"Be at ease, Lieutenant," Commander Kerwik said as the Marine entered the bridge. "I appreciate the respect, but having shown it, more is not necessary.
"You are not familiar with this type of vessel, are you?"
"Only in the most general sense," Rakarra said. "I know that a handful of these ships bring the highest priority cargo and passengers to fleet flagships. I would hazard a guess that this type of mission is as new for you as your ship is for me."
"You would be wrong, Lieutenant," Kerwik said. When Rakarra stiffened, Kerwik smiled and waved his hands. "No rebuke was intended, Lieutenant. As it happens, this is the second time since I have been captain of this ship that it has be co-opted to run down a mutineer. It's always a sad duty, and while one I perform, it is not one I boast about."
"This is my first mutiny," Rakarra said. "May the stars grant it be my last. What do I need to know about your ship?"
"We're faster than Demonslayer," Kerwik said, "faster than anything, really. This ship is half engines and half fuel, and the space for cargo, crew, and passengers is an afterthought. We could overtake the Demonslayer in about twenty-six hours, even with her head start, except for the fuel situation. Each of the two refueling stops will cost us at least two hours, most of that in docking, running the fuel lines, and undocking."
"Tell me of this, if you will," Rakarra said.
"In simple terms," Kerwik said, "we cover in three hours what Demonslayer covers in four. We are only nine hours behind them, but it will take twenty-seven to catch them. Plus time to refuel, hours that will delay us even more."
"Why do you not have fuel?" Rakarra asked. "I ask only so I can learn, and mean no disrespect."
"Our mission profiles are routine, but unique," Kerwik explained. "We set out from Klinshai with full tanks and run at top speed until we meet the Northern Flagship. That leaves us enough fuel to travel at cruising speed back to the Northern Starbase. There we pick up nearly a full tank of fuel and run at top speed back to Klinshai."
"I understand now," Rakarra said. "Your tanks are nearly empty already and that is why you need fuel, but why did you not get whatever you need from Raidmaker?"
"It is a matter of fuel purity," Kerwik explained. "Impurities damage our special high-speed engines, causing major maintenance issues. Our engines are under considerable strain. Every second or third time we return to Klinshai, the engines are removed for a complete refurbishment, and replaced with a refurbished set removed earlier. Keeping the impurities to a minimum is important."
"I can see that," Rakarra said, "but why was the fuel on the Raidmaker any worse than that on the ships we will be refueling from?"
"Each fleet gets fuel from many sources," Kerwik said. "Some fuel is cleaner than others, but all of it is needed as there is never enough. Raidmaker is a special mission ship, and draws lower-grade fuel, fuel with enough impurities to slag my engines before we catch Demonslayer. Those impurities never bother Raidmaker as it makes few high speed runs, and mostly cruises at minimum speed waiting for a mission. It is those impurities that have damaged the Raidmaker's engines.
"The frigates we will refuel from have a higher-grade fuel," Kerwik said. "Not as high as the special fuel we normally burn, but high enough as not to stop us from catching the mutineers. It will cost us more maintenance later."
"Can the fuel not be filtered in some way?" Rakarra asked.
"Only with great difficulty, and not in space," Kerwik said. "The only source of such fuel is in Klinshai. The starbases take days to filter enough high-grade fuel into super-grade fuel for us to make our return flights."
"And the two frigates we are to link up with?" Rakarra asked.
"The E4 Aggressive has what we call grade seventy-five fuel," Kerwik explained. "The F5 Audacious has what we call grade fifty fuel, much lower quality, not low enough to hurt us, but she just refueled and has full tanks."
"Grade fifty?" Rakarra asked.
"Ninety-nine point fifty percent clean," Kerwik explained.
"Can I see this fuel data?" Rakarra asked.
"I can have it sent to your quarters," Kerwik offered. "It may take some ... effort to make a space for you on the bridge."
"That would be adequate," Rakarra said, eyeing the low ceilings and cramped seating on the transport's bridge. "How long until we meet the E4 Aggressive?"
"Only about two hours," Kerwik said. "After fuel transfer, we will have a run of about ten hours to the F5 Audacious. Two hours of refueling there, and then maybe twenty-seven hours to catch Demonslayer."
"That is more than twenty-six hours," Rakarra noted.
"Demonslayer won't stop because we do. We can cover a distance faster than he can, but four hours at a dead stop gives us twelve hours to catch up. It takes us three hours to make up for every hour we are stopped for fuel."
"I see," Rakarra said. "Why are we stopping twice to get fuel instead of taking enough from the E4 Aggressive?"
"That ship does not have enough fuel," Kerwik said. "We're taking almost half of their stock, and they'll use the rest to get to a refueling base."
"May I go now to study this information?"
"As you will, Lieutenant," Kerwik said.
"Docking complete," Kerwik said, "fuel transfer commencing." Removing his hand from the transmit switch, Kerwik used the intercom to update Rakarra. Nearly an hour later, Rakarra called the bridge.
"I need to speak with the commander of the E4 Aggressive," Rakarra said without explanation. Kerwik connected him.
"Commander, my respects," Rakarra said. "I am aware of your superior rank."
"What do you want?" the Commander of the E4 Aggressive asked. He was polite, but not friendly.
