chapter thirteen
Part Three

Commodore Crystal Tass stood at the thin viewport in her Cabin, a hastily realigned assemblage of bulkheads that had turned three Senior Officer quarters and a Ready Room on the Astral Carrier JJ MOORE into the Flag Officer's Quarters of Battlegroup P31, the designation given the twelve Astral Light Cruisers moving back to Earth in support of the Buffalo Commons mission.

She peered out through the only window she had that faced open space and watched the slow moving backdrop of stars as the “J.J. MOORE” continued toward Earth. As she sipped her warm glass of Ribena, a tart drink her first Commander had hooked her on, she wondered how long it would take for the giant combat baffle outside this window to recess closed.

It was a silly thought. They weren't heading into battle and therefore the baffle wouldn't be pulled closed at any point this mission, but it didn't stop her from wondering just how long it would take the massive old-style hydraulics to pull such a large, honey-combed armour panel, closed in combat. Could an enemy get in a first strike or would the panel close as early as Yellow Alert?

Tass stopped, that was either established protocol or her decision. Another thing she didn't know about Astral operations, another hole in the increasing void of knowledge that she had. She chided herself for not spending more time reviewing Light Cruiser protocols en route, as Flag Commander of an Astral Fleet it seemed like something she should already know.

She was startled by the harsh buzz of the door chime. She put her cup down and moved closer to the door attempting to look as though she'd been busy at work instead of daydreaming before calling the door to “open”.

Lieutenant Commander Simon Langevin, Skipper of the JJ MOORE and her Primary on this mission, stood there with the rifle bag in his hand, “Ready, sir?”

Tass had completely forgotten. She looked about, and then shook her head, “I'm sorry, Simon. I don't think I can spare the time right now.”

“With all due respect, sir, you've been working non-stop since you got here, longer I presume. You need a break and there is nothing so urgent that it can't wait until afterwards.”

“I don't know…” Tass was going to feel guilty slinking off for recreation right now, even though Simon was absolutely correct.

“Crys,” It went to show just how long the hours had been that they were on first names, in private at least, “Blaxland will nod and accept the official story but you know that behind our backs they'll say the reason you didn't show is because you didn't want to lose to the Astrals AGAIN.”

Crystal Tass held her breath and made a decision to join him, and it felt like she held it until she was on the range, Rifle in her hands and the target in her sights. The first time she pulled the trigger she envisioned the smirk on the face of Major Remy LaChance, Leader of the Astral Team that had last handed her a competitive spanking back on ENTERPRISE.

Several hours later Tass was once again holding her breath. She held it as she willed her heartbeat to slow and then slowly let it out, steadying her hands just before depressing the trigger on her Rifle. The shot rushed down the barrel picking up speed before exiting the weapon, and raced across the room at the speed of sound, striking her target dead center, well actually several centimeters off center.

“You're aim is off today, Commodore,” said Blaxland, once again stating the obvious. The Astral Commander was really starting to get on her nerves.

But the comment made Tass cringe for reasons other than the commentary. As Flag Officer of Battlegroup P31 supporting the Buffalo Commons mission she'd been given the rank of Commodore, and she still wasn't used to it, but she didn't like that her shoulder board stripes were grey, a constant reminder that the rank was temporary. And as much as she didn't like the rank, she felt advertising its impermanence cut any authority she carried down considerably.

Although Blaxland hadn't put any emphasis on the rank when she spoke it, Tass had heard an almost condescending tone and it agitated her. She rose and handed the weapon, a striped down Marwayne 230 Epsilon Rifle, over to the Langevin, who took it and prepped his next shot while the opposing team of Astral Marksmin took their turn firing.

It had never occurred to Tass that the Fleet officers could be so good at firing these weapons but now that she'd spent some time on an Astral Light Carrier, a craft operated by Fleet in support of its Astral Ground Operations force, she'd come to realize that the two Executive Officer streams worked, and played, very closely to each other.

This was greatly welcome surprise and an eye opener. As was the discovery that “Fleeties” who liked to fire small arms were often drawn to serve on Astral craft, rather than Carriers, just because of these competitions. Tass had never even known they existed.

The second eye opener had happened during her orientation when she first set foot in the External Ops Centre. This tiny command, one third the size of the one on ENTERPRISE, held sway over nearly the same number of fighters and small ships as her Supercarrier.

