Chapter 25
Master and Apprentice
ESS Ticonderoga, Beyond the Martian Sphere
Date: Thu 14 May 123
Time: UST 0817

It had been over 20 hours since the Ticonderoga spacefolded into the Martian Sphere as directed by Chairwoman Liu. There had been no further contact since then. Whatever was going to happen was bound to happen soon, but there was nothing for them to do but wait until the time came.
Over 80% of the command staff was firmly on the side of the Ticonderoga Nine, and this was without any prompting by Commodore Frazier or Admiral Mfume. It seemed safe enough to reveal that they were aboard. The cover story they came up with was that the whole thing was a readiness exercise and a test of the media's susceptibility to subversion. The resident agents afloat passed and MCN failed. The lie hinged entirely on the Nine keeping quiet about their actual experience. If it meant getting back to their units without any hassle, surely they would do their part.
Admiral Mfume had remained on the bridge since before the spacefold, so Commodore Frazier said, "If you'd like to take off for a bit, sir, I'll keep you informed if the situation changes."
"I appreciate the your concern, Commodore," the Admiral replied, "but I will continue to monitor the situation here for a while longer yet."
The Commodore was not going to push the issue. He made the offer. That was all he could do. He felt bad for Yuen as well, who could stand there by his side for hours on end without the slightest complaint.
"How much longer you think it'll be?" Commodore Frazier asked Yuen.
"My answer hasn't changed from when you asked me three hours ago, sir," Yuen replied. "It will happen when it happens. No sooner, no later."
The answer was no more satisfying now than it was three hours ago, but Yuen would never venture any farther than the available data would allow and at the moment, they did not have much data to work with.
However, bringing up the question again worked some kind of magic because one of the operators turned from his station and said, "Sir, we have a ship coming into sensor range. It... It's an America-class."
The operator's hesitation was unsurprising. The Ticonderoga was supposed to be the only active America-class, but there were others in development and apparently one of them was ready enough to be deployed.
"The Saratoga..." Admiral Mfume said in a low voice.
"I thought the Saratoga was still in space trials," Commodore Frazier said.
With his usual deadpan, Captain Yuen replied, "It would seem they moved up the schedule."
"More ships coming up on the sensors, sir," the sensor operator continued. "Four, no, five Camelots. A Spartan... It's the Brasidas. Four Sengokus, six Stratego... Strategosses?"
"Strategoi, Petty Officer," the Commodore corrected.
"Yes, sir. Six Strategoi and 16 Starstorms."
"It would appear that our battle group was rolled into the Saratoga's," Yuen said.
Noting their organization, Commodore Frazier said, "Guess they didn't have a carrier to spare for her, so she's got three cruisers."
"However you look at it, we're outgunned."
The Commodore turned to Yuen and asked, "What makes you think we're gonna throw down?"
Still looking straight on ahead, Yuen replied, "It all depends on how far we carry this game."
"The America-class is continuing her approach," the radar operator said. "The other ships in the formation are holding position."
"She wants to face off with us one-on-one," Commodore Frazier said.
"Sir, the Saratoga is hailing us," the communications operator said.
Already putting in his earpiece, the Commodore said, "Patch it through to the restricted channel."
"Patching through to the restricted channel, aye."
"ESS Ticonderoga, this is the ESS Saratoga," the voice on the other end said. "You will power down all weapons systems, lower your shields and prepare for boarding at once. Any resistance will be met with deadly force. Acknowledge."
Commodore Frazier turned to Admiral Mfume and asked, "What should we do, sir?"
"Play along for now," the Admiral said. "If this is not part of the plan, I would rather not get into a shooting match."
Somewhat uncertainly, Commodore Frazier replied, "I hope you're right about this, sir." He then told the communications operator, "Send the following message to the Saratoga: Acknowledged. Wilco."
"Aye-aye, sir."
Although he was not terribly fond of the idea of lowering their defenses, the Commodore had his orders and he relayed them to the CS operators.
"Power down all weapons systems."
"Powering down weapons, aye, sir."
"Lower the shields."
"Lowering shields, aye, sir."