"All of your fuel," Rakarra answered. "We cannot afford the time to rendezvous with a second ship."
"Impossible!" the Commander said. "That would leave my ship unable to reach a refueling base. Your courage in making such a request is notable, but I cannot risk my ship to accommodate your mission."
"I realize your situation," Rakarra said, "but it was not a request. This mission is being conducted under the seal of an Imperial Paladin. I am transmitting the code number for the mission orders even now. Your ESS detachment will confirm it. Even if we lose your ship, we must make all haste in our mission."
"My ESS detachment confirms your orders," the Commander said. "May the stars protect my ship."
"You are a veteran, Commander," Rakarra said. "No one needs to tell you how to accomplish that, and as a Marine, I would not personally know. May the stars record your gallantry, Commander."
"As you say," the Commander said. "Will there be anything else?"
"The fuel will be sufficient, unless Commander Kerwik needs something to support the mission."
"No," Kerwik said, "the fuel will be enough."
"Fuel lines clear," Kerwik said when the fuel transfer was finished. "Get the ship under way, maximum speed. Then ask that Marine to meet me in the wardroom."
"I am grateful for what you did," Kerwik said, "but you should have told me you were going to do it."
"Arguably," Rakarra said, "but I had not convinced myself to use the Paladin's code until after we were docked."
"If you had a Paladin's code," Kerwik asked, "why did you need to convince yourself to use it? You should have given it to me when you came on board and I would have used it to get the fuel. Why did you do it the way you did it?"
"Two reasons," Rakarra said. "First, I did not want to share the blame, and second, while the Paladin's Code does give this mission a high priority, it was not clear from the orders that they were sufficient to commandeer the fuel if it meant leaving a ship dead in space and vulnerable to attack."
"A bold move, Lieutenant," Kerwik said. "You have placed your life in the Paladin's hands. He either extends your orders to cover what you did, or you will spend the rest of your life in a penal colony."
"If I succeed," Rakarra said, "he will extend the orders while giving me a Marine Star. If I fail, I will be beyond his reach, one way or the other."
"Even so," Kerwik said, "you will give a statement to the ESS officer on this ship, explaining your actions. This stern chase was unlikely to work, but you have saved us hours, and that moves the contact point very far away from Kzinti patrol squadrons."
"I am prepared to give the statement," Rakarra said. "You will be held blameless."
"Very well," Kerwik said. "The ESS officer will join you here momentarily. Do not leave this compartment until he releases you."
"Yes, Sir," said Rakarra.
Wardroom, High-Speed Courier Darklance, an hour later
"Is that all we know?" Wanekla asked.
"Yes," Rakarra answered. "We know that Demonslayer is headed at top speed for Kzinti space, refusing all communications, and that Commodore Valgan has been linked to a plot to murder Admiral Korvik. Just why that is, I do not know."
"I may have information there," Kurs said. "Admiral Korvik did not endorse the promotion of Valgan to Wing Admiral, and moved to relieve him of command. There are military tribunal charges relating to the performance of Valgan in action."
"Was he a coward?" Sergeant Doran asked.
"The specific charges are not known to me," Kurs said, "but it smells more like exceeding orders, risking his ships, trying to burnish his sword."
"That makes more sense," Rakarra said. "Valgan has always felt himself destined for greatness. This is all about his ego. Denied his destiny to command a fleet, Valgan will seek a command in an enemy force."
"Why isn't he running for the WYN Cluster?" Doran asked. "A command cruiser would become their most powerful unit, and Valgan might get command of their entire navy."
"Too far," Commander Kerwik said. "Four or five times as far as Kzinti space. He would have to travel across the width of our front lines and would be easy to cut off. Valgan had to run directly away from those pursuing him. As it is, three frigates are dogging his heels and cruisers are on his flanks. If he tries to turn to either side, an entire cruiser squadron will intercept him. He can only keep running."
"So," Wanekla observed, "when we catch him and slow him down, it will be the frigates who catch him ... and relieve us? I'd rather go into combat knowing the entire fleet will be there to get me out of danger. Even with damage to his fuel or engines, Demonslayer can defeat a frigate squadron."
"Something to account for," Rakarra said. "We will have to slow him down, and disable some of his systems."
"A simultaneous attack on both?" Sergeant Doran said. "That lowers our chances of accomplishing either."
"We will have to slow him down first," Rakarra said. "Every sub-unit will have a secondary mission to attack an important system. If we disable one or two, the frigates may be able to keep fighting until the cruisers can close in."
"A desperate gamble, followed by a faint hope of relief," Wanekla said.
"We've been sent into worse situations," Doran answered.
"Do you have any more information?" Rakarra asked, changing the subject.
"Information, no," Kurs said. "What I do have is a profile analysis prepared by the Security Service. It is not precise, but it is considered accurate."
"How can it be both accurate and imprecise?" Wanekla asked.
"We can assume that some of his officers were part of the plot," Kurs said, "but not which ones, not with any certainty. We can also presume that some of his officers do not know what is going on, and simply assume that Demonslayer is on its way to a high-priority mission. We can presume that once it became known that the Admiral had survived and at least some of the assassins had been taken alive, Valgan panicked. He knew he would be executed, and chose to run instead of surrender. We can presume that some of his officers support this decision, while others who were in on the original plot do not.
