There were times when the bridge of the USS Michaelson became a nerve-wracking maelstrom of activity, with orders being hurled at the watchstanders and emergencies from every quarter demanding their immediate attention. Most other times, the bridge simply held the tension of watchful waiting as the crew members there kept alert for internal surprises and external threats.
But then there were times like this. Late at night, the lights on the bridge lowered to accommodate the day/night cycle the Michaelson's crew had carried with them from Earth, the infinite stars glowing with amazing brilliance on the viewscreens dimming the soft green status lights on the control panels. No tension, no special activity, just quiet and boredom on top of too many long days with too little sleep.
Lieutenant Junior Grade Paul Sinclair felt his eyes drooping. He couldn't seem to stop the wave of fatigue settling over him, couldn't seem to force his eyes open. He felt a surge of fear which somehow didn't penetrate the fog falling across his vision. Falling asleep on watch had to be one of the worst things an officer could do. It would disgrace him, place the entire ship in danger if something happened when he was supposed to be alert and watching for the unexpected, and doubtless deal a deathblow to his career.
Paul's eyes fell further. He couldn't keep them open. With a titanic effort born of anger and fear he wrenched himself fully awake.
And found himself staring at the nearby, dim patterns of the ducts, cables and wiring which ran across the overhead just above his bunk in his darkened stateroom. The moment's disorientation passed, then Paul clenched his eyes shut again. A nightmare. I had a nightmare I was falling asleep on watch so I woke myself up for real. Great. He opened his eyes again long enough to check on the time. And in less than forty minutes I need to get out of this bunk and actually stand watch. I can't believe I just woke myself up when I'm only going to get about four hours sleep tonight as it is. He tried to calm down from the stress induced by the nightmare, breathing slowly, hoping to get back to sleep quickly. What a dumb thing to do. I guess as nightmares go that one's pretty harmless, though.
Much better than the ones he sometimes had about something happening to Jen.
About an hour later, Paul pulled himself onto the bridge, wishing that he was still asleep and dreaming this watch away. The time counters in the corner of each bridge display screen all provided the same annoying information – zero three forty-five on the twenty-four hour military clock. 'Dawn' on the Michaelson wouldn't take place for more than another two hours, but Paul's work day had begun.
"Howdy." Lieutenant Junior Grade Brad Pullman yawned even as he greeted Paul. He waved one hand toward the screen facing the junior officer of the deck watch station. "It's still there. They're still there. We're still here."
"I know. I checked the situation out in Combat on my way up here." Paul studied the screen, even though it held nothing new or unexpected. A fairly large asteroid filled most of the screen, slowly tumbling over and over just as it had for however many millions of years it'd wandered through space. As the asteroid's surface turned, the Michaelson's fire control systems painted a constantly changing set of aim points and firing solutions on temporary structures scattered across the bare rock.
The next screen showed a much larger view, in which the asteroid occupied only a small section. Scattered around it were the highlighted symbols which announced the presence of an even dozen warships and hired merchant ships. All the other ships carried temporary 'friendly' identifiers, but they, too, had firing solutions pasted over their symbols.
Pullman followed Paul's gaze. "Is it true this is the biggest gathering of warships in space? Ever?"
"Yeah," Paul confirmed. "My chief checked."
"So this is what making history feels like."
"Do you mean boring but tense, or just tedious?"
Pullman grinned and stretched. "Both. Any other questions?"
"Is anything scheduled for this morning? I didn't have anything listed in Combat."
"If we had anything, the Combat Information Center would have it, too. And I guess they'd tell you, Mr. Combat Information Center Officer." Pullman smiled again.
Paul snorted. "Yes, they would, but sometimes different orders get passed to the bridge and somebody forgets to tell Combat. It never hurts to make sure that didn't happen."
Pullman yawned once more. "To answer your question formally, no, there's nothing new laid on this morning. Unscheduled events can occur at any time, of course."
Like somebody starting to shoot at somebody else, Paul thought bleakly. "Otherwise just hold position and monitor events."
"Otherwise just hold position and monitor events," Pullman agreed. "Same old."
Paul scanned the status panels one more time, noting what equipment was ready to go and what rested in standby. "Okay, I got it." Paul saluted. "I relieve you, sir."
"I stand relieved." Pullman returned the salute. "On the bridge, this is Lieutenant JG Pullman. Lieutenant JG Sinclair has the conn."
