As the doors slid silently open to admit her, the young Space Command officer entered the private briefing room adjoining the ship's bridge. Walking to within a meter of the large desk, she braced to attention and announced in a calm and clear voice, "Lieutenant(jg) Sydnee Marie Marcola reporting to the Captain as ordered." As always, or at least as was usual when she was to be briefed by the Captain, Commander Bryant was seated in a side chair. The ship's XO looked up over his left shoulder at Marcola without showing any emotion.
"At ease, Sydnee," Lidden said. Looking up from the report he was reading on his com screen, he added, "Have a seat."
Commander Bryant swiveled his oh-gee chair to also face Sydnee as she sat down in a chair facing the Captain's desk.
"I need an answer to the command offer I made three days ago," Lidden said. "Do you accept the new mission to Yolongus with Marine Captain Blade?"
"Yes, sir, I do. I've thought a lot about it and realize you were right. We do owe the Clidepp minister something for all we put him through. I'll take him home."
"Good. Blade reported aboard yesterday with his special ops team and the package you'll be delivering."
"And how are we to treat the package on this trip? As a prisoner, or as a guest?"
"As a prisoner, but with consideration that he's guilty of nothing except being used as an unwitting pawn by the Clidepp rebel command. Obviously we cannot give him the run of the ship, and he's to have no contact with anyone except his guards. Also, no one is to converse with him. We don't want him to learn anything about the ship. As far as he knows, his trip here took place aboard one of our largest battleships, and he's being returned the same way. He knows we've cleared him of any culpability in the bombing of the Trade Show, and that we're taking him home. So far, the Clidepp High Command only knows he's missing. They don't know that Space Command was responsible, and the GA Senate Council insists we maintain deniability. Not even the full Senate knows about the kidnapping. The package will naturally report the true facts, as he knows them, as soon as he's home, but there must not be any proof that Space Command was responsible. As far as the GA is concerned, his alleged kidnapping was a ruse he devised so he could enjoy a year-long vacation with one of his numerous mistresses. And SHQ wants no muck-ups on this trip."
Sydnee opened her mouth to state she was not responsible for the shipboard problems that occurred inside the Clidepp Empire, but then shut it just as quickly without uttering a word. Lidden was familiar with the facts and knew she wasn't to blame for the events that plagued their last mission. She realized that Lidden wasn't making an accusation— but merely giving voice to the frustration they had all felt during the voyage.
"Blade and Major Burrows will meet you in the conference room on Deck 12, Frame Section 78 at 1400 hours to discuss the mission," Lidden said. "Any questions?"
"One, sir. Will the Justice have a full crew on this mission?"
"A full crew?"
"Yes, sir. On the last mission I had just seven crewmembers. Because we were so shorthanded, I had to perform as the backup MAT pilot once the ship was on the planet. Our crew size was perfectly adequate for a brief mission or training exercise, but I quickly learned that an extended voyage needs at least twice that number. And for a covert mission in hostile space, like the one we completed, I believe that a full complement of twenty-four crewmembers is required to respond to the demands of such an undertaking."
Lidden took a deep breath while he thought, then said, "Commander Bryant and I have already decided that eighteen, not counting the captain, should crew the ship this time. We agree that eight was woefully inadequate on the last trip. But twenty-four might be too many. There's not much to do in a vessel the size of a CPS-14 and too much downtime can create its own problems. This is just a quick foray into Clidepp space, a drop of the package, and a quick exit back to GA space."
"Yes, sir. If everything goes smoothly, eighteen will be perfectly adequate. But if we should encounter even half the obstacles we faced last time, the extra hands would help considerably. We were all pretty ragged when we returned from the last voyage."
"Commander Bryant and I will discuss it and reassess the situation. Is there anything else?"
"Have you heard anything about the investigation into the speed anomaly we experienced on our last mission?"
