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Chapter Four

"The SASALs weren't impressed enough by our little display." Commander Garcia almost snarled the words. "We're going out again."

"Second time's the charm," Taylor murmured.

Garcia ignored her. "No nonsense with foreign ships this time. We're going out with Maury. We'll head for the border of the region of space claimed by the South Asians, and when we get nice and close we'll deactivate our anti-detection devices."

Taylor snorted. Denaldo raised her eyebrows. Paul nodded. So this time we're going to try to scare the SASALs by sneaking up on them and then going "boo." "Just us and the Maury, sir?"

"That's right. And here's the fun part." Garcia bared his teeth. "They want us within ten kilometers of each other when we reveal ourselves. Going on the same vector right along the border at high speed."

"How the hell are we going to coordinate that when we can't see the Maury any better than the SASAL's can?"

"Because we're good, Mr. Sinclair. And because our fine communications officer Ms. Denaldo is going to figure out a way to pass information between the ships without giving ourselves away."

Chris spread her hands, looking dazed. "Sir, we can use visual signaling vectored only toward where the Maury's supposed to be, but if both ships are moving at high speed she might not see the signals in time to react even if she is where we think she is."

"Then figure out a way they will see them in time to react. Feel free to consult with Ensign Taylor on the matter." Garcia grinned again without any trace of real humor, his expression reminding Paul of a hungry bear. "This is a chance to look good. I expect you all to look good. Is that clear?"

So you can look good, right, boss? Garcia's got orders coming up before long, too, and pulling this off might help him get real good ones. Paul glanced at Denaldo's face, now tight with repressed annoyance, and then addressed Garcia. "Sir, just how close are we supposed to be to the border?"

"Twenty kilometers."

Paul barely kept his jaw from dropping. "At high speed? That's no margin of error at all."

"We don't need a margin of error, Sinclair. Now stop complaining about the orders and start getting ready to execute them." Garcia checked his data pad, then glared at them again. "Oh, yeah. We're getting underway for this the day after tomorrow. Make sure your divisions are ready."

Ensign Taylor leaned against the nearest console. "I guess there's no sense in worrying about getting that back-logged maintenance taken care of."

Garcia focused on her. "Are there any equipment problems that I'm not aware of?"

"No, sir. Just all the stuff you are aware of. But that's okay. I'll tell my boys and girls to break out the chewing gum and duct tape again and hopefully everything important will hold together until we get back home."

For once, Garcia's grin held some real humor in it. "It'd better. Now, get to work. Denaldo, I want a workup on your communications plan before noon."

After Garcia left, Kris Denaldo looked at Taylor. "I sure hope you know a way to do this."

Taylor nodded. "Matter of fact, I do."

"You're kidding!"

"Nope. Ever hear of moon bounce communications?" Denaldo glanced at Paul and then they both shook their heads. "Didn't think so. It was pre-communications satellite stuff. Very primitive. To get a radio signal sent over a real long distance on earth, one station'd send the signal straight at the moon. The signal'd bounce off the moon, and get picked up by the receiver back on earth."

"That'd take a lot of power. And how did they aim the signal?"

"It did, and they didn't aim it. As long as the sending and the receiving station both had the moon up, they could bounce signals back and forth. But if we're just sending signals through vacuum we wouldn't need much power. And the spread from a reflected signal makes it real hard to trace back the angle to the sending station. Here's what you propose, Chris. Low power, high frequency signals."

"HF? That's Stone Age communications. You can't get any decent amount of information into an HF signal."

"What do you want to send 'em, movies? HF will spread real nice and nobody's going to be monitoring those frequencies for military communications. Just set up a simple code with Maury that'll let you pass basic location, course and speed data. Then every once in a while you guys bounce a signal at each other. You'll be transmitting away from SASAL space to bounce the signal off the moon, and by the time the reflected signal gets back to where we are it'll have spread out so much nobody'll be able to get a decent fix on the place it originated from even if they can work out the reflection angle."

Denaldo rubbed her chin, her expression showing she was thinking intently. "I can't see why it wouldn't work."

"Kris, you got Senior Chief Kowalski working for you. 'Ski was probably around when they were doing that moon bounce stuff."

"I don't think he's quite that old."

