The final member of his "bridge crew" was Tollek, a Klingon Army corporal sent to fill the Army's growing quota for gunboat crews. This was actually good, as Tollek had extensive technical training, and was Warrior Caste. His seat was in the short barrel connector that joined the dummy bridge to the hull of the system station. On a real boat, he'd have been a few meters further away. He was a competent man, not least because Army and Fleet subspace and radio communications systems were identical, often coming from the same factory.
         When Killik had first reached a gunboat, everyone on board was Warrior Caste, nearly a third were ethnic Klingons, and seven of the crew of 30 were line officers. He knew that when he got a complete crew and a real boat (with training weapons) next Firstday, he would be lucky to have five or six Klingons, one or two line officers, maybe ten total members of the Warrior Caste, and a crew of only 27. The gunnery team he had selected, now conducting advanced training with the technical team he had selected, included only one Klingon, who was Warrior Caste and a combat veteran gunner.
         "Killik, this is Klorgran," came the voice in his head-phones. The voice was in plain and familiar language, not in the battle tongue that had more shorthand, jargon, codewords, and nicknames than full words.
         "I am here," he answered, checking his panel. "A private circuit. What have I done today, Flotilla Leader?"
         "Upset the instructors, apparently," Klorgran said. "You are to change positions with boat three, and lead section two. This by order of the Lieutenant Commander himself. Maintain callsign Lightflash Two. We don't need to confuse anyone about who is who."
         "Korian must be happy about the demotion," Killik chuckled. "At least he gets away from Kurgal."
         "He isn't upset, and he knows that I did not do this," Klorgran said. "You had better talk to Kurgal."
         "Lightflash Four, this is Lightflash Two. Kurgal, this is Killik," he said, changing the switch.
         "Lightflash Four," Kurgal said.
         "I am to be your section leader today," Killik explained. "All you have to do is stay with me. Keep your boat behind me and on my right. Stay within a kam, but not closer than half a kam. Expect no orders, but respond if I give them to you. Go where I go, and shoot what I shoot. If it's fighters, shoot a different target in the same squadron. Do you understand?"
          "Yes, I think so," Kurgal said.
         "You know that we're both in trouble, Kurgal," Killik said. "You're not just fighting for your own career; if you get me kicked out of the boat command program, you will answer to me with your life."
         "Yes-s-s..." Kurgal stammered. "Understood. Fully."
         "Lightflash Two out."
         "You won't really kill him," Khurgan laughed. "You don't have the guts to risk a court-martial or the stamina to work in a deep metal mine."
         "If he costs me a boat command," Killik said, "I won't care."
         "Launching," Goren said.
         "On nav plot," Majol added. Others, including the computer-simulated engineer, reported their own departure status in the clipped words of the battle tongue.
         Killik watched his screen. They were on a simulated mission on the Kzinti front lines. He knew the pre-mission briefing. This was a standard patrol, helping to establish the location of a front line that really had no true meaning. It wasn't like there were soldiers in foxholes spaced 50 meters apart across hundreds of light-years of hard interstellar vacuum. The "front line" was just an imaginary line that each side had decided to patrol and defend.
         If a "front line" did anything, it told the logistics forces how far they were likely to be from an enemy raid when it was detected. That only mattered if the raid was detected, and that detection was part of what patrolling was all about.
Killik settled back in his seat, letting the pilot fly the boat. This was a full mission simulation, and he'd be in the simulator for twelve or more hours. It was at least an hour, more likely two, before there was any chance of contact. He scanned all of his readouts, then called on the intercom to a technician in the system station pretending to be his engine crew about balancing the warp field.
         Goren was letting Majol fly the boat, and Khurgan was watching the sensors. Jorel was supposed to be resting but was still alert, so Killik told Khurgan to watch the systems. After being sure Khurgan had the boat, Killik closed his eyes and let his mind review the data for the scenario.
