by Stephen V Cole
Part 1 of 3
I, Senior Lieutenant Terrik Korrell, became commander of the 747th DSF Gunboat Flotilla 12 hours and 14 minutes earlier than scheduled. Commander Koranik died with his 216 Boat on his last mission when the Kzinti cruiser that wasn't supposed to be there switched targets suddenly and caught him in a tractor beam. There were no survivors, which was just as well considering how the Tigermen treat prisoners.
The flotilla was operating short-handed since we lost the 839 boat a week earlier. Now, I was suddenly in command, and I had four boats left, with about half of their drones still in the racks. The mission was to hit an enemy convoy trying to work its way through our sector to supply a Tigerman force that broken through in Sector Delta a week earlier. I had to instantly decide if I was going to abandon that mission and go for the cruiser, or continue to target the convoy. No doubt, the cruiser was the more glorious target, but the Tigermen had plenty of cruisers and only one breakthrough on this front. By killing the convoy, I could do what an entire fleet had failed to do, and force the Tigermen to pull their squadron out of our space. To be sure, once the cruiser was dead the convoy would be an easy target, but the 431 Scout Boat had already reported more ships on the way and we just didn't have time.
Going after the convoy wasn't a popular decision. For one thing, ignoring an enemy cruiser is all too often fatal, and for another, there is more glory in killing a cruiser than a freighter, but the mission was, above all, the mission, and other Klingons were counting on us to get the job done. My own gunnery officer snarled at me, and two of the other boat commanders demanded that I confirm the order, but the iron discipline of the fleet prevailed. I had made a decision and the others had to assume I knew what I was doing. If I was wrong, I would answer for it later.
We salvoed our third wave of drones in a huge sheaf, more of them than the cruiser could stop with its remaining weapons. As we circled to port to line up for the fourth and last wave, Vorl reported hits on five of the six remaining freighters, two of which were obviously destroyed. That meant we had killed three of the original seven freighters and had damaged three of the rest. I considered ordering each boat to launch only one drone, but with the cruiser in the battle anything less than the full wave would be within his ability to kill. Ignoring phaser damage from the cruiser on my rear shields, I drove in to fire my disruptor and phasers on a wounded large freighter; the cruiser killed both of my drones before they could hit. For that matter, the Tigerman cruiser killed all but one of our drones, which hit one of the damaged freighters, leaving it dead in space. Slish-tak, my wingman, finished it off with disruptor fire. The cruiser used his last drones against us but between phasers and counter-drones we took only one hit, which badly damaged the 941 Boat.
We circled out of range. The cruiser was undamaged, but was guarding only two freighters now, one of them undamaged and one of them dead in space from disruptor fire. I had four boats left, one - 941 - crippled and out of the fight, and one of them - 431 - the scout boat. I told the scout to give me everything he could and led my wingman -715 - on a final run. It didn't matter if we died here; it mattered that none of those freighters got through. With our disruptors and phasers scoring hits from close range, the last undamaged freighter turned into debris. Both boats took some damage from phasers, but the disruptor shots missed due to the jamming.
We broke away and ran for it. I expected the cruiser to follow, but he stayed with the last freighter. Perhaps there was wreckage to recover from some of the others? Perhaps he had taken damage in an earlier battle. I would never know.
We headed back home. My boat - 456 - , the scout - 431 -, and my wingman - 715 - were in reasonably good shape, but 941 was badly shot up. I considered abandoning it, and would have had to if there had been serious pursuit by the cruiser or other Kzinti forces, but no one came after us. It felt good to remove the suit helmet and put the cabin air system back on line. The engineers were all busy, but one of the gunners began warming up ration packs.
We moved at our best speed for over an hour until Kissik in 941 reported that he had serious problems and needed help. When 431 gave us an all-clear, we stopped in the middle of nothing. While 715 and 431 circled, I maneuvered 456 to dock with 941. Leaving Karihn in charge of my bridge, I moved to the airlock, taking the medic with me. My systems engineer met me there and we all resealed our helmets.
