Chrono Harlaown, Admiral Harlaown, Commander Designate Twelfth Fleet, Area Administrator of Sector ZX6-8-10-5-8, tactfully hid a subtle smile behind his wineglass as his flag crew bustled before him. This smile was all that remained of the massive shit-eating grin he felt like displaying, but which would be ill-advised for an Admiral of the Bureau to produce while watching half his fleet moving into an ambush. While this normally wouldn't be a cause for amusement, this was a special case; the ambush-er happened to be the other half of his fleet, commanded by his flag captain, Commodore Helen Riva.

Commodore Arnold Tucson, however, would be quite furious with himself, but hopefully he would learn his lesson. Chrono had to admit his initial moves had been beautifully executed, if a little fancy; translocating down a non-normal dimension while replacing his ships with Electronic Warfare drones set to imitating his fleet's exact energy and gravitational emissions was a difficult maneuver to execute, and his subsequent second leap away had prevented Helen's ships from detecting even the slightest hint of his fleet's presence until it was too late.

Or so it seemed. Unfortunately for Tucson, one of his Destroyers, the TSABS Little Milly, had been just a little slow in sliding out, and for a fraction of second, the other fleet had seemed to get an additional hull. The average commander would have overlooked it—Chrono himself had almost missed it; it had been just a tin can, almost insignificant in the scope of things—but Riva hadn't. A better commander might have overlooked what it meant, but the older officer had seen the ruse. Finally, only the rarest kind of commanders would have reacted correctly, and she had.

That was why, when Tucson's fleet had suddenly popped back into the battle's plane of existence and "opened fire" on the seemingly unsuspecting fleet leaving only a handful of destroyers "alive", Riva's fleet had been lying doggo just one jump away "up" on the fifth dimension, watching their own EW drones "dying" through the active sensors of the quite real tin cans.

They hadn't quite come unscathed; the TSABS Tsubasa had been "taken out" by a long distance laser shot, and as Tucson's mage wings sped out of their motherships, the display icons representing the fleeing ships blinked with simulated battle damage. Those destroyers weren't even bothering to use their own badly outnumbered mages to counterattack; everyone in there had to be working on strengthening the tin cans' weak shields, which was the sensible thing to do... if one was hoping to survive past a certain point, and not in long term.

Chrono would have been tipped off right there.

Tucson kept going, toward the middle of Riva's firing arc. The fleeing destroyers, harassed from all sides by a swarm of trained mages throwing everything they had at their shields, kept fleeing in a straight line. Another destroyer started falling behind as shots got through its shields, carving simulated holes in its thin armor, and another icon, this one of the TSABS Emperor Penguin blinked out of existence as the enemy battlecruiser's topside cannon fired a powerful beam that "ripped" through it and "killed" it.

Then, Tucson's fleet crossed the no-return point, and suddenly it wasn't a handful of battle-damaged destroyers he was facing, but an intact fleet of two cruisers, two heavy cruisers, a single battlecruiser and six destroyers, Arc-en-Ciels charging and already painting their targets with LADAR beams. Five Arc-En-Ciel shots ripped into the startled fleet before it could so much as begin to maneuver out of the way, and suddenly simulated battle damage rose catastrophically.

Chrono clucked satisfiedly as the last heavy element from Tucson's fleetlet blinked out of tactical display. Additional icons, those representing Riva's own battle wings, flowed like a crimson tide toward the tin cans, but at that point the battle was already won. An impish idea came to his mind and he turned toward his communications officer.

"Mister Aries, please inform Commander Riva that she's just suffered a generalized sensors' failure."

He was obeyed without question—as it should be; he was the admiral—but Chrono easily saw the strange look that came upon his comm officer. A sensors failure? Now? Was Harlaown going mad in his old (hah) age?

He chuckled and settled deeper in his chair, glancing with the same sense of mischievous amusement at the stream from Riva's bridge. The older woman received the report in the form of her tactical screen blinking and a report from Damage Control, and Chrono saw the exact second she realized who had done this the instant her eyes narrowed and a small, amused smile came to her face.

Oh yes, she remembered. Well, of course she did; it wasn't everyone who got the dubious pleasure of living through a new captain's first taste of command, especially not one who would later become an Admiral. And it wasn't everyone who got the even dubious-er pleasure of working aboard a ship like old Mathilda.

Ah, memories...

That Time I Rode an Old Maid

Chapter 1: First meetings

"What the hell is this?!"

A flurry documents thrown across his rented motel bed accompanied the heated declaration. His audience, the three most important people in his life watching in through a floating M2D, had varied reactions. First his sister, Fate Testarossa-Harlaown, flinched a little; he knew she hated to see family members angry. Second was his Fian—wife (damn but it was hard thinking of Amy this way... Amy!) who shot him a dirty look with a glance at her right, where he knew their twins were sleeping soundly, just off screen. His mother, Rear-admiral Lindy Harlaown, currently in her kitchen on Midchilda, just barely glanced up. From the way her shoulders were moving, she was preparing tea out of his sight.

"It looks like the documents you asked Letty-chan to get you about the Mathilda," she replied matter-of-factly. There was a very soft blop, and Chrono knew a third sugar cube had just been sent to drown in her tea. Or drown her tea, depending on how one was looking at things.

"It is," Chrono replied flatly. "The Time-Space Administration Bureau's IV-class Destroyer Mathilda, fresh out of maintenance; certification of quality on weapons, certification of quality on armor, certification of quality on translation drives, n-space generators, sensors, paint job, yaddiyaddiyadda, currently in slip seventeen of Prometheus Inter-Dimensional station. Originally left said station on October first of the year twenty-six. See the problem yet? That ship is over forty-five years old!"

"It is," Lindy replied, intentionally taking his tone. The teacup rose to her lips and some of the unbearably sweet concoction went past them noisily. When she finally stopped drinking, she gave her son an apologetic smile. "Unfortunately, it's the ship you have, and I have no power to change it. Or rather, I've already tried, and failed."

"You have?" Chrono blinked.

