PART 1 OF 4
Off the Port Bow of the TCS Chicago
Ariel System, Near Confed-UBW Frontier
January 28th, 2681; 0200 Hours (CST)
A pair of fighters silently approached the small ship, and entered a landing pattern. It had been a long, uneventful patrol, and the pilots were looking forward to crawling back into the sack.
"TCS Chicago, this is Delta Flight, requesting landing."
"Delta, this is Chicago. You are cleared for landing," came the reply.
As the fighters entered the landing pattern, the younger of the two pilots asked, "Coach, what's with all the traffic?"
Lt. Col Jerry "Coach" Ward looked at all of the other destroyers surrounding the Chicago. Off hand he recognized the TCS Miami, Commander Anthony Laird's ship. Laird and Ward went back a few years, not necessarily all good memories, but memories nonetheless. The ship was easily recognizable from the dark scars that were just earned from a scrape with a sizeable pirate force. Ward grinned slightly at the thought of Laird getting his coconuts toasted a bit.
"The squadron is forming. As of yesterday, the Chicago is the flagship of the 15th destroyer squadron."
His first tour out of the Academy and Flight School, the younger pilot didn't know whether to be relieved or scared at the presence of a growing force. "Is that a good thing?"
Ward thought for a moment, "Bit of a mixed blessing, if you ask me. It means that we're finally off of patrol duty, but it also means that we're most likely heading into the thick of it. At least there's safety in numbers, right?"
"If you say so, Coach."
"Captain? Sir, the other ships are assembling," the tentative voice said.
"What time is it?" came the groggy, muffled reply.
"It's 0430, sir."
"All right... I'll be there in a minute."
The door closed as the young ensign exited the captain's stateroom. Captain Colton Colby groaned as he rolled over in his bunk. Just when you get warm, he thought. Colby slid out of his rack and pulled on his uniform. He stood and began to head out of his room when he stopped. His eyes came to rest on his desk drawer. He walked to the drawer and opened it, retrieving a bottle of scotch. He unscrewed the cap and took a pull.
"It's going to be a long day," he said to no one in particular. Replacing the cap and putting the bottle back into the drawer, he continued on his way to the bridge.
Colby was greeted by his XO, Cdr. Joseph Galloway.
"Hey, Joe, what's up?"
"Morning, sir, sorry to get you up this early," Galloway replied, handing a cup of coffee to Colby. Galloway stood about 5'8", and was a stout man, whose hair was slowly sliding down his neck, and settling on his back. Colby smiled at the balding, little man. Galloway was slightly overweight, unshaven, and had a slight pungent smell that spoke of long hours of hard work without a shower. There was really, no other officer he'd rather serve with.
Galloway continued. "The TCS Miami, Kiev, Dallas, and Waterloo have pulled alongside. The Saratoga, Denver, and Blue Ridge have just jumped through the jump point, and should be here within the hour. I've sent word to all of the ships that you wanted to see the captains once everyone was here. I've roughly scheduled that meeting for 0900 in the wardroom. Other than that, engineering is running a diagnostic on the engines. There was a rattling heard during the night, but nothing since."
"Maybe we'll bump up that meeting a bit, if everyone gets here in time. Why don't you hit the sack, Joe?" Colby said.
With that, Galloway left for his stateroom. Colby scanned the activity around the bridge. Everything seemed to be in order, and running normal. He turned and walked into the radio room.
"Have we received any other communications?"
"Nothing so far, sir. Just the initial transmission ordering us to join up with the rest of the squadron" the radio operator answered. Those were the orders that had put Colby in charge of seven other destroyers. Colby took a moment to ponder the wisdom of that decision. Still, with those orders, there was no mention of why Confed was forming them into a squadron. He walked back onto the bridge, and sat in the captain's chair, and thought about what a pain in the ass HQ could be.
Commander Anthony Laird entered the wardroom and made his way to the coffee pot.
"Good morning, skipper," sang out his Operations officer.
"Morning, Tom. What's new?"
"'Morning, Tony, it's a good day! I got a holo-vid from home. I tell you, that boy is going to be full grown by the time we get back home. He's almost as big as his mother."
There was a knock at the door to the wardroom. The door opened and a young, tired-looking Comm tech stood in the doorway.
"Good morning, gentlemen. Captain, there's a message from the Chicago, they've changed the time for your meeting. It's been changed to 0730. The message also requested that the squadron COs attend."
"All right, make sure that Major Troost gets that message, okay? Also, have we heard any more about his transfer?"
"No word yet, sir."
"All right, that'll be all."
"I've never seen such nonsense as to transfer a squadron CO right before we head into a situation. Anyway, are we finally going to find out what this is all about, skipper?"
Laird looked at the man, "To be honest, I'd doubt it, Tom. I've known Colby for years, and it's not like him to withhold info from us. He's the type who likes to let his troops know most everything he knows. I doubt Confed has told him why he's here either."
"Chief, I am receiving a P-for, for the Captain."
The chief of the Comm watch walked over to the printer and pulled off the message. He then went through the proper procedures for logging the message, and marking the classification on the top and bottom of each page.
