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Chapter Two

Paul checked over the list of completed maintenance items morosely. Not enough. Garcia's going to bite my head off. Again. "Chief, what're the odds any of the stuff we didn't get done is going to hurt our performance during this underway period?"

Imari shrugged. "Sir, the really critical stuff is done. Anything else goes, it'll give us some trouble, but we'll be able to work around it."

"Thanks, Chief."

"Are you going to be in Combat when we get underway, sir?"

"Yeah. For once." Paul felt he'd drawn more than his share of getting underway watches. Observing the process from Combat wouldn't be stress-free, but at least he wouldn't be giving maneuvering orders to the Michaelson. "Maury's getting underway first this morning."

"Yes, sir."

And you already knew that as well as I did, didn't you, Chief? Maybe I ought to tell you something you don't already know. "The XO's acting pretty edgy about this exercise, Chief. He really wants us to look good, so assume he's going to be prowling the ship monitoring everything."

Chief Imari didn't quite contain her reaction. "Yes, sir. No problem. I'll make sure the guys look good whenever the XO pops in."

"Even Seaman Fastow?" Paul couldn't help asking.

Imari's grin was slightly pained. "Even her. I may have to kill her and prop her dead body so she looks like she's doing something right, but I'll manage it."

Paul grinned back. "Don't let the Sheriff hear you talking about that."

"Ah, sir, Master-at-Arms Sharpe would understand. He's been watching Fastow."

Paul's grin faded and was replaced by a questioning look. "Really. Anything in particular?"

"You'd have to ask the Sheriff, sir. But I don't know of anything."

"Thanks, Chief. I'll be back in here in about an hour." Paul dropped his tentative plan to review the exercise timeline once again, and instead went looking for Petty Officer First Class Ivan Sharpe. He found him standing near the mess decks, watching the crew file past as they grabbed their breakfasts.

Sharpe touched his brow with one finger in an informal salute. "Mornin', Mr. Sinclair."

"Morning, Sheriff. Got a minute?"

"For my favorite ship's legal officer? Of course, sir."

"I'm the only ship's legal officer." Paul led Sharpe away from the other sailors before speaking again. "I hear you've been watching Seaman Fastow."

Sharpe rolled his eyes. "Me, sir? Perish the thought."

"Come on. She's in my division. I know all too well that she's had an attitude problem since she reported aboard a couple of months back. Is there something else going on with her?"

The master-at-arms rubbed his chin and looked back at Paul. "Nothing for certain, sir. I've just got a feeling there's something else. Fastow's got trouble written all over her."

"Let me know if you find out anything specific."

Sharpe grinned. "Why, sir, I thought you were dedicated to motivating your sailors and helping them maximize their potential."

Paul gave the Sheriff a sour look. "Fastow doesn't seem to want to be motivated. Right now the only thing she's maximizing is the amount of supervision she requires."

"Yes, sir. If I can bust the little lady, I'll make sure you know it."

"Thanks, Sheriff. Anything else going on?"

Sharpe looked around thoughtfully. "Not that I can think of. Things've been pretty quiet lately."

"The XO's all wrapped up in making sure this exercise with the foreign ships goes perfect."

"Everyone needs a hobby, sir."

Paul just grinned, shook his head and walked back toward Combat. Might as well get there early. I can watch the Maury get underway. Jen's ship. I wonder how many more times we'll have to watch the other's ship leave?

His sailors were already at their watch stations, too. Chief Imari nodded a greeting to Paul then went back to discussing something with one of the petty officers. Paul went from station to station, speaking briefly to each sailor, getting some personal idea of how they felt and were doing, and letting them know he was personally interested in them. Little stuff. But it makes a difference.

His rounds made, Paul sat down at his own console, logged in, and centered the display on the Maury. The Michaelson's own sensors couldn't see the Maury with a big chunk of Franklin Station in the way, but remote feeds from Franklin's own sensor net provided a clear picture. Like the Michaelson, the Maury resembled a slightly elongated football, all smooth surfaces and gentle curves designed to minimize reflections that would help someone spot the ship in space. With her visual bypass system shut down, the Maury's hull was a dull gray that seemed to soak up light.

Once the system of fiber optic cameras and visual screens covering the hull was activated, the Maury would seem to vanish as the cameras picked up whatever they saw, routed it 180 degrees around the hull, and displayed it on the other side. Effectively, the Maury would bend light around herself, making her very hard to see. But this time out Maury's not going to turn on her visual bypass system and neither are we. The whole point of this little exercise is to ensure that lots of people see what we're doing. Besides, hiding from the other ships that're going to be maneuvering close around us at high speed doesn't strike me as a very good idea. He wondered at what point in his time in space he'd begun to think of distances of fifty or a hundred kilometers as "close."

As the time approached for the Maury to get underway, Paul could see the magnetic lines holding her tightly to Franklin being taken in. Precisely at the scheduled time, the last line left contact with Franklin and Maury's symbol changed to indicate she was a freely maneuvering object.

