"A man can die but once; we owe God a death . . ."
William Shakespeare, Henry IV, Part II
TRNS Longbow was five hours out of Novaya Rodina orbit as Commodore Li Han stood beside Captain Tsing Chang in the intraship car, her face tranquil, and worried over what she was about to discover about her crew.
The new Republican Navy was desperately short of veterans. Of the sixty percent of the Fleet which had been Fringer, roughly ninety percent had favored mutiny, but the furious fighting had produced casualties so severe the Republican Navy found itself with less than half the trained personnel to man its captured ships.
Figures were even worse among the senior officers. Admiral Ashigara was, so far at least, the most senior officer to come over to the Republic. Others might have joined her, but the carnage on most of the flag decks had been so extreme none of them had survived. Which explained Han's indecently rapid promotion . . . and also why she found herself wearing two hats. She might be a commodore, but experienced Battle Fleet skippers were at such a premium that she had to double as CO of the Longbow-not that she minded that!
Fortunately, they'd picked up a few unexpected bonuses, as well, such as Commodore Magda Petrovna. Han didn't know her as well as she would have liked, for Petrovna had been indecently busy on Novaya Rodina, splitting her time between the Convention and her new command, but the prematurely graying woman had certainly proved herself at the Battle of Novaya Rodina. Her choice of Jason Windrider as her chief of staff only strengthened Han's respect for her. She felt no qualms about going into action with Commodore Petrovna on her flank.
The car stopped on the command bridge, and the officer of the deck stood as they stepped out. The other watch-keepers stayed seated as per her standing orders. Some captains preferred for their bridge crews to indulge in all the ceremonial rituals whenever they came on the bridge; Han preferred for them to get on with their jobs.
"Good afternoon, Exec," she said to Commander Sung.
"Good afternoon, sir. Commodore Tsing."
Han shook her head mentally at the titles. She was commodore of BG 12, but also Longbow's captain. For squadron purposes, she was properly addressed as "Commodore," but when acting as Longbow's CO, she was properly addressed as "Captain." Just to complicate matters further, Tsing was now a captain-but there could be only one "Captain" aboard a warship, so Tsing was properly addressed as "Commodore," since courtesy promotions were, by definition, upward. Thus there were occasions on which they would both properly be addressed as "Commodore," but only Han would ever be addressed as "Captain," which meant that from time to time a "captain" outranked a "commodore" aboard Longbow. Not surprisingly, Sung, like most of her crew, took the easy out and addressed her only as "Sir" unless there was absolutely no alternative or it was completely clear which hat she was wearing.
"I have the con, Exec," she told Sung, sliding into the command chair.
"Aye, aye, sir."
The short, slender commander stepped quickly back behind the chair, waiting.
"Mister Chu, how long to transit?"
"Approximately forty-three standard hours, sir."
"Very good." She swung her chair toward the exec. "Commander Sung."
He looked nervous. That was a good sign.
"It's been a while since our last comprehensive drills," she said calmly. "Don't you think we might spend a few hours brushing the rust off?"
Sung Chung-hui had dreaded this moment. Longbow's casualties had been the lowest of any ship in TF 17, but the new Republican Admiralty had raided her ruthlessly for experienced cadre. He'd managed to hang onto barely half of her original bridge crew, and losses below decks had been worse. He'd done his best to fit the many replacements into his team, but all too many were on "makee-learnee," and he shuddered to think of the next few days.
He glanced at Tsing, but the former exec seemed thoroughly fascinated by the display on the main plot. No help there. He drew a deep breath.
"Whenever you wish, sir."
"Then sound general quarters, Exec," Han said, and Sung breathed a silent prayer as he pressed the button.
The word, Han thought as she worked up lather, was "horrible."
She raised her face to the shower spray and the water dragged at her long hair. It really wasn't all that bad, considering, she told herself as she rinsed. Unfortunately, war left no room for "considering." With nukes flying around your ears, there were only adequate crews-or dead ones. She remembered the fine-tuned instrument she and Tsing had made of Longbow before the mutiny and shook her head, but the present arthritic uncertainty wasn't Sung's fault. He hadn't had time to work up the new drafts, and he'd actually done quite well in the time he'd been given.
She finished rinsing and reached for a towel.
She and Sung were going to be unpopular over the next few days. At least she'd managed to hang on to most of her point defense crews-that was about the only department which had performed with a flourish-but damage control was terrible and engineering was no better. She couldn't fault Sung's initial concentration on gunnery and maneuvering, but gunners and coxswains alone couldn't make Longbow an effective fighting machine.