"This is Lieutenant JG Sinclair. I have the conn." Paul kept his hand locked on the nearest hold while Pullman unstrapped and swung himself out of the watch stander's seat, then pulled himself down and refastened the straps without having to look at them. The gesture had been repeated so many times by now, on so many watches, that Paul was sure he could fasten those straps in his sleep if he needed to. "I'll try to keep things quiet so you can catch up on your beauty sleep, Brad."
Pullman rolled his eyes. "Wow. A couple of hours until reveille. Isn't there some regulation about letting us get enough sleep?"
"Yeah. Every officer is supposed to get at least the necessary minimum hours of sleep in each twenty-four hour period."
"So what's the necessary minimum?"
"The regulation doesn't say. It leaves that up to the individual ship. Which of course means the XO." Which meant the ship's Executive Officer, the second in command. Which on the Michaelson still meant Commander Kwan, who still didn't particularly like Paul. But in any case XOs had never been known for their kindly and casual ways.
"The XO sets the minimum," Pullman mused. "Which I guess means the minimum is whatever you manage to get."
"Bingo. But cheer up. If the minimum wasn't good enough -."
"It wouldn't be the minimum." Pullman waved a farewell with his free hand as the other grasped a nearby handhold to propel him toward the hatch leading off the bridge.
Paul grinned, turning to offer his own farewell to Lieutenant Kris Denaldo as she finished turning over officer of the deck duties to Lieutenant Val Isakov. Kris nodded back, then raised one hand with the thumb and forefinger held out parallel to each other and only a short distance apart. Paul grinned wider at the hand gesture signifying that Kris was 'short,' as in not long left before she transferred off the ship. "You're not gone, yet," he reminded her.
"No. But another day's gone. I'm very, very short." She smiled. "Soon I'll be short enough to walk under the lines painted on the deck. And soon after that I'll actually get to sleep every night instead of standing watches."
"I thought you intended doing other things during your free nights."
"Depends if I find the right guy. Has Jen told you to take a hike, yet?"
"Fine. I'm tired of waiting. You're off my list. I'd love to stay and chat the rest of the night away, but my bunk is calling."
Paul waved again in farewell, then noticed Lieutenant Val Isakov giving him a sour look as she strapped in at the officer of the deck watchstation. Uh oh. Now what's she up to? "Something wrong?"
Isakov shrugged elaborately. "Of course not. You have your little cliques and old friends. I'm just the newcomer."
"Val, you've been on the ship for about six months."
"And you and her," Isakov noted with a jerk of her head toward the hatch where Denaldo had left, "have been onboard for about three years. But that's okay. I don't expect to be allowed to feel part of your group."
Paul kept his expression noncommittal, carefully avoiding nodding or otherwise seeming to agree with her. He thought of Isakov as sort of a reptile, not bad to look at but not something he wanted to get close to, either. He also suspected that Isakov knew Kris Denaldo usually referred to her as 'Crazy Ivana,' a name Paul also thought fit Val Isakov perfectly.
"But then your old Academy pal shows up," Isakov continued, "and you go through all that ring-knocker bonding nonsense. It's a bit much."
"What ring-knocker nonsense?" Paul had never been bothered by the standard nickname for Naval Academy graduates, which mocked their alleged tendency to knock their class rings on objects as a way of drawing attention to themselves.
"'If the minimum wasn't good enough…'"
This time Paul shrugged. "It's sort of an unofficial motto. That's all. Brad Pullman wasn't a big friend of mine at the Academy. We're classmates, and we shared a few courses over the years, so I know him and he knows me. No big deal."
"Sure." Isakov subsided into sulky silence.
Paul pretended to be concentrating on his display. He never knew whether Isakov would try to aim a heavy-handed come-on his way or try to bite his head off or just ignore him. Personally, I much prefer being ignored by her.
"Mr. Sinclair, sir?"
Paul twisted his chair so he could look at the bosun mate of the watch. "What's up?"
The bosun tilted his head toward the messenger of the watch. "I've been tryin' to explain what we're doin' here to Valejo, and damned if I can."
"That's okay, boats. It's not in your job description."
Val Isakov bent another sour look toward Paul. "Keep it professional."
Paul followed an old piece of advice and just smiled back at her. "Yes, ma'am." Then he addressed the messenger. "Seaman Apprentice Valejo, you just came aboard, right?"
