ALTERNATE TALES OF THE STAR FORCE

STAR BLAZERS-TRIALS AND TRIBULATIONS

By: Frederick P. Kopetz

with note to the following:


STAR BLAZERS, SPACE BATTLESHIP YAMATO, and all related names and elements are copyright (c) 1998 by Leiji Matsumoto and Voyager Entertainment, Inc. Star Blazers is a registered trademark of Jupiter Films, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

NOTE: This story and its successors represent an Alternate Reality that may or may not coincide with the events portrayed in the STAR BLAZERS and SPACE BATTLESHIP YAMATO series and movies. Special Thanks to Gail R. Kopetz (AKA "Fluffy") & Derek C. Wakefield for their encouragement.


ACT ONE---RETURN

I. A COMMAND DIRECTIVE

Tuesday, January 5, 2202

Derek and Nova Wildstar's Residence

Sands Point: Middle Neck Road

0926 Hours


Back home from his honeymoon with Nova, Captain Derek Wildstar sat in civvies (a white sweater, jeans, and boots) in his personal downstairs office, reviewing some notes concerning the Argo's refit.

These projected performance figures are interesting, he thought. They weren't kidding when they told me that the Argo would be faster and more powerful with a new Andromeda-class wave motion engine. The interesting part will be seeing if these figures actually come out this way when we begin our space trials.

A moment later, Nova, casually dressed in a burgundy sweatshirt, grey sweat pants, and socks, ran into the office. "There you are! Derek...a call came in on the other line in the living room."

"Who was it?"

"The Commander. He wants you at Headquarters at 1100 hours."

"Today?"

"Today. He said it was urgent."

"Okay," sighed Wildstar. "Duty calls. Let's...get dressed, then."

"Hope you don't mind if I stay home. I have some work to do before we head off to outer space again," said Nova.

"Such as?"

"Cleaning this house and making your lunch," said Nova with a little smile.

"Okay. Thank you."


II. UNTIL MY DARK LORD'S KINGDOM COMETH...

Earth-In the Remains of Allensburg, PA

Trout Hall-Settlement Center

New Jersusalem Compound of The

Church of the Final Judgment

Tuesday, January 5, 2202

1026 Hours: Local Time


Brother Joachim, one of the most trusted servants of the Prophetess Yvona Josiah, stood a few hundred meters away from a rebuilt stone house surrounded by bleak hills of sand. The sand was the farthest thing from the warm, toasty sand on which Wildstar and Nova had recently been napping on far away on Dominica. This sand, mixed with the limestone and dirt indigenous to the area, was as cold as death, as this area had never been rebuilt after the Gamilon planet bombings of a few years ago...save, of course, for the complex that housed Yvona Josiah's cult, reconstituted under the laws of the Federation as an "independent plantation." 

The sand was so cold that Joachim felt its cold even through his polished jackboots. Damn good thing the Prophetess at least permitted her Cherubim Guard to dress for the weather, thought Joachim. If we were ordered to repent today, I'd be here freezing in a summer uniform, sackcloth, and sandals. The Prophetess, at least, is wise.

Joachim, a veteran of the UNSDF and EDF, had once been a friend of Captain Hiram Josiah's. Captain Josiah would always rue the day he had introduced the officer to his wife. Within a few weeks of their meeting, Joachim had agreed to sell all his worldly goods, save for his old UNSDF uniform, to Yvona's growing cult. Because of his experience, the Prophetess Yvona had chosen him to become the Captain of her Guard of Cherubim.

Yvona followed the strict Old Testament definitiion of what a cherub was. A cherub was not the happy, inspipid angel of popular legend, but was, instead, a fierce guardian of the holiness of the Lord. A cherub, Yvona noted, had been the one guarding the passage to the Tree of Life after Adam and Eve had sinned, and, in Yvona's teachings, other invisible cherubim guarded the way back to Paradise.

Many mighty angels had been cherubim, hence, the name of this guard. Joachim had once noted that Satan had once been a holy cherub before his fall, but he thought that it wasn't a wise idea to remind Her Holiness of that fact.

After a moment, the door of Trout Hall began to open. It opened very slowly, as if there was someone inside who had a hard time opening doors. As it opened, it creaked and groaned.

From inside, Joachim thought he could hear labored breathing mixed with insane, semi-senile cackling. Joachim recognized that labored, evil cackle and shivered, wondering why it was that the Lord God had chosen to speak through such an obviously warped, cracked, and broken pot of clay. Maybe to show us we're all clay in His sight, thought Joachim uncomfortably. He considered snapping to attention  at once but thought better of it, knowing that She would want to see him and the others snapping to as she came out.

Joachim tensed and snapped to attention when the door of the house finally opened and four men, clad in uniforms identical to his own, came striding out, surrounding a fifth figure, who didn't so much stride as waddle, even thought he wouldn't tell Her that.

The fifth figure wore a black dress, crude rope sandals with tire-tread soles, several pendants, a brown burlap shawl, and something that looked like a monk's cowl that dangled over her shoulders. A few hundred meters away, more Cherubim appeared and snapped to attention at the passage of the Prophetess Yvona, who smiled and leered at each one of them through her dark, large, but vicious eyes as she went past with the cold breeze blowing indifferently through her mop of grey-white hair which was pinned at the back in a tight, gruesome bun with large straight pins.

She abruptly stopped before one figure who waited maybe one hundred meters away from Joachim. "YOU!" she snapped in a whining, raspy voice. "Do you know what your problem is?" she whispered in a conspiratorial cackle.

"No, Prophetess."

