Chapter 5
Back to the Front
ESS Ticonderoga, Martian Sphere
Date: Fri 01 Aug 122
Time: UST 1500

Following the review of the qualification course, the Ticonderoga was cleared to receive the shipment of seven brand-new Tigerhawks fresh from shakedown. Ongoing exercises were wrapped up and the command staff had gathered once again to receive the latest orders from SupCom.
As soon as Marshal Van Daan appeared on the viewscreen, Admiral Mfume shouted, "Attention on deck!"
"As you were," the Marshal said. As the command staff took their seats, he began saying, "First off, I would like to congratulate the Four-Five on its newest squadron. I was quite pleased with the results of qualification course."
"Thank you, sir," Captain Nagashima, the Tico's CAG, replied, perhaps the first time he had ever spoken up during one of these conference calls.
Moving along, Marshal Van Daan then said, "And now for our main business. Let me preface this by saying that the details of your next mission are restricted to Tier 9 command personnel and up. What we are about to discuss does not leave this room. Details will be filtered down to the lower level commanders on a strict need-to-know basis. Is that clear?"
"Yes, sir," the command staff replied in unison.
"Good. Be glad you're all sitting down, ladies and gentlemen. Most of you have been waiting your whole careers to hear this. We've found the Sheolite homeworld."
Silence filled the room. Not one of them could believe what they had just head. It took Admiral Mfume to speak up first.
"Sir, did you just say--"
"We found the Sheolite homeworld," the Marshal repeated, a slight grin crossing his lips. "Yes, you heard me correctly. There's been rumor and conjecture the entire war, but now we know for sure. Intel's been working on this for seven months and there's no doubt."
"Sir," Commodore Frazier said, eyeing the Marshal critically, "didn't you say back in June that you didn't have any specific intel to get us back in the fight?"
"At the time, you didn't need to know, Commodore," Marshal Van Daan said dismissively. "The situation has since changed."
Commodore Frazier crossed his arms but said nothing in response.
The Marshal paid no heed to the Commodore's show of dissatisfaction and continued, "The Ticonderoga will regroup with Carrier Battle Groups One-Seven and Four-Two at Barton. You will also meet up with Carrier Battle Group Two-Seven en route at the Jupiter Gate. The operation will be codenamed 'Orpheus' and Admiral Mfume will be, as always, the task force commander.
"Mission details are as follows: The task force will assemble at Barton within the next 48 hours. There you will then receive the coordinates to the target and any additional instructions deemed necessary at that time."
The central projector displayed a model of the system and zoomed in on a location outside the network. Rather than a 3D projection, a flat still was displayed. It looked like an asteroid, but something was a bit off about it, a little too well-rounded for its size but still somewhat irregular.
"This is your target," Marshal Van Daan explained. "It has been identified as Artificial Planetoid 01, the one and only product of the failed Project Demiurge, deemed unfit for habitation and abandoned back in '78. The target has been codenamed 'Erebus' and our reconnaissance indicates that it's always defended by at least one but no more than two Sheolite fleets. With three carrier battle groups to assist the Ticonderoga, to say nothing of the new Tigerhawks, you should have little difficulty wiping out their naval power.
"When the external defenses have been eliminated, you will proceed to deploy the Marines to neutralize any and all hostiles inside. When the facilities have been secured, I want every drop of intel squeezed out of the place and then I want it destroyed completely. We deny the Sheolites any future use of their home base and then we move for the endgame. Are there any questions?"
No one said anything at first. Commodore Frazier looked around the room and asked the assembled staffers, "Am I the one who has to say something?"
Knowing what was coming, Admiral Mfume let out a nearly imperceptible sigh, looked to Marshal Van Daan on the viewscreen and said, "Sir?"
Gritting his teeth somewhat, Marshal Van Daan said, "Go ahead, Commodore. Let's get it out in the open."
"How far out is the target, sir?" the Commodore asked.
"That information will be disclosed once the task force has been assembled."
"I suppose you'll tell me you can't confirm or deny it, but I'm guessing it's well enough outside the network that we can't expect help to arrive anytime soon, if at all."
Without showing any sign of the answer being one or the other, the Marshal replied, "You are correct that I will neither confirm nor deny that information at this time."
Commodore Frazier leaned back in seat, his arms still crossed.
"Well, three battle groups against two Shelly fleets beats the batshit crazy odds we had to deal with last year, I'll give you that, sir. Oh, I imagine we can probably beat 'em, but I don't think 'little difficulty' is how I'd call it, no matter how slick the new wonderbird is. We'll get our nose bloodied good, that's for sure. We'll probably lose some ships, too.
"Now, all that's one thing, but if this really is the Shelly homeworld, I have a hard time believing they won't call for backup. We don't know where all the other fleets are. If our little encounter with them is any indication, they like to stick together when they aren't splitting up for raids. If they throw any more than two fleets at us, the mission is fucked. The faster ships can get away going at full burn, but the slower ones are toast and so is anyone whose engines are hit.
