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Chapter 14

Lagrange Point Four, Sol III
0510 EDT September 10
th, 2004 ad

I wanna pony. Her young face was scrunched in an unhappy frown, her arms crossed over her chest and tears threatening in her eyes. The light wind of the summer afternoon had faded and the trees in the background were dropping their leaves like rain.

I'm sorry, sugar, you can't have a pony. None of us can have ponies.

Why not?

There's no air for them to breathe. As she said it Sharon realized that there really wasn't any air. She began to pant but she couldn't fill her lungs.

Mommy? said the little girl, receding into the blackness. She had fallen out of the air lock and was drifting off into the depths of space, the diamond-hard stars wheeling around her as she fell and fell. Mommy? Mum? Comman'er O'Neal? Commander? Mum? COMMANDER!

Sharon started up in the bunk and banged her head into the bunk above hers. For a moment stars wheeled around her and she nearly screamed at not waking from the nightmare. Instead she took a deep breath and quietly let slip her husband's favorite swearword.

"Are you quite all right, mum?" asked Boatswain Michaels. He squatted by the side of the bunk with a cup of steaming tea in his hand. His thick Midlands accent was, as always, nearly incomprehensible.

"I'll be fine as soon as I figure out how to kill Lieutenant Crowley so I can have his bunk removed," she joked, swinging her legs over the side of the bunk. It was necessary to hunch forward to avoid banging her head again. The ceilings of the converted Indowy fast courier were barely six feet tall. Cramming two bunks in vertically had been challenging.

Everything had been challenging since she'd been assigned to the position of executive officer on the Agincourt five months before. During her tenure she had suffered through three different captains as Fleet High Command cycled officers through the few available warships. The first one was fine, a former submariner who had taught her many of the tricks that stood her in good stead since. The other two had been losses, micromanaging assholes who were lost commanding the ship. The last one had been a philanderer to boot, a Russian bigot with wandering hands.

She had firmly quashed a mutiny by the ship's crew that would have led inevitably to a fatal "accident" for the officer. The crew treated her more like an older sister than their XO, and had fiercely defended her. By the time the captain left he had discovered the many pleasures of a badly tuned ship, such as varying air pressure in his cabin, reversing toilets, lighting that remained at constant intensity but slid through the spectrum in varying increments, now red, now purple, now, apparently, out, but really broadcasting in high ultraviolet. The sunburn from the last had actually overwhelmed his antiradiation nannites.

Since he had completely bypassed his executive officer, placed in the position because of her background in astronautic engineering, the systems failures were entirely his fault. He, of course, did not see it that way, blaming everything on Sharon. She, in turn, kept full records of all meetings or even casual encounters.

The past two weeks of inquiries had been . . . interesting. It was not an experience she cared to repeat. However, a new commander was on the way and the Russian was headed back to the land of borscht.

"Ach, you don' wann' remove Lieutenant Crowley now, mum," the boatwsain disagreed. "Thin you'd have'ta con this bitch on your own everytime."

She accepted the cup of tea, then rubbed her forehead before taking a sip. She'd have a knot there. The request for foam rubber had been on the books for nearly four months. Time to send another HEAT round. And then there was the shortage of filters, which was why the ship smelled like a goat-locker. And the forward force screen was acting up. And the number three impeller. And about half the environmental fans, thus the hint of ozone in the goat-locker. And the heat exchangers. And with the main water recovery unit down, the cup of tea she was ingesting was a third of her potable water ration for the day. But with the Russian gone at least they might get some of it fixed. If they could squeeze the parts out of Titan Base.

"Anything I need to know right away?" she asked and reached across the narrow compartment for a bottle of Tylenol. The living compartments were designed for four-feet-tall Indowy. At five feet eleven she fitted in them poorly.

"Aye, mum," said the boatswain soberly. "Wiv finely lost the forward force screen."

"Damn," she muttered, swallowed a handful of the acetaminophen and chased it with a swig of the bitter tea. The "chai" as the NCO insisted on calling it was a thick, nearly black concoction preferred in the British Navy. Sharon had talked the crew out of many things, feeding her pickled herring for breakfast as an example, but she had been unable to adjust the tea. Whatever. It woke you up.

She pulled off her T-shirt and pulled out one that was marginally fresher. Michaels was queer as a three-dollar bill, so it wasn't going to inflame him.

They'd had a couple of problems with sexual harassment and one attempted rape in the first few weeks she was onboard. Not all the countries that had contributed sailors to the Fleet had a tradition of females serving on ships. She had stamped on it hard. Maybe too hard. She sometimes wondered if being left on the ship was punishment for suspending the attempted rapist in microgravity, vacuum and darkness for fourteen hours. With his radio pulled. The sailor had had to be transferred to Ground Forces.