With the last tie to Franklin gone, and her maneuvering thrusters providing gentle nudges, the Maury seem to drift up and away from Franklin. On Paul's display, symbols flashed on and off as the Maury fired thrusters or communicated with the station. Vector arrows displaying the Maury's current projected path shifted constantly as the ship maneuvered away from Franklin. Finally, clear of the station and with bow and stern both pointed in the right directions, Maury lit off her main drive. A new vector arrow sprang to life on the display, rapidly growing as it matched the increase in the Maury's speed and angling up and away as the ship settled onto her course to the operating area.

A piercing whistle sounded over the Michaelson's general announcing system as the bosun mate of the watch on the bridge sounded his alert. "All hands stand by to get underway. All departments make readiness for getting underway reports to the officer of the deck on the bridge."

Paul glanced over at Chief Imari, who gave him a thumbs up. He reached over and triggered the button which gave him communications with Commander Garcia. "OS Division ready to get underway, sir."

A brief grunt answered Paul. He flipped a thumbs up back to the chief to let her know he'd passed on the information. We could call each other on the intercom, but this is faster and simpler. Sometimes the tech gets in the way.

"Captain's in Combat!"

Paul jerked his head around at the announcement, fumbling with the quick release buckle on his straps so he could stand to attention. But Captain Hayes was already gesturing Paul and his sailors to remain seated. "Carry on. Stay strapped in." Hayes walked over to Paul and peered at his display. "Everything ready, Paul?"

"Yes, sir."

"I want us to show these foreign ships how it's done."

"Damn straight, sir. My guys'll show them."

Captain Hayes grinned. "I never doubted it." Then he headed on out the hatch.

"Captain's left Combat," Chief Imari called out, unnecessarily this time since every sailor had their eyes on Hayes as he cleared the hatch. Imari gave Paul another thumbs up.

Paul nodded back. Tell them you believe in them. Right, Chief. Just like Hayes just let me know he believes in me. He keyed another internal communications circuit, this one to the bridge. "Bridge, this is Combat. The captain just left Combat, probably headed your way."

"Thanks for the heads-up, Combat," a voice answered almost absently.

Paul didn't take the tone amiss. He knew there were a lot of other things going on for the bridge watch to worry about, and that they were grateful to know the captain would likely be there soon. Lieutenant Kilgary and Lieutenant Junior Grade Sam Yarrow were standing watch as the officer of the deck and the junior officer of the deck. The captain'll probably tell Kilgary to take the ship out today. Not that Smilin' Sam has any major faults as a shiphandler, but Kilgary has more experience and Sam tends to slam the ship around instead of using finesse. We don't want anything to make us look less capable than the foreign ships watching us get underway.

Another whistle of the bosun's pipe. "All hands prepare to get underway. Standby for maneuvering."

Paul checked the straps holding him tightly into his own chair, then looked around to make sure all his sailors were also double checking themselves. If he'd wanted to, he could've activated a circuit that let him watch and hear everything on the bridge, but Paul already knew what orders would be said, and always hated the idea of someone else watching him on watch so he rarely did it to anyone else.

A warning came on his display, showing the Michaelson's quarterdeck was being sealed. Lines providing power, water and other necessary supplies from the station to the ship were likewise sealed, then retracted away from the ship. Then the magnetic grapnels tying the Michaelson to Franklin began releasing, smoothly reeling back into the ship. Paul felt forces nudging at his body as the Michaelson left the constant rotation-inspired feeling of gravity which Franklin provided. As the ship drifted away from the station, Paul's stomach and inner ears began insisting he was falling. He gulped, fighting off the nausea. We haven't been inport that long. You'd think I'd still have my space-legs.

The last line holding the ship to the station came free. "Underway. Shift colors," the bosun announced. Sudden, gentle lurches pushed Paul against his straps as the Michaelson's maneuvering thrusters fired. He watched the image of Franklin falling down and away as the ship accelerated farther from the station. More thruster firings nudged Paul in different directions as the Michaelson's bow was brought around to the right heading. Gentle and smooth. That's got to be Colleen Kilgary driving the ship. Sam Yarrow'd be giving us all bruises by now.

A moment later the main drive kicked in. Paul sank deep into his seat as the almost nonexistent feeling of gravity was replaced by acceleration strong enough that he felt over twice his normal weight. His stomach complained again, protesting the changes in up and down.

Paul moved his hand carefully against the force of the acceleration, using controls to shift his display presentation to show the Michaelson's new path through space. Symbols glowed to mark other spacecraft, each with vector arrows arching away to show their speed and direction of travel relative to the Michaelson. A pale line came into view, marking the vector the Michaelson sought, slowly converging on the actual course of the ship. The actual course and intended course lines merged as the main drive cut off.

Another stomach lurch as sustained heavy acceleration was replaced by free fall. Paul gritted his teeth. I'm used to this. Just give it a little while to adjust again. To distract himself, he scrolled out his display to where the symbol marking the Maury hung ahead of the Michaelson. With both ships moving along the same path at the same speed, the relative position of the Maury wouldn't change until the ships fired thrusters or main drives again. And they wouldn't do that for several hours, when they were approaching the area where the foreign ships awaited the Americans.