Lindy nodded. "Please answer my question. Who is, at the moment, the Third Admiral?"

"Admiral Scania," Chrono replied immediately, rolling his eyes. Scania had been the manager of the Main Branch's Section three for four years now, and would continue to do so for two more unless something happened.

Certainly, the imposing man had the skill and experience for the position, but even though he was a good speaker, Chrono had never agreed with his ideas, an opinion he knew he shared with his mother. Likewise, Scania would never agree to a lot of positions held by the Harlaowns and their supporters; in many ways, the Bureau's political spectrum could be divided in those who pushed for more political independence for the Bureau, as both he and his mother believed, and in those who suggested instead closer ties toward the more important members of the Bureau's allies, Midchilda chief among these; Scania happened to believe the latter.

Lindy nodded in confirmation. "And who did he assign as the head of BoP and BoS?"

"Jarama Mercedes and Islero Bentley," Chrono replied with a sigh. Close political allies of Scania who would do whatever he wanted, ensuring that both the Bureaus of Personnel and Ships would be deeply in his pocket. "So basically this," he motioned at the documents, "is them trying to make a mess of my debut? And wait; BoP is involved in this too?" He groaned, realizing what that probably meant for the overall quality of his crew.

Lindy nodded again, this time while frowning. "Precisely. I had been hoping they would manage to look past their own pettiness, but evidently the opportunity to make the heir of an old family look bad was too good for them to pass up." Along with a few dozen names, the Harlaowns had been active members of the Bureau's navy since its creation, a fact that granted them significant political clout... and corresponding jealousy. "I did manage to put some pressure on Mercedes, though. I can tell you that at least one member of your officers' crew will be competent."

"Hm? Which one?"

"I'll keep it a secret for now," was his mother's cryptic answer. Surprisingly, Fate seemed to share their mother's enigmatic smile. "I expect you'll need the good news."

"That bad, huh..." Chrono sighed. "What about this..." he glanced at his admiralty letter for a second, "...Admiral Mariner? And Captain Torino?" Respectively, his fleet Admiral (whom he would never meet, being a lowly junior grade Destroyer captain) and taskforce Commander.

"Mariner's a decent sort," Lindy replied. "If I'm not mistaken, Fate has served on his flagship once?"

Fate nodded. "I didn't actually meet him, and it wasn't for long; us law enforcement types aren't usually kept in Admirals' fleets."

"Hm," Lindy dismissed. "As for Torino, I'm afraid I've got bad news for you."

Chrono groaned. "Don't tell me he's in Scania's clique too?"

"Oh, no. He's quite apolitical, actually. Unfortunately, I knew him at the academy. He had some... issues with your father. And me, kind-of. And he's the type to hold a grudge."

"Huh?" Chrono blinked. "What did you do?"

"We married," she replied with a sheepish grin. "He was quite taken with me, and we might have dated a few times... but Clyde was simply the better man. I'm afraid he never quite accepted it."

"Oh." Chrono voiced.

"Plus, he and Clyde might have been sport rivals."

"...Oh." Chrono sighed.

"A~nd... your father might have sent him a letter bragging about it on our wedding day," she added really quickly.

"...Oh." Chrono sighed again, this time accusingly at his mother, who gave him an angelic smile.

"Let's go out and eat somewhere the next time we meet," Lindy none-too-subtly changed the subject. "Oh, look at the time, I have to go. I love you! Bye bye~!" And with a final wave, she cut off the connection.



"...good luck, oniichan," Fate supplied helpfully. Chrono gave her a thankful, if suffering, look.

The TSABS Mathilda was a Destroyer. Modern Bureau doctrine on the ship type dictated that it was meant to stay out of range of heavier combatants under any circumstances, and just about anything that wasn't crewed by pirates was bigger than them. They carried the best sensor suite and the best stealth systems the Bureau could cram in their minuscule hulls, as the Bureau's mentality on their subject was to use them as hidden "feelers" for a larger fleet. They were fast and nimble, carried little to no armor and only the most basic shielding systems; should it have come to a fight between Chrono himself and a single destroyer, he would have given himself good odds, assuming his foe was immobilized.

At least, that was true for modern Destroyers. Mathilda had been built more than four decades ago, at a much different time when interdimensional travel had been only three decades old, and Bureau Destroyers had not only been much stronger than any other ID-capable ships in their size range, but had in fact been stronger than most military ID-ships twice their tonnage. As such, it boasted stronger armor, stronger shields, was much bigger—it was almost as long as a patrol cruiser like the Asura, and nearly three times longer than what one would expect of a modern destroyer. An additional difference to a modern Destroyer was its oversized mage wings; the ship held five five-mage wings, as opposed to two for a modern craft. And, of course, while the Bureau's best efforts were impressive, there was no way they could have crammed a modern sensor suite, stealth or drive in there; to do so would have required such extensive refits it would have made more economic sense to just build a new ship.

As he stared at the immobilized, needle-shaped hulk of freshly repainted metal lying silently in slip seventeen, Chrono sighed despondently. This was even worse than he'd thought. Mathilda's heavier armor would make it slower and harder on the helm than a regular destroyer, yet that armor still wasn't up to the standards of light cruisers, nor did it carry the Arc-En-Ciel or any kind of powerful ship-to-ship weaponry which would be expected from its size; its main guns were a single pair of medium beam guns, and it only had twice that number of point defense lasers. The five wings were nice, but a ship of its tonnage usually had at least six. In essence, he had a very visible, under-armored and under-armed light cruiser to use in a sleek and quiet destroyer's role. Maybe with a good crew, he would have a chance to make something out of this...

...but with Mercedes messing with things, that wasn't likely to happen, he reflected sourly.

It was nearly five in the afternoon when Chrono got his first taste of Mercedes' medicine, in the form of his executive officer.

Although, considering he'd been aboard Mathilda for nearly half an hour at that point, one could effectively argue that he'd already had been sampling it before the big dose. For as long as he could remember, his mother had always been welcomed by her exec upon boarding the ship; he'd had to exchange the customary permission request with a lowly Ensign who probably didn't have the authority to welcome him on a barge.