We opened the hatch and were met with a cloud of smoke and fumes. Kissik had said that his life support system had been overcome by the electrical fires, and he was clearly right. My boat's systems struggled to clear the smoke from the airlock, and succeeded only because the airlock on 941 was sealed. Two of Kissik's marines were on his side of the airlock, apparently there to prevent a mass exodus by his crew. I told them to go ahead and transfer any casualties while I boarded with my engineer and medic for an inspection.
Kissik met me in the companionway outside the airlock.
"She'll fly, Kerrell," he reported, "but we can't clear the air and the suit systems won't last until we get back to base. Half of the crew are casualties, and the rest can't fight the smoke. I held out as long as I could because I knew you had to get us away from any pursuit. If you need to abandon her, I won't fight you, but if you can give me a couple of engineers and some air cylinders, I think I can put the fires out in 20 minutes."
"We can't stay here that long," I responded, "but we can still save your boat. Get your casualties evacuated, and I'll send you some help to fight the fires. You can beat the fire after we undock. Keep only a minimal bridge crew and your engineers so the suit systems will be enough if the fires restart. Send your gunners and marines to my boat with the casualties." I sent orders to Karihn to send two engineering technicians through to 941. I conducted a quick inspection while my medic helped their medic get the casualties moved. Within five minutes, we were all moving again, at 941's best speed. After seven hours, we were over halfway home and were met by the recovery boat, 113. They took over getting 941 home, covered by 715. I had turned down an offer for a commando PF to come pick up the extra crewmen from my boat. The effort to do another docking wasn't worth the bother.
I left with 431 and headed home, getting there in only three hours. It took the other three boats another couple of hours to make it. I didn't like leaving boats behind and had I not been the new flotilla commander, I wouldn't have, but I needed to go get a handle on the flotilla I had just taken command of.
As a boat commander, I had enough dealings with the Flotilla staff to know who everybody was. As the already-designated new commander, I had taken time to meet with most of them. Only an hour after my boat docked at the battle station, I was in my new office waiting for my first staff meeting to gather in the conference room. The formalities of meeting the Station Commander, who was also the Sector Commander, and being given the flotilla command had been handled by subspace before I docked; the Station Commander had already interviewed and approved me for command before Koranik's final mission.
The flotilla had only four boats now. My own 456 and my wingman, 715, would be repaired within the day. The scout boat, 431, was relatively undamaged. The crippled 931 would take several days to make ready.
The first order of business was to get the flotilla back up to strength. It was a matter of course to get the station commander to approve my request for a replacement leader; a replacement for 839 had been requested by Koranik before he died. I was advised that a new drone-boat was already en route and would arrive in three days time; a new leader boat was being sent from the starbase and would take six days to arrive. The drone boat was a veteran from a disbanded flotilla, but the leader boat was a brand new one with a scratch crew.
That would give me six boats, and for them I would need six crews. The crews of 431 and 715 were still intact, and would remain so. It was standard practice in the flotilla, as required by regulations, to rotate one or two crew members on each mission, replacing them with crewmen from the flotilla's replacement unit. This was intended to improve morale by giving every crewman the comfort that he would be given a break from the constant danger now and then. It also allowed a boat commander to replace someone who did not fit in or measure up, and allowed such individuals a chance to improve their skills while in the replacement unit and move to another boat at a later time.
The 931 boat would need replacements, at least temporarily, for eight of its 27 crewmen. These would have to come from the replacement unit, which would use half of its personnel and strain the rotation system. I would have to consider pulling some people from the staff and maintenance units if I had more casualties, or asking for people from the support flotilla. Over time, the personnel system would send me more people to refill my numbers, and some of the wounded personnel would recover and return to duty.
A query to the new drone boat, G1-12905, or simply 905, confirmed that they were arriving with a full crew of 27. The rest of that flotilla's personnel had been absorbed by the newly-arrived flotilla that took over Station Delta. I decided to leave 905's crew intact for the time being. I would talk to the boat commander and begin their rotations after a mission or two, unless he wanted to get rid of someone sooner.
The new gunboat leader, G1-13917 or simply 917, did not have regular crew, just a collection of replacement drafts. The training centers took in new recruits and trained them for individual skills. After that was complete, some were sent forward as individuals, while others were picked by veterans sent back to the training center to be formed into teams of engineers, or gunners, or bridge crewmen. Those teams underwent additional training to learn to work as teams, after which some were sent forward as teams and others were kept to be formed and trained into complete boat crews. Marines came from the Marine replacement system, always arriving as khads including one veteran. Most replacements were sent to units on a fixed schedule, whether needed or not, and only if one unit got more than 25% above or below its authorized strength did someone on the fleet staff make a temporary change in the schedule.