"Secure from maneuvering status. All hands are free to move about."

Paul shook his head, causing his inner ears to wobble a little more. For some reason, that helped his body adjust to zero gravity faster. He unstrapped, floating free of the chair, and using the handholds positioned everywhere began pulling himself toward the hatch out of combat. "Good job, everybody."

Over the year and a half since reporting aboard the ship he'd learned to pull himself through the narrow confines of the Michaelson's passageways, gliding through hatches while avoiding all the wires, cables and equipment which often seemed to have been diabolically positioned to slam or snag human arms, legs or heads. Sailors passed him, waiting for Paul to go through a hatch first because of his status as an officer, though Paul himself had to hug the side of a passageway and wait for the chief engineer, Commander Destin, as she came by. Destin, who always seemed to be carrying a virtual cloud of depression in her wake, brushed past Paul without a word. Paul spared one brief glance at Destin before continuing on his way. Still no love lost there. I sure hope Captain Hayes doesn't decide I should transfer into the engineering department.

Two hours later, Paul pulled himself onto the bridge for his own watch as junior officer of the deck. Kris Denaldo, who'd been standing the watch, pretended to make a prayer of thanks. "Hey, I'm not late."

"No," she agreed. "It's just soooo boring." Denaldo pointed to the maneuvering display, where the symbols representing the other ships seemed to hang unchanging against the immense emptiness of space. "We're going somewhere fast but you wouldn't know it. It's still six hours until we maneuver for the rendezvous with the furriners. Until then, we just bore a hole in nothing on our way there. Nobody and nothing else is near us."

Paul nodded, scanning the displays. Watches tended to be either way too dull or way too exciting. Once they joined up with the foreign ships, they'd probably all be exciting for a while, but they had a lot of space to cover before then. "Who's this on a slightly converging track with us?"

Kris pointed to the symbol. "The Mahan's out here, too. Heading for the same general area."

"What?" Paul stared at the symbol. "They're adding in another ship? This late in the game? I haven't seen—"

"Relax, relax. We got briefed on it during our watch. The Mahan got tapped as an observer ship."

"What's the Mahan going to see that anyone watching from Earth's surface couldn't?"

"Nothing. But they loaded some VIPs onboard her. American and foreign. They get to 'be here' during the exercise."

"Whoopee." Paul settled into the chair, adjusting the straps to suit his larger body.

Kris Denaldo gave him a curious look. "Why's the Mahan got you spooked?"

"I'm not spooked."

"You're not happy."

"You know who the captain of the Mahan is!"

She frowned, then her expression cleared. "Oh, yeah. Jen's dad."

Jen's dad. Captain Kay Shen. A man who'd made it clear that he didn't think Paul measured up to what his daughter deserved, and who'd warned that he'd be watching Paul. And now here he is, literally watching my ship. Oh, joy.

Denaldo smiled at Paul's expression. "Captain Shen's not that bad, is he?"

Paul stared at her with exaggerated disbelief. "Do you know those illustrations for science fiction stuff where some big, dark character is looming over and menacing an entire galaxy? That's how I think of Jen's father. He's out there, always watching."

Kris laughed. "Paul, I met him once. He seemed okay."

"You weren't dating his daughter."

"That's true. Jen and I don't swing that way." Kris paused as if thinking. "Still, Jen is awful cute."

"And she's mine. Just in case you're not joking."

"Yours? Jen's like a cat, Paul, just in case you haven't figured that out, yet. She might choose to hang around with you, but you'll never own her."

Yeah. Which is one of the things I like about her. But it leaves me to worry that someday she'll find some other tomcat that she likes better than me. Not that I have to worry about her father liking that other tomcat better than he does me. I think. "Point taken. Still, Captain Kay Shen is one very hard-assed individual. And I know he's keeping as close an eye as he can on everything I do."

"I thought Commander Herdez was keeping an eye on you to see if you were maintaining her standards."

"She is. Both of them are."

"Ugh. Better you than me." Denaldo ran down the rest of the information Paul needed to know. The turnover briefing didn't take too long, since Paul was familiar with upcoming events and because in this large area of space labeled "local" he and the other officers on the ship had become familiar with space traffic patterns, objects in fixed orbits and navigational aides. "Any questions?"

"Nah." Paul rendered a casual salute to her. "I got it."

She returned the salute, part of the formal ritual the watch followed. "I stand relieved." Raising her voice, Denaldo called out, "This is Lieutenant Denaldo. Lieutenant Sinclair has the conn."

"This is Lieutenant Sinclair. I have the conn." Paul listened as the other watch standers acknowledged the transfer of responsibility.

Lieutenant Sindh had been his more senior watch standing partner as officer of the deck for some months now. He'd regret losing her steady presence on the bridge, too. They passed the hours of the watch playing Foreign Navy Jeopardy, which could be entertaining enough to dissipate boredom while also professional enough not to get them in trouble if a more senior officer overheard them.