"It is that your posture of attention is uninspiring, and that your uniform helmet is not properly shined. Do you not know that I am the LORD'S anointed, and that you have insulted me? And do you not know that..."

"...I know, Prophetess. To insult you is to offer blasphemy before the LORD."

"Good that you have learned thy lessons," whispered Yvona, who then turned to one of her personal guardsmen. "Malachi. Step forth and smite him for me, would you?"

"Yes, Prophetess," said the young man as he turned towards the terrified soldier. "Forgive me, Michael. This is merely some brotherly correction."

Michael then gasped loudly as a fist rammed into his midsection, followed, a moment later, by a baton slamming into the back of his neck as Malachi emotionlessly began to beat him into unconsciousness; a prerequisite to his upcoming day of Punishment locked up in the compound's prison in solitary confinement. Michael, at least, was lucky; the Prophetess would allow him to drink water and eat bread. Some of those condemned to Punishment didn't even get that, and, as for the worst offenders...well, Joachim didn't need to think hard to know what happened to them. Not far away from Trout Hall, he noticed that the crows were still flocking around the crosses he and his men had erected last week in the woods. He was a little suprised that there was still anything left of Brother Malcolm, his wife, and his child on the crosses for the carrion birds to pick at.

Joachim turned his head towards Yvona as the old Prophetess stood chuckling under her breath. There are times, Prophetess, when even I wonder about you, he thought...but, you have the words of God. Where else would we turn for the truth?

"Joachim," rasped Yvona. "You and I have need to talk. Come, out of earshot of the others..."

After a long walk deeper into the deceptively tranquil-looking woods that surrounded the church headquarters, Yvona asked, "Is the Battle Headquarters ready?"

"It is," said Joachim. "Power has just been fully restored to the mountain facility. Now that we have power, we need materials. We need men. We need conscripts."

"How long will it be until we can make a realistic move towards power?"

"Years, Prophetess. Years," gasped Joachim.

"What would you say if I told you we don't have years?"

"Prophetess, I'm sure that even God would tell you...such things take time. Yes, we are rebuilding a Dynamic Do-All or two, but, even Do-Alls do not run on air. To build Super Starfighters, we need materials. And to build a warship, as you propose, would require more in the way of excavation, more machinery, more men, and much more in materials, as well as covert cooperation in the ranks of the EDF itself. We need to convert officers. Would not your niece be a target for conversion, Prophetess?"

"NEVER!!!!!" screamed Yvona as she slapped Joachim across the face. "My niece, Nova Forrester, is nothing but a stinking WHORE!"

"I thought, Prophetess, that her name was now "Wildstar.", gasped Joachim.

"It's still Forrester as far as I'm concerned," hissed Yvona. "I don't recognize her marriage to that Wildstar. God told us not to mix the threads in the cloth we weave. Nova has chosen to cohabit with someone from Asia bound for the Pit who will soon eat a demon. Those who eat demons are not human. Would you ask me to marry a woman to a horse?"

"No, Prophetess."

"Then she cannot be with us. She sleeps with someone who will beat a demon and is thus bound to be eaten by a demon," rasped Yvona. "That means she, too, shall be eaten by a demon. Pray for my protection, Joachim."

"Why?"

"I must see her one last time; at what is known as a...Housewarming...in a day from now. I must confront Nova with her sin and force her to repent and leave the Eastern Demon, which she will probably not do, or, I must spit upon her and drive her forth from the family."

"Which means?" gasped Joachim.

"Which means I will personally mark her for Death. I'm sure that you know what we shall do next, eh?" chuckled Yvona.

"Yes, I do," said Joachim. "As for the Lord's coming?"

"Soon to occur. His Dark Angels will soon begin to appear. So have I been told. Then, the Lord Himself shall provide, against all odds, and against all others, yea, even against the mock-worshippers of the Cometine Devils and their demon gods and goddesses..."

"The Cometine Devils? The ones who attacked Denver?"

"They will prove to be no threat to us," said Yvona in a remarkably assured voice. "At our Lord's Coming, the Lord will take the Earth as His possession and sanctify it against all comers, even the Cometine Devils. But there is much to be done, yea, much to be done, after my niece is marked for Death and after the Commander of the sinful EDF is marked for Death. Will you flinch?"

"No, Prophetess," said Joachim, wondering how he and his men would accomplish these planned assassinations. "I will not flinch. The Lord will provide," he said, giving up his intellect to his belief in his God and His Prophetess.

"Good," purred Yvona. "God will bless you, my son. I will see to it."


III. DRAWING UP THE PIECES

Cometine Empire Base World "X-3"

(Procyon System)

Tuesday, January 5, 2202

1102 Hours: Earth (Zulu) Time


"I have called this staff meeting," said the newly-proclaimed Baron Gernitz, "for the sole purpose of assessing our operations, to date, against both the Gamilons and the Terrans. To achieve our mission, I have also communed with the High Command, which has agreed to grant me the rank of Baron and bless our enterprise as a House-in-Being. We don't need the Emperor's blessing, but it does help. Now, that I have informed all of you, including the latecomers, of this fact, let us begin."

"Baron," asked General Varlan, his second-in-command. "What would you have us do with Earth afterward? As we do not have a City-Ship, at least not as of yet...we cannot destroy it. Would you have us devastate it?"

"I forbid it," said Gernitz. "Absolutely. The reason is because her resources would be useful. And, as for your advice; I'd ask you this; why should I listen to you in any but the simplest things? Did you not permit the Gamilons to inflict unacceptable losses upon your squadron a few days back near Garalenda?"

"We were ordered, by you, to merely probe their defenses, and...."

