Chapter 8
Marching Orders

Location: ESS Ticonderoga, Saturnian Sphere
Date: Tue 09 Apr 121
Time: UST 0800

After a weeklong delay at Mars, the Heavy Carrier Battle Group One finally arrived at its temporary station in the Saturnian Sphere. The Ticonderoga docked at Smythe ONB when they arrived so Admiral Mfume could report to the commander of Seventh Fleet. Before then, their only orders were to assemble in the Saturnian Sphere. More detailed instruction would come later.
To that end, the command staff of the battle group had assembled in the conference room of the Ticonderoga. The captains of the Ticonderoga's various escorts were patched in by viewscreen. All that remained was the feed from Earth. A brief blinking was the only warning they had before Fleet Marshal Van Daan's face appeared on the screen at the head of the room.
Admiral Mfume rose from his chair and yelled, "Attention on deck!"
Those assembled, both in person and on the viewscreens, promptly stood at attention. They were not expecting the Supreme Commander to be the one to deliver the briefing.
"Take a seat," the Marshal said, and the assembly complied. "Let's get down to business, shall we? Admiral Mfume, have there been any irregularities with the Ticonderoga since you set out?"
"Negative, sir," Admiral Mfume replied. "Engineering reports all systems at optimal."
The Marshal nodded. "Well, good. Then we can proceed. For the next sixty days, Heavy Carrier Battle Group One will be on maneuvers. We will be running five exercises. The first is 'Swan Lake', which will run from 10 April to 28 April and from 15 May to 8 June. Swan Lake will focus on battle group operations in twenty-seven different configurations.
"The second is 'Pandora's Box', the details of which are restricted to Admiral Mfume, Commodore Frazier and Captain Huang. Gentlemen, I cannot stress enough the classified nature of Pandora's Box. Make sure no one under your command gets caught asking questions they have no business asking. We will throw the book at anyone who even attempts to compromise this exercise. I tell you this so you can keep an eye on your men. The only information you are authorized to release is that there will be a classified exercise held at some point within the next sixty days for an unspecified amount of time. Even the name 'Pandora's Box' does not leave this room. Is that clear?"
The assembly replied in unison, "Yes, sir."
The Marshal continued, "The third exercise is 'Ready Eagle', which will utilize all aviation assets not otherwise engaged. Ready Eagle will run for the duration of the exercise period, from 10 April to 9 June. Beyond giving our pilots some flight hours, there are real-world applications to this exercise. General Pfeiffer, I will leave the details with you. I want the squadron leaders to be briefed before the day is out."
"Aye-aye, sir," General Pfeiffer replied, making a point to use the Navy response.
"That just leaves two more," the Marshal said. "The fourth exercise is 'Aggressive Infiltration', which will give your Marines practice boarding craft and making surface landings. Aggressive Infiltration will be held from 1 May to 14 May. We have requisitioned a couple decommissioned Endeavour-class destroyers for the occasion. This will be a live-fire exercise, so I want to see that all necessary safety protocols are observed.
"Lastly, we have 'Solid Rock', a field exercise on Titan for the Army detachment which will run from 14 April to 5 May. The detachment will touch down planetside, secure, fortify and hold a mock colony under enemy attack. We do not want to disturb the locals, so you will be far removed from civilization."
Colonel Vasquez, the commander of the Army detachment, took the opportunity to speak up.
"Permission to speak freely, sir?" he asked.
Obligingly, Marshal Van Daan nodded and said, "Go right ahead, Colonel."
"We're in the middle of a war, sir. We don't have time to be dicking around with these games while people are dying all over the Union. This bucket's supposed to bring the fight to the Shellies and that should be our priority."
The Colonel's utter disregard for the concept of tact earned him some fierce glares in the room, particularly from General Pfeiffer, but the Marshal seemed to be unfazed by his objection. He did not raise his voice or show any signs of being angry. He simply folded his hands and eyed the Colonel, speaking in a level yet decidedly pointed voice.
"Colonel Vasquez, I know your type. Always have to be in the thick of it, don't you? Need I remind you, Colonel, that not all of your men are combat veterans like yourself. You know the line, do you not? 'We train like we fight and fight like we train.' Would you really have them learn in actual combat, to go through that baptism by fire? You will only get people killed that way, needlessly. We have not invested so much time, money and effort into these fine men and women just to toss them into the meat grinder. Those days are long since gone."
The Colonel did not apologize, but he made no further objections.
Taking a slightly conciliatory tone, the Marshal said, "There is more to these exercises that just training. We need to keep the crew sharp. 'Taking the fight to the enemy' makes for a good slogan, but we still have not found the Sheolite home base, if such a place even exists. We have to play for time while Intel does its thing. The moment we get some actionable intelligence, you will get your fight, all of you. In the meantime, see to it that everything and everyone stays squared away. I look forward to seeing some excellent results from these exercises. Van Daan, out."
The viewscreen blinked off before any courtesies could be rendered. Admiral Mfume rose from his seat to address the assembly.
"The exercise details should already be uploaded into the system," he said. "Brief your units and see that all preparations are in order for tomorrow. I want to see ships on the fast track to their Battle E's and unit citations all around. I want to see excellence out there. Make it happen."
"Aye-aye, sir!" the assembly shouted, the ship captains loudest of all.
"Dismissed."

