Two hundred starships sat silent and passive in orbit around New Chicago, their captains and crews patiently waiting for the order to get under way.
At the center of the formation was the Zilpah, a three-kilometer long behemoth of a warship which the Navy classed as a heavy destroyer because the Dreadnought designation was already taken. This was the most powerful standing warship the Navy could field, and she was only deployed as the flagship for large fleet engagements.
Admiral Steven Turner stood silent on the flag bridge of the Zilpah, listening to the muted activity behind him as he stared out the large transparisteel viewport at the assemblage of warships that he would soon be leading into battle. It was to be the single most decisive operation of the war, a no holds barred assault on the main base of operations for the Rebellion. After this assault they would have nowhere to rearm, refuel, and take leave. The Rebellion would be over, and Turner would be well on his way to promotion to Grand Admiral.
Of course, the only way that he would ever see that promotion would be if the assault was a success, and that would only happen if all of the warships tasked to the fleet actually made the rendezvous. As it stood just then, the Admiral found his fleet short by exactly ten starships, and all ten were posted to the Holloway group under the command of Fleet Commodore Cale Sandorsen.
Turner had read the recent reports submitted by the Holloway, knew of the cloning facility that they had found and of the recent destruction of Newton Station by Rebel forces. Turner also knew that after the station had been destroyed, the High Command had ordered the Holloway to report to New Chicago to join the New Bellerophon assault fleet.
At full burn all the way it would take eighty hours for the Holloway group to make the journey from Newton Station to New Chicago. Their recall orders had been issued some ten days prior, which meant that they were more than five days late. In addition, the Holloway group wasn’t answering signals, making it impossible for Turner to contact them and find out what the hell was going on.
Turner was going to need all the firepower he could get his greedy little hands on at New Bellerophon, and the absence of the Holloway group was going to be acutely felt. The High Command had a thousand or more other deployments to worry about, so they couldn’t afford to send ships after the Holloway, which meant that Turner was going to have to detach some of his own forces to go after Sandorsen. Having to detach his own forces to bring Sandorsen in irked Turner even more than Sandorsen’s continued absence, and the admiral vowed that he was going to have a very one-sided conversation with the wayward Commodore when he saw him again.
Behind the admiral, the access way for the flag bridge snicked open and a young captain stepped through, followed closely by a much senior commodore. The pair walked up behind the admiral and stopped a full two meters behind him, snapped to attention and waited. Turner let them stand that way for a moment before turning slowly to face them.
“Fleet Commodore David Richardson, Admiral,” the captain said by way of introduction.
“Thank you, Captain,” Turner acknowledged. “You may return to your bridge.”
The captain saluted, then turned on his heel and left the flag bridge.
Turner turned to the Commodore and extended his hand. “Thank you for coming, Commodore,” he said.
Richardson reached out to shake the admiral’s hand. “It’s not a problem, Admiral,” he answered. “What can I do for you?”
Turner took a deep breath before he began. “As you are no doubt aware we are almost ready to move on New Bellerophon. At this point there is only one thing holding us back. Our little fleet is currently ten ships lighter than it should be, as the Holloway battle group hasn’t seen fit to make rendezvous with us.”
Richardson frowned. “Sir, I know the Commodore in command of the Holloway group. He’s not the type do anything unless he’s got a pretty good reason.”
“Then Mr. Sandorsen should pray that he has a very good reason,” Turner grated. “He’s holding up my assault, and I won’t stand for it. He’s not answering signals to make rendezvous, nor has he bothered to file an updated flight plan. The High Command currently has no idea where the Holloway and her escorts are, and they can’t detach vessels from other deployments to go looking for them, which means that I have to detach ships from my own commands to go hunting.”
“May I presume that you are about to ask me to do just that?” Richardson ventured.
“Precisely,” Turner confirmed. “Your orders are to find the Holloway battle group and bring them to New Chicago for the New Bellerophon assault.”