"Those would be the officers who supported the assassination plot because they genuinely believed Valgan would make a better fleet commander than Admiral Korvik. They joined his conspiracy for the Good of the Empire, and now see Valgan taking an action that is decidedly disastrous for the Empire. There are, doubtless, some of his officers who would surrender to be executed before allowing that ship to fall into Kzinti hands. "
"We can presume that those who openly opposed Valgan are dead or in the brig, that those who silently opposed the decision may be trying to disable the ship, and those who are uncomfortable with his decision to run but have taken no action may only need our arrival to join us openly."
"Do you have any information on which are more likely to be loyal?" Rakarra asked.
"Yes," Kurs answered, "but it is irrelevant. We are hardly going to arrive on Demonslayer and start asking for specific officers to report to us."
"Indeed," Doran said. "But if we had the information, we could use it to interrogate prisoners."
"Then I shall provide team leaders with a datapad of this information," Kurs said, "along with the identities of two ESS agents among the crew."
"Very helpful," Rakarra said. No one had to take note that the situation was truly desperate if the ESS was voluntarily giving up the identities of undercover agents.
"There is one element of mixed fortune," Kurs said. "Just before making his hasty departure, Valgan beamed onto his ship at least a dozen officers from other ships and a battle station. These were, no doubt, part of the plot."
"How does this help us?" Rakarra said. "Valgan now has enough officers of unquestioned loyalty to keep his ship running while locking up those of doubtful reliability."
"True," Kurs said, "but it also means that there are a dozen officers on board the ship who are not known to the crew. If a stranger is seen in a corridor, there may not be an alarm."
"These officers," Rakarra growled, "they were all Klingons, I presume?"
"Ten Klingons, and two Dunkars," Kurs said. "Your Dunkar Sergeant, and your Klingons, will need to wear officer insignia if they want to confuse anyone."
"Impersonating an officer is a court-martial offense," Doran said.
"My pre-mission report will excuse this indiscretion," Kurs said.
"There is something I do not understand," Wanekla said. "Valgan attempted his assassination, assuming it would succeed. His ego could not envision failure, or at least not a catastrophic failure with the assassins captured. He ran for the Tigermen not because he wanted to, but because it was the only choice he had. The WYNs would give him more for the ship, and the Federation would treat him better as a prisoner, but he could not reach either of them. He is not likely to have had a deal with the Tigermen before this started. What does he expect to have happen? The Tigermen are more likely to execute him and the crew, or put them in a prison colony, than promote him to admiral. It would certainly be a great propaganda coup for the Tigermen to capture a cruiser, but it is just one ship in a war between fleets with hundreds of ships."
"It's not the ship," Rakarra said, "it's the database."
"Exactly," Kurs said. "The database has all of the data on every ship in the Northern Fleet. It has all of our plans for upcoming operations, and datafiles for future operations we may decide to conduct. It has records of every previous operation for several years, which will allow the Kzintis to do what we cannot do, see both sides of any given battle, and get a new insight into our tactics and operational goals. It has engineering data, production data, logistical data. It details which captains are aggressive, which are more cautious. Another valuable file is everything that we know about the Kzintis, telling them what part of their disinformation plan has worked, and what secrets of theirs we have uncovered, what targets we have identified. It would be an incredible victory for the Kzintis."
"Enough to buy a very comfortable retirement," Senior Sergeant Doran said.
"If he wants to retire," Kerwik said. "Valgan wants power, command, importance. He might end up running a planet full of Klingon prisoners, and be a king in his own right."
"Or," Kurs said, "he could ask to be sent to the WYN Cluster, or to the Federation, or to the pirates."
"He can negotiate his own deal," Rakarra said. "What use is this information to us? Can we offer him anything better? You know that the Empire cannot tolerate his crime. He cannot go unpunished. We have nothing to offer except a painless death."
"What has he given the Tigermen thus far?" Wanekla asked. "He has to have let them taste the wine."
"I think I can answer that," Kerwik said. "This ship received an emergency order to shift to our unique backup communication codes. Every ship is given a database of codes and a schedule of when to change to them.
"Most communications by any ship can be read by any other Klingon ship; only the most critical communications use unique codes readable only by the flagship. Every ship also has several sets of these unique codes, three or more for each command ship, each battle station, and the starbase. Each command ship has, of course, all of the unique codes for all of the ships, that is, the unique codes keyed to that flagship.
"Demonslayer was the second-rated command ship in the fleet; only the admiral's flagship and the starbase have unique codes unknown to Demonslayer. When Valgan turned traitor, 98% of the codes on every ship in the Northern Fleet were compromised. The Kzintis can now read all of our communications, except those sent to the flagship and starbase.
"We cannot talk to the other ships without the Kzintis also receiving the message, unless we have the message traffic relayed through the starbase or flagship. We have been sent the unique codes for one of the frigates between us and Demonslayer, but the ESS is of course unwilling to allow all of the unique code keys to be released."
"So, Valgan has given the Tigermen the codes?" Doran asked.
"We must assume so," Kurs said. "And because we must assume he did, they are the first thing Valgan would offer them. It would allow the Kzintis to help Valgan monitor the movement of our ships, and it's something of only temporary value. We'll have the codes replaced by the end of the ten-day. He still has a whole database of information to bargain with."