"We lost a damn lot of good people in Heaven's Door thanks to the half-baked plans your nimrod strategists came up with. The only reason we didn't get wiped out is because of a whole lotta dumb fuckin' luck and goddamned Mika Otonashi hijacking damn near half the enemy fleet. I'm not going to stand here and let you set up the Admiral for another disaster like that."
While the Marshal was looking more and more annoyed as the Commodore made his objections, it was actually General Pfeiffer who cut him off.
"Commodore, that's quite enough."
"Stand down, General Pfeiffer," Marshal Van Daan said tersely. "I can fight my own battles." Glaring at Commodore Frazier, the Marshal growled, "I'm not going to get into an argument with you, Frazier. You have your orders and I expect you to execute. If you want to refuse those orders, by all means, speak up now so I can relieve you of your command and find someone a little less insubordinate to take the helm."
Before Commodore Frazier could meet the Marshal's challenge, Admiral Mfume intervened.
"Sir, with all due respect, Commodore Frazier has raised some valid concerns about this mission. I can appreciate the need for the strictest operational security in a mission of this significance, but your unwillingness to address those concerns is no way to allay them."
"Mfume, I thought I could count on you to follow orders."
"I have not disobeyed any orders, sir, and neither has Commodore Frazier. We are simply observing our duty as officers in the Earth Union Navy. We are not mere drones and we are not to follow orders blindly to the hazard of ship and crew. Surely you have not forgotten that, sir."
Marshal Van Daan stared down the Admiral for a few tense moments of silence. Admiral Mfume did not flinch, but neither did the Marshal.
"I will take your concerns under advisement," Marshal Van Daan said stiffly. "We can continue this discussion once the task force is assembled at Barton."
"Aye-aye, sir," Admiral Mfume replied.
"Van Daan, out."
The viewscreen went blank. Some dirty looks were exchanged amongst the staffers. As always, their orders had a way of flaring up the divisions in the command staff.
"Thanks for speaking up there, Commodore," Colonel Vasquez said. "I'd've said something myself, but we all know how much attention people pay to whatever the hell I've got to say." Eyeing General Pfeiffer, he added, "And God damn it right to hell, Pfeiffer, but if you kissed that man's ass any harder, they'd have to pry your lips loose with a fuckin' crowbar."
"Stand down, Colonel," Admiral Mfume said harshly. "That will be quite enough of that. You are free to state a difference of opinion, but I will not tolerate abusive language, especially toward a superior officer. Consider this your final warning."
"Yes, sir," the Colonel replied grudgingly.
General Pfeiffer then asked the Admiral, "Permission to speak freely, sir?"
"Provided you bear in mind my warning to Colonel Vasquez, go ahead, General."
"Aye-aye, sir. What I would like to say is this: Whatever valid concerns there may be about the feasibility of this mission, I can't help but feel that Commodore Frazier is letting his personal feelings toward Marshal Van Daan interfere with good order and military discipline."
Not bothering to hide his irritation, Commodore Frazier replied, "Out of respect for the Admiral, I'm not going to tell you where you can stick your opinion, General Pfeiffer."
Admiral Mfume gave him a critical look.
"No excuse, sir," Commodore Frazier said with an exasperated sigh.
Looking around the room, the Admiral told the assembled members, "The last thing we need is to be at each other's throats. We will head to Barton as ordered and see if SupCom has taken our concerns seriously or not. In the meantime, I want us to prepare a proper response.
"Commodore Zhang, Commodore Liu, I want Ops and Intel working together to assess the feasibility of the mission based on the information currently available to us. I want to see contingencies accounted for and alternate proposals drawn up within the next 36 hours."
"Aye-aye, sir," Commodores Zhang and Liu replied.
"We paid a terrible price with Heaven's Door," Admiral Mfume said, "and our victory relied more on luck and circumstance than anything else. We can ill afford to suffer such losses again or rely on luck to get us through. However, if Erebus truly is the Sheolite homeworld and we can deny them its use as a base of operations, we could move into the endgame at long last. This has to be factored into our calculations.
"I want you all to be thinking about this operation and how the people under your command can make it a success. If you have any ideas or suggestions, forward them to Commodore Zhang, but do not forget the classified nature of the mission details. We will have to work in something of a roundabout manner to avoid breaking OpSec, but I know you can handle it. If there are no questions, you are dismissed."
If there were any questions, no one wanted to spark a fresh dispute, so the assembly simply rose from their seats and began to file out of the room. There were some low whisperings and mutterings, but that much was inevitable.
It had never been easy striking the balance between the strict obedience demanded of military discipline and the sort of flexible, independent thinking essential for tactical competence, and individuals veering too far in one direction or another had always been a problem for maintaining unit cohesion and the good order of the chain of command. However, the command staff would have to overcome their differences if the mission was to stand any chance of success. They had done so before and surely they would do so again. If they did not, they could very well lose the battle before even the first shot was fired.