"Sorry, captain," were the first words the high-voiced rotund man declared upon walking into his quarters. "I was down in engineering, they had a bit of a problem, but it's fixed now."

"Is that so?" Chrono said skeptically. The man's impeccably worn and fresh uniform, just barely stretched across his belly, perfect haircut and very, very clean hands seemed to indicate he's instead spent much of that time in his quarters, making himself look good instead. "Your name, please?" another thing, a small detail but important, was the way he'd immediately covered his own ass by providing an excuse before even introducing himself.

The older man, upon receiving the question, seemed to do his own examination of his new captain, and allowed his surprise to show up on his face. He probably wasn't expecting to be ordered around by a fifteen years old.

"Ah... Stanza, sir. Commander Auster Stanza," and he saluted. Chrono nodded.

"Take note that I expect punctuality from now on, mister Stenza." Inwardly, Chrono rolled the name in his mouth; it seemed oddly familiar. "I suspect you are already aware of the personnel situation aboard?"

"Ah... you must be talking about the general quality of our crew," the man bemoaned. "Yes, it's simply awful. There was this man in engineering earlier who didn't seem to know a spanner from a monkey wrench. Simply scandalous that one such as you would be given such a deficient crew, captain Harlaown... May I suggest sending a complaint letter to the Bureau of Personnel?"

"I'm afraid, it would serve little purpose," Chrono replied flatly. "You will have to do the best you can with the non-coms we have aboard right now."

The executive officer was the captain's link to the non-commissioned officers and to the rest of the "little people" who made the ship live and breathe. His job was to handle problems, any problems relating to the ship's efficiency before they so much as tickled the captain's ears. He was also, due to having the most authority other than the captain himself, the captain's second-in-command. Having spent the bulk of his childhood on the decks of his mother's commands, Chrono was well aware of the difference a good and a bad XO made to the overall quality of a ship, and he had a foreboding feeling that this was not that one competent officer his mother had promised him.

"B...But sir, this..."

"I am more aware of the situation than anyone else, but believe me when I say any complaints would not be heeded by anyone."

Stenza looked like he had bitten a particularly sour umeboshi. Chrono had serious suspicions that the reason Stenza wanted Chrono to complain had less to do with what the captain deserved and a lot more to do with how much work a bad crew would mean to himself.

"Now, if you would kindly introduce me to the rest of the crew?"

"A—Ah, yes. Certainly, sir, it would be an honor!"

Yes, Chrono thought. I'm certain it would be.

Mathilda was a one-hundred and fifty meters long, thirty-seven meters at its widest (excluding armor), claustrophobically tight bucket of bolts. Old bolts. She had three decks, technically, but both the upper and lower decks were little more than room for supplies and maintenance shafts, except for her cannon rooms; the one good thing Chrono found was that she contained nearly ten times the logistics support a modern destroyer would have, even after factoring in how much her oversized crew would require. The back half, up to the oversized mid-point, contained the barracks and "gymnasium"—surprisingly spacious for a destroyer, but still little more than a glorified closet—for the mage wings, was built around a single hallway which led to the teleport room, furthest in the back, a placement made logical only by the knowledge that, at the time of her design, the only access to outside had been an airlock, of all things.

Past mid-point, the hallway divided in two cramped halves regularly rejoined by access halls, and as a result the ship's architecture seemed to be divided in blocks. The captain's quarters had been inserted in the final hallways upfront, right next to the bridge.

The bridge was another anachronism, as modern craft design preferred to have the fragile brain of Bureau ships in the back, behind a lot of bulkheads and armor. It was wide but small; Chrono was tall for his age, but he was still only fifteen, and yet the ceiling was within easy arm reach; far from a design decision, this seemed to be more due to redesign decision, as the bulkheads overhead had a sheen that was definitely shinier than most he'd seen so far. The room was a half-circle, with the captain's seat occupying the center back and seven seats arrayed around it, facing the typical wall-mounted console array.

"Captain on the bridge!" declared his XO self-importantly, and six officers suddenly stood from their chairs—

BONK "Owww~~" cried one particularly tall woman after demonstrating just why modern bridge designs had very high ceilings.

In a way, Chrono was thankful, for she provided a distraction from the sudden stares he'd been receiving. He took a deep breath, steeled his courage and spoke, "At ease."

And he was gifted with a sight few captains were ever "blessed" with as one of his new officers actually sat back down and spun on his chair to look at his console without introducing himself. One might have assumed it was to proceed with his duties, but from the way his fingers were moving, Chrono figured the man had been using the console for far more entertaining purposes. For a few more seconds, he stared daggers into that man's back—from his seat, he was the Communication and Damage Control officer, unless bridge designs had been that much different forty years ago—until the man standing next to him, near the tactical officer's seat, smacked his shoulder.

"Huh? What—oh. Oh! Right, sorry 'bout that cap'tain," the man said after standing up again. "I was just practicing a bit, y'know. The name's Franciz Nadezha, but my friends call me Frankie. CDCO." He grinned arrogantly.

"...I see, mister Nadezha." Chrono said darkly, glaring at the man until his grin vanished.

Chrono settled himself on the captain's seat and reached into his uniform pocket, where his letter from admiralty was neatly hidden. After carefully unfolding it, he cleared his throat and, with a single mental command, opened a com link throughout the entire ship.

"From the office of Third Admiral Chairman Jarama Mercedez to Captain Chrono Harlaown, on October twelfth of the year seventy-one. You are ordered to make your way to slip seventeen of IDS Prometheus and assume command of the TSABS Mathilda. Fail to do so at your own peril. Further orders will be waiting onboard." Not that he didn't already know them; security was lax around old names like his. After closing the link and folding the letter back into his pocket, he glanced toward Auster Stanza.

"Exec, I assume command."

"You have command, sir." Chrono had to hand it to him; Stanza certainly knew how to give a salute.