"This won't be allowed," Rakarra said. "When we get on board, your priority mission will be to access their computer network and do what you can to slow them down."
"I can corrupt their navigation files," Kurs said. "That will help slow them. I will also load a virus program that will steadily destroy their database, limiting the damage if the ship is ultimately captured. More than that, I will load encapsulated virus programs which will infect the Kzinti computers if they try to read the database or restore the files."
"We are getting ahead of ourselves," Doran said. "Just exactly how do you stop a starship? I confess I do not know. Does anyone else?"
"If it were easy," Rakarra said, "every starship duel would include boarding party actions, instead of just a few of them."
"There is no one thing that will stop a ship," Kurs said, "other than simultaneously seizing control of the bridge, Emergency Bridge, Auxiliary Control, both security stations, and the engine room, and we just don't have enough troops for that."
"Why don't we just assassinate Valgan?" Wanekla asked.
"The bridge will be heavily guarded," Kurs answered. "Indeed, the best of the targets, the control spaces, engine room, and security stations, will all be guarded, as a matter of course. The weapons are all in armored compartments; we can beam in as part of the initial assault, but that won't stop the ship, and we could never blast our way into those compartments later."
"So, how do we do it?" Wanekla asked.
"Several smaller actions," Kurs said. "We damage the computers, dump the fuel overboard, and damage the engine control systems."
"We could beam into the computer compartments," Wanekla suggested, "drop some explosives, and beam back to the transport. We could do the same thing in engineering."
"We are getting ahead of ourselves," Doran said. "We need to know the plan before you start adding sub-plans and changes to that plan."
"You are correct, Senior Sergeant," Lieutenant Rakarra said. "Very well, here is the plan.
"We will pursue Demonslayer at top speed. In a few hours, we will pass the frigate squadron pursuing Valgan. As we pass, we will send them a tight-beam message that Demonslayer cannot detect, advising them of our plan.
"As we approach Demonslayer, the frigates will transmit a demand that Valgan stop and surrender. Hidden inside that transmission will be instructions to the ESS agents and any loyal crew on board the ship to sabotage the target tracking systems, preventing them from knowing where we are, and then drop the shields so we can get on board."
"Won't they see us coming?" Wanekla asked.
"Hopefully not," Kerwik said. "We're small, don't have our fire control on, won't even have our shields up, and our engine flare faces away from them. At our rate of closure, they'll have only a few seconds from the point they can spot us to the point that their fire control goes down."
"And if it doesn't?" Doran asked.
"We're dead," Kerwik said. "Without our shields, we won't survive a phaser barrage from a heavy cruiser."
"Gamble number one," Wanekla said.
"And if the agents on board cannot drop the shields?" Doran asked. "Valgan may have hunted them down or locked them up by accident."
"Then the mission ends when we cannot transport aboard," Rakarra said, "and Valgan escapes."
"Gamble number two," Wanekla said. "How fast can they get their shields back up once they realize the saboteurs on board have dropped them?"
"Not long," Rakarra said. "We may get the second lift, we may not."
"So, it's bad enough we have only twenty-four troops to invade a command cruiser with a crew of nearly five hundred," Wanekla said, "we may only be able to get twelve of our troops on board in the first place!"
"Correct," Rakarra said.
"Gamble number three," Wanekla said.
"What are the targets?" Doran asked.
"Three in the rear hull, one in the boom," Rakarra said.
"I will lead Team One, which will land in the rear hull. Wanekla will be with me on transport, but will then go for the portside fuel tanks by herself. After that, she will be prepared to take over the mission of Team Four if they do not arrive.
"Lieutenant Kurs will be with me, and will try to corrupt the computer systems from a maintenance terminal here," he said, pointing the areas out on the viewscreen. "Two riflemen, a sergeant, and I will recon the areas around the engine room and wait for the second lift. If it doesn't arrive, or if we see an opening, we will attack the engine room on our own.
"Senior Sergeant Doran will lead Team Two, including the combat engineers, two riflemen, and a communications technician, who will land in the boom and attack the computer bay, the Emergency Bridge, the fire control scanners, and communications bay with explosives.
"Sergeant Koff will lead Team Three, on the second lift, to the rear hull. This team includes the medic and four riflemen. They will arrive in this compartment near engineering and link up with my team. If my team has been neutralized, Sergeant Koff will attack the engine room.
"Sergeant Zopic-tin will lead Team Four on the second lift. His team, including the armorer, the Yeoman, Privates Pristak and Melik-dor, and a communications technician, will transport to this storage space near the drone reload bays, wreck the engineering computer, and will be prepared to detonate one of the nuclear drone warheads if everything else fails. They will have the long-range communication gear with them.
"All teams have been given a list of alternative targets and targets of opportunity should they complete their primary mission or be unable to accomplish it.
"Do you mean, other than 'Are you insane?', Lieutenant?" Wanekla snarled. "None of these plans can work. There are almost five hundred people on that ship, and just in the normal course of their duties they will stumble into our teams and report that an attack is under way. Assuming, of course, that the mere fact that somebody drops Demonslayer's shields doesn't alert professional naval officers that their ship has been boarded, causing them to send Marine patrols looking for us and assign guards to key systems."
