ALTERNATE TALES OF THE STAR FORCE
STAR BLAZERS-TRIALS AND TRIBULATIONS
By: Frederick P. Kopetz
ACT THREE--RETURN TO DUTY
I.. MORNING MEETING
Thursday, January 7, 2202
Space Battleship Argo
0720 Hours: Spacetime
Mark Venture had already reported aboard the Argo as the morning of January 7, 2202 began. As he sat eating breakfast, he was approached by Junior Lieutenant Holly Parsons, who was coming over with her breakfast.
"Good morning, sir," she said with a little smile.
"Miss Parsons...I told you…we don't have to be so formal unless we're on duty. Okay?"
"All right," she replied. "What's up?"
"Remember when you said you were sorry you couldn't come to the Wildstars' housewarming with me last night?"
"You don't have to feel that way at all. It ended up being a total disaster because Nova's crazy Aunt Yvona went berserk and gave us a hard time. Also, Fluffy the Kitten ate the couch."
"The part about Fluffy the Kitten was a joke," said Venture with a dour face. "The part about Yvona wasn't."
"What did Nova's aunt do?" asked Holly as she began to attack her breakfast.
"She got drunk and accused Derek and Nova of having been immoral before their marriage after Nova wouldn't give her any more to drink. Her husband Hiram tried to stop her, but she did something really weird to him...we're still trying to figure out what it was."
"Then, after Nova told her to leave, Yvona called her these rotten things, spit in her face, tried to assault her, and then all of us had to literally throw her out of Derek and Nova's house. Then, Captain Josiah said he was going to divorce her, and the party just sort of broke up not long after that. Be glad you weren't there, Holly."
"I think I'm glad I wasn't there," said Holly. "Sometimes, TDY late-night shifts can be a good thing. Good thing last night was my last one, though."
"You're feeling all right?" asked Venture.
"Of course I am," retorted Holly. "I got more than enough sleep, and I'm ready for duty. What's on today's schedule that I should know about, other than the preparations I have to make at my post?"
"Well, you know that we're taking off tomorrow. To that end, we're having a staff meeting at 1100 where we discuss the mission and our objectives after the Captain comes aboard and assumes command. Then, after lunch and a few hours' worth of preparations, the Captain has informed me that we're going to meet in formation at Heroes' Hill at 1700, right around sunset, so that we can remember our fallen comrades. After the ceremony, we'll return to the ship in formation and continue our launch preparations. Everyone's supposed to be on board ship by 1000 Hours, so I'll have to leave soon."
"When's the Captain supposed to be aboard to assume command?"
"By 1030," said Venture. "Until then, he's got some private business that he said he had to tend to with Nova."
"I see," said Holly. "Could it be related to that...fracas that took place last night?"
"I don't know," said Venture. "All Wildstar told me was that he and Nova were going to the Base Chapel at Idlewild for a bit on their way here."
II. AN OLD FRIEND... REVISITED
Thursday, January 7, 2202
Tilden Point Space Naval Station
0947 Hours: Spacetime
Captain Derek Wildstar and Lieutenant Nova Wildstar had many of their things with them as they followed the directions Derek had been faxed earlier that morning at home from Earth Defense Headquarters. They were driving a staff aircar towards what appeared to be the middle of nowhere at the very edge of the Megalopolis. The nearest major trace of civilization was a faraway fence that marked the southern edge of Idlewild Space Naval Air Station, which they had just left Where Derek and Nova now were was on a thin, small island connected to the mainland by a bridge that had been guarded by a force that identified itself as "Federal Park Rangers"; civilian policeman, although policemen carrying AK-01 carbines.
The facade continued here at this lonely gatehouse in the middle of nowhere. Again, Captain Wildstar was confronted by "Park Rangers", although these were rangers who didn't in the least seem surprised that EDF officers were entering the complex advertised as "Tilden Point Bird Sanctuary".
"Your identification, please, both of you..." said one of the rangers.
Captain Wildstar offered his and Nova's. "Just a moment, please," said the "ranger", who took the ID cards into his guardhouse shack. After scanning them and placing a phone call, he came back, and said, "Proceed to the inner checkpoint with the roadblock and the red guardhouse. At that point, you'll be turned over to the auspices of the Space Marines."
"Thank you," said Captain Wildstar, who slowly drove through the gate as it was opened.
"There's an awful lot of checkpoints," said Nova.