She wrapped the towel around herself sarong fashion and sat before her terminal. It was Sung's job to bring the crew up to her standards. Under the iron-bound traditions of the service, her ability, even her right, to interfere with his handling of the problem was limited. But she was also the captain. The ultimate responsibility was hers, and she and Sung both knew how new to his duties he was. She could stretch the point a bit, she decided, without convincing him he'd lost her trust.
She punched up the intraship memo system slowly, considering how to begin. Her fingers poised over the keys, then moved.
To: CDR Sung C.
From: CMDR Li H., CO TRNS LONGBOW
RE: Exercises conducted this date
Drills conducted by all departments indicate only point defense and maneuvering personnel fully competent in assigned duties. Engineering performance was far below acceptable standards, and general crew performance leaves much to be desired. I therefore suggest:
(a) series of intensive exercises of all hands in . . .
The words appeared with machinelike speed as Longbow's drive pushed the ship ever closer to battle, and Commodore Li Han, wet hair plastered to her bare shoulders, felt her mind reaching out to meet the test to come.
Stanislaus Skjorning sat stoically beside Bao Jai-shu in the briefing room aboard Longbow, waiting for what promised to be a thoroughly unpleasant afternoon.
"At least the Navy pukes screwed up worse than we did," Bao said philosophically.
"Yeah, sure," another Marine lieutenant said. She grimaced. "Easy for you to say. You got to keep your entire platoon intact. No wonder you aced your sim!"
Bao was about to reply when the briefing room hatch slid open.
"Attention on deck!"
Feet scraped on the decksole as the assembled officers and senior noncoms snapped to attention with rather more alacrity than even Marines normally displayed. Major Wang strode briskly down the center aisle between rows of his stiffly braced subordinates to the briefing officer's raised platform, set his uniform cap very neatly on the corner of the lectern, and turned to face them.
He did not, Stanislaus noted glumly, invite them to stand easy.
"I suppose," the major began in a dangerously conversational tone, "that there must have been somewhere, in the entire history of the Corps, a performance more pitifully inadequate than the one I've just witnessed. A scrupulous search of the database, however, has failed to turn that performance up. More to the point," he smiled, with absolutely no humor at all, "I have been made aware that Captain Li has never witnessed one. And, as she has been so kind as to share her firsthand impression of our performance with me, I feel it only fair that I should share it with you."
"I thought you Hangchowese were supposed to be inscrutable," Stanislaus complained as he and Bao headed down the passage towards their cabin. Bao glanced up at him, one eyebrow crooked, and Stanislaus snorted. "I've had the seeing of doomwhales with more blubber left than yon Major was to be leaving on the lot of us!"
"Major Wang does have a modest gift for the language," Bao agreed. "I'd like to know exactly what the Captain had to say to him, though. Whatever it was, it inspired him to new heights."
"Aye, so you might be saying."
"Actually, you got off fairly light compared to some of the others," Bao observed. "As, of course, did I and my superbly trained-and commanded!-platoon," he added modestly.
"For such a wee, tiny fellow, you've an ego the size of a good-sized moon, don't you just?" Stanislaus replied, blue eyes glinting as he smiled down at his roommate.
"I suppose it's the curse of all great men," Bao agreed with a gusty sigh. Then he laughed. "I've known the Major for almost two years, Stanislaus. He was pissed, all right-no question of that. But he recognizes the value of a well-timed tantrum, and that one was a beaut. He's going to be right behind us, kicking us in the ass just the way he promised, but he knows why we screwed up just as well as we do."
"Maybe," Stanislaus half-agreed. "But truth to tell, Jai-shu, I'm not used to screwing up quite that badly, whatever the reason."
"You didn't screw up at all," Bao replied. "As a matter of fact, I suspect the Major was a lot more pleased with your performance than he was prepared to let on. It wasn't your fault Hsu's squad screwed the timing on your sim. Hell, he's not even in your platoon, but it was his screwup that stacked your people up behind him in front of that strongpoint! And you may have noticed that the Major gave Captain Ju a particularly detailed analysis of First Platoon's . . . shortcomings. Besides, he only put you on point in the simulation to see how well you'd do."
"And?" Stanislaus prompted as Bao paused.
"And I noticed-even if you didn't-that he's tasked Third Platoon as the ship's lead ground element. After the sim. Which he wouldn't have done if he didn't think you'd performed, um, adequately, shall we say?"
Stanislaus grunted noncommittally as they reached their cabin and Bao opened the hatch.
"Seriously," Bao said as he opened his locker and stowed away his cap, "you did damned well for somebody who just took over a brand new platoon, Stanislaus."
"If I did, it's mostly because Huang held my hand."