* * *

Date: Tue 09 Apr 121
Time: UST 1505

General Pfeiffer assembled all the commanding officers in the 9th Joint Air Division, from the CAGs and wing commanders down to the squadron leaders. Because she insisted on them attending the briefing in person, shuttles had to be dispatched to the Brasidas and Laocoon, which took extra time.
Once everyone was gathered in the briefing room, she wasted no time getting into the details of the exercise. She swatted the main viewscreen with her pointer, cuing the technician to start the slideshow. She began her narration on the title card, which was nothing more than the air division's insignia and the words 'Ready Eagle'.
"For the next sixty days, all of JAD-9 will be participating in this exercise, Ready Eagle. Navy personnel will be excepted whenever they're needed for Swan Lake, which runs from 10 April to 28 April and 15 May to 8 June. Get your pilots ready because each and every one of them will be flying an average of forty hours per week plus an extra forty hours in the simulator."
Some groans in the assembly prompted the General to swat the viewscreen particularly harshly.
"Can the bellyaching," she said. "If you use your time wisely, you can still manage eight hours of sleep. I shouldn't have to remind you, ladies and gentlemen, that you don't get that luxury in a combat zone."
With the complaints silenced, the next slide came up, ticking off several of the activities the units would be doing during the exercise. Pfeiffer tapped the viewscreen for each bullet point.
"Your assignments will depend on the training objective for the day. Expect to fly in mixed formations, do mock attack runs and things like that. While we will be outfitting all birds with training pods, you'll still go out with a full combat load. Now there hasn't been any enemy activity here in a while, but the Sheolites have a history of targeting the Saturnian Sphere for attacks. I'm not going to take any risks. That being said, make sure you and all your pilots have their heads on straight. I don't want to see any friendly fire incidents."
The slideshow took a decidedly different tone. Rather than the same old pattern of bullet points, the current slide had an assortment of headlines. Things like '27 Dead in Pirate Attack on Xiyang' and 'Ghost Freighter Victim of the Seven Deadlies'.
"You have a secondary objective," the General said. "For the past twenty-eight months, the Saturnian Sphere has reported forty-three acts of piracy, most of them believed to be the work of the same group. They call themselves the Seven Deadly Sins. They're well-equipped and very good at what they do, good enough to raid a few starports and get away with it. Local law enforcement and the Orbital Guard aren't getting anywhere and the Fleet can't afford to reroute any resources to the problems while we have the Sheolites to worry about.
"That's where you come in. Every time you and your pilots are out there, I want active scanning from takeoff to touchdown. We'd make a lot of people happy if we could get a bead on these criminals and take them down." She paused a moment to emphasis her next point. "Do not, I repeat, do not underestimate them. These aren't some low-rent punks with scrap heap tubs and Zulu cannons. The analysts think they might be ex-military and using refurbished hardware. Consider them to be no less a threat than a Sheolite unit of the same size and respond accordingly.
"The regional governor would like to have them taken alive and brought to trial, but I don't want to lose any pilots trying to bring them in. Standard rules of engagement apply. You are authorized to use deadly force in order to save lives and property. Is that clear?"
After the universal reply of 'Yes, ma'am!', she continued, "The first birds will be going out at 0400. That gives you about twelve hours to brief your units and double-check your equipment. Are there any questions?"
One hand presented itself. A testament to her professionalism, General Pfeiffer managed to avoid rolling her eyes when she saw who it was.
"Yes, Commander Han."
The irreverent squadron leader leaned back in her chair, hardly the way to address a superior officer. General Pfeiffer knew she was not going to like what she was about to hear.
"Lemme get this straight," Commander Han said, showing no sense of propriety whatsoever. "We're gonna spend two months playin' games an' chasin' after pirates. Where exactly is all that 'take the fight ta the enemy' bullshit? Or was SupCom just blowin' smoke up our asses with that line?"
Recalling the example set by Marshal Van Daan earlier in the day, General Pfeiffer made a point not to raise her voice or give any outward appearance of how angry she was.
"Where's your crown, Commander?"
"What? What the hell're ya talkin' 'bout?"
It was hard for the General not to grin.
"I don't see your crown," she said, "so that must mean you're not the Queen of the Universe after all. You're an officer in the Earth Union Navy. Your job is to follow orders. Now you can question the how. As your superior, it's my job to show you the standard. What you can't do is question the why. There is no why, Commander. You execute. That's it. Period. End of story. Do you understand?"
When Commander Han failed to respond, the General's patience wore dangerously thin.
"Sound off, sailor!" she barked. "I said, 'Do you understand?'"
"Yes, ma'am!" Commander Han shouted.
The General eyed Commander Han's CAG. "Captain Nagashima."
"Yes, ma'am," the CAG replied.
"Some of your unit commanders aren't on the same page as the rest of us. See that it gets fixed."
"Aye-aye, ma'am."
General Pfeiffer scanned the room for any other malcontents who might want to cross her.
"Are there any more questions?" she asked sharply.
If there were any legitimate questions, no one seemed to have courage to ask. The General nodded to her vice commander, who stood up and called out to the assembly.
"Group, atten-shun."
The officers all shot up at once. There was only one thing left for the General to say.
"Dismissed."

* * *

Date: Tue 09 Apr 121
Time: UST 1553

With the briefing concluded, General Pfeiffer went to her office to sort through the mountain of paperwork that was waiting for her. On top of that, she braced herself for a nice long list of problems that would inevitably crop up before the exercise began. There was no end to it.
All of that was more than enough to keep her mind occupied, but there was something else that was bothering her, taking up more of her mental resources than she would have liked. It was giving her a headache. She massaged her temples, but it did not help much.
"Almost lost your temper there, didn't you, ma'am?" a voice said.
The General barely managed to keep from jumping in surprise. She did not expect him to be waiting in her office and had not seen him when she came in. Was she really so distracted or was he showing off his skills?
"I swear," General Pfeiffer admitted, "in all my eighteen years of service I have never wanted to wring anyone's neck as much as that woman, no, that girl."
He laughed. Easy for him to find the humor in it.
"Don't worry, ma'am," he said. "I'll take her off your hands. She's just what I've been looking for."