At that, Gernitz stood up from his place at the head of the table and struck Varlan across the back of the neck with his pistol. "Enough of your excuses, you incompetent fool!" he roared. "I didn't accept them when you crawled back from Garalenda with only one battleship intact, and I won't accept them now! Weren't you briefed on the Gamilons' SMITE equipment, fool? Didn't I tell you enough about their tactics?"

"You did, my Baron," gasped Varlan.

"When you next engage Gamilons, I want you to shed a great deal of enemy blood to atone to me for your stupidity and lack of preparedness! Cometines should never be surprised by the enemy's forces, especially not in my House!" snapped Gernitz.

"Now. As for the rest of you," said Gernitz as he looked down the table. "General Paltris. You just recently arrived back here from your little engagement near Earth. I am not as angry with you as I am with Varlan. Shall we say, your squadron was somewhat more expendable," he smiled. "Now, at least, we know that Earth will not be undefended. Naska, what has your squadron been up to?"

General Naska, a former officer of Zordar's House who had been humiliated by both the Star Force and Desslok stood, awaiting his moment.

"Baron Gernitz, I have learned that the Argo will soon be launched again."

"The Argo?" said Gernitz mildly.

"The old, but remarkably effective space battleship which is the base ship of the Star Force. As you know, my Baron, I have met them before in battle. I underestimated them, once."

"You underestimated them?" repeated Gernitz sarcastically.

"Yes. I allowed my squadron to be defeated by them once due to my lack of judgment."

"That's nothing new," said Gernitz. "That seems to be a habit among many of my generals as of late. I ought to judge you with the others, defeatist!"

"Baron, I accept any judgment you may..."

"You haven't lost any ships in combat in the past few weeks, you fool." said Gernitz as he sat musing.

"For my past losses, I apologize, sir, both to you, and the spirit of Prince Zordar." Naska stood up and bowed humbly.

"Accepted. You may sit," said Gernitz. "Perhaps the rest of you need a lesson in humility, eh? Paltris?"

"Yes, my Baron," said the older white-haired officer as he stood.

"I place you under Naska's command. He is familiar with this...Star Force. Nothing drives a man like the need to redeem himself after a defeat. I think you will both work well together. You will find me this...Star Force, and deal with it in like fashion. Naska, you have your four carriers , two space battleships, and their escorts. I give you two more carriers, and I place Paltris, his carrier, and three new carriers and two space battleships under your command. Find this Star Force, engage it, and keep it from coming this way for a while. Arishna will bless your undertaking."

"When do we leave?" asked Naska as he and Paltris bowed.

"Now, of course," said Gernitz.

"As you command," smiled Naska wolfishly.

A few hours later, the new fleet roared up from the surface of Planet X-3. There were six spacecraft carriers and two space battleships under Naska's command, with each capital ship escorted by two destroyers. Paltris' reconstituted squadron had four spacecraft carriers and two space battleships, each escorted by two destroyers. Altogether, forty-two warships left X-3, with the battleships in the lead to engage any comers and protect the carriers.

"General Naska," snapped the captain of the lead battleship, the Draganda as he reported in on the main screen on Naska's flagship, the single-deck carrier Venshana.

"Yes, Schazoid?"

"We're picking up activity near the edge of our radar range, sir. They have not responded to our coded transmissions."

"Have you been able to pick up a visual identification?"

"No, sir, but the signature is consistent with a capital ship escorted by nine smaller vessels."

"Take your squadron and advance. It may be nothing but some older ships joining us that don't know the code. If they appear to be suspicious, well, you have all your weapons at the ready. I'm sure you'll know what to do."

"Of course, General," smiled Schazoid. "If they're hostile to us, they'll never report back to inform anyone of our presence."

At that, Schazoid cut off, smiling as he ordered his squadron to advance.


Some distance away, a Gamilon commander watched the approaching blips of the Cometine squadron and said, "This doesn't look good. They haven't responded to our interrogatory codes."

"Advice, General Valford?" asked his executive officer, Captain Vidal.

"Order the cruisers to spread out and prepare to engage. Have the destroyers defend us while we prepare our planes for launch," said General Valford, commander of the Gamilon scouting squadron from his flagship, the recently-arrived battle carrier Omega. "Lastly, prepare to open a channel back to Garalenda."


"Command frequency, sir?" said Vidal.

Valford nodded as his orders went out throughout the Gamilon task group to the escorting destroyers, which took defensive positions near their flagship.


"Sir, they have three ships coming right towards us," said an officer aboard the Draganda.

"Our first catch of the day," sneered Schazoid happily. "Prepare shock cannon. We'll teach them to meddle with us!"

"Shock cannon locked and ready," snapped the battleship's gunnery officer. "Main turrets locked and ready."

"Open fire! laughed Schazoid.

A barrage of enemy fire was soon roaring towards one of the Gamilon escort cruisers. Before its crew could react, it was hit point-blank and blown to bits.

A destroyer, and another one of the escorts met the same fate a scant moment later, just as the two opposing forces finally gained long-range visual identifications of each other.

"GAMILONS!" sneered Schazoid with a hearty laugh. "So, those arrogant bastards think they can attack our base with only one carrier and a few escorts? You'll soon find out we're not that stupid! All ships, concentrate on that carrier. Don't let them launch a single plane! Blow them into space trash!"

"General Valford! We've lost half our escorts!" snapped a brown-armored officer aboard the Omega as report after report came in.

"Cometine brigands!" snapped Valford as the light shone off his dark brown hair. "To have come this far just to be attacked by a bunch of renegades! Who are they? I don't recognize the markings of those vessels! Leader Desslok has to know about this! Open a channel at once!"