She pulled on a stained coverall and stamped her feet into a pair of shipboots. The emergency belt pack was the last piece of necessary equipment to go on and she was ready to face her day. She was already hot as hell. The backup heat converter must be out again.

"You should at least have a bite," said Michaels reproachfully. He held out a platter with toast on it.

She tilted her head to the side, a habit she had picked up from her husband, and smiled. "You're the bosun, not a steward."

Michaels shrugged. "Cooky's pretty damn busy, mum. I knew you'd not eat if I di'nt insist."

Sharon picked up one of the pieces of toast and took a nibble. It was dry and quite awful. There was no decent bread flour in the ship and the last fresh food they had received had come in nearly a month before.

The ship was on a seemingly endless patrol of near-Earth space. Parts and food, such as reached them, were shipped in by light freighters and transferred by hand from ship to ship. The crew struggled endlessly against the conflicting demands of failing systems and the boring patrols.

Sharon knew they were no better or worse off than the other frigates. The converted fast couriers were the front line of the Federation's defense against the Posleen, but they were frighteningly inadequate from the human's point of view. The ships were ancient, literally centuries old, and lacked every item that humans had come to expect in a warship. There were no redundant systems, no easily switched out spares, not much in the way of defense, and the weapons were nearly useless.

What made matters worse was their customization. Each ship was hand built over nearly a half century by one of a few Indowy families. Since each ship was custom fabricated there were no interchangeable spare parts. For that matter, since the ships were designed to last for a few centuries of blemishless activity, then be taken out of service, there were no parts whatsoever. Every part was solid-state; there was no reason that they would not last a pair of centuries. And the Indowy guaranteed it.

Unfortunately, most of the ships, like their own Agincourt, had been in service since the beginning of the war. The losses from the war were straining the production capacity of the Federation beyond the maximum and the shortage of shipping was the most obvious aspect. These ships, which should have been taken out of service a century earlier, were still being used on the front line. And the Indowy technicians attached to the Fleet were learning a new term from the humans: jury-rigging.

She nibbled at her dry toast and had another sip of the bitter tea. Then she tapped the artificial intelligence device on her wrist. "What's the news?" she asked.

"There are twenty-seven messages in your e-mail queue," the AID answered in a melifluous baritone.

"How many of those are the maintenance people on Titan whining about our parts requests?"



"Okay. Then there are five denying requests from various crewmembers for a transfer off ship. One of those is a rather snotty question about the leadership of the frigate."

"Send 'em a copy of the transcript from the inquiries and tell them to kiss my ass. Diplomatically. And resubmit the requests. God knows somebody should be able to get off this tub."

"Done. There are six answers to your requests for better food, all of which boil down to quit whining."

"Okay. Send the requests back but increase the requested amount every time until you get to our maximum stores level. Do that once per day or once per denial if they respond within the day. Carbon-copy all requests to Fleet HQ."

"Okay. Most of the rest of it is junk. But there is a message from Titan Base stating that the new CO has been assigned and will be arriving this afternoon."

"Joy," said Michaels. "Bloody joy and happiness. Another one." Part of the problem was that the COs for the frigates were captains. The post would have been one for a lieutenant commander or even a lieutenant in a regular navy but the frigates were the only place for "wet navy" sailors to learn the ins and outs of space command. Because the posting was relatively "simple," the senior officers assigned generally started off assuming that they knew twice as much as the officers and crew in place. Many of them had learned what it was like to breathe vacuum.

Sharon shook her head. "Hey, maybe this one will be different. Who is it?" she asked the AID.

"Captain April Weston," said the AID.

At the name, Michaels sucked in his breath. "Bloody hell."

"You know her?" asked Sharon.

"I've never met her," said Michaels. "But everybody in His Majesty's bloody Fleet knows about her."

Sharon made a come-on gesture, indicating a request for enlightenment.

Michaels shook his head. "Well, she's just about the only woman who has ever stood for admiral in the fleet who came out of surface warfare. She's a bloody legend among the swifties. On her mother's side she's related to a dead chappie named Mountbatten." He paused trying to figure out how to explain that to an American.

"I've heard of him," Sharon said dryly. The late Earl Mountbatten had been the last of a breed. Closely related to the Royal Family he had been an officer in the Navy during World War II. After distinguishing himself as commander of a destroyer squadron and having repeated ships shot out from under him he had formed the first combined special operations groups in history. After the war he had been made Earl of Burma and expertly ushered that country into independence. He was a national hero and a treasure whose life was finally snuffed out by the bomb of an Irish terrorist. "So she's related to the Royal Family?"