Giving a round glance at the rest of his bridge crew—Nadezha had returned to his console, he noted disapprovingly—Chrono continued, "Well, since I've had plenty of time to get settled, we might as well start with the introductions now."

He turned his eyes at the man next to Nadezha, who wasted no time in introducing himself.

"Callaway, sir. Enzo Callaway, Lieutenant-Commander in charge of your tactical section," he introduced himself, and Chrono felt immediate recognition at the name. Like the Harlaowns, the Callaways were an old navy clan. "It is truly an honor to meet the son of Clyde Harlaown."

Callaway was tall; like Nadezha, he had to bend to avoid a painful contact with the low ceiling. Unlike Nadezha, however, Callaway could only be called slim by someone with either very poor vision or with a lot of money on the line. At first sight, he was big and brawny, but Chrono had seen enough uniforms in his life to recognize the tell-tale signals of custom tailoring, especially the type meant to hide an excess of weight.

"You knew my father?"

"Only by reputation, I'm afraid," Callaway replied, "my father and yours were close associates, as he is with your mother."

Chrono wondered why it would be 'truly an honor' then, but didn't ask. The seat at Callaway's right belonged to his Legal and Archives officer.

The Bureau was a police force, which meant a bureau ship had to have authorization to do much of anything; the LO's job was basically of covering his, or in this case her, captain's ass by getting all the warrants he needed before regulations got in his way. If a bad XO could have a ship so disorganized it couldn't operate, a bad LO could freeze a ship in red-tape hell.

The tall woman was still rubbing her blonde head. Noticing his attention, she plaintively declared, "It huuuurts."

Chrono started worrying.

"Your name, please?"

"Um?" she blinked in incomprehension for a few moments. "What?"

"Can you tell me your name?" Perhaps a slower approach would be more successful...

"Oh. Yes. Niva. Niva Nova," she finally answered. Her uniform marked her as a Junior Lieutenant. His fingers found his temples and started a pained massage.

Chrono turned to Nadezha's left, being done with the other side. The man sitting in the central seat... was still sitting, actually. Not just that, but he was sprawled over the helm console.

" he sleeping?" Chrono asked, unwilling to believe what his eyes were telling him.

"Yup, like a rock." replied Nadezha irreverently. "That's Jay-Ell Andrew Samara, Helm. He'll be up in a bit, I think."

"Is there a reason why he's not up now?"

"Narcolepsy," was Nadezha's answer.

Chrono facepalmed.

"...fine. Next, you, with the..." Chrono blinked, once more wondering if his eyes were messing with him, before continuing, "...rainbow hair."

Technically, he was completely breaking protocol; everything he'd been taught before told him that a Captain, especially a new one, should remain courteous and polite, which of course discouraged disparaging appellations like the one he'd just used. But at this point, he couldn't bring himself to care.

"Lieutenant Beatrice Lada," slowly came his Electronic Warfare officer's nebulous voice, even as her head tilted from side to side like a particularly lazy pendulum. "Nice to meet you, hello, hello."

"Ah... yes," Chrono replied uncertainly. The woman before him was by far the strangest person he'd ever met, which said a lot as he was a well-traveled member of an interdimensional police force. Petite didn't describe her very well, unlike lilliputian; she barely reached Nadezha's chest. Chrono himself towered over her by a head. Her clear eyes seemed to look everywhere around him instead of straight at him, which was somewhat unsettling, but the strangest thing about her had to be the way her hair was colored in horizontal stripes of pastel colors, from red to violet, crossing the whole spectrum multiple times.

"The spirits like you a lot," she remarked casually.

"Ah......." he wasn't quite sure how to answer that, so he went to the next person.

She saluted sharply, or as sharply as the low ceiling allowed her; she was fairly tall.

"Junior Lieutenant Helen Riva, sir," she introduced herself without prompting. "Sensors Officer."

Chrono nodded in response. Riva had many of the hallmarks of a newbie, but compared to the people he'd already met, the mere fact that she hadn't fucked something up already looked pretty good. Was this the one his mother had mentioned?

Chrono continued to the last person, at Riva's left.

"E—Electronic Counter-Warfare, K—Kalina Fairlocks sir!" Came the nervous introduction of the next woman, a surprisingly young woman who couldn't be much older than Chrono himself. She was petite, with short dark hair and a face that had nothing unusual about it, with the exception of an impressive colony of freckles. The only noteworthy thing, it seemed, was her posture; it looked like she wanted either to sit down and be done with it or fall down in a sudden hole and vanish. The rank insignia on her uniform marked her as an Ensign, which surprised him; it was unusual to the extreme to find a mere Ensign on bridge crew. It either meant that she was really good, or that the rest of his officers were just that bad.


Fortunately, Chrono managed to hide his thoughts. "Very well. We've got a hard job ahead of ourselves, people, and I hope to have as much success as possible with all of you." The speech he had prepared himself mentally had been more assured, but he felt he couldn't honestly say he expected nothing but success from them. "Exec, have the rest of our officers arrived yet?"

Missing from the count were his Chief Mechanic, in charge of engineering and maintenance, his Medical officer, in charge of sick bay, and his Flight officer, commander of his mage wings.

"No they haven't, sir."

"I see." It wasn't that unusual, although it did spell badly for them, considering the state of the rest of his crew. "How soon may I expect them aboard?"

"Ah..." Stenza almost managed to hide a startle of surprise, as if the request had come completely unexpected. "I'll check, sir."

Chrono felt his eyebrow twitch. "Yes... you do that. I'll be in my quarters." getting roaring drunk, and maybe throwing a few chairs at the walls.

Fortunately, Stenza seemed to have realized he'd screwed up, because he had returned with a status report on the missing personnel about ten minutes later, before he could get started on his (non-alcoholized, thrice-damned regs, tetra-damned minor age) drink. It turned out his Chief Engineer had broken his leg surfing on Midchilda the day after he'd been officially assigned. Fortunately, he'd been checked up soon afterward by another doctor, this one with a verifiable identity, and his injury had miraculously healed (the report somehow managed to convey the sarcasm of the doctor who'd written it). In other words, he was expected to arrive within the day. His medic had been on vacation on a distant world, but the timing was about right for her to arrive at about the same time.

