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CHAPTER ONE

"So . . . what's with the different uniform?" Josh asked. "The Marines got a special one for making the worst mistake of your life?"


Second Lieutenant Eric Bergstresser fiddled with his tight collar and looked in the mirror over his shoulder at his brother.


"I'm an officer, now, you moron. Officers don't wear enlisted uniforms."


"Shiny," Josh said, tugging at the unaccustomed tuxedo jacket. "But you get to, like, rent them, right? Because, don't get me wrong, they look expensive."


Eric had once upon a time been promoted directly from private first class to sergeant. Winning the Navy Cross might have had something to do with it. Assuming that his next promotion, to staff sergeant, would be a long time coming, he'd invested in a set of the Marine Dress Uniform, just about the prettiest uniform the U.S. military services had to offer. And assuredly the most expensive that were made for junior enlisted.


He'd subsequently been promoted to staff sergeant rather quicker than he'd expected and then more or less ordered, by the President no less, to attend Officer's Candidate School. So the Enlisted Dress Uniform now resided in his closet until he could figure out what to do with it and he was fiddling with the "field scarf" of his new officer's dress blues while trying to ignore the fact that he was about to get married.


"No, you don't rent them," Eric replied. "And, yes, they're expensive. But with the visitors that we've got, I couldn't just turn up in greens."


Eric winced when he reminded himself of the guest list. Brooke's dad, thank God, was prior service. So when a few people made it known that they'd like to attend, and he'd seen who they were, he'd made it plain to Brooke's mom that, no, they could not be turned away.


Eric had been up to his hips in alligators when the additional guests were invited and hadn't found out for a couple of weeks. In a way he was glad. And even more glad that his tactical officer hadn't found out.


OCS had been a pain in the ass. It wasn't the chickenshit that had gotten him. He understood that. Marines were expected to maintain a high state of readiness at all times. Inspections were a part of daily life. Attention to detail was important in combat and to an extent even more so in space. Whether the Marine Officer Candidates knew it or not, and while it was still Top Secret, the rumors were starting to go around, the Navy, and thus the Marine Corps, was about to transition from a "wet" service to a "space" service. Learning to fold your socks perfectly, first time, every time, was a way to develop the habit of doing the job right, first time, every time. Whether your socks were folded, in the end, really didn't matter. Whether you'd sealed your space suit did.


So Eric could handle the chickenshit and had. He'd been neat as a kid; Marine Corps boot camp had just put polish on. He knew the drills, which was why he rapidly made platoon guide. He could fire his weapon already, so he acted as a mentor to some of the candidates who, alas, could not hit the broad side of a Dreen dreadnought. He didn't even find the coursework hard. Most of the candidates were college graduates whereas he only had a high school education. But sometimes it seemed like college had made them stupider or something. And the new stuff, on particles and planetary environments, well, that was meat and drink to the job he'd been doing for two years.


What had been a pain in the ass was the instructors. He'd entered OCS with the absolute personal commitment to stand out as little as possible, glide through as easily as he could, get his bar and get back to work. The OCS instructors, however, had of course read his file. And while it didn't say where he got the Navy Cross, they weren't handed out in boxes of Cracker Jacks. And his file did note that he had two years in Force Recon.


The instructors did have a certain gate-keeper duty. Their job was to ensure that everyone passing through their course graduated as the finest example of Marine Officer possible. So whether it was that sense of duty, a dislike of "mustangs," officers who had come up from the enlisted ranks, or just bloody-mindedness, the instructors seemed to pick him out from day one as one of the candidates they were going to make quit.


So it had been a pain. Not as much of a pain as Force Recon qual or Operator Combat Training, but a pain nonetheless. And in his opinion, an unnecessary one. He'd proven from day one that he was as good as any of the other candidates, better really. But nothing he did seemed to be good enough.


On the other hand, maybe it was time to quit mentally bitching. He'd been Distinguished Honor Grad so maybe the riding had a purpose.


But to suddenly get a message from home, right after the Crucible, that several guests had been added to what he'd hoped was going to be a very small and unnoticed wedding . . . 


"Okay, try to explain this to me in terms I can understand," Josh said. "Who are these guys?"


Eric winced internally, again, and shrugged, again.


"Who's the biggest bigshot you can think of short of the President or Marilyn Manson?"


"I dunno," Josh said.


"That's who these people are," Eric replied. "One of the lower ranking ones is one of the very few guys alive to have gotten the Medal of Honor. Then there's the rest . . ."


"Okay, that one I get," Josh said, his eyes widening. "So why's he coming to your wedding?"


"Because God hates me," Eric replied.


 


God hates me, Captain William Weaver thought. I should go back to being an astrogator. Hell, I should go back to being a scientist.


Once upon a time, that is exactly what William Weaver, Ph.D., had been. With doctorates in everything from engineering to astronomy, he'd been one of the corps of specialists, often referred to as Beltway Bandits, who solved problems for the military and other branches of the U.S. government, generally having acronyms that had an "A" on the end. NSA, CIA, DIA . . . 


Which was why he'd been shanghaied one Saturday afternoon to explain physics to the National Security Council when an experiment in same had gone wrong.


Subsequent to the explosion in Orlando that had created the Chen Anomaly, he'd been blown up, shot, travelled to other planets, gotten stuck between universes and ended up saving the world. The Chen Anomaly, a black sphere that sat precisely where the University of Central Florida High-Energy Physics lab used to reside, had spawned a host of magical particles. The particles, at first referred to, incorrectly, as Higgs bosons, had the ability to link two particles and create a gate, one that looked very much like a mirror, between any two points. Some TV reporter had called them Looking Glasses and the name stuck. Since there were inactive bosons, apparently left over from some predecessor race, on other planets, the vast horde of particles spun out by the Chen Anomaly had created multiple gates to other worlds.


Some of those worlds were inhabited. Notably, some of them were inhabited by a species humans called the Dreen. The Dreen used biological forms for most of the processes humans used machines for and were apparently ravenously consuming Earth's corner of the galaxy. They'd linked to some of Earth's bosons and were intent on conquering the planet.


One of the bosons, however, had linked to a more friendly race called the Adar. About a hundred years ahead of humans in most sciences, the Adar had a weapon that could close the gates. The only problem being, it had to be shoved through one and if it went off on the wrong side it was going to destroy the sending planet. Though they had had a run-in with the Dreen as well, they'd chosen to go for stopgap measures rather than risk losing their planet.


Humans, with multiple attacks coming through and the Dreen seemingly unstoppable, had taken the chance. Weaver, with the help of a SEAL team and nearly a division of troops, had managed to get the device through the Looking Glass and saved the world.


The Adar also had a strange little device they'd picked up on one of the previously inhabited planets. The most they'd gotten it to do was explode on a very large scale. Weaver had figured out that rather than the suicide box it appeared to be, it was probably a drive system of some sort. After seven years, the humans and Adar had managed to create a warp ship with the little black box at the heart of it.


Along the way, Weaver quit being a Beltway Bandit and joined the side of light, taking a direct commission and, after lots of schools and several normal cruises, became the astrogator of that warp ship. Just before its first mission the Adar, who while technically and even philosophically advanced over humans still didn't quite get marketing, had named it the Alliance Space Ship Vorpal Blade.


Weaver had spent two tours as the Vorpal Blade's astrogator and while both had been hair-raising and life threatening, he'd enjoyed the challenge. And, of course, he got to run around in space and see and do some really neat stuff.


But after the second cruise, when they'd finally located the Dreen, found another even more advanced race that was fleeing from them and generally gotten the chither shot out of themselves by a Dreen task force, he'd been offered a promotion to executive officer of the Vorpal Blade II. The latter had been entirely built by the new race, the Hexosehr, and was superior in every way to the original. So how bad could it be? Especially since the Navy threw in a wholly unlooked for promotion to captain. Hell, he could be looking at commanding the Vorpal Blade if he did a good enough job in the XO's slot.


But at the moment, that didn't look likely. If he couldn't get a few hundred rolls of . . . 


"We're leaving in a week," Weaver said, as patiently as he could, to the woman on the other side of the counter. "If we don't have these supplies, experience tells me that our mission is going to go from possible to difficult if not impossible."


"Well, you're not getting them," the distribution clerk said, clicking her tongue. "For one thing, you're over budget on this class of item. For another, you're asking for our entire stock. I need to ensure that there's some for others, you know."


If she clicked her tongue one more time, Weaver was going to go all postal on her fat ass. She used that annoying tongue click as a grammatical mark. At the end of each sentence, "click," each comma point, "click." He'd been dealing with her for the last two months and he was going to strangle her if she didn't stop . . . 


"This material is very expensive you know (click). And the last two times that your boat went out (click) you used up nearly your entire stock (click). You need to learn some supply discipline, Captain (click).


Weaver tried to stop, but he was beginning to flinch in anticipation of her finishing a sentence. He felt like a hound dog that had been beat too much, no good for sniffin' nor treein'.


"And that is your final answer?" Bill asked, flinching at the fact that he'd actually asked for a reply. He'd encouraged her to . . . 


"That is my final answer (click!). Unless you get a budget variance and authorization to entirely deplete the stock (click) the amount you've already drawn is the maximum you will be allowed (Click!)."


Bill felt beaten. It wasn't that he couldn't find a way to get the variances and even the authorizations. The missions of the Blade were almost always of such high priority that variances were more or less automatic. But even if he got them, he'd have to deal with the click. That bloody, revolting, monstrous, infernal click! The horrid, wretched, ghastly, hideous, disgusting, VILE CLICK! THAT BLASPHEMOUS MONSTROSITY THAT ROSE FROM THE NETHER DEPTHS OF . . . 


"Thank you very much," Bill said, nodding to her politely. "Have a nice day."


"I will (click)."


 


"You don't look so good, XO," Captain Prael said.


Captain Charles Prael was a submariner, and a good one. The previous skipper of the Vorpal Blade had been an aviator, a compromise reached among the admirals when it became obvious the navy was going to space. While the Blade I was built around a submarine, the former USS Nebraska, SSBN 739, there were aspects of both underwater and aerial maneuver to its actions. At least, that was the argument the carrier admirals had used. The argument had carried weight for several reasons, among which were that the carrier admirals were all former fighter jocks whereas the sub admirals were bubblehead geeks. In a way, it was right back to high school.


But Spectre had turned out to be a great CO for the mission. Each of the branches had their own priorities, cultural issues that seemed built right into the steel of their ships. And whereas with submariners, the boat always came first, fighter jocks were always willing to go to the mat. It was vastly unlikely that any submariner would have kept fighting the Blade after the pounding she took at the planet designated HD 37355. Their tendency would have been to back off and get fixed. Submariner tradition, due to the conditions under which they fought and especially since the days of Rickover, was that the boat came first.


Spectre, Captain Steven Blankemeier, though, was from the fighter tradition. No carrier ever shut down flight ops because they lost a bird. Hell, they wouldn't shut down unless they took so much damage they couldn't get planes on and off the deck.


On the other hand, at one point in the first mission, when they weren't all that far from Earth and had taken some damage, he was ready to turn around. That was what carriers did if they got dinged. They headed into port to get the dings hammered out. They'd finish the mission, if at all possible, but they'd head for home just as soon as it was done.


Submariners, though, just kept going until they had to return to port. They'd keep the boat running with spit and duct tape if that was what was necessary.


Spectre, in many ways, had set the tone of the culture of the Space Navy, a combination of submariner and carrier. The mission came first, damn the platform, came from the carrier side. Sink the carrier if you have to to take out the enemy. Damn the damage or equipment failures, keep going until your cruise was done or you were actively sinking came from the submarine side. The chief of the boat had coined the new motto: "We don't go home until we're out of food or bodies."


Prael wasn't an entirely unknown item. He'd taken over the helm almost three months ago. But how he'd deal in deep space was going to be interesting to find out. In the meantime, though, Weaver was going to have to confess to failure.


"I can't get supply to cough up any more 413, sir," Bill admitted. "I tried but the clerk wants variances on budget and authorization to release her full supply. The latter is stupid, frankly, because we're the only ship authorized to draw on that item."


"Ran afoul of Clerk Click, did you, XO?" the skipper said, grinning. Prael was a large man with an easy manner that belied years spent on the nuke side. Nuke officers tended to be OCD to an annoying extent, but when you're in charge of a nuclear reactor that is right on the edge of being a nuclear bomb, attention to detail is a survival trait. Prael had that in spades, but not the constant tension and didacticism that normally accompanied it.


"You know her, sir," Bill said. It was not a question.


"Oh, yes," Prael replied. "I can see you're already developing the twitch. Captain, you may be a fine astrogator and experienced in space combat. But you have much to learn about how the Navy really operates. I will admit, though, that it is part of my duty to teach you. Very well, XO, as part of your professional development, I will instruct you in the proper method for wheedling Clerk Click. First, you compliment her on her hair—"


"But her hair is thinning and that style is—"


"God awful," the skipper said, nodding. "Revolting, Disgusting. Compliment it. Then you ask how her dogs are getting on."


"Dogs?"


"Pomeranians. Fat, hairy piranha with teeth. She had eight last time I dealt with her," the CO replied. "Then you ask her if she's lost weight. She will then fill you in on the details of her newest diet. You have to agree to try it since it's amazing its effect."


"She's lost weight?"


"Never in my experience. Then and only then do you compliment her outfit. Since she appears to only have three such outfits, all equally revolting, in eye-searing colors that even the Adar would never wear, you have to lie through your teeth on that one. When you are done with complimenting her, listening to the latest medical horror story about her dogs or herself or both, when she is finished telling you to drink your own urine—"


"Surely not!"


"Then and only then do you bring up the particular item that you need her to authorize," the CO said.


"But . . . the . . ."


"Click. That God awful, revolting, disgusting . . . annoying doesn't begin to cover it, click?"


"Yes, sir!"


"Captain," Prael said sternly. "You are a United States Naval Officer. Did John Paul Jones flinch in the face of English gunnery? Did Spruance back off at Midway? Did Dewey flee from the Spanish? No. Nor shall you flee that God-awful click, Captain! If it makes you feel any better, we're reasonably sure that the admirals, may their souls rot in hell, keep her in her position as a test of all XOs. To make CO, you have to be able to stand . . . The Click! If you can stand the Click, no lesser torture will do. But that is for tomorrow. Have you noticed the time?"


"Oh, Christ," Bill replied, accessing his plant. "I must have muted the alarm!"


"Or never noticed it in the face of The Click," Prael said, nodding. "It can do that. It's a most amazing sound. But we have other places to be. Right. Now. Dress fast."


 


"How's it going, son?" Steve Bergstresser asked.


"I'm ready to go," Eric replied, still fiddling with his collar button. It was that or stand around twitching.


"Come 'ere," his dad said, turning him around. He touched his son's cummerbund into place and pulled a probably imaginary bit of lint off the spotless uniform. "It's going to be fine. Admittedly, the chapel is packed . . ."


"Oh God," Eric groaned. "Dr. Pierson is going to have a heart attack! He can't afford a wedding this big."


"Dr. Pierson is a former submariner," Mr. Bergstresser said. "He's practically bubbling over. He's got three admirals and the Ccommandant attending. It's the first time I've ever seen a father of the bride happy about paying for a wedding."


"I just wish it was over," Eric replied.


"A common problem," Steve said. "Weddings are for brides."


"And honeymoons are for grooms," Josh added with a grin.


"Watch your tongue, young man," Mr. Bergstresser snapped. "All that the groom is required to do is show up on time."


"And reasonably sober," Josh added, apparently unrepentant. "That's your problem, Eric. You're sober. I've got some moonshine . . ."


"Quit playing the West Virginia hick, Josh," Eric said. "It doesn't go with the earring and the Goth look."


"It's time," Second Lieutenant Burt Tomlinson said, sticking his head in the room. The newly minted lieutenant was one of Eric's fellow candidates, a group of whom were attending the wedding and acting as ushers.


"Don't lock your knees," Eric's dad said as they headed for the door. "You'll pass out."


"They teach us that in Basic, Dad," Eric replied. "And again in OCS."


"Yeah, and this is one time you'll forget. And try not to stand rigidly at attention. It makes you look nervous."


"I've got two ways to stand when I'm wearing a uniform, Dad," Eric said. "Attention or parade rest. Take your pick."


 


"You know," SEAL Chief Warrant Officer Third Miller whispered as Weaver slid in next to him, "arriving after the bride could have permanently killed your career."


Miller had first met Dr. Weaver when the latter was sent to examine the then-new Chen Anomaly and figure out what was going on. He'd been caught in most of the resulting mess and suffered most of the resulting experiences. Along the way he'd developed a degree of admiration for the academic who was caught up in normal SEAL derring-do. Weaver hadn't quit, hadn't laid down, and just kept coming, no matter what the universe, gates and the Dreen threw at him. It also helped to have someone as smart as Dr. Weaver around when the problem wasn't something you could shoot or blow up.


More or less shanghaied for the first mission of the Vorpal Blade, Miller had been less thrilled about Commander Weaver. Weaver's commission and advancement didn't just smell of special privilege, it absolutely reeked of it. But, again, Weaver had been a good choice for the position of astrogator. The Blade ran into a lot of strange stuff between the stars and Weaver, with some assistance, had managed to figure out a way through over and over again.


Captain Weaver was getting to be a bit much, though. Captains were supposed hoary old salts with eyes wrinkled from decades spent squinting into the sun. Admittedly, neither he nor Weaver was a spring-chicken, but Weaver had somehow managed to keep a boyish look, and boyishness, despite all the stuff they'd both seen and done. Looking at him in uniform, people sometimes wondered if he'd stolen his dad's for dress-up.


"What did Two-Gun do to deserve all this brass?" Weaver replied.


From what Weaver had gathered, both Berg and his bride-to-be were popular in their hometown but since the wedding was relatively far from home, neither had the sort of universal showing you would expect. Despite that, the small chapel was packed out.


On the bride's side were her family and the parents of her three maids of honor. They fit in the two front rows. On the groom's side, his family and a couple of friends from home also filled the two front rows.


But immediately behind them was the sort of brass you'd expect at a major military wedding. Three admirals, ranging from the Chief of Astronautic Operations, Admiral Greg Townsend, to a newly minted two-star named Blankemeier, the Commandant of the Marine Corps, and the brigadier in charge of Force Recon. Each was accompanied by his wife. Behind them was a row of aides, including the Navy captain who was the aide to the CAO. Behind them was a row of ladies, presumably the wives of the newly minted lieutenants doing usher duty. Then more Marines, with a sprinkling of sailors, spilling over to the bride's side.


"The way I got it, Spectre asked for the day off to attend a wedding. He's working for Greg Townsend now so Greg asked who was getting married. When the CAO said he was going to the wedding, the rest figured it was mandatory. Well, except Spectre. And the commandant."