Paul was saying, "I'll take Russian Federation minor combatants for four hundred," when their reliefs arrived. Sam Yarrow gave Paul an annoyed look, ignoring Ensign Abacha who'd come onto the bridge right behind him. Poor Jack Abacha. Standing under-instruction watches with Sam Yarrow. I wouldn't want to be in his shoes. After turning over with Yarrow, Paul took a moment to talk quietly to Abacha. "Don't worry. Just hang loose and keep your eyes and ears open. You've got Sam Yarrow here, you've got a good officer of the deck watching both you, and the enlisted are watching all the officers. Nobody'll let you mess up too bad."

Abacha nodded with the rapid head jerks that betrayed nervousness. "I don't want to mess up at all."

"Of course not. But you will. That's what being an ensign is about. It won't be the end of the world as long as you learn from your mistakes."


"Any questions?"

"Uh . . ." Abacha looked around. "Just one thing that's kinda driving me crazy."

"What's that?"

"You went to the Naval Academy, too, so you'll understand. This ship's name is the Michaelson and her sister ships have names like Mahan and Maury. Just like the academic buildings at the Academy. So why is Michaelson spelled with an 'a'? The guy who first measured the speed of light was named Michelson. No 'a.'"

Paul grinned. "I wondered that, too. The Mike's not named after the scientist Michelson. She's named after Admiral 'Genghis' Conner Michaelson, the father of the Space Navy."

"Oh. That makes sense, but it still doesn't fit with the names of the rest of the ships in the class."

"Yeah. Rumor has it the Merry Mike was supposed to be named after the scientist, but the spelling error was discovered after the Michaelson name had been widely publicized, so since they couldn't change the name at that point without admitting they'd screwed up, they just changed the guy the ship was being named after. But that might just be a good rumor."

"Oh, okay." Jack Abacha grinned. "We meant to do it that way, right?"

"Right. Remember you've got some maneuvering in about two hours. Watch and learn."

"Yes, sir."

"And make sure you're tied down tightly to something before the maneuvering begins."

"Yes, sir!"

Paul spent the actual rendezvous inside Combat again, watching as the American and foreign ships fired thrusters and drives to bring themselves into a rough grouping. Tomorrow morning, the game of forming geometric shapes would begin. Paul opened the distance on his display, frowning as he spotted one large object heading in the general direction of the group. "Anybody know who this is?"

One of the watchstanders answered up. "SASAL combatant, Mr. Sinclair. The system IDs him as the Tamerlane."

"Thanks." Paul called up information on the Tamerlane from the combat systems database. The ship seemed roughly equivalent to the Michaelson in terms of size and armament. He checked the contact again. The South Asian Alliance ship wasn't using any methods to avoid detection, and proceeding at a leisurely pace through a neutral transit lane. No big deal, then. They'll be plenty near enough to see us playing ring-around-the-rosie with the other ships, though, so I guess that's a good thing.

Paul reached for the intercom to call the bridge, then hesitated. Should I bother them with this? That SASAL ship won't come anywhere near us on his present heading, and the bridge already has plenty to worry about. Maybe

The bosun's pipe shrilled over the announcing system. "Lieutenant Junior Grade Sinclair, contact the bridge."

Uh oh. He finally tapped the intercom switch. "This is Lieutenant Sinclair."

Instead of the officer of the deck, he heard the voice of Captain Hayes replying. "Mr. Sinclair, why weren't I and the bridge watch informed there was a SASAL warship in the vicinity?"

Crap. Five more lousy seconds and I could've made the call to the bridge before I got called. Crap, crap, crap. "Sir, the Combat watch and I were evaluating—"

"I don't want to find out by accident again that there's something like a SASAL warship nearby, Mr. Sinclair!"

Paul took a moment to be grateful he wasn't being chewed out face to face. Not that I should be happy about that, because it means the Captain's so ticked off he's ripping me up in public. What now? Say that SASAL ship isn't really "nearby"? Try to explain again that I was just about to call the bridge? He doesn't want an explanation. I screwed up. Just get it over with. "Yes, sir. It won't happen again, sir."

"It'd better not." The click of the communications circuit cutting off sounded unnaturally loud to Paul.

He leaned back from his console and took a deep breath. His own Combat watch standers were concentrating on their displays, trying to pretend they hadn't heard or noticed anything. Paul took another slow breath to ensure his voice was under control. "Who's monitoring the long range situation?"

Petty Officer Third Class Divalo raised his hand. "Me, sir."

"I should've been notified about that SASAL ship, Divalo."

"Yes, sir. I, uh . . ."

"That's in the standing watch instructions, right?"

"Yes, sir."

Paul felt anger flooding him and fought it down. Don't scream at him. Divalo's a pretty good sailor. He just screwed up this time. And I'm responsible when he does. He glanced over at where Divalo was hunched in front of his display, his face grim. He's unhappy already. Make sure he remembers the lesson and not me screaming at him. "Next time keep me informed, Petty Officer Divalo. When in doubt, let me know. That way neither one of us will get chewed out."

