Chapter 1: - Golf, Dinner and a Party -- Everyone's Invited!


Admiral Ito Saito shaded his eyes, looking out towards Gandalf's ship basin, then back to the golf course that stretched into the near distance. He was a short man with a pencil thin mustache and a shock of black hair untouched by gray. He was thin, clearly fit and had a ramrod up his spine.

"You have a lovely golf course here, Richard," the admiral said, turning to the man next to him.

Rear Admiral Richard Taft, who commanded Fleet Aloft at the Gandalf Fleet Base, grinned. "It is indeed, Saito." Admiral Taft was taller and more rotund that the others, stemming from spending too much time behind a desk. He had short brown hair that seemed to cling to his skull -- he looked like an ancient Roman Senator.

The third man of the trio set his clubs down, eyeing the foursome playing ahead of them; a group that was in the process of teeing off at the next hole.

Captain Ezra Gallegly had served over the years with both of his friends and was not the least bit sorry that he had three broad stripes on his sleeves, one with the wavy stripe of a ship's captain and not the same with two stars as those his friends sported.

Captain Gallegly still flew starships, not a desk like the other two. He was the tallest of the trio and the most relaxed. His hair was fading in color and shrinking in scope. His movements were a touch more studied than the other two -- unlike them; he spent most of his time in space.

"The golf courses are just as pretty on Agincourt, Saito," Captain Gallegly reported. "That's the good news. The gravity here on Gandalf is 1028 centimeters, but only 970 on Agincourt."

Admiral Taft laughed. "They adjust the fairway lengths, though."

"Pity," Admiral Saito said, his voice droll. The three old friends traded laughs.

Over towards the basin there was a bright glint high in the sky and all eyes turned to watch. A silver globe sank towards the water. Even as far away as they were, they could see the tall Fleet Comet on the ship's side facing them and hear the whine of the ship's turbines.

"That would be ship Nihon, commanded by Commander Chin Park," Admiral Taft spoke.

Admiral Saito glanced at the speaker in surprise. "Commander Chin Park you say?"

Admiral Taft nodded. Admiral Saito was curious; there was something oddly reluctant about his friend's facial expression when he saw that Admiral Saito was interested.

Captain Gallegly chuckled, "At least, this time he's not pooching the landing. The last time he tried to simulate a malf during the descent and the ship's AI aborted the exercise and took command away from him. The AI didn't approve of that sort of an exercise with a city in the ship's footprint."

Admiral Taft chuckled. "And, needless to say, he got a purple rocket not only from me, but from the Port Admiral as well."

Admiral Saito smiled slightly. "I should have spoken more quickly and used less thought. I believe the young man is my nephew."

"One thing I just love about the Japanese," Admiral Taft told his friends with a laugh, "they tell you you've screwed up by criticizing themselves."

Admiral Saito laughed as well. "If it is the young man I believe him to be, he is from my wife's side of the family. A family with entirely too much wealth, too long held. That, and combined with an arrogance that can be breath-taking."

The three men were silent for the last few seconds until the ship was bobbing in the ocean. Admiral Saito glanced at the tee, where the last of the earlier foursome had driven down the fairway, before he turned back at the newly arrived ship. Already tugs were headed out to bring her into the docking area.

Admiral Taft saw Admiral Saito's gaze was still on Nihon. "You probably don't want to hear this, but I know the navigator; she served with me a few years ago on the Survey Ship Robert Heinlein. She tells me that Commander Park is prone to being arbitrary; he is overly concerned about appearances and is reluctant to deal with anything requiring a timely decision. He is, in short, not popular with his officers and crew and not a very effective commander."

"It is always difficult at first for a new captain," Admiral Saito murmured. "As we all know."

"The real problem, Dick," Captain Gallegly said, "is that we are three ancient fossils -- ask anyone." He waved towards the basin, where a dozen ships bobbed in the water. "I pulled a whole lot of strings, begged everyone I knew, to get a young engineer, Thomas 'Turbine' Jensen, assigned into Hastings. They sent him out special delivery -- I picked him up when we stopped at Rutherford two months ago.

"Tomorrow he'll have the mid-watch aboard and you could not get me to bet against him calling a battle stations drill. Everyone on the ship except Jensen and one or two others bitches and moans every time I hold one. They bitch and moan about the time wasted, and the 'attitude' it engenders. When Jensen does it, they are ten times more irritated. I'm sure he is far more unpopular than Commander Park."

Admiral Saito sighed. "At Tenabra, my executive officer was Thomas Cross, a very fine officer. He is highly capable and extremely dedicated. We did what we had to do and he did his part as superbly as anyone. Yet afterwards, he stood up in the critique and said we would have done much better if we practiced rescues more and war less and if we hadn't been hauling around a thousand tons of weapons. Two months later, he resigned."

"Fossils, like I said," Captain Gallegly repeated.

"Perhaps the reason why we have never had to put our warlike skills to use, is that we practice them so often? Everyone knows Fleet ships are armed, and everyone knows how they are armed," Admiral Taft stated mildly.