Since the end of the Dreen War—and the more or less simultaneous end of the War on Terror as the mujahideen fed themselves to the Dreen in profligate numbers—there hadn't been many opportunities for the military to excel. At least known opportunities. The still Top Secret Vorpal Blade project was the exception. The Marines and sailors of the Vorpal Blade had faced more threats than any five divisions of regular troops over the last two years. And the casualty rates had been on the same order.


In other times and other wars it might have been unusual to see the space version of the Chief of Naval Operations and the Commandant of the Marine Corps turn up for the wedding of a Marine second lieutenant, no matter how decorated. But Two-Gun Berg was, by far and away, the best known of the Marine security contingent of the Blade. As such he was something of a celebrity within a very small and very black community. It didn't hurt that he was a damned nice kid.


"I mean, let's just do the list, shall we?" Miller whispered. "Stopped the crabpus attack on Runner's World while it was eating up the rest of the Marines like so much popcorn. Saved the conn of the Blade, more or less single-handed. Did the drop on Cheerick. Point man into the Dragon Room. Just about the last man standing in same. The guy who found the sole survivor of the HD 36951 colony. Point man in multiple EVAs on same mission. The guy who figured out how to survive the entry of the Dreen dreadnought. Killed a rhino-tank at short range, more or less single-handed. Last but not least, the guy who captured the aforementioned dreadnought, again single-handed."


"Hey, I was there for most of that!" Weaver whispered back. "So were you, and closer. And it wasn't exactly single-handed."


"Quit mucking with my narrative," Miller said. "Alvin York wasn't exactly by himself. The point is the story that's become Two-Gun Berg, the guy who keeps going into the fire and emerging unscathed. That is why the CAO, the commandant and ComLinSpac are here. Partially, it's in homage to a fine Marine, partially, I think, that they're hoping some of his luck, and a lot of what he did came down to luck, wears off on them. The brass that have seen the intel estimates must be shitting a brick."


"Which just makes the next mission that much more important," Weaver said. "Speaking of which, you haven't been in the meetings."


"Meetings of my own," Miller said disgustedly. "There's much black discussion of what to do about SEALs these days. I'm not on the next mission. I'm going to have to attend a four-day Conceptualizing Event called 'Whither SEALs.' The upside is, it's in Maui. So you're on your own this time."


"Shhhh," Weaver whispered as the organist, who had been doodling along with various light music, suddenly shifted to the "Wedding March."


"Let's hope this goes off without a hitch," Miller nonetheless whispered back as a tall, blond girl entered the room holding the arm of her father. "I know people are going to take it as an omen, one way or the other."


 


Eric, frankly, didn't remember much of the ceremony. He remembered seeing Brooke and thinking that she was just about the most beautiful thing he'd ever seen in his life and then he was kissing her. All the bits in the middle were missing. He'd experienced the condition in combat before. One of the dozens of psychologists everyone on the missions had to talk to in after-action reviews had used the term "lack of ego awareness." Things happened and then it was over. He apparently got his bits right.


Normally, the bride was the first person out of the chapel. In this case, after the twosome paraded down the altar at the direction of the chaplain who ran the small facility, everyone else filed out first. When the chapel was clear, he and Brooke were directed to leave.


He took Brooke's arm and they walked down the aisle. He tried like hell to ignore the fact that the commandant was watching them. He also realized that he was walking so stiffly his legs were barely moving.


When they exited the chapel the reason for the change became obvious. His fellow OCS cadets had formed a sword-arch outside the doors. He and Brooke walked through the aisle to cheers and a bit of boozy breath; the cadets had clearly started partying early.


He helped Brooke into the limousine, then more or less tumbled in behind her.


"Was this shiny?" he asked quietly. Brooke was looking a little frozen.


"It was great," she replied, her face breaking into a smile. Then she threw her arms around his neck and kissed him, hard. "Perfect. I love you."


"I love you, too," Eric said, finally able to breathe.


"I was just surprised at some of the people," Brooke said. "I didn't want to get anything wrong in front of your bosses."


"Those people are my bosses the way that Bill Gates is the boss of a lowly Micro-Vac programmer," Eric said. "I'm not even going to try to figure out why they asked to attend. All we have to do is survive the reception and we're out of here."


"You just want to do more than what my mother refers to as 'spooning,' " Brooke said, grinning.


"I just want to get out from under the gaze of the commandant," Eric said, smiling back. "Not to say that I'm not looking forward to tonight."


"And no alcohol for you at the reception," Brooke said, crawling onto his lap. "At least that's what Mom suggested."


" 'Wine giveth the desire but taketh the ability,' " Eric quoted.


"Is that from the Bible?" Brooke asked.


"Close," Eric replied with a grin. "Shakespeare."


 


"Captain," Admiral Townsend said, nodding at Weaver.


"Admiral," Weaver replied.


The reception had turned into an odd affair. Held at the Quantico Officers' Club, it was buffet style with tables and chairs but no defined places. It had started off rather aggressively split between the civilian attendees and the military. That slowly changed as it became evident that many of the civilians, the male ones at least, were former military. The town Eric and Brooke derived from had more than its share of veterans and while they tended to avoid the "brass," they had been more than willing to seek out the more junior officers, and the few enlisted permitted for this occasion on hallowed ground, for conversation.


The ladies, on the other hand, had completely ignored the civilian/military divide. Which had Brooke's grandmother, who, with only few exceptions had never left the confines of a small West Virginia town, in deep conversation with Mrs. Admiral Townsend, both of whose children had been born outside the contiguous United States, one in Hawaii and one in Japan.


"I'm waiting for someone to ask why we're all here," the CAO said.


"You're looking at the wrong captain, sir," Weaver replied. "I've spent more than half my total career in black operations. I don't ask questions unless they're germane."


"Touché," Townsend said, chuckling. "I'd forgotten you were in the black community before you got shanghaied."


"I wouldn't call it shanghaied, sir," Weaver replied, shrugging. "I volunteered."


"I talked to Jim Bennett, who in case you didn't know it was the guy who greased your skids," the admiral said, referring to a former Chief of Naval Operations. "He said he knew from the beginning that there wasn't a Naval officer who was going to be right for the Blade, one who really understood space. One choice was pulling back one of the Navy officers with NASA. But most of them were more expert at near-space, which wasn't going to get us anywhere. Then there were some officers associated with the Observatory, but they were a bit . . ."


"Geekish?" Weaver asked.


"Probably the best way to put it," Townsend admitted. "But the SEAL after-action reports from the Dreen War indicated that you were anything but geekish. Bennett quietly arranged, without either you or Columbia realizing it, to pull you off the project over and over again, figuring you'd get fed up and try another tack. When you volunteered, it fit his plans exactly."


"So I was manipulated into becoming an officer?" Weaver asked, aghast. "He could have just asked."


"Probably what I would have done," Townsend admitted. "But Jim was a bit more Machiavellian than I. Anyway, just thought you should know."


"Shiny," Bill said. "Somehow that gives me the courage to ask. Are you all here because Berg is a really nice kid or for some other reason?"


"Oh, Berg is a nice kid," Townsend admitted. "But the President wanted to come and couldn't. So he ordered me and the commandant to attend. Spectre was coming, anyway. Everybody else? I think they just assumed if we were attending . . ."


"It must be mandatory," Weaver added with a chuckle. "More or less what Chief Miller said, except for the first bit."


"What the President doesn't realize is that this could have been a disaster," the CAO continued. "On many levels. One of them being curiosity. So far the press hasn't asked why we're all here. They still may. They're getting closer and closer to the truth."


"I saw the article in the Washington Times, sir," Bill said. The "Inside the Ring" column speculated, based on a number of data items, that the U.S. either had a space drive or was approaching having one. An earlier article had reported from "an anonymous source" that the Dreen had been located in real space and were somewhere near the Orion stars. That had probably come from the destruction of the HD 36951 colony. But with all the money that was going towards planning the Space Navy, the appointment of the CAO, the changes in training for every branch of the Navy . . .  The reality was bound to break sooner or later. "I think the President's playing a very dangerous game in not releasing the information."


"He's the Commander-In-Chief," the CAO responded. "It's up to him, not us."


"Understood, sir," Bill replied. "Just my opinion as a citizen, not an officer."


"And one thing to learn as an officer is that that is a very fine line," the CAO said. "That was not a reaming, just pointing it out. You skipped a bunch of steps in your professional development and that might not have gotten through to you. We may have private political opinions, especially those based on our proprietary knowledge. We may voice them with close friends and peers. But we don't act on them except in the privacy of the ballot box. Among other things, even when we think we have the knowledge necessary to make a decision, often we're not privy to everything."


"Yes, sir," Bill said, trying not to smile. "And the officers who clearly have too many friends in the press corps?"


"If I find them, I will quietly move them out of any position of proprietary knowledge at all," the CAO said. "I'd, frankly, prefer to move them to Davy Jones's Locker, but there is so much paperwork involved in something like that. Diego Garcia will have to do. But so far the details are holding. So far. I should leave."


"Excuse me, sir?" Bill said.


"Young Bergstresser appears to want to introduce his bride to you," the CAO said, gesturing with his chin.


The bride and groom were circulating and being congratulated. Weaver had been watching one of the bridesmaids, a particularly pulchritudinous example of womanflesh, and hadn't noticed Berg and his bride getting closer and closer. As he glanced over, though, he caught a flash of Two-Gun looking their way and it was obvious he was unwilling to approach with the CAO there.


The next time Berg looked up, Weaver caught his eye and gestured with his head for him to come over. Berg's glance at the CAO was clear so Weaver repeated the gesture.


"Sir, Two-Gun has faced some of the worst monsters in the Galaxy," Weaver said as the bride and groom approached. "He can face the Chief of Astronautic Operations."


"Admiral Townsend," Berg said, nodding formally at the CAO, "may I present my bride, Mrs. Eric Bergstresser."


"Of course, Lieutenant," the CAO said, taking Brooke's hand and bowing to kiss it formally. "Mrs. Bergstresser, you are a vision. It is said that every bride is beautiful but you exceed all expectations."


"Thank you, sir," Brooke said, blushing.


"I know that you feel you've picked the finest man on earth to marry," the admiral continued. "And I agree. Sometime, sometime quite soon, you will be finding out just how extraordinary this young man is."


"Does that mean that his missions won't be . . ." Brooke's forehead furrowed for a moment then she shrugged. "I think the term is 'black'? Eric won't really talk about what he does."


"He can't," the CAO said, nodding. "I'm sorry for that but that's the rule and I'm glad to hear that he's following it. But, yes, pretty soon the operation will go white. How soon, I'm not at liberty to divulge."


Weaver's ears perked up at that. One bit of information that the CAO clearly had, and Bill did not, was that the decision to go white had been made and there was timing on it.


"But when it does, all will become clear," the admiral continued. "Including what an extraordinary man you've married."


"I already know he's extraordinary, sir," Brooke said. "But thank you."


"Two-Gun," the admiral said, "you've got a week. Use it well."


"Yes, sir," the lieutenant said, nodding. "Can I get a hint?"


"We're becoming archaelogists," Weaver replied. "I think that's indirect enough, isn't it, sir?"


"Just fine," the CAO said. "Archaeological mission, Lieutenant. Should be routine."


"Our normal routine, sir?" Berg asked, trying not to grin. "Or 'routine' routine?"


"Routine routine," the CAO answered. "But we never know, do we?"


"No, sir, we don't," Eric admitted. "And, Brooke, this is Commander Weaver. I told you about him."


"It's a pleasure to finally meet you, sir," Brooke said, looking him up and down. "You don't look like . . . what I expected."


The CAO barked a laugh at that and shook his head.


"People tend to say that," Bill replied. "They generally expect someone older and with less hair. And, please, call me Bill."


"Actually, I was wondering that you're not ten feet tall and breathing fire," Brooke corrected, grinning. "Bill."


"In that case, Eric has been exaggerating," Weaver said. "I have to add my compliments to the admiral's. You are truly stunning. Eric is a very lucky guy."


"That I am, sir," Berg said.


"What are your plans?" the CAO asked. "And to be clear, I'm referring to after the honeymoon."


"I've secured off-post quarters, sir," Eric replied. "Brooke will be occupying those and intends to apply for college."


"Well, it'll be easier to survive on lieutenant's pay, that's for sure," Townsend said. His aide whispered in his ear for a moment, then handed over a message form. The admiral read it, his expression unchanging, then looked up and smiled. "I hope you both do well. The captain and I, however, have a previous appointment."


"Yes, sir, I understand," Berg said, tugging at Brooke's arm. "Thank you for coming."


"Get Admiral Blankemeier and General Holberg," Townsend said to his aide. "I'll take Captain Weaver in lieu of Captain Prael. Is transportation laid on?"


"Yes, sir," the Navy captain said.


"Let's do this."


"May I ask what my previously scheduled event is, sir?" Bill asked quietly.


"We have to go to Camp David," the CAO said. "There's a meeting there in the morning. It seems the Russians and the Chinese are aware of the Blade."


 


"Who is the girl with the blue hair?" Brooke asked, gesturing with her chin to a girl in a skimpy black dress dancing with a tall, incredibly stiff Marine. The girl looked to be in her early twenties and had bright red hair with a shock of blue dye at the front. "Is that a girlfriend I should know about?"


"We went out clubbing, once," Eric replied. "But girlfriend would be stretching it. She's a linguist, a really good one. Sort of a savant."


"I'm not sure what that means," Brooke admitted.


Eric thought of the linguist in the Cavern of the Dragons, stretching out her hand and directing the opening of the gates. Nobody had been able to figure out the puzzle, but it was as if the linguist was God-touched in some way. She certainly was strange enough.


"I'm not sure I can explain it, either," Eric admitted. "But she's special. Not retarded special, the other way. Gifted. Almost scary sometimes. We work with a lot of top-flight people but Miriam's . . ."


"I can see you like her," Brooke said, tightly.


"Not that way," Berg replied, grinning at her. "She's way too weird for me. But, yeah, I like her and admire her. Same deal with the guy she's dancing with. Sergeant Lyle. We call him Lurch cause he's so messed up. And tall."


"That's not very nice," Brooke said.


"Worse than you think," Eric said. "He got that way in a roll-over. Spent most of a year in therapy then nearly as much time convincing the Marines to let him back on active. Then he went back through Force Recon Qual and operator training to get in the line units. Gotta admire that much determination. Good operator."


"And that means what?" Brooke asked. "For that matter, what are quarters? You said something about 'securing quarters.' I figure you don't mean the coins . . ."


"Quarters are where you live," Berg said, pulling Brooke towards the twosome. "Securing off-post quarters meant I got us an apartment."


"Why not just say you got an apartment?" Brooke asked curiously.


"It was the CAO," Berg replied. "That's how we talk. You'll get used to it."


"Two-Gun," the tall sergeant said. "And his lovely wife. Do I get a kiss?"


"Of course," Brooke said, lifting up on her tiptoes to kiss him on the cheek. He still had to bend over. The sergeant was tall and thin as a rail but with a wiry toughness that was apparent even in formal attire. "You're Mr. Lyle?"


"Sergeant Lyle," the sergeant said. "But you can call me Lurch."


"And this is Miss Moon," Berg continued, gesturing to Miriam.


"Miriam," the linguist said, shaking Brooke's hand then giving her a hug. "I'm so glad you two are together. You seem so right for each other. You're staying in Newport?"


"Norfolk," Berg corrected. "Housing in Newport is impossible. I was looking at a small house, but an apartment made more sense."


"I haven't even seen it, yet," Brooke admitted.


"Not how it's supposed to go, Two-Gun," Lyle said. "Wives are in charge of quarters."


"I'm letting her get her feet on the ground," Berg admitted.


"I wonder what sort of officers' wives club the new CO's going to run," Lyle said. "I heard it was pretty good under Mrs. Spectre."


"Just have to find out," Berg said. "But, again, I'm going to let Brooke get used to the whole idea first."


"What is an officers' wives' club?" Brooke asked. "I'm getting a bit lost here."


"The military is a specialized culture with a tremendous number of traditions," Miriam said, looking at her almost sorrowfully. "As with any subculture, it has its own language and customs. Some of them are unnecessary holdovers from days when it was often physically separated from civilization or at least its home civilization. Think of Army officers and their families stationed in cavalry outposts on the Great Plains or the Naval officers stationed in the Phillipines or even Hawaii before it became fully developed. Surrounded by strangers, many of them hostile and all of them from societies that were alien. The only social life they had was their own kind.


"Then there is the fact that military families face stresses unfamiliar to the culture that produces them. Police officers and firefighters face as many risks and during times of peace even more than the military. But if a firefighter or policeman is injured or killed in the line of duty, the families find it out almost immediately. And the officer's commander is there to bring the bad news.


"With the military, death or injury can occur so far away that it takes time for information to reach the families. And there is the unknowing. The waiting for news, good or bad, and so often convincing yourself that it's going to be bad."


"That I know about," Brooke said, finally really getting it. "I met Eric just before his last mission. And I was on pins and needles waiting for word."


"Quick work, buddy," Lyle said, doing the math.


"I asked her to marry me as soon as we got back," Berg said, grinning. "She made the mistake of saying yes. And almost the whole time, since, I've been in OCS."


"That sort of separation is normal in the military, unfortunately," Miriam continued. "Civilians don't have to put up with it, normally, and find it very strange. They don't understand the stresses even if they try to be nice about them. Often, they don't understand why the spouse puts up with them. So the military tries to help, often doing the opposite, with spouse support groups. They're generally organized by the commanding officer's wife, one of the duties that you'll have to take over if Eric ever reaches that lofty state. Sometimes there are severe generational clashes, but those are fading. There are always societal clashes, especially with newlyweds. Newly wed spouses often don't understand the point. That is, until they need the support of people like them. And, of course, as with anything bad leadership can make something like that truly horrible. In which case, they're generally voluntary."


"Yeah, but if she decides she's going to sit it out, a bad CO's wife will go complaining to her husband," Lyle pointed out. "Sometimes you can have a great CO and a horrible wife. Or the other way around. I knew one unit that wished its boss and his wife could change places. Nobody knew why she put up with the bastard."


"Eric, do you want to be a career officer?" Miriam asked. "Do you want to do twenty years and retire as a colonel? Or do you want stars?"


"I got all of that but stars," Brooke said.


"She's asking if I want to be a general," Berg said. "Sure, I mean I've thought about it. Who doesn't? But I'm not sure if I'm going to even reup as an officer. I more or less have to do four years, but . . ."


"Brooke, would you prefer that he just do four years then get out?" Miriam asked, turning to the bride. "Or do you want him to be a general? Do you want him to wear stars?"


