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A bright engine stream flared up in the sky around Daedalus. Daedalus' bright sun Varstal was hidden behind the planet, and the stream disappeared a few minutes later as the ship riding it disappeared into the vast emptyness of space. On the bridge of that ship, the IVS Isis, all was calm. Captain Morvis Hanarock was highly appreciative of the way in which the Admiralty was reacting to the ambushes. Even more, she was giddy that they were entrusting her with the Isis, one of the new Polaris class battleships. A far heavier ship than the Fayton, a mere heavy cruiser.

"We've reached jump distance from Daedalus, Captain."

Hanarock nodded. "Initiate jump sequence."

There was only a slight delay, as the engines had long since reconfigured for subspace travel while the Isis had drifted away from Daedalus' gravity well, and there was nothing but a momentary lurch as Isis blinked into subspace.

"Estimated time to destination?"

Her navigator, one Derek Wallom, shrugged. "I couldn't begin to guess. We've never even gone near that area of space before."

"Not even a rough time?"

"More than a day, less than a month."

Hanarock raised an eyebrow. "That is incredibly vague."

"It's also as accurate as I can get until we actually get there."

She sighed. "Very well. Let's begin our preparations now, then. Contact the engineering teams and have them get to work."

"Yes, Captain."

She turned to Commander Lindberg. "Vaughn, did you get a chance to check out the launch bays?"

Her first officer nodded. "All four are in peak condition. Dassi says she can get an entire squadron out in a single combat launch."

Morvis let out a low whistle. They often joked that Lieutenant Commander Tela Dassi could take apart a cruiser and put it back together blindfolded, but launching an entire squadron in the span of two seconds was a severe tactical advantage. "That a standard feature, or did she rig it up herself?"

Vaughn shrugged. "Somewhere in-between."

"Business as usual, then."

Vaughn turned back to the viewscreen, which was displaying a representation of the subspace currents in front of the ship. The twisting waves of energy were colored according to their intensity, with bright dots indicating the presence of a subspace node, often a large mass in realspace. "Sometimes I can tell where we are by just looking at the subspace layout. Out here, though, I can't recognize anything."

Morvis nodded. "Only survey ships have ever been out this direction before. We're the first to head this way for something other than cartographic data."

"Well," amended Vaughn, "the first Volitanians, anyway."

Morvis' expression turned sour, but she didn't reply. That was what they were really trying to find out with this mission.

* * *

"Bandon, you'll be in charge of team 1."

Maurin managed to prevent himself from groaning... barely. In his opinion, Caran Bandon was generally pretentious and egotistical; a blind, suicidal maniac that didn't even belong in the academy; someone who would, if he graduated, get his people killed. Since Maurin didn't have much choice in that matter, however, he could settle for wiping the floor with him in simulations. This would be his first opportunity, if he could snag leadership of the opposing team. Maurin had his hand up before Admiral Falwell could even begin to ask for a volunteer to lead team 2. Admiral Falwell was the instructor of the Advanced Strategy and Tactics class, and she had a reputation for brilliance in fleet maneuvers. She was very perceptive, and no doubt saw the same things Maurin saw... that Bandon needed a harsh lesson. "All right, Landar, you're in charge of team 2."

Maurin prevented himself from grinning like an idiot. Tactical combat simulations were run in groups of sixteen, eight on each side, so there would be a bit of a delay before team leaders could begin divvying up the remainder of the class of

"I need four more team leaders, starting from this side of the class..."

Maurin was slightly surprised at some of the leader choices. Jason Ralwood usually preferred, in these simulations, to be given control of a small task force, not an entire fleet; nonetheless, he raised his hand three times until he was picked as leader of team 5, marking the second time he had been given fleet command in their entire tenure at the Imperial Naval Academy. Maurin wondered, idly, if he was tired of taking orders from someone with a poorer grasp of strategy than himself.

Of more immediate importance was Bandon, of course. Maurin would want a team that could handle his near-criminally-insane tactics, but if someone else snagged them before him, this could very well blow up in his face. He would probably still do better than Bandon, but total annihilation of both sides wouldn't look good on anyone's record.

As soon as possible, he grabbed Josel Halden, who had a keen grasp of tactical combat and knew how to take orders... he was also someone Bandon had looked as though he wanted to round out his group, but not grab right off the bat, and the look on his face as Maurin snagged him first was best described as "venomous". Next, Maurin called on Gregory Stellman, who had a knack for finding targeting solutions under pressure. When it came time to pick his third teammate, he was delighted to see that Brightman hadn't been picked yet, and immediately snagged him for his own team. He rounded out his solid core with Stephen Feldar, a "brawler" who could keep an enemy at close range and hammer them; Roland Gebitz, a sniper by inclination, whose long-range attacks tended to have far greater accuracy than seemed possible; and he finished off his team with a pair of new additions to the class, a pair of first-year cadets with an apparent desire to have the ever-loving snot blasted out of them in simulations.

There was no requirement that you take the Advanced Strategy and Tactics class in your third year, but it was recommended -- as was taking the Basic Strategy and Tactics class in your second year. The fact that Maurin, Jason, and Geoff had all taken Basic in their first year and were now taking Advanced in their second was usually seen as taking the "fast track". The classes could, however, be taken as year-long or only semester-long, so it was possible to take both classes freshman year; however, taking both the Basic and Advanced classes in the same year was an amount of stress most cadets chose to avoid. More to the point, since most cadets in the Advanced class were third-year cadets, first-year cadets usually found the prospect entirely unappealing.