"Leader Desslok," said Valford as the battlecarrier Omega's gun turrets locked on the approaching enemy ships. "This is the Fourth Scout Group. While scouting near the Procyon system, we have fallen under attack near the fifth planet of the system. The enemy ships are Cometine battleships and cruisers, in the new, unknown grey colors. Based upon prior intelligence, these may be elements of General Gernitz's fleet. We are under heavy attack, but are attempting to cover our retreat..."

"Sir, they're transmitting a message!" said one of Schazoid's officers.

"Jam it, and prepare to blow those scum apart!" snapped Schazoid. "Those idiots," he sneered. "They think they can oppose me? Think again, you fools!" he muttered through tightly clenched lips. "I've had enough of our forces being made the laughingstock of the galaxy. Now, it's time for us to get serious! OPEN FIRE! Finish them all off!"

Before Valford could finish his message, his ship was hit across the bow, blowing much of the bow out in a torrent of flame.

From that point onwards, even though the Omega was able to get a few shots off that nicked one of Schazoid's space battleships, the Gamilons' fate was sealed as just a few moments later, the entire task group was blown apart. Needless to say, there were no survivors.

Schazoid's squadron, followed by Naska's carriers, sailed triumphantly through the smoke, gas and debris just as if they had completed a long fleet exercise in space junk. At last, the honor of Gernitz's House was avenged, and, as the Gamilons would soon learn, Baron Gernitz was indeed a force to be reckoned with.

However, Naska's mind was far, far away. It would take a few days, but, already, he was anticipating his arrival in the Sol System. There, he would, if their intelligence was correct, soon make up for his error of judgment several months ago, and he would have the Star Force begging for mercy, before, of course, he blew the space battleship Argo apart.

"Sir, do you think the Gamilons received the message before Schazoid jammed it and finished them off?" asked an officer a few minutes later on Naska's carrier.

"What does it matter if they did?" laughed Naska. "Let Desslok be there! I'd just like to see his face when he sees what we do to the Argo in a few days when the moronic Earthlings launch the ship on space trials! Who knows? Maybe when we take Desslok prisoner, we can give him a few shards of wreckage from the Argo for keepsakes! Hahahahahahahahahahahahahaha!"


"Valiant fool..." muttered Desslok as he crumpled up a copy of the last communiqué from the Omega a few hours later. "Why didn't you retreat sooner? You knew you were outnumbered, Valford."

"His specialty was once Intelligence, Leader Desslok," said Talan mournfully. "I knew him. He was just doing his duty to the end. So, what does this mean for our plans, Leader Desslok? Shouldn't we rout out that rat's nest?"

"No...not yet," said Desslok with an upraised hand. "Now is not the time for a frontal attack. We don't have enough to take them on like that yet."

"Then...?"

"Look at the concentration of their forces," said Desslok, pointing to a tactical display. "X-3 is near Earth. Based upon my interrogation of the Cometine prisoner taken the other day, I have ascertained that they are ignoring Sirius, the former X-2 world. With the intelligence they have learned, their concentration of forces confirms that they are preparing for another attack upon Earth. When it will come, I don't know, but we cannot allow the Earthlings to be taken by surprise again. Talan, prepare my fleet. Our destination is Earth. Now is the time to warn Wildstar of what we have learned. We cannot wait any longer."

"Yessir," said Talan. "I'll relay the orders at once."


IV. A COMMAND MEETING

Tuesday, January 5, 2202

The Megalopolis

Earth Defense Headquarters

1100 Hours


"Sir, Captain Wildstar reporting as ordered," said Wildstar as, a while later, he stood before Commanding General Charles Singleton's desk in Earth Defense Headquarters, now dressed in his new Captain's uniform with his new black, red, and gold peacoat over his usual red-and-white Star Force Combat Group uniform.

"At ease," said General Singleton. "I hope that you and Nova had an excellent honeymoon."

"We did, sir."

"I'm glad to hear that. The two of you had such a nice wedding. It was a pleasure to be there. And, as you know, I was glad to take the necessary action to grant you permission to get married."

"Now, as to why I called you here today," said the Commander. "You recall that the Argo is still in her final stages of refit?"

"Yessir."

"Captain...the ship has recently been moved and placed at a new site. However, Lieutenant Commander Sandor reports that the repairs are being completed ahead of schedule. Henceforth, you can expect to assume command of the Argo on the seventh, as we previously discussed, with your takeoff on the morning of the eighth.," said Singleton, pausing for a moment.

"Sandor and his crews did good work," said Wildstar.

"They did. Here are your mission orders," said Singleton, handing Wildstar a sheaf of papers, which he began to read over.

"Wildstar, be noted," said Singleton, " that your orders include the following provisos. First, be advised that it has been decided to use this cruise as an opportunity in order to test several concepts in personnel management. This experiment is being implemented by a prominent psychologist in the Medical Command; namely, Doctor Renee Lambert."

"Doctor Lambert?" said Wildstar "I've never heard of her, sir."

"She's a top researcher in the field of interpersonal relations in regard to Earth Defense Forces installations. As such, I've invited her here to explain this experiment to you."

The Commander pressed a button on his intercom and said, "Lieutenant, you can send Doctor Lambert in now."

A moment later, the hatch opened, and a young woman with short, dark brown hair strode in. She wore glasses, and was dressed in a female version of the Commander's dark-green Command-section Headquarters uniform.

