FOR THE GOOD OF THE EMPIRE
Part two of ten
"Come in, Master Jeppe," Major Kehlen said to the Orion Pirate captain. "You have the reports?"
"Certainly," the pirate captain, an ethnic Orion, said. "I have them here in my briefcase, which your secret police insisted on scanning for bombs."
"They're only doing their jobs," Kehlen said. "Only forty-five reports? What happened to ... " he examined the labels on the other files "... our man on Zirkrek?"
"I don't know," the pirate said. "His report was not in the dead drop. The fact that my crewman was not arrested indicates its location was not compromised. I checked the local media sources but found no open reports of an arrested spy."
"A pity," Kehlen said. "But losses happen. According to protocol, I will pay you for that pick up this time, but your payment will be reduced in future, of course."
"That is understandable," the Orion said, "although I may perhaps be able to avoid the data loss." He produced a data disk from his pocket. "This report contains what data I could acquire from Orion sources regarding the delightful Kzinti mining planet of Zirkrek. Not a lot of military data, of course, but some. Our own agents there had transcribed the arrival and departure of numerous cargo ships, and I have copies of some of the cargo manifests. There is one particularly interesting document regarding a shortfall of dilithium in recent mine production. And there are some other odds and ends, personnel reports, local news publications, and some tavern gossip. Perhaps, combined, all of that will be of some use?"
"I will forward it to the appropriate offices," Kehlen said. "We shall see what they say."
"Very well," the pirate said. "One other thing, something I am reluctant to bring up, but there is no reason for my reluctance. It's just that we have only recently begun to work together and I do not want to give offense."
"What?" Kehlen said, more than half expecting a request for more money.
"During my travels," Jeppe said, "I came across a few cases of Sefarian Brandy, Klingon merchandise somehow in Kzinti hands. I have had it scanned and have personally checked several bottles without ill effect. I was wondering if you would accept a case of this brandy as my personal token of appreciation of your honesty and integrity in our dealings. After all, I am simply returning what is obviously purloined property to the agent of its rightful owners."
Kehlen was surprised, and stunned, and suspicious. Beware of pirates offering gifts he had been warned by the colonel. But Sefarian brandy was excellent, and expensive, and Kehlen had only tasted its sublime flavor once in his life. He thought hard, knowing he was falling into a trap, but unable to see any ill result of said trap. Sefarian brandy, however, would go a long way to relieving the incredible boredom of this posting. The ESS was doubtless watching this conversation, but they were more likely to want a couple of bottles out of the case than to arrest him for accepting it. He could give a bottle to his troops, another to the base commander, and send another bottle or two to the colonel, and still have half of the case for himself. He remembered that only a few weeks ago the base commander had given him a case of high-quality Dagger Team rations which had been one of several recovered from a wrecked courier. Kehlen had been in the military his entire life and it was not uncommon to see items that had been "listed as destroyed" and being passed around to the crew.
"Thank you," Kehlen said.
"So, how is our new master?" the weapons officer asked.
"Corruptible," Jeppe answered, "but it will take time."
"I'm picking up the trail of a freighter," the navigator said. "Looks to be alone. Want to pick up some profit?"
"No," Jeppe said. "We're too close to the base and I'm not ready to expect Kehlen to cover for us. Just stay on course."
"Very well," the Navigator replied.
"Our drone slammed into his flank shields, causing obvious damage, and sending the Tigerman frigate back to his base for major repairs. We gave him a good pounding!" Kross reported.
"A good pounding?" the Admiral asked. "Your gunnery in that battle was substandard, scoring only 38% hits. That's the worst in my fleet. I expect at least 50% and my best ships are close to 70%."
"And yet, despite our unfortunate gunnery scores, which in no way reflect the quality of my ship's equipment or training, we drove the raiding frigate out of Klingon-controlled space!" Kross stated emphatically. "His mission was cancelled!"
"You drove him out of Klingon space, did you?" the operations commander asked, "or did you just let him escape?"
"Beg pardon, Captain, but that statement is unfair," Kross responded, obviously insulted. "We scored internal damage, forcing him into a repair yard, and sent him running home. To have pursued him would have taken us beyond our patrol area. Certainly, there is no fault in obeying orders."
"Other captains have used their judgement in such cases," the operations commander said. "With no Kzinti ships anywhere near, the opportunity to pursue and destroy that frigate was not one other captains would have passed up."
"Beg pardon, Captain, but other ships have left their patrol areas and gone into Kzinti space without orders, and this has sometimes not turned out well. Two captains have been relieved for just that, and their ships were badly damaged in ambushes."
"Begging your pardon, Captain Kross," the operations commander said, "but a dozen ships have, since this war began, followed wounded Kzinti ships and won great victories."
"Beg pardon, Captain, but those great victories were mostly over slow freighters and cargo ships, not warships running toward help at emergency combat speeds!"
"Enough!" the Admiral snapped. "Kross, to your credit, Axe Wielder stopped a Kzinti raider and drove it home. You were there and I will trust your judgment - for now. In all future cases, however, you would be well served to weigh the risks and see victories where you can snatch them from the jaws of the Tigermen. Dismissed."
"Computer, record subspace message to Major Kehlen," the colonel began. "Major Kehlen. The data from your new source on ... that planet ... has proven of valve and you are authorized to continue the previous payments for this substituted data.
"The data you are getting from that Orion raider is proving more and more valuable. The Commodore authorized me to send his personal thanks for your recent reports. Continue your excellent service. Your budget is being increased by a thousand stars. Spend it well. That is all."
"Ion trail confirmed," Lieutenant Krealander reported. "Trail is recent, no more than two days. Bearing is ... toward Kzinti space. Readings indicate a Kzinti frigate."
