Chapter 11
Midnight Ride
ESS Ticonderoga, Outside Union Space
Date: Tue 07 Oct 122
Time: UST 1625

Admiral Mfume sat in his office with Admiral Vargin and Commodore Phuong waiting on the line. Once Admiral Xenopoulos of Carrier Battle Group Two-Seven appeared in the terminal window, they could begin.
"I apologize for being late," Admiral Xenopoulos said.
They say that it is a small world in the military. Despite the Navy having millions of personnel dispersed across the entire solar system, this operation marked the eighth time Admiral Xenopoulos had served with Admiral Mfume. They had known each other for almost as long as they had been fighting the war. Such a long friendship made Admiral Mfume a little more indulgent than he would normally be.
"That is quite alright, Olivier," he said generously, "though we are in need of haste."
"It's a little irregular for you to call just the three of us for a conference, Admiral," Commodore Phuong noted.
"The situation is irregular," Admiral Mfume replied. "Until further authorization is made, this conversation is restricted for your ears only. The Ticonderoga's intelligence specialists have decrypted the computers on the derelict Sheolite destroyer and we believe we have our answer as to why they withdrew from Erebus."
"And what was the answer?" Admiral Vargin asked.
"The entire Sheolite Imperial Navy is en route to Earth."
Admiral Xenopoulos muttered under his breath, "Sweet merciful..."
"I need you to take your battle groups back to Earth as fast as possible," Admiral Mfume said. "The Ticonderoga will go on ahead to alert SupCom."
"What about your escorts?" Admiral Vargin asked.
Commodore Phuong followed Admiral Vargin by asking, "How are you going to get there faster than a radio signal?"
"I cannot answer that," Admiral Mfume replied curtly. "Just know that it will be quicker this way. If the intelligence is correct, you will not have to worry about engaging any Sheolites on the way back, but still observe all due discretion."
Shaking his head, Admiral Xenopoulos said, "I don't know whether to hope you're wrong or you're right, Ibe."
Neither scenario was favorable, Admiral Mfume thought. He then said, "We must deal with what comes either way. Admiral Vargin, you are in charge of Task Force Orpheus in my absence."
"Understood," Admiral Vargin replied.
"Very well then. Make sure your people are ready. For all we know, we may already be in the heat of battle when you arrive. Mfume, out."
Admiral Mfume cut the feed to the other battle group commanders and wasting no time, immediately dialed up the bridge.
"This is Frazier."
"Commodore, it is time to open Pandora's Box again."

* * *

Date: Tue 07 Oct 122
Time: UST 1651

It was the blinking light of the commlink that caught Eva's attention, as the ringing was nearly inaudible over the ambient noise of the Engine Room. Putting on the headset, she opened the line and said, "Reactor Department."
"Bianchi, this is Commodore Frazier."
"Get ready to open Pandora's Box."
While it was her job to see that the Kasfeys were ready for spacefold at a moment's notice, Eva had not actually used them since they escaped from the Hades last year.
"You heard me."
Eva didn't really care too much about the reason for her orders, especially now that she was answerable to the Captain alone. She was only interested in the information she needed to execute those orders.
"Earth. Get us a couple gims out to avoid detection."
"Time of departure?"
"As soon as possible. Let me know when you're ready."
"Aye-aye, sir."
"Frazier, out."
Eva took off the headset and turned to her crew milling about. Clapping her hands to get their attention, she yelled, "Alright, people, let's get to work! It's game time."
"Ma'am?" one of the techs asked.
"We're going to spacefold," Eva said. "Everyone get to your stations."
"Aye-aye, ma'am," her crew replied in unison as they posted themselves at their consoles.