"I admit that my plan has elements of risk," Rakarra said, "but this is not a normal boarding operation, and none of this would work against an active enemy warship operating under combat conditions."
"And it's going to work now because?" Wanekla asked.
"Because," Kurs said, "Valgan will have locked up half of his crew, or more, out of concern for their loyalty. He won't have the entire ship's Marine detachment available to search for us or guard systems, because the last thing he wants is a potentially hostile force of his own armed troops running around inside of his ship and not under his direct supervision. And you will have access codes to the compartment passlocks, codes known only to the ESS and not changeable by anyone on Demonslayer, not even their own ESS contingent."
"I do not understand the composition of Team Four," Sergeant Doran said, trying to change the subject. "Zopic-tin is a heavy weapons technician, not a leader. Sergeant Kleed would be a better team leader."
"Kleed will go with me so he can assume command of the attack on engineering if I am eliminated," Rakarra said. "Zopic-tin knows the technology, and working together with the armorer, and Melik-dor who knows security systems, they can trigger one of the drone warheads if they have to. The communications technician will establish contact with the pursuing ships to coordinate whether he has to destroy the Demonslayer. Pristak is slowed by his injuries and the Yeoman is the least effective marine, but both of them can fight on the defensive well enough."
"Neither Zopic-tin nor the armorer has ever seen a drone warhead," Doran said. "You expect them to ... figure it out?"
"If necessary," Rakarra said, "but I hope it won't be."
"It is not," Kurs said, proffering a datapad. "Lieutenant Rakarra asked me to get this diagram of a drone warhead. It took some arguing to get it, and I would not have won that argument had anyone on Raidmaker known it was to be given to a Cromarg. They assumed it would be given to you, and while you're a Slirdarian, you are an academy graduate from a loyal family."
"Then give it to the armorer," Rakarra said. "He's a Klingon."
"The ESS will kill him," Wanekla said. "They won't allow a Marine armorer who knows how to detonate a drone warhead to serve on any ship in the fleet, or even to board one."
"Not an issue," Kurs said. "Without the codes, the specific codes for the specific drones on board Demonslayer, it would take your armorer and weaponeer weeks to figure out how to set the thing off, if they could do it at all, which I doubt. Drone warheads are implosion-fusion devices and must be detonated properly or the explosion will remain chemical, not nuclear, and kill only your people, not the ship. Even so, it will take half an hour, maybe more, for your people to reach the point they can input the codes into a warhead. It's done this way for a reason."
"Yes," Rakarra said, "so no Tigermen can do that to one of our ships if they get loose on board. At best they could destroy the drones and the compartment they are in; they could not detonate the warhead."
"Why don't we just take a nuke with us?" Doran asked.
"Nuclear weapons do not transport very well," Rakarra said. "It takes a special kind of weapon, and that has to be transported in pieces and assembled on site. You did realize that mines laid by transporter are actually disassembled elements inside a canister that includes the automatic equipment to fuze them in space, and their safety systems won't let them fuze inside a ship."
"Less detail," Kurs said, "would be appropriate."
"You plan for my team to land in the wardroom," Sergeant Doran said. "Would you not expect that to be occupied?"
"No, I would not," Rakarra said. "Valgan will have his crew at their combat stations, eating and sleeping at their posts."
"Why?" Doran asked. "He knows how far behind him the frigate squadron is. He would have adequate time to call the crew to action stations."
"Not likely," Kurs said. "He knows there are agents of the ESS among the crew, and others who do not agree with his plans. People off duty, not at their posts, are harder to watch."
"Also," Kerwik said, "he cannot know when a fast transport will loom out of the darkness, or whether the fleet was able to hire an Orion pirate already in front of him."
"What are your other choices?" Rakarra asked. "The transporter rooms will be manned, the conference rooms and offices may be used to hold prisoners and in any case open into a long and easily-watched corridor. There is no direct access from above or below."
"So my mission plan is...?" Doran asked.
"Beam into the wardroom," Rakarra explained. "If no one is there, blast your way into the computer room and physically destroy the computers. While you are there, go to this point just in front of the turbolift shaft, and detonate a deck-breaker - a shaped charge - through the floor. Have one of your combat engineers drop through the hole into the food storage pantry, and detonate a second deck-breaker on its floor."
"What will that accomplish?" Doran asked.
"It will destroy the navigation compartment," Rakarra said "killing the duty navigator and destroying the primary star chart files. Hopefully, damage to the computers will limit their access to backup files. That will force Valgan to slow down. A starship cannot run at emergency speed without knowing where it is, or where it is going, or what is around it."
"Then why not attack that first?" Doran asked.
"My decision," Rakarra said. "Destroying the navigation compartment won't stop the ship, only slow it down. Destroying the computers will make his treason less damaging by ruining the datafiles."
"My primary target list does not include the boom separation controls," Sergeant Doran said. "Why not?"
"A matter of risks and probabilities," Rakarra said. "If he separates the boom, it will take him weeks or months to reach Kzinti space, a period of time during which half of the Northern Fleet will be searching for him. If you can only do one thing, I would rather it be to destroy the computer banks than to disable a system he may never try to use, and which the Fleet can deal with if it has to."