She nodded quickly. "Yes, sir. I came on with Mr. Pullman and Ms., uh…"
"Okay, then." Paul hooked a thumb toward the display dominated by the craggy surface of the asteroid. "There's a rule, one of the few rules everybody's agreed to up here, that nobody gets to set themselves up on an asteroid without international approval, supervision and inspection." Valejo nodded again, but her face was puzzled. "Do you know what killed the dinosaurs?"
"Oh, yeah. I mean, yes, sir! Some big rock hit the planet."
"Right." Paul indicated the asteroid again. "A big rock like that. We don't really want any more big rocks hitting Earth anytime soon, but if somebody was allowed to just settle on one, they could maybe set up a propulsion method to kick that rock toward Earth. Hopefully, we could intercept and divert it. Hopefully. No one wants it to get to that point."
The bosun spoke again. "That's what I don't understand, Mr. Sinclair. Why'd anybody do something like that?"
"I don't understand it either, boats, but every once in a while some group of people does something that's really scary for the rest of us." Paul indicated the structures on the asteroid's surface. "This particular group calls itself the Church of One. 'One' as in the only one they think should exist, apparently. They received approval to set up a remote settlement on Mars. No big deal. That sort of thing's been done before. It makes a small group of people happy, helps pay for stuff on Mars for everybody else, and pretty much renders any anti-social types harmless since they're out in the Martian equivalent of east nowhere."
"But they didn't go to Mars," the bosun noted.
"No. They hijacked the ship carrying them. They did a good job of it, too. No alarms. No alerts. They diverted the ship here and did it so quietly that no one realized what was happening in time to stop them. That ship, there. It's just a regular merchant named the Jedidiah Smith." Paul pointed with one finger at the symbol representing a ship hanging perilously close to the asteroid. The Michaelson's combat systems had a half-dozen aim points fixed upon the ship's hull, ready to blow holes through critical areas if need be. "Then they offloaded their stuff, which seems to have included a lot of gear for living on an asteroid and not all that much for living on Mars, and pretty much dared everybody to do anything about it."
"And we're goin' to take 'em off, right, sir?"
"Right. Not you and me, but those modified cargo carriers loaded up with cops."
"Cops? Not Marines or SEALS?"
"No. This isn't a combat mission. Nobody's supposed to get shot. Combat troops like Marines are trained to shoot. Cops are trained to try to avoid shooting."
Valejo nodded again but the bosun looked perplexed. "Then why are we here? And all them other guys?" He made a gesture encompassing all the other ships shown in the displays.
Paul pondered the question for a moment. Do I really want to get into all the politics here? The fact that everyone is here to keep an eye on everyone else as well as the illegal settlers and the cops? That these Church of One types not only have made hostages of the crew of that ship they hijacked but are also threatening to kill all of their own kids if force is used against their 'settlement?' I can't go into any of that. The rules of engagement that tell us under what conditions we're allowed to fire, and who we're allowed to fire at, are classified pretty high and the bosun doesn't have a need to know. "Everybody's here to keep an eye on things." The bosun let his skepticism show. "Boats, that really does sum it up. And that's as detailed as I can get."
Paul became aware that Lieutenant Isakov was watching him narrowly. Just waiting for me to spill something I shouldn't? I wonder what Crazy Ivana would do with knowledge I'd broken security regulations? Not keep it to herself, I'm sure.
The bosun nodded. "Yes, sir. I understand you officers can't tell us everything. Thank you, sir."
"No problem." Paul noticed Isakov going back into a solitary sulk. He relaxed against his own seat, eyes on the surface of the asteroid, watching as it completed rotations and the same structures and aim points came into view time and again. At some point he realized the repetitive motion was becoming hypnotic and began cycling through other views to remain alert.
An external communications circuit chirped for attention, breaking the silence on the bridge and startling everyone, then spoke in the clear, unaccented English which meant whoever was sending the message was speaking or typing it into a verbal translator that rendered the words into another language. "This is South Asian Alliance Ship Gilgamesh. I am altering my position two kilometers along a bearing of one three five degrees relative, down angle two zero degrees relative. Over."
Paul tapped his own communications controls to acknowledge the Gilgamesh's message, letting the other ship know the message had been received and understood.. "This is USS Michaelson. Roger, out."
He glanced over at Isakov, or who looked back at him and nodded toward the general area of the Captain's cabin as she answered his unspoken question. "You go ahead and call him."
