"Phasers and disruptors?" Korack asked. "Now, that is interesting. Pull everything you can and pack it for transport. How many bodies did you find?"
"Fourteen so far," said the leading petty officer. "We did a quick search for anything alive, or anything set to explode. I disarmed a bomb set to detonate ten minutes after detecting a transporter trace, and scans say there aren't any more of those. It was a pretty clever bomb, a binary unit so we couldn't detect explosives because they hadn't been mixed yet."
"So that's what the locals are using," Korack said. "Get a full report back to the ship and have the XO send it to the Police Commandant for immediate retransmission to all other police units. We've got a lot to do, so have the XO send over the third crime scene team. When the outside team gets done, have them check the ruptured compartments and then come in through the airlock. Get busy people. We're not leaving here until we have found everything we can find."
"Attention all hands, this is the Captain," Wallek said over the intercom. "I have just received orders. This ship goes to the front for duty with the fleet in twenty days. That is all."
"The log has been wiped clean," the technician said. "The computers were hit with an EMP grenade and then slagged with phasers and disruptors."
"He can, and he is," ESS Lieutenant Kaltrop said.
"The ship isn't ready," the engineer said. "We still only have one backup for each primary system, and for that matter, some of the primary systems are running on one backup with another backup on standby."
"We have to get word to Klegarine that the ship is being put in danger needlessly," Kaustin said.
"That's dangerous!" the weapons officer said. "It would be a direct violation of orders."
"Can you get a message off the ship?" Kaustin asked the communications officer."
"Negative," he responded. "All communications require the Captain's signature."
"I know that!" Kaustin snapped. "Can you send one without him knowing about it until it's too late?"
"And end up in the agonizer?" the communications officer said. "You can send it yourself!"
"There is one alternative," the weapons officer said. "Kaltrop can send it. Not even the Captain can stop the ESS from sending a report through their channels."
"Not really practical," Kaltrop said. "Remember that a new ESS officer came on board and outranks me, reducing me from the chief of security to assistant chief. I cannot send a report without his approval. The system is encoded to his personal code, and I cannot unlock it without him finding out."
"There is only one alternative left," Kaustin said. "I have to confront Wallek and make him see reason."
"He cannot be serious!" Kaustin said, beginning the impromptu meeting.
"You must take the ship to Klegarine for repairs," Kaustin started again.
"No, I must not!" Wallek said. "I must take the ship into combat and make warriors of you and the rest of the crew. No other alternative exists. And don't bring up the idea of transfers again. The only way any of your original crew are getting off this ship is through an airlock, alive or dead."
Both of them knew that three of the ships original officers were gone, one sent to a penal ship and two of them to work as prisoners in the iridium mines. Kaustin knew he could be next, although he regarded none of these transfers as justified.
"Now listen well," Wallek changed his tone. "I have given you every chance. You still have the same attitude, and if I stop forcing you to do things the right way, you'll go right back to doing them the wrong way. You only do your job because I take time to force you to. That stops now, because I no longer have time to watch you. Before we reach the front lines, you will either act like an officer or I will have you court-martialed and executed. Succeed or die. Dismissed."
"Kaustin, stop talking and be silent," Wallek said. "I have heard everything you have said, twice, and I'm not going to let you start going through it a third time."
"Captain to the bridge," the XO called on the intercom. "Where is it, Eyes?"
"Behind us, about fifty thousand," the Cromarg grinned. "I missed it the first time, it's so cold, but the reactor is breached on this side and I picked up a trace on the rear sensors."
"Standard small freighter XF53," the XO read from the database. "Missing for three months with cargo of manganese and cobalt from a mining station en route to an ore processing plant. Who would be interested in him?"
"Good question," Korack said, sitting down in his chair. "I left this one for last just because it made no sense. An old rust pile like that doesn't have on-board ore processing, and who would want unrefined ore?"
"They wouldn't have bothered just to rob the crew," the XO theorized. "They could have told from scans that the ship had nothing of immediate valve in the cargo hold."
"Could have been a Kzinti raider," Korack suggested. "Or it could have been a pirate who was spotted on the approach and didn't want to be reported, could have been an extraordinary life form. We need to find out what, then we can work on why and who."
"Standard protocol," the XO asked?
"Yes. In fact, you take charge of this," Korack said. "I'm going back to my cabin to study the reports and databases. None of the wrecked freighters produced any solid evidence, and this is the least likely of them all. We need a new strategy. This will be good experience for you."
"I am in your debt," the XO said, then thumbed the intercom. "Crime scene teams to the transporter room. One in battle dress, one in suits. Advise when ready."
"Found it," the sensor operator reported.
"I will accept that," Wallek said. "Having run the same exercise three times in succession, I have no doubt everyone is exhausted. The point, of course, is that despite the exhaustion, the gunners are still scoring 71%.
