by John G. Hemry
"Okay, Kris. I've got it." Paul Sinclair, his left hand locked firmly onto the nearest tie-down, saluted Lieutenant Junior Grade Denaldo with his right.
Kris Denaldo saluted him back, her happiness at coming off watch duty clear. "I stand relieved." Raising her voice so it carried through the bridge, Kris called out, "This is Lieutenant Junior Grade Denaldo. Mr. Sinclair has the conn."
"This is Ensign -." Paul bit off the next sentence required by the ritual of relieving the watch as the enlisted watchstanders grinned at his mistake. "Correction. This is Lieutenant Junior Grade Sinclair. I have the conn."
Kris, laughing, tapped one of the silver bars now adorning Paul's uniform in place of the gold ensign insignia he'd worn until a short time ago. "When I got promoted, I didn't forget it so quickly."
"We can't all be as good as you, Kris."
Denaldo laughed again at Paul's sarcasm as she unstrapped herself from the chair at the Junior Officer of Deck's duty station. "That doesn't mean you can't try." Grinning, she pulled herself to the hatch and off of the bridge.
Paul strapped himself in, checking once again the status displays whose light provided much of the illumination on the darkened bridge. Scores of status lights shone a soft, comforting green from their positions on the several other watch stations which helped crowd the bridge of the USS Michaelson. Pipes, cables and ducts ran across the overhead in a controlled riot of vital wiring and ventilation. Despite the responsibilities he'd just assumed, Paul still felt comforted by surroundings which had become familiar in the months since he'd reported aboard the ship.
The straps holding him into the seat, on the other hand, weren't so comfortable. Paul jerked at one tight band, trying to ease a tensioner locked into a setting which had been comfortable for Kris Denaldo's smaller frame. His pull brought forth a loop of slack, which snapped quickly back into a slightly less oppressive state. "Are they ever going to fix these?"
Lieutenant Carl Morrison, seated not far from Paul at the Officer of the Deck watch station, shrugged as he fiddled with one of his own straps. "I doubt it. In any case, it beats floating around in zero-gravity."
"Floating I don't mind. It's those sudden accelerations that I worry about." Paul focused on the large maneuvering display with its view of the outside. Beginning just off the Michaelson's port bow, the Milky Way formed a brilliant banner against the blackness of space. Innumerable other unblinking points of light hung everywhere, marking countless stars, distant galaxies, and all the other luminous objects the universe held. Somewhere off the ship's starboard quarter, Paul knew, a bright blue and white disc marked the planet Earth, which the USS Michaelson was currently headed away from at a velocity measured in kilometers per second. Despite that speed, her crew would experience weightlessness until the Michaelson's main drive or thrusters were lit off again. In an emergency, those might be fired without warning, and since the force of those drives would send unsecured objects and sailors flying painfully into the nearest bulkheads, experienced space travelers followed the ancient seafaring rule of 'one hand for the sailor and one hand for the ship.' Or, in this case, 'keep your straps tight.'
"It's not the acceleration that hurts," Carl reminded Paul. "It's the sudden stops when you hit something. So, now you've attained the exalted rank of Lieutenant JG. Are you drunk with power, yet?"
"Give me a break. I just got the JG bars pinned on half an hour ago."
"So? You're not an ensign, anymore. You're no longer at the bottom of the officer totem pole."
"That does feel good."
Carl leaned back, scanning the maneuvering screen. "Looks like smooth sailing this watch. Except for that skunk passing near our operating sector."
Paul nodded. "Yeah. Kris told me he'd been hanging around." For reasons lost in the mists of the past, unknown ship contacts were referred to by the Navy as 'skunks,' a terminology carried into the Space Navy. "All we're getting from him is a generic scientific mission identifier. What do you suppose he's up to?"
"Hopefully, nothing. He's the only spacecraft anywhere close to us, except the range safety ship." Another Navy ship, its blue symbol shining clearly on the maneuvering display, had entered the area ahead of the Michaelson to ensure no one had wandered into restricted space. "That skunk could mess up this weapons test if he doesn't stay clear." Carl checked another screen, scrolling through information, then tapped an internal communications key. "Hey, Combat."
"Combat, aye," the Combat Information Center watch officer answered immediately.
"How are you reading the telemetry from the target?"
"Five by five, good buddy."
Carl chuckled. "Good to hear. Thanks." He leaned back and highlighted a symbol on the display which represented their target. "It's a fine day for blowing holes in things. Okay, everything's ready for the test firing. We've got forty-five minutes to go. I figure that means the Captain and XO will show up in about half an hour."