"Here are the codes you will need to crack into the computer, the communications system, the fire controls, and the boom separation system," Kurs said. "And Wanekla, these datapads have several codes for the security systems in the real hull."
"More codes!" Wanekla snarled. "The ESS will kill us all rather than let us serve on a starship again. We will know too much, or be presumed to know too much."
"No, they will not," Rakarra said, unveiling his last surprise. "Succeed or die, this is our final mission."
"What do you mean?" Doran and Wanekla asked at once.
"I have here an order signed by an Imperial Paladin," Rakarra dropped a datadisk on the table. "If we succeed in this mission, we all go to a training base as permanent cadre. We will never go into combat again, not unless some impossible event happens and the warrior colony is attacked. We will never risk death again. We will all raise children who will do that, in their time, but this is our last mission."
"The greatest gamble," Wanekla began.
"Gets the greatest reward," Doran said.
"Five hundred killikams from Demonslayer," the Navigator reported. "He may have a trace on passive, I can't tell."
"The frigate is broadcasting the demand for surrender," the Communications Officer reported calmly. "No response from Demonslayer."
"What the devil?" the Navigator said. "Demonslayer's fire controls just flared. Ten times the normal amount of energy. No doubt they have seen us."
"Something is wrong," the Engineer said. "No ship flares its fire controls like that. Someone on board had a fire control power circuit cross-connected into a main power coupling. I doubt they saw much of anything other than their panels burning out."
"Phaser fire from Demonslayer," the Navigator reported. "Missed by a killikam. Shields are down!"
"Transporting," Kerwik called aloud, pressing the button that triggered the ship's transporters.
"Shields are back up!" the Navigator said. "I cannot confirm if the Marines got on board."
"I've got a signal," the Communications Officer said. "They made it. Relaying confirmation to the frigates."
"Shields are back down!" the Navigator said.
"Transporting!" Kerwik said. "Let me know when the shields are back up."
"All the troops are gone," the Navigator said. "Are you going to transport us?"
"No," Kerwik said, "but send the decoys. These will confuse and distract the ship's crew as Rakarra moves on their engine room."
"Shields are still down," the Navigator said. "Demonslayer is firing phasers. Missed close aboard."
"Transporters ready!" the Engineer called.
"Transporting decoys," Kerwik said.
The bridge exploded in sparks as one of Demonslayer's phasers blasted through the hull.
"Shields up, hard to port!" Kerwik called.
Team One, Aft Transporter Room,
Fast Transport Darklance
"Scan shows crewmen, shifting targets," the transporter operator said. "More crew, shifting targets. Empty. Transporting now!"
Rakarra, Wanekla, Kurs, Sergeant Kleed, and two Hilidarian riflemen materialized in one of the crew berthing spaces on Deck Four of Demonslayer's rear hull. They took cover and waited a minute to see if there was any reaction, but none came.
Maintaining silence, Rakarra motioned Wanekla to begin her separate mission. She ducked into the adjacent shower room, heading for a maintenance shaft that would take her to the fuel tanks on Deck Six. Using the maintenance codes supplied by Kurs, she opened the panel and rigged the mountain-climbing gear. She had complained long and loud about how far from her objective she had been dropped, but there was not time for a separate transporter operation, and this was where Rakarra needed to be. The shaft she entered went past the shower rooms on Decks Five and Six, and on Deck Six she would find a locked and secured hatch into the fuel management access tunnel.
One of the riflemen moved to the bunkroom door and scanned through it with a tricorder. He signaled that there was a guard posted immediately outside. Rakarra had known that this compartment was a bad choice for a landing zone as the most useful exit was directly adjacent to the left waist phaser compartment, which would of course be guarded. Rakarra grunted. It was no great matter, as there was another route, out the exit on the ship's centerline. That would, however, place Rakarra's team in the center of the ship with open corridors in all directions, rather than the tactically preferable location at the end of a corridor where, at least, there would be no one behind them.
Rakarra had wanted to land in one of the forward crew quarter compartments on this deck, which had more exits and more options. Both were, however, full of more than the normal number of crewmen, which - perhaps - meant that they were crewmen loyal to the Empire, or not trusted by Valgan and locked up by the conspirators. Time enough for that later.
Rakarra gave a flash of hand signals. Plan number three. Team to take cover. Kurs to recon.
Kurs handed his carbine to one of the Marines. He had brought it in case of an immediate fight, but to walk through the passageways, such a weapon would be out of place for an ESS officer. He went to the centerline exit and, checking behind him to see that Rakarra's team was hidden, drew his phaser pistol and opened the hatch. This was a carefully designed part of the operation. With nearly five hundred crewmen on board, there was a good chance that not every crewman would know every other. If anyone saw Kurs, his red rank badges would mark him as an officer of the Security Service, probably one of the newly-arrived officers, and not someone to be spoken to if there was any alternative. Most crewmen would immediately drop their eyes, fall silent, and hope to pass him without incident. The concern was that the transporter operation probably had been detected, and even if not, the mere fact that his shields were down would tell Valgan and the mutineers on the bridge that someone had come aboard Demonslayer, someone determined to bring him to justice.
If Kurs was startled to see two marines in the corridor, one on alert while the other was peering into the open doorway of the compartment across the corridor, he did not show it. The in-borne arrogance of the ESS stood Kurs in good stead.