"I want him to do whatever will make him happiest," Brooke said.


"I feel the same way about Brooke," Berg interjected.


"Then, Brooke, you have to decide if you want to be Mrs. General Bergstresser," Miriam said, gesturing to the commandant's wife, who coincidentally was chatting with Brooke's mom. "If you do, behind every successful person is a strong spouse. Officers are no different, be they male or female. You have to decide if you're willing to play the political game and back your new husband, often at your own expense. There are tremendous sacrifices that military families make, long separations, bad housing, often a degree of hostility from the local community and lower pay than they can generally get in the civilian world. You'll spend years raising your children on your own, knowing your husband often as a stranger who drags in a bag of dirty laundry and leaves as soon as it's done. And if he continues in the vein he's chosen so far, never knowing when you'll get a call from his CO saying that he won't be coming home. A casket filled with parts will be lucky; more likely it will just be weighed down with sandbags. And even if you have played the perfect wife, which will often be at the expense of whatever career you've chosen, you'll have lost the game. And you'll have little or no control of how that game's been played."


"This is a great conversation for a new bride to hear," Lurch complained.


"Mrs. Commandant probably had something she was planning on doing today," Miriam pointed out, shrugging. "Because her husband, for whatever reason, decided to attend this event, she had to give up her plans. It's the sort of thing he had to bring his wife to. And she had to go. Or he'd never have made commandant. And now he's leaving, without her."


"What?" Berg said, looking over at the door. The senior brass were quietly filing out, followed by their aides but not their wives. Weaver was with them, as well. But not Miller who was holding up the bar and apparently telling war stories. But he caught the exit, Berg could tell.


"That bodes poorly for us," Lurch said. "Because that looks like an emergency exit."


"And an emergency for the Gods eventually becomes our emergency," Berg said. "But I'm not even in-processed. So if you end up launching tomorrow, I won't be there."


"Be a shame to launch without our good-luck talisman," Lurch said, grinning. "But if we gotta . . .  Oh, hell, I haven't had pre-mission, yet."


"Pre-mission on the cruise again?" Berg said, wincing. "I know that's going to be my lot. Just once I'd like to get pre-mission in in the normal timeframe."


"I, however, have had pre-mission," Miriam said, smiling. "I wheedled it out of Dr. Chet as soon as we knew a mission was coming up."


"You're supposed to be in lock-up," Berg said, frowning.


"Different rules for technical specialists," Miriam said. "Brooke, you look as if you're still processing what I told you."


"I am," Brooke admitted. "And trying to catch up with the language."


"I can give you a dictionary," Miriam said, smiling. "I wrote it after the first mission. Nothing that violates operational security, but it might help."


"If you would, please," Brooke said, nodding.


"I'll e-mail it to you," Miriam replied. "Have you given any thought to it?"


"I sort of already did," Brooke said. "Eric and I were . . .  Well, we were sort of on a date when he got a call and had to go."


"The term for which is 'recalled,' " Miriam said. "I was supposed to be presenting a paper that day; I remember it well."


"And then I didn't know what was going to happen," Brooke said, frowning. "I got one short message from him and sent him one."


"And did you talk to your friends, to your mother, about it?"


"Yeah," Brooke admitted. "And my friends . . ."


"Didn't get it," Miriam said. "And thus we're back to the spouse association. The point of such an organization, a well run one anyway, is that they do get it. There's a lot of claptrap associated with it, stupid parties that are sincerely lacking in men; dresses and hats and gloves, fortunately, have mostly gone the way of the dinosaur. But the point, under all the formality and the social overlay, is a group of people who are stuck in an unusual situation and have to adapt to it. A situation that the people outside that group, the friends they had back home for example, generally don't 'get.' "


"I get it," Brooke said, grinning. "What does your spouse, who I presume isn't military, think about it?"


"What spouse?" Miriam asked, holding up her left hand. Other than a ring in the shape of a spider on the middle finger it was unadorned.


"And, uh, you go on these . . . missions?" Brooke asked.


"I promise I won't steal your husband, Brooke," Miriam said softly. "He's a very nice guy and you make a great couple. But, frankly, he'd bore me to tears in a month, no more."


"Well thank you very much," Berg said.


"Two-Gun, you're a very nice young man, but you are very young and although you're very smart you're also very focused," Miriam said. "And not in areas I find interesting. From where I stand, that adds up to booooring."


"What about me?" Lurch asked when the group stopped laughing.


"Nice boy-toy, maybe," Miriam said. "Less than a month. Weekend at most. No, three hours. Max."


"You're very . . . frank," Brooke said.


"Only when it doesn't hurt people," Miriam replied. "Sergeant Lyle, were you hurt by that comment?"


"Not a bit," Lurch said. "You're pretty, but I've been around you when you're bored. No thank you. Crazier than a ferret on catnip."


"And the new ship doesn't have any pipes to paint!" Miriam wailed.


"You guys are nothing but in jokes," Brooke said. "Can you at least explain that one? And why people call him Two-Gun?"


 


"Gentlemen," the President said, shaking the admirals' and generals' hands. "Thank you for coming. Some introductions are in order. Bob?"


"Gentlemen, General Wang Zhenou, Army of the People's Republic of China," the national security advisor said, gesturing to an Asian gentleman in a polo shirt and jeans. "General Anatoly Karmasov, Russian Army," a short, heavyset man in country and western wear that looked a tad ludicrous, "and General Amjit Meennav," a tall, slender and dark skinned man in Sikh dress.


"Admiral Townsend, Chief of Astronautic Operations, and Admiral Blankemeier, Director of Astronautic Operations. General Holberg, Commandant of the Marine Corps. Captain Weaver, Executive Officer of the Alliance Space Ship Vorpal Blade. And, of course, Colonel Fordham-Witherspoon, of Her Majesty's British Government."


"And so we are gathered," the President said as a steward served coffee. "General Wang, would you care to lay out your initial statement?"


"The People's Government finds it unacceptable that the United States has concealed the ability to not only defy gravity but fly into space from the peoples of the world," the general said, gruffly. "This is a direct insult to the People's government and all governments who believe in sovereignty and respect between nations."


"If you truly believed in sovereignty then you would not raise an issue with another country concealing such a thing," the Indian said in an Oxford accent. "So your response seems somewhat hypocritical. What you really mean is you want it and you're trying to pressure the Americans to give it to you."


"I have a point of order," the Russian general said in a thick accent. "The Motherland's government has had knowledge, for some time, that our dear neighbors to the south were aware of the dastardly experiments on the part of the Americans. However, I am wondering why my esteemed colleague from the sub-continent is present."


"In other words, our subs weren't chasing the Americans so how could we know?" the Sikh asked. "At the insistence of their British 'colleagues,' the Americans brought us in on the secret some two months ago. And it's a bit broader than you're aware. So I would suggest you hold all your bluster and opening arguments for a later time, because, in the Adar vernacular, we are seriously grapped."


"Captain Weaver?" the President said. "I understand you prepared a briefing?"


"Actually, an overworked lieutenant commander in AstroOps prepared it, sir," Bill said, standing up. "I'm just giving it. Gentlemen, I give you the Alliance Space Ship Vorpal Blade Mod One," Weaver said, keying on the screen.


"One?" the Russian asked, sitting up.


"Oh, don't tell me you haven't noticed the changes," Bill said. "Your intel corps is better than that. The Vorpal Blade One was designed around the former USS Nebraska. The engine, which I'm sure you're all itching to study, was an artifact the Adar found and we Americans got tinkered into a drive. Were we actually to release it for study, which we're not, trust me and my professional background when I say that you would find it as baffling and enigmatic as we have. It is so far ahead of our technology, it is not even funny. Magic is a better description. It is not only capable of normal space flight, but of warp flight."


He stared at the Chinese delegate as he said that and couldn't get anything from him. If the Chinese knew about the warp capability, the general wasn't letting on.


"Using it, we have accomplished two separate deep-space missions," Bill continued. "The first was a local area survey during which we encountered several astronomical issues, landed on a few planets, got ourselves beaten up thoroughly, encountered another friendly alien race and got ourselves beaten up even more thoroughly by a biological planetary defense system."


"Was this Dreen?" the Chinese delegate asked. The Chinese had not had any Dreen gates in their country. Since the war, however, there had been reports of occasional Dreen outbreaks. As with many countries, they had looked upon the Dreen as a potential biological weapon of enormous ability. And like every country that had tinkered with them, save the U.S. and Britain as far as Weaver knew, they'd lost control of the infestation.


Dreen spread-fungus was nasty. It actively tried to escape and would produce enzymes and acids until it found a combination that got it out of its holding vessel. Keeping the result from spreading was nearly impossible.


"No," Bill said, switching to the next slide. "The system was either designed by the Cheerick, this chinchillalike species, or some older race. However, it was determined during the mission that the Cheerick could control it. It produces various ground and air combat systems as well as a space combat system termed dragonflies. They are capable of normal space operations and fire laser beams from their compound eyes."


"Oh, very good," the Russian said, starting to stand up. "This is some joke you play on us, yes?"


"General, this joke blew the hell out of our ship," Bill said tightly. "We were slag when we got back to Earth and that was after we did repairs on Cheerick. The dragonflies are no joke, especially with a couple of hundred coming at you."


"You were there?" the Chinese general said. "You were on this mission?"


"I was the astrogator, General," Bill replied. "We lost all but five of our forty-one Marines and about half of our Navy crew as well as numerous civilian scientists and all of our Special Forces scientific assistants. May I continue?"


"Please," the Asian said.


"The second mission was an emergency mission to determine why we'd lost contact with a colony," Bill said, bringing up another slide. It was of a standard harsh-world science station, bubble tents and rocky soil. "The planet was HD 36951 Gamma Five. It was an archaeological station that had been attacked by an unknown force. We determined that it had been destroyed by the Dreen and rescued one survivor. Then we found remnants of a battle in the Tycho 714-1046-1 system. Following the trail of one of the ships, we encountered another race, the Hexosehr.


"The Hexosehr had recently battled the Dreen and lost. The ship was the last major battle platform that defended a refugee fleet of handpicked survivors. Most of them were in cold-sleep and the Hexosehr had fled with over a million of them. Of course, that was out of a total population, on six worlds, of just over two billion."


"Barely your country and mine combined," the Indian said, smiling and looking at the Chinese delegate.


"If bodies was all that was going to help, the mujahideen would have won in Lebanon," the President pointed out. "Continue, Captain."


"We assisted their battleship in repairs," Weaver said. "And then went ahead to inform their refugee fleet that it had survived. The fleet had to refuel and was stopped in the HD 37355 system. The Blade assisted the Hexosehr in holding the system and, in fact, in stopping the Dreen task force. However, she was virtually scrap by the end of the battle. The Hexosehr roused their workforce and between the scrap metal from the Blade and their factory ships created a new ship from the ground up. Thus the A.S.S. Vorpal Blade Two. The rest of the briefing will be handled by Mr. Ascher."


"Information from the Hexosehr and a Dreen dreadnought we captured during the battle indicates that the Dreen are spreading rapidly," the national security advisor said. "They are spreading in every direction through what are called 'local bubbles.' In our direction, they are currently in the Orion local bubble, where most of the action the captain just described took place. There are two local bubbles between ours and that one. Hexosehr estimates, and our own, place the arrival of overwelming Dreen normal space forces at between twelve and twenty years. Best estimate is fifteen."


"Bozhe moi," the Russian muttered. "This is . . . not well news."


"That estimate assumes two things. That they do not find out the location of Earth and that even if they do they do not want to jump ahead."


"If I may add one note," Bill said diffidently.


The NSA nodded. "Go ahead, Captain."


"The Dreen, and the Hexosehr, use a warp technology that is similar to wormhole jumping," Bill said. "We're still studying it. But they jump, rather slowly compared to the Blade, from star to star. In normal space, the Hexosehr fleet will not reach our region for at least two years. The majority of the Dreen are farther out. If they found out where Earth was today, they would take at least two years to reach here, more like three, in any force. This is part of the full briefing documents we are turning over to your governments, as I understand it."


"The U.S. government, the British government and the Adar planetary government are all aware of this new information," the NSA said. "Our plan was to bring your governments in, through more or less normal diplomatic channels, next week. And, no, I'm not making that up. What we've been waiting on, frankly, is a documentary to be completed. Three, actually. One to assist the briefings of your governments and two for general consumption. At that point, the Hexosehr were going to be presented as well as the Cheerick ambassador to the Alliance. And it was intended to offer expansion of the Alliance to other Earth governments. We're fully aware that we cannot stop the Dreen by ourselves. No combination of the U.S. and Britain can possibly do so. We know we were keeping you in the dark, but we didn't intend to do so for much longer."


"Frankly, this just jumped the gun by a week," the President continued. "The general audience doumentary is complete. Would you care to see it? It's three hours long, intended to run for three nights. But the chairs are comfortable . . ."


"I would," the Chinese delegate said. "And you mentioned further information. Is this to be technical?"


"We're going to be depending on technology from the Hexosehr," the President said. "They are as far ahead of the Adar as the Adar are ahead of us. Perhaps further. It is Hexosehr technology that might permit humanity to survive. But it will require a world-wide effort, a coalition of the willing if you will. We have enough time to prepare. If we actually do so."


"That is the rub, isn't it?" the Indian said, smiling broadly. "The most effective economies on Earth, all pardons to my Chinese colleague, are the democracies. Can we sustain a fifteen-year buildup? If we did, we would win. Unquestionably. In fifteen years we could establish colonies, schools, training facilities, build a fleet beyond even the comprehension of the Dreen. We could put in massive defenses if we went to a full wartime footing for even ten years. We have six billion people on this planet and with what I've seen of the Hexosehr manufacturing ability, which is amazing, it would just be a matter of training space sailors and Marines. But can we? Will we? Can we sustain such a push? At the cost to our economies? In the teeth of wailing as consumer goods become scarce?"


"We can," the Chinese delegate said. "If this doesn't turn out to be an elaborate tale."


"You'll be given all the data we recovered," the President promised.


"Let us see this documentary, then," the Russian said. "And could we have something stronger than coffee?"


 


"You're sure you're shiny?" Eric asked.


"I'm fine," Brooke replied, grinning. "Better than fine. Okay, a bit sore."


"I hadn't realized you were . . . weren't . . ." Eric said, trying to figure out how to put it delicately.


"Eric Bergstresser, I'm a good girl," Brooke said playfully. "And good girls wait."


"Oh, you're more than good," Eric said, brushing some hair out of Brooke's face. "You are amazing."


"So are you," Brooke replied, snuggling into his shoulder.


"Not all that amazing," Berg said. "I'm sorry this was all I could swing for a honeymoon."


The Holiday Inn, Seaside, in Virginia Beach was not exactly a five star hotel in some exotic location. But it also wasn't as expensive and if they'd taken the travel time to go to someplace like Cancun, it would have cut time out of the honeymoon.


"This is perfect," Brooke replied, nibbling his ear. "Wherever thou goest. I'm glad you didn't do something expensive."


"We might as well have just gone to the apartment," Eric argued. "Of course, the apartment doesn't have room service."


"Which we won't be using," Brooke said firmly. "We can go out long enough to find something less expensive."


"If you say so," Berg replied, puzzled.


"I suppose I should have talked about this sooner," Brooke said, sitting up. "But it's something Momma made me promise I'd do early. So here goes. Can you let me take over the family finances?"


"Whatever you want, honey," Berg said. "Right now, you could tell me to bark like a dog and I'd do it."


"I'm serious, Eric," Brooke said, pulling his chin up so he was looking her in the eye. "It's something Momma did when she and Daddy first got married and she made sure I'd promise to do the same. You're a lieutenant. Yes, that makes more than a petty officer, but not by all that much. And we're going to have babies coming along, probably sooner rather than later. We're going to have to be careful with money."


"Agreed," Berg said, shrugging. "Like I said, whatever you want. The only thing I spend money on, really, is my truck."


"Which may have to go," Brooke said, sighing. "If you're not too reversed on the payments, we'll need to trade it in on a family car."


"Ouch," Eric said. His truck was his one vanity. "If you say so."


"I'll make sure you have enough money to buy your rations in the officers' club," Brooke said. "And an allowance. But I'll warn you, I'm a penny-pincher. I hope you're going to be able to handle that."


"Yes, Brooke, I can," Eric said. "Now can we cuddle some more?"


"Please," Brooke said, sliding down into his arms. "Are we shiny?"


"I hate trying to figure money out," Berg said. "We're more than shiny. So we get a couple of family cars. I can handle that."


"One," Brooke said. "You're going to be gone a lot; you won't need one."


"Shiny," Eric said, blinking in surprise at the response. "One it is. You really are a penny-pincher, aren't you?"


"Enough to make George Washington scream for mercy," Brooke said, grinning. "When all the other girls would be buying stuff at the mall, I'd go along. But I never had the urge to get any of it. Way too expensive and you could find exactly the same stuff in thrift shops. Momma made most of my dresses and nobody could tell and I learned to sew early. It's just a matter of being really careful with money and you can look as if you're better off than other people while, in fact, not making nearly as much. You remember that conversation where Miriam was talking about your career?"


"Vividly," Eric said.


"Then that's the rest of the story," Brooke said. "I'm not willing to settle for second best. I want to be a wife first and I want you to be somebody. I'm more than willing to play the spouse game if you're willing to do what it takes to get stars. Are you?"


Eric thought about that for a few seconds.


"I don't mind doing the jobs," he temporized. "I mean, that will mean lots of staff positions. But I can do those, I'm sure. I'll learn. But stars are a long way away."


"Every step of the way is going to matter," Brooke said. "Think hard if you really want to do it. I've seen the modern woman and I don't want that. I want to be a traditional wife. Oh, sure, I'll get a job. But I don't want to be double income, no kids, do you?"


"No," Eric said definitely.


"So I'm going to be following your lead, not the other way around," Brooke said. "And, sure, there might be some false steps along the way. Things might look bad from time to time. Maybe we'll have to change course and ask for directions. But I need to know where, in general, we're going. Is that to stars or not?"


"I've really got to think about that one," Eric said. "Right now, I'm just concentrating on surviving the missions."


"And please concentrate on that," Brooke said. "But I don't think it interferes, does it?"


"Not that I know of," Eric said, then paused. "Well, spec ops officers rarely make stars. But those are the guys who marry to it and never get out. Spec ops as a lieutenant or a captain? That's sort of like a good merit badge. I'm going to have to collect those, anyway."


"So concentrate on surviving the missions," Brooke said. "Please. But decide, sometime soon, if where you want to go is stars. Or if you're going to be a major success in the civilian world. It changes what I do, how I act. If you're going to go for a civilian career, I need to get a degree I can use to support you while you go back to school."


