Chapter One

~ April 5th, 2282 ~

Sydnee Marcola leapt to her feet and began screaming for all she was worth. All around her, others were doing likewise. Admiral Jenetta Carver had just finished delivering her speech, and as she stepped back from the podium, the NHSA Corps of Cadets went wild. All were clapping, most were stamping their feet in unison, and many were cheering, screaming, or whistling. The Admiral had already received several standing ovations, but now the building literally shook from the noise and stamping feet as the cadet corps attempted to express their admiration of the speaker in the only way possible on this occasion.

Lightheaded with exhilaration, and with hands that stung from clapping too hard, Sydnee just couldn't stop. Jenetta Carver was her idol, and this was the first time the Admiral had returned to the Northern Hemisphere Space Academy in the twenty-six years since her graduation. Now in her senior year, Sydnee couldn't believe her good fortune in still being here for the Admiral's speech. In two month's time she would have missed it. She wished she had an excuse, any excuse, to speak directly with the Admiral, but cadets didn't rush up to one of the most senior officers in Space Command and beg an audience.

Besides— Sydnee knew she probably wouldn't be able to articulate a single coherent sentence if she suddenly found herself face to face with Admiral Jenetta Carver, Commander of the Second Fleet and Military Governor of Region Two of the Galactic Alliance.

At that moment, every cadet in the hall was ready to drop everything and follow the Admiral back to Region Two where she faced the challenges of settling a vast, lawless territory, but there were still educational requirements to fulfill. Following graduation in May, Sydnee expected to travel to the GSC Warship Command Institute in Australia. She hadn't received her orders yet, but it was a done deal unless she screwed up royally in the next two months. She was determined that that wasn't going to happen. Oh sure, she had received a number of demerits during her Academy years, but all were for minor infractions, such as failing to properly stow some small item prior to a room inspection. She'd received no more than the average cadet and had always performed the punishment duty that would wipe the slate clean. Scholastically, her grades were not only good, they were excellent. Her math and science grades were not as outstanding as Admiral Carver's grades had been while she was at the Academy, but then nobody had ever managed to surpass the academic marks set by Cadet Jenetta Carver. In fact, only eight students had received the Admiral Matthew Tissdell Award for Excellence in Mathematics in the twenty-six years since Admiral Carver had received it, and none of those award recipients had math grades that surpassed, or even rivaled, Carver's.

Where Sydnee had really outshone most other cadets was in Command and Control exercises. With scores that consistently ranked in the superior range, her career path was established. Following the anticipated two-year program of intensive study at the Warship Command Institute, she would be promoted in rank to Lieutenant(jg) and assigned to a warship as a line officer. When the appropriate time came during the next three decades, she would receive orders to proceed to the Space Command War College, where two years of intensive study would prepare her for command of a ship of the line. Only Admiral Carver and two other line officers in the history of Space Command had been exempted from attending the WCI and the War College. The other two were the Admiral's sisters.

Sydnee's C&C scores were the only area where she had been able to surpass Admiral Carver's record. While she knew the Admiral's scores had been surprisingly dismal, she had never been able to learn why. She'd heard persistent rumors that Cadet Jenetta Carver had been a prankster who delighted in harrying her instructors, especially Professor Hubera, now a member of the Admiralty Board. If any other cadet had done that, it was said, they would have been dismissed from the Academy. But Cadet Jenetta Carver had always gotten away with it, and had then gone on to scale heights only dreamed of by most other cadets and officers. Since C&C scores could be quite subjective, Sydnee subscribed to the commonly held belief that a few irked instructors might have misused the scoring mechanism in retaliation for the pranks.

Following her last class for the day, Sydnee stopped into the Cadet 3rd Company HQ office where she picked up a data wafer containing the speech by Admiral Carver. Upon entering her dorm room, she slid the paper-thin wafer into the special slot in the picture frame on her dresser, then powered on her stereo and entered the frequency to pick up the audio signal broadcast by the picture frame. After touching the spot on the frame that would play the file, she quickly hopped onto her bed. With her back against the wall, she focused her hazel eyes on the photo frame to enjoy the speech again.

"Oh, you've got it bad," she heard from the door. "You heard that speech just a few hours ago."

Sydnee had already identified the speaker by her voice, but she turned her head to look at Cadet Katarina Somulowski, presently leaning against the doorframe, and smiled. "Shush, this is the best part," she said, and returned her attention to the picture frame.

Katarina came in and closed the door, then took a seat on the bed next to her best friend to watch the speech. When it ended and the cadet corps rose to their feet in applause, Katarina climbed off the bed and turned the volume down to minimum. The speech would morph to the beginning and replay until Sydnee cancelled the function.

Sydnee sighed. "She is just so amazing, Kat. She's beautiful, brilliant, a full Admiral at just forty-five, and looks as young as us. Most people say she'll become the Admiral of the Fleet when Admiral Moore retires in a few years."

"What a depressing thought," Katarina said.

"Name someone better," Sydnee said defensively.