"Anything?" Kurs asked the Marine corporal, a Hilidarian dragon who quickly looked down.
"No, Sir," the corporal said.
"This one," Kurs gestured behind him, "is also empty. Are the prisoners secured in the forward barracks?"
"Yes, Sir," the corporal hissed. He did not elaborate, but then, Klingon enlisted crewmen never elaborated when answering the questions of an officer, let alone an ESS officer.
"Return to your post," Kurs said. "Report the area secure. Do not mention me in your report. I have other duties."
The Corporal snapped to attention and nodded, then turned and shuffled forward, dragging his tail. Kurs turned and walked aft, took a moment to glare at the Hilidarian guard standing before the phaser compartment, and turned right to face the door of the transformer room. Using his key codes, overrides provided specifically for this mission, Kurs opened the compartment and entered. He chuckled for a moment, wondering how many captains realized that there were keycodes for their ships - for every ship in the fleet - that they did not know about and could not change. Only the ESS had those codes, and just for this reason.
The compartment was hot and empty, which was why it had been selected. No one stayed in this room if they did not have some important task to accomplish, as the heat would sap a warrior of his strength in minutes. Kurs walked to the computer panel in the aft-center corner, tapping his communicator twice to let Rakarra know the situation. As he passed the transformer banks, he took a moment to stuff his rucksack into the space between the second and third banks. The detonator for the explosives was on his belt, and if he was interrupted he could at least interfere with the ship's power systems.
Kurs quickly signed into the computer, using the pass codes of one of the engineers considered most likely to be mutinous, and set to work. He would have to access three different computers: the engineering computer on the deck above him with its technical files, the main computer in the boom with its current tactical databases, and the large mainframe computer in the rear hull which held years of intelligence and combat reports which the Commodore's staff needed, but less frequently.
Kurs had to make a judgment call. If he started attacking, disrupting, and deleting any one computer, it would trip alarms, but if he spent time loading delayed virus programs into all three and then set them loose simultaneously, he might be caught before he was finished.
Taking a moment to let his subconscious evaluate the situation, Kurs selected one of three pre-arranged plans for his tasks. He would load a quick but devastating virus into all three computers with a delay timer, then begin loading more powerful viruses into all three before triggering them manually.
Team Two, Forward Transporter Room,
Fast Transport Darklance
"Primary has one crewman," the technician said. "Both secondary targets have multiple life signs." Doran grunted. The secondary targets were conference rooms, and were apparently being used to hold prisoners.
"Primary!" Senior Sergeant - or perhaps Lieutenant Commander - Doran said. "Orient me toward him. Engage!"
"Engaging," the technician said. Doran and his team materialized in the wardroom, the officer's dining facility. One Klingon officer was seated at a table, eating a meal. He did not appear particularly startled when Doran appeared and pointed a phaser at him. The officer rose to his feet and saluted.
"Lieutenant Polarian," he said. "Can I help you, Lieutenant Commander?"
"What are you doing here?" Doran said. "Everyone is to be at their duty stations. Security detected you here and sent me to investigate."
"I am the division logistics officer," Polarian said. "I have no duties at this time. I was told to retire to my quarters, but when it became time for my meal, I came here. There is no fresh food, only replicator rations. Can you tell me what is going on? Where are we going at such speed?"
Lieutenant Commander Doran smiled. The Klingon was an officer, but not a warrior, as his white rank disks and bars indicated. The man was nothing more than a university-educated supply clerk!
"Return to your quarters!" Doran snapped. "Say nothing of this and you will avoid punishment. For all anyone knows, you left here before I arrived."
"May I take my meal with me?" Polarian asked.
"Yes," Doran answered. "If you leave now."
"I am in your debt, Sir," Polarian said, taking his tray to the turbolift doors. "Is it acceptable for me to take the tray?"
"Just go!" Doran said, summoning up the glare he reserved for new Marines who had not paid attention in training. Polarian entered the turbolift and disappeared behind the closing door.
"What the devil?" one of the Klingons asked.
"Damned civilian," Doran said. "The mission continues."
One of the engineers set to work booby-trapping the turbolift, and would later move on to rig explosives to both access ladders. The second engineer worked on the starboard door to the computer compartment, quickly gaining access using the codes Kurs had provided. Doran and a rifleman placed welding charges on the companionway doors on either side of the forward bulkhead, blocking access. One of the riflemen, a Hilidarian, built himself a fighting position in the aft corner of the wardroom, using the available furniture, so he could engage anyone trying to enter the compartment via the ladders, doors, or the turbolift.
Doran, the second rifleman, the second engineer, and the communications technician fanned out to search the computer compartment, subduing the two computer technicians on duty.
Doran reached the only hatch in the forward bulkhead, locked the door from the inside, and placed a heat charge that would melt a bar of metal to weld the door shut. He did not set it off, however, as that would attract the attention of security. He could wait a minute until other things attracted even more attention. He posted the rifleman at the door.
The communications technician began loading active virus programs into the computers, and reported that Kurs had already loaded time-delayed programs from engineering. Doran told him to let Kurs know the extent of their progress so the ESS man could focus on the other computers.