         Patrol scenarios had a set framework, but each included one or more "incidents" which were selected from a database of hundreds of such things by the instructors, or sometimes by the computer. Sometimes an incident included variations, and all of them varied the data just enough that you would not be able to instantly recognize them. Killik knew that to keep his career on track, he would have to make a decision at some point, and make it quickly. He'd have to let his instincts take over, and go with whatever felt right on the first parse of the information.
         Patrols tend to be boring, and Killik had to fight to make himself continue to watch and work. The tiny ship's computer on his imaginary G1 would let him know if anything was really out of balance, but only by watching the panels could he see something starting to trend that way and fix it before a problem happened. He laughed at those who reported to the Gunboat Training School thinking that each mission would include plenty of off-duty time for sleeping or reading. These were mostly civilians who had recently joined the military (and Army personnel who could easily go years between combat incidents).
         The patrol route took them past a couple of star systems to the front line, then along the trace for a few dozen parsecs, then back to base through rear areas, checking on three planets in the process. As expected, the first waypoint (a small mining colony that actually did exist, just not here) went quietly. Killik listened to the scout boat, Lightflash Six, contact the mine on long-range comms. The second waypoint could be a problem, as Kzintis had reportedly been seen near the system, briefly, a few weeks ago.
         "Lightflash All, Lightflash Lead," came the voice of Klorgran. "By sections, fast search, routes designated."
         Killik saw a series of colored markers appear on his tactical display, one color for each section. He had flown as a section leader before, and he had known that this order would come. React fast, he told himself. He grabbed the flight controls, flicking the left-hand switch for section comms and the right-hand override to take control of the boat at the same time. He thought he heard Goren say "What happened?" as his controls went slack, but ignored it.
         "Four, Two," Killik snapped out the words of the battle tongue. "Follow, fifteen killikams right, active." It would never have occurred to him that a Kzinti gunboat commander, or a Federation fighter squadron leader, might have used upwards of 40 words to say what he had said in seven. Boat Four, this is Boat Two. You heard the flotilla leader tell us to proceed separately, right? Follow me. Spread out to my right to a distance of fifteen killikams, and turn on your active sensors. Search for anything unusual, any energy signature, or any refined metal. Got that?
         "Four..." came the hesitant reply, "complying."
         Killik swept the controls to his left, following the chain of red dots that marked the search route assigned to his section, setting his speed for the designated warp factor two. He noted that the scout boat and its escort were far to his right, beyond the star, and the lead boat and the temporarily demoted Korian somewhere beyond that. How's that for fast reaction? he silently asked the instructors observing his progress. This mission includes a personal test for me, but it may or may not be here. It could be hours later, somewhere else. No, no, it's here. Why else send my section on the other side of a star, out of support range. I'm on my own, no one to decide for me. My test will come soon.
         "Goren, fly," he said, releasing the override switch. "Jorel, Majol, scan." Dropping into normal speech, he added "Khurgan,  watch that idiot Kurgal, and make sure he's where I told him to be and not wandering off."
         Khurgan chuckled his reply. "He's sixteen killikams out and a killikam behind where he should be. He was a little slow coming out of the break."
         "Four, Two, formation, now," Killik said on the section circuit. The instructors can time how long it took me to give that order, Killik thought to himself. The search of the star system would only take a dozen minutes as they flew across the orbital plane, and whatever would happen would happen soon.
         "Khurgan," Killik said, "warn Kurgal's gunner and scanner to stay alert. We're about to hit something. I feel it."
         "Battle sense," Khurgan said, "or battle nerves." He began talking quietly on another circuit, one that went to Lightflash Four's entire bridge.
         "Target, energy," Jorel said, "Fourteen left, one down, range twelve." She had spotted an energy signature a little to the left of the boat's course, twelve killikams away.
         "Warp two five," Killik responded, ordering a higher speed. Whatever it is, let's get there before it can react. "Overload." There was no need to say "overload disruptor" as it was the only weapon on the boat that could be overloaded.
