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Just Determination - Chapter One

by John G. Hemry

Just Determination cover"These rules are intended to provide for the just determination of every proceeding relating to trial by court-martial."

Rule 102
Rules for Courts-Martial
Manual for Courts-Martial, United States

Ensign Paul C. Sinclair, USN

Upon completion instruction and when directed detach Duty Under Instruction; proceed port in which USS Michaelson (CLE(S)-3) may be, upon arrival report Commanding Officer for duty.

For perhaps the thousandth time since receiving them, Paul Sinclair reread his orders. Not for the first time, he thought how strange it was that one ship could be so many things. In the bland official wording of his orders, USS Michaelson was simply a destination for a newly commissioned officer. To the transportation personnel who had read those orders and arranged his arrival here at Franklin Naval Station, the Michaelson had been a moving target which Paul had to intercept at some point along the ship's travels.

But in an order of battle, such as the one Paul had consulted as soon as his orders arrived, the Michaelson would be identified as the third ship in the Maury Class of Long Endurance Cruisers (Space). Armed with the latest weaponry, carrying over two hundred sailors and officers, armored against the hazards of space and whatever threats might be posed by other humans in the nothingness between planets.

No, Paul corrected himself, not just Michaelson. United States Ship Michaelson. A commissioned warship, part of the United States Navy and legally a small piece of the United States, floating free of the world which had birthed her.

Paul looked up and across the gap of metal flooring which was all that now separated him from the open rectangle marking the quarterdeck of the Michaelson. If the ship had been in dry dock, inside a huge pressurized hall, then Paul could have seen all of her smooth, elongated football shape in a glance. The apparent streamlining had nothing to do with speed, but rather the need to hide from all the instruments which would try to detect the Michaelson and her sisters in space, some of which searched for reflections from angles, corners and flat surfaces. However, now Michaelson floated in open space, connected to the Naval Base at this one point, the rest of her invisible behind the heavy bulkheads which protected the base from empty space.

Up close, here and now, the small visible portion of the ship loomed as both the most wonderful and the most frightening thing Paul had ever seen. Four and half years. Has it been that long since I held up my hand and swore the oath of service? Four years at the Academy. Six months at various specialty schools. It all comes down to this. I'm supposed to be prepared for anything. Hah. Right now I'm too nervous to think straight.

"Sir?" Paul fought down an impulse to jerk in surprise at the question, instead turning with careful deliberation to see a mildly curious Senior Chief Petty Officer standing nearby. "Do you need something on the Michaelson?"

"Uh…no. I mean, yes." The Senior Chief's expression shaded a little more questioning. "That is, I'm supposed to report aboard her. She's my new ship."

"Well, that's good for you, sir. She's my ship, too. Ready to go aboard?"

"Uh, thanks, Ch -. Senior Chief." Paul, wincing inside at almost addressing a Senior Chief as if he were a regular Chief Petty Officer, grasped his small allowance of luggage firmly and followed in the Senior Chief's wake as he strode across the short distance. It never occurred to him not to follow. Chief Petty Officers didn't technically run the universe, but long-standing rumor held that heaven's CPOs did all the real work that kept the universe from falling apart.

Closing on the quarterdeck, he could see another ensign standing watch there along with a junior petty officer. The ensign carried a long, archaic brass telescope cradled under one arm, a sign of her status as Officer of the Deck. Paul came to rigid attention at the foot of the ship's entryway, turning to face the aft end of the Michaelson, and rendered his best salute to the national flag invisible in its compartment near the Michaelson's stern. Turning again, he faced the other ensign and saluted once more. "Request permission to come aboard."

The other officer returned the salute casually. "Granted."

The Senior Chief repeated the ritual, then nodded toward Paul. "Got you some fresh meat here, Ms. Denaldo."

The ensign brightened, while the petty officer looked on warily. "A new body? Great." She thrust out a hand. "Kris Denaldo. Welcome aboard."

Paul shook the offered hand. "Thanks. Paul Sinclair."

Denaldo bent over to take an obvious look at the US Naval Academy ring on Paul's hand. "Ah ha. A ring knocker, eh?"

"Yeah. You?"

Denaldo grinned. "Notre Dame."

"You don't look Irish."