"I didn't mean it like that. I meant, 'Ugh, who wants to be Admiral of the Fleet?' I bet Admiral Moore hasn't been off-world in decades. He probably spends all his time running back and forth between Galactic Alliance Council meetings and Admiralty Board meetings. I suppose it's okay when your career is winding down to retirement, but look at Carver. As you said, she looks as young as us. Would you like to be stuck in an office all day, reading reports and attending meetings?"

"You know the answer to that. I'd go crazy in a week."

"Yeah, me too. Hey, let's go to the gym for an hour before dinner." Facetiously, she added, "We can do a little kickboxing to help you prepare for the day when you have a chance to spar with Admiral Carver."

"Okay," Sydnee said with a grin as she jumped up and began pulling a brush through her collar-length brown hair. " Give me two minutes to get ready."

* * *

As she'd anticipated, Sydnee Marcola received orders to proceed to the WCI following graduation from NHSA. Her friend and fellow cadet, Katarina Somulowski, received similar orders, so they traveled together via a sub-orbital shuttle that set down at the WCI landing pad southeast of Perth just two hours after lifting off from Nebraska, USNA.

That ensigns are the lowest of the low in the officer corps couldn't have been made clearer as they moved through orientation and indoctrination. Four years of hard work had earned them steadily increasing privileges and standing at NHSA, but it was as if that had never happened. At the WCI, they were returned to the bottom of the pecking order. It was disconcerting, although not unexpected, to again be considered less astute than a garden slug.

While all cadets at the Academy are taught to pilot a shuttle, WCI students learn to handle every small ship currently in use by Space Command and the Space Marine Corps. Sydnee, like most of her classmates, quickly adopted the FA-SF4 Marine Fighter as her favorite and spent as much time in the simulator as possible. The small deadly ship handled like an extension of her body. Her least favorite ship was the MAT-12A, the new Dakinium-sheathed Marine Assault Transport ship. While tugs typically behaved like a brick during sub-orbital flight, the MAT-12A behaved like a deep-dish baking pan filled with water. As long it was kept straight and level when landing, it was fine, but allow the glide path to get the least bit sloppy, and it was a real fight to regain stability before suffering something between a hard landing and a controlled crash. Assuming the pilot lived through that, they might then find forty pissed off Marines lining up to express displeasure with their flying skills.

The MATs were 'opposed gravity' ships and could hover like a butterfly, but every LZ was to be considered 'hot.' One must be able to get the ship down fast so the Marines could deploy, thus minimizing exposure to enemy fire. With each class of ship, Sydnee started with simulator practice and then moved to the real thing for her final grade. Flight training was the best part of every day.

The worst part of every day was the Alien Anatomy class. The Academy had covered the sentient species in GA space, so the WCI had responsibility for introducing every other known species of animal the cadets were likely to encounter. To Sydnee, there seemed to be millions. Almost as bad as AA were the studies in Protocol. As a representative of the Galactic Alliance who would have substantial contact with races from every world while performing interdiction activities, a line officer had to be aware of most social customs and mores. Somewhere between AA/Protocol and Flight Training were the classes in GA Interdiction Law, Shipboard Command and Supervision, Ancient and Modern Warfare Studies, and a myriad of other important courses. Looking forward to the day she would join Admiral Carver's fleet in Region Two, Sydnee applied herself to her studies with the same intensity others reserved for flight training.

* * *

The days, weeks, and months seemed to stretch on interminably, but finally classes were over and graduation was just two days away. All but two of the cadets who began the training with Sydnee and Katarina completed the two years. One was excused from classes following a serious accident in his second year that saw him unable to complete flight training. The cause of the accident was ruled mechanical failure, so he would return next year to complete the required work. The other cadet had mysteriously vanished overnight. One day he was there, the next he was gone. No one knew why he left or where he'd gone. He had maintained excellent grades up to his disappearance. Neither the Institute nor his family would respond to inquiries from students.

Sydnee and Katarina raced to pick up their new orders in the Company HQ upon learning they were available. They already knew their final grades and class ranks. Sydnee had finished near the top of the class in every subject except Alien Anatomy. That was no surprise since she'd hated the class. Although not in the top five percent of that class, she had at least made it into the top ten. Her class rank overall was seventh. Katarina wasn't quite the scholar, but she had finished with a very respectable class rank of seventy-two in a class of four hundred fourteen.

Both young women were in a celebratory mood and raced to a table where they could view their orders. Katarina made it ahead of Sydnee, dropping her data ring over the spindle. The face of a Space Command officer filled the screen and announced her posting.

"I've been posted to the Pholus in Region Two," Katarina screamed out to everyone within earshot. The others called back their congratulations. Sydnee and Katarina hugged and wept happy tears.

Wiping her tears, Sydnee said, "Let me check my orders. Maybe we'll be together on the Pholus."

As Katarina picked up her ring, she said, "That would be wonderful, but it's unlikely they'll need two new bridge officers. At least we'll be together in Region Two. We can keep in touch and see each other occasionally.

Sydnee dropped her ring onto the spindle and the face of the same officer appeared on the screen. As he announced the name of her assigned warship, the happy look on Sydnee's face froze, then turned to one of shock and dismay.

"It must be a mistake," Katarina said. "You're number seven in the class. They wouldn't assign you to that ship."

