Chapter 14
Friendly Conversation

Location: ESS Ticonderoga, Saturnian Sphere
Date: Sat 04 May 121
Time: UST 1820

Coequal with the captain of the ship, the CAG was supposed to be God, or at least the next best thing. However, Captain Satoru Nagashima was not feeling especially godlike at the moment. It was more than just a matter of him being nothing more than another wing commander in the joint air division. He was being kept in the dark about too many things. He might as well roll back the clock to when he was just an ordinary pilot. It would be about the same difference.
The official story that two of his squadron leaders were being sent on TDY to Ramon Starbase reeked to high heaven. Not on such short notice and not right before a major exercise. Did General Pfeiffer know the truth? Nagashima had no intention of approaching her about it. Too many suspicions would be raised if he started snooping around and accusing the higher-ups of falsifying official documents.
Out of the blue, Commander Han was brought in the day before and immediately sequestered in Sickbay. Nagashima used his privilege as her CO to check up on her, possibly get some answers. To simply describe her as 'not lucid' was a gross understatement. The doctors claimed it was just the effect of her medication, but it did not feel right. It was like her mind was broken, and despite his authority, the doctors refused to discuss the matter in any detail. The Chief Medical Officer was a fellow O-6, so there was no pulling rank. No one in the chain of command was willing to take his side in the matter either. Utterly powerless. Some god he was.
It was shortly after he had gotten done talking with Commodore Frazier that he remembered a cryptic message that had been troubling him for quite some time. Its contents were a mere two sentences and a phone number. No name but all the markings of a high-level communiqué. There seemed to be no better time to try it out. When he called the number, an audio-only response told him to wait exactly twenty-four hours to be called back. Suspicious as it was, Nagashima played along and so he was sitting in his office, staring at his terminal, waiting.
Why was he doing this? Certain people obviously did not want him to know what was going on with Commander Han, so why not take the hint and back off? It would make things easier on everyone. Just turn a blind eye to the whole business.
No, that was wrong. He might not have all the pull a CAG was supposed to have, but he still had all the responsibility. He was responsible for the well-being of his subordinates and he was not going to give up until he exhausted every last option.
Just then, his terminal started beeping. An incoming call, ID unknown. Nagashima tapped the screen to accept the connection. A rear admiral in dress blues appeared on the display, seated behind a genuine hardwood desk. He was rather heavyset, with a bald head and a neatly trimmed goatee. The most notable feature, though, was his eyes. It was like staring down a python that already had you in its coils.
With strained geniality, the Admiral said, "Captain Nagashima, to what do I owe this pleasure?"
Nagashima felt his stomach tighten. "I think you know, sir."
The Admiral gave a thin-lipped smile and folded his hands. "I can imagine. To be honest, I've been expecting you. Why else would I be here in the office on a Saturday?"
"When I first took this assignment," Nagashima said, "I received an e-mail from you, sir. I didn't know what to make of it back then. All it said was 'Take care of Commander Han. Call me if you have any questions or concerns.'" He swallowed hard. "Well, sir, I have some rather serious concerns and some burning questions that need answers. I want to know. Just exactly who is Lydia Han? What is she? Because what I saw in Sickbay isn't natural and I'm hoping there's a damn good explanation for it."
The Admiral gave a low chuckle. "I never knew you had such a flair for the dramatic, Captain. You exaggerate the situation. It isn't nearly as bad as all that."
Nagashima did not see what was so funny. "I haven't known Commander Han for very long, sir, but the person lying in there is most certainly not the same woman who left this boat."
"That's just the sedatives at work," the Admiral said dismissively. "You're letting yourself get worked up over nothing."
"Nothing? Tell me, sir, why she had to be brought in by NIS agents."
The Admiral seemed to blanch a bit at this. Apparently he was not expecting Nagashima to know that Commander Han was in NIS custody when she was brought aboard. It only lasted for about a second, and the Admiral's expression reverted to its usual mask of fake pleasantness.
"Force protection falls within the duties of NIS," he said. "Surely we can spare a couple agents to escort a squadron leader back to her home ship."
"Under heavy sedation?"
"Things happen."
Annoyed at the Admiral's evasion, Nagashima was able to gather some nerve, to break free of that python gaze. "You're avoiding my questions, sir," he said bluntly. "As one of my squadron leaders, Commander Han is responsible for the lives of hundreds of sailors, not least of which the nineteen other pilots she's supposed to lead into combat. Now, if she's in any way mentally unstable, defective--whatever you want to call it--, I'm putting those lives at unnecessary risk as long as I leave her in command. In all good conscience, sir, that's something I can't do."
