June 2010

Part one of ten

       "Ah, come in Major!" the lieutenant colonel said. "After all, this is your office. I had thought you'd take more time getting here from the dock."
      "Thank you, Colonel," Major Kehlen said. "I came directly here. I can settle into my quarters later. I presume that you want to take the transport back to the Battle Station, and every moment of your personal advice that I can obtain will make my tasks more successful." Both men wore the brown rank badges of the Klingon Army. Both were under false colors; they in fact worked for Klingon military intelligence, the agency known as the Galactic Research Unit. Both had been field officers in their youth, with the medals to show their missions behind enemy lines. Both were now intelligence analysts, puzzle solvers who compared and cross-indexed data from many sources.
     "Sit down, Major. No, here behind the desk. It is your desk after all. You are right about one thing, I do want to go home," the Colonel said, "but not until I am satisfied that you have everything you need. It is unfortunate that Major Killiyan could not be here to conduct a normal handover of his duties, which would take an entire week. I have been doing his duties and my own since his departure, and it is up to me to get you into the mesh. If that takes me a few days, so shall it be."
    "You are most generous, Colonel," the Major said. "As you know, I had not been selected or trained for this assignment, and the entire concept is somewhat ... nebulous."
       "There is a reason for that, Major," the Colonel said. "If anyone knew the kind of work that you will be doing here, you and even your family could become targets. Officially, you are just a mid-grade Army officer on a lonely post guarding a mining station, nominally the second in command. That's why we both wear Army insignia. Unfortunately, you never had the special training for your real job here, although everyone selected for that training is a data analyst and former field officer, like yourself, and like myself."
   "And just what is my 'real job,' if you will?" Kehlen asked.
    "What you are actually going to be doing is running field agents on Kzinti-held planets, and even some agents on Klingon-occupied planets that used to be held by the Kzintis."
"Why here?" the major asked. "It seems that if I am to do this by subspace, I could just as well be at Battle Station Z9 or any planet in the sector. If I am to run them through personal contact, I should be much closer to the front lines."
        "You will run your agent networks by courier," the colonel explained. "Two of your field officers, who are covered as working officers on local freighters, contact the agents on Klingon-held planets. For the agents on Kzinti-held planets, we must use another means entirely."
     "That being?" the major asked.
  "Orion pirates," the colonel answered, holding up his hand to forestall further questions. "There are currently three Orion ships working for us in this sector, all of which dock here for supplies and repairs. Two of them are smugglers, and the third is a Light Raider. All work under contracts with us, contracts that you administer. All cross the front lines at least once a month. The smugglers bring back refined metals and other critical materials needed for the war effort, and you will pay for that material. The raider conducts raids on Kzinti shipping and convoys, and contacts some agents on planets further behind the front line. We pay the Orions for their services, of course."
      "We deal with Orions?" the major gasped, finally unable to restrain his shock. "They are lawless criminals!"
    "They can get the job done," the colonel explained, "where Klingons or even subject race personnel cannot. We deal with criminals because we have to, not because we want to. It is for the Good of the Empire, you understand."
        "It is still a shock," the major said, shaking his head. "Do we have field agents on these ships? Does the ESS have security detachments?"
        "Not on the three Orion ships controlled by this station," the colonel said. "Experience has shown this to be an unworkable practice, although it is done in some cases."
       "Why do we not simply buy or build such ships ourselves," the major asked. "And operate them with trusted crews."
       "A number of reasons," the colonel explained. "For one, there is the expense. Whatever we pay the Orions is a tiny fraction of the cost of a ship. For another, a shipload of Klingons landing on a Kzinti planet would, to say the least, arouse suspicion. But the greatest reason is that the Orions have a network of bases, contacts, connections, and sources we could never afford to replicate, if it was even possible to build such a system at all. An Orion ship that goes on a mission has information and resources that a Klingon ship would not have, and if it gets into trouble it has access to resources and services we would not.
"Now, I am told that the Galactic Bureau has such ships as you mention, and even has connections to Orion ports on the other side of the front line, but I do not know this for certain."
       "I can see why," Major Kehlen said. "So just what are my duties? I still don't understand the operation."
       "Basically," the colonel said, "you are a paymaster. The Orions and the field officers come to you to get money to pay their agents. They bring in reports, which you review, and they take away money to pay the agents, and for their own expenses and costs. You have a budget of thirty thousand stars per month. Half of that is in precious metals - gold, silver, and some gemstones, and the rest is in letters of account. Most of your budget, including all of those letters of account, is allocated for contractual payments scheduled ahead of time, but about three thousand can be disbursed at your discretion in return for particularly good data obtained at particularly great risks." The colonel held up his hand to stop further questions for the moment, then continued.
      "The job also includes compiling the reports, reviewing them, and transmitting them to Battle Station Z9. You have a communications lieutenant and a half-dozen technicians who do that for you, although only the lieutenant is cleared to actually read the reports while encoding them. The technicians just maintain the equipment and receive transmissions. The lieutenant oversees the technicians, including the one who is assigned as your assistant and orderly.
     "Now, the job is somewhat more complicated than that, in that you have to review all of the reports that come in, compare them to each other and to the daily intelligence summary transmitted to you, and see if you can spot a pattern or two, or something out of pattern. You can also request the raw data when you need it, and that will be brought by a courier. We have, as you can see, no real way to know if our officers and agents on Kzinti planets are alive, and if they are still alive, if they are still working for us. The Orions could be faking the reports, or bringing us reports that Kzinti intelligence pays them to bring us. Of course, other offices on other planets are comparing those reports with yours to see if they can spot any bad data.
      "Do you understand?" the colonel asked.
     "The basics, yes," Major Kehlen said, "but I am still trying to grasp the concept of paying these Orion pirates cash. I am a soldier, like you are, and I've rarely seen a hundred stars in one bag before, and that much only when paying several field agents on a Kzinti planet. Now you tell me that I can spend three thousand stars per month at my own discretion? Pay it to pirates? And that I will be disbursing cash equal to nine times that amount?"
       "Major, that is how the system works," the colonel explained, "and officers who held our ranks, and higher ranks, worked this out a long time ago. Spies expect cash. You know that, since you paid them when you were a field officer. Orions expect cash, since they don't want to be arrested cashing a payment order at a Klingon bank. You have about a hundred spies working for you, and that takes a lot of money."
        "It simply makes me nervous," Major Kehlen said. "Is there no accountability? Who audits my accounts?"
      "Why, the ESS does, of course!" the colonel laughed. "They are on this station, on every station, and nothing happens that they do not know about. For what it's worth, I'm sure that they're nervous about all that loose cash, as well. Which is why, I am sure, they are watching us right now."
     The two officers continued talking through the afternoon, through dinner, and well into the night. They reviewed the files of agents and couriers, as well as their past careers. They were genuine friends by the time the colonel left five days later.