"So me sainted mother always said. Senior Chief, my messenger is off escorting a contractor. Do you mind running Mr. Sinclair aft and handing him over to Mr. Sykes?"

"No problem, Ms. Denaldo. Oh, yeah, here's them ribbons you needed." The Senior Chief dropped a couple of small rectangles of colored silk into Ensign Denaldo's waiting hand while she smiled with delight. Paul tried to glance at the ribbons unobtrusively. Every ribbon an officer or sailor wore on their left breast represented an award or a medal. When you saw the awards they'd received, you got a thumbnail glance at their achievements and career to date, and Paul couldn't help wanting to know something of what his new shipmate Ensign Denaldo had done so far. "National Defense Medal and Space Service Deployment ribbons," the Senior Chief continued. "That's what you needed, right?"

"Senior Chief, you're a wonder. Nobody can get these two ribbons up here. How'd you find some?"

"Geez, Ms. Denaldo, if I told you, I'd have to kill you." The Chief smiled broadly at his own joke, then beckoned to Paul. "You ready, Mr. Sinclair?" At Paul's nod, the Senior Chief led the way through a hatch into the ship's interior.

Instantly, it felt different. Outside (if you could call the inside of a space station 'outside') had been metal and recycled air smells, and the interior of the Michaelson was more metal and more used and re-used air. But everything felt tighter. The passageway they were in was barely wide enough for two people to pass. Overhead and on either side, cables, ducts and pipes ran off in both directions, every item labeled with cryptic codes indicating its function. Paul found himself hunching together for fear of hitting his head or arms against something or someone, feeling as if as much people and equipment had been crammed inside the hull as physics would permit. Paul suspected that might be literally true, especially after the Senior Chief popped open a smaller hatch and peered inside a space not much larger than an average earth-side bedroom. "Mr. Sykes?"

A tall, lanky Commander with a studiously relaxed expression looked up, waving a cup in their direction. On one lapel he wore the silver oak leaf of his rank and on the other lapel the multiple-oak-leaf insignia of the Supply Corps. "At your service, Senior Chief. What brings you to my lounge?"

The Senior Chief grinned, edging back to let Paul squeeze forward and into the room. "This here's Ensign Sinclair reporting aboard. Mr. Sinclair, that there's Commander Sykes, ship's supply officer." Paul nodded, trying not to let his uncertainty show as he tried to fix names to faces. "And this here's the wardroom, actually. You can almost always find Mr. Sykes relaxing here with some coffee."

"Not always," Sykes denied. "Sometimes I'm drinking tea. Thanks, Senior Chief." The Senior Chief sketched a half-salute and left, making the small space feel even smaller as he closed the hatch behind him. "Have a seat, Mr. Sinclair." Sykes waved grandly toward one of the other chairs grouped around the rectangular metal table. "Don't worry about strapping in. That's only required while we're underway."

Paul glanced at the chair as he sat, noticing harness straps lying at the ready. "The ship maneuvers during meals?"

"Not if we can help it. Or, rather, not if the line officers actually driving the Merry Mike can help it." Sykes smiled again, this time conspiratorially. "Being a limited duty supply specialist, I'm just a passenger of sorts."

Paul smiled back. Sykes' rank as Commander probably put him on par with the other Department Heads and the ship's Executive Officer, but those others were all line officers, a term derived from the days when such officers commanded sail-powered warships which exchanged broadsides in the line of battle with other warships. Unlike the line officers, Sykes' status as a limited duty officer meant he exercised no authority over the actual operations of the ship. Even if the Executive Officer (another Commander, if Paul remembered right) hadn't occupied a superior position in the command hierarchy of the ship compared to a Department Head, she still would've been senior to Sykes on operational matters. For that matter, line officer Ensign Paul Sinclair would also be senior to Commander Sykes for operational purposes (a daunting prospect Paul tried not to dwell on) even though Sykes was his superior officer otherwise.

Paul let his gaze wander around the small room. A slightly stylized painting of the Michaelson in near-Earth orbit was fastened to one wall. Another held the small opening through which meals could be passed to the officers from the tiny food prep area beyond. On the third…Paul blinked, looking again as if his eyes had betrayed him. "A skull and crossbones? Why is there a pirate flag in here?"

