May 2011

Burden of Duty, Debt of Revenge

    Captain Kinzek paced his cramped Bridge, peering over shoulders at screens, and pausing to watch the visual, which showed space peeling by at the once difficult, but now mundane speed of warp nine-point-five. The Bridge had seemed spacious to him nine months ago when he first stepped on board, but after his somewhat cramped quarters on the spacedock, a coffin would have seemed spacious. He measured the length of the Bridge with his stride again. One, two, three, four, five, six, pause, turn. One, two, three, four, fiveŠ His subordinates cast glances at each other and at his back as he passed.
    He paused again in the center of the Bridge, staring at the visual again. The stars peeling by were hostile stars, not the friendly stars of home space; that was the cause of his worry.
    The prospect of a commerce-raiding mission behind the front had not initially excited him; it seemed a poor test of such a fine warship as this. After speaking with the fleet admiral, a full understanding of what this ship was capable of had settled within him. He actually became excited, champing at the bit during the initial space trials all new-construction ships went through. He was not excited about the prospect of shooting up poorly protected convoys or their escorts, but at the significance of what this ship, and others like her, could do during this war.
     The war had not gone well. The grinding cost of constant combat had drained the Empire of its very lifeblood: ships, warriors, and metal. The Empire's economy, never robust, had collapsed, and it was a struggle to feed the fleet the ships and manpower it needed. There were plenty of planets full of metal to make ships, but the foundries and factories and shipyards needed to turn ore into starships had worn out from running at double capacity for fifteen years. Maintenance of those factories was consuming too much effort, but there was no time to replace them. The Federation, after a decade of being smashed, had rebounded, and its booming economy had reversed the balance of power. Star Fleet now outnumbered the Deep Space Fleet for the first time in history. Star Fleet was geared to use amateur warriors recruited from universities; the Empire relied on warriors who were trained from birth.
    The Deep Space Fleet had been forced to give up all of the Federation territory it had won in the first three years, and it was cold comfort that Star Fleet had needed seven years to take it back, but take it back they had. The Federation had advanced to the original border, but could go no further until it built up the infrastructure, the network of bases, working colonies, and established convoy routes that could sustain an invasion of the Klingon Empire. Star Fleet was operating at the very end of its supply lines, and could barely manage dangerous attacks on the original Klingon border defenses.
    It was the Federation attempt to build a logistics network that could sustain an offensive war that had been the target of the Kagan's mission. Kinzek had been rampaging behind the Federation front for nearly a month, during which he had destroyed two newly established bases, wrecked half a dozen colony installations, and shot up eight convoys. He had also picked off nearly two dozen Federation ships. To be sure, most of them were small - priority transports, traders, and auxiliaries - but there had been a light cruiser and two frigates among his kills. Those three - and the two bases - would merit individual medals to add to his already crowded sash.
    There were always raids going on, but few of them were as deep or as long as his. The original fast raiders, built before the war began, were mostly gone, trapped by cordon-and-sweep campaigns. Those fast ships had been used to disrupt the Federation (as well as the Tigermen and Snakes) during the initial period of the conflict, but deep and fast raids were dangerous, fast cruisers and fast dreadnoughts were few and very hard to replace, and the loss rate was inevitably high.
    Which was why the Deep Space Fleet had decided to use the first of the new X-technology cruisers not for frontline combat, but to renew the fast and deep raids of earlier times.
    With their superior strategic and tactical speed, X-ships could (like the fast raiders) dodge the massive fleets fighting on the borders and wreak havoc behind the lines. There had been tremendous debate over this strategy. Risking the powerful, and expensive, X-ships ships on deep raids was not done lightly, especially in these times. But speaking to the warp engineers had convinced him. He could still see them, their eyes glowing as they talked about the speeds this ship was capable of, the redundancy in her design, the strict testing the engines had undergone. So he had come to accept that the mission was not only necessary but the most logical use of the ships. In fact, he had helped plan the mission with relish.