"Given what's being guarded here, is it any wonder?" asked Derek quietly. "Now, we're through the outer level of security."
"I wonder...is there really a bird sanctuary here?" asked Nova.
"Believe it or not, there is," said Derek. "It's just that...let's say...one needs a government pass to study the wildlife here, and let's also say that certain areas of the sanctuary are also military reservations."
The aircar drove on for quite a while until it reached another gatehouse out in the middle of nowhere. Above this sentry post, a sign read:
Tilden Point Space Naval Support Station.
ALL ACCESS RESTRICTED.
DANGER: Unapproved access punishable at
once with deadly force pursuant to FR-6:59!!
At this checkpoint, there was a heavy electronically operated barrier, a perimeter fence, and about eight fully-armed Space Marines.
"Halt!" snapped the nearest Marine, who pointed his AK-01 straight at the Wildstars' staff car. He didn't salute, and he was backed up by three of his compatriots, all of whom had their laser rifles trained right on Derek and Nova in a minute.
"Your identification, please," snapped the Marine as soon as the aircar canopy opened.
"Yes, of course," said Captain Wildstar. Mrs. Wildstar turned over hers, just as she was aware that two other Marines had materialized near them with portable instruments that resembled binoculars.
"Retinal checks, please," said a sergeant. Derek and Nova, expecting this procedural wrinkle, looked into the instruments.
There was a momentary pause; in the guard shack, two of the Marines were conferring over their ID cards while a third looked at a printout coming out of a machine. In another guard shack, a fourth was on the phone.
Finally, a corporal came up to the biggest Marine (who was still holding a blaster on them.) "Gunny, they check out."
"Good. Open the damn gate!" snapped the large sergeant as he lowered his weapon and then saluted. "Welcome to Tilden Point, Captain and Mrs. Wildstar. Defense Headquarters has cleared your entry. Proceed to checkpoint "C", and then follow their directions."
"Thank you, Sergeant," said Derek.
At checkpoint "C", after passing through a protocol similar to what they had experienced at the main gate, Derek and Nova were directed to park their staff car in a parking lot about a kilometer away, seemingly in the middle of nowhere. Then, they would take their seabags and proceed to what the sergeant identified as "access point Romeo," with no further explanation. "Then," said the sergeant, "enter your ID cards and pass codes, and the automated lift will take you to your destination."
"Thank you," said Captain Wildstar.
Derek and Nova, still impressed at the security, drove through the second military checkpoint, past, they noticed, a few armored personnel carriers, straight to a small parking lot already filled with a few EDF staff cars. Nothing else was to be seen, save for a paved path and a sign that read, "This way to Access Point R."
"Whew, glad that's over with," said Nova as the aircar stopped.
"Now, it seems, on we go," said Derek, who sniffed at the smell of salt in the air. In the distance, he heard waves rolling on a beach that they had only glimpsed in their trip through this strangely empty site. "Got your bag?"
Nova nodded as she took a single seabag out of the back seat of their borrowed aircar. Derek picked up a similar bag as they walked on.
They walked through some open country, looking at the view of the Megalopolis to the far north. Finally, in a pine-barren like patch, they found a small sign denoting access point "R". It consisted only of an above-ground elevator access shaft and a small radar array in a building beside it.
Captain Wildstar went up to the door of the tall shaftway and placed his ID card in a card-reader slot. Mrs. Wildstar did the same with her card. Then, Derek punched in the access code.
The doors opened, and Derek and Nova found themselves in a lift car that was soon rushing deep underground.
"This is just like when I went down to the ship for the first time with Venture, IQ-9, and Dr. Sane" said Derek. "None of us knew where we were going."
"I didn't know, either," said Nova.
Finally, the lift stopped, and Derek and Nova walked out together into a vast, dimly-lit space near the base of a huge gantry crane. They both walked along, looking up at the vast dockyard as they walked beside each other.
"Whew, it's warmer down here than outside," said Derek as he set down his seabag for a moment. He opened his peacoat and removed his ascot. Beside him, Nova, in her white peacoat, looked upwards and outwards at the same thing he was looking at.
"This is amazing," said Derek as he looked up. "The last time I looked at her, her stern was all torn up. Nova, what an impressive job..."
Nova nodded once as their eyes met, and then they both gazed up at the huge, shiny, and powerful-looking rebuilt form of the Argo, which was the centerpiece of this new facility, and the reason for all of this secrecy in this new dock which had been built exclusively for this one mighty space battleship, the ship that was now once again Earth's foremost defender and the home of the Star Force.