"Yes, sir. I will, sir. I'm sorry, sir."

"Let's just make sure we don't surprise the captain again. He doesn't like that."

Divalo smiled nervously at the understatement. "No, sir. Don't worry, sir."

"I won't." The hell I won't. But Divalo's not a habitual screw-up. He deserves a second chance. "I want you to work up some possible positions for that SASAL ship at the time the exercise is scheduled to begin. I especially want to know how close he could be if he headed directly this way at speed. I also want to know how far away he'll be if he continues along that transit lane. Then give me a picture of the area of space he could be in if he does something in between those two extremes. Understand?"

Divalo nodded several times, his face intent with concentration. "Aye, aye, sir. I'll have it to you real quick, Mr. Sinclair."

"Run it by Chief Imari first so she'll know what's going on, too." I'm glad I thought of that. Hey, I could've failed to inform the chain of command above and below me at the same time. "Make sure it looks clean because we'll be forwarding the picture to the captain."

"Aye, aye, sir."

Paul unstrapped and pulled himself out of Combat. Halfway to the wardroom, he passed Randy Diego. "Paul? Commander Garcia's looking for you."

"Did he say what about?"

"No. But he didn't look happy."

Wonderful. Now Garcia probably wants to chew me out for not telling him or the captain about the SASAL ship. Might as well get it over with. "Thanks, Randy." Paul went looking for Garcia.

* * *

"So," Lieutenant Sindh murmured, "how's your butt this morning?"

"Tender," Paul muttered back as he settled into the junior officer of the deck's chair and tugged at the straps. "After Garcia finished ripping into me he passed me off to the XO so Kwan could take some bites out of me. At least Hayes seems in a better mood today."

"That's because you warned him last night this might happen." Sindh indicated the maneuvering display, where the SASAL warship loomed far closer than it should've been if it had stayed inside the traffic lane. "I guess the South Asians want a real close look at our show."

"Yeah. I checked out the Tamerlane's position in Combat before coming to the bridge. If he wants to, he could be right on top of us when we start our little multinational ballet."

"You sure?" Sindh ran some quick calculations herself. "That's not good. It's going to be hairy enough dancing around those foreign ships without worrying about that SASAL goon hanging around."

"At least we've got—"

Paul was interrupted by the bosun mate of the watch yelling out, "Captain's on the bridge!"

Hayes went straight to his chair on one side of the bridge and strapped in before looking toward Paul and Sonya Sindh. "Looks like you were right about the son of a gun, Paul. Good work."

"Thank you, sir." Alright. I'm "Paul" again instead of Mr. Sinclair.

"What if this guy tries to mess with our exercise? Do we use standard rules of engagement for foreign encounters?"

Sindh flicked a glance at Paul, who gave her a surreptitous thumbs-up back. "No, sir. Fleet's issued specific guidance for SASAL encounters during this period."

Hayes grinned. "Do you know them?"

"Yes, sir." Studied the hell out of them last night after Kwan and Garcia finished reading me the riot act. No way I was going to be caught flat-footed again this soon. "They're more restrictive than the usual rules of engagement."

"Damn. Well, hopefully he'll keep his distance and we won't need them." Commander Kwan entered the bridge and strapped into his own chair. "Hey, XO, we got company."

Kwan nodded, then gave Paul a glare. "Yes, sir."

"Okay, Sonya, Paul, let's get this show on the road."

The XO heard Hayes' tone and reference to Paul by his first name, gave Paul another less-hostile look, then focused on the displays near his chair. "Who's running Combat with Sinclair up here?"

Paul answered immediately. "Commander Garcia, sir."

Kwan nodded. "Good."

I'm glad you think so. My sailors aren't too happy about it.

They spent the next hour conducting communications checks with the foreign ships. The Brits sounded calm to the point of being relaxed, the Franco-German ship kept trying to pretend no one board spoke English, and the Russian Federation ship seemed so jovial that Captain Hayes wondered aloud if they'd been sampling their vodka rations already this morning.

Finally, the ships began their first planned maneuver. Paul found himself unusually nervous as the bosun sounded out his warning. "All hands prepare for extended maneuvering period beginning in five minutes. Secure all objects and materials. Undertake no task that cannot be completed prior to maneuvering."

Precisely five minutes later the Michaelson's thrusters fired, shoving everyone onboard to one side. Paul and Sonya watched as the Michaelson's maneuvering systems handled the job automatically, swinging the ship onto a new heading before the main drive cut in and slammed the crew back against their restraints. The stars spun on the visual display in front of Paul, where bright symbols superimposed on the blackness of space told him the positions of the Maury and the three foreign warships. On the maneuvering displays, the vectors of the five ships began pushing them into the shape of a huge pentagon with sides two hundred kilometers long.

"Bridge, this is Combat. The SASAL ship is up to something."