Richardson frowned. “Admiral, not trying to throw a wrench into things or anything, but if Commodore Sandorsen has gone off on some personal mission then he won’t be inclined to return to Imperial authority just because I’m telling him to. What am I to do then?”
Turner looked Richardson right in the eye. “In that event you are ordered to relieve him of his command and place him under arrest. He is to be charged with disobeying the orders of a superior officer. You are then to take the Holloway and her escorts to the nearest Deep Space Station and deliver the Commodore into the custody of the local Judge Advocate General.”
Richardson felt his eyes go wide. “If I remember the regulations surrounding Court Martial proceedings correctly,” he began, “then the senior officer present when the offending officer is arrested is required to attend the proceedings and testify. If I have to arrest Commodore Sandorsen then that means I will be that senior officer and I will not be able to leave the station to join the assault. That will leave your assault force twenty ships light instead of just ten.”
Turner nodded. “I’m aware of that, Commodore, and I’m counting on you to remind Commodore Sandorsen of the Court Martial regulations. I’m also counting on you to inform him that I would consider it a personal affront if he were to make it necessary for you to arrest him, and that if he miraculously manages to escape a guilty verdict I will personally ensure that his career in the Imperial Navy is brought to a very abrupt end. Do you understand me, Commodore?”
Richardson swallowed past the lump that suddenly formed in his throat and tried not to fidget as a chill cascaded down his spine. Relieving a flag officer of his command was not something that one did lightly, and never without the gravest of circumstances making it necessary. But that was exactly what he was being ordered to do if Cale Sandorsen refused to return to New Chicago with him.
Richardson had attended the New Annapolis academy with Cale. The last thing that he wanted to do was relieve a friend of his command and take him home in chains. He just hoped that Cale wouldn’t make it necessary.
“Yes, Admiral,” Richardson answered. “I understand perfectly.”
“Are there any questions?” Turner asked.
Richardson brought himself back to attention and shook his head. “No, sir.”
“Very well, then,” the admiral said. “I’ve sent a data file to your station detailing the Holloway group’s last assignment. I suggest you begin your search there. You have seven days to either bring the Holloway here or to signal me that Commodore Sandorsen has been placed under arrest.”
“Yes, sir,” Richardson answered.
“Very well. You’re dismissed.”
* * *
Richardson dropped into his chair on the flag deck of the Zapata with a haunted expression on his face. Commander Amanda Lawson, his executive officer, stepped up beside him and leaned against the console, folded her arms across her chest. “You look as if you’ve just seen a ghost,” she commented.
“I think that I just may have,” Richardson returned and told Amanda of his talk with the admiral.
Amanda whistled appreciatively at her commodore’s discomfort. “That’s quite a load to bear,” she said. “How are you intending to go about it?”
Richardson shook his head. “I don’t know,” he admitted. “I figure I’ll bomb that bridge when I come to it. But I know how I’m going to start. The admiral sent a data file to my station with details about the Holloway group’s last deployment. I want you to go into that file and tell navigation to prepare a course for that position, and then get us moving at full burn. I want us through whatever jump point we have to go through as soon as possible.”
“Understood,” Amanda acknowledged. “And what are you going to be doing?”
“I’m going down to my quarters and try to raise the Holloway, see if I can get Cale to tell us where he is.”
“If he isn’t answering the High Command then what makes you think he’s going to answer you?” Amanda wanted to know.
Richardson shrugged. “Simple. I’m just making a social call.”
“Yeah, some social call,” Amanda commented.
“You’re telling me,” Richardson agreed.
* * *
Lieutenant Jonathon Morgan, signals officer for the Holloway, stepped up to the flag deck and leaned in over Fleet Commodore Cale Sandorsen’s shoulder to whisper in his ear. “Sir, I have a signal coming in from the Zapata,” he explained. “Fleet Commodore David Richardson is asking to speak with you. He says that it’s very important.”