"Sure," Bao snorted as Stanislaus opened his own locker. "Look, I'll agree you were lucky you got to keep Huang, at least. He's one of the best platoon sergeants I've seen. But if you don't think he was testing you just as much as the Major was, then you're not as smart as I think you are."
There was probably something to that, Stanislaus conceded mentally as he laid his own cap on the top shelf of the locker. And the more he thought about it, the more willing he became to grant that Bao's analysis of how his platoon had come to take seventy percent casualties in the simulation might contain at least a few grains of truth. But still-
"My goodness! What do we have here?"
The question snapped Stanislaus' attention back to Bao, and his heart sank. The other lieutenant was grinning wickedly as he reached past Stanislaus' elbow-he was far too short to reach over his towering new friend's shoulder-for the holo cube beside his cap.
Stanislaus' first instinct was to slam the locker shut, hopefully surgically removing the intruding hand in the process. Unfortunately, the damage was already done.
"You do work fast, don't you?" Bao observed, turning the cube to catch the overhead light on Tatiana Illyushina's smiling face. "Of course, if I had the sort of political connections you've got, you'd never have a chance with her, you know."
"Of course I'd be having a chance," Stanislaus told him, reaching out and removing the cube from his hand. Bao's eyes twinkled wickedly, but he wisely made no effort to resist as Stanislaus reclaimed his property. "Because if you were to be going anywhere near her, it's sad I am to be saying as how you'd be suffering a serious accident, little man."
"You wouldn't really hurt me, would you?" Bao said plaintively, looking up at Stanislaus in a remarkably good imitation of a puppy.
"Of course not," Stanislaus reassured him kindly. "It's all over it would be, and the ashes ready to scatter, before you were feeling a thing."
Han sniffed at Tsing's pipe smoke. Few spacers smoked, and she hated cigarette smoke, but though she would never admit it, she rather liked the smell of Tsing's pipe blend. Not that liking it kept her from scolding him over the filthy habit in private.
She glanced across the small table at Lieutenant Reznick and Commander Sung, noting the wariness in Sung's eyes. The past weeks had been a foretaste of hell for him, but he'd done well. Longbow's newcomers had slotted smoothly into place and even the abandon-ship drill had gone quite well, though she hadn't seen fit to tell Sung so. It wasn't nice, but it had inspired him to maximum effort.
"Well, Chang," she said finally, "could this crew zip its own shoes without supervision?"
"Just about, sir." Tsing blew a beautiful smoke ring and glanced at Sung, "Just about."
Sung's face fell, and Han shook her head reproachfully at Tsing.
"Actually, Exec," she said, "I think you've done very well. There are still a few rough spots, but all in all, we've got one of the most efficient ship's companies I've seen."
"Thank you, sir!" Sung's face lit with pleasure.
"And just in time, too," she went on.
She touched a button and a hologram of the local warp lines appeared above the table.
"We'll make transit to Lassa in about an hour, gentlemen," she said calmly. "Eighty-one hours after that, we'll be ready to fire probes through into Aklumar for a last minute report."
"Yes, sir." Tsing passed the stem of his pipe through the warp line between Lassa and Aklumar. "That ought to be an interesting trip."
"Not as 'interesting' as the one to Cimmaron," Han reminded him. "It had better not be, anyway!"
She tapped the table gently, then turned a calm face to Sung.
"Chung-hui, I asked you to join us because I'm going to depend heavily on you and Chang. I'll have to coordinate the battlegroup and fight Longbow, as well, and I can't do it unless you both understand exactly what I plan. You'll both have to exercise a lot of discretion in what you report to me and what you act upon yourselves, so I want us to have a very clear mutual understanding of the operation. Fair enough?"
"Good. Then here's the first point; we're going into Cimmaron before Commodore Petrovna because the Rump data base won't list us as a command ship." Sung nodded; Longbow hadn't been a command ship the last time the Rump saw her. "On the other hand, our datalink has cost us two capital missile launchers, so we'll hold back our external ordnance when the others launch. We'll use the racks to hide our lack of internal launchers, because if they realize we're the command ship they'll go for us with everything they've got."
"Yes, sir. I understand."
"Good. Second, I want everything on line when we transit into Aklumar, no matter what the probes show. I hope we won't find anything to worry about-we don't need a Second Battle of Aklumar."
This time both Sung and Tsing nodded. Aklumar had witnessed the climactic engagement of the First Interstellar War, but the last thing they wanted was a clash to alert Cimmaron.
"But," she went on, "if I were commanding Cimmaron there'd be at least a picket at Aklumar to watch for exactly what we hope to do. And if there is-" she brought up a schematic of the Aklumar warp junction "-he'll be right here." She touched the image. "Placed to dash down the warp line as soon as we enter scanner range. So we have to make sure we don't enter scanner range until we've dealt with him."