"You're preaching to the choir," Captain Gallegly said. "And it's why Admiral Nagoya and I have been helping Jensen come along. That young man's going to go far -- very, very far. He took over from Stan Inouye, an exceedingly good chief engineer himself. Stan's people hated to see him go, but it was time for him to punch out; there was nothing anyone could do. They resented a man half Stan's age replacing him; they hated Jensen's gung ho demeanor, and his very active approach to command.

"Yet, in eight weeks, Jensen's black gang is working at an efficiency I find incredible. We did a calibration run as the last task as we came off our deployment. For four hours we ran at a hundred percent of max rated power. We burned a percent and a half less fuel than we ever have on that run before and our velocity was three percent higher. There is something about Jensen and fans that passes understanding.

"And he's won over the black gang; something I wouldn't have thought could happen in such a short time. The Propulsion Department stands up for him, even when he calls a battle station drill."

"Not many engineers bother with a command deck certification," Admiral Saito stated.

"Jensen got his bridge watch-keeping certificate when he was an ensign. And no, he's not a Rim Runner, either. He was born in Montana, back on Earth. His virgin cruise was as a first classman, back at the Academy; they booted him upstairs as fast as they decently could get him out the door."

"It is nice to know dinosaurs will not be entirely extinct once we old farts pass from the scene," Admiral Saito opined. The three all laughed, and then started forward. The foursome ahead of them had finished putting and was nearly at the next tee.


The clink of fine china, the musical chiming of sparkling crystal and soft ring of sterling flatware intruded themselves once again on Rear Admiral Ito Saito.

Remarkable! Normally such sounds were as pleasant and enjoyable and he savored them with almost as much relish as the meal and drink they served. He looked around Nihon's wardroom, wearing his most bland face on his sleeve and tried once again to overlook what his eyes told him was a most unfortunate situation.

The admiral had landed on Gandalf three days before, and he had spent a few days relaxing from the rigors of the journey -- IE, playing golf with friends -- and when Nihon had come in-system, he'd learned that his wife's sister's son-in-law was the captain aboard, returning from his first deployment in command.

A courtesy call to the young commander had resulted in this invitation. It was clear now that accepting the invitation had been an error. Nihon had been off deployment for less than a single day; his nephew should have known that this would be taken into consideration. After six months aloft a ship is not nearly as ready for an admiral's inspection as when it departs. One doesn't achieve senior rank without being aware of these things.

And in any case he'd come to visit his nephew, not inspect his ship.

The admiral could see that the crew members of Nihon were fatigued; not only in their posture and attitude, but a number of the cleanup tasks dutifully paraded before him that had been marginal at best.

The dinner itself had been pleasant enough. A number of his nephew's junior officers had realized that there would be a general stand down afterwards, and that at long last they could get some rest. It made several of them overbold, almost pleasant to talk to.

The admiral inquired of the young man sitting next to him at the table, who was wearing a weapons black shipsuit. "Lieutenant, what does a weapons control officer find to do aboard a dedicated research vessel?"

The fellow brightened. "I am the weapons officer, Admiral."

"Weapons?" The admiral raised an eyebrow. "I thought Nihon a dedicated research and survey vessel." The comment was far more a statement than a question.

His nephew heard the comment and nodded. "Even so, Uncle. However, some years ago the Fleet felt that it would be prudent to develop some internal industrial technology."

Admiral Saito had indeed heard of it, but was surprised he was hearing it here. That knowledge was supposed to be closely held.

"Nihon was selected to be a special research vessel. We were equipped with four, ah, devices," his nephew continued.

"Devices?" Saito asked, curious. English was such a wonderful language for odd formulations of words.

Nihon's captain laughed lightly. "For lack of better terminology, Uncle. Words fail us when we try to describe them. It was thought that Fleet lasers could, with some small modifications, be useful in mining asteroids. We have four lasers; originally the standard Mark 4 mod November four gigawatt Scarlets. The techs worked on them and now they are Mark 7's and push one point two terawatts down the beam and we've nicknamed them Blues. They are very, very blue."

Admiral Saito blinked in astonishment. A laser three hundred fold stronger than the Fleet standard? "How does one use a terawatt laser for mining?" Admiral Saito knew the verbal trap he was offering and waited in delighted anticipation for it to spring.

The officers at the table laughed politely.

The weapons officer responded. "A significant fraction of a kilometer-sized rock hit with our laser broadside becomes incandescent gas. Bulk refining of the gas is a relatively straightforward engineering task that has been done for centuries. Actual tonnages produced are classified, Admiral, but I can say that they are large." From the smiles on the men and women at the table, they were more than large. And a cubic kilometer was indeed a sizable tonnage. Sizable? More like stupendous, actually.

And of course, if you could make a huge laser ding a rock, you could shoot it at something else, too. They weren't talking about it, but that had to be another side to the research as well. He was willing to bet that they had some first class tracking software modifications. With a three hundred-fold increase in power you could hit something hard seven or eight times as far away.