Sykes followed Paul's look, then chuckled. "Why is it here? Because neither the Executive Officer nor the Captain has yet seen it and ordered it taken down. Some of your fellow junior officers stuck it up this morning."

"Why?"

"Why? Ah, there you're getting into 'line' issues. Operational stuff. You'll have to ask a fellow ship driver." Sykes rubbed his forehead, momentarily serious as he frowned in thought. "Well, welcome aboard and all that. You'll eat, um, second shift."

"Second shift?"

"That's right." Sykes looked around the wardroom himself, then shrugged. "This space can't hold every officer at once. Well, it can if they're hanging off all four bulkheads and the overhead, but not for a nice sit-down meal like the Captain prefers. So, you get second shift." Paul nodded, repeating 'second shift' in his mind several times to ensure it wasn't forgotten. "Have you heard much about food in the space fleet?" Paul shook his head. "Good. Try not to look at it or taste it, and you'll do fine." Paul hesitated, then nodded again. "I imagine you want a bunk someplace?"

"Uh, yes, sir."

"Well, my young friend, you are in luck. It just so happens I have a vacancy. Come along, Ensign Sinclair." Paul hastily scooped up his bag, following the Supply Officer out the hatch and down a short passageway, ducking as he passed through other hatches and trying to hug the bulkhead to his right as an occasional crew member squeezed past going in the other direction. Sykes finally halted before a hatch with three nameplates already stuck on it. "Welcome, Mr. Sinclair, to the Starboard Ensign Locker."

"Ensign locker?" Paul looked on with foreboding as Sykes rapped sharply on the bulkhead, then opened the hatch.

A bedraggled Lieutenant Junior Grade glanced up from a tiny desk and raised one hand to wave two fingers in greeting. "What's up, Suppo?"

"Got you another roomie. Meet Ensign Sinclair."

"Ah, fer…Okay. I guess we won't be able to stretch out in here anymore."

"Too much luxury spoils the young. Everybody happy? Wonderful. I'm off to attend to my many and exhausting duties. He's yours, Mr. Meadows."

"Thanks, Suppo. I'll take him from here." Sykes nodded and left as Paul carefully maneuvered himself and his bag into the Ensign Locker. The JG stuck out his hand as Paul dropped his bag. "Welcome to a tiny corner of hell. And I do mean tiny. I'm Carl Meadows."

"Hi. I'm Paul. Paul Sinclair." Paul looked around, taking in the three bunks stacked against one of the bulkheads, the four small desk and locker units ranked two-by-two on either side, and a fourth bunk wedged between the top of one set of locker units and the overhead. "I guess it's a good thing I packed light."

"A very good thing. You get the top bunk."

Paul glanced upwards, noting the power cables and ductwork overhead which reduced the clearance above the top bunk to something less than the three feet of space the other bunks enjoyed. "Lucky me."

"You're junior ensign, my lad. Get used to the short end of the stick." Meadows grinned to take the sting from his words. "Ship designers pack everything they can inside the volume of the hull. It makes for tight quarters. I hope you didn't believe all those movies that showed space crews living in individual luxury apartment suites."

"The ones with soaring ceilings and lots of floor space?" Paul laughed. "Heck, I've never lived that good back on Earth. I didn't expect it up here, in living quarters provided by the government."

"A wise expectation. For an ensign."

Paul laughed again, then surveyed the small amount of personal storage space and shook his head. "If this is an Ensign Locker, why is a JG living here?"

"Because I've not yet achieved the exalted rank of full Lieutenant, after which I can aspire to a two person stateroom which is about half the size of this place. That's supposed to be better. But it beats living in one of the Ensign Lockers. Your two other roomies are also men, by the way. I hope that doesn't disappoint you. Aside from me, you get to share quarters with Ensign Sam Yarrow, and Lieutenant Junior Grade Bill Door. Don't expect to see much of Bill. He's the Computer Systems Officer. Basically, Bill lives in the mainframe compartment. If you and he end up on opposite watch schedules, you may never see him except for rare sightings when he actually sleeps in his bunk. We send Bill emails occasionally to make sure he's still with us." Carl pointed out the hatch. "As for our female counterparts, the Port Ensign Locker is where the babes live."