"What's the reason for the new markings?" asked Nova.
"The anchor on the bow and the stripes on the guns?" asked Derek. "That's the Commander's idea. He wanted the Argo, as the base ship of the Star Force, to have unique markings so she could be identified at a moment's glance. You remember the old rules of rank for space warships, Nova?"
Nova nodded, well aware of both those rules and how Derek had told her how they had caused trouble for the Argo on her return to Earth from her one-year patrol cruise a few months ago.
"Now, since the Argo is again the official base ship of the Star Force," explained Derek, "the old rules of rank no longer apply to her when she's deployed. Now, we take priority in landing and takeoff rights over everything else in the Defense Fleet..."
"...just as we did when we were going to Iscandar," said Nova.
"Yes. I...believe you know what I have to do when I board."
"I know," said Nova. "Captain Avatar would be so proud of you now, and...so am I."
"Thank you, Nova."
As they approached the ship and the Officer of the Deck, a junior officer designated to stand guard at the ship's gangplank, Derek thought, When I left you, you were practically a wreck. But now, you're ready to cruise the Sea of Stars again. Welcome back, my old friend....
As Derek and Nova came up the gangplank, the Officer of the Deck spotted them, and snapped a salute. Derek and Nova immediately recognized that the young officer serving as OOD today was Ensign Paul Rosstowski, who looked rather formal in his Star Force whites and navy blue peacoat. Across from him stood four waiting enlisted men in a variant of the Star Force uniform Nova had never seen before; olive green with black trim.
"Permission to come aboard, Mister Rosstowski," intoned Wildstar.
"Permission granted, Sir; Ma'am. Welcome aboard."
At that, the senior enlisted man took a small electronic device out of a pocket and blew into it, filling the area with an electronic whistle that quickly went up an octave; the traditional bosun's whistle. Rosstowski and the men saluted, and the Captain and Living Group Leader returned the salutes. Then, Rosstowski went over to a stanchion, opened a box, withdrew a mike, and intoned, "Attention, all hands, Argo arriving, Argo arriving..." informing the crew in Naval tradition that the incoming CO had just boarded the ship.
Then, Derek and Nova left their bags with one of the green-clad enlisted men and made way for the first bridge as the EDF March began to play over the speakers.
"Derek?" asked Nova. "The new uniforms?"
"Marine Group," said Wildstar. "It's a new Group that's been formed under Combat Group to replace the old Star Force Troopers. It's basically a Marine Platoon permanently attached to the ship's crew and specially trained to serve as both an external assault force and as shipboard security. The only thing that's new to me is the identity of the Group Leader."
"Well, he wasn't on the crew list," said Derek as they entered the ship and made way for a lift. "He's supposed to be reporting aboard sometime this morning, from what I understand."
When they got on the bridge, they found Venture, Sandor, Orion, Homer, Dash, Eager, and Holly Parsons on board.
"Captain on th' bridge!" cried Eager as soon as he noticed Derek.
"Welcome back," said Venture as he came up and shook hands with both Derek and Nova after he and the new Captain exchanged salutes. Orion came up to offer greetings a moment later, followed by Sandor, Homer, and everyone else.
"Got here well before us, huh?" laughed Captain Wildstar.
"Aye. We were busy all mornin' makin' sure she was all ready for ye," said Orion. "Nova," he said, turning to her. "I...heard about what happened at your house last night. I'm so sorry," he said softly.
"Thanks," said Nova. "But now, I've got other things to think about. I understand we've got quite a mission ahead."
"We sure do," said Sandor.
"Umm...at this point, I'm still officially in command as the XO," said Venture with a guilty chuckle. "And I still have to give the orders to assemble the crew."
"Yes, of course," said Wildstar.
Venture walked over to his station and said, "Attention, all hands. Attention, all hands. Since you're aware the Captain has just arrived, all hands are to assemble on the main deck before Main Turret Number One at 1030 Hours. To that end, all Group Leaders are to meet on the main deck within ten minutes. That'll be all."
Wildstar nodded as Venture shut off the intercom mike. Everyone else on the bridge except Wildstar snapped to and saluted Venture. After Mark returned the salute, he nodded and said to Steve Sandor and Nova Wildstar, "I'll meet both of you below. I'll escort the Captain to the area near the turret."
"Yes, of course," said Sandor.