"As for your flight officer," Stenza continued, "she has just arrived, She should be here any--"

The door chimed at that moment.

"...well, that should be her, I expect." he concluded with a small smile.

"Hmhn." Chrono noised, steeling herself and hitting the button. At this point, he was expecting anything from a leper to a leopard.

Which was why the person stepping through his open door came to be a very pleasant surprise.

"Lieutenant Takamachi Nanoha, reporting for duty," declared Nanoha with an infectious grin and a salute.

"Nanoha! Ah, damnit, no wonder Fate knew about this." Chrono sighed joyfully. "I should have known. You have no idea how glad I am to see you."

"Actually, I have a pretty good idea," she cut in, looking about his quarters. Although they were clean and well furnished, there was no denying they were significantly smaller than what one would be expected from the captain's quarters in a modern ship, even a destroyer—probably, he'd already decided, because the sensors and electronic warfare rooms which framed it had gobbled up most of its volume over several decades of refits. "I'm sorry for being late, General Nakajima didn't want to let me go," she scratched the back of her head with an embarrassed "nyahaha". "I kinda had to promise I'd check up and finish training his rookies after I'm done before he'd agree."

"Hm," Chrono noised understandingly; Nanoha's presence had been a request from his mother, but even for a few favors, no one wanted to lose an instructor of her talent. He was, however, pretty sure Nakajima had already extracted some other favor from his mother, making his reticence toward letting him "borrow" Nanoha little more than opportunistic, if harmless, greed. "Oh, I forgot to introduce you, didn't I? This is my exec, Commander Auster Stanza. Commander, this is Takamachi Nanoha, one of the best mages I've had the pleasure to meet."

Nanoha saluted, Stanza replied likewise.

"A pleasure to meet you, Takamachi-san," he said, extending his hand. Nanoha accepted it with a small nod.

It didn't look like Stanza had any problems with having yet another very young officer onboard. Of course, that was probably because Nanoha was a lowly subordinate, and not a superior.

He chuckled, wondering if anyone would call her lowly after seeing her upper tier attacks. Nanoha gave him a curious stare, but he waved it off dismissively.

"I'm guessing you haven't had the time to look at the squadron yet?"

"Not personally, but I've skimmed over their files," she replied with a grimace. "Lindy-san gave me a general picture of what was going on here, but I hadn't thought it'd be that bad. Whose cat did you crash-land on to deserve all this?"

"It's just clan politics at work," was his answer, with a sideway glance at his exec. The man seemed a little flummoxed by how familiar they were being, and at his answer, an understanding—and terrified—light appeared in his eyes. Turning back to Nanoha, he continued, "some higher-up decided to give me as much trouble as he could because of who my parents are, that's all."

"Ugh," Nanoha's grimace grew more pronounced, and the look she gave him was both encouraging and pitying. She didn't say anything, but he could deduce her thoughts easily enough; she was glad for her "unattached" status as far as the politics of the Bureau were involved. Only she wasn't; her friendship with his mother, himself, and Fate, but also with Hayate, who was on her way of forming her own clique herself, put her deeply into the same camp he belonged to. She was right to remain unworried, however; how far they would mess with someone as attached to the Bureau as himself was far greater than what they'd try on a "Free Agent" (read: potential loose cannon) like Nanoha.

Especially since it was entirely likely his sister and their friend, as well as said friend's four highly trained belkan knights, would follow. No one wanted to be the one who could say his actions had caused The Aces to pack up and leave.

He shook his head free of those thoughts. "Don't put too much faith in those reports. For all you know, there could be someone in there who doesn't deserve what's written there."

"I know," she replied. "Not all of them look bad... but not one among them has a clean record, and... well, some of them are particularly bad. There's this one private with a discipline record as long as my arm, and then there's... well, that's all my problems I guess," she interrupted herself, grinning wryly. "You've probably got enough on your plate already."

"Quite," Chrono confirmed with his own grin. "Go meet them, then we can discuss our luck later. Hopefully someone in BoP will have done a filing error somewhere and we'll have gotten five wings that should have gone to the First Battlefleet instead."

"Nyahaha, we can hope," Nanoha chuckled wryly.

She didn't sound very hopeful, though. And frankly, he felt the same way. This had all the hallmarks on a long trip.

The mess hall was a double-sized compartment in which the ship's squadrons of combat mages not otherwise assigned to other shipboard duties, resting or training could sit back and relax. For a destroyer, there usually wasn't more than a handful of people fitting this criteria, so a simple room with a long table, a half dozen seats, a M2D port and a deck of cards were usually enough. The Mathilda's oversized mage crew, however, required a bit more room than usual. When one combined this with the anarchic lack of discipline which seemed endemic to this crew, and the scene resembled the kind of bar you'd find in a dingy corner somewhere around The Wall, with its gruff insult-ridden conversations, bottles of alcohol smuggled aboard—disguised as juice and sodas—and dark, shifty glares and sneers everywhere you looked.

At least, that was the opinion of Sergeant Kenari Talbot, Commander designate Wing Beta, Mathilda, as he entered the room. Instead of a single long table, the room's surface arrangement had been prepared two pairs of sturdy but small tables, fused to the floor to minimize combat collateral damage, which naturally caused the people in the room, which at the moment was pretty much everyone among Mathilda's five wings, to separate into small cliques.

"Yo, sarge," Private Atenza called almost immediately. The clean-cut, sharp-jawed, lanky man was the third member of the wing under his command, and while Talbot personally found his lack of fear toward those of higher rank a bit refreshing, it was easy to guess why the easy-going, but hot-tempered man had wound up here, among these people; the story went that he'd gotten fed up of one of the lieutenants at his previous deployment and had decided to express his opinion in public, in front of said lieutenant's superior. This was a story he had no trouble believing whatsoever.