"Babes? The female junior officers get called babes?"

"Sometimes. In private. If they're in a good mood. And even then only among the other junior officers," Meadows cautioned, "not around anybody ranked Lieutenant Commander and above, and never not ever in front of the enlisted."

"So, what do the, uh, babes call us? Sometimes, in private, among junior officers, that is."

"Studs."

Paul unsuccessfully tried to smother a laugh. "First time I've ever had that nickname."

"Me, too. Enjoy it while you can. I have a suspicion the stud nickname is at least slightly facetious, though. I'm Gunnery and Fire Control officer, by the way. Have you got any idea what your primary duty will be?"

"My detailer said I'd be Assistant Combat Information Center Officer."

Meadows raised one eyebrow. "And you believed him?"

"No, not really. When do I find out for sure what my job will be?"

"When you meet the Executive Officer." Meadows canted his head in a direction Paul guessed to indicate forward and to port. "Commander Herdez. If she tells you that you'll be ACICO, then you'll be ACICO."

"What's she like?"

"She's the XO. She works our butts off. Then she works us some more. But Herdez knows what she's doing. The XO's a very sharp officer. And, trust me on this, when you screw up you'll find out just how sharp she can be." Carl grinned. "You'll note I said 'when you screw up', not 'if.' I've been the ensign route, and the best you can say for it is that it's a learning experience."

"Yeah." Paul sagged into one of the free chairs. "I'm really looking forward to it."

"Don't worry. From the dawn of time, naval officers have gone through the ensign stage and most have later gone on to lead happy, productive lives."

"Most have?"

"Let's not talk about the others. You may meet some of them," Carl added enigmatically. "A word of warning, though. We're heading out real soon for a long cruise. We get underway in four days for a week of shakedown in the local operating area. Then another week back here to fix whatever breaks during the shakedown, and after that we're heading out into the big, empty black for a long time. All of which means you won't have much luxury for learning the ropes onboard the Merry Mike. Hit the deck running and keep your eyes and ears open."

Paul fought down a wave of apprehension. "Thanks. I guess everybody calls her the Merry Mike?"

"JOs do."

"Commander Sykes did, too."

"Oh, well. Suppo's a special case. I wouldn't use the name around the Captain or the XO."

"I was starting to guess that. It seems to be said sort of…sarcastically."

Meadows pretended shock, then laughed. "She's a warship, not a fun ship! You know what we say after putting in twelve hours on the job? 'Great, we only had to work a half-day!' Mostly, it's more like twenty-hour days of work and watch-standing under what you might call demanding supervision."

"Huh." Paul bit his lip. "So the XO is tough. What about the other senior officers? The Department Heads? What are they like?"

"Uh uh," Meadows demurred. "You make your own mind up on them. I don't want to predispose you."

"But -"

"Uh uh."

"Okay." Paul glanced forlornly around the tiny stateroom. My new home. For months at a stretch, with people I don't know yet who I may not like and who may not like me, working my tail off the whole time. Why did I ever volunteer for this? "You said we'll be going out on a long cruise? Has the mission been announced?"

Carl grinned, one thumb idly rubbing the silver bar of his collar rank insignia. "Our mission? Arrrhhh, we be pirates, lad!"

"Huh?"

"We're -" Meadows stopped speaking at a rap on the bulkhead, followed by the hatch opening. An enlisted sailor looked in, silently handed him a folded cloth, then left. Meadows unfurled the cloth, revealing the pirate flag Carl had seen in the wardroom. "Ah. It appears one of our humor-challenged seniors finally saw this."

"Suppo told me they'd take it down."

"Yeah, that's what I figured. But, what the hell. Why pirates? That's an open secret. We'll be on Sovereignty Patrol. Enforcing the US claim on a very large volume of very empty space containing very valuable transit routes and the occasional very valuable rock."

Paul nodded. "Yeah. I know about the sovereignty bit. We need to enforce our claim of control or it won't have any legal standing."

"Meaning what? That's a real question. We're all a little vague on the reasons for what we're doing. Not that that's so unusual."

