Leave that to me. I am the only one who must apologize to His Majesty.

-Adm Isoroku Yamamoto-

02 FEBRUARY 2213



Captain Ron Dicher reclined in his seat, throwing his head back and expelling a frustrated sigh in the direction of the ceiling of his tiny but comfortable office. It had already been a long day and it didn't seem to be getting any shorter. Remaining absolutely silent for a long while, he could hear and feel the throb of heavy machinery as the Forge continued its journey through space. There was something irregular about the noise. It wasn't the kind of sounds a healthy ship produced.

Not that the Forge was in mint condition, especially after its recent combat encounter in the vicinity of the Asteroid Belt. Post-combat investigations had revealed that the habitat's structural ring had been badly damaged. It had been a fluke shot that had not been serious enough to put the vessel at risk during the battle but it meant that the Forge's voyage was over.

The buckled and twisted hull plates and internal plumbing meant that any attempt to rotate the habitat ring to generate gravity (considered by Jovians to be essential for crew health) would result in the ring's disintegration. Similarly, any attempt to produce acceleration in excess of 0.3 gs would lead to further damage.

In short, though the Forge was in no danger as long as it did not exceed certain performance parameters, she was effectively useless until she could get to a JAF yard where the entire ring could be replaced - ironically a process that would take no more than a day.

With that single hit, the Forge was forced to limp home at reduced speed – a journey that would take weeks – in order to anchor at a JAF base. While the lack of continuous acceleration and a rotating habitat meant that they were all now working in microgravity, Ron wasn't too bothered by that. He had always enjoyed the sensation of freefall. He just wished it hadn't come with the price tag of muscle atrophy.

He yawned and stretched himself, noticing a slight ache in his arms. They were already beginning to lose some of their tone in the days spent in microgravity. The effects could be slowed but never eliminated, through a daily regime of vigorous exercise as well as supplemental drugs.

His busy schedule over the last few days had seem him getting too little of the former and he knew he'd have to exercise a lot more soon or he would be in serious trouble. Wrenching his mind away from those thoughts, he returned his attention to his computer, the source of all his distraction from regular exercise.

The after-action report for the engagement that had taken place on 21 January 2213 had been more troublesome than he had expected. He had seen combat several times in the course of his career and he had submitted a fair number of post-combat reports. But never had he been forced to re-submit his drafts a dozen times over.

Against pirates, it was normally a simple matter of describing what happened. In the few times he had engaged the CEGA, it was normally more complicated but still manageable in the end. This time, with the Martian Crisis looming, it seemed as if the Confederation's government was trying its best to avoid any conflict with the CEGA, at least until the crisis on the Red Planet was resolved.

As each successive draft was returned to him, Ron was finally beginning to understand what was going on. Each rejected draft was returned with suggestions for subtle changes to the wording of his report. He had interviewed his pilots over and over again and made countless amendments to his report but he already knew where the JAF's investigation was headed.

One of their precious carriers had been damaged in an attempt to rescue a civilian ship that hadn't even bothered to stop to say 'thank you'. The Wanderer had given the wallowing Forge the slip as soon as Ron and his wingman returned to the carrier while low on fuel. Captain Polwalski had then ruled out trying to locate the freighter, deciding that it was more important to begin their journey back to Jovian territory than to look for some ungrateful transport.

In the aftermath, the CEGA had raised one hell of stink over the damage inflicted on its ship and the unprovoked attack perpetrated by the Jovians. Though they had communication logs and sensor recordings to prove otherwise, without the testimony of the Wanderer's crew, the Jovians were still on shaky ground, particularly in the international scope of things. And considering that the only fatalities occurred on the CEGA side, the Earther's had a mild moral advantage. Things had been made worse by the fact that Martian Crisis was making international relations somewhat tense.