Every head on the bridge jerked over to check out the vector on the SASAL ship. It had lengthened and shifted, marking maneuvering and main drive firing by the Tamerlane. Captain Hayes, his face stressed by the force of the Michaelson's acceleration, slapped his communications controls. "I want to know what he's doing the instant we have a reasonable estimate."

"Yes, sir. Preliminary system estimates put him heading this way."

Hayes glared toward Paul. "What can we do, Paul?"

"The rules of engagement say we should warn them off using all available means."

"Comms, get on the air to the Tamerlane and tell them to get the hell out of here. Feel free to be that blunt. Send it simultaneously using lasers on visual frequencies. Paul, what if he doesn't respond?"

Paul grimaced, knowing the captain wouldn't like what Paul was about to say. "Avoid confrontation, sir."


"Avoid confrontation, sir. That's verbatim. If the SASAL's don't veer off, we have to avoid them."

"Damn. Combat, what the hell is he doing now?"

"He appears to be angling to cut across our bow, sir."

"I can see that, Combat! I want his CPA!"

Paul fought down a burst of anger. If I'd been down in Combat I'd have made sure my guys provided the Closest Point of Approach for the captain. Garcia just got my sailors yelled at because he wanted to answer the captain right away.

"Bridge, this is Combat. If we continue on our current course, CPA to the SASAL ship will be somewhere between forty and sixty kilometers."

Hayes' face reddened as he watched the SASAL ship continue onward. "I assume there's been no reply to our communications?"

"No, sir. None."

"Mr. Sinclair, I'd sure like to know whether or not that SASAL captain is also under orders to avoid confrontations!"

Paul, unable to think of any reply, simply nodded. "Yes, sir." Lieutenant Sindh somehow managed to make a gesture of long-suffering toward Paul without actually making it. Paul felt his frustration shifting to a similar sardonic acceptance of fate. A captain's many powers included the right to ask unreasonable questions and get ticked off if you didn't know the answers.

Captain Hayes drummed his fingers on his chair arm for several seconds. "Hell. Prepare to alter our current maneuver to avoid that ship. I want to open his CPA to one hundred kilometers."

"Aye, aye, sir," Paul and Sonya Sindh responded simultaneously, then both began calculating the necessary changes.

"Combat, notify all ships in the formation of our intended course change and tell them, uh, that is 'request' that they prepare to resume the exercise once the SASAL ship has finished ramming through here."

"Aye, aye, sir."

"Officer of the deck, do you have the evasive maneuver calculated?"

"Yes, sir," Sindh answered calmly.

"Execute it. Get us clear of that idiot."

Sindh pushed the engage button and the Michaelson's thrusters fired again, pitching her over to the side and altering her course through space away from the place where the SASAL ship would come closest to her.

An alarm sounded. "Bridge, this is Combat. The SASAL ship has his active fire control systems locked onto us."

Captain Hayes' face grew even redder. "I've had just about enough of this."

Paul stared at the symbol representing the SASAL ship. What are they thinking? Locking their fire control systems onto us is about the most provocative thing they can do. Surely they don't want us to shoot. They're just thumbing their noses at us, trying to show they won't be intimidated.

"Mr. Sinclair," Hayes ground out. "Are there any loopholes in those rules of engagement? Do I have any discretion on responding to what that ship is doing?"

Paul shook his head carefully against the force of the Michaelson's maneuvers. "No, sir. We aren't allowed to take any action except to avoid confrontation."

"Great. Let me tell you, Mr. Sinclair, I would dearly love to confront those guys right now."

Me, too. "Yes, sir."

"Captain?" Commander Garcia called from Combat, sounding aggrieved. "Our evasive maneuver combined with evasive maneuvers by Maury and Alsace are completely throwing off the formation. It'll take us hours to get everybody back into position to restart."

Commander Kwan shook his head. "It's almost like they planned it that way."

Captain Hayes glared at his display as he answered. "That ship certainly seemed to know where it had to be and when it had to be there to mess with us. We shared our exercise plans with the Euros and the Russians. What are the odds they didn't leak?"

Paul noticed new symbols spring to life on his display and frowned down at it. "Captain? HMS Lord Nelson is maneuvering again."

"Why?" Hayes frowned at his own screen. "They were well clear of the SASAL ship's track through our formation. Where's the Nelson going?"

"We can't tell yet, sir."

"As if I don't have enough trouble with unfriendly foreigners, now I have to worry about what the so-called friendly foreigners are doing." Hayes angrily punched a communications button. "HMS Lord Nelson, this is the Exercise Movement Coordinator onboard USS Michaelson. Request advise the purpose of your maneuvers."

The Euro ship's reply, in a calm, lightly British-accented woman's voice, came after a pause. "This is HMS Lord Nelson. Roger. Wait one. Out."

"Wait one?" Commander Kwan questioned. "Don't they know what they're doing?"

Captain Hayes frowned again. "Of course they do. That's the Royal Navy over there, and that was the Nelson's captain who answered us. What the hell is she up to?"