"Well done, Kaustin, you have taken to the sword as I knew you could," Wallek said. "You may stand down the crew for the rest of this shift, go to half-crew on the third watch. Let everyone get some rest. When we change shifts, the duty portion of the third watch may take the entire watch as down time. You had me concerned, Kaustin, but you have come through. Remain at this level and you may well have command of the ship when I transfer at the end of the combat rotation."
"I serve the Empire," Kaustin said.
"As do we all," Wallek said as he was leaving.
"Gunnery exercise complete, Sir!" Kaustin announced. "Total score was 71%, nearly our previous record."
"I have to agree," the weapons officer said. "Wallek must die or we will all die in a ship not ready for front line combat."
"It is clear to me that the admiral intends to be rid of us," Kaltrop said. "The insane captain, the unrepaired systems, the lack of any port time. They intended to see this ship destroyed."
"Be warned," the engineer said, "If we fail, we will all be executed by torture."
"The alternative is to refuse his orders and be thrown out the airlock," Kaustin said, "or obey his orders and be destroyed in combat. I'll take my chances on our plan. It's the only plan that will keep the crew alive."
"So be it," the weapons officer said. "But how? And when?"
"I have the answer to that," Kaltrop said. "The captain is planning a celebration of some Walkurian holiday in three days time. They plan to clear out the shuttle bay and use the open space for some sports competition."
"What would that be?" Kaustin asked. "Shooting food off of each other's head with disruptors?"
"Nothing so violent," Kaltrop said. "The sport is called walpik and involves tossing a heavy metal ball from man to man until all but one have been knocked off their feet. They do not plan to invite the Klegarites on the crew."
"I can work with that," the engineer said. "With five minutes notice, I can flood the shuttle bay with fuel and detonate it. They'll all die at a stroke."
"Excellent," Kaustin said. "Make your plans, but tell no one who is not here. You will show each of us how to make this happen and two of us not otherwise on duty will work independently. One of us will succeed."
"We have no other choice," Kaustin said.
"I was born on Klinshai," the senior ESS officer said. "I have no interest in those moronic Walkurian games."
"So be it," Kaltrop said. "If you have no objection, I will stay here for this shift. Perhaps Sergeant Wekrig would like to attend? He's got to be the only Walkurian not there."
"I am in you debt, Lieutenant," the sergeant said.
Kaltrop took the sergeant's seat and began scanning the compartments. The Klegarites among the crew were mostly on watch or in their bunks. Watching the timer carefully, Kaltrop steeled himself for what he had to do. If he acted too quickly, the Captain would be notified. If he acted too late, the senior ESS officer would notice the engineer and weapons officer sabotaging the shuttle fuel system. The timer crawled slowly forward, and then raced through the final seconds. Acting on instinct, Kaltrop dropped a datadisk on the deck, gaining the half-second of distraction he needed to turn half around in his chair and fire his phaser at the senior officer. The man died instantly, and the four crewmen in the compartment all leapt to their feet.
"Stand down!" Kaltrop said. "All of you. Do nothing. Keep your hands raised."
"You can go to the game if you want," Kaltrop said. "I will hold the duty."
It had taken entire days of working a few minutes at a time, but the engineer had rigged the shuttle refueling valve to fail under pressure, and had closed the vent line but had rebuilt the handle to show it was open. As he opened the lower valve and adjusted its regulator to allow a higher pressure, the Chief Engineer knew that the fuel, unable to exit through the vent, would rupture the shuttle valve and flood the shuttle bay with vaporized deuterium. Several compartments away, the weapons officer did the same. The shuttle bay began to fill with fuel as both officers counted three seconds and shut the valves. Any more fuel than that would damage the ship, perhaps severely.
In the shuttle bay, most of the Walkurians were already intoxicated, but not so much that they did not smell ... something wrong, something very, very wrong.
Wallek started to bellow orders, and one ensign was scrambling to reach the controls for the fire suppressant system, when the chief engineer pressed the switch that detonated the fuel. The explosion was, as explosions go, not extreme. No bulkheads ruptured, and only half of the Walkurians in the shuttle bay were killed, the rest being injured or knocked unconcious.
On the deck below the shuttle bay, the chief engineer went to work on the valves for the port fuel tank. A low-pressure line ran from the tank up to the shuttle bay, where a side valve provided fuel to fill the shuttles as needed. This line then ran aft to the rear of the ship and vented overboard. The valve for the shuttles was to remain closed, while the valve for the emergency vent remained open. A valve on the lower deck remained closed. When a shuttle needed fuel, the vent valve was closed, the lower valve was opened, and the shuttle valve was then opened. A separate high pressure line fed the impulse engines, and the chief engineer knew better than anyone to leave that line alone.