by Stephen V Cole
Part 3 of 3
"Come in, Lieutenant Commander Kerrell, and get yourself a drink before you sit down," Captain Korlass said, waving aside my attempt to salute and formally report. "You did well for your first mission! I have the honor to present to you the first of many command stars."
Korlass was being unusually friendly. There had been bad blood between him and Koranik, a feud I had stayed clear of. The promotion to lieutenant commander had not escaped my notice. I accepted the command star, noting that it was 5th rank, the lowest version of the award, and formally saluted him as required by protocol. He seemed to be humoring me by returning my salute, turning this into almost a wave toward his office liquor cabinet. I helped myself to some Sefarian brandy and took a seat.
"I appreciated your support," I said. "Once we found the mining operation, it was more than my boats were designed to deal with. Sending additional ships so promptly was good for the flotilla's morale, to know that we will be supported."
"You dealt with the situation superbly," he said. "I have genuinely looked forward to having such an aggressive warrior as yourself in command of my gunboats. I was particularly impressed that you went ahead and completed your mission despite having more prisoners and booty than you could accommodate."
"The mission needed to be done," I said, "or you would not have assigned it." I did not need to mention that sending Slish-tak to look over the third cluster was, among every other reason, a way to ensure we'd get reinforcements, assuming we found anything else.
"I am proud to have under my command an officer who will press home his attacks as you did on the convoy, and who will complete his mission regardless of the difficulty," he said. I knew that rumors had been circulating that Koranik, waiting for his promotion and transfer, was not the aggressive and almost reckless commander he was when first appointed to his post. There had been missions in which I wondered at his orders to withdraw from a fight in which we were outmatched, but nothing that was beyond the limits of his prerogative. This did not seem to be enough to explain the feud between Koranik and Korlass, but it was no doubt part of it.
"While I have had only two days in command of the flotilla, it has opened my eyes to the broader priorities of higher command. I see more clearly what burdens you bear, and how the 747th can carry its share of those burdens."
"Well said, Kerrell," Korlass replied, "We will make of you a sector commander in due time. I have read the reports on the status of your flotilla. I know you are short of boats. I have already told my station maintenance troops to help get your wounded boat back into operation. What else do you need?"
"More drones," I responded without thinking. He laughed and said that he was giving me some from his own stocks and had pressured the logistical chain for more of them. Sensing cooperation, I pressed on. "The two new boats are due in tomorrow, and I could use a routine sweep mission to work the rebuilt flotilla into a unit, assuming that the situation would allow us to move the next one forward a few days." He hadn't flinched yet and remarked that a sweep of the sector without sticking our heads into a grist mill would be next on the schedule. "I will request an extra ration for my personnel as a reward for their hard work. They're due a celebration." He nodded and seemed to agree to everything I had asked for. "I should have operational control over the support flotilla so we can train them better and integrate them into missions."
At that one, he finally balked. The support flotilla, a loose collection of special mission gunboats under the command of an old friend of his, was the station commander's string on the combat flotilla. Many missions could not be done without the specialist boats, and having to ask for them each time allowed a sector commander to retain control. What I really wanted, however, was not the boats but the surplus crewmen.
"I can see some merit to that idea," he started slowly, reaching for his drink and swishing the liquor around in the glass. "Although I have concerns that the administration of a larger force may be asking too much of you." He was, I could tell, pretending to think it over and didn't want to make an outright refusal. "We may consider that in future," he finally said. "You need time to meld your new boats into your unit."
"You are probably correct," I said, "but there are two final problems which could be solved with one solution. The 747th flotilla is under strength, while the 245th Support Flotilla is over the normal limit and being denied replacement drafts. If I could transfer about 20 of their personnel to the 747th, my problem would be solved while the 245th would be able to receive drafts immediately. With more trained gunboat personnel on the station, both flotillas will be stronger." I hoped that suggesting a solution which would give him more power would be acceptable.
"Very well," he said, "I will have the 245th send you 20 of their personnel by the end of tomorrow."
"With all due respect," I said, "given that my unit does more missions and against more opposition, it would be better if I could pick the personnel myself, to match them against needed vacancies."
"I can see your point," he said, obviously having allowed this conversation to go on for exactly as long as he had intended. "You may select ten of his personnel yourself, but no boat commanders or chief engineers. You will then give him a list of ten vacancies and he will provide suitable personnel to fill them." I nodded, knowing that most of the second ten would be worthless, but Verlik could find ways to get some use out of them, or rid of them.
At least once each tenday, we conducted what was called a Sector Sweep. In the normal cycle, this would have been after another attack or recon mission, but Sector Operations had none of those that were urgent and allowed me to do the routine sweep as a training exercise.