The Federation continued to demand reparations for the Elevator Crash. The CEGA, as its ally, was fully behind the Federates while the Free Republic was still waiting for a similar pledge of support from the Jovians. According to analysts and observers, the Jovians were still wary, perhaps unwilling to come into direct confrontation with the CEGA for the fear that it would prolong negotiations and perhaps cost the Confederation dearly. But the Solar Wanderer Incident, as the skirmish on the 21st of January was now being called, had brought CEGA and Confederation animosity into sharp focus. Word was that the Jovian government's hand had been forced somewhat and the Agora was preparing to state its intention to support the Free Republic's claims of innocence in the Elevator Disaster.

Of course, the Jovian politicos weren't particularly happy at that state of affairs and someone would have to take the blame sooner or later. In short, the subsequent revisions of his report were slowly beginning to point back towards the Captain of the JSS Forge and its squadron commander for being overly zealous in the pursuit of their duties. At the moment, it was still undecided who was going to take the bulk of the blame. Captain Polwalski, as skipper of the Forge, had overall tactical control while Ron could easily be blamed as well as the squadron commander in what was essentially and exo skirmish.

Ron stared at the report again sighing loudly. The universe wasn't as simple as it used to be. He was about to resume typing when the doorbell chimed. He looked up and stared at the door, wondering if he should attend to whoever was seeking an audience with him. It would probably mean having to move his much-postponed appointment with the gym even further back. The door chimed again. And he relented. Whoever was willing to chime a second time was probably important.

"Enter." He thumbed the 'unlock' stud on his desk and the hatch hissed open sideways to reveal his former student, Officer Adelene Chan, standing in the doorway.

"May I come in, sir?"

"Of course, Adelene." Ron Dicher broke out into a tired grin. "Have a seat."

The exo flight leader crossed the short distance from the hatchway to the seat in front of his desk in a heartbeat and sat herself down. Ron leaned back in his own chair once more and regarded the woman with an inquiring look. "What can I do for you?"

"I was just wondering when you'd finish that AAR, sir. For what happened with the Solar Wanderer and . . ." Adelene's voice faltered and she looked down at the desk nervously. "Yeah. That was it, sir."

"Don't worry." Ron smiled reassuringly at her. "Your butt is pretty well-covered as it is and I'm doing my best to make sure you don't get indicted for anything."

Adelene looked back up with a mixture of shock and surprise on her face. "Sir, I didn't mean to imply that I was interested in . . ."

"Well, you didn't do anything wrong in any case, alright?" The squadron commander interrupted her, taking on an even more reassuring tone.

"Well, neither did you, sir." Adelene countered.

That took Ron by surprised and it was a few moments before he had composed himself sufficiently to reply. "What makes you think that it's an issue?"

"That they keep bouncing the report back to you. And I know they do that because you and the Captain keep interviewing us." Adelene explained, a look of concern spreading across her face. "They're trying to make a scapegoat out of you and the Captain, aren't they?"

"Firstly, Adelene . . . who is 'they'?"

"I don't know, sir." The younger pilot shrugged. "The brass, the politicians. The people who would rather have us die than cause an international incident?"

Ron chuckled at his former student. Some things would never change. "Well, I'm sure if you were killed, it would still be an international incident."

Adelene chortled along before turning serious again. "But, honestly, sir . . . are you in trouble because of this?"

"That remains to be seen, Adelene." Ron sighed and shook his head. "But there's nothing you can do about it."

"Sir, it's not your fault. I can . . ."

"No." Ron said firmly, holding up a finger towards her for emphasis. "You are not going to try and protect me at your own expense. Is that clear, Officer Chan?"

"As a bell, sir." Adelene grated reluctantly in reply.

"Good." Ron nodded, then allowed his features to soften. "Was there anything else?"

"You're going to keep on working at this report?"

"I suppose so." Ron shrugged and resisted the urge to sigh again.

"Well, no point rushing it if they're only going to send it back to you, sir." Adelene shrugged as well. "I can think of better ways to spend the time."

"And that would be?"

"It'd be nice if the squadron commander would so grace us with his presence in the gym and lead us in some calisthenics." Adelene grinned, producing a towel from under the table and tossing it in his direction. "How about it, sir?"

Ron caught the towel in midair and grinned as he rose. "Oh, well. What the hell, right?"