"Shiny," Eric said. "I repeat, you're amazing."


"You haven't learned the half of it," Brooke said. "Now, what was that you were explaining about positions?"


 


It had been a seemingly short three hours. The opening of the documentary—most of which was shot from surveillance cameras, external cameras on the ship and Wyvern systems—was definitely designed for the computer generation. Short clips of groups of people would zoom in on one, lay out a statistics and general information screen, then give deeper background about each of the characters. Then Commander Weaver was there, including his background in the Dreen War, which was open-source information. There were also several Marines and sailors as well as the commander of the ship, Captain Steven Blankemeier.


Internal surveillance cameras had caught several of the pre-mission briefings and a description of pre-mission physical, using some very nice computer generated imagery, was revolting enough that the Russian nearly lost his lunch.


Then there were the details of the missions. The more or less useless Dean's World, Runner's World with its deadly crabpus, nearly losing the ship and all the Marines. Some of the people the audience had been introduced to were suddenly gone—eaten, mangled, ripped to shreds. But the Blade went on.


The second hour covered the findings in Cheerick and again, people died, people who had been made to live and breathe during the earlier parts of the documentary. The Wyvern video from the fall of the science section was particularly vivid. The amazing biological defenses of the planet were detailed along with their utility to humanity, once they were fully understood. It ended with the return to Earth, startling the mission controllers with a giant crabpus mounted on the hypercavitation activator.


The third hour was the scramble to head to the lost colony. The documentary caught, vividly, the boredom of the long transit. But the viewers quickly got caught up in the battles around the unnamed stars. Captain Blankemeier, one of the central characters, was given a short bit where he referenced "battling on the arms of Orion." One of the internal cameras on the ship caught a blast of plasma ripping through the crew quarters, fortunately vacant. More caught lasers and mass drivers ripping the ship until she was virtually airless but still fought on. Wyvern video of Eric capturing the flagship was missing, so CGI and overlay techniques were used to simulate it. If anything, they looked better. The Mreee "sentient" controller of the task force brought a cry of surprise from the Russian, who bent forward to look closer.


The last hour closed with video of the shattered Blade I in space, then a discussion of the aid of the Hexosehr and finally a shot of the built-from-scratch Blade II setting down in Area 51, its alternate base.


"Admiral Blankemeier," the Chinese general said when the videos were finished. "It is amazing you are alive."


"It's amazing any of us survived," Blankemeier replied.


"Yes, but the one that I want to meet is, how is it? Two-Gun Berg," the Indian said, grinning. "What a warrior! Especially for an enlisted man. I am glad to see that you made him an officer."


And thus we uncover the weakness of the Indians, Weaver thought with a sigh. They just could not seem to get over the whole caste thing. And if you considered large portions of your population as sub-par, the intellectual value of that portion was lost. Who knew how many Einsteins and Booker T. Washingtons might exist among the Untouchables, who were still relegated to not much more than garbage collection.


"So what is next?" the Chinese delegate asked. "You say that we are going to get access to these Hexosehr? In two years? That is too much time. We need their technology immediately!"


"Actually, the Hexosehr are in the process of colonizing Runner's World," the President replied. "We established gates to get them there. Their ships won't arrive for a bit under two years. But we were able to move some of their fabricators through and, of course, their expertise. We are liaising with them now about how to portion out their personnel. They've made a study of our various societies and countries and are making many of their own decisions. They are an independent group, allied but with their own . . . how was it you put it? Ah, their own 'sovereignty.' What technology goes to what groups is up to them. But, yes, you're going to get access to it."


"And the Blade?" the Russian asked.


"No," the President replied. "We've considered the possibility of putting observers onboard or even a mixed crew. Subsequent to mutual defense treaties, we may consider it further. But it is an Alliance ship. The British have, thus far, declined to offer personnel but there is an Adar onboard and shortly Hexosehr. Until things change, politically, however, we're not going to put in Russian, Chinese or Indian crewpeople or observers. As to studying the drive, it's always been a toss-up between studying it and using it. For the time being, again, we're going to use it and study it as we can. Even the Hexosehr, after examining it intensively during the rebuild, admitted that they could not understand it. It violated several of their theories of faster-than-light travel, which were rather mature and now have to be rethought. So if we cannot figure it out, meaning the U.S., and the British cannot figure it out and the Adar cannot figure it out and the Hexosehr cannot figure it out, I strongly doubt that the Chinese or Russians, the ability of their scientists being noted, can do any better. Honestly, do you?"


"We demand observers," the Russian said. "The ship should be the property of all the world, not just one hegemonic government! It should be an international crew under a commander chosen by the United Nations!"


"Well, let's see," the President replied, grinning. "The Adar trusted us, being in contact with all of you, with the black box. We spent twenty billion dollars rebuilding a nuclear submarine and turning it into a spaceship. And we took all the casualties finding the Cheerick, the Hexosehr and the Dreen. So you'll understand me if I try not to scoff at your demand. And, frankly, we're going to completely ignore the UN in our preparations for the Dreen. I don't see what use a bunch of kleptocrats and tyrants are going to be to us."


"The Hexosehr will be sending a liaison and technical group to each of the countries joining the coalition," the national security advisor said diplomatically. "They will require appropriate quarters, which means suited to their physiology especially since they use a slightly different atmosphere. They will also require logistical support including food. Some Adar foods are mutually compatible. Most major Earth governments will get a Hexosehr ambassador. Those that join the coalition are the only ones that will be getting technical support. That is the Hexosehr's position, not ours."


"And this coalition?" the Russian said furiously. "I suppose that the Americans they will be the top dog, yes?"


"Each country will be expected to produce their own ships, fleets," the national security advisor replied. "Higher command structure will be a matter of negotiations. But American fleets will never be under the command of others, not even the British. We're more willing to consider higher command by Adar or Hexosehr. But only willing to consider it. The U.S. has a history of winning battles that cannot be matched by any country in this room."


"And losing wars," the Russian scoffed. "For that matter, who took Berlin?"


Just because Patton was ordered to remain in place, Weaver thought. But he managed to hold his tongue.


"It's not a matter for argument," the President said, clearly thinking much the same thing. "The American public is never going to accept a Chinese admiral over an American fleet. But that is for later. The completed documentaries and the reams and reams of video and sensor data they were derived from is assembled for each of you. As are the preliminary methods for getting in contact with the Hexosehr. We request that we be given one week before we release the information."


"I am not in a position to promise that," the Chinese general said. "This meeting was only to be on the subject of the spaceship you have, this Vorpal Blade. This new information will have to be considered by my government. We may request an extension of the information being released."


"We have indications that it's not going to be long before our news media gets to the bottom of what's going on," the President said. "Or at least some of it. So . . . consider fast."


 


"I have no clue when I'll be talking to you next," Eric said, brushing Brooke's cheek.


It was the time of day the military referred to as o dark thirty, before even Before Morning Nautical Twilight, black as pitch, a time when normal people might stir but then roll over in bed and go back to sleep. Brooke had actually gotten up and driven him to headquarters. Eric had checked in the night before, officially coming off of leave in time but long after anyone could put him to work. But this was the start of his new career as an officer, his first working day. Between in-processing and duties, he had no clue when he'd be home, but if the new CO wanted him to participate in PT he wanted to be in in plenty of time.


"You'll be home when you are home," Brooke replied, then kissed him. "I promised not to bind you to the pasture. And I keep my promises."


It was a "thing" between them, a special code. During the last mission, Brooke had sent Eric a link to a flash animation done during the War On Terror. It was a series of pictures set to a song called "Homeward Bound," done in homage to a soldier who died in Afghanistan.


 
Bind me not to the pasture, chain me not to the plow.
Set me free to find my calling and I'll return to you somehow.


"Just try to call me in time for me to have supper waiting," Brooke said.


"I'll do that," Eric replied, trying not to grimace. He loved Brooke and she had some remarkable abilities for a girl fresh out of high school. But she'd apparently failed Home Ec.


"And I'll try to get it right this time," Brooke said, already learning to read subtle body-cues in her new husband.


"Your cooking is . . ."


"Awful," Brooke said, grinning. "I have to eat it, too, you know."


"I'm no better at it," Eric admitted. "But if I have to stay late, I'll probably eat in the mess hall. It's not that expensive."


"Shiny," Brooke said. "When I get home, though, I'm going to sit down and start reading cookbooks. Winging it is clearly not the answer. Now kiss me and have a good day."


 


Eric paused in front of the company headquarters building and shifted his jump bag on his shoulder. The company was housed in two "starbase" barracks, essentially multistory apartment buildings built in the 1980s, fronted by a two-story headquarters building. The headquarters was the only new construction, a rectangular windowless block with heavy security systems. Some of the stupider security measures, such as the timed doors, had finally been removed, but it was still a highly secure facility.


Eric knew the headquarters like the inside of his mouth, having spent more time there it seemed than in his enlisted quarters. The armory, the Wyvern room and all the briefing rooms as well as the company quarterdeck were all in that two-story structure. A Bravo Company soldier couldn't, officially, discuss even their training schedule in the barracks. Due to the black nature of their missions, every briefing, every discussion, just about every bit of training had to take place in the HQ building.


But it was a different building, now. Eric no longer had any place in the enlisted barracks save for an occasional inspection. This was his home for the rest of his career in the company. People who used to casually order PFC or Sergeant Bergstresser off on details were still in the unit, but the vast majority of them were now required to salute Second Lieutenant Bergstresser. It was going to take some—


"Morning, sir," First Sergeant Powell said, walking up behind him.


Eric turned and for just a moment froze at the salute.


"Morning, First Sergeant," Berg replied, managing to return it crisply.


"Forget something at home?" Powell asked, grinning wisely.


The tall, lanky senior NCO had been the Top-Dog of Bravo Company since Eric joined as a PFC. Over the past two missions, he'd sent Eric into some situations that appeared suicidal and in one case very nearly was. By the same token, they'd stood side-by-side against monsters that ate Wyvern armor like candy, trained side-by-side and traded good-natured insults to the extent a sergeant and a first sergeant could. If Eric could point to one person as a mentor in his professional development as a Marine, it was First Sergeant Powell. And now the first sergeant was saluting him.


"Just thinking that sort of thing is going to take some getting used to, First Sergeant," Eric replied. "The salute, that is."


"We salute the rank, not the person wearing it," Powell said. "But you wear it well. However, if you think you're doing PT this morning, think again. You're going to be doing paperwork all day long. And tomorrow and the next day ad infinitum. If you'd like one suggestion from an old soldier whose watched more than one LT grow or fail, it's: Find the time. But today you won't."


"Top, I'm planning on going on listening to your advice as long as you'll give it," Eric replied.


"Well, sir, then my advice is to take one more deep breath and report in," Powell said with a grin. "I mean, how hard could it be compared to, say, being crisped by plasma fire?"


"Yeah," Eric said, grinning back. "The good thing about being an officer is that the next time you tell me to do that I can tell you to grapp off."


 


"One thousand units of item 413 will be arriving later this afternoon, sir," Weaver reported


"And you nearly didn't twitch when you said that," Prael replied, grinning. "How bad was it?"


Prael's office had an unlived-in look. He'd been the CO of the Blade for more than two months but the land-side office still only had a nameplate on the desk and a picture turned towards him. It showed a family group that Weaver presumed was Mrs. Prael and their two children. Unlike a lot of officers, he kept his domestic side completely separated from the military. And also unlike most officers, there was no "I-Love-Me" wall. Weaver had checked his service record and knew that he was a "plank owner" of the last Seawolf submarine constructed, but that plaque was also missing.


"The diet details are too gross to convey, sir," Weaver said. "But I'm glad to report that all of her dogs are in good health. Her mom's not doing so good, though. Care for the details?"


"No, but have the clerk write me a letter to the effect for my signature," the CO said. "It never hurts to keep on Clerk Click's good side. Maybe a box of chocolates."


"Seems like an awful lot to go through for a thousand rolls of space tape, though."


"Based on your last mission report, space tape is what keeps the Blade functioning," Prael pointed out. "And on the matter, sort of, of your last mission, you had an interesting phone call while you were gone."


"I cannot wait to hear what you define as interesting, sir," Bill replied.


"A call from Robin Zenikki," Prael said, in a much darker tone. "You recognize the name."


"Washington Times," Bill replied. "I haven't talked to him in years, not since shortly after the Dreen War. And never on secure subjects, even to confirm or deny. It was always under orders to detail things that had already been authorized for disclosure. And all the conversations were prior to becoming an officer."


"Well, he apparently wants to talk to you," the CO said. "He said he'd call back but he also left a number. I'm hereby authorizing you and requiring you to contact him and see what he has to say. Don't let anything go in the opposite direction, understood?"


"Clear, sir," Bill replied. "I've done this before, sir."


"I suppose there's that," Prael admitted. "Call him. I want to know what he knows or suspects. But later this afternoon. We're headed to HQ."


"For?"


"Mission brief," the CO replied. "Finally."


 


"That was a quick in-process," Lieutenant Ross said.


Roger Ross was the executive officer of Bravo Company. XO is one of the more thankless positions in the military. The XO ensures that the unit is functioning, simple as that. It's the XO's job to make sure that the vehicles and other systems are working, that training schedules meet the myriad and often baroque requirements of higher, that the company has sufficient logistics to function, be that in garrison or in the field, that the unit is fed and resupplied in battle and that, in general, the unit works as a well-oiled machine. It's petty, detail work, often frustrating, generally without great reward and often with huge penalties for failure. But XO is also a necessary step at each level on the way to command duties. Without being in the position, it's impossible to truly understand the way that a unit functions, where the weak points are, what the probable problems are that will arise and how to fix them.


"Slow day, sir," Eric replied.


It was nearly the end of duty hours and Eric had been in-processing all day, a procedure that could have been done in a maximum of two hours. He'd gone to the medics and ensured that his shots were up-to-date, got a stamp. Went to payroll and ensured that his pay records were up-to-date, got a stamp. Legal and his will, got a stamp. Field equipment, got a stamp. At each of the stops, incredibly bored clerks, most of whom had little or nothing to do, spent about four times the necessary time to do each job.


"Call me Rog," the XO said. He was newer to the unit than Eric in some ways. The Marines on-board the Blade during the battle worked in damage control and most of them had died in those positions including the then-XO, Lieutenant Kolb. "Grab a chair. But now that you're back, I don't really have anything for you, yet. You still need to see the CO and get his in-process speech and he's on his way back from a meeting with General Zanuck.


"I can tell you about your duties," Lieutenant Ross continued, grinning evilly. "Now that you are here, and assuredly the most junior lieutenant seeing as the other two platoon leaders are first lieutenants, you get to take over the Dog Duties."


"Here it comes," Eric said, sitting down.


"Here are the unit VD reports," Rog said, sliding over a thick file folder. "Not much in the way of positives, but you're also required to do the mandatory training classes on prophylaxis and the paperwork showing that the classes have been successfully completed by all junior enlisted members of the company. Officers and senior NCOs are not required to attend but are encouraged."


"Yeah, like Top's going to take a VD course," Eric said, picking up the file.


"I would find it unlikely," Ross said, grinning. "Note that most of this stuff is database based. In addition to my other duties, I'll need to familiarize you with the company management system. I could wish you'd spent time as an operations sergeant or even a company clerk; that would have sped the transition to your new lofty status. As it is, I'll just hope that you learn quickly."


"I'm generally a quick study, sir," Eric replied.


"One can only hope," the XO said, sliding over another file. "Unit morale and welfare officer. You are in charge of the MWR inventory and will need to do a full inventory of same for turnover. You are also responsible for a monthly report on MWR issues with the company, including an itemization of MWR inventory usage and explanation of non-usage if it falls below a certain time matrix. Sports, especially, are highly encouraged by the Marine Corps so if the Marines of Bravo Company don't use their baseball bats and footballs, the commandant wants to know why!"


"Gung-ho, sir," Eric replied. "I'll try to make sure we play with the commandant's balls."


"Motorcycle defensive driving officer," the XO continued, sliding over another file. "There are nine motorcyclists in the company. You are to ensure that each is up-to-date at all times in their insurance and training on motorcycle defensive driving courses. Two of them haven't attended MDDC, yet, so you're going to have to find them a slot in the next two weeks."


"Sir, we're leaving on a mission in less than two weeks," Berg pointed out.


"That's what makes your new job so fun," Ross replied, coldheartedly. "Not to mention mine. You will fill out the appropriate forms to point out that, due to exigencies of service, they were unable to fulfill their mandatory training and request an extension upon return and sign swearing and affirming on your soul as an officer that it's all true so help you God really. I will then review them, require you to fix any necessary corrections and the CO will then countersign them."


"At the rate this company loses people, most of them aren't going to," Eric said, chuckling. "Complete the course at a later date that is. I suppose there's another form we have to submit explaining that they're not in violation, they're dead?"


"Normally, if a young lieutenant said something like that I'd jump their ass," the XO replied. "In your case, given that you were around for most of those losses, I'll let it slide. But you might want to avoid saying that sort of thing around the troops."


"Wasn't planning on it, sir," Eric said. "Sorry."


"It is, however, true," Ross admitted, sighing. "I had no grapping clue the casualty rate of this unit when I volunteered. As XO no less. Where was I? Ah! Unit inventory officer . . ."


 


"HD 242896."


The briefing officer was a Navy commander, an old one. The ribbons on his uniform indicated that he had never been anywhere or done anything that involved hearing shots fired in anger. On the other hand, he had several ribbons that indicated people thought he walked on water, up to and including two Legions of Merit. So either he was an A Number One kiss-butt or he was one of the boffins services kept around for their intellectual prowess rather than warrior spirit.


"Which means exactly nothing to me," Captain Prael said.


"Then try to keep up, Captain," the commander said dryly. "HD 242896 is an F9V, that means hot-green star, located between the constellations of Sagittarius and Orion, more or less in Taurus, in the night sky. It is important solely because during their retreat from the Dreen, the Hexosehr found an interesting installation around one of its gas giants."


"Define interesting," Bill said.


"This interesting," the commander replied, bringing up a slide.


Bill recognized the view as one that had been translated from Hexosehr sonar images. The Hexosehr used various sensors and then converted them to sonar terms, just as humans, for example, would convert the bounced radio signals of radar into blips on a screen.


Converting the result into visual images for humans was often a matter of art rather than science. And generally the art form was surrealist.


"What in the hell is that?" Captain Prael asked. It was a structure that looked a bit like an octopus mated with a walrus.


"That is the best image we've been able to create," the commander said. "But this facility was in orbit around a giant the Hexosehr were refueling at. Whether it was a fueling station for a dead race or a living habitat, a space station . . .  Perhaps all of the above. The purpose of the facility was unclear. It was heavily damaged and in retrograde orbit. However, their brief survey of it did find this."


