“Attention on deck!”

Vice Admiral Neela Hafnetz entered the positively cavernous war deck aboard the battleship Saint Lucia along with six members of her senior staff. While she was not technically in command of the ship itself she was in command of the battlegroup that was currently holding position 2.1 light hours off the Omicron singularity’s deflection perimeter. Astrometrics, weapons and tactical officers from all nine ships were present, along with every vessel’s captain and executive officer. The fleet command master chief was present as well.

As a three-star flag officer, Hafnetz was the ranking military authority in the sector. She not only had the prerogative to convene a court martial, but she also had the independent authority to obligate Skywatch Command to a verdict should she choose. There were only 15 people in known space with the legal or military power to countermand her orders. Essentially, as far as the assembled officers and crew were concerned, she may as well have been wearing a crown.

Her chief of staff Fleet Captain Renaldo Delgado stood beside the admiral and opened an electronic document on his handheld. “Ladies and Gentlemen this is not an official board of inquiry. However, if necessary we will take statements under oath. Please be seated.”

Only a moment after everyone settled in their seats, Admiral Hafnetz tossed a sheaf of printed data from her group’s integrated battle computers on the table in front of her.

“Captain Shaw. I’d like you to explain to me why Tae San opened fire on Argent without authorization.”

The captain of the destroyer Tae San rose to his feet. “We didn’t fire, admiral.”

There was a moment of silence after at least two dozen officers turned to stare at Lieutenant Commander Thomas Shaw. It took considerable fortitude to contradict a three-star admiral in front of her entire command staff.

“We have visual confirmation. We have the telemetry from the battle group datalink and we have statements from your weapons officer and her second.”

“I gave no order to fire, ma’am. No weapons were launched from our ship. Tae San established a weapons lock per standard rules of engagement. That’s all.”

“Is your weapons officer mistaken?”

“I believe Lieutenant Carroll is basing her conclusions on the data available to her, admiral. My XO personally inventoried all our DAX warheads. All our birds are secured in their launch racks.”

“Commander, where are we getting this data then? All eight ships in the battle group recorded the same event,” asked Captain Delgado.

“I’m afraid I’m not yet in a position to speculate, sir. Tae San’s only independent act was our attempt to lock a tractor beam on Argent before she drifted out of range. We were successful, but only to a point. By the time we had sufficient power available to slow her approach to the Omicron deflection zone, we were too far out of position ourselves.”

“And what action did you take then, commander?” Hafnetz asked.

“We disengaged, ma’am. We were only ten thousand miles from a position where the gravitational effects would have overwhelmed our engines.”

“And Argent proceeded beyond that point,” Delgado continued.

“Yes sir. Her drive field was intact, thankfully. But she was out of range of our tractor beam.”

“Very well, commander. Be seated,” Hafnetz said. After an appropriate pause the tactical display came to life behind her. Projected on it was a top-down representation of the positions of the Achilles Battle Group ships relative to the position of Argent before Hunter had ordered an evasive course to Point Charon. “Since DSS Emerald has no anti-ship weapons and Tae San apparently didn’t fire on Argent, we have a mystery. I want to know who fired on that ship. I want to know who crippled her starboard engine and caused her to tumble out of her course and into the Omicron gravity well. Whoever it is may be responsible for the deaths of more than four thousand of our fellow fleet and marines.”

“With respect, admiral, it wouldn’t be a stretch to interpret Hunter’s actions as insubordinate at least and mutinous at worst,” said Commander Pettibone of the cruiser Fier.

“Be that as it may no order was given to fire on his ship,” Captain Delgado replied. “And the only officer in the Strike Fleet with the authority to give such an order is the admiral herself.”

“I’m not prepared to draw any conclusions yet. But I am prepared to order each of you to conduct a thorough investigation aboard your own vessels. You too, captain. I want control systems, sensors, scanners and datalink checked and re-checked until I have an origin for the three weapons that impacted DSS Argent at mission timecode 22471. I don’t want to hear excuses, and I don’t want to hear guesswork. I want answers and I want them by 2100 hours. Dismissed.”

The crowd of officers and their various assistants dispersed after a few moments. Most of them were on their way to Saint Lucia’s spacious flight deck to take their command shuttles back to their various ships. By the time all the activity died down, only Hafnetz and Delgado remained.

“What the hell is going on out here, Renaldo?” Hafnetz sighed, pinching her eyes together. “Powers orders a green captain to navigate into a no-fly zone. Every alien race with a tank of rocket fuel and a star map is itching for a shooting war and now we’ve got ghost missiles disabling ships of the line and sending them swerving into gravity wells for singularities.”

“I wish we had more time, admiral. With just a few extra minutes we could have reached Argent and tractored them to safety.”

“We didn’t have the right angle. Even at maximum flank we would have arrived with perhaps sixty seconds to establish a lock. We would have been less than a million miles off Omicron’s point of no return. And we would have needed 90% of our engine power just to maintain station keeping. And that’s only if Argent chose to cooperate and calibrate their drive field.”

“I don’t think we did enough.”

“We did what we could, captain. None of these decisions would have been needed if Hunter had followed my orders in the first place.”

“What do you think was on his mind, admiral? He’s always been a shoot-from-the-hip officer, but why would he try to evade us when he knew we would be able to outrun him?”

Admiral Hafnetz turned and activated the reactive crystal display behind the head of the war deck map table. “My SRS officer is a sorcerer, as you know. We actually managed to get a clean four by five scanner image of Argent before she drifted beyond line of sight. She had her drive field established, which is probably the only thing that kept Hunter’s ship from breaking up in the approach. Our course projections put them here, at Omicron 474 position eighteen.”

The display centered on a location just beyond the edge of the debris field surrounding the enormous phenomenon.

Renaldo studied the tactical projection for a moment. “You’re right. We would have had to fly through the debris field to get into range in time.”

“The good news, if there is any to be had at this point,” Hafnetz continued, “is that the initial approach course through position eighteen has Argent on a parallel trajectory with only a four percent decay. That’s going to give them more than two hours to correct. If they can effect repairs in time, they can alter their tangent course and emerge at position six with a closest approach of about 7,500 miles.”

“Right into forbidden space.”

“Young men believe they are immortal, Renaldo. It’s the thing that makes them so bloody dangerous. It’s also the thing that eventually turns them into heroes. The older and wiser minds are here to balance out all that octane. Sometimes we get it right, and sometimes the young man crosses the line in an attempt to prove a point.”

“And this time it’s going to cost us.”

“Let’s put it this way, captain. If there’s one officer in Skywatch I would expect to survive a black hole and a trip through an off-limits sector, it’s Jason Hunter.”

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