"Commander," said Doctor Lambert, after she saluted both men. "I'm Doctor Lambert, one of the head Medical researchers assigned to the Command section of Defense Headquarters. It's an honor to meet you at last, Captain Wildstar."

"I'm sure," said Wildstar. "May I ask why you're here?"

"Of course. At the current time, a study is being performed about interpersonal dynamics on long-duration space voyages. I understand you're familiar with some of the problems a crew might face on long-term cruises. Problems such as getting members of a crew with differing viewpoints to work together, as well as problems caused by having to deal with different interpersonal conflicts in such a crew on such a voyage."

"Yes, but only in the practical sense," said Wildstar. "What does this have to do with this trial and exploration cruise for the Argo?"

"The Defense Forces," explained Singleton, "are currently in the early stages of considering the eventual concept of forming an Interstellar Fleet for long-range patrol and exploration beyond the solar system. We feel that, after we finish reconstructing the Defense Fleet, there will be a vital need for such a fleet to serve as an advance force should another enemy attempt an invasion. It has been considered that if a force had been available to intercept the Comet Empire's fleet before it reached the solar system, perhaps the battle could have been won without the loss of the Andromeda and the rest of the fleet. As such, we have considered the possibility that we might be keeping forces on deployment for a longer period than usual."

"Sir.... we learned on our cruise to Iscandar," said Wildstar, "...as well as during our voyage to Telezart, that problems could arise with the crew on a long voyage."

"Could you tell us, in your estimation, what these problems might be?" asked Lambert.

Wildstar thought for a moment. "Well...there have been problems with morale during such long voyages. Homesickness was a major factor, and so was boredom. A lot of differences that arose during our missions arose when crew members simply grew bored, and had no opportunity to release their boredom except by...causing trouble," said Wildstar, thinking back to the times on their Iscandar mission where he had been one of the troublemakers. Then, his mind shifted forward to the memory of their recent cruise and the memory of how the Space Marines had acted. "When you have a group of bored men, especially men who have endured a major loss, aboard a ship, it can really cause problems. It is my hope, however, that, perhaps, situations of that type can be dealt with by better personnel management."

"Such as?" said Lambert.

"Such as keeping men busy...keeping them occupied, and keeping their morale up so that they won't have an opportunity to let these problems fester."

"What do you think would be a worst-case scenario?" asked Lambert.

"If a commander had to deal with a group of officers and men who had bad records, for things such as fighting, lack of respect for their commanders, racist and sexist attitudes, and even breaches of fraternization in different guises," said Wildstar.

"And, what sort of Captain do you think it would take to deal with such a crew?" asked Lambert.

"An adaptable man," said Wildstar after he pondered the question for a moment. "The sort of person who can deal with the challenge of making such a crew into an effective fighting unit, with a great deal of esprit de corps, Doctor. But I would hope that you wouldn't have the situation you described all that often, Doctor."

"It may arise, and it may arise sooner and more often than you might imagine," said Doctor Lambert. "While our forces have been somewhat depleted by the loss of our fleet at Saturn-Titan, the worst losses were in regard to officers and men with Fleet experience. This loss has practically put us back to where we were in September 2199. But, this time, as we are aware that there is still a great potential that a new threat may exist, we need to fill those personnel slots as quickly as a new Fleet can be built."

Lambert paused for a moment. "Also, as the Commander has said," she said after taking a deep breath, "we hope to someday construct an Interstellar Fleet that will be on station for long periods of time, often without a personnel selection process quite as rigorous as that for the Star Force. So, we have decided that we need to observe a crew where we might have several problems cropping up at once. After a careful study of qualified ship commanders within our small fleet, we have determined that you might be best suited for the assignment of dealing with a crew where...such a situation exists. We'd like to see how you'd deal with them. As such, your ship has been designated as something of an experimental vessel...a sort of laboratory...for an experimental observation of the situations that would arise. This has never been done before, so we'd like some hard data. As such, a member of my staff will be aboard as a neutral observer, serving in another shipboard specialty. The only person who will know of her presence as a psychological observer will be you. No one else will know, because, after all, in an experiment, people might act differently if they know they're being observed."

"What might arise in such an...experiment?" asked Wildstar, whose heart began to go heavy with the notion that, in effect, the Star Force had been selected as a sort of guinea pig for this experiment.

"First, there are other aspects of personnel management I'd like to study, in addition to seeing how you might whip a crew into shape under trying conditions," said Lambert. "Homesickness is one example. And there are other examples. Do you recall the problems you had with the Space Marines from the Brumus Security Squadron on the Argo's latest cruise?"

"Yes, I do," said Wildstar. "Of course, once Sergeant Major Webb Knox and his men became accustomed to life aboard the Argo, they turned out to be valuable members of the Star Force. We couldn't have accomplished the mission as well without them."

"So, you feel that you could use another such group of Marines on the Argo?" asked Singleton.

"Yes, as long as they were accustomed to life aboard a space battleship like the Argo," said Wildstar. "As I said, the biggest problem with having Marines on board happened to be the problems we had with adapting them to the discipline of the Star Force."