         "Freighter," Jorel reported, designating a target location just inside a cluster of asteroids. "Two gunboats, docked," she added. There was no need to guess that they were enemy gunboats; Killik would have been told if there were any friendly units in the system.
         "Drones, one per gunboat, launch," Killik ordered the imaginary drone officer in the rear hull. Don't think; attack! They're enemy gunboats, and I need to put a drone on them. The artificial gravity system rocked slightly to reflect the drone launches. Flipping a switch, Killik ordered "Four, two, engage targets designated." I need to get there and attack before they undock. They probably don't even have their crews aboard.
         "Two, launching drones, closing," Kurgal answered.
         "Khurgan, first gunboat, range three," Killik ordered, flipping the override switch to take over the controls and fly the boat toward the target, keeping his port-forward shield toward it for now. Khurgan would know to fire the disruptor at one gunboat and the phasers at the other once the range closed to three killikams. That would penetrate the shields of any gunboat. The drones would probably be shot down, but only if the gunboats were ready for battle.
         "Range four," Jorel reported.
         The freighter fired a phaser at Killik's boat, denting the number six shield.
         "Change target, freighter, fire!" Killik ordered. Khurgan responded instantly, firing the disruptor and both phasers into it. "Launch snapper, target freighter," Killik said to the imaginary anti-drone gunner in the imaginary rear hull. The imaginary anti-drone rack was programmed to think it had two imaginary type-six warp-seeking drones in its cells, and Killik's crew had picked up the newest slang term for the short-range missiles. A year ago, they had been called slammers; a year before that, they had been screamers. Killik swept past the freighter and accelerated to full speed in case the gunboats - or the freighter - launched drones.
         "Drones, one per gunboat, launch," Killik ordered, knowing it would be a few seconds before the racks could finish cycling from the previous launch.
         "Gunboats Orion," Jorel reported, the battle tongue omitting the unnecessary verb. Now, that's interesting, Killik said to himself.
         "Gunboat One destroyed direct," came the voice of Kurgal, indicating he had fired his disruptor and phasers at that target.          "Drone hit Gunboat Two." If Kurgal had scored drone hits, the gunboats were not at full battle status. Their phasers would have shot them down if they had been. Seeing if I'll attack right away, are you? Killik silently smirked at his instructors. Teaching me that thinking out a plan would have let them become far more dangerous. I knew you were going to pull something like this.
         "Two, One, drones, snapper, on freighter, launch, formation tight," Killik ordered, telling Kurgal to launch both of his drone racks at the freighter and then get back on Killik's flank at half a kam and follow him.
         "Pending," came Kurgal's reply, indicating he would do so as soon as he could, the racks having not had time to recycle.
         "Drone hit Gunboat Two," Jorel reported.
         "Freighter with phaser-2?" Khurgan asked.
         "Some kind of support ship," Killik shrugged, "not captured." If the Orions had captured a Klingon freighter, they would not have had time to unlock its phaser controls. "Priority. Capability." I am making that freighter my priority target, Killik was explaining to Khurgan, because it represents some capability they have here, some kind of support ship, something they cannot function without.
         "Scans clear," Majol reported. With nothing else for himself to do, and Jorel and Khurgan busy tracking the two Orion gunboats and the freighter, the navigator had checked the scanner data for the immediate area. While the scans were obviously not clear, given the freighter and gunboats, the battle tongue assumed that repeating this was extraneous and the point was that nothing else was around the immediate area. Goren, the pilot, also had nothing to do, but he was required to remain focused on the controls in case Killik returned the boat's flight controls to him.
         "Lead inbound, two minutes," Tollek reported. Flotilla leader Klorgran had obviously sent word that he was abandoning his search of the other side of the star and headed here. Killik had switched off the circuit from the Lightflash One, knowing that Tollek would still monitor it and advise him if he needed to know anything. As the information was not instantly critical, Tollek had waited for a quiet second to provide it. He didn't find anything over there, or he wouldn't be coming here, Killik knew. He also knew that Khurgan understood this, and hoped that Kurgal did. It doesn't matter if Kurgal figured that out or not, Killik thought, he just has to follow me and do what I tell him.