Cale looked up at the young officer. “Have you answered the signal?” he asked.
Lieutenant Morgan shook his head. “No, sir.” Cale nodded. As long as the signal went unanswered no record of it would appear in the ship’s signal logs.
Commander Jeff MacIntyre, executive officer of the Holloway, stepped up to the flag deck and joined the conversation. “I recommend not answering,” he said. “This could be a front for a return order from the High Command. They know by now that we’re not returning until we’ve accomplished our mission and they’ve got to be more than a little irked about that.”
“I agree,” Cale said, “but somehow not answering the signal feels wrong.”
“How do you mean?” Jeff asked.
“David and I went to the academy together,” Cale explained, “and we’ve served together off and on since then. In a lot of ways we know each other better than our own wives do. If he was trying to get in touch with me because the High Command told him to, then he would have said something when he was making his signal.” Cale looked up at the signals lieutenant. “Was there any indication that this was the case?” he asked.
Lieutenant Morgan shook his head. “No, sir. The Commodore simply said that he needed to speak to you and that it was urgent.”
“I still don’t like the sound of it,” Jeff protested.
“Noted and logged,” Cale answered. “Lieutenant, answer the signal and route it up to my station, if you please.”
“Aye aye, sir.” The Lieutenant stepped down to his station and tapped a series of commands into his console. A moment later one of Cale’s screens came to life, displaying the head and shoulders of Fleet Commodore David Richardson. “David,” Cale greeted, “what can I do for you?”
David frowned into the pickup. “Cale, you and I really need to talk,” he said.
Cale leaned back in his chair. “I’m listening.”
David shook his head. “Not over an open channel like this,” he protested. “We need to talk face to face, in person. Where can I make rendezvous with you?”
Now it was Cale’s turn to frown. The key to being able to accomplish their self-imposed mission was the ability to evade the attention of the High Command. If Cale broadcast their location over an open channel and that signal were to be intercepted then it would be an invitation for the High Command to send a fleet after them. On the other hand, this was David, and if he said they needed to talk, then they needed to talk. “I’ll have my Navigator confer with your Navigator and work something out,” he offered.
David seemed to breathe a sigh of relief on the other end. “Thanks, Cale. See you on the other side.” The screen darkened again.
Cale looked up at Jeff. “Have April confer with the navigator for the Zapata over a secure channel. Tell them to come up with a point where we can rendezvous with the Zapata without taking us significantly out of our way or drawing attention to our activities.”
Jeff nodded and stepped back to confer with Lieutenant Knight.
Cale leaned back in his chair and steepled his fingers in front of his face and wondered what it was that David wanted to see him about.
* * *
Three days later David stepped off a shuttle and onto the flight deck of the Holloway. He strode between the rows formed by the side party that rendered him boarding honors and came to a stop one meter in front of Cale. “Permission to come aboard?” he asked formally as he saluted.
“Permission granted,” Cale said as he returned the salute. Then he reached out and shook David’s hand as his face split into a huge grin. “It’s good to see you again, David.”
David returned both the handshake and the smile. “It’s good to see you, too,” he returned. “I just wish that this was a social call.”
Cale grimaced. “I had a feeling you might say that,” he said. “Shall we take this conversation to my ready room?”
The two men made the journey to the ready room in silence, which suited David just fine. The silence gave him time to think.
Over the course of more than thirty years of military service David had been called upon numerous times to do things which he found distasteful, but such was the nature of military service. However, he had always been able to rationalize that what he was doing needed to be done, that it was necessary to protect the safety and security of the Empire he had sworn to defend. But for the first time in his career he found himself wondering if what he was being called upon to do today was really all that necessary.
David followed Cale into the ready room and wasn’t all that surprised to find Jeff waiting for them. He had hoped that Cale would be sensible enough to have a witness present for what was to come. He had toyed with the notion of bringing Amanda along, but in the end he had decided against it.