"No, nothing. But that's not unusual. Research into such matters usually remains Most Secret until reports are verified and the science can either be reproduced or declared impossible to replicate. And at our level, we probably won't hear anything unless, and until, it's deemed safe for general shipboard use. Even then the information can remain highly restricted and privileged, with only the senior officers and senior noncoms privy to the information until it's used. In the service we always like to have an edge our enemies don't know about, and we tend to hold them in reserve until needed. Look at the situation with the speed advance that took us to Light-9790. We had it available and were using it for two years before the information became generally known even to the security forces of other nations. When the Milori, and then the Tsgardi and Uthlaro nations attacked us, they had no idea that we could fly circles around them."
"Yes, sir. I understand."
"Then you're dismissed."
Sydnee stood, braced to attention, then turned on her left heel and left the office.
After the doors had closed behind Marcola, Lidden turned towards Bryant. "What do you think about her crew size request?"
"She has a point. When we discussed the matter, we were looking to determine the optimum crew size for an extended mission in GA space. We merely wanted to maintain a full presence on the bridge at all times. Eighteen crew, plus the commanding officer, would accomplish that. But perhaps for a covert mission inside enemy territory, we should increase that to twenty-four. Space Command did allow twenty-four berths in the crew's sleeping compartment aboard the CPS-14, so SHQ must have come to the same conclusion at some point."
"Yes, that true. But my main consideration in this instance is putting a junior officer in command of what amounts to a small warship with a crew of twenty-four. The commanding officer on a mission of this type, with a crew of that size, should at the very least hold the rank of lieutenant. I again recommended that Sydnee receive an early promotion of one grade in recognition of her accomplishments, but I've heard nothing back."
"You're not worried about losing her if they do agree to early promotion?"
"Not really. With things settling down slightly in Regions Two and Three, our patrol area is just as important as any other in GA space. Perhaps even more important than most. We're the Denver now, and we've proven our worth. The old Perry has finally gone to the scrapyard, and hopefully, the stigma of being posted aboard that ship is gone forever. We still don't have the full crew size approved for a destroyer of this size, but most ships in the fleet are presently understaffed. I'm fairly confident that SHQ won't reduce our crew size further by removing one of our most able junior officers."
w w w
Everyone who had participated in the recent mission aboard the CPS-14 Justice had been granted two weeks of downtime following their return to the Denver, but it's difficult, after ten months of almost constant worry and activity, to come to a complete stop, unless you're sleeping. Sydney hadn't been assigned any shipboard duties aboard the Denver yet, and apparently wouldn't until she returned from the new two-month mission, so after completion of her meeting with Captain Lidden, she changed into her sweats and headed to the hold where a running track was available when the hold wasn't filled with shipping containers. Since it was designated as an exercise area, that particular hold would only used for other purposes when there was nowhere else available for storage.
As Sydnee entered the hold, she saw there were six other runners on the track. She hung her towel on a hook provided for that purpose and fell into line behind a runner. Over the next thirty minutes, a dozen other crewmembers came to the hold to run, while earlier runners dropped out and left. When Sydnee tired, she left the track, wiped the sweat from her head and brow and walked back to her quarters. A hot shower briefly reinvigorated her but the tiredness returned as she dried off so she lay down to take a quick nap. She arranged for a wakeup call from the computer before closing her eyes and drifting off to sleep.
Sydnee opened her eyes as the computer announced that it was 1130 hours. She jumped out of bed, dressed, and was on her way to the officer's mess before noon. The nap had refreshed her and now she intended to sate an appetite heightened by her recent activity.
After selecting her food, she took a seat at a table where several bridge officers, including Lt. Milton, were discussing shipboard matters. Since her return she had caught up on current events and was able to join in such conversations.
During a lull, Lt. Milton looked at Sydnee and said, "Scuttlebutt is that you'll be leaving us soon, Syd."
"Another away mission, we hear. Any truth to that?"
"I'd tell you if I could, Milty."
"That's not a yes or a no."
"No, it isn't. But it's the best I can offer right now."
"I understand. Well, best of luck."
"Thanks. And I know that Lifeguard will be there again if we need her."
"Let's hope she's not needed."