There was a simple chime and a voice spoke over the intercom. "Captain, bridge. We are detecting many ships exiting fans, about a light second from Gandalf. No previous detections."

That was odd, Saito thought; they were very close -- actually extraordinarily close to the planet. Ships normally emerged much further out and then only one at a time. Only military ships traveled in company and even that was a difficult maneuver to accomplish except over very short distances.

Admiral Saito looked at his nephew curiously as the young man wrestled with the unexpected information.

"Define many. Two, three?" his nephew asked.

Good question, the admiral thought. It had been his first reaction as well.

"Captain, more than forty." There was a mumbled comment from someone further away from the intercom. "Captain, we have missile launch indications. Bogey count is now more than sixty. Many missile indications. Perhaps a hundred. No faults have been detected, but we started diagnostics at once, however, so far, the board is clear." That is, it didn't appear to be a mechanical malfunction, but they were checking to be sure.

"Hastings told us earlier of their exercise, did they not? Obviously they are spoofing the sensors," the captain's voice was smug and sarcastic. Saito's nephew was unduly smug, and entirely too sarcastic.

The tone of the captain's voice made Admiral Saito wince.

"Sir, Port has just put out a raid warning. Hastings is preparing to lift."

A wall screen lit it, showing Hastings moored several kilometers distant. Missiles started lifting off from Hastings, and her lasers began to strobe.

Without further thought Admiral Saito barked, "Sound General Quarters!"

His nephew was frozen, still trying to think the matter through. The bridge watch officer, though, hadn't needed any encouragement and the alarm gongs began to ring through the ship.

The weapons officer was the first to spring to his feet and sprint from the room, but he was only fractional seconds ahead of nearly everyone else. Admiral Saito's nephew eyed his uncle nervously. "The engines are on line. Should we lift, Uncle?"

Saito showed no expression. "Unless you wish to die squatting on the ground." His voice was level, at the same timbre as when he'd been discussing his golf game.

The captain of the Nihon drew himself up. "Execute emergency lift!"

The voice from the bridge was calm. "Engineering says, ten seconds to lift! Hastings has lifted and is firing on the incoming ships! Port has issued an attack warning! Captain, there are several hundred in-bound missiles. Say again, many hundreds! More than eighty unknown vessels are launching! Sensors report that most of the launches are against Gandalf."

Admiral Saito was arrested as he watched the live camera feed sent into the wardroom. Hastings, a heavy cruiser, was lifting, launching a brilliant fountain of sparks -- counter missiles against the onslaught.

The admiral had never commanded Hastings, but he had had the honor of commanding Crecy, a sister ship. In three years aboard he had fired two missiles within minutes of each other only once; both of those practice shots had setups that they had worked an hour, each, on. Whoever commanded Hastings had just fired more missiles than any officer of the Fleet could ever reasonably expect to fire in an entire career in training. This though, was not training. And considering the number of inbound tracks, not a tenth enough.

"Come, nephew," he said tightly. "You need to stand on your bridge and look brave. It is all you can do now." That, and of course his weapons codes would be useful.

Without expression he watched his nephew pull himself shakily to his feet and proceed with due care that his quivering knees did not collapse.

On the bridge the reports were a muted cacophony.

"Lifting! What course?"

"Weapons systems ready! We have three missiles on line! Lasers are on line!"

The admiral waited for his nephew to say something. The silence lengthened until the older man could endure no more. He said softly, "I suggest we parallel Hastings' course," he told the man at the helm. The young man nodded, and repeated the order.

Admiral Saito studied the displays and then turned to the weapons officer. "Your weapons are free?"

The weapons officer paled; they'd run in weapons free mode for the tests and they should have locked them down before they'd landed. By rights, the captain and the weapons officer were now looking at court-martials. "Yes, sir."

The admiral held his eye for a second, and then spoke loudly, knowing that if they survived it would be an official record. "I commend you on your initiative, Weaps."

A young woman called from the sensors, returning Admiral Saito's attention to the work at hand. "Unknown fleet consists of eighty-five vessels; formation is a rough hemisphere, centered on Gandalf. Hastings is heading directly towards the center of the formation. Many weapons detonations now, most in the ten to fifty megaton range. Those are Fleet counter missiles. Unknown missiles are in the gigaton range. Two significant detonations have been detected; one dot six and one dot one gigs. Forward sensors are now 22% of nominal."

There was a pause and the sensor officer reported, "The Black Force center consists of two extremely large vessels. One appears to be launching small combatant craft, rated as likely manned. Six heavy Black Force vessels surround the larger ships in a hexagon. Latter vessels appear to be equivalent to our heavy cruisers."

Hastings was going eight on one. That ship did not have a snowflake's chance in a blast furnace. And they themselves would be directly on Hastings' heels. Admiral Saito spoke what was on his mind loudly enough so everyone on the bridge could hear him. "Stay well back from Hastings. When the Blacks take her out, we'll need to be far enough back to avoid the fireball."