"Distantly," said Michaels with a shrug. "Us Brits have still got a thing about, well, 'blood.' You know?"

"Lineage," said Sharon.

"Bloody right. Well, this Weston is the sort of person who . . . sort of reinforces that. If there was ever a case of the acorn not falling far from the bloody oak."

Sharon nodded. "So this is good?" she asked cautiously.

"Oh, yeah," said Michaels. "Of course, Mountbatten survived four ships. And most of his chappies never made it back. There was some as would jump ship rather than sail with him."

Sharon snorted and thought about the departed Russian. "I'll take my chances."

* * *

The air lock hissed and Captain Weston stepped forward, still fumbling at the catches of her pressure helmet. It annoyed her to demonstrate incompetence in her first moments on the ship, but the only previous time she had worn a battle suit was during the four-hour familiarization class at Titan Base.

One of the petty officers standing at attention stepped forward and unhooked the last recalcitrant fitting and her ears were blasted by the shrill of a recorded boatswain's pipe.

She stepped forward and returned the salute of a good-looking brunette in a slightly soiled coverall. "Captain April Weston," she said and removed a folded piece of paper from a sealed belt-pouch. That maneuver she had managed to practice on the shuttle over and it went off flawlessly.

" 'You are hereby ordered to proceed forthwith to the Fleet Frigate Agincourt for purposes of assuming command,' " she quoted. "Signed Hareki Arigara Vice Admiral, Director, Fleet Personnel Department." Weston lowered the paper and nodded at the presumptive executive officer. "I take command, ma'am."

"I stand relieved, ma'am," said the brunette. "Sharon O'Neal, Lieutenant Commander. I'm your XO."

Captain Weston nodded and looked around at the assembled crew. It was a fairly small party. "I am about to betray my ignorance," she admitted. "Is this most of the crew?" she continued, slightly aghast. Normally most of the off-duty crew members would be present for the greeting party. There was more than enough room in the pressure hold for more people, so the group of twenty or so might be it. That would place the upper end of the crew at thirty or so. The crew of a "wet" frigate would number over a hundred. Her previous cruiser command had numbered over a thousand.

"Ma'am, there are four on duty in the tac center," the XO answered, "three in engineering and four more at various other points. There are also six Indowy crewmembers." She hesitated. "They . . . don't usually associate with large groups of humans."

Weston nodded her head. That was one briefing she had gotten. "Understood." She looked around and raised her voice slightly. "I'm sure we'll all get to know each other well over the next few months." The tone was a command voice. It implied that what the speaker said would occur, whatever the universe might throw at the speaker. Compared to the whiny and blustering Russian she replaced it was immensely heartening to the crewmembers. Which was what she had intended.

She looked around at the damaged and dingy interior of the ship. The lighting was purplish and unpleasant and the cargo hold was covered in scuffs and dents. For all that there was little real dirt. The ship was obviously well cared for. But the age and poor condition were clear nonetheless. She smiled and chuckled. "I'm sure we're going to get real friendly."

There was an uneasy chuckle in response from the group and she turned to the XO. "Mrs. O'Neal, why don't you show me to my dayroom and we'll get down to business."

"Yes, ma'am," said Sharon. The new commander had obviously gotten a realistic first impression and the response was better than she had hoped. "If you'll follow me?"

* * *

The commander's office turned out to be a cramped antechamber of the captain's quarters. It was smaller than the office April had on her first command—also a frigate, as it happened—and very poorly positioned. The captain's quarters were nearly thirty meters away from the bridge through a twisting maze of unusually low corridors. Using this as an office was obviously out of the question.

She turned to her XO, standing at attention behind her. She waved a hand. "This isn't Fleet Headquarters, for God's sake. Simply bowing will suffice." She smiled to assure the XO it was a joke. "Is there anywhere closer to the bridge for me to do my paperwork?"

The XO shook her head. "No, ma'am, there isn't. Believe it or not, engineering and the bridge are almost collocated. The engineering section pretty much wraps the bridge. Then, out from there are a mass of environmental systems. This is as close as any quarters are to the bridge. And there's not anything that can be moved or taken off-line to get you closer. I'm even farther away, which is why I was using the office in the period between the last commander and your arrival."

Captain Weston nodded firmly. "Well, I suppose I shall have to learn to hurry." She sat in the workstation chair and spun it to face the XO standing at parade rest. "Sit," she commanded, pointing at the nearby bunk.