"Okay." Paul reached for the comm switch, then hesitated and went to his display controls instead. He manually moved the Gilgamesh's position along the track it had announced, then told the combat systems to update their readings and studied the results for a moment before finally calling the Captain. "Sir, this is the junior officer of the deck. The Gilgamesh has informed us they're changing position slightly."
"Slightly?" Captain Hayes sounded grumpy, but then he hadn't had much sleep lately.
Probably less than any of the other officers had, Paul realized when he thought about it. And Paul hadn't been getting very much. "Yes, sir. Two kilometers along a track one three five relative and two zero down from his current position. Our combat systems don't reveal any change in the tactical situation as a result."
"Hmmm. No reason given for the shift?"
"No, si -." Paul's answer was cut off by another call to the bridge.
"Bridge, this is Combat. We've analyzed the Gilgamesh's position change. In his previous location the asteroid's tumble would produce an occasional momentary line of sight blockage between the Gilgamesh and the Saladin. This change will make sure they have continuous line of sight."
"Thanks, Combat. Captain, Combat reports the Gilgamesh probably moved to ensure a continuous line of the sight to the other SASAL warship present, the Saladin."
"Hmmm. Okay. Thanks. Keep me informed."
"Yes, sir." Paul listened to the circuit click off, feeling a tight knot in his guts. I should've gotten that analysis from Combat before I called the Captain. But what if Combat had taken a while to figure out that line of sight thing and something had happened before then so that I'd have had to tell the Captain I hadn't informed him of the Gilgamesh shifting position when it took place? I would've lost a piece of my hind end if that'd happened. I got lucky. Or maybe I helped make my luck. After all, I've been leading those operations specialists in Combat for a long time, now. He pressed the comm switch again. "Combat, this is Mr. Sinclair on the bridge. Who ran that analysis on the Gilgamesh?"
"That was me, sir. Kaji."
Operations Specialist First Class Kaji. "Damn good job. That was fine work, Kaji."
"Thank you, sir."
Paul didn't bother looking toward Val Isakov. He knew she wouldn't offer any praise and he didn't want to look like he expected any. Besides, that message from the Gilgamesh rattled me. It felt too much like it woke me up from a daze. How can I be drifting off when there's so much potential for trouble? But let's face it, that was probably the only two minutes of excitement we're going to see in this four hour watch and I'm working on a serious sleep deficit.
But if anything else exciting happens I don't want it waking me up.
If there'd been another officer standing watch with him, they could've played trivia games to pass the time and keep awake. I'll take emergency maneuvering systems for four hundred, if they were in a professional mood. Or I'll take late twentieth century movies for two hundred, if they weren't. But not with Isakov.
He did the next best thing, calling up the detailed information on the other ships present, both warships and freighters. He'd already looked at them too many times to count, but if an emergency arose he might need to know something right off the top of his head.
It worked well enough to pass the time that Paul was surprised when the bosun cleared his throat. "Permission to sound reveille, ma'am."
Isakov, who didn't seem to have moved for hours, nodded without looking back at the bosun. "Permission granted."
The bosun raised his pipe, an archaic little device the Navy had clung to even as efficiency experts tried to sell the virtues of digital recordings played automatically with canned announcements. In the deliberate inefficiency of his human presence, the bosun represented one of the U.S. Navy's constant rear-guard battles against change. The bosun keyed the ship's internal broadcast system, took a deep breath, then sounded the drawn-out whistle which tradition insisted upon for declaring the ship's day had begun. "Reveille, reveille," the bosun chanted immediately after the last note faded. "All hands turn to and trice up."
Paul stretched and yawned as Isakov made a face and dialed up the captain's cabin. He knew she didn't like giving the Captain his wake-up call, but Isakov knew that was one task she had to handle in person instead of handing it off to Paul. He half-listened as Isakov ran through the standard spiel. "Good morning, Captain. It's zero six hundred. The ship is on-station…"
The darkened bridge gradually brightened as the ship's lights came to their "day" settings. Occasional sounds came to the bridge team as the rest of the ship stirred to life. The bosun passed mess call for breakfast. Paul glanced at the hatch, hoping their reliefs would show up on the bridge before the Captain did. He both liked and respected Hayes, but the Captain could be a real bear first thing in the morning if he hadn't got at least a few good hours of sleep.
Paul turned and smiled. "Yo, Randy."
Ensign Randy Diego smiled, too, though the gesture was aimed mostly at Isakov. Paul tried not to let his reaction show, instead running through the details Randy had to know in order to assume the watch, repeating some of it when Randy's attention seemed to be wandering. "Okay. That's it. Any questions?"