The commander reached into his briefcase and set a small black monolith on the table.


"Is that what I think it is?" Bill asked. "Because it looks a lot like the LBB that powers our ship. And if it is . . . make sure you've got a static protector or this entire city is going to be gutted."


"If it is, it is broken," the commander said. "The Hexosehr, knowing nothing about the technology, already applied electrical power to it. There was no result. Ditto various particle streams. However, the point is that the Adar found the LBB we now use on a star in the direction of Sagittarius. And now there is this facility. That indicates that the center of this predecessor race, the race that created the engine in the Blade, may be located near HD 242896. Given that they did not want the Dreen obtaining any technology from the race that built the facility, they attempted to destroy it. It was particularly adamant and resistant to even their chaos balls. They eventually increased its rate of descent and dropped it into the Jovian's atmosphere. They are unsure if that truly destroyed it or not. For all we know, it's simply sitting on the metal hydrogen center."


"Now that would be something to see," Bill commented.


"Indeed."


"How far away is this place?" Captain Prael asked.


"Four hundred and twenty-six light years," Lieutenant Fey interjected. He'd been tapping at his computer during the majority of the briefing. "I'd estimate twenty-three days transit. Fewer chill stops and better recyclers means we can make better time."


"Get out there," Admiral Townsend said. "Sailing orders are for nine days from now. Go to that star system first and check out the other planets. Then spread out. Standard orders. It's a scouting mission, not a battle, but if you run into trouble or something that you think needs fixing, use your own judgment. With the increased storage space on the Blade II, not to mention the Hexosehr recyclers, you should be able to extend your away time over a hundred days. If you find anything that's immediately useful, though, bring it back right away. By the same token, if you find anything that might be useful but you can't bring it back, destroy it. We don't want the Dreen using this race's technology against us. And speaking of the Dreen. Commander?"


"Note that the Hexosehr were fleeing through this region," the commander added. "The Dreen came from the general direction of the Triffid Nebula, which means towards Sagittarius as we see it. According to Hexosehr and our estimates, they probably have not started to colonize the region of HD 242896, but it is possible there are scouting forces in the area."


"So keep on your toes," Admiral Townsend said. "We want you back with your Blade, not on it."


 


"Commander. Could I have a word with you?" Bill said pulling the Navy intelligence officer aside as the brass filed out of the secure room.


"How can I help you, sir?" The Navy commander raised an eyebrow at Weaver. Despite his being the blatant parody of a TV character, Bill liked him. Especially the way the junior officer had told Captain Prael to try to keep up. Bill had almost laughed out loud, but had thought better of it.


"What do y'all plan to do with that LBB in your briefcase?"


"It's dead, Captain. The Hexosehr even think so. I guess it'll get stored somewhere back at Area 51."


"Maybe it's dead, Commander. Maybe. But the Blade's LBB wiped out an entire star system without any sign of damage. I doubt whoever made it normally leave them just lying around ready to go. We got lucky with the first one. What if this one is just turned off?"


"Off?" The commander rubbed his open palm against the leather of his briefcase almost affectionately. "Hmm. Interesting point sir. What would you suggest?"


"There's a little girl about to turn sixteen and I've been trying to think of what to get her for her birthday."


"Sir?" The Navy officer looked down at a note that Weaver was scribbling on a yellow Post-It. Bill could tell by the commander's expression that he recognized the name and phone number. Probably from other intelligence briefings.


"Tell her I said that this was all I could think of as a gift for the girl who in essence has the entire universe on her shoulders." Weaver smiled, handed the officer the note and walked off. "Happy sweet sixteen, Mimi," he said under his breath.


 


"Robin Zenikki."


Zenikki had been covering the Pentagon and the military for over three decades, knew everyone and had a Rolodex to die for. The only thing that surprised Weaver was that it had taken him this long to piece things together.


"Bill Weaver," Bill replied. "Long time. You never call, you never write, we never do lunch and then out of the blue . . ."


"Hey, Bill," Zenikki said, obviously grinning. "Like your new job?"


"Better than being a civilian consultant," Bill replied, leaning back in his chair and looking at the overhead. That he was a Naval officer was not classified information.


"I meant as the astrogator of a spaceship," Zenikki said.


"Being in the Navy is fun," Bill said. "Be aware that this conversation is being recorded. SOP in my new job."


"So we're going to play it that way?" the reporter replied with mock sadness. "I thought we were friends, Bill!"


"Like I said, you never call, you never write . . ."


"Well, you were kind of unavailable for comment when you went to that planet where all the Marines were killed," Zenikki said. "You know, the ones that were supposedly killed in a helicopter crash in the Mojave?"


"And I'm still unavailable to comment, Robin," Bill replied. "If that's all you've got, I suggest you take it to the UFO society. Or maybe Weekly World News."


"Are you denying that the U.S. has a spaceship that has been in at least one battle?" the reporter asked seriously. "Because I've got one confirmation already."


"Your sources used to be better than that, Robin," Bill said. "Slipping in your old age?"


"So that's a confirmation?" Zenikki asked.


"Gimme a break," Bill said. "No, it's not a confirmation. Neither confirm nor deny. But if all you've got is some wild story about a spaceship and some dead Marines, I'd strongly urge you to refrain from making a joke of yourself."


"So you're denying that we have a spaceship capable of faster-than-light travel," the reporter asked doggedly.


"And your hearing is going, too," Bill said. "Neither confirm nor deny. Just suggesting you need to find the right market. Have you considered writing science fiction?"


"You've been a real buddy there, Bill," Zenikki said. "Let's do lunch. You buy."


"If I'm in town," Bill said then winced.


"So you're doing a lot of traveling?" the reporter pounced. "Off-planet?"


"Robin, do you know how many gates there are on earth to other planets?" Bill said, deciding to lay a red-herring. It was dangerous, but potentially worth it if it threw Robin off for as much as a week. "Forty-seven. Do you know how many we have research colonies on? One less than we did six months ago. I'd suggest you look for some of your answers elsewhere."


"You're saying that you're mixed up with that research station that disappeared?" Robin asked hurriedly.


"Who is the military's number one expert on Looking Glass bosons, Robin?" Weaver said. "And that's all I'm going to say. Good night, Robin."


 


"Filling Two-Gun in on his Dog Duties, XO?" Captain Zanella said as he walked through the office.


Captain James Zanella was tall, lean and fit with a sharply pointed jaw, high cheekbones, green eyes, black hair and an olive complexion. Any casting director would throw him out as being far too heroic looking to be a real Marine CO. The fact that he was also a capable one was the amazing thing.


His good looks were slightly marred from a mottling on his face, the only remaining indications that he'd been partially freeze-dried when his space suit was holed during the battle at HD 37355. Only quick thinking on the part of his RTO and a handy roll of space tape had saved his life. In that case, space tape really had been a life-saver.


Space tape, for the Vorpal Blade and the Marines that infested her, filled the venerable role of duct tape, hundred-mile-an-hour tape, rigger tape, what have you. The problem with using duct tape or its numerous brethren was that it simply did not work in space. The glue that worked so well in atmosphere just boiled away and in the incredible changes of temperature found in space the base material either froze and cracked or melted or sometimes both in quick succession.


Space tape, however, was the more wealthy and stylish child of the tape beloved of soldiers, sailors, Marines, airmen and anyone who has ever had to repair a '67 Chevy without the aid of baling wire. Space tape, Item 117-398-7494560413 in the Uniform Federal Logistics Database, or Item 413 for short, worked perfectly well in any conditions including under water. The just-short-of-miraculous glue of the tape would stick to anything, left no residue no matter how long it had been applied, worked in vacuum and had a temperature range from just above one degree Kelvin to just short of that of the surface of the sun.


And it was expensive. Oh My God was it ever expensive. Nearly one hundred thousand dollars per roll expensive. And the Marines and sailors of the Vorpal Blade still tended to use it very much like duct tape, up to and including keeping partial rolls tucked away in odd places "just in case."


When Captain Zanella had signed off on his first inventory in the unit and seen the prohibitive cost of the material, he nearly had a heart attack. For a few dozen rolls of space tape he could buy a Wyvern suit. He had blanched every time he saw the stuff and nearly screamed when he saw Marines using it to attach bits of equipment to their combat harness. He'd prohibited it from use under all but the most dire and fully official circumstances and ordered all rolls turned in on pain of pain.


Then his RTO had pulled out one of the many contraband rolls the Marines managed to retain and saved his life with it.


After that, he was a believer in space tape. If the Marines wanted to keep rolls, that was fine by him. As long as he had the budget, he'd buy all the space tape he could get his hands on. He still, however, prohibited using it to make hackysack balls.


"Just about done, sir," Lieutenant Ross said, looking up from the paperwork he was explaining.


"You're looking a bit fried, Two-Gun," Captain Zanella said.


"Just trying to figure out when I can see my new bride, sir," Eric replied, shaking his head. "There's . . . a lot of paperwork here."


"Every bit of which Lieutenant Ross has to review and I have to review and sign," the CO said. "Paperwork is what officers were created for, Lieutenant Bergstresser. It is our lot in life. Get used to it."


"I will, sir," Berg said. "Not complaining, just contemplating."


"Well, come on in and we'll get this over with," the CO continued, heading for the door of his office.


"Grab a seat, Eric," the captain said, sitting down behind his desk and contemplating his Inbox. "See this?" he continued, gesturing at the overflowing pile. "That's just what I haven't caught up with, yet, today. Because I had to go over to Quantico. I'll be here until at least nine catching up. Lieutenant Ross will be here nearly as long. For the first few days, you're going to have much the same schedule and you'll probably take what you can home. Not all of that stuff is classified, fortunately. Honestly, though, even as much as I like and respect you, I could wish that the President hadn't stuck his nose in. If he hadn't, or if he'd just said 'Send him to OCS,' then we'd have done this the normal way. You'd have spent at least a year in one of the MEUs getting used to being an officer, then come back here."


"I think I'm going to be able to maintain a separation from my former teammates, sir," Eric replied.


"I don't," Zanella said. "And it's the least of my worries, frankly. Force Recon officers are generally closer to their troops than officers in regular units. We spend too much time separated from large groups of other officers. If your platoon is in Thailand, it's hang out with the troops or be by yourself. And you never fly without a wingman in Thailand. That's not the problem. Problems. Comments?"


"Still waiting to find out what I'm going to do wrong, sir," Eric said.


"Good one, Two-Gun," Zanella replied, grinning. "Okay, if you'd been in an MEU, the stuff that just got dumped on you would have been spread more. Some of that in an MEU is MEU specific. The motorcycle thing would have an officer, a JO admittedly, in charge of it for the whole MEU. Ditto the MWR inventory, but a different officer. So JOs would spread the load and have time to adjust to it. Then, when an officer got to Force Recon and got handed the same shit all over again, just more of it, he'd have already developed the habits that would help him shift the load faster. You don't have that experience because you didn't spend time in the MEU."


"I guess I'll just have to learn fast," Eric said.


"And so many things," the CO said. "Among other things, that Direction of the President missed sending you to Officer Basic Course and Force Recon Officer Training. In both of those you would have learned more details of how to handle your troops in a combat environment and in garrison. OCS, necessarily, covers the broad spectrum. You were supposed to really be taught how to be an infantry officer, and then a Force Recon Officer, in those two courses. You've had neither. I've been reviewing the lesson plans of both and realizing just how much you missed. Including introduction to the CMS. You also haven't had any experience running troops. I know that you've had experience being a troop and think you know what it's all about. But from this side of the desk, things are different. Priorities, especially. So you're going to have to learn. Much of this I'm going to throw on Gunnery Sergeant Juda."


"He's back?" Eric interjected. The Gunny had been hit even worse than the CO during the battle. "Sorry, sir."


"He is, indeed, back," Captain Zanella said. "However, since his right leg is still missing a goodly chunk of muscle, he's somewhat grouchy. Hopefully he won't oh-so-subtly take it out on his new lieutenant. But part of any gunny's job is to teach the newbie lieutenant, that being you. In fact, given your position I'm sure that all the senior NCOs will tend to be helpful. Perhaps too helpful. Do you get my meaning?"


"Eventually, I have to learn to do this myself," Eric said. "Is that what you mean, sir?"


"More or less," Zanella said. "Just one of many traps, Lieutenant. There's one last trap I need to point out. I suspect it's the one you've probably already thought about. That trap is the trap of courage. You know where I'm going?"


"I don't take the door, anymore, sir," Eric said, if anything sadly. "I'm supposed to send others to take it."


"Not supposed to," the CO corrected. "Must. You must send others to take point. You don't lead from a bunker or from the ship, usually, but by the same token you have to place your Marines in the position of greatest risk. Their job is to kill stuff and blow things up. You lead from behind, to convey my orders and expand on them. I don't mind an officer who's willing to get his hands dirty, in fact I demand it. But the point on anything, be it loading the ship or fighting Dreen, are your Marines, not 'Two-Gun Berg the One-Man-Killing-Machine.' If you can get through an engagement without firing your weapon you're doing things correctly. And if I see you toting gear instead of figuring out what's supposed to be toted, next, I will damned well bust you back to sergeant. Are we absolutely, positively clear on this?"


"Clear, sir."


"I said the job of an officer is to do paperwork," the CO said, leaning back. "But that only covers part of the spectrum. The real job of an officer is to consider not 'what now' but 'what's next?' Your NCOs handle 'what now.' You tell them 'Take that room' and they take the room. You don't have to tell them how to take a room. They know that. Your job, while they're taking it, is to consider what's next. After that room, what needs to get done that's not an automatic trained reaction. Do you need to prepare defenses? Or is this a raid and you need to consider the problems of exfil? The job of the officer is to look ahead in time and be prepared for what time is going to throw at him. Leadership and all the rest comes quickly enough. If your troops realize that you know what you're doing as an officer. The first time that one of your NCOs says 'What now, sir?' and you have the answer they don't . . . that's when you start being an officer. Clear?"


"Clear, sir," Berg said. He'd had much the same speech in OCS, but he had to admit that Captain Zanella hit the high points better.


"On the ride out, I'm going to devote two hours a day to professional development," the CO said, sighing. "However, I seem to recall a Marine sergeant who had his head fairly firmly on his shoulders instead of up his ass. Try to keep it there."


"I'll try, sir," Eric promised.


"Now, you need to complete your training with Monsieur Ross then decide if you actually have time to go home tonight to do more than change clothes. See ya tomorrow morning."


 


"Most girls like you want to be waitresses," the restaurant manager said, looking Brooke up and down. "You could make way more money as a waitress."


"I know," Brooke admitted. "But I want to learn to cook. I'm hoping I can do some of that working in the kitchen."


"All I got is busser," the Italian said. "You're mostly going to be washing dishes, maybe chopping some vegetables. Even my choppers, they got professional training."


"It's why I'm applying here," Brooke said, smiling prettily.


"Damn, you'd make a good waitress," the manager said. "I don't know for busser. That's hard work and no pay, hardly. I don't think you'd last."


"I'm willing to work hard," Brooke said patiently. "But I really want to learn how to cook."


"Maulk," Antonio said, shaking his head. "I tell you what. I make you a waitress and part time chef. If you can get along with Fernando. I put you on Fernando's shift. Victor's gay but Fernando, he like ladies. He keep his hands to himself but you smile at him he teach you some stuff. Rest of the time, you're a waitress. I need pretty waitresses. You don't last, you don't last."


"Thank you," Brooke said, smiling.


 


"It's these damned Hexosehr recyclers, sir. A CO2 scrubber is easy. These, we don't understand how they work so when they break, and they do, we can't figure out how to fix them short of replacement."


Weaver was upside down, leaning over backwards, examining a piece of alien machinery and trying to act like the position was totally natural.


"It's an ionization separation system, Chief," Weaver said, pointing. "Filtration, ionization point, separation point, oxygen reconsolidation, compressor system. What's the issue?"


"The separator's not working," the chief said. Chief Petty Officer Dean Gestner, lead machinist of the Blade II, was stuffed into the narrow space between the ionizer and a bulkhead. Fortunately, he was a small guy. "We're getting a half a dozen toxins come through. Not just CO2. Ketones, esters, you name it. Some of it gets thrown out in compression, but the separation's the problem."


"We got a spare separator around?" Weaver asked.


"Sure, sir," the chief said. "Four in spares baseside. But are we gonna have one when we're on the back side of Gamma Nowhere?"


"Point," Weaver said. "We're getting at least two Hexosehr tech reps on the next cruise. We were supposed to get them before now. Pull and replace this separator and hold onto it. We'll get them to examine it and tell us what's wrong and how to fix it. For that matter, have you asked Tchar? He's starting to get a handle on some of this stuff."


"No, sir," the chief said, grinding his teeth.


Unfortunately, the chief had the full measure of Napoleon complex that went with his size.


"Look, Tchar's around for a reason, Chief," the XO said. "He's an invaluable source of technical expertise. He won't be with us on this cruise, but he's going to be with us on others. If you can't handle working with an Adar I'll find a chief who can. Are we clear?"


"Clear, sir," the chief said.


"Pull it and replace it," Weaver repeated. "Then give it to Tchar to look at. Make sure we've got at least one replacement for each system. And ask Tchar, if he figures out how to fix it back to spec, how he did it and for him to write the repair manual. There's a bunch of this Hexosehr stuff we don't have repair manuals on, yet. Looks like we're going to have to write them."


"Got it, sir," the chief said as Weaver pulled himself out. The chief followed then stopped to brush some dust off his coveralls. "There's another . . . issue, sir."


"Yes?" Weaver said.


"This chick with blue hair came breezing into the shop yesterday and asked what we needed done," Gestner said. "I told her to get the hell out of my shop. When I did, I started getting grief from PO Morris and PO Gants. I've got that under control, but I just thought you should know. I don't think much of having women on a boat, sir, but if it's got to be it's got to be. But I won't have them in my shop."


Weaver looked at the chief blank-faced and wondered exactly how to handle this.


"Okay, Chief Gestner, here's the deal," Weaver said. "You just monumentally grapped up."


"Excuse me, sir?" the chief said hotly.


"Are you going to actually listen to why you grapped up?" Weaver asked. "From someone with far less time in the Navy and about five hundred times more time in space than you?"


"Of course, Captain," the chief said, his teeth grinding again. "I am always seeking the wisdom of my betters."


"Chief, that wasn't even on the edge of insolence," Weaver warned. "I'm serious. Are you actually going to listen? Or are we going to turn this into a dick beating contest? One that, I guarantee it, you are going to lose."


"I apologize, sir," the chief said, taking a deep breath. "I am listening."