There was a choked sound of retching; that was his nephew. He could no longer spare that unfortunate soul any further thought and did what he had to do. "Sensors, is Hastings engaging the carrier?" Hastings' commander was aggressive, but very correct. But Saito had to be sure.

"Yes, Admiral."

"Weapons. Fire on the other large ship. Two shots with the lasers. Fire one shot on the nearest other heavy target. Reserve the remaining shot and the missiles for close-in ship defense."

"Firing," the voice of the weapons officer was now calm, without inflection or emotion in his voice.

A second later there was a flare ahead of them, then another. "Targets eliminated. Ninety-five seconds to first recharge. Then every hundred seconds for the rest," the weapons officer reported, still no emotion in his voice.

"Keep a working solution for the last laser; be prepared to fire at any time. Target only Black capital ships."

Admiral Saito hadn't wanted this; he had never dreamed of anything like this, not even in his worst nightmare. He had only a lifetime of his sense of duty to guide him.

He squared his shoulders and then glanced at his nephew. The young man was staring at the screens, staring in horror at the fantastic blooms of flame ahead of them and now to the sides. His mouth was open; he seemed unaware of the spittle running down his chin. He was trembling like a leaf in a stiff wind. He had soiled himself; he'd been sick on the deck as well.

Admiral Saito wrenched himself back to the moment. "Hastings is blowing a hole through their center," he informed the bridge, leaving out their own contribution. "One second before we pass the last firing angle for the remaining two cruiser-class targets, fire the last laser shot at the closest. Do we have any aft capabilities?"

"Roger the first. Negative the last." The weapons officer stared at his shattered captain for a long second and then spoke, "Corpsman! See to the captain!"

Admiral Saito laughed wryly. "We will all be court-martialed." He had never heard of anyone usurping a command like this!

One of the bridge officers giggled and added, "God, I hope so! I can live with that!" The room rocked with laughter.

This crew had been wasted on his nephew! Utterly wasted! "How many other ships lifted with us?" he asked the sensor officer.

The same woman's voice responded, cool and professional as she'd been throughout -- except for the giggle. "Hastings was first. We were second. Then a merchant vessel, then Fleet Ship Kosovo, another civvie, then last, Fleet Ship Agrabat." A short pause. "The merchant ships have been destroyed; they tried to break to the side. Only the Fleet ships, following Hastings lead, are still alive. Agrabat has taken heavy damage. We have destroyed three Black Fleet targets. Hastings has killed six more. Agrabat two. Kosovo is firing against missiles only."

That wasn't very aggressive on the part of Kosovo, the admiral thought, but eminently sensible, given the circumstances. There were a lot of missiles aimed at them.

"Is anything currently targeted at us?" Eleven to four. He could die with that, if he had to. He would much rather not. He would much rather punish their enemies over and over again.

"Negative. Most of the initial shots were against the planet. Hastings knocked a hole in their center; we punched through behind them. We fired our last laser shot a half minute ago. We have another almost online."

"How long until we are out of range to kill a target?" They and their opponents were now rushing apart every bit as fast as they'd been closing a moment ago; faster actually, since Nihon was still accelerating and so were their enemies.

"Admiral, a minute and a bit. Our relative velocity is now very high."

"Cut engines in twenty-five seconds. Rotate the ship to until your weapons bear on the Black Force. Standby counter missiles. Fire the laser as soon as you have a firm solution." He looked at the young weapons officer. Weaps' eyes had flinched, but otherwise there was no expression on his face. The young man looked directly back at the admiral as he gave the targeting orders. The crushing pressure of the lift eased, then stopped. A moment of nausea as the ship spun on its axis.

"Anything coming our way? Any ships firing at any of the other survivors?" the admiral asked in a level voice.

"Two enemy ships are maneuvering to engage Agrabat. The computer says that it will take them an hour, at least, assuming their best observed acceleration, plus 20%, to engage us."

"Lock on and fire at the furthest target from us that is moving against Agrabat; as soon as the next shot comes ready, fire on the closer. Then resume Hastings' base course."

"Firing. Admiral; the computer says we will have another possible solution in forty-four seconds. The remaining threat to Agrabat is taking evasive action, continuous random jogs of several hundred meters per second. They will be out of destruction range in twelve seconds."

"As long as we are in range to so much as scorch their paint, fire on that ship as soon as you have a solution. If you don't have a solution within ten seconds after the laser is ready, guess and shoot anyway. After we have fired, resume trailing Hastings."

Nihon's risk would be increased, but the odds of significant damage to the other warship were greater: battle calculus, a simple equation. You take eighty some-odd ships against an alien, hostile planet, expecting minimal resistance. Instead four ships burst off planet, destroying a fifth of your force in just a few minutes of savage combat. Unexpected and unpleasant, undoubtedly.