"I bow to your wisdom. I'll try to look professional about that time."
"You do that. Me, I'm almost gone."
"Don't rub it in. Did you hear who your relief is, yet?"
"Yeah." Carl rubbed his chin with one hand. "Lieutenant Scott Silver."
"Silver? Why do I know that name?"
"Maybe because he's Naval Academy, like you. Or maybe because his daddy is Vice Admiral Silver."
"Oh." Paul scratched his head, frowning in thought. "Yeah, I remember now. There was a guy named Silver a couple of classes ahead of me at the Academy. That must have been him."
"You only had one guy named Silver at the Academy?" "Naw." Paul glanced back at the enlisted watchstanders to ensure they weren't listening, then lowered his voice a little more. "He took five years to graduate. Academic problems."
"A hold back? They allow those at the Academy? I thought they just kicked out people who couldn't hack it."
"Most, they do. They grant a few waivers. Word was Silver got taken care of because he was an Admiral's boy."
"Nice." Carl's tone gave the word full sarcastic force. "For him, anyway. Was he a jerk?"
"No, I never heard that. He got an extra-good deal, but he seemed fairly popular. Maybe he was just too laid-back for the Academy."
"Huh. Well, maybe he turned out okay. It wouldn't be the first time someone grew into responsibility, and Admiral Silver's supposed to have all his ducks in a row, so maybe his son's okay. I'm not going to judge the guy before he gets here."
Paul laughed. "What do you care? You're leaving, heading for the paradise of shore duty, where they actually let you go home at night instead of making you work some more."
"Hey, I earned it. Three years on the Merry Mike is about two years, eleven months too long."
"Tell me about it."
"Buck up. You've got less than two years left, now."
"The first year was bad enough." The first Captain of the Michaelson whom Paul had encountered had been Peter Wakeman, a frustrated and impulsive officer who had caused innumerable headaches for his crew and ultimately ordered the mistaken destruction of another ship. The resulting court-martial had turned on Paul's testimony about the ambiguous orders the Michaelson had been operating under, testimony Paul had reluctantly concluded he had a moral and professional duty to volunteer.
"That was your fault," Carl observed. "Okay, not entirely. But any baggage you picked up from Wakeman's court-martial came from your own freely reached decisions."
Paul smiled. "Part of that baggage is Jen."
"Well, if you complain about that, you'd really be a cretin."
"Not at all. Jen Shen would have me for breakfast. I prefer my girlfriends a little less, um…"
Paul laughed. "Jen's dynamic all right. Also dynamite. I hope her ship's in when we get back."
"If you want to date another space warfare officer you have to be used to a lot of goodbye's."
"We know that. So far the hello's have more than made up for the goodbye's."
"Please. We're under zero gravity right now and my stomach's already a little queasy. Speaking of which, do you think our new Captain has his space legs, yet?"
Paul changed his smile to a look of mock disapproval. "My own struggles to get my stomach to accept zero g and occasional acceleration are recent enough that I don't make fun of anyone else going through that."
"You've got a point there. It's hard to believe Captain Gonzalez is leaving us already. We always knew she'd have a short tour as Commanding Officer since she was a fill-in for the job after Wakeman got relieved for cause, but I'd miss her if I wasn't leaving, too."
Paul snorted. "After Wakeman, anybody could look good. But Gonzalez has been okay. And there'll be some continuity in command since we'll still have Kwan as Executive Officer."
Carl rolled his eyes. "You lucky dogs. But he's not all that bad. Depending on which Kwan you happen to get."
"Even Good Kwan is no Herdez."
"Ha! You're the only one on this ship who'd say that as if you missed Herdez."
"She was a good XO!"
"No question. Also so tough she could've been tossed out an airlock naked and climbed back in an hour later no worse for wear. They only made one Herdez, Paul, and then they broke the mold before any more could be generated by accident. Of course Kwan's not Herdez. I give thanks for that every day. You should, too."
Paul smiled to avoid answering. Commander Gwen Herdez had been incredibly demanding and a perfectionist as the ship's Executive Officer, but she'd also been so thoroughly professional and fair that Paul had ended up admiring her. It's like that old saying about what doesn't kill me makes me strong. I learned a lot from Herdez. "Do you know anything about the new Captain?"
"Hayes?" Carl shrugged. "Nope. He's been real quiet." Hayes had been on the ship for the last week, turning over responsibilities with Captain Gonzalez and observing the crew's performance underway. "But I don't think he misses much."
"I've noticed that. You think he's just kind of hanging around, then you notice his eyes are following everything real close."