Sharon seated herself carefully, hands on knees.

Weston examined her just as carefully. The officer was attempting to radiate calm but was obviously as nervous as a virgin in the East End. Weston nodded unconsciously.

Sharon wondered what the nod meant. The new commander had been regarding her steadily for nearly a minute. If she thought she could outwait Sharon O'Neal she had another think coming. The stare was, however, disconcerting. The captain had blue eyes so dark as to be almost black. They were like looking into a Highland loch; there was no way to know how deep it might be. They seemed to suck light into them. Sharon almost shook herself, realizing she was becoming half mesmerized.

"Lieutenant Commander Sharon Jerzinsky O'Neal," said the new captain, startling the XO. The captain smiled. "Jerzinsky?"

Sharon shrugged. "Polish, Captain."

"That I recognized. Rensselaer Polytechnic, Class of '91. BS Aeronautic Engineering. Cum Laude. Entered the United States Navy Reserve Officer Training Program in 1989. Why?"

Sharon shrugged again. This was going differently than she expected. Among other things she was amazed at the officer's memory and wondered how far it would stretch.

"I took the ROTC program for the money, Captain. It wasn't much but with a couple of scholarships I only had to have one job on the side." She carefully refrained from discussing what the job was. Modeling was modeling but there were a few pictures around of her that she sure hoped never made it into her official packet. Or the fact that her minor had been in dance.

The new commander nodded and went on. "Commissioned as an ensign and took training as an aeronautics maintenance officer. Assigned USS Carl Vinson. Served four years, three on the Carl Vinson. Exited regular service in 1995. Why not continue?"

Sharon wondered how to explain to this career officer. How to explain that despite all the pressure being applied to reduce harassment, an aircraft carrier at sea for six months or more at a time was still no place for a former model. How to explain the decline in morale and discipline during those dark days of the American military. How to explain the frustration of not being able to keep birds in the air because of a lack of parts. Or the pressure to put up birds you were not one hundred percent sure were good. Of having a husband knife her in the back so he could get a few more hours in the air. Of having the same son of a bitch leave her for an "LBFM," a "Little-Brown-Fuck-Machine." The Indonesian wife was nice and almost apologetic. But that hadn't helped.

"There was no reason to continue at that time, ma'am," she answered, her stock noncommittal response. "I had never considered the Navy a career."

"Despite a string of 'Excellents' on your Officer Evaluation Reports?" asked the British officer. "Despite, 'this officer manifests maturity and ability far beyond her age and far beyond her peers. Future assignments of this officer should be determined keeping in mind the good of the service and possible future high rank rather than the immediate needs of career placement.' And it was 'enthusiastically endorsed' by the carrier commander." The professional officer cocked her head to the side in puzzlement. "That's better than any evaluation I got at the same rank. So, why leave? You had the possibility of a fine career in front of you."

Sharon raised her hands palm up. "I was never a careerist, Captain. I'm happy that Commander Jensen was so enthusiastic and that Captain Hughes agreed. But I still was not there for a career."

The new commander cracked her fingers and leaned back in the station chair, fingers laced behind her head. "Bullshit."

Sharon stared at her stonily. "Perhaps, Captain. But it is all I am required to discuss with my superiors."

Captain Weston cocked an eyebrow. "Once burned thrice shy?"

Sharon smiled faintly. "More like eternally shy. Ma'am."

"Okay." The officer nodded. "Fair enough. Returned to school, Georgia Technical Institute. Met and married one Michael O'Neal." She stopped. "Parenthetically, I met the Mike O'Neal who won the medal on Diess on a plane just the other day. Nice fellow, if you've never met him. Just as short as he looks on TV."

Sharon smiled thinly. "Yes, he is, ma'am. But I find him quite tall enough."

Captain Weston looked surprised for the first time in the interview. "Seriously? He's your husband?" she asked, her accent for once becoming prominent.

Sharon smiled whimsically. "Seriously. I mean, I know he's not much to look at . . ." she said and smiled again.

The captain shook her head and trudged on. "Took your masters in aeronautic engineering, specializing in determining maintenance cycling. Went to work for Lockheed-Martin in Atlanta on the F-22 project. The project was then in the process of being 'downsized.' I'm surprised you got a job." She cocked an eye for an answer.

"So was I," Sharon admitted. "But they were continuing background developmental work, figuring that sooner or later Congress was going to give up and buy the damn thing. I was fresh out of college and cheaper than the people they were letting go. I wasn't happy about it, but I took the job anyway."

"But you stayed for two more years. Until you were called up, in fact."