Paul pointed to the display. "Don't forget the Captain's going to ask questions about Gilgamesh after that position change."
Randy blinked with apparent surprise, then nodded. "Right, right. I'll be ready." He saluted. "I relieve you, sir."
"I stand relieved. On the bridge, this is Lieutenant Junior Grade Sinclair. Ensign Diego has the conn."
"This is Ensign Diego. I have the conn," Randy repeated.
Paul unstrapped wearily and pulled himself out of his chair. 'Later, Randy." He glanced over at Isakov, who was busy turning over her duties to Lieutenant Bolen and ignoring both Paul and Randy, then pulled himself off the bridge using the handholds set at convenient intervals in any spot that wasn't occupied by some other equipment. Living in zero-gravity most of the time didn't do much for the leg muscles, but the arms got good workouts.
He went through Combat on the way aft, stopping to once again praise Petty Officer Kaji for his quick work a few hours previous.
Most of the passageways on the Michaelson were still relatively free of traffic this early on the ship's morning, but Paul still found himself squeezing past other members of the crew whenever they passed. He'd seen some specifications which declared that the passageways on the ship had originally been designed to be wide enough for two people to pass without any trouble, but it didn't take a genius to look at all the equipment, wiring, ducting and piping sticking out from the bulkheads and realize that a few things had been added on to the ship after those specs were drawn up.
The compartment grandly labeled the wardroom was still empty when Paul pulled himself inside to grab some coffee. He paused, looking toward the chair at one end of the table that dominated the wardroom. Commander Steve Sykes' chair. Suppo always seemed to be sitting there, but he got more done than any supply officer I've ever heard of. It feels funny not having him onboard anymore.
He was still hanging there when Kris Denaldo came in, looking like she'd spent half the night standing watch. Which she had. "How's the coffee?" she mumbled.
"It's good to know there's some things we can always count on," Kris remarked, shuddering as she took a drink. "Too bad Suppo's not here for us to complain to." She looked toward the same chair. "I miss the old Suppo."
"Who doesn't? I have to admit the new guy has a hard act to follow. But I don't see much of the new guy," Paul confessed.
"Nobody does. Commander 'Silent-E' Smithe spends a lot of time in his stateroom. I don't know what he's doing in there, but it's not anything that's helping me get the spare parts I need."
"Yeah. I'm having more trouble getting parts than I used to. Mike Bristol tells me he's doing his best to get us what we need, but it's not like it was with Commander Sykes and his forty thieves 'acquiring' whatever we needed. Smithe insists on doing things by the book."
"Heaven help us." Denaldo make another face, either from the coffee or the situation. "We'll never get the stuff we need if it all has to run through official channels." She shook her head, then took another look at Paul. "Hey, you look worse than I feel. Anything wrong?" Paul hesitated. "I saw that."
"Kris, you've got enough troubles of your own -."
"Shipmate, when I walk off the Merry Mike for the last time you'll be the longest serving officer onboard. The old guy who personally remembers the ancient past a couple of years ago. Until then, you and I are still friends of some years standing who can lean on each other. What's up?"
Paul shrugged. "Nothing. Not really. I haven't been getting much sleep."
"None of us have. Are you sure there's nothing else?"
"Um…" Paul grimaced. "I guess I haven't been able to sleep some of the times I could've."
Denaldo looked alarmed. "You haven't been able to sleep sometimes? You know that's bad in a sailor. What's the problem, Paul? Level with me."
Paul hesitated again. I need to get this off my chest, and Kris is probably the last person left on the ship I can talk to about something like this. "I have these nightmares every once in a while. You remember when the Maury blew."
A shadow fell across Kris' face. "That's not something I'll ever forget. But you're still having nightmares about that?"
"Sort of. I mean…I went over there."
"Yeah. Most of us did at one point or another. But I remember you were on one of the first teams sent over to help."
"It's sort of about that." Paul took a deep breath. "I dream I'm back on the Maury right then, climbing through the wreckage, assessing the damage, wondering what'd happened to Jen."
He paused for a long time, while Kris watched him closely before she spoke again. "We found out Jen had survived in the after part of the Maury. After you got back. You just didn't find her."
"In the nightmares, I find her."
Kris frowned, then her eyes widened. "Oh. Nightmares. You find her in the wreckage."
"Yeah." Paul looked away, feeling immense relief as he finally blurted out the story. "Caught by the explosion and the decompression."