"Speaking of following stuff." Carl pulled up the checklist for the firing test. "What exactly is a pulse-phased laser, anyway?"
"I heard the contractors who installed it talking. Apparently it shifts color randomly to counteract protective filters."
Carl looked unhappy. "It's a blinding weapon?"
"Just against ship sensors."
"That's the only way it can be used or that's the only way it's supposed to be used?"
"I don't know." Paul looked at the checklist. "This doesn't say."
"Of course it doesn't. Well, there's lot of stuff onboard that could be misused. I guess this is one more."
"Yeah. At least it's not a weapon of mass destruction."
"Did you ever think you'd be grateful for that?" Carl indicated the checklist. "Let's get going on this."
A few minutes later, Commander Kwan, the ship's Executive Officer, entered the bridge, pulling himself over to the seats occupied by Carl and Paul. "How's it going, guys?"
Paul caught Carl's surreptitious wink. I guess this time we got Good Kwan. I won't complain. "Doing fine, XO. Just running down the final checklist for the test firing."
"No problems, I take it?"
"No, sir. There's one unidentified spacecraft in the vicinity, but he's outside our operating area."
"Okay! Keep up the good work." Kwan scanned the panels for a moment, where data on the Michaelson's systems overlay displays showing space around them. Smooth arcs traced the paths of every spacecraft being tracked by the Michaelson, while a series of lines outlined the sector of space where the weapons test would take place. "Paul, what's the maximum effective range on this new phased laser?"
"One moment, XO." Paul called up the test firing plan and looked for the weapon's data section.
Kwan frowned, his good nature vanished in an instant. "Mr. Sinclair, you mean you don't have that information memorized?"
Paul felt a chill that had nothing to do with the temperature on the bridge. Uh oh. I'm 'Mr. Sinclair' now instead of 'Paul.' "It's right here, sir. The maximum range is -."
"Mr. Sinclair, if the Captain asks you that question, or anything else pertaining to this test or the weapon, she isn't going to want to wait while you look things up. Is that clear?"
Paul didn't bother looking to Carl for help. He'd screwed this up all by himself and nothing Carl could do would divert attention from that. You'd think I'd know better by now. If Herdez had still been here I'm sure I'd have memorized that stuff already. But she's not, and I knew I was making JG and I just got a little sloppy. Stupid, stupid, stupid. At least I know enough not to try any lame excuses. There's only one thing I can say that won't make things worse. "Yes, sir."
Kwan pointed to the data Paul had called up. "The Captain will be up here soon. I'd recommend you start memorizing that real fast."
"I'm going down to check with Weapons Division and the contractor personnel. I'll be back in a few minutes."
"Yes, sir." Paul watched the XO leave the bridge, then rapped his forehead with one fist. "Maybe I ought to be busted back to Ensign."
"That'd be one for the record books," Carl noted. "Ensign to JG to Ensign within a few hours."
"I can't believe I slacked off like that. Just because Herdez isn't still here doesn't mean I still don't have the same responsibilities. Getting careless could literally cost somebody's life."
Carl pretended astonishment. "I never thought of that."
"Oh, go to hell. Can you keep an eye on things while I speed-memorize this stuff?"
"First you insult me and then you ask for favors. You're a born space warfare officer, Paul. Go to it. I'll scream if something's about to blow up. And don't be too hard on yourself. I've still got a lot to learn, and I've been doing this longer than you."
Paul ran through the test firing plan quickly, using his Academy-honed last minute cramming skills to commit as much of it as possible to memory in the shortest possible time. He glanced up occasionally, feeling guilty at being absorbed in the task while he should be attending to his duties as Junior Officer of the Deck, but the bridge remained quiet, nothing breaking the routine of a normal watch.
The bosun mate of the watch brought himself to attention as Captain Gonzalez entered the bridge followed closely by Captain Hayes. "Captain's on the bridge!"
Paul thumbed off the test firing plan, converting his screen to a maneuvering display, while breathing a silent prayer that everything he'd packed in would remain in his memory until the test was over.
Carl pivoted to face the Captain. "Ma'am, all preparations for the test firing are proceeding on schedule. The range safety ship has reported all clear within our operating area."
"Very well." Captain Gonzalez pulled herself into her chair on the starboard side of the bridge, buckled her harness with the automatic habit of any spacefarer, then leaned back in her chair, putting her feet up on the display panel before her. "Nothing of concern, then, Mr. Meadows?"
"Only one thing to watch, ma'am. We still have that skunk hanging around the edge of the operating area."
Gonzalez eyed her own display, then shook her head. "Yes, we do. He's outside the area, but I don't like having him that close."