Yet, unless the Black Force commander was a total incompetent, the decrease in the volume of fire would have been noted and evaluated for what it was. How many ships would the aliens send in pursuit of the survivors? To be safe, empiric observation would lead one to make the number eight or ten after each survivor. That would be more than two-thirds of their remaining force. That would not be wise -- so, perhaps not. He changed his mind when he looked back at Gandalf. There was no threat to these others from Gandalf. The planet was dead, seared with nuclear fire.

He focused on Nihon's situation. He had to ignore Gandalf; there would be time to think about it later -- if he ever had time to think about anything after this.

Suppose prior arrangements had been made? He would make additional arrangements if he was doing this. His eyes turned towards the battle screen. Hastings was retracing the path the Black Fleet had taken coming in. It was, the admiral thought, easily the best choice; the one least likely to have been anticipated and planned for.

He spoke into air, not directing himself to anyone in particular.

"I played golf with Captain Gallegly of the Hastings yesterday." He was as much trying to calm himself as well as reassure the others. "He indicated to me that this evening his very bright, very capable, chief of engineering was going to have the command watch. And that while he did not know for certain, rated the odds that Commander Turbine Jensen would call an action stations drill as no bet."

The communications officer spoke up. "Hastings reported lifting with Engineering Commander Thomas Jensen as acting-in-command."

Saito politely sucked a little air. Ah so! It was true -- Jensen was as good as Gallegly had said! The battle, had he had the opportunity to plan how to react to a surprise attack, would have followed this scenario. Hastings had fired counter-battery as they first lifted, concentrating on missiles directed at the Fleet base and Pippin, and ipso facto, the ships there. Once Hastings had punched a hole in the initial wave of missiles, they had immediately switched to counter-ship. Nihon had lent a hand with the latter, and then Kosovo engaged the weapons that had been redirected at the hasty defense, which had allowed Agrabat to escape as well, with a little further aid from Nihon.

He laughed bitterly to himself. Certainly he and his staff could have planned this battle -- if he'd known how many ships were coming, from which direction and when and what resources he would have. That ... and a day or so of planning time.

This had, however, hinged on Jensen, who hadn't needed any planning luxuries. He had created the opportunity for the others to exploit. That the others merely did what they could and it had fit well was a measure of the multitude of opportunities Jensen had created. With a half dozen more ships armed as Nihon, they could have swung back, reengaged, and perhaps destroyed the attackers. Next time! he vowed to himself. Next time we won't keep running! Watch out for us! He saw Gandalf again, in his mind's eye. We will never forget this! We will never, ever, forgive this! Beware of us!

Admiral Ito Saito drew his attention back to the battle screen. How would he do a blocking force? Zenith and nadir, he decided, inside the orbit of Gandalf. Survivors should have tried to use the bulk of the planet to screen their initial flight, and then used the star itself for a slingshot for final break out, heading towards the nadir and the rest of the Federation.

Hastings was standing directly out in the plane of the ecliptic, no deviations, having passed through the center of the enemy formation -- the shortest route out of the fan well. That was not something any rational commander would assume as likely in their planning. The Black Force center had died with that thought in their heads. If whatever they were had heads. The one big ship had been a carrier -- what had the other been? Command and control, likely as not. They weren't, he thought bitterly, intent on the taking the planet, so it wasn't likely to have been a transport. Had they killed the enemy raid commander? What would that do to their planning?

When the blocking force emerged from High Fan, Ito Saito allowed himself a small smile. They were very close to where he expected, although only towards the nadir. That was the direction of most of the rest of the Federation. And, as he expected, Jensen of the Hastings ordered them to take the fans themselves. They were headed for a rendezvous far enough out from the star as to be beyond detection range and there was a navigational aid close by as well.

A young man approached him and whispered to him. The admiral's face grew grave for a minute. He gestured to the ship's executive officer. The woman approached him diffidently. She was in her mid-thirties, rather older than most lieutenant commanders. In fact, a ship like this would usually have been commanded by a lieutenant commander.

"Commander Warner, Commander Park has taken his own life," he told her gently. It was, he found, difficult to keep his voice level; he was nearly overcome with emotion. Had he nothing else to do at the moment, he would like to have found his way to the corpse and spit in his relation's face. How had that weak, miserable, incompetent ever come to command a Fleet ship?

Something in his expression conveyed itself to his nephew's executive officer.

"Admiral, this has been a bad day for all of us. I would be surprised if he were the last."

Admiral Saito inclined his head. "I think I have usurped your authority long enough, Lieutenant Commander Warner."

She shook her own head emphatically. "Sir, Nihon was -- is -- a research vessel. This crew was not selected for their combat capabilities. And that includes me -- I'm a theoretical physicist by trade. We are mostly reservists, called to duty for this study. We are scientists and technicians, not warriors."

Evelyn Warner knew she was running off at the mouth and needed to stop. Later, maybe. "Admiral Saito, sir. You were at Tenabra. Everyone knows what you did there. And now you are here. Sir, there is not a person on this crew who would not rather have you in command, including me."

"We will all be court-martialed," he said with sadness. Yes, these people had been wasted on that pusillanimous coward!

