department heads pushed their way in last, followed by the ship's executive officer, Commander Kwan. Kwan glowered at the small space remaining by the hatch. "Move back and make more room up here!"

The grumbling from the junior officers was just low enough that Kwan couldn't make out the words. Ensign Taylor called out loudly, "Okay, people. Suck it up! Non-mustang ensigns onto the table!" The junior officers loudly exhaled and tried to push closer together as the ensigns climbed onto the table.

Paul found himself wedged next to the table, his head almost touching the thigh of Ensign Gabriel. Gabriel looked down and grinned at him. I'm glad she's enjoying this. Too bad it's not Jen up there. No. I better not even start thinking about that.

"Attention on deck!"

At the XO's command, the officers straightened to attention as Captain Hayes entered the compartment, grinned lopsidedly at the crowded conditions, and took his seat at the only chair left unoccupied. "Carry on. Ops, let's get this done."

Commander Garcia, standing near the large display screen mounted on one bulkhead, pushed one arm upward past the nearest bodies so he could point to the information which flashed into existence there. "The rumors you all may've been hearing are correct. When we get underway next Monday we'll be conducting a multi-national maneuvering exercise involving two US warships, the Michaelson and the Maury, and three foreign warships. They'll be a British ship, the Lord Nelson, a Franco-German ship, the Alsace, and a Russian Federation ship, the Pyotr Veleki." Garcia stumbled on the pronunciation of the Russian craft, glared at no one in particular, and stabbed one finger toward the name. "The Peter the Great. The Michaelson will be the flagship."

Captain Hayes raised one hand. "Correction. The Michaelson will be on-scene coordinator. There is no flagship. The foreign warships will not be under our command."

Paul strained to hear as the other officers around him murmured in reaction to the captain's statement. We could conduct this same briefing with everyone in their own staterooms linked into a virtual conference and we'd all be able to hear everything and see everything and be halfway comfortable so we could concentrate on it. But, no. We all have to pack in here and suffocate and wonder who the hell didn't get a chance to shower lately. Because this is the Navy and this is how John Paul Jones held meetings.

Lieutenant Kilgary, the main propulsion assistant, tried to shove her own arm up, but failing at that just yelled out her question. "Then who will be in command, sir?"

"Nobody." Another surge of murmurs. Captain Hayes gave the assembled officers a stern look. "This is diplomacy, ladies and gentlemen. Our allies—" Hayes broke off as Commander Garcia cleared his throat loudly. "Correction, our fellow 'participants' in the exercise want to send a message to the SASALs, but not too strong a message, and none of them want to make it look like they're placing their space combatant forces under U.S. command or control. We're all going to waltz around in the same general area to let the SASALs know we could work together if we really wanted to. That's it. Just a friendly get-together."

Muffled but derisive snorts sounded throughout the wardroom. Commander Kwan glared around as if he had a chance of identifying individual offenders. "Belay that."

Garcia's glare matched that of the XO. "Every maneuver by the warships involved will be according to the preplanned exercise time line. Standard maneuvering interval between ships will be two hundred kilometers. Closest Point of Approach between ships is to be no less than one hundred kilometers at all times. Ship collision avoidance systems will be programmed to warn of collision if any CPA goes below fifty kilometers."

Paul would've shrugged if he'd had the space for it. With the individual spacecraft traveling at speeds measured in kilometers per second, fifty kilometers seemed a reasonable distance to really start sweating.

"Sir." Lieutenant Junior Grade Yarrow indicated the display screen. "With a standard interval of two hundred kilometers, the formation will be spread across a thousand kilometers."

"Hey, he's learned to add," a barely audible voice whispered.

Yarrow flushed, then flushed a deeper shade as Garcia focused his glare upon him. "We're only to be strung out in a line when the exercise starts. Review the plan, Mr. Yarrow." On the screen behind Garcia, representations of various formations popped into view as another round of murmurs sprung up.

Paul stared at the geometric shapes of the formations the warships were to assume. One resembled a pentagon with a warship at each corner, another seemed to be a sphere with the ships spaced evenly around it, and yet another a forward-tilted oblong shape.

Captain Hayes raised his hand again. "Okay, people. I know. It looks goofy. Let's face it, fleet maneuvers haven't been the norm up here. Ship combats are one-on-one and assuming neat formations like this would just make it a lot easier for someone to detect us and target us. But this isn't about effective war-fighting tactics. It's about sending a message. Professional space officers like ourselves will know this stuff is nonsense. But politicians and the general public will be impressed. That's the bottom line. It's going to be a little odd working with foreign spacecraft like this. It's a big solar system and it just hasn't happened much because no one really wanted it. Now they do."

Commander Sykes, until now silent somewhere in the back, spoke out clearly. "Sort of."

Hayes grinned as laughter erupted. "Right, Suppo. Sort of. Let's put on a good show, keep it safe, and let the SASALs know screwing around with us up here would be a bad idea."

More murmurs, this time of agreement. Paul saw Sonya Sindh and they locked eyes for a moment, sharing an unspoken understanding. She remembers the last time the SASALs screwed with the Michaelson. She was officer of the deck when Captain Wakeman gave orders to fire on that unarmed SASAL ship that he thought was attacking us. This exercising together stuff to send a message might work, if everybody involved deals with it rationally. But we're all human, so nothing's certain.

Captain Hayes pried the hatch open to leave. Commander Kwan bellowed out "attention on deck" again in a voice well-suited to a parade ground but which echoed painfully inside the small compartment. Paul and the other officers once again did their best to straighten to attention as the captain left. Instead of releasing them from attention immediately, Kwan favored the group with a long, stern look. "Remember what the captain said. We'll be operating with foreign warships. I want the Michaelson to be the most impressive ship out there. Carry on." Kwan struggled out the hatch as well.

With two fewer bodies in the compartment Paul found he could breath easier. Most of the department heads, talking softly among themselves, headed out next, then the other officers began following. Paul took a moment to stretch in place before moving, then looked to where the ensigns, the most junior officers on the ship, were still standing on the table. "Dismissed," he echoed Kwan with exaggerated sternness.

"Yes, sir, Lieutenant Junior Grade Sinclair," Ensign Gabriel piped back. "This would've been a lot easier in zero gravity. We could've hung off the overhead and left room to breath."

"Easy, Ensign Gabriel? You want things easy?"

Commander Sykes dropped gratefully into his usual chair and made a shooing motion with one hand. "Thank you for chastising Ms. Gabriel, Paul, and saving me the trouble. Now, all of you line officers run off and do your line things. You shouldn't be hanging around the wardroom during working hours."

Lieutenant Denaldo grinned. "Yeah. What do you guys think you are, supply corps officers?" Sykes managed to look wounded. "But Suppo's right. We better get out of here before one of our department heads pops back in, sees us and decides we're all underemployed."


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