"So what'd you leave behind?"

Jabari, sitting on his bed with his back against the wall, looked up from an astrogation manual. "Hmm?"

"What'd you leave back home?" Hag repeated. "Wife, kids? Great career? Dying mother?"

Jabari shrugged. "None of the above. I was working network administration for a bank. Nothing I particularly miss."

"But no chance of getting shot to pieces."

"Not as much, anyway." Jabari contemplated returning to the manual in his lap, but deciding he was tired of reading about astrogation and set the compad aside. "So what about you?"

Hag shook his head. "Nothing worth mentioning." The words came out slowly, forcedly, like those of a devout believer forced to blaspheme his god. "Nothing I couldn't handle leaving."

Jabari was about to reply when his compad chimed. To Hag's questioning look, he said, "I set it to ring if any war news came up." Picking up the compad, he read the news story. "The Sirians have attacked an Asian outpost around Wolf 359."

"How's the battle going?"

"I can't say."

"What, we officers don't get news in advance?"

"Not through CNN, no." Jabari shrugged and set the 'pad down. "What do the Sirians want in Wolf 359 anyway? A forward base?"

Hag shook his head. "Position means nothing in space warfare, not since jumpgates came into play. They're either trying to inflict attrition on the Asians, or there's something in Wolf 359 that they want."

"Whatever the case, they're going to send us out into space soon," Frankie said, appearing suddenly from behind Hag. "This is the first major conflict of the war we're talking about." He sat beside Hag, facing Jabari's bed, and smiled wryly at Jabari. "Think you're ready for battle, Jeb?"

"What, you mean capability-wise, or emotionally?" Memories of long simulator sessions – most of them unpleasant – intruded into Jabari's thoughts.

Frankie shrugged. "Either one."

"According to our ratings, no. But I have a feeling I'll fight better when there are real Sirian missiles coming at me."

This time, the small crew of reserves did have support, in the form of three small frigates to provide cover fire. Meanwhile, the simulated enemy was now comprised of a heavy cruiser and two destroyers, which would throw more missiles at them than a destroyer and three frigates could possibly shield against. Lieutenant Frank Molina had a decision to make: would he focus on the most powerful enemy, the heavy cruiser, or go after one of the destroyers, where he could inflict more damage against its weaker defenses? Either way they were going to die, but where could they do the most damage?

"Enemy will enter engagement range in two-seven seconds," the new tactical officer, Ensign Wainwright, said in her crisp feminine voice. "All missile crews report ready."

"Thank you, Ensign," Frankie said from the command chair. He liked Wainwright much more than the last tactical officer; he hadn't had the chance to find out yet – though he undoubtedly would soon – but he had a feeling that she wouldn't try to make excuses for herself. "Helm, come about nine-zero degrees starboard."

"Aye, sir," Jabari said. "Nine-zero degrees starboard." He worked his helm controls and the destroyer responded with a slow yet smooth motion about its z-axis.

"Missile range, sir," Wainwright said.

Frankie exhaled and made a decision. "Target the closer destroyer. Fire all starboard launchers." Frankie watched tensely as his missiles streamed forward, passing by a wall of five times as many incoming Sirian missiles. "Let's try a sensor ghost, Tactical. Establish four-five mark four-five degrees, range two-zero kilometers."

At his order, an electronic duplicate of the destroyer, intended to confuse the missiles' targeting sensors, was projected into the space before them. The weapons continued unhindered. Frankie cursed and said, "The computer's getting smarter. The missiles must be programmed to maintain their initial target."

"Which means," Wainwright added, "that if the missiles lose us, they won't try to reacquire."

"Exactly. Launch forty ECMs into the path of the missiles."

This was a ridiculous number of countermeasures to waste at one time, but Wainwright didn't protest as she punched the commands into her workstation, and the swarm of ECMs thrust outward five at a time. "Sir, our first wave of missiles have reached the enemy destroyer. None made it through."

Frankie nodded. They had already fired four waves, but he wasn't entirely optimistic about those, either. One capital ship against three was not good odds; the frigates were helping with their own missiles, of course, but their primary job was to cover their friendly destroyer.

"The Sirian missiles have reached our ECMs, sir."

"Helm, fire all ventral thrusters."

"Aye, sir. Ventral thrusters firing." The destroyer rose, relative to its own axes, in hopes that the missiles would lose their target and simply continue in a straight line, right to where their target used to be.

"Fourteen missiles have turned to pursue us," Wainwright reported. "Firing AM guns." A cloud of anti-missile projectiles raced to intercept the incoming missiles, but Wainwright – and Frankie – knew that their chances were not good. If only one missile got through, they were going to take a lot of damage. "Three missiles remain, sir. Oh-seven seconds to impact."

Frankie sighed in exasperation as damage and casualty reports came in. He was dead in simulated space. Again. "Good work, crew," he muttered, rising from his chair. "Let's get out of here."

"D-Team," Commander Sorensen called, freezing Frankie's team in its tracks in the corridor outside the simulator room. They turned to face him and came to attention. "As you were," their superior officer said. "Lieutenant, you and your fellow officers are being transferred to the USS Conrad. Report to Captain Redford tomorrow at 0900."

Frankie nodded. "Yes, sir." Sorensen dismissed them, but Frankie remained behind and said, "May I ask you something, sir?"

Sorensen nodded. "Go ahead."

After a brief hesitation, Frankie said, "Sir, if I may speak candidly, I don't believe we're ready for active duty."

"Based on the simulator? Off the record, Lieutenant, your team is the best bunch of reserves we have so far. In real combat, unless you're incredibly unlucky, you're not going to be up against anything like what we've put you through in there. Not alone, at least."

"I see. Thank you, sir."

"Of course. Good luck on the Conrad."

"Thank you." Frankie made his way down the corridor to the mess hall, where he joined Jabari and Hag in line for dinner.

"What'd you say to Sorensen?" Jabari asked.

Frankie shrugged, and the lieutenant in him was gone once again. "I asked him if he thought we'd get toasted or just lightly toasted."