Paul heard a brief attention chirp from his display and glanced back at it. "The Lord Nelson's firing thrusters and main drive again, sir." He watched as the arc of the British ship's projected path through space altered shape, quickly bending into a trajectory which crossed another projected path, then firmed as the warship steadied onto course. As the Nelson cut her drives to settle onto her new trajectory, a red symbol flashed to life on Paul's screen where the two paths came together. "Captain?" Paul tried to keep his voice from cracking. "HMS Lord Nelson's settled onto a collision course with the SASAL ship."

"What?!" Hayes bent over his screen, as if being closer to it would resolve more detail.

"Bridge, this is Combat. The Nelson's on a collision course with the Tamerlane."

Lieutenant Sindh tapped in a request for the Michaelson's systems to recheck and confirm their calculations. "Estimate confirmed, sir. Nelson's positioned herself so her trajectory will intercept that of the SASAL ship."

"Why the hell . . . ? HMS Lord Nelson, this is the Exercise Maneuvering Coordinator. Interrogative your intentions."

The Lord Nelson's captain responded immediately this time, her voice unruffled. "This is HMS Lord Nelson. I regret to report a possible problem with my maneuvering systems."

Captain Hayes stared at his display for a moment before replying. "Captain Vitali, you are on a collision course with the SASAL ship."

"Yes, we have noticed that."

"What is the exact nature of your maneuvering system problem?"

"We're still looking into it."

"Captain Vitali, you need to maneuver your ship again. You're on a very hazardous trajectory."

"The situation is a bit awkward, isn't it?"

Captain Hayes seemed lost for words for a moment before replying. "Do you anticipate correcting this 'problem' with your maneuvering systems in the very near future?"

"It's very hard to say."

Hayes took a deep breath. "Captain Vitali, as Exercise Movement Coordinator I very respectfully request that you immediately maneuver so as to avoid collision with the SASAL ship."

"What's that?"

"I believe you heard my request."

"Oh, rot. The signal's breaking up. We appear to've developed a communications problem as well. I must have a talk with my officers about these system problems. This is HMS Lord Nelson. Nothing heard. Out."

Kwan was staring at his display, his jaw loose. "I can't believe she's doing this."

Captain Hayes' face had reddened to a deep shade approaching purple. "Damn crazy Brits."

Paul leaned toward Sindh so he could speak in a whisper. "What're they doing?"

Sindh glanced toward Captain Hayes before replying in the same low tone. "The Brits? They're going head to head with the SASALs."

"They deliberately put themselves on a collision course with that other ship so the SASALs will have to maneuver to avoid them?"

"Right. They're playing chicken, and they've one-upped the SASALs."

"You don't play that kind of game with warships. That's insane."

"Well, yes. But the Brits aren't really insane. Just very sure of their inherent superiority over every other form of human life. So it's more of a calm certainty that the other person'll blink first."

"What if the other person doesn't blink first?"

Lieutenant Sindh shook her head. "Then you end up with what the Brits would no doubt refer to as a 'regrettable turn of events.' "

Captain Hayes glared around the bridge. "Combat, do you still have a data link active with the Nelson?"

Garcia's voice held weary resignation. "They're telling us they can't read our link."

"So they can transmit but not receive?"

"Yes, sir. That's what they're saying."

"Oh, for—" Hayes bit off the rest of his comment, his fingers drumming on the arm of his chair as he glowered at his display. "They're pulling that stupid 'blind eye' trick. Just because they're named after Nelson doesn't mean they have to pretend that they are Nelson!"

Paul took a moment to recall the captain's reference. Oh, yeah. Copenhagen. The British commander sent up a signal ordering Nelson to withdraw and Nelson put his telescope to his blind eye, looked toward the signal and said he couldn't see anything. Then he went on to win the battle. Paul studied the display again, watching the red symbol marking the probable collision point blinking with increasing urgency. They won't move, will they? Sindh's right. The Brits won't back down.

"Captain?" Lieutenant Sindh asked. "Should I alert our rescue teams to be prepared for action?"

Hayes snorted, pointing at the screen. "Look at the closing rate between those ships, Lieutenant. If they hit at those speeds there won't be anything to rescue but dust particles."

Paul stared at the display, transfixed by the sight of two massive warships deliberately racing directly toward each other at tremendous velocities. Above the symbol indicating each ship, two time markers scrolled rapidly downward. The first marker, indicating time to collision, was less important at the moment than the second, which displayed the time remaining for one of the ships to maneuver to avoid the other. If either tried to take evasive action after that point, it'd be too late for the ships' drives to alter their paths through space quickly enough, and momentum would carry the ships into collision regardless. Even a glancing blow at those speeds and with that mass would be devastating to both ships.

The Michaelson's maneuvering system spoke clearly across the now otherwise silent bridge, its composed voice at odds with the urgency of the message. "HMS Lord Nelson and SASAL warship Tamerlane will collide unless at least one maneuvers within five minutes of my mark.. . . . Mark. Recommend advise both ships to undertake coordinated maneuvers to avoid collision."