Tass hadn't known this either but it made sense. Even as part of the Battle Group Astral Carriers were 'first responders', capable of jumping out ahead of the Group and engaging any enemy beyond the Battle Group's range. That they'd have nearly as many fighters as a Supercarrier was nothing more than a smart use of resources.

And ENTERPRISE didn't need that many craft on board, except during War, so watching the crews on J.J. MOORE rack-and-stack as many craft as tightly as they did renewed her appreciation of a skill set she intended to tap on return to her normal duties.

In fact, it couldn't hurt any Battle Group anywhere in the Fleet to rotate these crews around; she'd recommend that to Admiral Ismail in her next Upper Level PIP.

Astral Commander, Colonel Andrea Blaxland, fired off her round with nearly the same level of skill as Tass had seen in her counterpart on ENTERPRISE, the difference this time was that the Fleet team was ahead by ten points.

Normally this would've made Tass ecstatic but they were nearly real-time with Earth after a long trip back and all she could think about, as the mission loomed closer, was the Herculean task ahead of them.

It was wasted concern. By the time word had been given to return they'd been 26 days out. It had taken two days for the Quartermaster on “J.J. MOORE” to rip and realign the bulkheads to create Flag Officer quarters, and during the that time she'd barely been able to bring her command staff on ENTERPRISE up to speed so their mission could continue without her.

Turning J.J. MOORE about had taken another day and a half, but then all craft were traveling in excess of 300 million klicks an hour by that point and anything less than a wide parabolic arc about would've taken weeks to pull off.

The transfer of command and arc about had wasted four days, which meant that by the time they were heading back J.J. MOORE was nearly 30 full days from Earth.

And that was 28 days ago. Tass had been busy creating the first Light Carrier Battle Group, establishing sub-commands and micro-groupings, again something that had never been considered before, while familiarizing herself with many of the Astral and Fleet operations on these craft.

This included strategies for deployment, liaison between Commands to determine target priorities and such, all things which left her zapped of energy by the end of each day, so much so that it had been almost 24 days before she discovered the competitive firing challenges between Fleet and Astral crews on board.

And now that all the planning was done and there was nothing left to do but wait, Tass found herself too tightly wound to enjoy one of her few passions, small arms competition. All work and no play had made Tass a dull blade.

Of course, there was another reason for the tension. Information Management restricted local broadcasts to within Lagrange space which meant all the news they've had on the trip back had been filtered. Tass had never trusted filtered news and was anxious to get back into range of the open comm-nets that would let her decide what channels of information were relevant.

It was frowned upon within Network circles to consider those channels, the leaders arguing that unrestricted access to open communication fed unfounded rumours and conspiracy theories, stories that took too much energy and emphasis from the real problems to tackle and disprove.

But Tass knew better. One never believed all of anything and if 'power' said something was dangerous it was only because they were afraid of the truths on those channels, besides, she was smart enough to do her own filtering. And let's face it, none of the 'approved' channels had reported anything newsworthy about Buffalo Commons in weeks.

As soon as JJ MOORE was near enough to Lagrange space, as the space between Earth and Luna was called, they'd be able to cut through the clutter and pick up news from East America, which because of its claim to Buffalo Commons would provide at least a second point of view to this mess. It was frustrating that even a Flag Officer had to be in range of the signal to find out counter views, but it was fact, and they were still several hours away from making it reality.

Suddenly the group around her erupted in cheers as the competition ended with the Fleet Team in victory. Tass was startled by the sudden noise but it broke through her reverie. She glanced at the board, a four point victory. She'd have to make sure some sort of rotation was put in place when they rejoined Battlegroup 465, Tass would love to see the face on Major Remy LaChance when his Astral team was finally beaten by Fleet.

* * *

Several hours later Commodore Crystal Tass entered the Bridge of JJ MOORE and made her way to Langevin. She rarely ventured here, sensitive not to undermine the rightful Skipper of the 'Boat', but Simon had called her.

On the screen they were picking up skipping digital feed directly from a broadcaster in Chicago, East America as entire Battalions were being mobilized “to take back the Commons.”

“Crap.” It was all Tass said and it summed things up nicely.

* * *