The new 917 leader boat was larger than my old 456 boat, but you couldn't tell it from my seat on the bridge, which was virtually identical except for an extra monitor and another communications panel. My old bridge crew, including my new bride Karihn, was with me, and happy to be working panels that had not been burned out and repaired a dozen times. Except, that is, for Junior Lieutenant Kellis, who was unhappy to not get a boat command. He was not an academy graduate, but a gunner and pilot who had been given an officer's bars after taking command of a crippled boat during a battle. After a few months as a weapons officer, he was declared ready for command and sent to the replacement depot. He had the heart of a boat commander, but little of the education, and I had resolved to see to it he had more training before being put in command of a boat. My old gunners had settled into their stations without trouble. My new engineers were, well, new to their jobs although they had been on 917 longer than I had. My original Marines had come with me from 745 and one of the new khads had been added. The naval ensign who I had borrowed as a marine commander had gone home to his phaser battery on the battle station, replaced by a Slirdarian lieutenant who seemed competent. We had pulled in five additional crewmen (all hand-picked from the Support Flotilla) to operate the additional systems. I had never had to select a tractor operator or a shuttle pilot before, and had to rely on Vernik to pick them.
Slish-tak had moved from the #6 slot to #2, remaining as my wingman. I trusted him and he trusted me, and given everything new I had to learn, breaking in a new wingman wasn't a problem I needed.
Kissik in the 941 Boat had the #3 slot, flying wing on Kalinda's Scout 431 Boat. The new ESS lieutenant had decided to ride on the Scout 431 Boat for this sweep.
Krelt in my old 456 boat, with its veteran engineers, was trying to whip his new gunners and bridge crew into warriors after his own style. There was more than one way to be a boat commander, and I had resolved to let him change the crew rather than trying to change him.
On his wing was the new 905 Boat, which was a problem and an opportunity. The 905 Boat was not a standard G1, but a G1D with a third drone rack replacing the disruptor and more drones in every rack. That gave me another drone to add to the flotilla's salvo, and six more drones after the rest of us were empty. It also meant that once the drones were gone, the 905 Boat was just an empty cargo ship with a couple of phasers. The commander, Derek-kel, was something rare in the Deep Space Fleet, a Cromarg line officer and Academy graduate. Most Cromargs were technicians, and Derek-kel had been mistreated in his career, forced into technical duties by the prejudice against his kind in leadership roles. He had been clever, maneuvering himself into a gunboat flotilla as the officer in charge of drone maintenance, then taking the place of a weapons officer who had suddenly become ill just before a mission. Having proven himself in combat, he got a permanent spot on a boat as a weapons officer, and quickly learned to be a pilot and engineer as well. He had, by his record, proven himself to be a competent boat commander with a flair for drones, and command of a G1D was the perfect spot for him.
Krelt wasn't happy with a subject race officer commanding his wing boat, especially not an officer senior to, and smarter than, himself. Neither was Derek-kel happy about taking orders from Krelt, who was junior to him in rank and experience. But for now, Krelt had been part of the flotilla and his leadership of the third pair was, I had told him, temporary as Derek-kel must learn our ways of doing things.
Scheduled for a long 48-hour run across the sector, the first half of the patrol was uneventful. We had all gotten fed and had been rotating sleep periods, mostly in our own seats. I was awakened by Vorl, my sensor operator, who said that he and Kalinda's sensor officer were tracking a Tigerman PF flotilla that was shadowing us. If anybody wanted to know where the "front line" was, they just had to mark off half the distance between my flotilla and theirs. That was as good a line as any.
We were out of engagement range. It would take us at least an hour to get to them, and unless they wanted a fight, they'd just move away as fast as we moved toward them. What their presence did mean, however, was that either they were trying to do what we were trying to do (establish a line of control) or they were there for some other reason. The hair on my back bristled as I thought this through. I could ill afford to get into a fight with those Tigerman gunboats ready to close in before I could finish the fight.
The shadow dance continued for another two hours when my suspicions were confirmed.
"Lead, Scout, tracking a stealth ship ahead of us," Kalinda reported. "I think he just cloaked."
"All boats, Lead, battle stations, pirate on sensors," I ordered. "Are you sure he didn't just turn edge on?" I asked Kalinda. Pirate ships were basically flat, and when they detected our sensors they would turn edge-on, reducing their sensor image by 75% or more. Sometimes it was enough to avoid detection.
"No, he cloaked," she responded. "My sensor operator caught him turning his wings and woke me up. I was checking the signal myself when it just disappeared. I am washing the scans across his trace and picking up backscatter. I can't lock him up, but he's there."
"What is he?" I asked.
"Probably something small," she replied. "Certainly not a cruiser. Maybe a frigate or destroyer. His trace looked more like a smuggling run than a raider." She transmitted the best coordinates she had.
"All boats, Lead. Sections one and two follow me. Section three, stand 30 kilikams to the starboard quarter and keep an eye on those Tigerman boats. If we don't tag this pirate I may rotate you into the fight." All boats acknowledged, although Krelt was clearly unhappy with my deployments.
The other four boats spread out, with my leader and Kalinda's scout in the center and our wingmen to the outside of each of us. We moved forward at our previous patrol speed, approaching the rather imprecise location of the raider.
"Kalinda, can you get a lock?" I asked.
"Negative," she responded.
"715, Lead, fire phasers and disruptor on best data." Slish-tak complied, but Kalinda said he had not scored.