"Sir?" Sung sounded uncertain.
"If the Admiral agrees, we'll go in cloaked," Han explained. "We'll close with him and-hopefully-pick him off before he knows we're there."
"But, sir, the battlegroup doesn't have cloaking ECM."
"No, but we do, and so do scout cruisers. We'll form a three-ship data group with two of them and clear the way for the rest of the task force."
"Unless," Tsing observed with the mild air of a man who'd made the same point before, "they've posted a light carrier, sir. A couple of long-range recon fighters on patrol, and we'll never get close enough."
"We've been over that, Chang, and I still don't expect it, not with so much of Frontier Fleet coming over. They'd never risk a fleet or assault carrier on picket duty, and all the lights were in Frontier Fleet. They can't have many of them left."
"You're probably right, sir, but it's my job to point out problems. And here's another: they might use a scout cruiser of their own."
"If they go by The Book, that's exactly what they'll do," Han agreed, "but they can't have many of them, either. If they do, the whole ops plan goes out the lock anyway. If they're cloaking, the probes won't spot them and they'll have just as good a chance to hide from us as we have to hide from them. Which gives them the advantage, of course, since their whole job is to run away while we try to locate and destroy them. But there's only one way to find out, isn't there?"
"You might ask Admiral Ashigara to send in a squadron of fighters to check it, sir," Sung suggested hesitantly.
"I might," Han agreed dryly, "if fighters carried any ECM."
"Sorry, sir. I should have thought of that." Sung sounded abashed.
"Don't worry about it." Han smiled. "But we're going to have to deal with this ourselves, so be certain plotting and gunnery are ready. We'll have to be quick to stop them from launching a courier drone."
"All right. Now-" she switched to a schematic of Cimmaron "-this is where we're supposed to run into trouble. Commodore Tsing, Commander Tomanaga, and I have spent quite a while discussing how to handle this, Exec, and I want you to understand what we're up to. SOP would bring us in last to protect the command ship from the opening salvos, but the Rump knows The Book, too. Commander Tomanaga suggests we come in first, since that's the last place they'll expect the flagship, but I've decided to come in third. Lieutenant Reznick here tells me our datalink won't stand much pounding, so I don't want us out too early, just as I don't want us in the standard flag slot. We'll rely on the shell game approach-they'll know we have a command ship, but not which one it is . . . I hope. If we can force them to disperse their fire looking for us, we may survive until BG 11 comes through and offers so many targets they have to divide their fire. Understand?"
"Good. And instead of a tight, traditional globe, we're coming in in line abreast for the same reasons-everything will be directed towards keeping them guessing."
"And there's another point, one which relates to our datalink." Han turned to Reznick, who flushed slightly under her calm regard; it was amazing how readily he colored up. "Because we may lose our command data net so quickly, I want alternate standard datalinks set up between our units as a priority. If we lose the command net, I don't want any delays in dropping into smaller groups, Lieutenant."
"All right. Now, here's the final point for you, Exec-you won't be on the command deck when we enter Cimmaron."
"Sir?" Sung blinked. "But that's my duty station! I-"
"It is normally," Han cut him off calmly, "but this isn't normal. We don't have a flag bridge, and I have to be able to see battle plot. That means the flag will be on the command deck. If a single hit takes out me, Commodore Tsing, and you-" she shrugged.
"I see." Sung still sounded unhappy, and Han found it hard to blame him. "But where will I be, sir? Auxiliary fire control?"
"No, Commander Tomanaga will be there. I want you with Mister Reznick in command datalink." She caught him with a level stare. "Understand this, Commander. If the command deck buys it, you're suddenly going to inherit an entire battlegroup, because yours will be the only ship with command datalink capability. Hopefully Commander Tomanaga will still be around to advise you, but I can't even promise you that."
"I see, sir." Sung licked his lips, then nodded firmly. "I see."
"I'm glad you do, Chung-hui." She glanced at her watch. "All right-let's get back to the bridge." She killed the holograph and tucked her cap under her arm, facing them as they rose. "But remember, gentlemen, up to now, it's been a matter of seizing choke points where we happened to have mutinying units and cleaning up undefended systems. That's over now. We're going to fight for everything we get from here on out, and I want the Republican Navy to be just as dedicated and just as professional as the Federation Navy. This is a civil war, and passions are running high on both sides, but there had better not be any Jason Waldecks under my command. These aren't Arachnids we're fighting-they're Terrans. I expect you to act accordingly."
Then she turned, and they followed her silently from the briefing room.