"I can't say it as emphatically as our navigator, Admiral. But, I can say that I can live with that. So can the rest of the crew. Your crew, Admiral."

Never say no more than once, that was what he had always believed. "As you will. And Commander Warner..." She looked at him, unsure what was going to be said next. "Tell the crew: Well done! Very well done!"

"Yes, sir!"

"And Commander, are there spare parts for the laser capacitors? It seems to me that I've heard that those are the weakest component of the big lasers."

"Yes, sir. We have a considerable supply."

"Secure from General Quarters. Have the crew see to any personal needs; they have thirty minutes. Then see about creating additional capacitor capability for the lasers. Enhance anything about the lasers that we can. Decrease beam diameter, cycle time; anything that does not risk the ship or the weapons." He had no knowledge of where the research on those areas stood, but those were elementary suggestions.

"Yes, sir!" she was much more emphatic and directed now. She saluted and began to bark orders, while he sat staring at the now blank battle map. What else could he do to be ready?


Admiral Saito entered Nihon's bridge and for a moment regarded the crew at their tasks. Everyone was alert and busy with their work. It was clear that they worked well together and knew their jobs.

Commander Warner waved at a coffee machine set atop a cabinet. "Coffee, Admiral? We still have about twenty minutes before we come off fans at Shackelton."

Admiral Saito walked over to the machine and poured himself a mug. He turned back to face the others, taking his first sip of the hot coffee. "You know, some historians date the beginning of the modern age of navies to the introduction of coffee. Before that, ship crews were simply surly mobs in the morning."

There were chuckles around the bridge.

Admiral Saito nodded to Anna Chung, the navigator. "Navigator, the course plot is laid in?"

"Aye, aye, sir. We exit fans system south, on a course that will take us through the plane of the ecliptic, call it two light hours from the primary. We can go to High Fan at any point once we drop; everything is set on trips. Any detections and we're out of there."

The weapons officer, Lieutenant Ferguson, spoke. "We should engage any hostiles we encounter."

Admiral Saito frowned. "Hopefully, we won't see any. If we do, Mister Ferguson, I refer you to our orders. You will find no reference in the Paul Revere command set to picking a fight -- we are supposed to alert the system ... or flee."

"It was just a commander who gave us those orders."

Admiral Saito's face turned bland and his voice became almost professorial. "Commander Jensen was senior to Park; that and we never got around to telling him that I had superseded my nephew. We didn't even tell him that Park was incapacitated. Now that Park has saved everyone a lot of trouble by killing himself, I am bound by the orders issued to him. In any case, they are exactly the same orders I would have issued, had I been in Jensen's place. I have absolutely no intention of engaging in combat unless we absolutely must."

The lieutenant turned and stalked away, obviously not happy.

The navigator reported, "Two minutes to exit from High Fan, Admiral. All stations report ready."

The exec laughed. "Oh yeah! Are we ever ready!"

Admiral Saito glanced at her, a guarded smile on his face.

"Exiting High Fan now, Admiral," the navigator reported.

The fan sounds died away, and Admiral Saito grimaced and worked his throat, fighting nausea. "Coming off fans in one second is the pits. Cycle in zero seconds..." He shook his head in irritation.

The sensor officer reported, "No latch frame transmissions detected, Admiral. I'm not picking up the inner system active sensors. I'm trying to see if I can find a passive sensor. We're well away from the..."

One of the other sensor officers interrupted, his voice excited. "Ships coming off High Fan in proximity! Four of them!"

Everyone's eyes turned to the battle map. Ships far away had jumped, dropping close to them.

Anna Chung pushed a key and said laconically, "Jumping!"

Admiral Saito contemplated the battle screen, which was now blank, since they were on High Fan. "It's really too bad we can't detect anything on High Fan."

The navigator drew a quick breath. "Theory says we should be able to."

Commander Warner sighed with her own relief and added, "Experience, however, has been otherwise."

Lieutenant Ferguson looked up from his board. "You're not even going to look at Shackelton? There are forty million people there!"

Lieutenant Chung shook her head sadly. "Shack doesn't rate a Fleet base. An occasional ship visit, rarely more than one at a time. If anyone was here, they're gone now too."

Admiral Saito turned to the navigator. "Lieutenant Chung, proceed as we discussed, per Paul Revere, to Khansas."

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Ten days later, when they neared their next stop, Admiral Saito tried not to fidget while waiting for Nihon to return to the normal universe. He, like the rest of the bridge crew, was tired and emotionally drained, in spite of the days of delay.

Lieutenant Chung looked up. "Two minutes until we drop."

The exec chuckled and looked at the lieutenant. "Okay, I'm a dirty-foot, I admit it! Rim Runner humor isn't always clear. Why do they spell their planet's name funny?"

"That's because they have some nasty dinosaur-like carnivores roaming the planet. They want you to know from the first moment you arrive that you aren't in Kansas any more," the navigator told her with a broad grin on her face.