Returning his greeting with a nod, Talbot sat at the man's table, joining him, two more mages of his wing (two and four, whose names escaped him at the moment, to his shame), and the equally hot-tempered commander of Wing Ceta, Sergeant Tesla Evora, as well as that of Wing Eta, Elise Sinclair.

"So, are the rumors true?" The latter said distractedly. She wasn't looking at him; an M2D screen full of text floated in front of her on the table, which, as always, was scrolling down at an impressive speed. If only she applied as much effort at her job as she did in her lecture, he thought for the tenth time since meeting her.

Talbot nodded. "Apparently. I haven't seen him myself, but quite a few people are saying they saw a kid going up the bridge with the XO. Plus, we all just heard his voice."

"It cracked," Sinclair noted.

"Tsh," Evora hissed around the plastic spoon in her mouth. "What kind of bullshit deployment is this? A bunch of buccaneers and dropouts crammed like sardines in an old piece of crap tin can, with a captain's whose balls probably haven't dropped yet. What's next?"

"Well, the Ace could be a kid too," Atenza cut in jokingly, referring to the overall wing commander, always designated as Alpha One. "Wouldn't that be fun?"

All things considered, Nanoha probably picked the worst possible moment to make her grand entrance.

Nanoha really hadn't been an instructor for very long. She'd graduated from the academy at twelve, had gone through a few month-long stints on various minor conflict zones—nothing the higher-ups would feel guilty exposing a child to, and certainly nothing nearly as dangerous as the two major incidents she'd already been involved in—and not even half a year later, she'd become an apprentice instructor, to become a full-fledged instructor about a year after—a record, as many were happy to remind her.

All of this meant that, all things considered, she'd only been a full combat instructor for a few months; the newbies she'd been working on in General Nakajima's division were her first real batch, and she'd only seen four other groups while apprenticed.

There was no comparison between any of the rookies she'd met and this bunch.

Twenty four men and women, many of them twice her age, turned as one to stare at her; it was only her supreme mastery of herself that let her to keep her sudden fear concealed. Most wore—in various states of readiness ranging from almost off to barely worn—the unadorned uniform of air force privates; a few, most of them at the table nearest to her, had on their shoulder the triangular insignia of a sergeant. And others had simply decided not to; there was a man in the back whose massive, muscled chest was unclothed, baring a massive tattoo of some scary creature with too many spines and teeth for all to see.

Hairstyles were also heteroclitic; the Bureau had very few regulations as far as personal appearance were concerned, to avoid offending some of the many foreign cultures that made up its multidimensional force, but the unwritten rule was that a higher up could give you a hard time if they found the way you kept yourself ridiculous—unless a cultural reason was involved somewhere.

Apparently, no one had told these people that Mohawks, spikes, partial shaves and tattoos were ridiculous.

Nanoha's eyes grew cold when she noticed some of them were even smoking.

"My name is Nanoha Takamachi," Nanoha spoke up, focusing on how little they impressed her so far to keep her voice steady. "For the duration of this mission, I'll be your commander."

Snickers—actual snickers!—and chuckles were her answer. A wave of fury rose up in her.

This... was not acceptable. Time to make an example.

"You," she snapped, pointing at the tattooed man. "Where's your shirt?"

The man made a lazy grin, giving a sideway glance at the snickering people at his table. "I dunno, why don't you ask her?" he pointed at a woman at another table, "I think she had it last, dunno what she did with it."

"Go fuck yourself, Andrew. I wouldn't touch you with a force bolt," was his reply.

Nanoha's frown grew even colder at the resulting laughter. She walked inside the room and allowed the door to close behind her.

"You say that now, but—"

"Raising Heart."

"Axel Shooter."

And suddenly, the room went silent at the sight of the dozen balls of magic that suddenly surrounded the fourteen years old girl. Although the room was well lit, it seemed like suddenly, the only source of light was the tiny girl in front of the exit. There was a hum, a tense sound like a high-voltage power line charged to bursting, and it weighed on them like the calm before a storm, a prelude to violence.

They were only force bolts. Only that. Just that. Not very threatening. Really, nothing that would make them blink even once on the battlefield.

They were just force bolts... just twelve of them...

...activated while she wasn't in her barrier jacket, and while her device—her intelligent device—was still in storage form. Just creating a force bolt without a device was a feat of magic beyond many mages; creating twelve of them at the same time? Without showing any kind of strain? At that age?

Suddenly, the five-pointed star on the shoulder of her uniform seemed a lot more legitimate.

"Where is your shirt." she asked, coldly.

"Ah—w..." the tattooed man frowned, then glanced at the people at his table. Nanoha read the silent communication easily enough, and even as he backed down, she knew she wasn't finished with this bunch. "It's in my bunk, ma'am," he replied obediently.

"Go get it. Now."

He gave no reply. Within seconds, he was out of the room. Nanoha turned to the others. A sharp glare was given to the handful of mages who were still smoking. She felt almost proud when they put them down without further prompting.

"I am not impressed," she finally said. "As you may already know, this ship's weapons and shields are inadequate for its size. For all intent and purposes, we are this ship's teeth, and I intend to make them as sharp as possible. As for your opinion on the matter, they don't matter." she looked at the nearest table, where three of her four sergeants were sitting, and continued, "I want to have the leaders of all my wings in my quarters. We have things to discuss, I think."

One of them, a man who was at first sight the oldest at that table, gave her a serious nod. And, just barely, there was a hint of a smile there.

It was almost enough to bring her mood back up.

The same man later introduced himself as sergeant Kenari Talbot, callsign Beta-one—and, incidentally, her second-in-command. He had a clear, strong voice and eyes that spoke with experience. He was also easily twice her age, perhaps more; it was unusual that a man his age was still a mere sergeant.

Ceta-one was Tesla Evora, a tall and svelte woman whose greyish-brown skin hinted on an ethnicity other than Midchildan. Complete with her fiery red hair—literally red, not auburn—and equally fiery yellow eyes, she made for a striking portrait. Nanoha could tell the woman was one she'd have to earn the respect of instead of gaining it from her power or rank. She also had the same air about her as Vita, that of a spitfire who wouldn't back from a fight.