Taylor grinned. "Nah, but tell him I said so. 'Ski won't have any trouble setting up a system like that for us and the Maury to use."

"Thanks, Akesha."

"No prob. You need any brilliant plans, Paul? I got a two-for-the-price-of-one deal going this morning."

"I don't think so."

"Guess again."

Paul watched the older and much more experienced but technically more junior officer warily. "What?"

"The systems will provide proximity alert warnings when we get too close to something, like say that boundary of SASAL-claimed space, right?"


"But we're already going to be within twenty klicks of that boundary."

"I . . . oh, hell. That's inside the parameters, isn't it?"

"Yup. You'll get continuous alerts. Drive you crazy and the captain won't like it. What do you do?"

"I have a funny feeling you know what to do already."

"Hey! You're right, college boy! Use the docking maneuvering system to set the alert distance."

"But that system won't work at transit speeds—"

"It will if you manually override the speed settings and input a simple fraction of our real speed. Then you just multiple any warning times by the appropriate factor."

Paul shook his head in amazement. "Wow. That'll work?"

"Of course it'll work."

"It's amazing what I can learn from you."

The former-enlisted officer gave Paul an exaggerated leer. "That's nothing. Boy, I could teach you things that'd make that girl of yours real happy. Though since we're assigned to the same ship that Wouldn't Be Appropriate," she intoned, emphasizing the capitals. "Your girl might wonder where you learned all that stuff, too. Then again, she might be so happy she wouldn't care." Taylor laughed, then rubbed her hands together. "Now, let's go tell our sailors the good news about getting underway again in two days and watch morale head for the nearest event horizon."

Kris Denaldo grinned at Paul as Taylor left. "She likes teasing you about sex because whenever she does you look like some ten year old boy who got caught sneaking peaks at a dirty vid."

"I do not!"

"Well, excuse me! Being so innocent and all myself I don't know enough to be embarrassed." Her smile faded and she looked out the hatch. "Fun time's over. Like Akesha said, let's go tell our troops the good news."

The rest of the day turned into a frantic swirl of activity as Paul huddled with Chief Imari to make sure everything important would be working well enough within two days, tried to plow through due-yesterday paperwork that had already been postponed to deal with other operational matters, and handled a sudden personnel emergency with Petty Officer Daniels when they got word both her parents had died in an accident back on Earth. The last thing he wanted to have to worry about at that moment was dealing with arranging emergency transport for her back to Earth for the funeral, but Paul also knew he didn't have any choice. Luckily, Commander Sykes had connections with the transport office and was able to get an unknowing officer bumped off the next shuttle home to make room for Daniels.

Sometime late in the day Paul realized he'd already worked into the early evening hours. He put in a hasty call to Jen, who peered blearily back him from the phone display. "Hi."


"Bad day. You know why."

"Yeah. Same here."



And then there was one day left.

* * *

"Bring in all lines." If Sonya Sindh was disappointed about taking the Michaelson out again, she didn't show any sign of it. "Bosun. Shift colors."

The familiar wavering whistle sounded as the bosun of the watch blew his pipe over the ship's general announcing system. "Underway. Shift colors."

They were heading out before the Maury, this time, which left Paul no leisure to watch Jen's ship. He focused all his attention on Lieutenant Sindh, acutely aware that her place on the watch team would soon be taken by Lieutenant Val Isakov. Isakov herself was strapped into an observer position near the back of the bridge, hopefully learning by watching. Paul stole a glance back that way, seeing Isakov looking around with an expression that might've described as either calm or unimpressed. She's supposed to be experienced. Qualified as an officer of the deck on the Isherwood. So Sonya Sindh had told him, anyway, since Isakov herself seemed totally uninterested in talking to Paul about anything. Not that I'm looking to be buddy-buddy with every officer I stand watches with. But I'm not looking forward to losing a great officer like Sonya, who I know I can depend upon, and getting an unknown quantity in return, supposedly qualified or not.

The pressure of the main drive and lateral forces of the thrusters finally died down, leaving Paul's stomach doing the usual flip-flops, though at least this time the period they'd spent under Franklin's sensation of constant gravity had been so short that readjusting to zero gravity shouldn't be too hard. Captain Hayes, looking a little haggard himself from all the work of the last few days, unstrapped. "Nice job."

"Captain's left the bridge!"