"Doctor Lambert and I have discussed the matter of the Space Marines, and we've determined that we would like to try out a new concept on this voyage that is very close to what you just suggested," said the Commander. "That is, assigning a new group of specially trained Space Marines to the Star Force as part of the regular ship's company of the Argo. In studying the makeup of the Star Force's Combat Group, we noted that the Black Tigers, as a flight group under the Combat group leader's command, functioned very well because the had their own unique esprit de corps. I wondered what would happen if we had a group of  Interstellar Marines, clearly under the command of the Combat Group, that had a similar sort of unit loyalty and cohesion. The solution we came up with was training a platoon of Space Marines to act specifically as a group of Troopers aboard the Argo. This Group, under the command of your Combat Group Leader, would be led by an experienced Marine officer, and would function both as a regular group of shipboard Troopers and as a deployable Marine platoon with its own weapons and equipment, within reason, should you need to deploy such a group for ground operations. This Group, which would be, of course, subordinate to Combat, would be a shipboard Marine Group of about thirty-five or forty men, but a Marine Group trained and constituted as a regular part of the Star Force. If the concept works well, it could be transferred to other ships of the Fleet. Would you welcome this?"

"I think it's a good idea," said Wildstar after a long pause. "I hope you've chosen a seasoned officer to lead this sort of Group."

"We have," said Singleton. "I think you'll work well together."

"I have a question, sir," said Wildstar a moment later. "You said that this Group would work in 'conjunction with my Combat Group Leader.' As you know, sir, I have served as Combat Group Leader of the Argo ever since she's been launched."

"In studying your record, it has been decided that, in order to best perform your new mission as commander of the Star Force," said Singleton, "a suitable officer should be appointed to replace your as Combat Group Leader in order to allow you to concentrate on your duties as Captain, just as the Captain is left free to perform his duties aboard other capital ships. Henceforth, I have appointed a member of your crew to serve under you as Combat Group Leader, and it has been determined that the logical choice is Lieutenant Dashell Jordan, who previously served as your Artillery Officer."

Wildstar sat in silence as Singleton handed him a piece of paper denoting the change. He wasn't particularly happy about this change, but...orders were orders. "Thank you, sir," he said after a moment. "I've also noticed that you've appointed Ensign Paul Rosstowski to serve in his place as Artillery Officer. I think that's a good choice."

"We felt that it was logical," said Singleton. "We think that the three of you will work well together."

"Now, about this study we were discussing," asked Wildstar. "Is there anything else I should know?"

"Yes, " said Lambert, "As a subset of this study, it has been suggested that an experiment should be conducted aboard your new command to further test the validity of the waiver concept for married couples who have previously served together. To that end, a total of three such couples are being assigned to the Argo with protocol waivers; one with an excellent joint record, one with a middling record, and one...with a record I care not to comment upon that, nonetheless, has been permitted to marry and serve together. Our observer will be under orders to quietly observe these couples and permit them to use their private time as they wish...with the proviso that they are NOT to let their private lives interfere with their duties on an official basis."

"Doctor...what about the regulations on this topic? You're aware the Defense Forces have been fairly strict on fraternization," said Wildstar.

"In this case...with regard to private time, and, ONLY to private time...we would like to see if it might be beneficial to loosen the regulations in this matter."

"HUH?" said Wildstar, whose mouth dropped open. He looked to the Commander for confirmation, but he received no answer except silence.

"In short," continued Lambert, "your orders, we would like to see if loosening regulations for couples' private time would both serve as a safety valve so that, perhaps, such problems might not come to a head if we HAVE to have married couples serving together on year to year-and-a-half deployments...and we would like to see, furthermore, if such changes would have such a detrimental effect on shipboard discipline that they should NOT be permitted."

"DOCTOR?" asked Wildstar with wide eyes. "You're proposing getting rid of the regulations on fraternization?"

"In a limited set of circumstances, yes," said Lambert. "However, don't misconstrue this directive. It will still apply to all official on-duty time aboard the ship, as well as to relations between all other crew members. Bear in mind that these exceptions are to be narrowly construed."

"How far will it go, Doctor?"

"Under the stipulations of the experiment, the couples are to be assigned together, Captain Wildstar," said Lambert. "That will include their bunking arrangements, so that...well...any such release can take place in private without wrecking shipboard routine."

"I don't think it can," said Wildstar.

"That's what we want to find OUT!" said Lambert with an exasperated tap of her black-booted foot.

"Commander, may I question the Doctor?" asked Wildstar as he glanced towards General Singleton.

"Yes, as long as you keep in mind the simple fact that the experiment has already been authorized and that it'll be on your ship."

"Yessir," said Wildstar in a low voice. "Doctor, how...MUCH do you want to...find out about the personal lives of these couples?"

"As much as we can without cracking open the hatches during dog watch and peeking," teased Lambert. "In regards to watching the couples, my operative will be observing them as much as possible on duty. As far as anonymity goes, my operative will be submitting the report with all names, even down to the ship, expunged and replaced by pseudonyms or hypothetical names. As an example," said Lambert through her glasses with an ironic chuckle as she looked in a large notebook that she was being careful not to let Wildstar or the Commander see the contents of, "I've already come up with the pseudonym of "Brad and Janet Weiss" for one of the couples. And, in conclusion," said Lambert as she shut the book, "we think you're the commander who can best deal with ALL aspects of this situation...in dealing with morale, interpersonal conflicts, keeping the minds of these men focused on their jobs, AND, last of all, dealing with our couples. Is that clear?"

"Yes... BUT..." said Wildstar with wide eyes. "That would mean that the mission might fail. Imagine the implications: with such a change in regulations...well...permission to speak freely?"

"Go ahead," said Singleton.

"The original Star Force which traveled to Iscandar was comprised of some of the best men and women Earth had to offer. But, even in that select group, a problem arose on Iscandar when some of the members of our crew, led by a member of our Engine Group who HAD served faithfully, but had misgivings about the mission, decided to jump ship and remain on Iscandar. In that incident, a valued...female officer serving under my command was kidnapped by this group for the purpose of being...the reproductive stock for the colony these men were considering forming, contrary to our orders and regulations. These were good men. What could happen to other women if we allowed this sort of thing, especially with a couple already known to have less than a sterling record in this department? Wouldn't that just be a further invitation to trouble?"