Commander Warner winced. "Well, I asked, didn't I?"

"And we are down in the Khansas system, Admiral. On tick, and now confirming our position," Lieutenant Chung informed the bridge.

"We have latch frame! We have active sensor scans!" the sensor officer reported.

There was a concerted sigh of relief from those present.

Admiral Saito frowned, and then thought of a suitable punishment. "Who here is warm, fuzzy and happy that we're safe?"

Lieutenant Ferguson was the first to speak. "I'm relieved!"

Admiral Saito saluted him. "Then, Lieutenant, you tell them of Gandalf and Shackelton."

The weapons officer looked like he'd been punched.

The admiral had no intentions of having someone quite so junior do the duty, though. "Communications. Khansas has a Class II Fleet base. Connect me at once with the Fleet Aloft admiral commanding. Commence the data dump as soon has you have a connection!"

A moment later the communications officer announced that Fleet Aloft Rear Admiral Gehring was commanded Fleet Aloft while Port Rear Admiral Leukema commanded the base.

On the wall of the bridge a panel lit, with a pale-skinned Pakistani, Admiral Gehring, shown on the left, while on the right an even paler Finn, Admiral Leukema.

Admiral Gehring was obviously reading from the data dump. He glanced absently at Admiral Saito. "I'd say it was a pleasure, Admiral Saito, but this is..."

Admiral Leukema was more blunt. "I can't believe this. Is this some sort of misguided attempt at an exercise, Admiral Saito?"

"You haven't gotten then, to the pictures we took of Gandalf as we withdrew. Admiral, I assure you this is not an exercise. This is as real as it gets. Admirals, you need to start making your preparations at once."

"And they attacked you at Shackelton?" Admiral Gehring queried.

"Well, we didn't wait for them to actually launch missiles. But there was no doubt they were there preparing to do so."

"Well, I have one ship in orbit on ready alert. They're getting underway at once," Admiral Gehring stated. "We have a dozen more ships either aground or aloft, in various states of readiness. I assure you, Admiral Saito, their General Quarters alarms are already ringing."

The Pakistani admiral paused. "There are two dozen merchant ships here. I'm trying to think of a polite way to tell that they are federalized."

Admiral Saito cocked his head to one side and spoke drolly, "As you may recall, I have some small experience in commandeering civilian spacecraft. I asked their captains to please lend a hand. That worked."

"Tenabra," Admiral Leukema added, nodding. "The problem with that, Admiral Saito, is if we do that, the cat will be out of the bag. We'll never be able to keep this secret."

Admiral Saito sniffed in derision. "While I don't speak for the Federation Council -- nor do I have a crystal ball to predict what specific course of action they will adopt -- it seems clear to me that our duty is Paul Revere: to warn as many systems as possible as quickly as possible, using any means necessary."

Beside him, Commander Warner laughed. "Not to mention, admirals, how much better it will be to be known as the men who let the cat out of the bag, than to be known as the men who let the fox into the henhouse!"

Admiral Saito was more prosaic. "Do as you believe best, Admiral Gehring. The data dump will be complete in three minutes. We'll continue our mission as soon as the transmission ends."

"Fuel, consumables, weapons?" Admiral Gehring asked softly.

"Within acceptable limits, given the circumstances and urgency of the mission."

"Admiral, you have our heartfelt thanks and fondest wishes for your safety. Go with God, Admiral Saito!"

A few moments Nihon vanished from the Khansas system.


Admiral Ito Saito listened quietly to Ernie Fletcher talk, until the other admiral, the man who commanded the Fleet operations these days, finished, saying, "Well, what do you think, Ito?"

Admiral Saito sighed loud enough so that the other would hear. "I am flattered that you think so highly of my abilities, Admiral Fletcher. I had not thought of hoisting my flag in Nihon -- that is a wonderful idea! And very tempting!"

"Just tempting?" Ernie Fletcher queried.

"Alas, we must think about our priorities. You are quite correct, I will be of more utility commanding the defenses of Earth, than being captain of a research vessel, no matter how excellent the ship or her crew.

"You will, no doubt, find me a fine flag captain for me. Except, a person qualified to be flag captain to the admiral tasked with defending the home world would be wasted aboard a ship such as Nihon."

"I'd rather thought that would leave him a lot of extra time to help with staff work."

Admiral Saito nodded and said soberly, "That is another problem area. Nihon does have adequate communications and sensor facilities. What Nihon does lack, however, is space. While I prefer a small staff, what will be required for this task would be far in excess of the cubic available aboard Nihon.

"However the most cogent argument of all against employing Nihon in such a role is the value of Nihon as a combat platform.

"You are postulating attacks by a small number of ships against the entire Federation. Quite simply, Nihon could, by herself, easily stop such an attack by four ships and perhaps by as many as twice that number. We cannot waste a ship capable of protecting an entire system on such duty, when we have perfectly capable cruisers available for me to use with space sufficient, and who would not be able to do better than two or three to one."