Delta-one was named Piazza Cayman, a short and burly man who didn't give much of a first impression.

Eta-one, Elise Sinclair, didn't impress Nanoha either; the older woman had introduced herself without meeting Nanoha's eyes and while fidgeting, as if she'd wanted to be anywhere but in front of her. Nanoha could have excused it, had she not perceived that her haste to leave was not due to intimidation or nervousness, but of boredom. It was like she considered meeting her superior and hearing the details of their mission wasn't important enough to warrant her attention.

Misplaced priorities, Nanoha thought with a bit of irritation.

"Before we begin, do you have any questions?" Nanoha asked.

"Yeah, I got one," Evora drawled as she raised her hand. "How'd you end up on this ride?"

A raised eyebrow represented the first part of Nanoha's answer. "The captain's mother pulled a few favors," she replied honestly. "Looking at the state of the crew, it looks like it was a good call."

"Huh." Evora commented dubiously. Her unvoiced 'We'll see' was heard loud and clear, but Nanoha felt little irritation toward her; she would see, indeed.

"Anything else?"

"Yes," Talbot cut in, and waited until she acknowledged him before continuing, "What kind of mission are we being sent on?"

Nanoha smiled in approval at that. At least, it looked like she had a solid second.

"Can't be anything important if they're willing to send a bunch of fuck-ups with a newbie captain," Evora commented.

"We do have some good men," Cayman noted, but his tone indicated he agreed with her.

"For your information, it's a routine fleet support mission. We're gonna join the destroyer element of an already deployed fleet."

The room went silent as its occupants digested what they'd been told. Nanoha gauged their reactions. Talbot's eyebrows had dug a deep brow on his creased forehead in worry. Evora's perpetual glare remained, but her face twisted as if something disgusting had just been shoved under her nose. Cayman frowned and nodded thoughtfully, as did Sinclair more disdainfully.

Why did they look so worried? This was routine, wasn't it?

Her confusion must have shown—and she scolded herself for letting her inexperience show—because Talbot looked right at her and explained, "Destroyers are usually deployed on their own, with minimal support. They detect incoming ships to give the heavy hitters time to maneuver for intercept." she'd already known this and made to say so when he continued. "The odds of someone dodgy stumbling on us are pretty low, which means we're pretty unlikely to see any action."

"What he means is that we'll have lots and lots of free time," Evora cut in. "And with the boys the way they are, free time is not a good thing."

Talbot nodded. "Basically, this gives the crew a lot of time to learn to get along—or self-destruct."

Nanoha winced and wondered if Chrono knew this.

"Have you... I mean, ma'am... er..." Cayman stumbled as Nanoha turned her attention to him. Receiving a nod from her, he continued, "Have you ever been squad leader on a ship, ma'am?"

Nanoha shook her head. "Groundside, yes. Twice. And I've been deployed shipside a few times too... just not on routine stuff."

"I'll bet," Evora snorted.

Nanoha preferred not to ask her what she meant. Deciding the meeting had been derailed enough, she cleared her throat. "If there's nothing else, let's begin. Can you give me the run down on our men? Any special cases I need to worry about?"

"Ma'am, I this it would be easier to answer to 'who isn't a special case'," Talbot replied diplomatically.

Nanoha winced. The meeting continued in that vein for another hour.

"Well, for everyone who hasn't met everyone else," Chrono declared later that evening to the officers seated around the oval table in the conference room, "this is Takamachi Nanoha, in charge of our squadron, Lieutenant Allex Santamo, head of engineering, and Dr. Cortina Porter who will be our field doc for the trip. Everyone," he motioned for the others to introduce themselves, and took a quick glance at Nanoha.

His friend didn't look happy; in fact, she looked quite frustrated, which didn't bode well at all.

Once the introductions were done, Chrono spoke again.

"Since I'm sure we all have our fair load of issues, let's have a look around them. Lieutenant Allex Santamo, have you had time to look at engineering yet?"

Santamo was a portly, small man with a double chin. His sole facial hair was a blonde goatee; the rest of his hair appeared to have either fallen off or been shaved. He also had an impressive tan; at least the vacation part of his misadventure story seemed real.

Santamo nodded. "Everything seems to be working at first glance," he replied. "I haven't had a lot of time to check up on things, though," he warned, and as they'd only formally met two hours earlier, Chrono accepted his excuse. "I did make sure the n-space generators are in a good state. The models are a little dated, but I'm afraid nothing newer will fit on this—I mean, aboard."

Chrono allowed himself a relieved smile at this. Did their engineer actually have some competence?

Of course, it could also be a matter of self-preservation in this case. As far as magitech science could tell, Bad Things happened to otherwise four-dimensional objects directly exposed to the 8-dimensional space interdimensional ships navigated in—and those objects included the ships themselves. Therefore, a ship had to generate their own "pocket universe", a bubble of three-dimensional single-timeline "normal"-space without which...

...well, no one really knew. No one had ever returned from an n-space generator failure. Even the laziest man in the multiverse would make sure a boat could float before boarding it.

"What kind of problem did they have?" Chrono asked.

"Power coupling issues," Santamo replied. "New bubbles need more juice, which the connectors in place just can't take safely."

"Wait, does that mean we'll be flying in vacuum?" Nanoha interjected.

Santamo nodded. "I'm afraid so."

Nanoha grimaced, and Chrono gave her a sympathetic glance. One of the much appreciated features of newer n-space generators was the creation of an atmosphere in the bubble they generated—the means were rather arcane and escaped Chrono's meager understanding of space bubble physics.

That this ship was meant to survive in vacuum might have explained why it was so claustrophobic in places, Chrono reflected. For Nanoha, it was simple matter to tweak a barrier jacket to give it its own breather unit, but it did mean that they'd be flying deaf—no sound in vacuum—and that, should anyone's jackets fail, the consequences would be... dire, to say the least.

