Chapter 28
V-E Day

Location: ESS Ticonderoga, Barton ONB, Uranian Sphere
Date: Thu 21 Nov 121
Time: UST 1000

After 48 hours of scouring the space around the remains of Selene 03 to ensure no survivors were left behind and to make the necessary stopgap repairs to get the task force and the captured Empyrean vessels back safely, the long journey to Barton began. The return trip was longer because not all ships were capable of running their engines at full output. They had arrived the day before and the massive undertaking of repairing the extensive damage to the ships of the task force and processing the thousands of Empyrean detainees began.
The command staff of Heavy Carrier Battle Group One was gathered in the conference room for a follow-up meeting with SupCom. When Marshal Van Daan appeared onscreen, Admiral Mfume called the room to attention. Contrary to his usual practice, the Marshal kept them standing at attention.
"Having reviewed your report and the preliminary data," the Marshal began, "it appears that I can congratulate all of you on a successful mission. Losses were somewhat high, but within tolerances."
Commodore Frazier gritted his teeth at this. Over sixteen thousand sailors, airmen and Marines were dead. Twenty-three ships were lost. That didn't even begin to factor in the tens of thousands of Empyrean civilians that didn't escape the destruction of Selene 03. And all of that was within tolerances?
"What the Marshal means to say," a voice intervened, "is that while we deeply regret and mourn the loss of so many shipmates, those losses are well below the projections of some of the naysayers in the mission planning staff."
The voice belonged to Secretary of the Navy Graham Compton, who stepped into view of the camera. At first it appeared that he was the reason the Marshal kept them at attention, but then the Marshal and SECNAV stepped aside to make way for Chairwoman Liu herself.
"Admiral Mfume, Commodore Frazier, and all the commanders of Task Force Heaven's Door, I wanted to personally thank you for going above and beyond my expectations. We'll be making a formal announcement of the end of the war with the Empyrean at noon, but I thought you all should hear it first." A contemptuous grin crossed her lips as she said, "Watch the media clowns scramble to figure out how to explain we've had a second front to the war for the past twelve years now."
That might be entertaining to see if the steep cost in blood wasn't so close to them. It was true that the Empyrean had Union blood on its hands and that it could have posed a considerable threat if it started throw its weight around, but at least as far as Commodore Frazier was concerned, this whole mess was a distraction from their true objective.
Ironically, or perhaps not, the Chairwoman seemed to be thinking along similar lines.
"We still have the main event before us, ladies and gentlemen," the Chairwoman said. "There's a lot of work that needs to be done before we can send you back out there and the Sheolites aren't going to wait. Get some rest for now. This is but the end of the beginning."
As the Chairwoman walked away, Commodore Frazier couldn't help but be amused that she had the same Churchill quote in mind that Admiral Mfume used back when the last of the Empyrean ships went silent.
"Mfume, be in your office at 1800," Marshal Van Daan said. "We have matters to discuss. As for the rest of you, you heard Madame Chairwoman. Get some rest. Dismissed."
The feed cut out. They were all expecting a much longer debriefing and after action review, but apparently that was being held off for another day.
"I suppose that will be all then," Admiral Mfume said. "You are all dismissed."
Somewhat uncertainly, the commanders made their way out of the conference room, but Commodore Frazier stayed behind.
"I did say you were dismissed, Commodore," the Admiral said.
"Are you going to be okay, sir?" Commodore Frazier asked.
Admiral Mfume sighed. "In two weeks I saw more people die under my command than I have lost in all my years as an officer. Within tolerances or no, there will be consequences for me, months of investigation and a serious inquiry into my fitness for command."
Even though an inquiry was a matter of course when a ship was lost, to say nothing of twenty-three, the fact that the Admiral could be deemed an unfit commander was unconscionable.
"But, sir," Commodore Frazier said, "you were just following the orders they gave you."
"'Just following orders' is never an excuse, Commodore," the Admiral said sharply. "You should know that."
"They wouldn't have stopped until they found someone who did."
"And that person would be made into the scapegoat if this proves to be bad for public relations. I knew what I was getting into when I accepted this mission, indeed, when I accepted the assignment of battle group commander."
The Admiral managed a weak smile.
"My wife is Chairwoman Liu's chief of staff," he said. "Between her influence and my age, they will just quietly retire me and sweep the whole matter under the rug. Better me than someone who still has a career ahead of him, someone without my... political insulation."
That didn't convince Commodore Frazier in the slightest.
"Sir, I don't believe you're ready to call it quits yet," he said, "and I don't think you're the type who'd hide behind his wife's skirt."
"I may well have no choice in the matter," the Admiral replied. He then chuckled under his breath. "And you are right, I would accept no special favors, but since you enjoy political insulation of your own, I thought that saying it might put your mind at ease."
Commodore Frazier clenched his fists.
"I won't let them bury you over this, sir. I'll go public if that's what it takes."
Admiral Mfume held up his hand before the Commodore could go any farther.
"Do not risk your career over me," he said. His voice then took on a harsher tone as he warned the Commodore, "They made you overnight and they can destroy you just as quickly. If you cause too much trouble, they will ask you fade away quietly. And if you do not, they will ruin you, by whatever means necessary.
"It has been better since Chairman Armitage and Chairwoman Liu have been in office, but politics will always be dirty business. You need to pick your battles if you want to survive."
Commodore Frazier tried to keep himself out of politics as much as possible, but you couldn't escape it completely. He'd spent most of his career as a pawn of the government's PR machine and as he went up the ranks, he saw that good sailors were lucky to make O-6 before they retired. For the most part it was the good politicians who made flag. It had always been that way, but that didn't mean he had to like it any.
Admiral Mfume didn't let him dwell on it for too long, though. He began to walk to the door and motioned for the Commodore to follow.
"Come, join me for lunch," he said. "We must celebrate our victory, such as it is, and honor our fallen comrades. I believe I have an unopened bottle of '47 for just the occasion."
Commodore Frazier was surprised. A lot of sailors violated the prohibition on alcohol for ships underway, but someone as straight-laced and by-the-book as the Admiral was one of the last people he'd expect to be sneaking contraband.
"I didn't know you drank, sir."
And for the first time in all these months, Admiral Mfume gave the Commodore a genuine smile.
"That is what happens when you marry an Italian."