With that taken care of, Admiral Mfume rose from his chair and said, "Commodore, you have the bridge. If the battle group commander personally comes aboard, I will be waiting in my office."
"Aye-aye, sir."
Once Admiral Mfume had left the bridge, Commodore Frazier looked at Yuen.
"You ready for this?" he asked.
"As ready as I'm going to be, sir," Yuen replied.
Commodore Frazier shook his head. This was either all part of the plan or an incredibly dumb move. Only time would tell.
"Get me the Officer of the Deck," he told the internal comms operator. "We're about to have some company."

* * *

Date: Thu 14 May 123
Time: UST 0936

Admiral Mfume waited in his office patiently for what he knew was coming. He knew Admiral Xenopoulos was slated to be named the commander of Heavy Carrier Battle Group Two. There was perhaps no other person in the entire Navy still alive and on active duty with as much history with Admiral Mfume as Admiral Xenopoulos. Although it was difficult to trust in anything in the great mix-up of politics, intrigue and conspiracy, Admiral Mfume wanted to place his trust in his old friend, but would that trust hold true?
It had nearly been an hour by the time his secretary contacted him.
"Sir, an Admiral Xenopoulos is here to see you."
"Let him through," the Admiral said.
"Aye-aye, sir."
The door opened and in walked two armed Marines, followed by Admiral Xenopoulos. The two Marines stood on either side of Admiral Xenopoulos as he stopped in front of Admiral Mfume's desk.
With a weak smile, Admiral Mfume said, "Hello, Olivier."
Annoyed, Admiral Xenopoulos demanded, "Just what the hell are you playing at?"
"There is no need for all that," Admiral Mfume said, glancing at the two Marines. He held up his hands. "I am unarmed. I would like to speak to you in private."
Admiral Xenopoulos mulled over the prospect over for a moment, unconsciously chewing on his lower lip while he thought, a bad habit he had always had.
Without even looking at the Marines, Admiral Xenopoulos told them, "Post outside the door."
"But, sir..."
"That's an order, Staff Sergeant."
"Aye-aye, sir."
The two Marines went to attention, did an about-face and exited the room, the Staff Sergeant first, followed by the junior, whose rank Admiral Mfume did not notice. Once the door was closed behind them, Admiral Xenopoulos eyed Admiral Mfume a moment before asking him, "Are you going to tell me what all this is about?"
"It is... complicated."
"Then uncomplicate it!"
Admiral Mfume was spared the trouble of explaining the situation himself when the viewscreen on his wall turned on to reveal Chairwoman Liu.
"You're late, Admiral," the Chairwoman said.
Admiral Mfume rose up from his seat and shouted, "Attention on deck!"
A confused Admiral Xenopoulos reflexively went to the position of attention.
"At ease," Chairwoman Liu said. "Take a seat, gentlemen. Let's get down to business, shall we?"
Admiral Mfume sat down and motioned to one of the chairs in front of his desk for Admiral Xenopoulos to sit in. As confused as ever, Admiral Xenopoulos awkwardly sat down in chair to his right, which was angled slightly toward the wall with the viewscreen.
"Ma, Madame Chairwoman, what--?"
"I'm afraid I had manipulate your ready compliance and Marshal Van Daan's animus against Admiral Mfume and Commodore Frazier," the Chairwoman explained, "but rest assured it was for a greater cause."
"A greater cause, ma'am?"
"Surely you've heard about Marshal Graves' declaration from the other day."
"That, ma'am? Just a cheap trick by the Reds to start riots."
"Unfortunately, no," the Chairwoman said. "It was quite legitimate. The Marshal has turned traitor and hijacked Command Battle Group Five. He has joined up with Sheolite and Empyrean remnants and are about to--what's the expression?--raise Cain."
"How could he take an entire battle group?" Admiral Xenopoulos asked.
"All he had to do was take the Iberia and the rest of the battle group followed. Exposing his hijacking will be an important part of your mission and will ensure that the other ships of the battle group are in your corner."
"My mission, ma'am?"
"Our mission, Olivier," Admiral Mfume corrected.