He turned to Porter, a tall and attractive bluette with half-moon glasses, a form-fitting uniform and impeccable makeup. Doing his best to remember he was already fiancéed—no wait, married—and, purposefully looking at her right in the eyes—green, an oddly bright shade—and not at her dangerously open collar, he motioned for her to take the stage.

"Typical destroyer sick bay," she replied with a... distracting shrug. "Doesn't look like we'll need anything we don't have."

Chrono nodded, but made a mental note to double-check, just in case. Hopefully she knew her job as well as she knew how to attract—was Nanoha glaring at her?

"Comms are working fine and our Damage Control crew is ready," Nadezha declared without prompting; he was seated next to the voluptuous woman—and grinning like the drake that had caught the sheep for that reason. "'course, it's kinda hard to do DC with no D, if you get my meaning."

"We'll make sure to run a few drills to check it out, then," Chrono said, and Nadezha's grin froze a little.

"Ah... sure cap'tain." He agreed with little enthusiasm.

"Sensors appear to be working," Riva took over without prompting from her seat next to the roguish man. "How much of that will survive our first few jumps, I don't know. It looks like we've got old components there, too."

Chrono grimaced.

"Ah... I've tested the... the Illusion-breaking arrays," Fairlocks stumbled. "It looks like they're working fine... I think."

"Did you have a problem with them, or not?" Chrono snapped.

"Ah! I mean—no I didn't—I didn't, sir," she finally replied with more sturdiness than a mollusk. Chrono took that as a first step.

Andrew Samara... was sleeping. Chrono sighed.

"Will someone wake him up?"

Riva did, reaching over Fairlock's shoulders to smack the back of the man's head.

"Huh—wha...oh, sorry captain, it just... kind of happens sometimes," Samara stammered apologetically. Chrono caught the suffering look Nanoha shot him from the corner of his eyes and ignored it.

"Try to stay awake, please. How is the helm responding?"

"Slower than what you'd expect of a destroyer, but then destroyers don't have the kind of mass we have," Samara replied. He was then interrupted by a spectacular yawn. "Ah—hh... sorry captain. Other than that, I haven't had much of an occasion to maneuver, and of course the translation drive hasn't been field-tested."

Callaway was next. The pompous man spoke in a clear and proud voice, "Our gunner crews are as efficient as I could make them in this limited time. I've run a few drills with them, and although our accuracy isn't exceptional, it's at least functional."

"Meaning they can hit the broad side of a planet in sunlight?" Nadezha quipped. Chrono shot him a look, and he shrugged. "Just calling it how I see it, sir."

"Broad side of a planet?"

"Hmph," Callaway huffed, ignoring Nanoha's confused interjection, "At least we've run drills. You and your unit have been doing nothing but sitting on your backsides all day—"

"Gentlemen, please." Chrono cut in before this could go any further. He turned to the next person.

"The spirit of the illusion array is eager to please," Lada voiced airly. "All she needs is your command and my will. I must beg of you not to ask anything inappropriate of her, however. She appears a bit shy."

"Ah..." definitely an odd person. "I see. Miss Nova?"

"Hmm?" the blonde noised around some kind of granola bar. After blinking once or twice in confusion, she swallowed her bite and declared, "Chocolate is good."

Chrono just barely fought off the urge to slam his head against the table. Instead, he turned toward Nanoha, who was next.

"I'm afraid I've got bad news, captain," she began. "It's as we thought earlier; we've got some seriously bad people in here. I mean, the crew as a whole will be difficult to deal with, but the kind of customer I've got in the back is... worrying."

Chrono frowned. "How bad is it?"

"Not one of my wings doesn't have a trouble case, some more than one. I thought about putting them all in my wing so I can keep an eye on them, but there's simply too many of them, and that would have me focus on only four of them; the rest would go wild. My wing leaders are good; I'll only have to kick one, maybe get some steel in another, but I can't be everywhere. Normally I'd use two wings to patrol around and keep security, but in this case, I'm afraid having some of those trouble cases wandering around on patrol around the ship would be... counter-productive to ship safety."

Chrono frowned. "Will it endanger the ship?"

The possibility of an unmanageable crew had been thought of by the Bureau at the time of its founding; interdimensional travel was only just a bit less dangerous than interstellar travel, and so the possibility had been left open for a captain who felt his crew's lack of discipline endangered their own lives to step down. It was, however, a suicidal move; a captain who surrendered control of his ship this way would most likely never be asked to command anything ever again. Stepping down basically meant "I don't have the skills to handle this crew".

The only thing that was worse would be not stepping down and getting disgraced post-mortem.

He wasn't even sure if Nanoha understood that part of the question—his exec certainly did, if he read his face correctly—but he was relieved when she shook her head.

"It'll be hard, but I'm pretty sure I can scare them into cooperating," she replied honestly, and Chrono was amused to realize he believed her. "In the beginning, though, I'll have to separate the wings into people I can trust—or think I can trust at least—and those I know I can't, and send the trusty ones out on patrol. If any of my mages cause trouble, I need to be informed right away, otherwise this will get out of control."

Chrono turned to the man at his side and the only one who hadn't said his report, his XO. "Can I trust you on that?"

"Ah—Y—yes sir," Stenza stammered.

Chrono caught Nanoha's reassuring smile from behind his exec. He allowed himself a sigh.

"...very well. I'm sure you've all been curious about what we'll be doing, so I'll get started on that. First, we'll head over to sector..."

The next morning, the Time-Space Administration Bureau's Destroyer Mathilda left the docks of Prometheus.

There were no fanfares.

End Chapter 1

Author's notes:

Yes, another fic. Sue me. No wait, don't. You'd get a couple of bottlecaps out of it, and they'd only get value once you'll end up in a nuclear wasteland anyway.

Think of the nukes. Thank you.

Much of the purpose of this story is setting up the interdimensional warfare side of the equation for the rest of TTW; this is not your typical space to space battles.

Also, it's in good fun. Torturing Chrono is surprisingly entertaining.

Hope you've enjoyed, and don't forget to review.