He was strolling through the open air marketplace of Vedna, thinking about getting something to eat, when his earpiece chimed.  He tapped his phone to complete the connection.

"Cowal here," he said absently.  Potato pancakes, maybe?  No matter what star system you were in, potatoes were pretty much potatoes.

"Lieutenant," said Cory, his ship's AI.  "Are you able to talk?"

He sighed.  "Cory, I told you, they re-activated my commission just as a formality for the courier run we have coming up.  You don't have to call me Lieutenant."

There was the barest of pauses before Cory replied.  "My apologies, Commander Cowal."

Paul frowned.  "Commander isn't any better.  Or accurate.  Just call me skipper, like you always have."

"I feel that would be inappropriate at this time," Cory said, hesitating slightly before continuing. "Captain," said Cory.  "In any case, I am currently in receipt of..."

He didn't the let AI finish the sentence.  "Cory, are you OK?" he asked, concerned.  "You're all over the map.  Run diagnostics, please."


"Diagnostics.  Now."

Cory hesitated, then said, "Diagnostic scan commencing.  Preliminary report, all systems normal. Detailed diagnostics will be available in three minutes, Admiral."  Cory rarely displayed emotion, but Paul could tell from his modulation that he was frustrated.

"Good.  You may not have noticed it, but you've been using different forms of address for me," he said.  "I'm worried you might have picked up something from one of the public nets..."

"SIR!" Cory shouted.  Paul winced at the volume and cursed.

"If you would please let me finish," said Cory, hurriedly.  "I am currently in receipt of military subspace traffic from the Coral navy."

Paul stopped, and looked up at the sky.  "Wait, what?  How..."

"Part of the encryption package we got for the courier mission," said Cory. "That's not important.  I have been receiving real-time updates of a running battle in Coral space.  A numerically superior force entered the system approximately 4 minutes ago, and engaged the fleet.  Projected losses are statistically indistinguishable from 100%, Acting High Admiral."

Paul froze, and opened his mouth.  He tried to say something, but words would not come.

"Based on those reports, you are almost certainly the last active member of the CNS Fleet still alive," said Cory.  "In addition, 34 seconds ago I received what I presume is a final transmission from the CNS CARTAHENA," said Cory.

"Go," said Paul, quietly.

"Shortly after the attack commenced, they reported sub-lightspeed kinetic energy weapon impacts on the capital, Fleet Command, and all visible major cities."  Cory waited a second, then continued.  "Following the succession rules enumerated by the 194th Coral Tricameral, and in accordance with the Founding Charter and Constitution..."

"No," said Paul.

"... until such time as a more qualified survivor is located, you are to be considered the acting President and Commander-In-Chief of the Coral government," said Cory.

"Crap on a crutch," breathed Paul.

"Indeed," said Cory, dryly.  "Your orders, Mr. President?"

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