Following lunch, Sydnee wandered the corridors in silence as she thought about the previous mission. It had taxed her to the limit and she certainly didn't relish another clandestine trip to Yolongus, but someone had to go. When it was almost time to report to the conference room, she took a lift to Deck 12, then a transport car to Frame Section 78. As she stepped into the area outside the room where the sensor would verify her identity using her CT, the door opened immediately.
"Come in, Sydnee," Major Burrows said from his seat at the table. Marine Captain Blade was seated next to him, and First Lieutenant Kelly MacDonald sat across the table from both. Sydnee took a seat next to Kelly, facing the two more senior officers. Although Major Burrows held the same O-3 Marine rank as Marine Captain Blade, he was in command of all Marine forces posted to the Denver.
Captain Lidden tells me you've volunteered for the new mission into Clidepp space. Is that correct?"
"You understand that this new mission is another unannounced incursion into the space of a neighboring nation and therefore does not have the official sanction of the Galactic Alliance Senate?"
"Yes, sir. But it's necessary that we do it."
"You don't exactly sound like you're ready and anxious to get underway," Blade said with a grin.
"Ready, yes," Sydnee said. "Anxious, no. But that won't prevent me from performing to the best of my ability."
"The purpose of this meeting is to lay out the goals of the mission," Burrows said. "If you still wish to participate when it's over, it'll be up to you to recruit your crew and be ready to depart within twenty-four hours. All hands must be volunteers. The Justice has been prepped and ready for two days. In addition to the three simulated cargo containers the Justice carried on the last mission, five more have been added for this mission."
"Five more? For what reason, sir?"
"Four of those extra containers house the new DS sheathed Marine FA-SF4 fighter aircraft, pilots, maintenance parts, and all support personnel. Since each container carries four aircraft, you're receiving two full squadrons. You'll have your own wing for this mission."
"Uh, isn't the commanding officer of a Marine Wing usually a Colonel?"
"Usually— aboard a cruiser or a battleship. In this situation, Lt. Colonel Dennier will command the Justice's air wing."
Sydnee remembered all too well the difficulties she'd had with Blade during the last mission. It's entirely understandable that Marine officers don't like reporting to Space Command officers with lower rank or less seniority, but that doesn't make it any less unpleasant. A Lt.(jg) has the military pay grade of O-2, while Blade, a Marine Captain, is an O-3. As a Lieutenant Colonel, Dennier is an O-5. "That might be a bit awkward, Major."
"Because of the disparity in rank between Dennier and yourself?"
"Basically, the Justice is simply providing her ride. She'll require little contact with you until it's time for her and her wing to take part in the mission. She's been informed that you are the mission commander. She understands that while the wing is aboard the Justice, command is compartmentalized, but that you have the final word in all matters. The pilots naturally obey their own command structure, but know their commander is subordinate to you while they are aboard ship, just as Captain Blade has been. Once they launch, their senior officer is in command of carrying out their mission."
"The aircraft are a welcome addition if we need support for ground operations. I wish we'd had them last trip. But who defines the mission parameters of the pilots before they launch?"
"That's your responsibility since you'll have overall command of the mission."
Sydnee shifted her gaze immediately to Blade. He nodded and said, "You're the boss aboard the ship, Syd. I promise not to second-guess you as much this trip. Which is not to say I will automatically agree with everything you order, but on our last mission I learned to trust your instincts, judgment, and command abilities. Those, combined with your intense concern for the safety of the people under your command, inspired great loyalty in not only your people, but mine as well."
"I've known Blade for a long time," Burrows said with a grin. "And that's about the highest compliment I've ever heard him give any Space Command officer."
"Thank you, Captain," Sydnee said to Blade, then to Burrows she asked, "Why isn't Lt. Colonel Dennier at this meeting?"
"SCI insisted that only individuals whose participation was dependent upon their having knowledge of the main mission be briefed at this time."
"Main mission? I thought there was only one mission— to return the package to an area near his home. What else are we expected to do?"