"I'd hardly been there any time when We Heard." Sharon finally crossed her legs and interlaced her fingers over her knee. "By then we'd started tinkering with the Peregrine variant. When the parameters came back it looked like the Peregrine would be the answer to our prayers. Now that I've gotten a better look at the data on Posleen weapons I think it's a death trap. But nobody listens to me these days."

"Oh, I wouldn't say that," said Captain Weston, enigmatically. She leaned back and ran her fingers through her hair. They came away greasy and she grimaced. "They listened to you at the Board of Inquiry. And that was with an entirely male board and two Russians on it. Have you ever wondered why you are still on this ship when all the other officers have been cycled through like shit through a goose?"

Sharon snorted at the sudden profanity out of the somber officer. "Yes, Captain, actually I have."

"So, we're back to 'Captain' are we?" asked the officer, with a snort. "As you wish. You realize that none of the officers have been in place long enough to give you an evaluation report."

"Yes, ma'am," Sharon answered, more carefully.

"Captain Stupanovich tried. He submitted your review despite only being in command for sixty days. The minimum is one hundred and eighty."

"Yes, ma'am," replied Sharon with a grimace. "I saw it."

"Not particularly good from what I've heard," admitted Weston. "Well, that was one piece of paper that will never see the light of day. If there is a remaining copy anywhere, Fleet has been unable to find it."

Sharon wrinkled her brow. "I don't understand. Why would Fleet be trying to purge that review? I can understand denying it, but why purge it?"

"Commander," asked Weston, leaning forward and pinning her with that deep, black gaze, "how many systems are currently down on this barge?"

Sharon grimaced. "There are seventeen 'minor' systems down and four 'major' systems, ma'am. The major systems are limited to environmental and defense. All weapon systems and drive systems are on-line." She shrugged. "The crew is doing wonders, especially the Indowy, but we don't have the spares! We might have been able to get spares delivered for the heat exchangers and the number six forward fans by now if Captain Stupanovich had bothered to forward the requests!" she finished angrily.

Weston nodded. "Commander, there are seventeen frigates assigned to Earth system defense. You know that, right?"

"Yes, ma'am."

"Do you know how many are flying?" she continued, aggressively.

"Twelve, ma'am," said Sharon, wondering where the discussion was going.

Weston nodded again. "Do you know how many have more than fifty percent capability in weapons and drive? The two systems that you correctly pointed out are the most important?" She waved at the air. "It's hot! The exchangers are off-line, right?"

"No, ma'am, I don't know how many are out of service and yes, ma'am, the heat exchangers are out," said Sharon. "Actually, half—" she continued and was cut off.

"I'm not attacking your job, Commander. I'm telling you why you should straighten up your damn shoulders! Having all the heat exchangers off-line can be deadly. But not nearly as deadly as having our lance-launch ability off-line! Do you know what Admiral Bledspeth, whom I have known since I was in diapers, said to me?"

Sharon shook her head, wondering what the Terran System Fleet Commander would have said about this bucket of bolts. She felt like she was being slapped in three different directions by the rapid turns of the new commander.

"He told me to keep my damn comments to myself and listen to Commander O'Neal and I might just live to see Terra again." She shook her head and swore. "This is the only damned frigate circling Earth that has all its weapons on-line and a fully capable drive! And if you don't think Fleet notices that, you're not as smart as they say you are.

"We are currently the only frigate that is more or less ready to sail in harm's way!" continued the captain, seriously. "If there is an emergence of Posleen ships, the fighters and the other frigates will try. But most of the frigates, if they're not limping on one reactor their launch systems are off-line!"

"Oh, joy!" said Sharon as anger built in her system. "So, what you're telling me is I've been stuck in this hell-hole for doing a good job?"

"No, Commander!" said the captain, determinedly. "I'm telling you that you are stuck for doing an incredible job! And you are now going to have to teach still another sea-sucking regular Navy asshole how the hell you do it!"

"Oh, God," said Sharon, with a laugh for the accuracy of the phrasing. The laugh held a note of despair.

"And I, in turn," said the officer quietly, "will give you all the support I can. So, maybe, we can turn this into something other than a flying rat-hole sardine-can."

Sharon nodded and sighed. "Well, ma'am, in that case we'd better get you accustomed to the paperwork."

"Not the systems?" asked the captain. It was a test. The captain might learn a smattering of the equipment, but for the moment getting the parts out off the supply chain was much more important.

"Not if you want to have any running in a month," said Sharon, shortly. "The Fleet floats on electronic paperwork. And my AID is about to give your AID a crash course. Starting with how messed up the parts program is."

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