A battered group of officers gathered in the Operations Room. Bumps, bruises, and makeshift bandages were the dress of the day. Having raced back to his quarters to change into a clean uniform, Sands found that he was the best-dressed officer there. He’d quickly polished the one rank insignia that the General had given him and supplemented it with a new one from the supply officer. Only one person had to see him and it was all over the ship. Some had obviously taken it better than others. Talya’s explosion left his ears ringing, while Aurora had actually laughed hysterically.
Lazell hadn’t seen her laugh, so it didn’t count.
Notably missing from the meeting were Tellious and Colonel Kran. Sands’ inquiry about Kran drew the reply, “He bought it in the hanger explosion, along with most of his unit,” from Hellor.
The General put the room at ease as he bounded in. “Take your seats, let’s get this going.”
He remained standing at the head of the table as everyone else sat. He turned to the ship’s Primary Medical Officer first. “Let’s start with the worst of it.”
Major Noxell looked haggard. “Two-hundred and fifteen confirmed dead. The majority of those are impact injuries from the collision with the Ittala. Another thirty-two missing and assumed dead, but the search teams are still out. We might have another survivor or two in the starboard wreckage.”
There was dismay at his figures. They had left base with a minimum operating crew of twenty-one hundred, plus the two squadrons.
“Wounded?” asked Yanex.
“Over a hundred-twenty major casualties, most of which will be off duty for over five days. There are at least eleven that I need to put into suspension until we reach a medical facility”
“We left base shorthanded, Major,” Yanex responded. “We’re in dire need of personnel.”
“I’ll do my best, sir. But, I’m shorthanded as well. I lost two of my best Tec’s.”
Yanex spoke out to the table, “Free up anyone with medical experience and send them to medical.”
He turned to the seat next to him, expecting to see his efficient second, but the chair was empty. Tellious was among the dead being gathered in the starboard landing-bay. Yanex finally sank into his chair.
After a moment of silence, he turned to Marcone, “I’m posting you as Op’s Officer. At least for the time being.”
To the irritation of the other section commanders, Marcone readily agreed. None of them protested however. Although he had less time in rank and experience on that ship, Marcone was the only ship command rated officer there. After that, Noxell was dismissed to return to his jammed medical center.
Yanex called on Colonel Kayliss next. “Our present position, Colonel?”
“As best we can estimate,” Kayliss stated as he rose, “we are approximately seven-hundred and forty-eight light-cycles from our last confirmed position.”
There were groans. Hellor openly moaned, “Great.”
“Estimate?” repeated Yanex, “approximately?”
“Yes sir,” responded Kayliss. “With the main computer still off line we had to reprogram one of our stand alone units to calculate navigational data. It won’t give us a firm fix, just an approximate.”
The General scowled at the incomplete report. He wanted facts, not guesses.
“It’s ninety-eight percent accurate,” Kayliss added.
“Why won’t it confirm?” Marcone asked.
“It could be any number of system glitches. Plus the fact that we’ve never actually been here before. This area was mapped by long-range probes.” He didn’t go into what a shambles his section was, it wouldn’t have gotten him any leeway.
“Notify me as soon as you have confirmation.
“How long to get back, Ratoe?”
The Captain hesitated. “If we can get the phase drive operational, ’bout a hundred-eighty or ninety days. That’s if we can get the drive operating.”
“What’s the damage?”
Ratoe rung his hands as he spoke, there was very little optimism in his tone or report. “The starboard forward projector was completely destroyed in the collision. Along with all of its supporting equipment, there’s a big hole where it use to be. Both forward-port and forward-main are damaged and we don’t have the replacement parts to rebuild them.”
“What about doing it the old way?” Marcone asked in a ridiculing tone. “Run up to the brink of light speed and make a full jump.”
“Well, sir,” Ratoe responded, “we only have three of the six main thrusters operating. With sometime in the dock engine number five could be rebuilt, but the other two are scrap. Plus most of our standard fuel supply has been contaminated. It would take the majority of what we have left to make the attempt.”
“Yes,” Marcone turned to the General, “but once we’re in ex-space we can stay there for the duration. If we calculate out our exit point, one jump may be all we need.”