    Which brought him back to those stars again, out there passing slowly by, proving he was drawing closer to where he needed to be, just not as quickly as he wanted to. The mission had gone well enough at first, still was going well by all accounting. Convoys had been destroyed. Escorts had been blown to random wreckage as they fought to delay him long enough for the vital convoys to scatter into the darkness. Those escorts fought with courage against desperate odds, something to be admired. They had fought against Kagan knowing they were doomed, but hoping to last long enough for Star Fleet to maneuver other ships to intercept him. Star Fleet had been unable to use their own fast ships and X-ships for raids due to the distances from their most advanced bases, and had been forced to use them to intercept Klingon raiders.
    As supplies began to run out, the ship had changed course toward home. He was out of drones, and his fuel bunkers were below 20%. Although nothing had yet to go wrong - they had been able to evade or destroy any ship crossing their path - a vague sense of foreboding had begun to grow in his mind for the past several days. While his sensors did not reach far enough to know for certain, he knew that Star Fleet was maneuvering ships to cut him off, trap him, force him to fight, and destroy his ship. If he could reach Klingon space, he could refuel, rearm, and return for a second raid, and then a third.
    Self-doubt was tearing at his insides. Did I stay too long? he asked himself constantly. When I was ready to go home, I spotted that fat convoy, and then followed its route to an unknown Federation colony where new factories were being set up to support Star Fleet. The destruction of that convoy was just being greedy, he admitted to himself, but the destruction of that colony could delay any Federation attack on the Klingon border bases for months. It was fate that brought that unknown target to my attention. Even so, that had cost him three extra days in the enemy's rear, time that Star Fleet had - no doubt - used to send even more ships to trap him. Three days after his best military judgment said he had already been "back here" for several days longer than he should have.
    Initially, he had ignored this sense of doubt, but, as if sensing his weakness, it had pushed and prodded at the barriers he had erected in his mind until a crack appeared, and wormed its way through. Now, the captain who had previously sat safely strapped into his command chair for every engagement couldn't sit still for more than a few minutes without jumping up and pacing again.
    He knew the crew had noticed; he could feel his tension reflected back at him. A crew is the mirror of its captain, someone had said at the Academy, and he believed it. He imagined their talk below decks.
    The old man has lost it. He paces the Bridge constantly. You can see it in the way he stands. He stayed too long back here. He wanted one more target to feed his hunger for glory.
    The quiet chirp of the communicator woke him from his thoughts. I need to focus, maintain presence of mind, he thought, then hit the accept key.
    "Bridge," he said, "this is the captain, speaking."
    "Captain, Chief Engineer Kleth here. We've got a problem."
    Kinzek sat instantly erect in his chair. When the chief engineer said that, with no combat, it was either the engines or the distillery that produced Romulan Ale. More like Romulan urine the way they make it, ran through his mind. Focus, he reminded himself. "What is the problem?"
    "The warp core is overheating."
    Ridiculously, it took Kinzek a second to realize he had said 'overheating', not 'overeating'. Focus, he reminded himself again. He pressed 'mute', looked over at the engineering monitor. The junior engineer on the Bridge had overheard the call.
    The Cromarg ensign was unusually young to have been accepted into service. Most Cromargs in the Deep Space Fleet had been older, more experienced people, the hand-selected best of a highly technological society. But the war was over a decade old, and the Cromarg planet was running out of experienced technicians, and was sending the fleet recent university graduates with excellent training but no experience.
    The little man, a boy, really, was staring at his panel, shaking his head. "I don't see it, Sir Š Wait, there it is. Yes, the core is running hotter than normal. I didn't notice it because it isn't high enough to trigger any alarms or automatic shutdowns. Just trending high."
    Not up to standards, he couldn't help but think. "You are supposed to monitor engineering systems, not wait for alarms or notifications. I don't want any more surprise messages from the engine room, understand? I want to be able to call them and ask why the warp core seems a little hotter than normal."