"Mary, mother of God." Kris shuddered. "You see that? No wonder you can't sleep sometimes. But it didn't happen, Paul. Your mind's torturing you over something that didn't happen. You didn't find Jen's body. She was safe, and she's still alive now."
"Accidents still happen, Kris. Could happen anytime."
Kris Denaldo sighed. "That comes with the territory, Paul. Jen's not going to live in a gilded cage. Not for you or anybody else. She's a Navy officer, like you. Hell, she's not even on shipboard duty now. Jen's sitting safe in a temporary job on Franklin Station while you and I cruise around out here with various foreign warships and religious fanatics pointing weapons at us. She's the one who ought to be worried. About you. But she'll never tell you she's worried, you know."
Paul smiled wryly. "Yeah. I know."
"Jen's a lot safer than you are. Is this about something else?"
"What? What else?"
"I don't know." She made a vague gesture. "Some problems your subconscious might be twisting around. Are you and Jen doing okay?"
"Uh, yeah. Sure we are."
"The wedding's still on?"
Paul knew his irritation at the question was showing. "Of course it's still on. Right after I detach from the Michaelson."
"Alright. Don't bite my head off. Something's got you worried, that's all."
"Not with me and Jen." Paul felt a slight twinge inside as he made the firm declaration. There isn't anything wrong! Jen's not the easiest person in the world to live with, but I'm not exactly perfect, either. Maybe I'm just worried that something will still happen to mess things up between us. "Maybe it's just all the stress here. I've only got a few months left onboard, I'll make Lieutenant in a month, we're facing off with all these other warships and the civilians, and…well, everything."
Kris smiled sadly. "Oh, yeah. Everything."
They both looked over as two more officers came in. Commander Garcia, Paul's department head and immediate superior for the past two and a half years, gave Paul his habitual glower. Paul suspected there were times when Garcia wasn't in a bad mood, but he'd never caught Garcia at it. "No work to do, Sinclair?"
"I just came off watch, sir," Paul answered.
Garcia turned to look at the nearest clock, obviously implying how many minutes ago Paul must've actually come off watch, then shook his head and headed for the coffee. Paul and Kris slid to the side to avoid him and leave the wardroom, but had to wait as another officer followed Garcia inside.
Commander Angie Moraine nodded absent-minded greetings to them, her attention focused on Garcia. She was Garcia's relief, due to take over as Paul's new department head and busy trying to learn everything Garcia could show and tell her about the job in the next couple of weeks. Then she'd become Paul's immediate superior, and determine just how pleasant or unpleasant his own last few months on the ship would be.
"Sinclair." Paul stopped himself halfway out the hatch and looked back at Garcia. Garcia tilted his head to indicate the general direction of the asteroid. "Anything happen last night?"
"No, sir." Paul became aware that Moraine had also fixed her gaze on him, watching him with unnerving intensity. "Just a minor repositioning by Gilgamesh."
Garcia's scowl deepened. "Why wasn't I told?"
Oh, hell. Why didn't I tell Garcia? He didn't need to know it even though he's the Operations Department boss. But I should've guessed he'd want to know. "We informed the Captain, sir, and -."
"Did I ask you if you'd told the Captain?"
Paul fought down a flare of anger and tried to keep his voice level. "No, sir."
"I expect to be kept informed of any change in the situation, Sinclair."
"Yes, sir." At least I've learned that when somebody like Garcia is screaming at me the best thing to do is to just keep no, siring and yes, siring. He wants me to say something else he can scream at me for, but I'm not going to give him that.
Garcia turned away. Moraine's gaze on Paul had sharpened, but she looked away as well to follow Garcia's movement.
Paul took advantage of the moment to finish exiting the hatch. Kris glowered toward the wardroom. "I can't wait to get away from him," she snapped in a voice too low to carry far. "At least you'll have Moraine for the next few months."
"Yeah, but what's she going to be like?"
"She can't be worse than Garcia."
Paul shook his head, not trusting himself to make any other comment as some other officers came into view. But he thought to himself that so far experience had shown him things could always be worse.
Half an hour later Paul and Kris Denaldo were facing Garcia and Moraine again for officers' call. Along with them was Ensign Taylor, the ship's Electronic Materiel Officer. Despite her lowly officer rank, Taylor was a mustang, a former enlisted sailor who'd come up through the ranks and therefore had immensely more knowledge and prestige than the average ensign. As a result, she also had a lot more attitude than the average ensign.