“I can’t even confirm our position right now. You want me to measure a drop point over seven-hundred light-cycles away?” exclaimed Kayliss. “We could drop out in the middle of enemy territory.”
“With no way to escape,” added Ratoe. “We’d only have the fuel for one attempt.”
Major Tollyn was quick to add, “Even if the exit point is correct, we could still be in the middle of the Krix fleet. There’s no way of knowing if that base will still be there. Earth could be destroyed by now.”
“You don’t know that.” Sands suddenly realized he was the only person from Earth in the room. He had to do something.
“Sir,” he addressed himself to the stoic man at the head of the table, “there’s over seven-billion people on that planet. You don’t know that they’re not fighting to survive right now. They could still be there, waiting for us.”
“There’s no way Earth defense forces could hold off a Krix attack,” Tollyn stated.
Sands was grasping for straws. He was all too aware of the alternate plan. “That’s if they attacked. You don’t know that they attacked. They could have seen our new weapon and started negotiating. The war could be over by the time we get back.”
Tollyn scoffed at that, “The Krix have never made any attempt to communicate with us. Their only message has been sheer hostility and death. We don’t even know their true name.”
“Commander,” interrupted Marcone, “I think we need to take in the responsibility we may now be facing. If Earth was, or is going to be destroyed, we have the survival of our race to consider. We could be the only humans left. We should discuss implementing the final phase of Chapter Fifteen, establishing a new colony and starting over.”
“You’d abandon seven-billion people?” Sands uttered in disbelief.
“I’m saying we should consider it. We could be powerless to stop it.”
“Commander,” added Kayliss, “right now we are accounted for. They think we’re dead. They’re not looking for us. If we go back, they’ll hunt us down. Even if we could escape, they’d never stop until every last one of us is dead.”
Sands drew a blank, he was outnumbered. The lives of his brother, his family, and every other person on his home world depended on him making a convincing argument to that frowning man with folded arms. Everything depended on him, and he drew a complete blank. Help came from an unlikely source.
“There’s another possibility,” stated Major Hellor. “What if it worked? What if Carmella exploded and wiped out the Krix fleet.”
“Isn’t that possible?” Sands blurted out. “We could’ve won the war and not known it.”
“The Vortex Weapon malfunctioned,” Marcone said. “At the rate that black hole was expanding the majority of the Krix could’ve escaped its effects.”
“You don’t know that,” Hellor announced.
“I commanded that ship, I know how the thing works.”
Hellor got a cold glare when he stated, “But you weren’t in command of it that day.
“We have no idea what happened after we were drawn in. That star was already unstable from the initial firing. The vortex was starting to pull apart its surface. It could’ve very well gone super nova.”
With the discussion descending into bickering, Yanex put an end to it with, “Our priority right now is to restore this ship to some form of an operational condition. I’ll decide on our next course of action when the time comes.”
“Sir,” Sands persisted, “we can’t abandon Earth, not without knowing. We have to know.”
Yanex sounded irritated. “I will take that under advisement, Vice. But, right now we aren’t going anywhere, are we Captain.”
Ratoe was suddenly back in the hot seat and scrambled through his notes for a reply. “I need at least three projection points to form a displacement field. Two of them have to be forward. Otherwise it won’t work.”
Ratoe thought a moment, then offered, “I might be able to cannibalize one of the rear units to repair port side. But, that still leaves us short a power coupler for forward-main.”
Marcone felt he was losing ground. If he wanted to permanently take Tellious’s slot as Command Operations Officer he had to obtain the crew’s respect. They didn’t have to like him, but they would respect him.
“What about using one from a shield projector?” he suggested, recalling a report he had once read about a stranded ship.
Ratoe and Hellor glanced at each other. They both considered the suggestion from their own experiences. It was Ratoe who stated, “That might work.”
“It worked before,” Marcone said smugly.
They consulted briefly, then with a bit of hesitation announced that they would try.
The General gave them a bit more motivation. “You’ll do more than try.”
“If you’re pulling shield projectors,” Kayliss inquired, “Won’t that weaken the grid?”
“Oh, there’s no need to worry about that,” Hellor said nonchalantly. “The shields are gone, and they’re not coming back without some major reconstruction. Most of the forward receivers were destroyed.”
Marcone sat up and took notice of that. “We have to run in ex-space without shields?”