    "Yes, Sir," the little Cromarg said, sitting straighter in his over-sized chair and staring fixedly at his panel, flipping through the different displays.
    This time the creature only nodded, although Kinzek thought he could see beads of sweat forming on his brow. Good. Scare some experience into him.
    He released the mute button. "Your report is confirmed, Chief Engineer. Recommendations?"
    "Stop and fix it now, before it gets any worse."
    "You are aware of our present location?"
    "Yes, and I am aware that no one is chasing us right now." Kinzek grunted. The engineer had probably asked someone in Auxiliary Control for the tactical situation before calling the Bridge. There were, indeed, no starships in sensor range, but Kagan was no doubt being tracked by the sensors on Federation bases and scout ships, and a dozen starships were closing in. It was logic, not paranoia. I would have a dozen starships closing in on a raider, he thought, so they will do the same.
    "Anything on that ghost?" Kinzek asked the weapons officer, who signaled "no". They had, now and then, picked up faint traces of what might have been Star Fleet ships hanging on his flanks, just beyond the range of his sensors, waiting for more ships to gather, establishing (if nothing else) which direction he had not gone. The engineer was a technician, not a line officer, and would not have understood that "no ships in sight" was not nearly the same thing as "no one is chasing us." No matter.
    "What is the problem exactly?"
    "The flux couplers that move the antimatter from the warp core to the engine have been under too much stress. The bushings are cracked, and at least two couplers are rattling around in the casings. The result is a loss of efficiency, but more important, this causes a buildup of heat that feeds all the way back into the warp core itself, which then spreads the heat to the other flux couplers. From what I can tell after a deep scan, one of the bushings cracked yesterday, but we didn't know it. When the second one cracked an hour ago, there was enough heat increase for me to notice."
    "And so, theoretically," Kinzek said, "the heat will continue to build until something important breaks. How long do we have?" Kinzek, like every captain in the Deep Space Fleet, was a university-educated engineer who had spent several tours in the engineering spaces. While Kagan was being completed, Kinzek and several of the officers selected for the crew had completed what amounted to advanced degrees.
    "I will answer your question," the chief engineer said, "but you must hear all of the answer."
    Kinzek grunted.
    "At the current rate of heat buildup, we will reach critical failure in about five days."
    "Enough to get home," Kinzek answered, almost dismissing the situation before he recalled the chief engineer's warning. "But that's not all of this, is it?"
    "Negative, Captain," the chief engineer said. "I have scanned all of the flux couplers." Kinzek knew as well as the chief engineer that there were ten such couplers, four for each of the main engines, and two to feed the boom's smaller warp engine.
    "How many show signs of trouble?" Kinzek asked.
    "All of them," the chief engineer said. "I can predict with certainty that one will fail within hours, and another within a day. Each one increases the rate of heat buildup exponentially..."
    "Causing more of them to fail," Kinzek said. "A cascading failure. How long?"
    "Assuming only those two fail, we will suffer a critical malfunction within 36 hours, perhaps as little as 32 hours. If that happens, we'll need to be towed to a shipyard."
    "But these engines were tested," Kinzek protested. "All the calculations and experimentation; the models."
    "The testing was never done for such extended periods at such high speeds. The calculations predicted that the standard coupler could handle the increased load easily, so the design team saved some resources by using the standard design. As for the models maybe this is affected by engine size; it increases geometrically instead of mathematically; therefore it never showed up in the smaller models."
    "We have replacements on board, correct?"
    "Yes. It shouldn't take more than an hour to replace the two that have failed and the third one, the one closest to failure. That will use all three shifts at once, and is the most we can repair at the same time. Then we can run for a day, and see if any others are approaching failure."
    "Inform me when the spares have been removed from storage and checked for operability. When everything is in place and ready for the swap, we will stop; assuming there has been no change in the tactical situation."
    "Yes, Sir. I will contact you within the hour."
    One more thing to worry about.