"Shall we set course to pursue?" the helmsman asked.
"Why?" Kaustin replied. "The trail is two days old. There is a Kzinti outpost only five days away. He will reach that before we can catch him."
"Whatever he was doing," Kross said, "he has already done it and is obviously headed home. He will do no more damage to the Empire."
"Indeed," Kaustin said, "he probably left because of our approach."
"No doubt about that," Kross said. "Continue patrol."
"That concludes our business," Kehlen said to Jeppe. "The new sources on Zirkrek have proven reliable, and I've paid you half of the bonus you asked for to get better information on what the Count's Fleet is doing. The other half will be paid when the colonel approves it. Is there anything else?"
"Nothing official," Jeppe said, "but perhaps there is an opportunity I can offer you."
"An unofficial opportunity?" Kehlen asked with suspicion.
"In a way," Jeppe said. "As you know, one of the planets my ship visits is Pisthalon, a planet with its own indigenous population, one that the Kzintis keep in servitude."
"I know of it," Kehlen said. "We have no agents on that planet. Can you recruit one for us?"
"Perhaps," Jeppe said. "There is a tavern keeper in the spaceport, one who, like all of his trade, tends to collect information. For a price, he is willing to share it."
"Tavern gossip," Kehlen sighed. "Well, I suppose it is better than nothing. I can authorize you twenty stars to bring back a sample of what he has to offer. If it proves out, more can be made available. But I am not such a fool as you think, and we both know that you are already drawing water from this well for your own purposes. If you had found anything of interest to the Klingon Empire, you would have sold it to me already."
"Ah, you're too smart for me," Jeppe laughed, producing a data disk. "I have only been able to get any information from him at all on my most recent visit. He is terrified of Kzinti justice. Should he be caught, death would be the welcome end of a difficult interrogation. I have had to work on him for some months to establish my credibility and ability to pay."
"And a few silver nuggets would help?" Kehlen said with a smile. "What are you after?"
"Ah, you have seen what I have kept hidden," Jeppe said. "Very well, I shall stop circling the matter and dive right in. One of the ways I have built a relationship with this tavern keeper is to buy cases of spirits from his stock. I pay him several times what the stuff costs him, and he thinks he's collecting an extra bribe. What I am actually doing is selling these beverages in Klingon space, all completely within the law, to those who are always seeking a new way to relax, something different."
"I see," Kehlen said. "Do go on."
"Well, if you were to advance me a hundred stars, I would use it to buy some of his inventory, ingratiating myself even more deeply and obtaining even more information. Your investment would then net you something like ... four hundred stars when I return in three weeks."
"All of which would be the Empire's money," Kehlen said. "I would then have more discretionary funds to pay you for new sources."
"You see through my plan," Jeppe laughed. "But perhaps, if you are a gambling man, it could be done some other way. No doubt, you have a small amount of personal funds. I know that you Klingons don't have a lot of money, but what else do you have to spend it on at this place? A week without extra rations at the officer's mess would be all you would lose if I prove to be a liar. A month of extra rations would be yours if I am telling the truth. Care to liven up your boring existence with a little harmless risk?"
"And what would the ESS say about all of this?" Kehlen asked with a laugh.
"Probably that they're in for twenty stars," Jeppe responded with his own laugh. "Ask them. Get their permission. Invite them to invest. Why do they care how you use your personal funds?"
"Very well," Kehlen said. "If they have any objections, my communicator will buzz within a few seconds, or maybe they'll just storm in and arrest us. I'll give you eighty stars from my discretionary account, twenty to bribe the man and sixty to buy his goods. Any profit from that will go back into the Imperial account. And here are twenty stars of my own," he said, handing them over. "Any profit from that is mine."
"I have a ship on scanners," the weapons officer said. "Get the Captain on the bridge."
"What is it," Jeppe asked when he arrived. "Warship?"
"Negative," said the weapons officer. "It acts like a freighter, based on mass, course, and speed. Range is half a million kilometers, give or take."
"Anything else on scans?" Captain Jeppe asked.
"Not that I can see," the weapons officer said.
"Action stations!" Jeppe commanded. "Helm, get behind the freighter, then take us in at full speed." A chorus of aye-ayes rippled through the bridge.
"Bad idea," the first officer said. "We're in the smuggling business, not the piracy business. We don't need to set off alarms. If that freighter transmits a report, we'll be tagged, and that will cause us no end of trouble."
"This far from the front lines?" Jeppe asked. "They probably don't even have anybody on the bridge. Most freighters these days are on auto-pilot and have half of their normal crew."
"It could be a trap," the XO warned.
"It could be a Space Dragon coasting during his nap," Jeppe mocked, "but it isn't."
"Closing target, confirm standard small freighter," the weapons officer said. "What are my orders?"
"Helm, take us right under him at five thousand kilometers," Jeppe ordered. "Weapons, when you have a clear shot, fire at the bridge and drive controls. Helm, keep going at max speed even after the shot. Communications, let me know if he gets off a signal. Any kind of signal. If he doesn't, we can circle back."
The ship roared forward, easily overtaking the slow freighter. As the raider passed under the freighter, the phasers rang out, and the freighter, both crew compartments wrecked, dropped out of warp and tumbled end over end.
"No signal," the communications officer said.
"Bring the ship about," Jeppe said. "Stand by the tractor beam. Stand by boarding parties."
The pirate came around and closed on the tumbling cargo pod, stopping its gyrations with a tractor beam.
"Some damage to the pod," the weapons officer reported, but only on the ends."
"Boarding teams away. Weapons Officer, deep scan the pod. Helm, close and dock. Let's see what we have."