"He's about sixty degrees to starboard of our firing vector, ma'am. Well clear."
"Is he within range of the test weapon?"
Carl didn't have to check. "He will be when we're at the designated firing point, yes, ma'am."
"Then let's move his butt. Tell comms to send him a 'get out of here, restricted area' message. Medium heat version, for now."
"Yes, ma'am." A few minutes passed while Carl passed on the order to the communications personnel and the standard scripted message went out directed to the skunk. "He should be getting it about now."
Paul nodded with satisfaction. "We're seeing an aspect change. He's maneuvering to head away."
"Yeah." Carl's expression went from casual to concerned as he scanned the readout. "Something doesn't look right."
Captain Gonzalez raised an eyebrow and checked her own screen. "What's wrong, Carl?"
"I don't know, yet, Captain. Something about the way that guy's moving makes me wonder which way he's pointing."
Commander Kwan had returned to the bridge, unnoticed by Paul, and now pulled himself close to Carl, squinting at the display. "You don't think he's going to leave the area?"
"Sir, he just looks funny to me."
Gonzalez glanced over to where Captain Hayes had hooked himself to a tie-down near her chair. "Lieutenant Meadows is one of our most experienced watch officers. Sometimes an experienced sailor can spot things your instruments can't."
Hayes nodded. "Just like back on Earth."
"Yup. Mr. Meadows, is there -."
Carl interrupted as his display flashed. "He's lighting off his main drive, Captain."
Paul slapped his console. "Look at that vector! He's headed in, not out. You were right, Carl. What's he up to?"
"Beats me. Captain, request permission to order the range safety ship to intercept that guy."
"Granted. We can't do the test shot with him there. Have comms send a high heat version of the get-out-of-here message to that idiot."
The range safety ship, positioned closer to the intruder than the Michaelson, boosted onto an intercept course with the unknown spacecraft. A moment later, a green spacecraft identification symbol blossomed on the Michaelson's display where the skunk had previously been represented by a yellow 'unknown' symbol. "He's finally broadcasting a specific ship code. Ah, hell. He's Greenspace."
"Greenspace." Gonzalez shook her head in disgust. "That figures. No wonder they're messing with our test firing."
Captain Hayes indicated the glowing symbol. "Do they interfere with a lot of test firings?"
"They interfere with anything they can. Anything they think is about the 'militarization' or 'economic exploitation' of space. Hell, humans came up here to economically exploit space, and once we started doing that some people wanted to fight over who got to exploit what, which is why the Navy's here."
Hayes smiled humorlessly. "So, basically they interfere with everything."
"If they can. But spacecraft are expensive and we're watching for them, so they don't get too many places. Unfortunately, they got to this one."
"I see. If they enter an operating area like this, do they fall under our jurisdiction, or do we need to call in civil authorities to arrest them?"
Gonzalez waved toward Paul. "Ensign…pardon me, Lieutenant Junior Grade Sinclair there is your collateral duty ship's legal officer. He will provide you with all appropriate guidance in such situations. Correct, Mr. Sinclair?"
Paul nodded, acutely aware he was the object of two Captains' attention. "Yes, ma'am."
"And such guidance in this case would be…?"
It's a good thing I checked the rules on that subject before we got underway for this test shot. At least I've learned something since I was a new Ensign. "We're authorized to make arrests and seize property if the protesters enter a posted restricted area and disregard instructions to leave." And… "We're to notify civil authorities and turn over the protestors and property as soon as, uh, reasonably feasible."
"Very well. If we end up needing to know just what 'reasonably feasible' means we'll get back to you, Mr. Sinclair." Captain Gonzalez motioned to Carl. "Lieutenant Meadows, did the Greenspacers acknowledge our latest warning to leave?"
Carl double-checked his panel, then shook his head. "No, ma'am. No reply."
"Then have comms tell that ship to get out of here now, or we will intercept and seize it. Make sure they know there'll be no more warnings."
"Aye, aye, ma'am." Carl bent to the task, but halted as an alarm sounded. "What the hell? That Greenspace ship is launching something."
"A lot of somethings," Paul added. "What are those?"
Gonzalez was chewing on a thumbnail. "Since that's a Greenspace ship, at least we can be reasonably sure they're not weapons. I want a quick ID on those things."
Paul and Carl exchanged a quick glance. When ships' Captains said 'I want,' their crews knew they'd better satisfy the request. Commander Kwan wedged between them, his expression and voice harsh. "Let's get that ID for the Captain. Now."