David and Jeff exchanged salutes and handshakes and then took their seats in the chairs on the visitor side of Cale’s desk. “We’ve been expecting the High Command to send someone out after us,” Jeff said as Cale sank into his chair at the business end of the desk. “Somehow we never thought they would send you, though.”
David shrugged. “I know the feeling,” he said. “I never thought that the two of you would find it necessary to create a set of circumstances which would cause the High Command to send me out after you. In this case, the good news is that the High Command didn’t send me.”
“Then who did?” Jeff wondered.
“My orders come from Admiral Turner,” David explained.
Cale blew out a long breath. “Okay,” he said. “We’re listening.”
David took a deep steadying breath. “My orders are simple. Either I take you back to New Chicago and you participate in the coming New Bellerophon strike, or I relieve you of your command and take you to the nearest deep space station under arrest. In that event you would be placed in chains and charged with disobeying the orders of a superior officer, which is a violation of several Navy regulations and one or two Articles of War.”
Jeff whistled appreciatively. “That is quite the mouthful, isn’t it?”
“It is,” Cale agreed. “And if I know Admiral Turner the orders are phrased in such a way that they don’t give you a lot of leeway in how you execute them.”
David smiled a wan smile. “Very perceptive,” he congratulated.
Jeff turned to David and cocked his head. “Did Admiral Turner tell you anything about our mission to Newton Station?” he asked.
David shook his head. “He gave me a data file which contained your original orders. I know that you were ordered to Newton Station to investigate why the facility went off the air, but I know nothing of what happened after you got there.”
“Sounds about right,” Jeff said.
Cale leaned back in his chair. “You must think I’ve become quite the madman,” he offered.
David shrugged. “The thought has crossed my mind, once or twice,” he admitted. “But you and I have known each other since the Academy. We came up the ranks together. We got our first starship commands together, and we were posted to our battle group commands together. I’ve known you long enough to know that you don’t do anything without a pretty good reason.”
“Do you think Admiral Turner feels that way?”
“The Admiral knows your record as well as I do,” David answered. “I would like to think that he’s enlightened enough to take that into consideration and take the time to listen to you before he passes judgment on what you have or haven’t done out here. On the other hand, he did send me to retrieve you and he seemed more than a little peeved about the whole affair.”
“If I do go back with you,” Cale ventured, “do you think that the Admiral will let the matter drop?”
David shrugged. “I don’t know,” he answered. “I’d like to think that’s what he would do, but I don’t know.”
Cale shook his head sadly. “I don’t think that’s what he would do.”
David frowned. “What do you mean?”
“We’ve already told the High Command why we’re not returning to the New Bellerophon assault force,” Jeff supplied. “We’ve explained it to them a dozen or more times and supplied evidence to support our explanation. Each time the High Command has simply repeated its order to return.”
“You can’t blame them, really,” David protested. “The New Bellerophon base has been a thorn in the Empire’s side ever since the start of the Rebellion. This is our chance to eliminate it once and for all. Now that force is two battle groups light, and that reduces the chances of the operation succeeding.”
“If I remember my briefings right, weren’t you posted to that assault force as well?” Cale wondered.
David smiled a half smile. “That’s why I said it was two battle groups light.”
Cale grimaced. “In other words we’ve inadvertently gotten you involved in something that we’ve been trying to take care of ourselves.”
David nodded. “That’s right,” he agreed. “You have.”
One corner of Cale’s mouth curled upward in a half smile. “It surprises me that you accepted this assignment,” he said. “You’ve been pushing for the New Bellerophon operation ever since the start of the war. I would think you would want to be there when it goes down.”
David smiled. “I do want to be there when it goes down,” he admitted. “But if I didn’t take this mission, then the Admiral would have just given it to someone else, someone who may not be so kindly disposed towards you. We’ve been friends for almost thirty years, you and I, and I learned a long time ago that some things just transcend the discipline of the service.”
To be continued...
Copyright © 2003 by Michael J A Tyzuk