"Wildstar...let's consider it a test of your command abilities in regard to a somewhat different kind of challenge than what you're used to," said Singleton with an expression of seriousness. "Do I make myself clear?"

"Yessir," said Wildstar with a heavy heart.

"Now, your crew list, Captain," said Singleton. "The crew list is contained within: you will receive your officers' service jackets within forty-eight hours."

"Yessir," said Wildstar. "In which Group will your operative be serving, Doctor Lambert?"

"If I told you, it wouldn't be a secret any more, would it?" she smiled. "You'll eventually be briefed on that after the mission."

"Of course," said Wildstar. "So, I have my orders," he mused.

"Yes," said Singleton. "Your orders, as you know, include a thorough shakedown cruise for the rebuilt Argo. As you know, part of your mission will also include an investigation of the solar system to determine whether or not any Cometine forces are lurking in the area and preparing to initiate an attack similar to the raid on Denver that took place before Christmas. If you find any such forces, it will be your mission to neutralize them."

"Yes, of course," said Wildstar. "And we'll be leaving..."

"In a bit under seventy-two hours, Captain," said Singleton. "I'm sure that will give you enough time...to meet with your crew. I expect to see you again shortly before your departure on the eighth."

"Thank you, sir," he said as Lambert turned her chair towards Singleton. "Permission to leave?"

"Granted, Captain," said Singleton as she got up and saluted. "And, best of luck., Captain Wildstar."

"Thank you, sir," said Wildstar as he, Singleton, and Lambert exchanged salutes and he left.

As he left, he noticed an odd look on Singleton's face for a moment before turning towards the door. What was it? A look of...amusement?

I wonder what's so funny? thought Wildstar as he left. This whole thing sounds like a sick joke. If I ever get five minutes alone with the...warped...individual... who came up with all this...he or she will sure regret it!

After Wildstar left, Singleton turned to Lambert, took a deep breath and said, "I think he can adapt to these experiments...but I hope it doesn't go too far. We don't need anything spoiled."

"Such as the cohesion of the Star Force, sir?" asked Lambert.

"Yes," said Singleton. "If this were up to me alone, you know I wouldn't go along with everything you and your section have proposed. I hope you know what you're doing, Doctor."


Nova, true to her promise, had made her husband a nice lunch in the form of a pair of hero sandwiches. While sitting in the kitchen, watching something on the vidscreen, she wondered what was keeping Derek. Finally, with a deep breath, she stood up, took off her apron, and hung it on a hook, absently knocking a piece of lettuce off her sweat pants. For a moment, she considered eating her own sandwich without Derek, but the thought didn't appeal to her.

With a sigh, she walked out to the living room again, looking on with some interest as a cruiser heading out from the vast Yokosuka Space Naval Yard passed far below in the bay, gathering speed for its takeoff in the Great Eastern Sea to the south She lazily leaned against the closed glass doors, craning her head down to get a better look at the cruiser. She looked down at the Megalopolis, thinking, Derek, where ARE you? You're usually never this late...

"Hello?" said a low, somewhat confused voice from within the house.

"Derek!" cried Nova, who jumped up like a rabbit. "I'm so glad to see you're home!"

"Yeah," he said morosely.

"What's wrong?" she asked in a high voice.

"I received some new orders. But...well...I don't quite believe all of them. Let's sit down to discuss this."

So, as Mrs. Wildstar brought the hero sandwiches, moving quietly across the kitchen floor in her sock-clad feet, Captain Wildstar went over all of the changes in his command, such as the assignment of Dash as the new Combat Group Leader and the assignment of Paul Rosstowski as Artillery Section Officer of the Argo. Nova took those changes calmly, reminding Derek that with his promotion to full Captain, such changes were to be expected.

Then, Captain Wildstar discussed the concept of the Marine Group. When Mrs. Wildstar asked him who was going to command this new Group, Derek leafed through his papers, read his lists, and finally told Nova that they hadn't told him who would command the new Group yet. "I wonder why they didn't tell me, Nova?" he mused.

"Maybe they don't know themselves?" reasoned Nova.

"Hmmm...that might be it. But, there's going to be something else that's bothering me, on top of all of this."

"What?"

"They're trying a new experiment. Nova...they're talking about sticking married couples together on ships as part of a new experiment."

"You mean...waiving protocol regulations?" said Nova with surprised eyes.

"Totally, at least off-duty. On-duty, they still apply. It's supposed to be some kind of...well...psychological experiment. The Commander said that three couples were going on this mission."

"I wonder who they are? This might be sort of romantic, considering that...well...." teased Nova.

"Nova...where did you get THAT idea from?"

She giggled. "I'm only kidding. Who are they...besides us, of course?"

"How'd you guess that?"

"Simple logic," said Mrs. Wildstar. "It's a Star Force mission; you're the Captain, and I'm the Living Group Leader, and we were already given a waiver by the Commander to serve together..."

"...although I didn't think it'd go this far," said Captain Wildstar.

"Who are the other two couples, then?" asked Nova.

"Well... according to my list, the first of the couples will consist of a Lieutenant Todd Voorhees; he's a Navigation officer..."

"Oh!" said Nova, as a light of recognition appeared in her eyes.

"Do you know him??"

"No, but I've heard about him from a friend of mine."

"Who?"

"His girlfriend, Junior Lieutenant Rebecca Longstreth. She served with us on our first mission to Iscandar as the Education Officer, remember?"