Usually. Hopefully these two wouldn't collapse into screaming fits once the sims really got underway.

* * *

Maurin smirked at the tactical sphere in front of him. "Halden, swing around to 3-5 by 1-4."

Josel looked up from his command console. "That will take us right between the two formations."

Maurin nodded. "I know. Stellman, Feldar, continue on present course. Everyone else, execute Main Turn to 1-1-5 by 3-2-5."

The holographic sphere changed, as five units changed course, one turning slightly right and up, four turning far right and down. The two enemy formations, one in front of the two units that had kept moving and the other coming toward them from behind and above, suddenly halted their advances, with the second group "diving" toward relative down to chase the group that had begun moving perpendicular to their course. Maurin smirked.

"Brightman, Gebitz, deactivate EW and open fire."

Geoff gave him a startled look. "Are you sure--"

"Just humor me."

Geoff shrugged and tapped some orders into his console, Roland doing the same two seats over. The sphere shifted again as half of the units that had moved towards relative "down" suddenly disappeared, and two new units popped into existance directly facing the enemy formation. white blips blinked inside the holosphere to represent weaponsfire, and the red dots of the enemy units began to disappear. "Halden, engage the first formation. Stellman and Feldar, support."

White blips began moving between Josel's unit and the first formation, which had halted to assess the situation, and Gregory and Stephen's units joined the fray soon after. A giant cloud of white blips, probably a missile swarm, surged out of the enemy formation, but it was poorly targeted, and the shots that didn't miss outright were intercepted by the yellow blips of point-defense. Then both enemy units began moving away from their attackers at maximum acceleration, firing only token return fire in an attempt to cover their escape. Maurin grinned. "Everyone pull back and return to Waypoint Alpha. I suspect this exercise is over."

* * *

"What the hell were you thinking, Landar?"

Maurin shrugged. "About what, sir?"

Admiral Falwell frowned. "Two of your battlegroups deactivated their Electronics Warfare equipment before firing. It was completely unneccessary and opened them up to full-blown retaliation."

Maurin kept his expression as neutral as possible. "Psychological impact."

Falwell arced an eyebrow. "Oh?"

"The sudden demonstration that the enemy has outsmarted you to the point of positioning their forces to perfectly counter your own results in an instantaneous and catastrophic morale failure."

Falwell's eyebrow raised even higher. "'Instantaneous and catastrophic morale failure'?"

"Yes, sir."

Falwell sighed and shook her head. "I don't get how you make this stuff up, Landar, but it worked. Cadet Bandon's fleet was completely demoralized, and he had completely lost control by the time I ended the exercise."

Maurin shrugged again. "That was the intent."

"You still haven't answered the main question, however."

Maurin frowned. "I haven't?"

"Why did you have them deactivate their EW systems? The psychological impact of an apparently-invisible force taking your ships apart at will would be greater than that of a suddenly-revealed-but-visible force opening fire."

Maurin grinned sheepishly. "Mainly ego, sir."

Falwell sighed again. "I was afraid of that. Pull a stunt like that again and that'll be a demerit. Otherwise a fantastic job. Dismissed."

Jason Ralwood threaded his way through the mob of cadets to reach Maurin. "Nice one. I saw the recordings of that battle. You ripped Bandon a new one."

Maurin shrugged. "He had it coming. He's arrogant. If he'd kept on thinking he was invincible, he'd eventually get his people killed."

Jason raised an eyebrow. "You don't see any irony there?"

Maurin blinked. "Huh?"

"Now who's the one who thinks they're invincible? Deactivating EW just to wave your superiority in your enemies faces? That's not just ego... that's massive ego."

Maurin shrugged. "What can I say? I won."

"Yes, you did, and that's half the problem. If you keep this up, you'll eventually get your people killed."

Maurin frowned. "Oh come on, I'm not going to--"

Jason scowled. "Not going to what, Maurin? Or have you forgotten last week's exercise?"

Maurin snapped his mouth shut. As much as he hated to admit it, Jason had a point. He had been just as arrogant, and lost half of his simulated fleet. Not exactly an inspiring thing to have on one's record, and Falwell probably had it on her mind as well. Suddenly her threat about the demerit seemed much more real.

"I'm sorry," Maurin said. "You're right. Thanks."

"No charge," said Jason with a grin.

* * *

All was quiet on the bridge of the IVS Ganymede. Maris Fenway kept her eyes on the tactical sphere, which collected and combined data from the Ganymede's various sensors, giving her a near-real-time reading on what was happening up to four light-minutes away. They were all in passive mode, meaning they couldn't see a planet if it was right in front of them, but the energy signature of the starship they were watching showed up bright and clear.

"Why is she just sitting there?" Fenway wondered out loud.

Tayn shrugged. "Maybe just to hinder the efforts of any invisible spaceships that might want to follow her."

Fenway glared at him, then turned back to the glowing dot representing their first contact, an Earth Empire heavy cruiser on patrol. They'd hoped to follow it back to its base, under maximum stealth of course, but the cruiser had decided to stop dead in space for no apparent reason.

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