Sindh smiled at Paul. "Perhaps this was the last time I'll take the Merry Mike out."

He looked at the hatch where Captain Hayes had departed. "The captain's not feeling too hot. He usually says more than that."

"Yes. We need to tread a little lightly. Val." Sindh turned to look at her relief. "Any questions?"

Isakov smiled and shook her head. "Nope. Same class of ship, same layout, and it looks like she handles like the Ish-fish did."

"Paul's familiar with the ship, too. He can help with anything you need up here, since he'll be qualifying as an independent officer of the deck himself before long."

Isakov shifted her look to Paul for just a moment. "That's nice."

Sindh unstrapped. "Why don't we swap places so you can get a first hand feel for the watch station and get used to working with Paul."

The women switched seats. Isakov remained cool, but not off-putting, as she worked with Paul. He found himself feeling better about the imminent change in his watch team. Okay. If we can work together, that's all I need.

The watch relief went off easily, with nothing to do until they reached their positions near the border of SASAL-claimed space. Sam Yarrow scowled as Paul explained the moon-bounce messages which would provide brief, coded updates on the Maury. "What a lousy way of doing business. Prehistoric. Why don't we just toss out flares?"

"Taylor thought of it," Paul added, knowing Yarrow and she didn't get along.

"Figures," Smiling Sam mumbled. "Okay. I got it."

"I stand relieved. On the bridge, this is Lieutenant Sinclair. Lieutenant Yarrow has the conn."

"This is Lieutenant Yarrow. I have the conn." Sam leaned a little closer to Paul as he strapped in. "What's she like?"


"The new lieutenant. Who else?"

Paul thought about his reply. Anything he said which could even be remotely twisted to cause trouble would be dangerous to say to Yarrow, who had a nasty habit of repeating suitably embellished accounts of such conversations to his superiors. "She seems fine."

"Not bad looking, is she?"

"I hadn't noticed."

"What, not your type?"

Paul just shook his head and left the bridge. His stomach had decided that, even though nauseous from zero gravity, it still wanted more food than he'd wolfed down in the last couple of days.

Lunch in the wardroom was unusually quiet, with the junior officers worn out from the recent press of work. Commander Sykes shook his head with mock sorrow. "They don't make them like they used to. In my day you could work junior officers for, oh, weeks at a stretch before they started wearing out on you."

Kris Denaldo gave him an arch look. "Suppo, in your day they had to use junior officers to spell the rowers in the galleys."

Sykes nodded, still affecting sadness. "Ah, yes. The good old days of the wine-dark sea. I still have the calluses on my hands from the oars."

"A supply officer with calluses on his hands? That'll be the day."

Everyone laughed, while Sykes made a production out of bringing out his data pad and making some notes. He glanced up and saw he had their attention. "I'm just making some notes on what to serve the junior officers for dinner."

"Not those fake shark steaks, I hope," Paul noted.

"Sadly, no. There was a problem with the manufacturing facility, and we were advised to return all the steaks as they were unfit for human consumption."

Mike Bristol, the assistant supply officer, nodded. "Not that that's ever bothered us before, but this time they were officially unfit for human consumption."

Colleen Kilgary eyed the odd-looking meal before her. "One shudders to contemplate what it'd take to get something officially declared unfit to serve us, considering what we get most days."

As he nodded in agreement, Paul remembered an uncompleted task, so he followed Kilgary out of the wardroom when the meal was over. "Hey, Coll, I hadn't had a chance to tell you. I asked Jen about the new engineering stuff on the Maury. SARS?"

"SEERS. What's she think of it?"

"She said they can't tell, yet. Too much stuff in engineering still didn't work quite right after that yard period. Their Chief Engineer's not letting SEERS do much so far, because the Maury's snipes are spending their time trying to manhandle it all back into shape."

Kilgary grinned. "Tweak. In the high-tech, ultra-modern Space Navy we tweak things in engineering. We may use a sledge hammer to do it, but we tweak."

Paul laughed. "Okay. I've seen the electricians tweak a few things by hitting them, so I guess it makes sense for snipes to work the same way. Jen said they'll probably let SEERS handle things this time out because they think they've got the engineering systems about where they should be."

"Well, thanks for asking. I didn't expect she'd have too much to tell me at this point."