Sydnee was too shocked to respond.

"You should go see the Commander," Katarina said. "He'll be able to clear it up and get your orders corrected."

Sydnee nodded and began to walk cheerlessly towards the door with Katarina right beside her. She could feel a cold numbing sensation spreading through her abdomen.

"The Commander is busy right now, Ensign," Commander Collins' aide said. "Perhaps tomorrow."

"But, sir, I have a serious problem. I received my new orders and there seems to be a mistake."

"That hardly seems likely, Ensign."

"But sir, I've been assigned to the Perry, GSC-DL423."

"The Perry? I thought that went to the scrap yard thirty years ago. Are you sure of the designation?"

"Yes, sir. DL423. It's listed as a Jones class ship. I read that they stopped making them sixty-eight years ago."

"Let me check," the aide said, keying his computer interface. After a few seconds, he said, " It's listed as an active-duty warship, alright. Your orders require you to report aboard as quickly as travel arrangements can be made after graduation. It appears they're shorthanded."

"But, sir. My rank is number seven in the class. This has to be a mistake."

The aide sighed. "Let me see if the Commander can find time to see you." He turned to his com and said, " Commander, I'm sorry to bother you right now, but Ensign Marcola is here. It seems she's been posted to the Perry, GSC-DL423, and feels sure it's a mistake. Can you spare her a couple of minutes?" After a few seconds he read a message that scrolled up on his com unit. " Go ahead in, Ensign," he said to Sydnee, "but keep it brief or you may find yourself posted to a reclamation ship."

That might almost be better, Sydnee thought, but only said, "Thank you, sir," and walked quickly to the Commander's door.

"What's the problem, Ensign?" Commander Collins asked brusquely as Marcola braced to attention in front of his desk. "Did you misunderstand your orders?"

"Um, no, sir," Sydnee said. "I just felt there has to be a mistake."

"Because of your class rank?"

"Um, yes, sir."

"You feel that you should receive special privileges because you finished near the top?"

"Um, not special, sir."

"What would you call it, Ensign?"

"I've, um, always believed that the better students received postings more consistent with their abilities and attitudes, sir."

"Have you?"

"Um, yes, sir."

"Stop umming me, Ensign."

"U— yes, sir."

"Are you refusing to accept this posting, Ensign?" Collins asked in an accusatory tone.

"NO, sir. Absolutely not. I just believed that a mistake may have been made and that it should be cleared up without delay."

"There's no mistake. You're to report the Perry as soon as transportation can be arranged."

"Yes, sir," Marcola said smartly.

"Was there anything else, Ensign?"

"No, sir."


Sydnee saluted, then turned on one heel and retraced her steps out of the office. As the door slid closed behind her, the aide asked, "All cleared up?"

"Perfectly, sir."

"Good. Good luck, Ensign."

"Thank you, sir."

"Well, did you get it straightened out?" Katarina asked as Sydnee emerged from the Headquarters building.

"Commander Collins said that no mistake has been made."

"What? How could he say that? What else did he say?"

"That I was dismissed."

"And you didn't press him to check on it?"

"No way. He was in that 'How dare you question the decisions of Space Command HQ' mode. I was afraid that if I said anything, I'd find myself posted to a reclamation barge."

"Yeah. Well, as soon as you reach your post, apply for a transfer. They can't shunt you off to a rec-lam if you're following SOP. Want to go to town?"

"Yeah, I need a drink— maybe two— maybe even three."

"Two is about your limit. We haven't graduated yet, you know."

"So what. Everything is finished except the final ceremony. I'm finished too. I've busted my backside for six years, only to wind up on the worst ship in the fleet."

"Try to look at the positive side."

"You see a positive side?"

"You're bound to be the best damn officer on that ship. You might make captain before any of us."

"I'd rather be a lieutenant on the Battleship Pholus than the captain of the Light Destroyer Perry."

* * *

"Ohhh, my head is killing me," Sydnee moaned to Katarina, who was doing her best to hold the five-foot eleven-inch cadet upright, fully clothed, in the shower. "What time is it?"

Katarina, an inch and half shorter, was having difficulty supporting Sydnee's full weight. "It's almost 0800. I've been trying to wake you for an hour. You have to get ready for graduation."

"I don't have anything left to do until tomorrow. I'll worry about it then."

"Graduation is in two hours."

"Two hours? No, it's tomorrow."

"Today is tomorrow. You slept all day yesterday."

Sydnee came instantly alert. The burden on her sodden, auburn haired friend was immediately relieved. "What? What did you say?"

"Graduation is today. You slept all day yesterday. You're still wearing the same clothes from two days ago."

"Impossible. I couldn't have slept an entire day away."

"It's not impossible for someone who tossed down a dozen Canberra Coolers."

"A dozen?"

"I couldn't stop you. I got you outside the bar three times and you ran back inside and ordered another round. I had all I could do just getting you back here without the MPs picking us up."

"Oh, my aching head."

"You deserve it."

"Don't say that, Kat. You're going to your dream job aboard the Pholus. I'm going to hell— ohhh, if I live that long."

End of Chapter 1

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