"P-for, huh? Maybe we'll finally get some answers."
A "Personal for" message was eyes only, for the intended recipient... and of course, the person who pulled the message off of the printer. Comm operators often had the inside scoop that way.
"I'll take this to the skipper," the chief said, his eyes glued to the message. Three minutes later, the chief found Colby in engineering. "You're telling me that these engines could shut down at any time?" Colby was clearly upset with the lack of information coming from the engineering officer. His face was growing red with anger and frustration, and the veins on his neck were beginning to stand out.
"Sir, we haven't figured out what's causing the power drain. Until we do, prolonged periods of maximum speed could seriously damage the engines."
Colby had a finger pointed at the engineer, and his mouth was open. He was beginning the verbal bashing of how it was the engineer's responsibility to fix problems, and that if he couldn't then maybe Colby could find a petty officer to teach this fresh-faced, smart-mouthed officer how to do his job. But, Colby never got to deliver the speech. The chief interrupted Colby just as he was preparing to verbally destroy the officer.
"Sir, we've received a P-for for you." He handed the message to Colby. The engineering officer shot a look to the Comm chief that was clearly understood, "I owe you one."
Colby snatched the message, and retreated to his quarters to read it. The message was from an old friend that had been sidelined at HQ. It was a series of reports detailing some attacks, although Confed didn't know who was responsible for the attacks. Concluding was a brief letter.
"Colt," he read aloud, "This was all that I could get my hands on, at present. To be frank - it doesn't look good. I've seen initial size estimates of what you may be up against, and in my opinion, you'll be doing good to return with half of your present force. I'll let you know if I get more info. Good luck - you'll need it. Greg."
Colby sat back on his couch and sighed. There were times that his family's shipping business didn't sound so bad.
"Attention on deck!"
"As you were, gentlemen. Take your seats, we've got a lot of ground to cover."
Colby walked to the front of the packed conference room. The room was designed to accommodate the senior staff of one destroyer, not the captains and squadron commanders of eight. The captains were seated at the table in the center of the room, and the squadron commanders stationed aboard each destroyer were seated behind their respective captains, lining the wall. It all made for a very cramped room. Seated at the table, Cdr. Laird took a sip of his coffee. The distorted face he made spoke to its awful, bitter taste. He'd spoiled himself and his crew on the Miami by buying his own coffee, not accepting Confed's poor imitation. He replaced his cup on the table and vowed not to touch it again.
"I forwarded all of the various reports that I've received to each ship. I take it that all were received? Good, then you'll have a general idea of what we're up against. Those reports were initial accounts of people who have come into contact with this threat. The reports are... abbreviated at best. Confed is not aware of who is behind these attacks, and why these attacks are being carried out, or if they do, they're not telling us. Then there are the rumors. I don't want anyone paying any heed to these rumors of the Kilrathi yelling about some sort of doomsday prophecy. Let's focus on the facts. Although we don't have a good size estimate of the attacking force yet, one thing is sure. Either it's a huge force, or it's damn near unstoppable... or both. Any way you slice it, we've got our hands full. Our destroyer squadron has been ordered to rendezvous with a growing force, with the purpose of heading off this threat. I haven't been given all of the information yet, but I understand that this will be a joint venture with the Border Worlds. They have a fleet gathering as well, and as I understand it, we will fall under their command. Now, our primary concern at this point should preparation. We will be making a short stop along the way to resupply, and swap out some fighters. The good news is that the Chicago, and Miami will be getting Tigersharks. Everyone else will keep the fighters they currently have; the Blue Ridge, Kiev, Dallas, and the Saratoga will keep their Excaliburs, while the Denver and Waterloo will keep their Thunderbolts."
Against one wall, Lt. Col Ward spoke up, "Sir, how much time will we have to get used to the new fighters?"
"We'll make best speed there, and hopefully have a little extra time after we pick them up before we have to rendezvous with the rest of the fleet. I aim to give you as much time as possible to get comfortable with the new ships, but I also want your pilots rested and ready for action when we head into the fire. Are there any more questions? Good. Oh, there's one last thing. Tony, your squadron commander on the Miami is scheduled to rotate out soon. When we pull in for resupply, the rotation will be made there. The new pilot is waiting, a Maj. James Greer. I've heard good things about him, that he's a good pilot and an extremely capable leader. Still, it's a piss poor time for a change of command, so do what you can to ease his transition during this mess. That's all, gentlemen."
Colby sat back in his chair, and looked again at the part of the message from Confed that he hadn't briefed the other COs about. The Nephilim had attacking the Tartaus System. The Saratoga had tried to stop the threat, but all hands had been lost. Colby thought of the people that he'd served with, now lost.
He reached into his desk, and pulled out a bottle of scotch. His mind raced as he poured the drink. His heart ached as he downed the glass. He poured another, and looked at the report again. It didn't give specifics of the enemy size. Maybe HQ didn't know the size... and maybe they just weren't saying. He dropped the report back onto his desk and downed another drink. Judging by the size of the combined Confed/Border Worlds fleet though, the enemy force must be huge. Five fleet carriers, three smaller carriers, the 8th Cruiser Squadron, the 1st Confed Torpedo Boat Squadron, the 6th UBW Corvette Squadron, the 18th Destroyer Squadron... and him. By the look of the craft that were gathering, the outdated Confed carriers and the obsolete Border Worlds craft, it was a sad display of the fleet's readiness.