The combat engineer had hauled a deck-breaker into the center of the computer compartment, directly forward of the turbolift shaft. He flipped the magnetic locks to hold it to the deck, and signaled to Doran that he was ready. Doran clicked his communicator twice, then once, letting Rakarra know that his mission was a success, then ordered the charge's detonator set for three seconds. The men of Team Two scrambled to the far corners of the computer compartment.
The explosion was both large and loud, and there was no longer any hope that Valgan's mutineers did not know that they had loyal marines on board. The explosion had wrecked the six computer banks closest to the center of the room, and Team Two rapidly set about setting smaller charges on the surviving panels, firing weapons into the panels, and even smashing control panels with rifle butts. The engineer dropped through the hole in the deck into the food storage compartment below. That was where things began to go wrong.
"Sergeant Doran!" the man called.
Doran stopped placing explosives and ran to the hole in the deck, looking down at the engineer. He could see the problem instantly. The compartment was, basically, a pantry with shelves holding various food items. The objective was for the engineer to drop into it and place his second shaped-charge on the deck. That would explode downward into the chart room, killing the on-duty navigators and destroying the primary copy of the electronic star charts needed to reach Kzinti space.
The problem was that the floor was covered by a meter of stacked food cases.
"Valgan must have stocked up with extra rations," the combat engineer said. "It will take time to shift enough of these boxes to reach the deck."
"Can you just place the charge on top of the crates?" Doran asked.
"Not if you want to penetrate the deck," the combat engineer said. "The crates would diffuse the explosive bolt, protecting the deck."
"Slirish!" Doran said to the communications technician, "get down there and help him. I need that deck clear!"
As technician Slirish dove into the hole, Doran heard the first pounding on the forward hatchway, and heard the flash-burn as the rifleman detonated the welding charge.
"Hurry up!" Doran said, "and don't forget to weld the door shut!" He ran back to complete placing explosives in the remaining computer banks.
Team Three, Aft Transporter Room,
Fast Transport Darklance
"Code received, sending you to tertiary target!" the technician called. Team Three materialized in the compartment that Rakarra was already holding.
"Reporting," Sergeant Koff said. He did not ask why Rakarra had changed his target from the water recycling plant to this compartment.
"Kurs is in the transformer room," Rakarra said. "In one minute, we will exit this compartment from both doors. Your team will use the centerline hatch, deploy left, and keep the Marines in the forward gallery away from us. Don't shoot if you don't have to; try to convince them you are part of the crew under orders from the bridge. That may buy you a few seconds more time. My team will exit through the outboard hatch, overwhelm the guard in front of the phaser compartment, and storm the engine room. If you are attacked, hold your position for two minutes, then retreat toward the engine room and attack it if we have failed."
"Understood," Sergeant Koff said, his eyes saying what his mouth did not, that this was not the original plan, but that he understood the presence of Marines in the forward gallery required him to hold the assigned position.
"Prepare," Rakarra said.
Team Four, Forward Transporter Room,
Fast Transport Darklance
"Primary unoccupied," the technician said. "Engaging."
Weapons Sergeant Zopic-tin and his team materialized inside the shuttlecraft spare parts locker. Except for the fact that four of the six were Cromarg dwarves, they would not have fit in the cramped space. None of them had seen such a locker before; there were nearly enough parts to build a new shuttle.
Remaining silent, Zopic-tin motioned Technician Melik-dor to scan through the hatch into the shuttlecraft maintenance shop. The Armorer was readying one of his deck-breaker charges. The communications technician, the fourth Cromarg, tried to stay out of the way while dealing with the bulk of the long-range commo gear. The Dunkar Yeoman, and Private Pristak (the only Klingon in the team), stood ready with their weapons. They would lead the attack once Melik-dor identified the targets.
Melik-dor adjusted his tricorder twice, scanning on different wave lengths, then signaled with two fingers that there were two crewmen in the adjacent shuttlecraft workshop. The Yeoman and Pristak both transferred their rifles to their left hands and drew phasers set on stun. They wanted to take the crewmen down as quietly as possible, and a disruptor rifle would make far more noise. There was always the hope that the stun shots of the phasers would not trigger any alarms. If the hatch to the handling deck was open, they would have to charge through it and take down anyone there.
Melik-dor stepped aside and placed his fingers on the panel that would open the hatch once the code was entered. Zopic-tin, carrying a repeating disruptor, dropped to one knee. If this turned into a firefight, he would have to hose down the compartment with firepower. Being naturally short, and on one knee, he might perhaps survive the first return volley. The door whisked open, and the two phaser pistols fired, but both had selected the same target, a Klingon wearing a battle harness and holding a disruptor. The other crewmen in the compartment was an unarmed Dunkar, who quickly raised his hands.
"Are you the...?" was all the crewman said before collapsing from a phaser stun shot.
Zopic-tin gave the signal, and the two taller members of his team rushed as quietly as they could into the compartment scanning for more crewmen. Both signaled the compartment clear, and Melik-dor moved to scan through the large hatchway into the handling deck.
After changing the settings several time, Melik-dor stepped back and held up his hand, flashing his fingers twice to indicate eight crewmen in the next compartment. Zopic-tin signaled the Armorer to place their deck-breaker charge on the deck over the engineering computer bay, and then waved everyone back into the spares locker.