"Miriam Moon is the ship's linguist, yes," Weaver said. "But on the last cruise . . .  Look, she's ADHD. You know what that is, right?"


"So are both my kids, sir," the chief said, his brow furrowing.


"Incredibly smart little monsters that go ballistic if they get bored?" Weaver asked.


Gestner chuckled. "More or less describes them, sir."


"When Miriam gets bored, she starts wandering around the ship, being . . . annoying as hell," Captain Weaver said. "Since she's a civilian, there's only so much the CO can do about that. What we found out, more or less by accident, on the last cruise is that if you give her something to do, she does a spectacular job. Especially something mechanical. She completely rebuilt one system and painted every steam-pipe in the ship along with doing all sorts of minor jobs. Not to mention fixing the neutrino injector in the middle of a battle. The reason she breezed into your shop, Chief, is that it's more Miriam's shop than yours. She was a major part of the design team when the Hexosehr built this ship. And you got about twenty percent more relative space because of it. So you should be thanking her, not insulting her. And the reason Red and Sub Dude gave you grief was because they were trying to tell you the same thing. Knowing both of them, they were probably doing it badly, but that was what was going on. Now, you're going to apologize to Miss Moon, give her full access to your shop and utilize her. In fact, first thing to do is put her in charge of this thing and see if she can figure it out. But apologize first, sincerely. How you handle that with your people is up to you. If you're the type that can't lose face, you're going to have a hard time doing so. But you are going to apologize and you are going to utilize her or you're not a chief that can handle the Blade. Are we clear?"


"Clear, sir," the chief said. "You're serious."


"Yes, God damnit!" Weaver snapped, finally losing his temper. "I'm deadly serious! Hell, if she didn't already have a job and if I could figure out a way to do it I'd give her the machinist section! Among other things, she had the guys who worked in that section eating out of her hand last cruise! I'm that serious! Are we clear?!"


"Clear, sir," Gestner said, obviously nonplussed.


"I'm serious, Chief," Weaver said, calmer. "This is not a sub. It's a spaceship. It's a spaceship that gets into really weird maulk. I can't afford to have the guy who has to get stuff fixed in a funk because things aren't going according to routine or somebody's gotten up his nose. I need somebody who if he can't figure out a piece of strange alien equipment will figure out who can. If you can't get over whatever keeps you from listening to people's input, you're not for the Blade. Because nobody in this ship understands every part or can figure out every problem that crops up. And I need to know that in time to get a replacement. You're a good mechanic and your reports say you run a good shop. But the shop on this ship is unlike any other in the service. And if you can't get with the program, tell me now."


"I can do the job, sir," the chief said, frowning. "I really can."


"Be square with me, Chief," Bill said. "It's seriously different. Are you sure?"


"I'm sure, sir," Gestner replied.


"Grapp me on this and I'm not going threaten you with Diego Garcia or Iceland," Weaver said. "But I do suggest you ask Red or Sub Dude the story of Petty Officer Olson."


"Olson, sir?" Gestner asked.


"Ask them," Weaver said, dusting off his own coveralls. "Are we space ready with the exception of the separators?"


"Yes, sir," Gestner said. "I'll have a full report on down or questionable systems on the Eng's desk this afternoon. But the rest of it's minor stuff."


"Good to hear," the XO said. "Tell Commander Oldfield I'll need it on my desk by noon tomorrow. But do not dawdle on looking up Miss Moon, Chief."


"Yes, sir," Gestner said, frowning in thought.


 


"This XO shit is for the birds, sir," Bill said as the CO entered his compartment. "What ever happened to the paperless office concept?"


"What's really funny about it is that most of the actual paper gets filed and forgotten," the CO said, sitting down across from him. "It's the stuff that we file electronically that gets looked at. Hell, mostly it gets automatically compared to norms and some computer sends up a red flag if it doesn't fit the model. Which is why—"


"We keep getting these stupid queries!" Weaver finished, holding up a form. "I wish somebody would tell the software we're no longer an SSBN with a crew of 157 and twenty-four missiles! We haven't filed our weekly paperwork on missile stability so this damned program keeps sending damned queries!"


"And we will until somebody comes up with a second model just like us," Captain Prael said. "When will the equipment status report be done?"


"By 1700," Bill said, holding up same. "I think we can squeeze in most of the minor repairs before we leave; I'm working on the budget and worktable now. But the only major issue is the separator and we're going to pull and replace that."


"What's this I hear about you having a run-in with Chief Gestner over Miss Moon?" the CO asked, holding out his hand for the preliminary report.


"I told the chief that Miss Moon was the most valuable resource the machinist's shop had on this ship," Weaver said. "And that if he couldn't figure that out, I'd find a chief who could."


"And did you discuss the threat to have him relieved with me, first, Captain?" the CO asked neutrally, flipping through the pages.


"No, Captain," Weaver replied. "I don't discuss every encounter I have on this ship with you. If you wish me to restrain myself in any negative encounter until I have solicited your advice, Captain, then I will do so."


"Get off your high horse, Weaver," the CO said, looking up. "I'm not Spectre Blankemeier and this is no longer his ship. In my ship we do things my way. And my way does not necessarily mean a civilian female running around fixing stuff. In case it's not clear to you, Captain, that's a major departure from normal activity in any military unit, much less a sub. And threatening a senior chief with being strapped to the outside of the hull for three days was not the conduct I expect of my officers. Am I clear?"


"Clear, sir," Weaver replied.


"I've been fully briefed on Miss Moon's activities," Prael continued. "Which does not mean I approve. Miss Moon is to restrict herself to authorized linguist duties if and when she is needed. I've sent in a memo for record recommending her replacement with a qualified male Navy candidate. We may be forced to carry her for this mission, but I see no reason why we even have her on-board. We're not carrying a science team, otherwise."


There was no question asked so Weaver kept his mouth shut.


"You're doing a decent job as an XO," Prael continued after a moment. "Decent, not extraordinary. Since you're a hard worker and unquestionably smart, I put that down to lack of experience. You were fast tracked to lieutenant commander then jumped twice to your present rank for, basically, being there. Yes, you did a good job as astrogator. That's to be expected. You've proven you're courageous. But that doesn't add up to being a Naval officer. If you were a real Naval officer you'd have handled things differently. So you can get over being a civilian wearing a uniform or . . . I believe the phrase was 'I'll find someone who will.' Are we clear?"


"Clear, sir," Weaver said, stone-faced.


"Comments?"


"XO to Skipper or Captain to Captain?" Weaver asked.


"Again, quoting, I think the phrase I'm looking for here is that was over the edge of insolent," Prael said dangerously.


"Captain to Captain it is," Weaver said. "This is your ship, sir, sure enough. And, yes, I was bumped up fast. That, sir, is because there are no other officers in the Navy with my training, experience or skills. And Miss Moon is on this ship because there are no other people with her experience or ability. Your job, in addition to your other duties, is to teach me to be your XO. And I'll do that to the best of my very high ability. I never do anything by halfs. But my job, Captain, is to teach you to be a starship commander."


"You're really going to push this, aren't you?" Prael asked.


"You already, mistakenly, referred to this ship as a sub, sir," Weaver continued. "It's not. It's a spaceship, designed as such from the keel out. It can go underwater but it's primarily designed for space. If you think of it as a sub, sir, you're going to get us all killed. Because there's a universe of difference between being at sea and being in space. One difference, is that if you're cruising the Pacific you don't suddenly run into a species that speaks by sonar and have to have someone to figure out how to talk to them. Have to have that or you're going to get blown away. Thus you have to have someone who can figure that out, no matter who that is. And thus we get to Miss Moon. Who completely redesigned faulty systems on the Blade One so that they were no longer faulty and figured out how to communicate with the Hexosehr and, and, and. The last 'and who' being that she was a primary member of the design team of this ship. Who is an asset you do not want to lose despite her being female and occasionally bat-shit crazy. I can't believe I'm having to explain this to you! You read the reports!"


"I'm going to have to ask for relief, aren't I?" Prael growled. "Because yes, I've read the reports. But it was Spectre's ship. It's mine now."


"If you asked for relief, right now, you'll get it, sir," Weaver said. "You'll find yourself off 'your' ship so fast it will make your head swim. We both know it. I'd get reamed for handling things badly but you'd be gone. Because there is no one else to do my job, sir. Which is to be XO, yes, but is primarily to keep you and this ship alive when we get where there's no air and the universe goes crazy. And you're going to do one or two cruises and then be gone, fast-tracked into a training position or, if we have them by then, a bigger ship. I'll still be here, probably still be XO, teaching your replacement. Because when we get out between the stars, sir, there are going to be dozens of times you'll turn to me and ask me what the grapp is going on. Just as, now, I have to turn to you, sir, to figure out Clerk Click and all the rest of this maulk. So are we going to make this work? Or not?"


"There has to be one boss on a ship, XO," Prael said fiercely.


"Agreed," Bill replied. "I'm not going to override one of your orders. Unless it's going to get us killed and you don't realize it. I hope that we don't hit that point. And I don't want to grapp with your confidence; a CO has to have it. But Spectre could maintain his confidence and ask questions, even in front of the crew. Can you?"


"We'll see," Prael said. "But the thing you need to figure out is that I've got nearly twenty years of experience as a Naval officer and this isn't the Enterprise. It's a U.S. Naval vessel."


"Correction, again, Captain," Bill said with a sigh. "It's an Alliance Space Vessel. Why couldn't they have chosen that for the actual name? And, sir, I have over twenty years of experience in the fields of engineering, quantum physics, optics, physics, astronomy and astrophysics. And, sir, as much as you may know about Naval bureaucracy and the play of wind and wave and how to calculate buoyancy, when we hit zero-G all that experience means exactly dick. And at that point, mine becomes critical. If you cannot handle that or if you cannot figure that out, then please request relief. Because if you're unwilling to learn, we're all doomed. As for me, I want to learn how to be a good XO. I'm more than willing to learn to be a good XO. I know that I'm still unqualified to be a CO and I'll be watching your moves to see how while learning my job."


"As I said, we'll see," Prael said, standing up. "Miss Moon is still not to be given duties outside her specific area of expertise. At least for the time being."


"That's your right as CO," Weaver said, shrugging.


"And you think I'm making a mistake," the CO said.


"Several, actually," Bill replied. "You've undercut me with Chief Gestner which means that in the future he's going to think he can walk all over me. Any time he's unhappy with one of my orders he'll cry to the Eng who will, in turn, cry to you. He's also going to ignore my advice on interacting with Tchar, which will reduce his ability to get things repaired. And from his attitude, he's going to have a tough time interacting with the Hexosehr but that's just a guess. On the direct subject of Miss Moon, you're going to be subject to unintentional and intentional harassment during the cruise. And if you directly control her, such as confinement to quarters, you'll both lose the respect of the crew, especially those who are veterans of her previous cruises, and you'll almost undoubtedly get reprimanded upon our return for illegal restriction of a civilian technical specialist. Last, you're positioning yourself, mentally, to ignore my advice or, more probably, fail to access it. Given experiences from previous cruises, that is likely to be a bad thing. However, none of those are, at this point, critical issues that will kill us. So I'm raising no objection. You did, however, ask."


"You're going to be a pain in the ass, aren't you?" Captain Prael said.


"Apparently, sir," Bill replied, tiredly. "But as my momma used to say, don't ask me a question if you don't want the answer."


"Well here's one for your professional development, Captain," the CO said. "We can have these sorts of differences in private, but you'd better damned well keep them to yourself around the crew."


"Aye, aye," Bill replied. He leaned back and shuddered after the door closed, rubbing his face. "Maulk. This is gonna be one grapped up cruise."


 


"This is maulk," PO Ian "Red" Morris said, unbolting the separator from its mounts. "I know how to fix this piece of maulk. You've got to open it with a melder, though."


"And Gestner doesn't want to hear for melders," Michael "Sub Dude" Gants said, engaging the jack to lower the multiton separator. "Miriam'd have this thing fixed in five minutes," he continued, sucking in through his teeth.


"No chither," Red said, pulling his Number Two arm off and replacing it with Number Four. Two was good for small work but Four had more power. On each of the previous two cruises, the machinist had been hit by fire in, respectively, his right arm and right leg. He had a human prosthetic arm, a good one, and a Hexosehr prosthetic leg, a better one. He placed his prosthetic leg against the bulkhead, grabbed the hand-hold on the separator and pulled, rolling the massive piece of machinery out onto the deck. "He and the CO are going to be right sorry about that when we're outside."


"Sorry about what?" Chief Gestner said pointedly. Neither of the machinists had heard him arrive.


"Sorry you ignored the XO," Gants said, pumping the jack and lifting the separator up to the level of the carry-cradle.


"Keep your opinions to yourself, PO," Gestner said angrily. "I get lip from you like that again and I'll have you up on report."


"Chief, maybe you should just ground me now," Gants said, helping Red get the separator positioned. "Because, honestly, you're going to hear my opinions if you ask me a direct question. Gonna happen. You asked, I answered. If you consider that insolent, then you'd better ship me out now."


"Just get this thing replaced," Gestner snarled.


"Aye, aye, Chief," Red said. "What are we supposed to do with it?"


"Send it to dock for repair," the Chief said. "We don't have room to keep it on the ship."


"It's times like this I wish Macelhenie had survived the last cruise," Gants said as soon as the chief was out of earshot.


"It's times like this I contemplate the pleasure I would obtain by brushing old Numbah Fow across his face," Red said, holding up the massive prosthetic. "It'd be a right pleasure."


"Come on," Gants replied, shrugging. "Let's get this thing winched out of the ship and see about finding a spare."


 


"How the hell am I supposed to do that?" Lieutenant Ross said, looking at the directive.


"Excuse me, sir?" Eric replied.


In the last five days he'd seen Brooke exactly ten hours. At the moment he was using the computer station in officer's Admin to try to catch up on paperwork. The company was doing PT and when they got back there was a field evolution he had to lead. He'd rather be running, but the paperwork just wouldn't end!


"There's a new position called 'Vac Boss,' " Lieutenant Ross said. "He's supposed to be the go-to guy if there's an EVA. They're starting a training class in it, but the boss has to have vac experience. Right now, the guy with the most hours wins. So we, I, am supposed to compute the number of hours each member of the company has in vacuum and find out who is vac boss. It will probably turn out to be one of the sergeants who survived the last couple of missions. How the hell are we going to put them in charge of an EVA exercise? God, I need a cigar."


"Quickly," Berg said, shrugging. "The last mission we did all the way outside EVA stuff. The squids stayed by the ship. Hell, it's probably Corwin. Heh. That'd be funny. I wouldn't want Corwin in charge of a day-care center."


"That still doesn't tell me how to compute it," Ross growled. "How many hours do you have?"


"Whoa," Berg replied, not looking up. "Lots. Depends on how you calculate it. I'm not sure if the drop on Cheerick counts or not, but that was just a couple of minutes. Hours and fricking hours at Tycho 714. More at HD Thirty-Seven. Wrestling that comet . . .  When the Karchava dreadnought got evacuated, couple of hours right there . . . Come to think of it, there's a vac indicator on the suits. That probably got dumped to the mission log; everything else was. Get Portana to pull the mission logs and look."


"I've got a better idea, Lieutenant," Ross said, grinning evilly.


"Oh, come on, sir!" Berg protested. "I'm swamped!"


"How hard could it be?"


 


"It not in the standart log," the Filipino armorer said, shaking his head.


On the previous cruise, Berg and the then new unit armorer had gotten off to a rocky start, a little matter of, well, everything getting on each other's nerves. Since they bunked right by each other, Portana's habit of playing Filipino salsa music at top volume had led to Berg replying with Death Metal and country at same, which led to the rest of the compartment playing a medley of clashing tunes to the point that the CO and the first sergeant stepped in. Berg was big, good-looking, popular, easy-going and a West Virginia country boy. Portana was short, swarthy, caustic and Filipino. They'd managed to get past it during the course of the cruise and were now, to the extent a lieutenant and an enlisted man could be, friends. But it had been a long road to that point.


"It doesn't get logged?" Berg asked, shaking his head. "Okay, I guess we're going to have to . . ."


"It get logged," Portana said. "But it in deep structure. Got to get a program to parse it out. And mission log's encryp'ed so got to decryp' first. Not something you can just press a button and there it is. Gonna be work."


"I don't suppose . . ." Berg said, grinning.


"I got fifteen Wyverns to configure," Portana said. "You know how long t'at take. Not sure I'm going to be done by mission time. One being you new one. But, good news, you mission log survived. Well, right up to when you get all fried and stuff."


"Chither," Berg said. "Dump the raw mission logs to my computer and I'll see what I can do . . ."


 


"Well, I guess it's good I'm working so late, lately," Eric said as he got in the truck. "How was work?"


"I'm trying to learn how to tell customers, 'Sorry, I'm married,' " Brooke said, sighing exasperatedly. "Actually, I just hold up the ring. But some guys can't take the hint."


"Try 'I'm happily married to a Force Recon lieutenant who'll bust your face if you don't keep your hands off me,' " Eric said, closing his eyes and leaning back in the seat.


"That won't exactly help with the tips," Brooke pointed out. "Not that this particular group of jerks left much of a tip, anyway. One of the other waitresses handles it just fine, but she's been doing this for a long time. I'm trying to figure out how she does it. But most of the time, it looks to me as if she really is willing to go home with them. Then if they get too crude she just . . . hammers them flat and they like it."


"It's a game," Eric said, shrugging. "Nobody really expects to go home with the waitress. Well, except The Envoy. You just have to come up with standard answers to the come-on. 'Sorry, but unless you can touch the back of your head with your tongue I'm not interested.' "


"Eric Bergstresser!"


" 'Well, gosh, sir, I would go home with you. That is, if I didn't have a husband with the stamina of a lion and hung like an elephant . . .' "


"I could never say that!"


"Why? Waitresses said both of them to me," Eric pointed out.


"You . . . oh!" Brooke replied, shaking her head. She looked over at him and frowned. "Are you shiny, honey?"


"Beat," Eric said. "I got a new duty dumped on me today and it's kicking my ass."


"More VD reports?" Brooke asked, dimpling. "I never thought I'd say something like that in my life."


Given that things like VD reports and MWR reports were anything but classified, Eric had willingly discussed those with her. He opened his mouth to reply then closed it with a clop.


"No," he said after a moment. "Something . . . else. One of the things I'm not supposed to talk about. Which is why I didn't bring it home."


"Shiny," Brooke said, restraining her curiosity with difficulty. "Did you hear there's going to be some sort of broadcast by the President tomorrow night? And that it's going to run over an hour?"


"No," Berg said. "What about?"


"Nobody knows," Brooke said. "The TV said it was on a matter of great importance that has been, up to this point, classified."