The new leader boat had a bridge crew that had trained together under a combat veteran K2 selected as ready to command a boat, an engineer team that had trained together under a combat veteran technical officer, a gunnery team that had trained together under a veteran gunner, and two marine khads that had of course trained together with veteran corporals. None of these elements, however, had spent any time with each other, and the leader boat was being used more as a convenient way to send them forward than as their own boat. They comprised one standard boat crew plus an extra Marine khad; the depot didn't even send the extra technicians needed for a leader boat. As the new crew had never worked on a leader boat, they would not expect to stay together on it.
I would make my own plans for my new boat.
I considered two options. One was to move my entire crew from 456 to the new 917 boat and send the replacements, except for the extra Marines, over to 456. That, however, would mean putting an untested crew into combat. The other option was to mix the two crews together, something that would disrupt the existing cohesion.
After much thought, I decided to take my bridge crew and gunners to the new 917 boat and leave my engineers behind. They knew all of 456's quirks and would not be happy elsewhere. It would, however, not be that simple. My gunnery officer, Lieutenant Krelt, had gotten on my nerves one too many times. He didn't like how I ran 456, and was anxious to get his own boat. If I took him with me to 917, he would try to use the fact that I was busy running the flotilla to effectively take over the crew.
More importantly, I knew nothing of the new "boat commander" arriving with my new leader. He was, by his file, a former weapons officer and pilot selected as ready to command a boat, but his former flotilla commander had sent him to the replacement center to form a new crew rather than give him one of his own boats. That could be good or bad. It might have been that there was no opening and the man deserved a boat, or it might have been that by his experience and seniority he had to be given a boat but his commander didn't trust him.
I decided to break the cohesion of the trained bridge crew he was bringing. The new prospective boat commander would be my weapons officer on the leader, and could consider the boat his own (for administrative purposes) while I observed him. Krelt would take the replacement bridge crew and gunners, and 456's veteran engineers, and meld them into a new crew for the old 456. The responsibility would do him good, and he would mature into a fine officer.
"The flotilla commander!" announced the adjutant. The officers in the conference room sprang to attention and saluted as I entered. I had intended to do what I always did as a boat commander, show up early with some paperwork and keep myself busy until everybody showed up. The adjutant had insisted that I must remain out of the room until the appointed hour as I must be seen as separate from those I now command, rather than one of many equals at the table.
"Let's get started," I said as I slid into my chair. "What's our next mission?"
"In fourteen hours," the operations officer said, "you will send a patrol to the asteroid belt in the Vellish system to investigate reports of activity there." Lieutenant Commander Kauld was not part of the flotilla, but worked on the battle station staff. It was his job to bring the flotilla assignments from the Station Commander, and help plan them. No doubt, he had been hard at work for hours writing the plans for this patrol. So many tons of fuel, so many drones, navigational checkpoints, routes to avoid certain areas, time schedules to avoid conflicts with other missions, and dozens of other details.
I noted that Kauld had said I was to send a patrol, rather than lead one. I asked specifically if I was ordered to lead the mission, or ordered to stay back and get the flotilla organized, or given my own discretion on the matter. He informed me that it was my choice. "Then I will lead the mission," I said. "The staff is in good shape and I don't need to skip a mission to teach them their jobs." This brought a few chuckles.
"My concern," I said to Kauld, "is that I will only have three gunboats in service in time for the mission. In three days time, I will have three more. I assume that the mission cannot wait?"
"It could," Kauld answered, "but we have other missions as well and this problem has been waiting for some time for a fly by. Something is happening out there, and the sooner we find out what, the better we will all be."
"If there is anything there," I said, "sending three boats is just suicide. What support can I get? Is there a frigate, even a police ship, available?"
"Not at this time," Kauld said. "I can order the Support Flotilla to turn over their boats to you. For recon, the minesweeper might be some use. The commando gunboat might be useful if you found something to land on and investigate."