Garcia's temper had obviously stayed bad. "There's a meeting in the wardroom at 0830. Make sure you're there. Nobody better be late." His glower focused on Taylor as she raised one hand with deliberate casualness. "What?"
"Commander, you told us to run electronic systems checks this morning."
"Your last instructions to me were that I was to be 'directly supervising critical systems checks.' You said that was top priority for me." Taylor spread her hands. "Just asking for guidance, sir."
"You -." Garcia broke off whatever he'd been planning to say, took a deep breath, and spoke again. "The meeting takes priority."
"Should I postpone the checks, sir?"
Garcia visibly wavered as his face reddened, then he shook his head. "No. Any more questions?" He looked toward Paul and Kris. "How about you two? No? Good." Garcia leveled his index finger at them. "No screw ups, people. Do you understand? Nothing goes wrong." Then he turned, grabbed the nearest handhold and yanked himself toward the hatch.
Taylor waited until Garcia and Moraine had both left, then chuckled. "I love messing with that son of a bitch."
Denaldo looked upward beseechingly. "'Nothing goes wrong'? How the hell do we make that happen?"
Taylor grinned. "Don't worry, sweetheart. Garcia's just trying to make sure his butt's covered until he gets off this ship."
"Is that why he's being even worse than usual?" Paul asked.
"Sure. He wants to be relaxing and handing off the job to Moraine. His tour of duty's almost over and he's got halfway decent orders for his next job. But if something screws up at the last moment he could still end up with his butt in a bight. And here we are facing off with a bunch of other warships and some religious fanatics. Yup. He's worried." Taylor grinned again, apparently finding great amusement in the prospect that something might go seriously wrong. "Aren't you worried about that, Kris darling?"
She shrugged. "I guess. But I've done everything I can to get my division ready. We're trained, we're prepared, we're working our tails off to stay that way. Going ballistic isn't going to help things."
Taylor nodded. "Pretty dammed smart for a college kid."
"You went to college, too."
"Did not. Not a real one. Not like you and our buddy Paul here." Taylor gave Paul a grin.
Paul smiled back. "I didn't go to college. I went to the Naval Academy. Remember?"
"How can I forget, with you waving that ring in our faces?" Taylor sighed. "Ah, well, I'd best get going to pass on Garcia's inspirational words to my division. See you kids in the wardroom."
Paul met Senior Chief Petty Officer Imari and the rest of his division in Combat, running quickly through the few items he had to pass down. "Stay sharp," he advised. "Dismissed." Then he gestured to Imari as the other sailors scattered to their jobs. "Senior Chief, I'll be in a meeting in the wardroom."
Imari nodded. "I hope it's good news, sir," she said.
Paul made it back to the wardroom by 0820, wedging himself into a corner in the back with one arm through the nearest handhold. In zero gravity, that was about the most relaxing position possible as the room filled with other officers.
Garcia and Moraine entered, claiming seats at the table. After Garcia had strapped in, he manipulated some controls and the main display screen on the bulkhead lit up.
A rustle ran through the wardroom as those present looked to see whatever was shown on the screen. It only took Paul an instant to recognize the information, a read-out of the capabilities of the foreign warships present around the asteroid. He'd studied the same materiel a thousand times in recent weeks.
All of the other ships were roughly comparable to the Michaelson in terms of size and armament. So far, at least, no one had shown any desire to build space battleships, and as far as Paul knew the state of technology and the laws of physics meant that huge warships wouldn't make any sense in space at this point in time. Not that everything governments sank large sums of money into necessarily made sense, but in this case no one had succumbed to the urge to build a bigger ship just because it'd be bigger. Ships significantly smaller than the Michaelson, on the other hand, tended to be kept near bases where their small capacity for fuel and other supplies wasn't a handicap.
Paul went down the list of Earthside powers represented here. That Brit ship, the Lord Nelson, I wonder if she still has that insane Captain who played chicken with the SASALs that one time? There was one other Euro ship, the Russians, the Southern Africans, the two ships from the South Asian Alliance, and one from the Han Chinese state. Eight warships total, counting the Michaelson. In one corner, the four hired merchant ships were listed, almost an afterthought except for the security forces they carried.
Commander Kwan, the executive officer, swung himself inside the wardroom and scanned the officers present before looking at the department heads. "Are all your officers present?" he demanded.