"What's the thing do, anyway?"

"Run things." Kilgary rolled her eyes. "The systems on this ship are incredibly complex and because it's pretty much a closed environment anything one sub-system does affects all the other sub-systems. If you let a metal brain try to handle too much of it, it ends up mismanaging power loads because it gets caught in feedback loops."

"You mean it reduces power somewhere, which means it has to do something else somewhere else."

"Which makes it have to go back to the first place and maybe increase power again. Then it reduces more, then it increases more, and soon enough circuit breakers start popping. When a metal head starts over-reacting at the speed of light problems develop real fast. Human brains can spot the patterns developing somehow and even things out. But it's a real pain in the neck to deal with, especially in a critical power situation like combat. It'll be nice to have a metal head capable of handling that part of the job."

Paul grinned. "Maybe we won't need engineers, anymore."

"Suits me. I can change over to one of those easy jobs in Operations Department."

"Now you sound like Jen."

"We just both happen to know what we're talking about. Speaking of female officers, how'd Val Isakov do on watch just now?"

"She seemed okay. Confident. Why?"

Kilgary shrugged. "New officer. I'm just curious."

"Well, she's got the whole ball of wax on the mid-watch. Along with me."

"Lucky guy," Kilgary murmured, then left before Paul could ask what she meant.

The bad part about being on watch on the bridge from midnight to four in the morning was that you weren't sleeping. The good part, the only good part in Paul's opinion, was that just about everybody else was sleeping. The watches tended to be quiet. No senior officers bulling in to raise hell, no scheduled events to add stress, just you and the other watch standers. The bridge, itself darkened not from necessity but to keep human body rhythms happy, sometimes felt to Paul like a cocoon of life traveling independently through the nothingness, the glowing display screens and instrument panels providing nearby artificial counterparts to the cold, distant light of innumerable stars shown on the visual displays.

Paul yawned, then grimaced and grabbed a quick gulp of coffee from the container clipped to his belt. Quiet and dark could be too nice. Too conducive to falling asleep, anyway, and the last thing anybody wanted to do was fall asleep on watch. Or, as Carl Meadows used to advise him, "Falling asleep on watch is like falling off a cliff. It feels fine for a while, until you hit the bottom. Or in the case of sleeping on watch, until somebody finds you sleeping. Then you'll wish you had fallen off a cliff instead."


He looked over at Lieutenant Isakov. "Yes, ma'am?"

She laughed. "Ma'am?"

"You didn't tell me I could call you anything else."

"Oh. Right. So, I'm Val. I've got a question for you."

Paul couldn't be certain of her expression in the dim lighting. "What's that?"

Isakov tapped her control console with two fingers for a moment before speaking again. "I wonder . . . it looks like war, don't you think?"

"Maybe. I hope not."

"I've never been in combat."

"Neither have I."

"But you did lead that damage control team. I've heard about it. Pretty nasty fire, right?"

Paul took a deep breath as the memory flooded back. "Yeah. Forward Engineering was an inferno. We couldn't see a thing because of the smoke." He felt his heart speeding up and tried to calm himself. That happened six months ago. But Chief Asher died in it and Scott Silver got court-martialed because of it. Because I helped chase down the evidence that Silver had been doing a lousy job and might've ordered Chief Asher to do something that started the fire. I wonder if anybody's told Isakov about all that? "It was pretty intense."

Isakov leaned toward Paul slightly, pitching her voice lower even though the enlisted watchstanders were deep in their own quiet conversation. "Then you know. What it's like to face that kind of danger."

"I . . . guess so."

"It must have been very exciting."

Paul shook his head. "No. I was too scared to be excited."

"Scared?" Isakov laughed again, in way which bothered Paul. "Scared?"

"Yes. I had a lot of things to worry about." He wondered if he sounded defensive, and wondered why he cared.

She leaned closer. "So you don't believe in taking risks?"

"When I need to."

A little closer. He thought he could feel her breath on his face. "Some risks are worth choosing. Just for fun. Don't you think?"

Paul shook his head. "No."

Isakov grinned and leaned away again. "That's not very heroic of you," she noted with another laugh.

Not sure what Isakov was up to, he decided he should blow it off. "I'm not a hero."