         "Commencing, overload," Killik said to his own bridge crew and that of Lightflash Four. All of them knew, from their screens, that Killik had led the two boats in a circle and was headed back to the target. The statement "commencing" meant the attack run was beginning (there being no real need to waste a word to say what he was obviously commencing), and "overload" referred to the disruptors on both boats. "Snapper, freighter, launch," he said, telling the anti-drone gunner to go ahead and use the second short-range drone to distract one of the freighter's phasers.
         "Target freighter, range four," Killik said. He almost thought he heard Kurgal start to question the order, but if he did, the question was bitten off during its first word. Perhaps Kurgal figured it out, Killik thought, or perhaps he just decided to shut up and follow orders. Or maybe that was just static, signals bouncing off of some rock. No matter. "Fire!" Killik ordered as the range clock count down reach four killikams.
         "Freighter destroyed," Jorel reported.
         "Gunboat Two limping," Majol reported, indicating that the second gunboat had, indeed, been crippled by two drone strikes.          "Range two."
         "Follow Gunboat Two, match speed," Killik said. When the weapons recycle, he thought, we'll explode that hulk like a fuel cylinder hit by a cutting torch.
         "Gunboat Two surrendering," Tollek reported.
         "Gunboat Two dropping shields," Jorel said. "Gunboat Two weapons cold."
"Two, Lead, one minute. Report," came the voice of Klorgran in his headphones. Two more gunboats, maybe all four, were now a minute away.
         "Goren, fly," Killik said as he released the override switch.
         The next two hours were taken up in dealing with the aftermath of the battle, canceling the patrol mission, and returning to base. Killik reported to the chief instructor's office and was given no accolade, only a curt order to "be ready for the next mission" which he took to mean he was not being expelled from the course.
         Three weeks later, Killik, a new G1 straight out of the factory, and his complete crew of 27 reported to the combat base on Raktok Colony, a miserable wasteland planet 2,000 parsecs from the Kzinti front line.

Flotilla Commander's Office, Raktok Colony, March Y184
         "Don't get too settled into your quarters, Lieutenant," said Lieutenant Commander Krelt said. "You will only be here a few weeks. This rock has to have defenses on it, including a gunboat flotilla, but the 946th Flotilla is basically used as a combat training unit and a depot for replacement gunboats. Whenever some front-line unit loses a boat, one of the colonial defense stations gets orders to send a boat forward. I've been here three months, and so far I've sent fourteen boats forward. It will be my own turn soon enough. The next time a flotilla needs a new commander, I will be going, and some other new commander coming out of the school will take command here."
         Killik nodded. He had read the capsule version of Krelt's file en route to Raktok. Krelt had a record similar to his own. He had worked his way up to boat command in a flotilla, but soon after getting a boat, was sent back to the training school to train a new crew and bring a new boat forward. I wonder if his flotilla commander wanted rid of him as much as my own wanted rid of me.
         Krelt had accomplished his goal in under a month, and had been sent to Raktok, then on to a front-line unit a month later. Six more months of battle, and he had been promoted to K4, but not command of the flotilla. Instead, he had been sent back to the training school, where he had picked up a new G1L leader boat and was back at Raktok in three weeks, taking command of the 946th Flotilla. There were twenty flotillas at bases and colonies between here and the front line, and four of them had gained new commanders since Krelt and his G1L had arrived at Raktok. Why wasn't he called forward for one of those? Killik wondered to himself.
         "One more thing, Lieutenant," Krelt said. "I have read your file. If I see any hesitation in your actions, any of this 'thinking too much' nonsense that hides cowardice, I will relieve you of command and have you on the next shuttle to the replacement depot for staff duty in logistics. Am I clear?"
         "There will be no problems there," Killik answered.