“Sure,” Hellor responded, “it’s been done before.”
“What if we hit something?” snapped Marcone.
Hellor kept his cool. “It happened once.”
“You would like to be the second time?” Marcone fried back.
Yanex had to once again quiet his squabbling children. “I see no need to debate this issue. There is little choice in the matter. What’s the rest of our combat status?”
Hellor glanced down at his notes. “Other than the shields, we’re in good shape. All eight main batteries are operational. I managed to drop them before the shock wave hit us.”
“Good work, Major,” Yanex noted.
“Thank you, sir. The secondaries are in good shape. But universal targeting and the automated control system are still out with the main computer.”
“The computer will be back in ten cenda,” stated Major Tollyn. The ship’s main computer systems fell under his section.
“Did we lose any data?” asked Yanex.
Tollyn explained, “Most of whatever programs that were running at the time of the accident were wiped out. However, all five of the central cores seem to be intact. Any one of them will have backups of our operating programs. However again, those are the original base programs, any updates or modifications will be gone.”
The General bestowed another nod of approval. “What about flight operations?”
While Marcone fumbled through his reports Sands spoke up without thinking. “I’ve got thirty-one pilots. There’s thirty-seven in the 204th, but we only have sixty interceptors.”
“There were seven pilots among those killed in the hanger explosion,” Marcone took over with, “including Colonel Kran.”
A heavy sigh from the stone-faced general was the first sign that all the deaths were starting to get to him. He quietly endured every loss, but a command officer was a major asset to the ship. He’d lost both his squadron commands.
Sands was irked at being cutoff. He reasserted himself by saying, “Maintenance says they may be able to salvage three more ships.”
Before Sands could entertain the notion of why the other officers disliked Marcone, he did something that once again confused him. Marcone stated, “Commander, in view that we only have sixty-eight pilots, I would suggest that we merge them into one squadron under Colonel Sands.” Yanex did not agree.
Sands was confused. He still couldn’t make up his mind about Marcone. His frank behavior and ambition were hard to take, but Sands himself had only benefited from the Colonel. Surely he could overlook a bout of rudeness once in a while, couldn’t he?
As for the others, there was open animosity toward the new operations officer. Yanex was not at all pleased with it. Up to that point the crew had performed so well in that most extreme of situations. The last thing he wanted to see was a breakdown in discipline.
Discipline, it held them together, kept them strong. Discipline had to be maintained at any cost. Orders had to be followed without hesitation, without question. Yanex was not only concerned for his own authority, he needed the chain of command to be as solid as he was. The chain of command was a key point in the survival of their military up to that point. It dictated who would take over if a leader fell. Everyone had a place in it, from the highest general, to the newest recruit. All had a place in the line of succession. If you were the next highest-ranking person in an infantry unit and your sergeant was killed, you stepped right up and took their place. The rest of the unit would follow you as they had them, without delay.
The chain of command was what made a mere fleet-general, Reen, supreme commander after the fall of their government. All had followed him. Some may not have liked it, but they obeyed him anyway. Much the way the crew of the Oronos would follow its appointed officers. And they would follow whom her commander dictated as his second. Yanex had announced that it would be Marcone. A few eyes rolled, but no one dared speak out. They could keep their personal feelings to themselves. Discipline had prevailed.
The remaining members of the 663rd gathered in their briefing room. Representatives from the squadron’s maintenance and support factions took other seats in the small theater type room. For Sands it was an important event. Whether he liked it or not, he would be the first squadron commander in the fleet from Earth. He should’ve felt proud instead of sick.
Vice-General Yanex took time out of his busy schedule to preside over the change of command ceremony. Normally the former leader would turn over their job to their successor, but when the individual was unable for obvious reasons, the duty fell to a higher ranking officer, preferably the ship or base commander.
The room snapped to attention as Yanex strode in with Sands close on his heels. They remained on their feet as Yanex took the podium and made his announcement.
“Effective this time and date, command of the 663rd Tactical Interceptor Squadron is turned over to Vice-Colonel William Sands.” He then turned and saluted the junior officer.
In his head, Sands had been practicing his line. He wanted to say it just right. He wanted to get off on the right foot, but not be too brash. He returned the salute and with authority said, “I relieve you, sir.”