She called up the Captain's Standing Orders on her display and made a show of reading them. Paul spent a few more moments wondering what it had all been about, then mentally shrugged and concentrated again on staying awake.

A week later, after standing a lot more watches with Isakov, he still hadn't figured her out. She knew her job, and sometimes talked about her time on the Isherwood, or the Ish-fish as the ship was nicknamed in the fleet, in a friendly fashion. Other times she treated Paul like they'd just met, and she hadn't been impressed by the experience.

But he had plenty of other things to worry about on this particular watch besides whatever ticked inside Isakov's head.

The Maury had left Franklin nearly a full day after the Michaelson, cutting a slightly tighter and faster course toward their rendezvous point. Thanks to the moon-bounce updates on Maury's course and speed they'd been able to localize her much better than if they'd just been depending on passive detection of what signs of the other ship's presence leaked past her various means of hiding in space. Paul checked the datum outlined on the Michaelson's maneuvering displays again.

Commander Garcia swung onto the bridge and scowled equally at Paul and the displays. "Damn stupid idea," he grumbled, then pointed at the estimated position and vector for the Maury. "If we were just going to do a firing run, fine. That's great. It'd let us get close enough to precisely fix her and rip her guts out. But we're supposed to be on matching vectors and close to each other. Stupid."

Paul watched Garcia, trying to hide his curiosity. Garcia had a lot of experience, but rarely shared it with the officers in his division, and if he did, usually managed to put them down in the process. Now he was actually explaining something. I guess that shows how nervous he is. That doesn't exactly calm me down.

"If we don't hit each other, this'll look really good," Garcia finished, turning to go. Then he glared at Paul. "No collisions, Sinclair."

Isakov stared after Garcia after he'd left the bridge. "Was he kidding? Telling you not to run into any other ships like it was some kind of special instruction?"

"He wasn't kidding."

"I'm glad he's your department head."

Paul sweated through the watch, scanning his displays as the Maury and Michaelson converged on the point where they'd join up. No big deal, except both would be as invisible as modern technology could make them, and both would be traveling through space at velocities measured in kilometers per second and both were large enough that their masses carried plenty of momentum which wouldn't turn on any figurative dimes. As each ship drew closer to each other, the small signs of their presence became easier for the other to detect. A final moon-bounce update on Maury's course and speed vector arrived, but it had taken so long to travel to the moon and back that it didn't provide much reassurance.

The estimated position of the Maury kept wavering on the Michaelson's displays as probabilities shifted. Instead of the single, bright point Paul wanted to see, the estimate resembled a big, fuzzy ball. The Maury should be closer to the center of the ball, but it might be somewhere on the outer edge.

An hour before Paul's watch ended, the collision alarm sounded, jolting already frayed nerves and generating a volley of curses. "Shut that thing down," Captain Hayes snapped.

Paul slapped some controls, cutting off the computer generated voice of the Michaelson's maneuvering systems in mid-warning. "It's some of the probability vectors the Maury might be on, Captain. They're falling inside the five kilometer limit we put into the collision warning system."

"Five kilometers." Hayes shook his head. "This idea must've looked great to some genius back on earth. You ever hear of a guy named Wellington, Paul?"

"The Duke of Wellington, sir?"

"Yeah. Him. Before Waterloo he went around inspecting his troops, who were a pretty scruffy bunch, and then said 'I don't know what effect they'll have on the enemy, but by God they scare me.' That's what this maneuver reminds me of. I don't know what effect it'll have on the SASALs, but it's sure scaring me."

"Yes, sir. Maybe they'll try to duplicate it."

Hayes grinned. "That'd serve them right. XO?"

Commander Kwan, watching the final approach from his own seat on the other side of the bridge from the captain, turned at the hail. "Yes, sir?"

"Let's have this watch team relieved half an hour early. That'll give the new people plenty of time to get comfortable with the situation."

"We could just keep this watch team on until both ships have revealed themselves, Captain."

Paul glanced at Isakov. One of the odder things about being on watch was when the CO and XO talked back and forth over your heads as if you weren't there.

Hayes shook his head. "No. I want Paul down in Combat so he can analyze things from there if we need to react fast. And," he looked directly at the watch team, "no disrespect, Val, but you're not as familiar with this ship as the other officers of the deck."

Commander Kwan pursed his mouth. "Should we just bring the ship to general quarters? That might be prudent in any event."