"I'm not sure I remember her..."

"She was the one with the short brown hair, Derek...remember?"

"On, yeah, " said Wildstar as a mental image of Longstreth came to his mind. "When did she meet Todd?"

"Right after the mission. We became close friends during that year when you were in space on the Argo when she was on patrol on the outer fringes of the solar system. I haven't heard from her in a while, though. So, Derek, are Becky and Todd still together?"

"Yes, and, as you probably guessed, they'll be on the mission together since they've gotten married."

"I didn't even know they got married!" said Mrs. Wildstar. "So, I guess Mr. Voorhees will still be serving in the Navigation Group, right?"

"Right," said Wildstar. "He'll be serving on Bridge Number Two. And Mrs. Voorhees...will be serving as the Education officer again."

"Boy, I hope they can keep professional," said Nova with a wink.

"Well...didn't WE?" asked Derek.

"Well...yes...but...well...you know there were times when I screwed up a bit on duty. They won't be repeated again."

"That's good," said Derek with a smile. "We'll have to be as professional as possible on duty, especially on account of the third married couple assigned to the Star Force."

"Who?" asked Nova.

"Well, the second couple consists of Mister Bryan Hartcliffe, assigned to the Black Tigers..."

"What? HIM?" asked Nova. "Really?"

"Really," said Derek.

"Oh, NO!" cried Nova. "And serving with him will be..."

"Mrs. Angelique Hartcliffe," sighed Derek.

"Angie?" said Nova, her mouth dropping open in disbelief. "I don't believe it! They gave THEM a waiver?"

"Yes, they did."

"Even on account of what happened on the last ship they served aboard?" said Nova. "You know, when they were caught in a dark, dark corner..."

"With a bottle of vodka," sighed Captain Wildstar.

"How'd you know THAT?"

"I heard about it, too," said Derek morosely. "It was all over the damned Fleet, just like that incident that took place in the hangar at Idlewild a few weeks ago. So, in light of this, we'll have to be as professional as possible."

"Lots of cold showers, right?" said Nova, forgetting what Derek had just told her about being quartered together and all it implied.

"Well...they said...all the couples were to be assigned cabin space together..."

"On a warship?" said Nova in disbelief. "Wait...I forgot I heard you saying that before, but do you mean...?"

"Yes. That. And...well...they said that protocol was to be maintained in all public spaces on duty..."

"We can do that..."

"And...couples were free to do what they wanted when they were...off-duty...in their cabins...like I was implying. That's...kinda weird," said Derek with a blush.

"Uhh...did they tell you why?" whispered Nova.

"Well...they said they were considering such an arrangement on long-term exploration cruises and patrols in ships serving in the Interstellar Fleet...and..."

"In other words, Derek, we're guinea pigs."

"Guinea pigs?"

"Test subjects. But on a space battleship," said Nova quizzically. "Guinea pigs..."

"I know...isn't it crazy?" said Derek as he shook his head.

"Well...there's one thing to be said for it."

"Nova...what?"

"You married an ex-gymnast."

"NOVA!" yelled Wildstar as he slammed his fists on the kitchen table...to a response no more censorious than a sudden helpless bout of giggles from his wife.

This is NUTS... thought Captain Derek Wildstar. This is completely NUTS. Totally...absolutely....NUTS!

However, their conversation was interrupted a moment later by the sound of the vidphone ringing.

"Hello?" said Nova into the phone. "Yes? Who is it? Oh...you. Of course I recognize you...Aunt Yvona."

HER? thought Wildstar. Oh, NO! Based on what Nova's told me about her, she's the one in-law I hope I NEVER have to meet! What the hell does SHE want?

"Yes, Auntie," said Nova in a somewhat shaky, nervous voice. "Of course...you're invited to the housewarming tomorrow night with Uncle Hiram and Cousin Samuel. Sure, you can come over tonight. I'll bet your gift is just lovely. Why, thank you. You sound good too," laughed Nova. "No...I'm not in a hurry...you know that shopping and cooking takes time...that's all," she said. "You'll let me...'get back to my womanly duties and cook?' Thank you, Auntie. It'll be nice seeing you again, too. Take care. Bye."

Derek noticed that Nova hung up in quite a hurry.

"I didn't get to see what she looks like now," said Wildstar.

"I'm not sure you want to, Derek...brrrr... she looks creepy! I hate being such a hypocrite and having to act "nice" to her when she's one of the few people I know whom I actively dislike," said Nova, "...but you understand, Derek, I don't want to cause a family rift. She and Mother are still kind of close, being sisters and all that. Wonder what it's like to have a real sister?" mused Nova. "Sorry...there I go, thinking out loud again about being an only child."

"Well, I grew up with Alex...and you know a bit of what we were like."

"But you two were guys. It's different with girls."

"You said your cousin Allison lived with you for a bit..."

"I only had her in the house between the time I was ten and eighteen, Derek. Then I left for college. Wasn't the same as growing up with a sister around all the time."

"I think I understand. So...Yvona's definitely coming over tomorrow night?" asked Wildstar.

"Yes, unfortunately. If I know her, we'd better put away the brandy we were going to serve and stick with plain wine then," said Nova. "If there was anything stronger here, she'd get stinking drunk on it, after telling me how sinful I was for having it at the table, too."

"Hypocrite," sniffed Derek.

"And...we'd both better watch our P's and Q's, Derek...not that you've ever been impolite to my family, of course..."

"But?" asked a puzzled Wildstar.

"It's just that Yvona takes offense over some of the most innocuous things. She's very, very strange..."


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