“I stand relieved,” replied Yanex as he stepped back from the podium.
Yanex slipped out as Sands took his place and directed the room to be seated.
“All unit policies will remain the same, pending review. And there will be a memorial service at four zero zero hours, tomorrow. Um, that’s in dress uniform.”
He glanced over the list of announcements that had been read regularly. It seemed pointless to go over the same boring material that every squadron commander mumbled over at each meeting.
“Most of this stuff, you guys know by heart.”
Sands took a deep breath and a chance. “Listen, one of the policies I’m definitely keeping from Sterett is I’m not going to bullshit you guys. We’re in some deep shit right now. If we can’t get the phase drive going, well, this is home.
“We’re throwing up some patrols to have a look at some of the nearby systems, just in case. For everybody else, I have a long list of jobs that need volunteers. I would prefer you volunteer, get my drift?
“I know this is difficult,” Sands glanced down at a smiling Marcus, “but we’re going to get through this. And we’ll be stronger for it. Adjourned.”
Several officers came forward to congratulate him, Aurora among them. She even made an attempt at a smile for his benefit. It half spread briefly on her face then vanished.
“The old man made the right choice.”
“Really,” Sands responded. “I’m glad to hear you say that. I thought there might be a problem.”
“Well,” he hesitated, “Ecar has seniority, and...”
“Listen,” Aurora lowered her voice, “who do you think I’d rather follow into battle? Ecar’s a great guy and all, but he’s been a major since he transferred onto this pig. And Talya will get right over it.”
“Well,” he mumbled.
“Don’t worry about it,” she patted him on the arm. “Change of command is always difficult for a unit, more so after something like this. Don’t worry about it, we’ll adjust. I’m behind you, and I’m sure I speak for a lot of the others.”
Sands nodded. It meant a lot to hear that, especially from someone like her. He had come to know Aurora as someone who spoke her mind, whether you liked it or not. If she had confidence in him the least he could do is have it in himself.
“Thank you,” Sands said quietly.
Her smile was dropped at the sight of someone approaching. Hammann grabbed Sands’ hand and shook it vigorously.
“Congrat’s man,” Hammann bellowed. Then slapped him on the shoulder.
“Glad to see they finally recognized one of us.”
Aurora cringed, but kept her mouth shut. It was Sands’ moment and she wouldn’t ruin it for him.
Sands graciously accepted his praise and shook hands with the other two pilots from Earth that accompanied him, then excused himself. There was one more unpleasant matter he had to deal with.
“Okay man,” Hammann smiled.
As a parting word he said, “Way to go, Vice.”
Hammann turned to see that Aurora still stood there. He smiled at her feeling that now that the squadron commander was one of “them,” he finally had something over her.
“Actually,” Aurora said, “you’re not supposed to call him that.”
“What?” Hammann said smugly, “vice? It’s short for vice-colonel.”
“Yes,” responded Aurora, “but the term’s generally for use by superior officers. His superior officers.”
She waited for his next remark. When it was just an obligatory, “Yeah, okay,” she walked away.
Hammann waited until she was well out of earshot to amuse his companions with a mumbled, “Bitch.”
“Major?” Sands said cautiously as he approached Talya by the door. She leaned against the bulkhead with her arms folded and a scowl on her face.
Once she allowed her true feelings to be seen, she snapped to attention and said, “Yes Colonel, sir?”
“Come on Talya, don’t jerk me around. I don’t need this shit.”
She relaxed a bit, if he wanted it straight, she’d give it to him. “This is a load of shit. I should be squadron commander and you know it.”
“Yeah, but the old man picked me. What the fuck was I supposed to do?”
When she didn’t respond, he said, “We need you Talya. The squadron needs you at your best. I need you.”
“All right,” she half heartily and shook his hand. “I apologize for how I acted earlier. It was unprofessional.”
He gripped her hand to keep her from pulling away. “No, no, no, I said don’t jerk me around. Now, are we straight you and I, or what?”
Talya sighed, then looked him in the eye for a long moment. “Yeah, all right, we’re straight.”
Sands smiled and let go of her hand. “Good. This’ll get worked out when we get back, you’ll see.”
“That doesn’t mean I’m not going to keep you on your toes.”
“Oh, I’m counting on that.”