We're going to get slaughtered, he thought.
There was a knock at the door, and the XO entered. Galloway shut the door behind him, turned and looked at the already half-empty bottle. This was a drastically different man than the confident leader that had been in the briefing room a few hours ago. Since his tour aboard the Chicago began, nearly a year and a half ago, he'd seen the captain drinking more often than he wished he had. They had talked about it once, and it had ended up with Colby knocking Galloway against the far bulkhead. The bruises from that were a bit embarrassing, especially trying to explain to the crew. Colby seemed to lay off it for a while, but had eventually gone back to drinking.
"Don't start with me, Joe. I really don't need your crap right now."
"Give me the bottle, Colt."
Colby stood, a little bit wobblier than he would have liked. He pointed a finger at his XO and lowered his voice. "So help me, if you start to get that 'holier than thou' attitude, I'll beat the piss out of you, Joe. I did it once, and I'll do it again."
Galloway stared into the eyes of his captain. He came around the desk and gently pulled the bottle away from Colby. He put an arm around Colby's waist and led him to the couch.
"Lie down, Colt, you're not going to get a speech this time. I lost friends on the Saratoga, too. That doesn't change things for us. We have a mission to do, plain and simple. Are you going to be able to do that mission, Colt?"
"Screw you, Joe. I'm fine, get out."
Galloway entered the operations space, and his eyes scanned for the Ops officer. The man was seated at a console; his eyes glued to the screen. In the dark room, his face glowed an eerie green from the display. Galloway approached the man.
"Hey, XO. Would you look at these stats for the Tigersharks! This will definitely help; I only wish that we'd been able to fit the entire squadron with these."
"Glen, we need to talk."
The Ops officer turned around to look at the XO, and the got up. The two men walked over to the far corner of the room, and lowered their voices.
"This stays between you and me" the XO prefaced. "I'm concerned about the Captain. He's been drinking again. I'm telling you because after me, you're next in the chain. You keep your eyes open, will you? If you see something that makes you question his judgment, you'd damn well better either tell me, or take care of matters yourself."
The operations officer knew that was meant, and a shiver ran up his spine. Relieving a senior officer of command was no enviable task, certainly not if that need should arise in the middle of battle. In the past, such acts had been met with fierce resistance from the officer being relieved, and - if the crew survived the battle - it had been met with a formal inquiry by the fleet.
"You think it'll come to that?"
"Never know, Glen. Just keep your eyes open, and your mouth shut."
Ops nodded in acknowledgment and the XO went back to the bridge.
Commander Steve Wehrmann sat behind his desk with his head in his hands. He opened his eyes to read over the report one more time. Surely, it had to be a mistake. They had just pulled out of Rulas III after two weeks of R&R. Then the report had come. A rich business owner was found dead with multiple stab wounds and a broken neck, and one of his crew was being blamed for the murder. Steve couldn't shake the feeling that something was desperately wrong with this whole situation. His yeoman interrupted him from his thoughts.
"Sir, Major Lewis is here."
"Send her in."
Maj. Maria Lewis, the ship's squadron commander entered and stood before the CO's desk. She'd only transferred aboard a few months ago; this was not the way he liked to get to know new officers.
"Don't bother to sit down, this won't take long," Steve scowled at the woman now trembling before him. "Anything you'd like to tell me?"
"It's a beautiful day outside, sir."
"Cut the crap. The colony on Rulas III is accusing you of murder."
"It wasn't me, sir."
"They have a surveillance video that says it was, Major."
Steve leaned forward and rested on his elbows. He glared into the eyes of the young officer; much too young to be mixed up in this sort of nonsense. Younger still, for it to be true. Lewis hesitated, shifting her weight. Finally, her eyes met Steve's.
"So what's going to happen, sir?"
"You're lucky. Confed is not going to let them have you. In light of current events, Confed doesn't think this is the proper time to deal with this. You will remain on board."
Maria breathed a sigh of relief.
"That's where Confed's decision ends, and mine begins. I don't have the authority to demote you without going through official court martial proceedings, and there isn't time enough to do that. I do, however, have the authority to make your life hell for the duration that you're aboard. Effective immediately, you are relieved of command of your squadron. For the next month, you will be confined to the brig. You will also perform eight hours of hard labor, to be supervised by the master at arms. At the end of this time, your attitude will be reviewed."
Steve stood and walked around the table. He came to a stop just inches from her nose, and lowered his voice. "Understand me, Major; I don't think that you are officer material. Command officers are supposed to help prevent these sort of incidents, not cause them. A commander is an example of what is acceptable to the people under his or her command. I don't think that you are capable of providing that example. You have one chance to prove to me otherwise. I will check with the master at arms regarding your progress and attitude."
"And the squadron, sir?"
"I will inform Capt. Ruebaker that he will assume command. Any more questions?"
"Then get out."