"The minehunter's sensors are too specialized," I said, "and the commando unit is just a phaser-armed escort. If we need to land on anything that one khad can't handle, then we don't need to be landing. I'll take one of the cargo boats to escort the scout."
"It will be arranged," Kauld said. "I will also arrange the patrols of the sector frigate and police ship so that you can rendezvous with them if you get into trouble. Their projected locations will be in the mission plan."
The Adjutant, a Dunkar lieutenant named Vernik, gave his report on the personnel situation, which was worse than I had realized. He had served in the flotilla's gunboats for a year before he was wounded, and his convalescent tour in the personnel office had become permanent. Vernik had the report from the battle station's hospital on our personnel who were in recovery from previous wounds. By manipulating the casualty figures, he had tried to keep the Flotilla's manpower near the maximum allowed strength, but having to replace half of 941's crew and fill out the leader boat's larger crew would use up the surplus and then some. I wouldn't be able to do normal crew rotations unless I wanted to send boats on missions short a crewman or two. Vernik gave me a list of personnel in the Support Flotilla that we should try to have transferred. He was aware, as I was not, that the Support Flotilla was over its maximum allowed strength and had been denied replacement drafts until normal attrition and rotation brought them back within the acceptable range. He said that Koranik had been trying to get these personnel for a month but that the station commander steadfastly refused.
The Logistics Officer, a Cromarg major named Brish, reported on the supply situation. We were short of drones, again, despite all of his efforts. He would be able to obtain more from the battle station's supplies by trading a few favors, but if we had five or six gunboats available for duty, they would have been going on patrol with less than full racks. I told him to send a subspace to the new 905 boat and find out if it was arriving with full or empty racks. I asked the Operations officer to see if he could get our allotment of drones increased through his channels while Brish tried to get them through our own channels.
My flotilla staff included three others, all of whom were new. The ESS lieutenant and Marine lieutenant had died on the 216 boat, and replacements had come from the Battle Station's crew. The intelligence officer, who was part of the Battle Station's command group, not the Flotilla, was also new to me. The officer previously sent by the station staff had been transferred to another base, but Lieutenant Zahn was quite competent. He had been a scout in his earlier days, as the Zoolie stereotype would have expected, but after losing his legs in combat he had found a job (and eventually an officer's commission) working in the intelligence section. He had a detailed report on the enemy forces in the sector, even news (less than an hour old) that the last freighter in the convoy I had attacked had been destroyed by the Tigerman cruiser. He asked permission to go along on the mission to the Vellish system. As he would not have asked without permission from the base commander, I of course agreed.
The new ESS lieutenant was from the battle station's ESS staff. He had no experience in gunboats, and was (as might be expected) the newest officer in the section. His transfer was temporary, which meant not that I could send him back when the ESS officer to replace the recent casualty arrived, but that his boss would interview the replacement and decide whether to let me have him or this man. He introduced himself as Junior Lieutenant Lepish and invited himself along on the Vellish mission. It would have never occurred to me to refuse, but I was mildly surprised that he actually wanted to go.
The flotilla included seven Khads of Marines, and one lieutenant to look after them. The lieutenant traditionally rode on the leader boat, and had died there. The Battle Station's Marine Tak had been told to send one of their lieutenants to fill in until the new Marine lieutenant arrived in three days on the new 917 boat, but had no one to spare. The result was that I was given a naval ensign, who like me also had a commission as a Marine second lieutenant. It was immediately obvious that the man knew nothing about gunboats and no more about Marines than he had the day he was commissioned. I directed him to join the Vellish mission and thought that the man would die of shock on the spot. I told him to ride on the cargo boat and told Vernik to scrape up a few of our own Marines to go with him in case we needed to land on something. The ESS officer interrupted and asked if he could also ride on this boat, and I agreed without trying to grasp his reasoning. My own boat, not being a leader, had no extra place for him.
I ended the staff meeting and went to get a meal and some sleep. Karihn had looked over Koranik's quarters and found them no better than the ones we shared and decided against moving. She had the maintenance crew move the sign denoting the flotilla commander's quarters to our door. That night she told me that as a flotilla commander, I was now a respectable officer and we should be married. I agreed and told her to arrange something after the Vellish mission.