As if we needed the XO telling us that, and as if leaning on us will get the Captain a faster answer. Bad Kwan strikes again, but then he might still be ticked off at me for screwing up earlier. Biting his lip to help hide his reaction, Paul tapped in commands which up'd the priority on a target ID. The Michaelson's targeting system beeped a moment later, calling attention to its identification of the objects. Paul stared at it. "They're short-range emergency escape pods."
"Escape pods?" Gonzalez checked the ID herself, as did Commander Kwan.
"There's nothing wrong with that ship," Paul insisted.
"I'm sure there isn't." Gonzalez looked seriously out of sorts now. "But they've just sown a dozen of those pods through our firing area. It'll take us and the range safety ship so long to round them up that we'll have to postpone the test firing."
"Sweet," Commander Khan muttered. "Maybe we should just leave them."
"Wish we could, George, but those short-range pods have real limited life support capability. If we don't pick them up within a few hours, those protesters will be dead meat, and letting them die because of their own stupidity will make us look real bad. Go figure. I've got to give them credit for thinking of this." Gonzalez unbuckled her harness and swung out of her chair. "I'll go get on a private line to the Commodore and let her know what happened. Lieutenant Meadows, plot intercepts to those pods. Tell the range safety ship I'd appreciate it if she seized that mothership."
"Aye, aye, ma'am. Best-speed intercepts on the pods?"
"Naw. We've got to postpone the firing, anyway. Make sure we take a while to get to those pods. Not too long, but long enough to make 'em sweat on whether their life support'll hold out."
Carl grinned. "Aye, aye, ma'am."
The bosun mate of the watch stiffened to attention again as Gabriel and Hayes exited through the hatch. "Captain's left the bridge!"
Commander Kwan pointed at Carl. "Keep me informed."
Paul glanced at Carl after Kwan left. "Not exactly the nice, routine evolution you were looking forward to."
Carl shrugged in an exaggerated fashion as he worked on the intercept plan. "No. But that's okay. This is kinda fun. Maybe I can meet our 'visitors' when we haul them aboard. 'Welcome to the USS Michaelson. We hope you have a pleasant stay in the two meter square compartment we're going to cram you all into.'"
Paul chuckled despite the stress of recent events. "Thanks for mentioning that. I'd better give the Sheriff a heads-up." He quickly paged the ship's master-at-arms. "Hey, Sheriff. We've going to have some hippie peacemongers coming aboard."
"Once again you have made my day, sir." Master-at-Arms First Class Ivan Sharpe, the Michaelson's onboard law enforcement professional, didn't sound thrilled.
"Happy to oblige. You've got…" Paul checked the maneuvering plan Carl was finalizing. "About two hours before we haul in the first one. The rest will dribble in over the next couple hours after that."
"They'll be prisoners?"
"Until we turn them over to the civilian cops on Franklin Station, yeah."
"Fine. I'll set them up in our finest minimal living standards compartments."
"By the book, Sheriff. These Greenspace guys love publicity. We don't want to give them any bones to gnaw on."
"Ah, shucks, there goes my idea for feeding 'em."
"Once you've worked it up, give me a rundown on your plans for confining them until we reach Franklin. I'll brief the XO after that."
"How many hippie peaceniks are we talking, sir?"
Paul checked the number of escape pods, each of which was automatically broadcasting the number of people on board. "Looks like twenty."
"Twenty? What am I gonna do with that many hippies?"
"I'm sure an experienced cop and highly qualified petty officer such as yourself will find a solution."
"Gee, thanks, Mr. Sinclair. Maybe I can stuff 'em into some of the officer staterooms."
"Can't use mine, Sheriff. The starboard ensign locker is already stuffed full."
"What a shame. Speaking of ensigns, are the rumors I hear correct, that you are now a Lieutenant Junior Grade in the United States Navy?"
"That's so, Sheriff. I've been promoted. Any word on whether you're going to make Chief Petty Officer this year?"
"No, sir. But if I do, I'll know it was all due to your inspired leadership, sir."
"I'm glad you appreciate that, Sheriff. See you later."
"Aye, aye, sir."
Carl grunted with satisfaction. "My, that looks purty." On his navigational display, a smooth curve arced from the Michaelson's current path, aimed at intercepting the nearest of the Greenspace pods. From there, shorter curves leapt from point to point, painting intercept courses to where the other pods would be when the Michaelson reached them. "We should be able to nab those pods on the fly, if their grapple sites are up to specifications."
Paul studied Carl's work. "That's nice. Hey, maybe we ought to make sure the ship's gig is ready to launch, just in case we miss a pick-up on one of the pods."
"An excellent idea. I'm glad I thought of it."