Eric's eyes flew open and he looked straight forward. Just then, his implant dinged.


 


"Tomorrow?" Weaver screamed, looking at his secure e-mail. He'd just gotten home and keyed on his computer to find the warning message."No, no, no, no!"


"Weaver," Prael said over his implant. "Back to the office, stat. We've got a secure link with the secretary of Defense in thirty minutes."


"I'm on my way, sir," Bill replied, picking up his uniform blouse. "Chither! Why now?"


 


"Not by our choice," the secretary of Defense said. "What the Times has been able to piece together about the Blade is coming out in the morning edition. What they don't know, though, is that we effectively lost the Blade and got a new one from the Hexosehr. They did, however, piece together the 'helicopter crash' with the first mission and speculate on casualties from the second. They don't know about the Dreen. Bill, you had some conversation with Robin. I pulled the transcript when I got the news. Anything you want to add?"


"I tried to throw him off-scent, slightly, sir," Weaver said. "Best I could do. I could tell he knew about the Blade, pretty solidly, and that we'd run into something that killed Marines. He didn't mention the scientific losses or the SF or the Cheerick or the last mission's results. But my contact report stated that he was going to do a piece on the Blade."


"They apparently got some video from our Russian friends," the secretary of Defense said. "I'm sure the Russians will be running that one down. But this changes . . .  Well, it changes everything. Commandant, I want Lieutenant Bergstresser available for Dog and Pony."


"Yes, sir," the commandant said. "I'll inform his CO."


"Ditto Spectre and you, Bill. Anyone else you'd suggest? Any of you?"


Weaver had a suggestion but given his rocky position with the CO he wasn't about to bring it up.


"That linguist," Admiral Townsend said. "Miss Moon. Good looking, obviously articulate. And I've seen the way that she looked in the documentary. I especially loved the parts where she was repairing the ship on the last mission. Painted every steam pipe in the ship? That took determination, by God. It puts a human face on the whole thing. Cute lady who talks to strange aliens and still wields a wrench when she has to. What do you think, Captain Weaver?"


"Sounds good, sir," Bill said, trying not to sound strangled. "She's going to need a heads up, though. First, she'll need at least ten minutes to panic, then a day to do her hair. She might have to go home to see her usual stylist."


"We need to centralize this," the SecDef said. "Get all the people down here in DC. I know you're preparing for deployment, but this takes precedence. Get to work on this tonight." The video of the SecDef cut off leaving only the commandant and the CAO.


"I'll order up Bergstresser and, hell, one of the enlisted," the commandant said. "People always like junior enlisted for this sort of thing. I'm sort of shamed to say I don't know the Marine players all that well. Captain Weaver?"


"Lurch, sir?" Bill replied. As well hung for a sheep and all that. "That is, Sergeant Lyle? The guy who was injured in an accident and worked his way back to line. He's not all that articulate, but . . ."


"Good call," the commandant said, nodding. "Good human interest angle. The first sergeant's been on both missions, what's your read on him?"


"First Sergeant Powell is one of those rare NCO's that really could take over as a commander, sir," Bill replied. "Smart as a whip intellectually—hell, he's got a degree from the Sorbonne—good common sense, experienced. But the company's preparing for deployment. Dragging him away may interfere."


"If the company commander can't do without his first sergeant for a few days, I need to find a new CO," the commandant said. "Sergeant Lyle, Lieutenant Bergstresser and First Sergeant Powell. Got it. Good line-up. I'm done. Out here."


"Since everyone else is asking," the CAO said, chuckling.


"Well, you've got myself and Miriam, sir," Bill replied. "Admittedly, Miriam's from the civilian science side. If you want enlisted personnel . . ." Bill paused and thought about that, running through the list and then chuckling.


"Something funny, Captain?" the CAO asked.


"Just imagining the COB being interviewed, sir," Bill replied. " 'So you are the chief of boat? What's your name?' 'C-O-B.' 'How do you spell that?' 'C-O-B. Chief. Of. Boat.' Sir, in all honesty, no, I can't think of any others unless the CO wants to go. In that case, I'll stay back and get the boat ready to go. That's my job, after all."


"The Marines are sending enlisted people," the CAO said. "And Captain Prael hasn't been on the previous missions."


"Then I'd suggest Red, sir," Bill replied, then blinked rapidly, realizing he could not for the life of him recall Red's real name. "Petty Officer First Class Ian . . . Morris. Not particularly articulate, either, but with two prosthetics from two missions, he's not going to have to be."


"Get that done, Captain," the CAO said. "Make sure he's available and everybody gets down to DC tomorrow. Early."


"Aye, aye, sir," Weaver and Prael both replied, simultaneously. Weaver didn't look over to see his CO's reaction.


"Any questions, Captain Prael?" the CAO asked.


"No, sir," the CO replied.


"Then I'm out," the CAO said.


The screen blanked and there was an uncomfortable silence.


"You'd better get moving, XO," Prael said after a moment. "You've got a lot of work to do."


"Yes, sir," Bill said, standing up and walking to the door of the shield room.


"Weaver."


"Sir?" Bill replied without turning around.


"We'll talk when you get back."


"Yes, sir."


 


"Yes, sir," Eric said, nodding into the phone. "Yes, sir. Aye, aye, sir. Yes, sir. Understood, sir. Gung ho, sir. Yes, sir. Good night."


"You sure weren't saying much," Brooke said. She'd combed out her hair and changed into a nightgown but stayed up, yawning, as long as her husband did.


"I'm a lieutenant," Berg replied, finally getting a chance to strip out of his uniform. "We generally just take orders. The difference between a private first class and a second lieutenant is that a PFC's been promoted twice."


"What's happening?" Brooke asked. "Is it a mission?"


"Sort of," Eric replied. "But not the way you're thinking. I've got to go to DC tomorrow. Something came up."


"And you can't tell me what," Brooke said.


"Honestly, I probably could and get away with it at this point," Eric said. "But I'm still under orders not to discuss anything I do with anybody. Can you . . . ?"


"I'm fine with that," Brooke said, stretching in an arch that drew down the front of her already low-cut nightgown. "Among other things, I suspect it would be a long conversation. And I've got other things on my mind."


"What were we talking about?" Eric said, hurrying with his boots.


 


"Miss Moon," Weaver said as the slight linguist exited the Looking Glass. "I see you redyed your hair."


Union Station was the central hub for the increasingly defunct Washington Metro Line. The Chen Anomaly generated dozens of Looking Glass bosons per minute. They then proceeded on a path more or less parallel to the surface of the earth in apparently random zigzags and eventually came to rest. There they generally sat innocuously, still in rare cases opening up a gate to an unexplored world.


However, the millions of inert LGBs that the Anomaly had generated over the past years could be moved to another spot and then linked to any other boson of the same frequency. By moving two to two separate points that the movers wanted to link, a portal could be established between any two points on Earth.


Moving an LGB was no simple technical feat. The boson first had to be charged with static electricity using a massive Van der Waal static generator. The generator was similar to a plasma ball but much harder to construct, requiring a formed ball of metal with an absolutely blemish-free surface. Given that the minimum size to be of any use was over ten feet across, the first few had been enormously expensive. But as time went on, manufacturing processes and technologies improved to the point that creating one cost less than a million dollars.


Then the charged LGB had to be moved. To move it required massive electromagnets to maintain a holding field and the power to run them. But the value was there. Using more and more systems, gates were being opened at the rate of over forty per day in the U.S. alone. Even the first few hundred had killed the airlines as every hub airport got linked to every other. As time went by, those hubs were connected to more and more cities, more direct links were established and even links internal to cities became common.


Them that has, gets: Washington, DC, had become a poster city for LGB gates. A series of them had been set up around the city, each in pairs to prevent collisions, permitting rapid movement across the entire city by simply stepping through the right portals. There were over thirty on the Washington Mall, alone, and a coffee-table book that consisted of nothing but pictures of the reflected images lasted surprisingly long on the bestseller lists.


Furthermore, through Looking Glasses at the defunct Dulles Airport, the city was connected to other countries and even to Adar. More portals then moved the incoming to Union Station, which was the central hub for all domestic arrivals and departures.


Miriam Moon actually lived in Dalton, GA, and had taken over fourteen minutes to get to the portal in Washington, including waiting for the connecting portal in Atlanta. Bill, on the other hand, lived in Huntsville, AL, and had a direct link.


"It was getting washed out at the wedding," Miriam replied, surprisingly calmly. Bill had expected her to be nearly hysterical. He knew she'd be all right once she had to don her public personna, but he figured he'd have to hold her hand up to that point. "I'd been thinking about redoing it, was going to before we left. This just gave me a reason."


"Did you get any sleep last night?" Bill asked, gesturing to the escalator and taking the handle of her rolling bag.


"No," Miriam said, her voice shaking slightly. "But it gave me time to do my hair. And get over the panic. I could use something to eat, though. I was throwing up most of the night." The linguist was particularly pale.


"Well, everybody's waiting in the restaurant top-side," Bill said. "None of us has eaten, yet."


"I hope you weren't waiting for me," Miriam replied. "I nearly sent my regrets. Right up to the point I was getting ready to step through the gate."


"The CAO was rather pointed that he wanted you to be there," Bill pointed out.


"I'm not a Navy officer," Miriam replied tartly. "Greg Townsend can kiss my white butt if he thinks he can order me to do anything."


"I understand," Bill said, rolling his eyes behind her back.


"Don't you roll your eyes at me, Bill Weaver," Miriam said.


"Sorry."


"I think we should have gone public from the beginning," Miriam continued as they walked past a newspaper stand. Normally, there would have been a line for the Washington Post. Today, she was being heavily outsold by her more conservative brother. There was only one Times left on the rack and as they walked past someone grabbed it and got in line. "Why do we always have to do things as a crashing emergency?"


"The Chinese and Russians asked for more time," Bill said. "I can imagine their reactions. We're going to have to wait until the third documentary until we know their full reactions."


 


"Hi, guys," Miriam said, slipping into the booth. "I need a waffle."


"You going to be shiny, ma'am?" Red asked. The group was in civilian clothes but everyone had a suit bag with them holding their uniforms. "The hair looks great, by the way."


"I'll be fine, Red, thanks," Miriam said. "How's married life treating you, Eric?"


"Good," Berg replied, shaking his head. "It's a bit of an adjustment, but . . . good. Really good."


"I need to give him a jar and a bag of jelly beans," Lurch said, grinning.


Eric looked around as the older members of the group, and Red, who was long married, all chuckled.


"I don't get it," Eric admitted.


"Get a jar," Red said. "A big one in your case, probably. And a bag or a dozen of jelly beans. Each time you fool around the first year of marriage, put a jelly bean in the jar. After the first year, each time you fool around pull out a jellybean and eat it. The legend says that no matter how many years you're married, you'll never empty the jar."


"And for some reason, you only put in the licorice ones," Weaver said. "Let's order, then I'll lay out the agenda. There's not much today, honestly. We're probably not even going to be put on display until after the third documentary comes out. But it's going to get rocky later in the week."


 


"Are you shiny, Brooke?"


Tom was one of the older waiters in the restaurant, a pro of the old school. Brooke had tried to learn his moves, but it was like a tyro painter trying to copy a grand master; it just wasn't the same. She knew she'd need decades of experience to come close. And, frankly, she'd rather be a cook.


"That documentary that's coming out tonight, the government one," Brooke said. "I think it has to do with my husband."


"Well, we've got customers to attend to," Tom said. "Try to stay in the groove."


"Groovy, Tom," Brooke said, looking at her orders and trying to recall what she knew she'd forgotten. "Salads to fourteen . . ."


"Drink refills on nine," Tom said, sliding past her.


"Thank you."


She checked her list, glanced at table nine and got replacements for the drinks that were low. Two diet cokes and a coke, not too hard.


"How are you doing?" she asked the family.


"Irritated," the father said. "I need a scotch and soda."


"I'll get that right away," Brooke said, heading for the bar. It wouldn't break pattern too badly.


Unfortunately, the TV in the bar was tuned to a station that was broadcasting the "government documentary." Brooke wasn't addicted to the news but she'd caught a snip of two talking heads debating the idea of government-produced documentaries. Neither of them liked the idea. But the customers at the bar were clearly riveted and as she was putting in the bar order she heard a familiar name.


". . . Moon, ship's linguist. Miss Moon speaks twenty-seven languages fluently and put herself through college through modeling and painting portraits. A Renaissance woman par excellence, she is also a noted engineer and mechanic, often working on the ship systems of the Vorpal Blade . . ."


The next shot was a surveillance camera showing the girl Brooke had last seen in a daring Little Black Dress wearing a blue coverall, a big wrench in her hand, a smear of grease on her cheek and whacking away at some part in what was clearly a ship.


". . . Born in the small city of Waycross, Georgia, her father is a minister and her mother a school guidance counselor. With six degrees, including everything from forensic science to drafting, she is a critical member of the Vorpal Blade team.


"PFC Eric Bergstresser . . ."


"That's your husband, isn't it?" Tom asked, his eyes wide.


"Yes," Brooke squeaked, picking up the drink for table nine.


"Leave it," Tom said, looking over his shoulder. The restaurant was slowly emptying into the bar as more and more of the patrons came in to see what was going on. "Nobody cares."


". . . was born and raised in the small town of Crab Apple, West Virginia, where he lettered in track and field, football and basketball while also being the captain of the Central High School Physics club. He volunteered for the Marines and then for Force Recon and was the Distinguished Honor Graduate of his class in Force Reconnaissance Operators Training, one of the most demanding courses in the entire United States Military. A recent transfer to the unit, his presence was to be most fortuitous. Because while the missions of the Vorpal Blade required a team effort, if there was one outstanding member, one most valuable player if you will, it would be Two-Gun Berg."


"That's her husband," Tom said loudly, pointing at Brooke.


"Stop it, Tom!" Brooke snapped. "I need to go cover my tables . . ."


"They're all in here," Tom said, sighing. "I need to go get this sorted out. It looks as if the restaurant is moving into the bar for the time being."


"He's your husband?" one of the male patrons of the bar asked. In his sixties, he looked as if he'd been holding down the bar since the restaurant was opened. "So you knew about this?"


"Yes, he is and no, I didn't," Brooke said. "He never talks about his work. What is this?"


"We've got a ship that goes to other planets," a woman said over her shoulder. "Faster than light, that is. And not just where the gates go. The President introduced this thing and said that there was information in it that meant things were going to change, significantly."


"The stock exchanges are being closed the day after the last documentary," another patron said. "They just released the word today."


"These are the missions of the Alliance Space Ship Vorpal Blade," the announcer said stentoriously, to a view of the Blade One bursting out of the water. Then the TV cut to a commercial.


"Now that is an unfortunate acronym," the first patron said. "I see the hand of the Adar in there."


"I need to get back to work," Brooke said.


"Just cover the back tables in the bar," Tom said from over her shoulder. "I've got most of your people moved there. Bring the guy his drink."


"I'm sorry about this," Brooke said, trying hard not to cry. "My husband is one of the Marines on that ship. I never knew it until just now. It's sort of . . ."


"Don't sweat it," the father said, holding out his hand for the scotch. "I'm a retired Navy captain."


"Are you going to be okay, honey?" his wife asked. "Jim never told me things, too. But they didn't put most of them on prime-time."


"I'll be fine," Brooke said, sniffing. "I need to go check on your food."


She got her tables covered just in time for the commercial to end and then got locked in again. By then the word had circulated that "the hero of the mission's" wife was one of the waitresses and her tables started cutting her some slack. Eventually, Tom pulled her off and just sat her at the bar as things heated up.


By the time the action ended she was crying and so were most of the patrons. Especially as the closing scrolled through the list of dead.


"Tomorrow night, the Vorpal Blade continues on her mission of discovery and uncovers both a great threat and a powerful ally. Until tomorrow, this is . . ."


"You've got yourself a good husband there," the Navy wife said, taking her arm.


"I knew that even before tonight, ma'am," Brooke said, wiping her eyes. "God, I must look terrible."


"Never better," the woman said. "It's tough living with a warrior, honey. But it's worth it. Hold on to what you've got. He'll be okay. Boys like that, well, they walk through raindrops."


"Thank you, ma'am," Brooke said.


"Lisa," the woman replied, holding out a card. "You call me. Have you met your CO's wife, yet?"


"No, ma'am," Brooke admitted. "We were supposed to have a get-together this weekend but it got cancelled."


"She needs to get on the ball," the woman said. "Especially after this. I'll make some calls. But if you need somebody to talk to, that's my number."


"Thank you, ma'am."


"It's Lisa," the woman said. "You call me. That's an order."


"Yes, ma'am," Brooke said, grinning through the sniffles. "Does a military spouse have to obey orders?"


"No," Lisa admitted. "But the smart ones learn to."


 


Eric looked at his phone and sighed, then flipped it open.


"Hi, honey."


"I don't know what to say," Brooke said calmly.


"I'm sorry I couldn't say anything," Berg said. "But they really blew it out of proportion."


"Five out of forty-one, honey," Brooke replied. "You said that much before, but I never really could understand that until tonight. All those . . ." Her voice started to break.


"Yeah," Eric said. "Honey, it's shiny, really it is. I'll be okay. I promise. Are you going back on yours?"


"Not even close," Brooke said. "But the other missions . . ."


"We can't talk about," Eric said. "That is an absolute. We got seriously briefed on that. There are international, heck interstellar, agreements on it. But the good news is that I survived. Or bad news. We've been talking to reporters all day on deep background. All of them wanted to know what the big news is. I got to where that was my mantra: The big news is that all of us survived. For the rest, you're going to have to wait."


"There wasn't really much about Miss Moon in this one," Brooke said, getting right to the important part.


"She ends up shining in the next two," Berg said. "I will say that. Honey, it's late. Get some sleep. I'll be home in a few days."


"You can just hop a Looking Glass . . ."


"I'm sitting in the Marine Annex Transient Officers' Quarters by direct and personal order of the commandant," Eric said. "Who is fully aware that we've been married less than two weeks and even apologized. But I'm also not allowed to leave. Sorry, honey."


"It's shiny," Brooke said, sighing. "What's that thing about I knew this would come but I didn't expect it to be so soon?"


"Yuh warns 'em and warns 'em . . ." Eric said, laughing halfheartedly. "I love you, honey."


"Love you," Brooke said. "I guess I'll see you tomorrow night. Sort of."


"Night."


 


"So we may not have Hexosehr on the next mission," the CO continued. "Thoughts?"


"We need to figure out how to fix their systems without resorting to sending them to Runner's World for repair, sir," Bill replied, rolling his eyes. It was the middle of the night and whereas the CO was up, too, he was calling from the shield room in HQ. Bill had had to catch a cab to the Pentagon when he got the call and would have to catch another back to the BOQ.