He kept on going, pushing the envelope further. "I'd appreciate a little candor, sir. I need some sort of reassurance--and I mean some really damn convincing reassurance--that Commander Han is fit for command. If you can't give me that, I'm going to put her in for transfer off this boat the moment I hang up, see that she gets stationed somewhere where she'll pose the least possible danger to others and to herself."
"That would be an ill-advised move, Captain."
The cloaked menace in the Admiral's words was clear, but Nagashima was too wound up to be cowed so easily.
"You care to tell me why that is, sir? Because I won't have her endangering the lives of my men."
While the rise and fall of emotions on Nagashima's side was clear, the Admiral continued with the same steady voice, with all the comfort of an EKG gone flatline.
"Commander Han is an important component of our victory strategy, Captain Nagashima. She must be on the Ticonderoga. If you were to interfere in that, someone might get the idea that you are in some way opposed to our victory. Someone might even go so far as to call it treason."
He was venturing into dangerous territory, but Nagashima felt a flush of righteous rage he could barely contain. It made him far bolder than he was known to be. Narrowly suppressing the outrage bleeding into his voice, he asked the Admiral, "Are you threatening me with treason, sir? For protecting my men?"
The Admiral was completely unfazed. "Nothing of the sort," he said easily, as if the obvious threat had never been uttered. "I'm simply illustrating the sort of conclusions that might be drawn based on certain unwise decisions on your part. Your concern for your subordinates is admirable, Captain, but you are forgetting something very important." He paused, putting extra weight on what followed. "The mission, Captain. Your duty first and foremost is to the mission. Never forget that."
Nagashima said nothing. 'The mission before the man' was one of those tired mottoes that was rolled out whenever anyone displayed sentiments deemed unsuitable for the smooth running of the military machine. It was not that there was no truth in it, but it was sickening to see it used as an excuse to treat human life lightly, especially the lives of comrades-in-arms.
The Admiral continued, "It's been nearly fifteen years, Captain Nagashima. You've done well for yourself. CAG on the most advanced ship in the whole Navy. That really is impressive. Your career has progressed so well. It would be a shame to see that progress come to an end, particularly when you still hold so much promise. Why, once this tour is over, you could easily make commodore." He paused to see that the words stuck, and added, "Yes, your first star is ever so close."
Nagashima could barely believe the gall of the Admiral. "So now you're going from threats to a bribe?"
Once again, denial came all too easily. "Nothing of the sort," the Admiral said. "Is it a bribe to give able commanders their due reward, to advance officers proven to be capable of making intelligent decisions?" He emphasized the 'intelligent' part and gave another one of his sickly smiles. "I think not. All I am trying to tell you is that there are certain consequences for the decisions you make. Good decisions are rewarded and bad decisions are punished." He paused again, making sure it all soaked in. "You understand, don't you, Captain?"
The carrot and the stick were out there. Which would he pick? Would he continue to push? There was only one answer.
Nagashima resigned himself to defeat and said, "Yes, sir, I understand."
Again with the smile, now with a not-so-subtle trace of satisfaction. "Excellent."
Nagashima hated himself for caving, but what could he do? The Admiral was no doubt powerful enough in his own right and certainly had even more powerful allies. It was a fight Nagashima could not win. Still, even if he could do nothing, learn nothing, perhaps someone else could.
"Major Harold of the Four-Two-One has been requesting to see her," Nagashima said.
The Admiral seemed genuinely pleased to hear this. "Ah, good," he said. "The Major has proven himself useful in the past. Perhaps he can help stabilize her."
What did that mean? It did not matter. It was something. He would take it.
"And what about Commander Han?" Nagashima asked. "What am I supposed to do with her?"
"You will receive orders when a decision is reached," the Admiral replied. "All you need to do is execute. Are there any more questions, Captain Nagashima?"
"I guess not, sir."
The Admiral nodded approvingly. "Good. I hope I have put your mind at ease. Good night, Captain."
The screen went blank. Nagashima's mind was hardly at ease. He felt like a coward. He wanted to tell himself that he was simply holding on to his position so he could continue to watch out for the men and women under his command. He knew that was a lie. Yes, he rationally concluded that nothing would be gained by opposing the Admiral and his allies, that he could serve his subordinates best by remaining in place as their commanding officer, but that was not all of it. He was afraid for his career. He was too afraid to sacrifice it, even at the risk of sacrificing the lives of others. No amount of rationalization would change that. The only question was how he was going to be able to live with himself. He would rather not think about it.