"Well…" Paul paused to order his thoughts. "You can't just claim something and then leave it. If you claim you own something, but then let other people use it without hindrance for a while, then eventually your claim won't be regarded as having legal standing anymore. You have to enforce your claim in some meaningful way. You know, it's like if you have a trademark on some word but let everybody use it all the time and never complain. After a while the word is legally in public domain and you can't enforce the trademark anymore. That's really simplified, and I'm sure a lawyer could poke all kinds of holes in what I said, but that's the general idea."

"Interesting." Meadows raised both eyebrows. "You know legal stuff, huh?"

"Sort of. I had a one-month gap in my orders, so they packed me off to a Ship's Legal Officer course. I guess you could say I now know enough to be dangerous."

"Lucky you. Then you also know what 'enforcing' our claim means?"

"In theory…"

"In practice." Meadows smiled, this time without real humor. "Like you said, we can't let other ships just cruise through our space, can we? But we're not at war with anybody, not officially anyway, so we can't officially blow them away, if that should be necessary."

"Blow them away?" Paul stared. "You mean we'll be authorized to shoot at other ships?"

"That's the scuttlebutt. How we can get away with that when we're not at war with anybody, I don't know, but then I'm just a dumb JG."

"That's better than being a dumb ensign. Our orders really say that?"

Meadows shrugged. "That's the scuttlebutt," he repeated. "You'll see the actual orders when the rest of us do. For now, I better get you to see the XO. You don't want her thinking she's being dissed. No, sirree. Follow me."

Meadows went out the hatch, expertly ducking to avoid banging his head, and led the way through a maze of passageways in which Paul had already lost his bearings. His head brushed objects overhead twice, causing Paul to hunch even lower and envy the casual way Meadows ducked and twisted to avoid hitting things. A female ensign came around a corner, flattening herself against the bulkhead as Paul and Carl passed. "Hey, babe," Carl offered.

"Hey, yourself. New stud?"

"Yeah." Carl indicated the female ensign. "Jen Shen. Paul Sinclair."

"Charmed."

"Likewise."

Carl pointed a thumb down, where the aft portion of the ship lay. "Jen's the Auxiliary Machinery Officer. She's not bad, for a snipe."

Jen bared her teeth. "That reminds me. I may need to have the ventilation in your stateroom taken off line. Maybe for several hours."

"Oh, God, please, no - "

"Just joking." She looked Paul over appraisingly. "Is Carl giving you the ten cent tour?" Paul nodded. "Did he warn you about Smiling Sam, yet?"

"Smiling…?"

"Sam Yarrow," Carl amplified. "The Bull Ensign." The official nickname indicated Yarrow was the senior ensign onboard. "Don't call him Smiling Sam to his face."

"But keep your eye on him," Jen added. "He's a snake."

"Now, Jen -"

"Don't 'now' me, mister. Paul, if Sam tries to pat you on the back don't let him unless you've got armor strapped on between your shoulder blades. Otherwise, you're likely to find a knife there." She smiled with mock sweetness at Carl. "But that's just my opinion. See ya. I got work to do, unlike some underemployed combat systems types."

Meadows shook his head, smiling wryly, as Shen hustled down the passageway. "Jen's got attitude to spare."

"I can tell. She seems squared away, though."

"Oh yeah, real squared away. You can trust Jen, on official business or on personal stuff."

"Thanks. So she's right about Yarrow?"

Carl hesitated before answering. "I don't want to predispose you -"

"Come on."

"Okay. The Bull Ensign's supposed to look out for the other ensigns, right? Sam Yarrow mainly looks out for Sam Yarrow. That's all I'll say. Now, onward. The XO awaits."

They went around another corner, ducking where cables and ducts came too far down from the overhead, until Carl stopped before a hatch with 'Herdez' stenciled on it. He rapped twice, waited for an acknowledgement, then opened the hatch and waved Paul forward. "New officer reporting aboard, XO."

"Thank you, Mr. Meadows." Herdez rose from her chair just enough to shake Paul's hand. "Please wait outside while I speak with Ensign…"

"Sinclair, ma'am."

"Sinclair. Welcome aboard the USS Michaelson." Herdez sank back into her chair, gestured Paul to the stateroom's other seat, then held out her hand. "Your service record, please."