* * *

Location: ESS Ticonderoga, Armstrong Orbital Naval Base, Earth Sphere
Date: Wed 08 Oct 122
Time: UST 0800

After the usual opening formalities, the command staff took their seats to begin their conference with Marshal Van Daan.
"Our analysts have completed their preliminary review of the data you submitted," the Marshal began. "We've concluded that the threat is credible but unlikely. We are going to continue to discuss matters and will come to a decision within the next 48 hours."
Admiral Mfume knew it would be best not to press the issue, but Commodore Frazier was not so apt to pick his battles, even after everything that had happened in their tense relationship with SupCom.
"Sir," the Commodore said, "we don't know where the Shellies are, how fast they're going or when they might reach Earth. Do you really think we have that much time to deliberate?"
"We have our estimates on the speed of their ships and have already made calculations," the Marshal said. "They can't use the Gates, so that gives us plenty of time to prepare."
The Commodore did not drop the issue.
"What's to stop them, sir? If they're throwing everything they have at us, they could brute force their way as far as Jupiter without even breaking a sweat."
"I'm not going to bother explaining to you how the Gates work," Marshal Van Daan replied scornfully. "There is no way they could be co-opted by the Sheolites. Instead, I am going to move on to the matter of your ill-advised move to abandon the task force and risk exposing above-top-secret technology."
Standing up with a start and slamming his hands down on the table, Commodore Frazier snapped, "Ill-advised!?"
Admiral Mfume raised his hand, quietly saying, "Commodore."
This was enough to prompt the Commodore to adjust his jacket and sit back down. Before the Marshal could say anything, Admiral Mfume said, "Marshal Van Daan, whatever your estimates, they are based on incomplete data. Given the magnitude of the potential threat, we took what we judged to be an acceptable risk. Even the matter of hours it would have taken to establish a secure connection from our previous position outside Union space could have proved critical for our response."
"We will hold an inquest into your conduct later," the Marshal said. "In the meantime, I suggest you get your facts and your stories straight. My sufferance of your maverick tactics isn't infinite, after all. You will stand by for the next 48 hours. Until then. Van Daan, out."

* * *

Date: Fri 10 Oct 122
Time: UST 1024

Commodore Frazier entered Admiral Mfume's office and went to attention in front of his desk, saying, "Commodore Frazier reporting as ordered, sir."
"At ease, Commodore," the Admiral replied. He motioned to one of the chairs and said, "Feel free to take a seat."
"Thank you, sir," the Commodore said, sitting down. "Have you gotten words from SupCom?"
"I have. I just got off the line with Marshal Van Daan when I called you. We are being transferred to the Martian Sphere for the next 30 days."
"Why Mars, sir?"
The Admiral folded his hands and said, "The idea is to try to intercept the Sheolites there to spare Earth the worst of the fighting. If the Sheolite attack even comes into being, as the Marshal said."
Like pretty much all the plans to come of SupCom, this one was riddled with holes.
"It won't be hard for them to bypass Mars or any of the rest the Colonial forces if that's what they have a mind to do," Commodore Frazier said.
"The Marshal is willing to waive an inquest on our use of Pandora's Box contingent on our unconditional compliance with these orders."
Normally a superior officer shouldn't have to haggle to ensure that orders are followed, but Marshal Van Daan was apparently willing to back away from his earlier threats just so wouldn't have to put up with any challenge to his strategic decisions. It was not a course of action Commodore Frazier could respect in a superior, but there was a lot about Marshal Van Daan he didn't respect.
Speaking of which, the implications of this plan set his teeth on edge.
"Even if the plan does work," he said, "sacrificing Mars for Earth? That's not gonna play well in the press."
"I doubt the plan will ever be made public," Admiral Mfume replied.
"This sort of stuff always seems to have a way of coming out."
Admiral Mfume simply shrugged.
"That would be matter for Public Affairs. Our job is to be ready to meet the Sheolite threat if and when it materializes."
That 'if' stuck in the Commodore's craw. The longer he had to think about it, the more he considered the possibility that the derelict destroyer was part of a big setup.
"What do you think, sir?" he asked. "You think all this is just a big ruse?"
"I am not sure," the Admiral replied. "The Sheolites have never been easy to predict, but based on what we know, I am certain they are planning something big. I worry that we may be following the script they have written for us."
Commodore Frazier didn't like the idea that the Shellies were playing them. Of course, even if that was what they were doing, it didn't mean he had to take it. Scripts can be rewritten.
"Maybe we'll just have to ad-lib," he said with a grin.
The Admiral returned his smile.
"Maybe so."