The department heads all assured the XO that their officers were present and Kwan left to get the Captain. Paul frowned as it occurred to him that something wasn't right, then he realized there was a department missing. Supply. Neither Smithe or Mike Bristol is here. Kwan would've noticed that if he'd wanted them present. This must be more serious than usual if they're deliberately excluding the Supply Department.
"Attention on deck!"
Everyone began to try to stand to attention in the crowded, zero gravity environment, but Captain Hayes came through the hatch on the heels of Kwan's announcement and gestured for them to relax. "Carry on."
Captain Hayes looked slowly around the small compartment, his eyes meeting those of every other officer in turn. Then he tapped his data pad. "We have reason to believe the current stand-off will not last much longer." Everyone watched him, wondering what sort of ending would take place and whether or not they'd be told of it in advance.
Hayes paused and rubbed his forehead. Paul realized the Captain looked haggard from tension and lack of sleep, just like all the other officers in the wardroom. "I want to personally ensure all of you are fully aware of the rules of engagement under which we are operating. There must be no uncertainty in anyone's mind. Everyone present has to be fully familiar with the exact limits on our ability to act. I will remind everyone as well that these rules of engagement are classified Top Secret and are only to be divulged on a strict need-to-know basis as determined by me. They are not to be divulged to anyone outside of this room. Is that clear?" The other officers all nodded or murmured understanding.
Hayes leaned back, his expression unhappy. "You'll all reread these rules and indicate you understand them before you leave this meeting. The most important thing to remember is that we're forbidden to initiate any military action against any other ship present." He paused while everyone absorbed the statement. "We're forbidden to make any provocative actions, anything that might in any way trigger hostile action. That includes our ability to respond if someone else starts shooting. Even if they seem to be shooting at us. We're to do nothing against anyone except and unless," Hayes leaned forward and raised a single finger, "we are first deliberately fired upon and hit."
Ensign Taylor cleared her throat. "It might be a little late to power-up weapons at that point."
The XO and both Commanders Garcia and Moraine glared at Taylor, but Hayes just showed his teeth. "That's right. But those are our orders."
"Sir." Commander Destin, the Chief Engineer, was frowning. "I didn't read these rules as prohibiting verbal warnings."
Hayes shook his head. "That's incorrect. We're not allowed to issue verbal warnings. We're not allowed to threaten military action of any kind. That'd be…provocative." The Captain looked like he had something bitter in his mouth as he said the last word.
"Why are we here?" Kris Denaldo blurted out, ignoring a fresh set of glares from both Garcia and Moraine as well as the XO. "Captain?"
Hayes twisted his mouth. "That's a reasonable question. We're here to deter any adverse actions. That hasn't changed. But it's a bluff, Ms. Denaldo. We want our presence to prevent anything from getting out of hand. That can only work if the other ships present are sufficiently unsure of our own intentions and ability to act if and when we see fit. I hope that makes it crystal clear why the limitations on our ability to act must remain very tightly held."
"The rules regarding the people on the asteroid are different. If they fire upon us, we are authorized to take out any weapons firing at us. That's all. Nothing else. No power supplies. No inactive weapons. Nothing else. Pure self-defense on the most limited basis possible."
Commander Destin spoke again. "The people on the asteroid have threatened to use their children as human shields."
Captain Hayes grimaced. "We're all aware of that. We'll cross that bridge when we come to it, if we come to it. We have to hope the cops can prevent any firing from taking place. They're supposed to have some new non-lethal stuff that'll incapacitate the defenders before they can do any shooting."
"What about the other ships?" Brad Pullman asked. "Do we know what rules of engagement they're operating under?"
Garcia gave Pullman an annoyed look. "No."
Hayes paused as if thinking for a moment before he spoke again. "As I said, I have reason to believe this stand-off is coming to a head soon. I know this ship is as ready as human effort can make her, and I want you all to know I recognize the extraordinary effort the crew has been put forth in the last few weeks. But I need to make sure you're all ready, too. Mentally ready. If somebody throws a punch we need to ready to react in the most appropriate means possible."
Silence followed the Captain's last statement. Paul wondered how many of the others were thinking what he was. Just what will be the 'most appropriate means possible'? Especially since we can't really do anything if someone 'throws a punch'? He felt frustration boiling up inside. It's not the Captain's fault. Hell, it's not the fault of anyone on this ship. We've been sent into this mess with orders that tie our hands. But if anything goes wrong, it'll be our fault.