"So, what do you think?" asked Venture as he and Wildstar rapidly walked through the corridors and passages of the ship after getting out of the lift.
"She looks good. Far better than she did back in November," said Wildstar.
"She's at about ninety-seven percent of optimal material condition now," said Venture. "The Mechanical Group's still making a few last minor tweaks and adjustments, but Sandor tells me that he expects they'll be done by the beginning of the afternoon."
"So we should be able to begin our final countdown at 2100 tonight?"
"Uh-huh. Right on time," said Venture.
"Great," said Wildstar as they stepped out onto the deck past a few running enlisted men. Venture walked up to the side of the massive first gun turret and paused at a set of rungs. He and Wildstar climbed up the rungs onto the roof of the turret. There, two members of the Mechanical Group were preparing a microphone on a stand as not far away, at both sides of the turret, men and women were running up to form ranks over shouted orders.
Gradually, order formed as, rank by rank, men and women formed ranks behind their Group Leaders. The Engine Group formed behind Orion, Mechanical Group formed nearby behind Sandor, with Navigation forming behind Eager, Living behind Lieutenant Wildstar, Combat forming behind Dash and Rosstowski, Medical forming behind Doctor Sane and his two assistant Doctors. Flight Maintenance Group formed in its gold on white uniforms behind their Group Leader. Flight, naturally, was absent, but Conroy, Hardy, Buzz, and Lubyanska would arrive tomorrow morning after the ship had taken off.
Finally, Wildstar watched as two columns of green-clad men formed Marine Group behind a rather imposing young Afro-American officer...with a bald, shaven head.
NO! thought Wildstar. It can't be him! Not on MY ship! I have to be imagining that...that can't be...Hemsford!
"NO…" muttered Wildstar. "That can't be him...."
"Who?" asked Venture.
"That isn't a Marine Ensign known as Hemsford, is it?" asked Wildstar.
"Yes, it is," said Venture. "He just piped aboard a while ago. According to his jacket, he seems to be a pretty good young officer. What's the problem?"
"Well...did you hear about the ground training exercise we had in December?"
"Vaguely," said Mark. "Remember, I was in the hospital then."
"Well, he and I had a run-in then...but we worked it out...I think."
"Good," muttered Venture as he looked around. "Uh...Derek."
"Have a look down there at Engine Group...fifth back and sixth back. Recognize them?"
"Who...that guy and....NO! It can't be! Venture...is it really...?"
"Uh-huh. Diane Henson and Randall Parmon."
"Do you think they're gonna try to cause trouble?"
"I'm not sure," said Venture. "But, scuttlebutt says that they're supposedly...an item."
"That son-of-a-bitch," muttered Wildstar, recalling the old memories he had relived on his honeymoon with Nova. "But, that's ancient history, now. They'd better remember that, especially on my space battleship."
"You've got that right," said Venture. They both stood in silence as a few crew members took their places. Then, looking down, they noticed that all 400+ members of the regular crew were there.
At that, Venture began. "All hands, our new Captain has just arrived, and he's asked that these ceremonies be kept brief. Therefore, we will begin at once."
"Deputy Captain Venture, you stand relieved," said Captain Wildstar.
"Yessir," said Venture.
Derek walked over to the mike. "In accordance with my orders, duly issued by Commanding General Charles Singleton, I, Captain Derek Wildstar, do hereby assume command of this vessel as her duly appointed commanding officer. This is noted to the ship's log, this day, 7 January 2202, at ten-thirty-two hours, Spacetime."
"My first order to you as Captain is for all section chiefs and department heads who are present to assemble in the Central Strategy Room at eleven hundred hours to review our mission objectives and profile. Upon the arrival of all of the ship's company, we will adjourn at sunset to Heroes' Hill to pay homage to those members of the Star Force who died in our last mission."
Wildstar paused. "I trust that you will serve as a fine crew; an excellent crew. Together, we will endure much, and, together we have a rebuilt, like-new ship in which to cast off on time tomorrow morning at sunrise. I will expect all of you veterans to give me your utmost, and, as for the new members of the Star Force, I will expect all of you to serve me just as well as the veteran members of the crew. To make it simple; I will expect nothing less than the very best from every one of you, and I am confident you will give me that top performance, both for the honor of Earth, and the honor of the Star Force. That will be all. Again, thank you for your attention."
At that, Wildstar cut off. The crew saluted him, and he returned the salute.
Now, he thought. The real work begins...
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