Fortunately, the stream was audio only, but Prael caught the sarcasm.


"And I'd entertain thoughts on that," the CO said. "Captain."


"Sick Miriam on it when she gets back," Bill said. "The Hexosehr have got to have something on the order of repair manuals, they just need to be translated. She's a translator. And she has engineering background. Sounds like a perfect match and well within her standard duties."


"I notice that you didn't recommend her to the CAO," the CO said. "Any reason why?"


"Well, possibly because you were sitting right next to me and I was fully aware of your opinion of her, sir," Bill replied tightly. "Or did you think I was going to knife you in the back?"


"Point taken, XO," the CO said, just as tightly. "Look, Bill, let's bury the hatchet . . ."


In my head? Bill thought.


". . . You had some points I probably should have entertained more fully. We'll have a more detailed discussion of it when you get back. But . . .  Uncle, XO, okay? You got me."


"It was never about 'getting' you, sir," Bill replied. "That's not my place, sir, and it's not my style. But, sir, every ship thinks that they're special. At least, every good one. But the Blade really is special. Not just because it's the only warp ship we have, sir. It's things like . . .  Well, take Red Morris. He lost an arm on the first mission and a leg on the second and just keeps coming back. Every single Marine survivor of the first mission volunteered to keep going out. The four that are left are still there. The Blade has a nearly one hundred percent retention rate. You get people off the Blade with a crowbar or in a body bag. Heck, most of the time the losses end up being ash. And we just keep going out, again. My point being, and it's not just directed at you, sir, that that sort of culture is unusual even in the military. People just entering it—"


"It's a club," the CO said, musingly. "I hadn't really thought of that, I'll admit. The new people, even me . . ."


"Frankly, sir, you're all new meat," Bill finished. "The ones that have been on these missions are the survivors, sir. I've been trying to stop it but I know that the old timers, all of a year, are looking at me when they should be looking at you. But when you start talking about the new Eng, Chief Gestner, people who not only haven't been there and done that, but have ways of doing things that, frankly, are built around something that no longer really exists to the Blade people—"


"Welcome to the new Space Navy," the CO said. "It's like the old wet Navy. But not."


"The tone was set when Spectre chose to keep going after Runner's World, sir," Bill said. "We were barely a day away from home, but we kept going, damage and casualties and all, sir. The crew that's done that know they can trust the people who have been there. And people like Gants and Red sure as hell don't know it about Chief Gestner. They'll respect the rank but they're going to have a hard time respecting the person. Especially when he's making decisions they have experience of being wrong choices. When we're thirty days out, it's just us. There aren't any tugs, there isn't any CVBG to call. It's just us. And you don't go 'well, I can't repair it so we'll just have to send it dockside.' Not when there are people who could figure it out, you just don't want to use them because of, well, prejudice."


"I'm getting the trend of this conversation, XO," the CO said.


"Sorry, sir," Bill replied.


"Like I said, we'll talk when you get back. Any idea when that's going to be?"


"Minimum of next Monday, sir," Bill said. "I'm set up for Meet the Press on Sunday morning. So is Two-Gun. Frankly, with the buzz about these shows, the mission may be delayed or even scrubbed. That was a musing of the CAO, sir, but it's in the wind."


"Great," Prael grumped. "And on that happy note . . . I'm clear, here."


"Night, sir," Bill said, standing up and disconnecting the secure line. "Maulk. We'll see if I'm even the XO anymore after that little tete a tete."


 


The documentaries ran for three days, from eight to nine PM, Eastern Time. Each of the major cable news networks carried them as did Fox. The regular media chose to forego the honor. Which just meant that they got hammered in the ratings. Say what you will for the entire genre, the Vorpal Blade missions upped the ante of "reality programming."


Immediately following the third night came the first press conference. Miriam had been throwing up most of the day but was surprisingly calm as the moment approached.


"Hey, you going to be shiny?" Eric asked.


"Everybody keeps asking that," Miriam said. "I'm fine. Seriously. It's the waiting that's been getting to me."


"You and me both, sister," Red said as the CAO walked out onto the stage. "Here we go."


"You'll enter as the CAO introduces you," the lieutenant commander from Public Affairs repeated, unnecessarily. "March in in a military manner and take your positions in line."


"I don't march," Miriam said tartly. She was dressed in a business suit that would have looked right in a courtroom. Over the past three nights, millions of viewers had seen her in everything from micro-minis to jeans to spacesuits to grease- and blood-covered coveralls but never a business suit. The heels, however, were consistent. Even her space suit had a three-inch heel.


"Except for you, ma'am," the lieutenant commander added hastily.


". . . the brave sailors and Marines of the Vorpal Blade. In order, I'd like you to finally meet, in person, Captain William Weaver, formerly astrogator and now executive officer of the Blade II . . ."


"I would rather die a thousand deaths," Weaver said, marching out of the group.


"Lee said that when he surrendered at Appomatox," Berg said, chuckling. " 'I would rather face a thousand deaths, but now I must go.' "


"Petty Officer First Class Ian 'Red' Morris . . ."


"Make sure you emphasize the limp from the leg," the PAO officer said.


Red gave him a withering look and marched onto the stage, back straight and not the slightest trace of a limp. On the other hand, he'd made sure he was wearing his Number Two arm. The glittering stainless steel gave him that nice cyborg look. If he'd been wearing Number One, there wouldn't have been anything to see and somebody was bound to ask him to take it off to prove it was a prosthetic.


"Ship's Linguist, Miss Miriam Moon . . ."


"March indeed," Miriam said, swaying onto the stage. The business suit she was wearing was, arguably, as sensual as a potato sack. But she suddenly made it the number one wear for strippers everywhere.


"She just caused fourteen million hard-ons," Berg said, chuckling as the linguist sensuously slid into place, placed one hand on an outthrust hip and gave the camera a languid smile.


"Sergeant Joshua Lyle . . ."


Lurch wasn't called that just because he was tall. Try as he did, there was just too much damage for him to march or even stand perfectly straight. He lurched in a military manner across the stage, though, and took up a position of parade rest next to Miriam. The incredibly tall and awkward former parapalegic looked almost, but not quite, ludicrous next to the sensual and diminutive linguist. The reason it wasn't ludicrous was that the dichotomy was more in keeping with the term "diversity."


"First Sergeant Jeffrey Powell . . ."


"Time to show them how a Marine does it," Top said, popping to attention and stalking out. His steps were so perfect he could have been on the Marine Corps drill team and he stopped, turned and popped when he reached his place.


"And holder of the Navy Cross, Lieutenant Eric 'Two-Gun' Bergstresser . . ."


"I'm not even going to try to improve on that," Eric said, marching much more loosely to his position. It was still in a military manner but drew from his laid back nature rather than the perfect precision of the first sergeant.


"Ladies and gentlemen of the press, the representatives of the Alliance Star Ship Vorpal Blade."


Admiral Townsend started to open his mouth to ask for questions but paused at a slow clapping from the back of the room. In a moment it was joined by others and swelled to full applause. He tried not to react with shock but applause at a press conference was unheard of.


On the other hand, since a couple of changes of administration, and especially the Dreen War, the press had become less adversarial towards the military. During the Dreen War, casualties among the press were at about par with the units they were covering. That had a tendency to reduce tension on both sides, as the military grew to respect the reporters who went out to cover the news, no matter the danger to themselves, and the reporters saw that the soldiers were doing their damnedest to protect them. And the Vietnam generation of the press corps had mostly retired. Their replacements were liberal, yes, but the views were changing about the press and military, becoming less a matter of dragging down the military and more "Hey, they're our soldiers, too."


Still, applause at a press conference?


On the other hand, if humanity didn't get the next decade right, the world really was coming to an end. And the doumentaries had been pretty darned good television.


"Ladies and gentlemen of the press corps, being aware that these are not professional speakers, we will now entertain questions."


 


Eric was balancing two bags in one hand and fumbling to get his key in the lock when the door of the apartment banged open and Brooke swarmed up him to wrap her legs around his middle.


"I love you, I love you, I love you . . ." Brooke said, kissing him all over his face.


"I love you, too," Eric said, tossing the bags past her. "But right now I'm just wondering how fast I can get these clothes off."


 


"We need to get a jelly-bean jar," Eric said, running his finger down Brooke's neck.


"Oh, that old thing," Brooke said, shivering. "I forgot to ask what with one thing and another. How did Miriam hold up?"


"Throwing up a lot," Eric said. "But she made it every step of the way. And she rocked on Oprah."


"You rocked on the Tonight Show," Brooke said. "Even Leno was impressed."


"I am going to catch so much maulk," Eric said. "My new nickname's probably going to be Hollywood, and it won't be a term of endearment. I mean, until last week this was the deepest of deep black op. Now, all of a sudden, we're movie stars. And the whole thing was so successful, they're planning on repeating it after every damned mission! That means people are going to be thinking about the cameras instead of what they need to be thinking about. And the guys who got missed on the previous ops are going to be bitching about who got coverage and who didn't and—"


"Why don't you worry about that tomorrow?" Brooke asked. "I'll say this, I've got a new way to handle problem customers."


"Oh, no," Eric said, groaning.


"I had a guy say something very coarse to me last night and I just looked at him and said 'My last name is Bergstresser. Two-Gun is my husband.' Got a hell of a tip, too."


"You're actually enjoying this, aren't you?" Eric asked.


"Honey, you're famous for being who you are," Brooke said. "You're the most dangerous fighter in the galaxy, the guy who captured a Dreen spaceship almost single-handed. Yeah, I'm enjoying being your wife."


"Well, in that case," Eric said, grabbing her. "I'm enjoying it, too!"


 


"Red," Captain Weaver said as they were about to go through the Looking Glass connection to the Newport News base. "A word."


"Yes, sir?" the machinist said.


"When you get back, you're going to catch a certain amount of flack," Weaver said. "But don't reply to it except in your usual and customary way. Being on TV does not make you immune to discipline. It especially won't make you immune to Captain's Mast. Just . . . be yourself."


"I've been thinking about that, sir," Red said. "I'm going to try. But I think things are going to be a little different, no matter what I do."


"Agreed," Bill said. "But pass this around: the first time I catch somebody trying to get their good side at the cameras, I'm going to make them regret the day they were born."


"Gotcha, sir," Red said, grinning.


"Let's roll."


 


"Hail, hail the conquering hero," Captain Zanella said as Eric, wearing PT gear, walked into Admin.


"That was a little bit more than I'd expected, sir," Eric said, hanging up the suit bag holding his uniform. "How bad's it going to be?"


"Oh, I understand that the gunnys are planning a celebratory fete," the CO said. "The lieutenants have their socks filled with rocks and the other platoons are trying to figure out just how to take you down a notch. That's when I can get them to quit posing for every security camera in the building. And you'll note the pile of paperwork on your desk. You really think you have time for PT?"


"Since that's all unsecure, now, sir, yes," Eric said. "I can take as much as I'd like home tonight. I honestly didn't ask for any of this, sir."


"I know you didn't, Two-Gun," the CO said. "And I'll try to keep the maulk storm to a minimum. Besides, the whole company came off smelling like a rose. I even got an honorable mention. For that matter, the first sergeant was right there in the middle of it. Which show was it where he went off on the similarities and differences between the coalition the Chinese are proposing and the Delian league?"


"One of the shows on CNN, I think," Eric said, chuckling. "That was when the whole 'degree in international relations from the Sorbonne' really started to stick in people's minds. Before that one, he was low on the ladder of invitations. After that one, everybody was clamoring to get him on."


" 'In the modern world, a conscriptive and confiscatory condition between nations is unmanageable and unacceptable. The only choice is cooperation, willingness and enthusiasm. If humanity cannot raise such willingness, if we are so nihilist as to have forgotten honor, duty and sacrifice, then we are condemned by the universe to oblivion and deserve no less.' Damn, it sounded like he was running for office. And he'd get elected in a landslide. He really thundered that last bit."


"I actually saw a 'Powell for President' bumper sticker," Eric said, grinning.


"So did I, sir," First Sergeant Powell said grumpily, as he stumped into Admin. He was in regular duty uniform.


"No PT this morning, First Sergeant?" the CO asked, raising an eyebrow.


"I'm scheduled for a local morning TV show, sir," Powell growled. "I hope to be back by 0900 formation. And I told PIO that given our mission schedule this was the last one I'm doing."


"Gunny Juda can take it," the CO said. "But he's beginning to complain about your paperwork."


"I'm not beginning to complain, sir," Juda said as he walked in with Gunnery Sergeant Mitchell. "I've been complaining. Welcome back, Top, Lieutenant."


"The Delian League, First Sergeant?" Gunny Mitchell said, grinning. "I mean, you spent a good three minutes just explaining that!"


"I blame the fact that I had to on poor public schools," Powell replied. "And good day to you, too, Gunnery Sergeant. I ought to drop you for push-ups for simply mentioning the Mongolian cluster grapp that was last week. And I'd sincerely appreciate it if we could simply forget the whole thing happened."


"How can we?" Juda said, gesturing at the monitors in the room. "Forget posing for the camera, Third's been trying to get in the best one-liners. Wilson noticed that the guys who were getting good coverage were the ones that had the sharpest retorts. It's getting brutal in the barracks, let me tell you."


"Right!" the first sergeant snapped. "Sir, permission to revise the training schedule!"


"What day?" the CO asked, grinning. "And why?"


"Today," Top said. "And tomorrow. Starting at the 0900 formation. Uniform changed to field gear and combat ruck load."


"Oh, hot diggity," Eric said. "You're talking a good, old-fashioned, Powell Pounding, aren't you, Top?"


"We'll need to scare up an ambulance," Powell said, with relish. "And a truck for the wounded. It's about time the company remembered who was boss."


"That would be me," the CO said. "But I'm in general agreement and can't think of anything that can't be moved around on the training schedule. Mandatory for the officers, by the way. Lieutenant Bergstresser, I hope you know where your combat gear is."


"Oh, yes, sir," Eric said, grinning. "Hey, Top, can I call cadence and set the pace?"


"We may switch off, Two-Gun," Powell replied. "If you remember how to march."


"Military decorum, First Sergeant," the CO said, still smiling.


"In that case: We may switch off, Sir Two-Gun."


 


Miriam sat at her computer console in the linguist's office of the Blade II, nearly motionless, staring blankly at the computer screen. The only lighting in the room came from the crack in the office door, and the dim blue-green from the monitor cast an eerily dancing silhouette of her slight figure against the bulkhead behind her. The only sound in the office was the tap tap tapping of the keyboard keys and a faint whistling of air rushing through the air conditioning vent. Her hands typed frantically, filling the open Word document in front of her with what might seem like techno-babble to the average reader, but on occasion the techno-babble had proven to be useful information to get them out of tight spots. So, Miriam had started writing it down, just in case.


". . . as the scalar field consists of two stable neutral oscillations and two charged oscillations three of which can be described as massless and unphysical bosons while the fourth is the manifestation of the massive unstable particle with no spin or intrinsic angular momentum. A one-loop evolution diagram of the first order correction to this mass shows that it strongly couples to top quark fields and therefore typically evolves to top anti-top pairs. The addition of intrinsic properties to the massive boson creates a stable gauge entity from which metric structure can be manipulated . . ."


Miriam hated to admit it to herself but being away from the Blade during the past few months had left her with a feeling that something had been missing. She realized upon her return that it was the voice from the ship. At first she had hated the voice as it had nearly driven her nuts. But it was becoming sort of an old friend to fill void periods of time where she usually got bored.


Sometime during the last mission Miriam had begun hearing gibberish voices in her head. At first she had thought it was a faulty implant, but her reluctance to let the ship's sawbones crack open her skull forced her to keep quiet about it. After all, most of the crew already thought she was bat-shit crazy; hearing voices would only have put the purple icing on the fruitcake.


As time passed the voice finally went from gibberish to English techno-babble. Miriam soon realized that the techno-babble was indeed information that was somehow pertinent to the functioning of the Blade's alien drive system. Somehow, and for some reason, the little black box had chosen to dump user information into her mind. The information was about as useful, for the most part, as Chinese stereo instructions to someone who only speaks French and has never seen a stereo. Fortunately, in Miriam's case she spoke both languages and quite enjoyed music and every now and then she understood what the voice was telling her.


". . . it is inconsistent for the mechanism between symmetry breaking aspects to be unitary as . . ."


 


"Hi, Miriam," Bill said, sticking his head in the linguist's office. "I was wondering, did you happen to get anywhere with . . . ?"


"Shhh!" Miriam said as she tapped one last set of keystrokes. The voice stopped.


"Miriam?" Weaver blinked his eyes to adjust to the darkened room. "Uh, you know, my grandma used to tell me not to sit too close to the TV with all the lights out or I'd go blind . . ." His voice trailed off as he realized Miriam wasn't paying attention. Or more like she was paying attention only in the way she did when she translated for someone.


"Sorry, Bill. I didn't want to lose my train of thought." She clicked the minimize box on the document she was typing.


"Uh huh." Bill nodded. "If now's a bad time . . ."


"And I was expecting to see you. We have manuals for all the Hexosehr systems," Miriam said. "They're not stupid enough to have given us the equipment and no repair manuals. It was mostly what I was doing on the way back, translating them all. I mean, they'd been autotranslated but that left a lot of ambiguity. What we don't have, I just discovered, is all the parts and tools we're supposed to have for them. They're all listed, they're in the required parts and tools inventory, we had them when we got back but now they're missing!"


"That's not good," Bill said, the air going out of his lungs in a rush. He walked around to look at her computer and contemplated the list. "Holy Maulk, that's a lot of stuff. And none of it's standard inventory. We're going to have to get it all straight from the Hexosehr."


"You're missing something," Miriam said, pulling up another list. Bill couldn't figure out what it was then noted that it was an inventory of "non-vital materials" removed from the ship for storage landside. "They gave us everything we needed when they built the ship. Enough to last for a cruise or two, at least. This ship was absolutely turnkey when we got it. But some idiot pulled it all off the ship as nonvital."


Bill looked at the annotations on the form and felt his blood pressure start to go through the roof.


"GE-E-E-E-E-ST-NER!"


 


"Where's Top taking the company?" Portana asked. "We're starting loading tomorrow!"


"I'm sure the first sergeant is cognizant of that, Sergeant," Berg said, grinning. "He's pissed people are mugging for the cameras so he's going to administer a Powell Pounding."


"Glad I got stuff to do," Portana replied. "You infantry types can have it. I don't have to go, right?"


"No, Portana, you get to stay back here," Berg said. "But I need you to do me a favor. A big one. I need you to run in town and pick something up for me. A sign. Then I need you to . . ."


 


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