Admiral Fletcher grimaced. "When Buster came up with this idea, I was still in semi-shock; more so that he could suggest something so practical. I told him it was a good idea. Then I thought about it and didn't have the heart to tell him what a mistake it would be."

Admiral Saito smiled slightly. "It is difficult to tell a diligent subordinate with a clever, but impractical idea, that it won't work. It is most difficult when it is an equal. A challenge, when he is your superior."

The two men both laughed politely, but both knew full well the truth of it.

"I would like to pick a suitable captain for Nihon myself," Admiral Saito told the operational commander of Fleet Aloft. "I guarantee that he will do better than my former relative, even if he is not currently on the active list. You are more familiar with the senior captains and ships available -- I will be pleased with whichever ship you choose for my flag and whoever you wish to be flag captain." Or, in translation: a quid pro quo: let Saito pick the captain of Nihon and Admiral Fletcher could appoint his choice flag captain, aboard which ever ship he wished. Two plums for a cherry.

Admiral Fletcher nodded. "Quite a few officers, not on the active list have presented themselves for duty. I have a task in mind for Nihon. A quite suitable task. Snow Dance."

Admiral Saito smiled. "Ah, quite so! He will be ideal indeed, in that case. Evan Carlson."

It was Ernie Fletcher's turn to smile. "Even better, I'm sending Charlie Gull out to be military governor of that area. The two of them have a little history."

"And this time, there shouldn't be any foolishness about Carlson's arm," Admiral Saito said firmly.

"The time for foolishness is past," Admiral Fletcher agreed.


"Commander Warner," Admiral Saito greeted the officer who had entered his office. "Please, have a seat." He waved her to the easy chair next to him rather than the hard back chair opposite the couch the admiral was sitting on.

The admiral had never been formal with her before; Evelyn Warner was sure the other shoe was finally going to drop.

"Commander, normally after an action such as Nihon participated in at Gandalf, a good XO would be promoted to command." He looked at her without expression. "I have here," he held up a message flimsy, "a recommendation that you be promoted so, immediately."

She nodded, unsure even now, what she wanted. She was not at all happy that such a paper existed, even though for a recently frocked commander, an immediate appointment to a command would be a coup indeed.

Admiral Saito smiled slightly again. "A number of chair-warmers thought that with what happened to Commander Park, perhaps not. I myself do not see that as an obstacle. In fact, the only obstacle I can see is you, yourself."

She started to speak, and he waved his hand for her silence. "Commander, in my opinion you are an outstanding XO and I am quite certain you will be a fine captain. Soon, I think.

"But not yet.

"You came aboard Nihon thinking one thing and learned something quite different from what you expected. They told you that the XO slot just meant some extra administrative work, to lighten your captain's burden of command. That you would be able to continue your research and lose only minimal time from your work because of your command duties."

Commander Warner nodded. Except it hadn't worked out that way in practice. Even with only thirty-odd crew, Nihon had kept her far busier than she had intended. And Captain Park had been, at best, an indifferent commanding officer; she'd done a lot of things he should have done.

"Instead," the admiral went on, "you learned that the job description you'd been given was inadequate; nonetheless you rose to meet the challenge and carried out those duties in an exemplary fashion. Although you have confidence in your ability to handle the job, you weren't sure if it's what you want to do."

"Admiral..." She stopped, shrugged. "I don't think I want to be a captain. But with the war..." There was no way to duck your duty, not when the existence of your race was at stake.

He chuckled. "After your first month in command, you will realize that you can never live without it again. I don't really think you are quite ready for a command yet either. A little time in grade won't hurt."

"I understand. Maybe if it was Nihon..."

Admiral Saito shook his head. "No doubt you heard of the proposal that Nihon be my flagship. That was a well intentioned, but impractical, concept. I too will be leaving the ship; Nihon will revert to general Fleet duties. Except Nihon is unique. She is capable of standing alone where two or three cruisers would be at risk. Nihon is going straight back to war, Commander."

She nodded, and lifted her chin. "I'm not afraid, Admiral."

"No, I know that. But, I think you need a little time to concentrate on just one thing: being the best XO in the Fleet, and learning a little more about what it is to command. And once you've done that a while, a very short while -- then you'll be ready."

He flipped the first sheet of paper upside down and produced a second. "This is a detail as XO to a very good ship, a ship that is currently assigned to the Rim Watch. Her captain is going on to bigger and better things; the current XO is getting bumped to commander and is getting a frigate. The new captain is a man who was retired this time last week and is now back on active duty. He's hard, capable and a fire-eater, even now, even if he is seventy-five. I doubt seriously if you'll spend more than two or three months in the Rim Watch before seeing something more active."

"I think I would prefer that, Admiral. Nihon..."

He nodded. "Good officers all develop a special fondness, Commander, for certain ships. Who knows why we form attachments like that? The fact is that we do. The new captain of Nihon is a man of considerable talents; Fleet has someone in mind for XO that complements him neatly. Plus, that lucky captain is going out with a flag officer in tow, anyway."

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