"941, Lead, fire phasers and disruptor on best data." Kissik fired, and Kalinda's cry of Kai! told me that he had scored at least some damage. "Kellis, fire our phasers and disruptor. Use the best data you have."
"Firing," he responded, "no indication of damage."
"Kalinda?" I asked.
"He's trying to slip away, toward Klingon space. Transmitting new coordinates. Also report that the Kzinti Flotilla has gone to high warp and is headed straight for us."
"Kai!" I responded. "All boats, Lead. This is no common pirate. The Tigermen are trying to cover his breakthrough. We need to find him and kill him now. Scout, signal the battle station to send whatever they can, and get me the location of the nearest warships, ours and theirs."
Minutes went by as we tried to get better firing data. "715, Lead, fire phasers and disruptor on best data." Slish-tak fired again, this time scoring visible damage. Kissik fired almost immediately, without orders, but the damage scored by 745 and given him a better idea of the target's location. He also scored damage.
The dance continued as the Tigeman gunboats closed on our position. Patience, I told myself. There is time for this.
"Lead, Scout, cloaked vessel has increased speed. I have a lock-on. Passing data."
"Lead cannot lock. Can any boat lock?" I asked. None could. I allowed Kellis to fire the phasers, but he missed again. "Scout, do you still have a lock?"
"Confirm," Kalinda asked.
"Launch," I ordered. She compiled, firing one drone and then, as quickly as possible, a second. The first exploded some distance from the cloaked ship but clearly caused damage, the second scored a solid hit.
"He's uncloaking," Kalinda announced. Kellis fired my disruptor and scored a hit. "Looks to be an old light raider," Kalinda said. "Useless for a raid, must be a smuggler."
"Permission to launch?" came in my ear, and it took a moment to realize that both Slish-tak and Kellis had spoken.
"715, 917, launch," I ordered. That should be enough for a kill; we could finish him with phasers if we had to. I didn't want to waste any more drones with Tigerman gunboats on their way. "Scout, Lead, how close are those gunboats?" I asked.
"Two minutes," she responded, obviously on top of the situation. That gave me enough time. Barely. "715, 941, close in and fire phasers and disruptors at the pirate. No more drones. I will fire the final shot if need be." It wasn't necessary. The four drones smashed into a flank shield, and were followed by the direct-fire weapons. The raider exploded. "Shuttle," Kellis reported. "Permission to fire?"
"Karihn," I ordered, "get us close to the shuttle. "Kellis, take the shot at 10 killikams." Whatever was in that shuttle would trouble us no longer. "Scout, Lead, take 941 and spread to the left. 715, Lead, follow me." We were strung out by this point, with the Tigerman boats closing on the third section while I was twice as far away. Krelt ignored his wingman and launched drones, maneuvering his boat to keep the range open. Derek-kel also launched drones, even without orders from his section leader, and maneuvered to stay on Krelt's wing and head for us. Slish-tak and I launched drones once the Tigermen were in range, and maneuvered to join with the third section.
The Kzintis abruptly turned away, and raced back the way they had come. Perhaps they felt smug to have tricked us into wasting drones, or perhaps they were supposed to support the old raider's mission and had realized they were too late. I would never know. "Krelt," I said, "you maneuvered your boat well, but you didn't remember to tell your wingman what to do."
"He's a line officer," Krelt sneered at Derek-kel, "and knows well enough to follow his leader. There was no need for me to give orders."
"The maneuver was obvious," Derek-kel said, "and I did what I would have done had orders been given."
"So you did," I responded. "Kalinda, what were the Kzintis after? Could you tell?"
"I've been going over the data," she said, "they had been maneuvering back and forth across a base course, not exactly paralleling us, and when we went after the pirate they were on the far side of the base track, just a few minutes farther from us. Just luck they weren't on the closer leg," she mused.
"What was that raider doing?" Kellis asked. "A ship that old and small had no business in the war zone."
"I asked the intelligence office about it," the ESS lieutenant said. "They guessed that the Kzintis had bought a couple of those old ships from pirates to use in supporting special operations inside our space. There is no data regarding what acts of sabotage we prevented, but it is logical to assume that whatever their mission was, we are the better for them not having performed it."
"All elements accounted," I said, "it was a good mission and a good kill."
"For you," Krelt said. "What about me? Left out of the battle, my only contribution was to waste two drones on a fight that never happened. I expected to be better used in my first battle. I had better be given a greater role in my second."
"No doubt you will," I said, coming to a part of the conversation I could no longer avoid. "Division has decided that our flotilla is to send one officer to the replacement station to build a new crew for a new boat. I have selected you."
"Trying to get rid of me?" Krelt spat. "I won't have it."
"You will obey orders," I responded. "And we both know you will be more effective under a different commander." Krelt stormed out of my office without being granted leave to go. It was the last time he would insult me. "Who will get 456?" Kellis asked hesitantly.
"You," I said. "Not because you are ready, but because you are the most qualified officer available. You have much to learn. The 456 boat will stay in third section, but Derek-kel will be the section leader. Understood?"
"I serve the empire," he responded.
"So do we all," I replied