"By claiming the Tico went rogue, we were able to give cover to the movement of two battle groups to intercept Marshal Graves," the Chairwoman said. "Now that we have you together, the time has come to strike, but time is something we're short on. Graves is going to make his move soon."
"What move is that, ma'am?"
"There is a third America-class, the Bunker Hill, currently undergoing space trials here in the Martian Sphere. That is Graves' target. If the Bunker Hill and its spacefolding technology falls into his hands, he and his so-called Colonial Liberation Army will become a serious threat. If a man like him starts to launch successful attacks on Union interests, it could create a domino effect.
"Make no mistake, gentlemen, the only reason the separatist movement doesn't have legs is because it doesn't have teeth. Graves intends to change all that. With the ability to instantaneously strike anywhere in known space, he could cause a lot of damage and embolden millions of traitors in waiting. Think about how many Colonials you have in your crews. How many of them can you really trust when push comes to shove?"
"Ma'am, I would note that I am a Colonial myself," Admiral Mfume said.
"I'm not saying all of you are just traitors looking for an opportunity," the Chairwoman said, "but there are plenty out there who would be quick to drop the Union if they thought they had a real shot at it, and here on Earth, there are a lot of people who wouldn't fight a war to keep them. With the Shellies, we could look outside ourselves, but Graves wants to turn mirror inward and it's not a pretty sight.
"No less than the fate of the Union hangs in the balance, gentlemen. That's why I got the best. Get to the Bunker Hill. Stop Graves with as little damage to our own hardware as you can manage. I'd like to get the Iberia back intact, but I'd rather see it blasted into a million pieces before I let Graves keep it. Are there any questions?"
"No, ma'am," Admiral Mfume replied.
"No, ma'am," Admiral Xenopoulos said, but he did not speak with the same conviction as his counterpart.
Satisfied with their response, the Chairwoman closed, saying, "Then good luck and happy hunting."
The viewscreen cut off, leaving the two admirals to sit there in silence for a moment. It fell to Admiral Mfume to break that silence.
Admiral Xenopoulos shook his head.
"I don't like this, Ibe. I don't like any of it."
"I cannot say that I prefer these methods either," Admiral Mfume admitted, "but this is the hand we have been dealt."
"If someone like Donovan Graves can turn, is there anyone we can trust? Even the Chairwoman?"
"Trust is in short supply in our line of work," Admiral Mfume said, "but I trusted in you."
Admiral Xenopoulos bowed his head slightly.
"I wish I could say the same. I didn't want to believe it when Marshal Van Daan said you went rogue, but for a moment, I..."
Admiral Mfume held up a hand to stop him.
"It is in the past, Olivier. We must go forward."
"You're right," Admiral Xenopoulos said. He tapped on his earpiece and said, "Saratoga, this is Xenopoulos. All ships, stand down. I repeat, all ships, stand down." He then tapped the earpiece again. "Razorbacks, this is Razorback One. Return to the Sara at once. I repeat, return to the Sara at once. The exercise is concluded."
He continued to hold his hand up to his ear for a moment, most likely listening to the responses to his orders. When he lowered his hand, he looked as Admiral Mfume and said, "That should work, shouldn't it?"
"It has worked so far," Admiral Mfume replied.
"Only what's coming up isn't going to be an exercise, is it?"
"I do not think we will be so lucky."
"I suppose I ought to cede operational control to you."
"Not this time, Olivier," Admiral Mfume said. He gave a slight smile. "We will hold joint command."
Admiral Xenopoulos returned his smile.
"Thank you, Ibe."
Admiral Mfume rose from his chair and said, "We need to get started. We should assemble our command staffs at once. There is a lot of explaining to be done."
"Not everyone is going to buy this story, Ibe," Admiral Xenopoulos said. "It's going to be difficult."
"Difficulty has never stopped us in the past."
"I was hoping the greater part of our difficulties were past us. You know, there was a lot of talk of the war being over."
"Perhaps this will finally end it, though perhaps war never truly ends."
Admiral Xenopoulos sighed.
"You always were a ray of sunshine, Ibe."