     "I thought they would never leave," Captain Kross said to his executive officer.
        "Admirals, nobles, an imperial paladin, and worst of all the gentlemen of the media," Commander Kaustin said. "We had them all on board for far too long. Isn't it about time we went to war? That is why the government sponsored this ship."
  "Yes," Captain Kross said. "I wonder why Fleet turned down our request to make a visit to Klegarine?"
   "Needs of the Empire," Kaustin said. "Pity, I was looking forward to showing my sons the bridge, and to one last night at home with my wife."
   "Yes, a pity, but nothing for it. We will see home soon enough. Once we have won a few battle honors, fleet will see the need to send us home to inspire the citizens."
     "No doubt, they will," Kaustin said. "No doubt."
        "Undock at your discretion and set course for the Northern Starbase," Kross ordered. "I am going to my quarters to get some rest. After the ordeal of getting this ship through her shakedown and her commissioning ceremony, combat will be a chance to relax!"
        "If you don't mind," Kaustin said, "I will get us on our way and give the watch to Lieutenant Krealander. I need some rest myself. Shall I schedule combat drills for tomorrow?"
        "Nothing for a week at least," Kross said. "Everybody has been working hard, and everybody needs a chance to relax. We will do a few days of drills before we get to the starbase, enough to qualify as ready for operations, and then go into a routine drill schedule on the way to the front."
       "Very well," Kaustin said.
      The Axe Wielder was unusual in many ways, although none of them related to her design. A standard F5B frigate, the Axe Wielder could not have been told apart from dozens of her sister ships, other than by the lack of combat scars on her hull.
      The difference was in her origins, and her crew.
       Axe Wielder had been paid for by the planet of Klegarine as a gift to the Emperor for his birthday. She was built above and beyond the normal production schedule, and in record time. As part of the gift of her construction cost, the entire crew was composed of hand-picked volunteers from Klegarine. A dozen or so were combat veterans from other ships allowed to transfer to the Axe Wielder; all of those were born on Klegarine. Even the ESS detachment were all taken from those serving on Klegarine, many of whom (like the crew) were fifth or even tenth generation Klegarites.
       The officers were Naval Reserve officers from Klegarine, most of whom had served on the ancient F4-class frigate that was the planet's honor guard ship after their initial tours in the fleet. One lieutenant and two ensigns were Klegarine-born officers who had been serving on other ships and were allowed by their captains to transfer to the Axe Wielder. Krealander was a police lieutenant who had commanded the skiffs that provided local security around their home planet.
       The Imperial government hoped that by allowing this unique crew to run a significant warship, other planets of the Empire might be disposed to donate funds for their own frigates, or perhaps even larger starships. Klegarine itself was already raising voluntary donations for a cruiser, but had a long way to go to reach the amount required. Kross fully expected to command that cruiser when it was completed.
        Captain Kross was very senior for a frigate command. Most frigates were captained by commanders or - these days - lieutenant commanders. The Deep Space Fleet was willing to accept a captain nominated by the government of Klegarine (instead of picking a combat-veteran officer currently serving as XO on another frigate) partly because Kross was so senior (and had been an XO of a frigate a decade earlier and commander of the F4 until recently). His higher than normal rank meant he had "maturity of judgement" which was to make up for the lack of recent combat experience.
       Axe Wielder continued at moderate cruising speed to the Northern Starbase. On arrival, many noted that it had arrived exactly on time instead of pushing the throttles to get to the war earlier than required. Every previous frigate sent to the Northern Fleet had arrived early.