"Yes, ma'am." Paul hastily popped the data cartridge containing his service record out of his wallet and handed it over. As Herdez loaded the record into her terminal, reading it intently, Paul tried to surreptitiously study her and his surroundings. Herdez had a build which was slim, but even through her uniform seemed hard. She scanned her terminal with a stern expression which seemed habitual, radiating an aura of cool competence. Paul found himself hoping he never screwed up in her presence, yet simultaneously certain such an event was only a matter of time. Her stateroom, perhaps half the size of Paul's new shared quarters, was almost devoid of personal decoration except for one bulkhead which held a small collection of medallions and pictures, obviously memorabilia from Commander Herdez' earlier assignments.

"Impressed?" Paul froze at the dryly-phrased question, looking to see Commander Herdez gazing directly at him once again. She pointed toward the memorabilia. "My 'Love Me' wall, Mr. Sinclair. Eighteen years of Naval service are represented there. Perhaps you'll have such a wall someday, should you succeed in this profession." She paused, as if expecting a reply.

"I hope to, ma'am."

Herdez twisted one corner of her mouth in a brief smile. "Hope counts for far less than performance, Mr. Sinclair. Do well, and success will follow." She indicated the screen of her terminal. "You ranked two hundred and tenth from the top of your Academy class. Not bad. Could you have done better?"

Paul took a moment before answering. Boy, that's a loaded question. Either 'yes' or 'no' could get me in trouble. I'd best just be honest. "Yes, ma'am, I could have ranked higher."

"Why didn't you?"

"Because I didn't try as hard as I could have the first couple of years. I had some growing up to do."

"That's not unusual in a young person, though not all of them actually manage to mature. What about the last two years?"

"The last two years I elected to take a few courses that ate up a lot of my study time but earned only passable grades."

Herdez pondered Paul's statement for a moment. "Why did you elect to take those courses, then?"

"They were subjects I thought I ought to know, ma'am."

"I see." Herdez glanced back at the record, then at Paul. "But you could have received better grades in other courses you could have taken instead?"

"Oh, yes, ma'am. No question. I already had a good handle on the stuff in those courses." The answer popped out without Paul's thinking, leaving him wondering if the reply had sounded vain or thoughtless.

"Hmmm. You certainly demonstrated academic skills, regardless. Why did you volunteer for duty on the Michaelson, Mr. Sinclair?"

Paul swallowed to give himself time to consider the question, electing again for the truth. "They said they needed somebody in this assignment."

"They?"

"The, uh, detailers, ma'am."

Herdez seemed amused by the reply. "Well, Mr. Sinclair, you seem to be devoted to neither puffing up your resume nor to demanding ticket-punching assignments. That bodes well for you. I see you've also attended the Ship's Legal Officer course."

"Yes, ma'am, but -"

"That's fortunate. The Michaelson needs a trained legal officer. You'll be assigned ship's legal officer as a collateral duty, effective now."

"Uh…yes, ma'am."

"As far as your primary duty, you'll be Assistant Combat Information Center Officer."

"Thank you, ma'am."

"The last postal officer just departed the ship. You'll have that collateral duty as well." She looked questioningly at Paul.

"Yes, ma'am."

"And we need to get a better handle on security issues. You'll be assistant security manager."

"Thank you, ma'am."

"You'll be expected to pursue your Open Space Warfare Officer qualifications. I like to personally track the progress of our junior officers in meeting those qualifications."

"Yes, ma'am." Paul tried not to flinch outwardly, thinking of the huge amount of material he would be required to master to earn those qualifications.

"Ship's office will assign you an inport and underway duty section. Do you have a stateroom?"

"Yes, ma'am, Commander Sykes -"

"Good. Have you met any of the other officers, yet?"

"Just Commander Sykes, Lieutenant Junior Grade Meadows and Ensign Shen."

"Good. You'll meet the rest of the wardroom soon enough."

"Yes, ma'am."

"Mr. Meadows can escort you around for the rest of your check-in procedure. While he is doing so, please inform Mr. Meadows that he'll regret it if I see that little flag of his again."

"Yes, ma'am."

"Welcome aboard, Mr. Sinclair. This is a challenging and demanding assignment. Give it your best."

"Thank you, ma'am. Yes, ma'am."

Commander Herdez rose slightly again, offered her hand once more, then waved Paul out.

 

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