Paul watched Hayes consider the question, then shake his head yet again. "No. But I do want maximum air-tight integrity set. Let's start doing that now."

Great, Paul thought. One more thing to worry about during this watch. The bosun sounded the alert over the ship's general announcing system, then as reports came in from different parts of the ship declaring their status Paul tabulated them and confirmed the reports against the remote read-outs on the bridge. The ship as a whole was always air-tight, of course, but maximum air-tight integrity meant sealing every internal hatch and nonessential opening inside the ship. That way, if anything punched through the ship's hull, the fewest possible compartments would lose air. Of course, if the Maury herself comes through our hull a few closed hatches aren't going to help much.

Sam Yarrow naturally wasn't thrilled to have to come on watch early, but he couldn't gripe too loudly with both the CO and XO on the bridge. He did managed to drag out the relieving process as long as possible just to aggravate Paul.

Yarrow studied the maneuvering displays again as he strapped into his seat. "Too bad nothing's near us."

"The Maury's pretty close, Sam."

"So? It would've been nice to spring out on some fat, dumb and happy SASAL ship that thought it was alone out here. The two of us suddenly there, right on top of the guy. That'd impress them."

"I'm worried enough with just the Maury out here."

"What's the matter, Sinclair? No guts, no glory."

I'd prefer to keep my guts inside my body, Sam, glory or not. But Paul didn't say it out loud, not with Lieutenant Isakov still within earshot, and not after the mocking comments she'd made about his not being a hero.

Combat had more than the usual compliment of watch standers hanging around. Paul's own sailors were obviously curious or concerned, as well. "How's it look, Chief?"

Chief Imari made a face as she studied her own display. "Not as clear as I wished it'd look, sir."

"Yeah. For what it's worth, we're going to be ready to jump out of the way."

"Let's hope we have time to jump if we have to do it."

Paul nodded, then strapped in at his console. He rarely made use of the Michaelson's internal video system, since he didn't like to think he was being watched when on duty himself, but now he wanted to have a heads-up to what the captain was thinking. Paul activated a window in his display to show video from the bridge and routed the audio from the bridge to his headphones. It'd be a distraction, but in this case he figured one worth the need to monitor the captain's intentions.

Time appeared to crawl after that. Combat seemed unusually quiet, without much of the usual conversation and wise-cracking among the sailors. When Paul glanced up he could see everyone intent on their displays.

At thirty minutes prior to the time when both ships were to reveal themselves, hopefully in close formation and going the same way at the same speed, a time counter popped into existence on the displays and began scrolling downward. Paul tried not to look at it, since the time counter made the minutes seem to drag even longer, like an old fashioned clock in a classroom that never seemed to move if watched too closely.

Five minutes. Paul took another look around Combat. Everyone seemed ready for anything. The fuzzy ball that represented the Maury's estimated position had thankfully shrunk considerably, but enough uncertainty remained to keep everyone on edge and the Michaelson's maneuvering systems in a constant tizzy about the threat of collision. On the bridge, no one was talking, either, every eye and full attention focused on the maneuvering displays. If something is seriously off, though, it won't matter. I know that. We'd have maybe a couple of seconds to react, which wouldn't be fast enough even if we could move the Merry Mike's mass instantaneously. But if even one second makes a difference, we'll be ready.

Chief Imari's voice sounded in his headphones. "What do want to bet they're sweating just as bad on the Maury, Mr. Sinclair?"

"I wouldn't doubt it, Chief." He wondered where Jen was. If the Maury's crew was reacting like the Michaelson's, then surely Jen and the other engineering officers were at their duty stations, ready for whatever might happen. It felt odd to be able to see her in his mind's eye, to know pretty much how Jen and her surroundings would look at this moment, even though he had no way of seeing her in reality.

Paul stole another look at the bridge. Ensign Jack Abacha, still standing watches under instruction, was looking around with ill-concealed enthusiasm. . Where ignorance is bliss. He's probably the only one on board not experienced enough to know how dangerous this is.

The time counter scrolled down toward zero. On the window in Paul's display where video from the bridge was displayed, he saw Captain Hayes hold up one hand with his fingers crossed. Over his headphone he heard the captain's forced joviality: "Here's hoping."


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