Captain Hayes answered the Michaelson's system without looking away from his display. "We already thought of that."

Kwan leaned toward the Captain. "Maybe if we fired ahead of the SASAL ship, it'd be scared and—"

"No can do, XO. That'd definitely be a confrontation. I'm not free to do that."

"Can we fire just in front of the Nelson, then?"

Sindh answered this time. "No, sir. The firing angle is too oblique given our relative positions."

"Four minutes remaining before collision between HMS Lord Nelson and SASAL warship Tamerlane becomes inevitable," the Michaelson's maneuvering systems reminded them.

Captain Hayes triggered his communications again. "HMS Lord Nelson, this is the Exercise Movement Coordinator on the USS Michaelson. For God's sake maneuver to avoid collision."

The Nelson's captain sounded as unruffled as ever. "I'm afraid that's quite impossible."

"I notice you can receive my transmissions again."

"What's that? Say again, please."

Hayes closed his eyes briefly.

"Three minutes remaining before collision between HMS Lord Nelson and SASAL warship Tamerlane becomes inevitable."

Captain Hayes looked around the bridge. "I'd appreciate any suggestions anyone might have."

The red collision point symbol on Paul's display had grown larger, now pulsing continuously, and the time markers had also become much bigger and impossible to miss or ignore as they spun down toward zero.

"Two minutes remaining before collision between HMS Lord Nelson and SASAL warship Tamerlane becomes inevitable."

Paul caught Lieutenant Sindh's eye. Sindh shook her head. Paul looked back at his display.

"One minute re –"

Paul had to double check, then spoke with exaggerated care, his voice sounding louder than usual on the silent bridge. "We have thruster firings and aspect change on the SASAL ship." No one answered, but all bent closer to their displays as if willing the other ship to move. "We have main drive firing on the SASAL ship." Paul glanced at the time marker. Ten seconds from the point at which collision would be inevitable. The projected path of the SASAL ship began curving upward with agonizing slowness. The Nelson, still unwilling to maneuver, held her course and speed even though she could've taken her own action to further lessen the chance of collision.

The moment of closest point of approach came and went in a blur a tiny fraction of a second long. "How close were they?" Captain Hayes asked in a soft voice.

Sindh studied her display before replying. "Our system estimates CPA at about 800 meters, Captain." Then, in an undertone only Paul could hear, she muttered, "There can't be a single pair of dry underwear on either one of those ships right now."

Hayes shook his head. "Mad dogs and Englishmen." He punched his communications again. "HMS Lord Nelson, request the status of your maneuvering systems."

"This is HMS Lord Nelson." Captain Vitali's reply sounded cheerful. "Our maneuvering systems are fully operational."

Captain Hayes rubbed his forehead as he replied. "It appears your communications systems are fully functional again as well."

"Why, yes, they are. Brilliant. HMS Lord Nelson is ready to proceed with the maneuvering exercise."

"Do you anticipate any further system failures in the near future, Captain Vitali?"

"Oh, no. Not at all. We're fully prepared for the next shed-yuled event."

Paul glanced at Lieutenant Sindh. "'Shed-yuled'?"


Captain Hayes was watching the SASAL ship's track arching away from the combined formation. It would take it a long, long time to slow down, reverse course and cause them any more trouble even if the SASALs intended doing so. "Captain Vitali of HMS Lord Nelson, this is Captain Hayes of USS Michaelson. You owe me a drink."

"You're a man after my own heart, captain. Your ship or mine? Oh, wait, I suppose it'll have to be my ship, won't it? You U.S. Navy types being dry and all."

"I'm afraid so." Hayes laughed at Captain Vitali's reference to the US Navy not being allowed to serve alcohol onboard its ships except under exceptional circumstances. "All ships, this is the Exercise Movement Coordinator. We will restart the exercise time line as soon as all ships can resume relative starting positions. Request you advise me of estimated times until you can regain positions."

Over the next few hours the five ships wrestled themselves back into starting positions. The SASAL ship didn't try returning, instead heading back toward the transit lane while the Michaelson filed a report that would be used to issue a diplomatic protest to the South Asian Alliance over reckless actions by its warship.

By the time Paul's watch ended, the ships had managed to reform the huge pentagon and were preparing to form what the crew had begun referring to as the "flat football" formation. Over the next twenty-four hours they formed the "empty ball" as well as the "big O" and the "more or less line-ahead" formations. Paul was in Combat when the last formation was completed, and a ragged cheer went up from the watchstanders.

The foreign ships took their separate departures, the Nelson's captain reminding Captain Hayes he had a drink waiting and inviting the rest of the Michaelson's officers as well, the Franco-German ship once again ignoring any messages sent in English, and the Russian ship demanding to know how well each of the ships had performed even though Hayes repeatedly assured them there'd been no evaluation or ranking process conducted.

"Exercise completed," Captain Hayes announced to the Michaelson's crew. "Good job, everybody. You did yourselves and the U.S. Navy proud. Now, let's go home."

That brought another cheer, even more enthusiastic.


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