November 2010

Part Six of ten

      "And finally, I need the answer to the greatest mystery," Wallek said. "Why did the ESS let this happen? While their primary duty is to prevent treason, are they not also charged to report inefficiency? If Axe Wielder's gunnery was the worst in the Northern Fleet, and the captain did not fix this with extra training, why didn't the ESS point this out and demand his relief?"
      "That is something of a ... complex issue," the Flag Lieutenant began. "The ESS detachment on board is also from Klegarine, and apparently has the same 'gentleman sailor' approach to things. The ESS commander on the frigate squadron leader pointed out this failure, as did other ESS commanders."
      "And it was not corrected?" Wallek asked. "This makes no sense. Has the ESS been corrupted?"
      "No," the Operations Commander responded, "but they were prevented from doing their duty. The performance of the ship was above minimum standards, but the ship simply took no shame in being the worst. Every decision of the captain was within the bounds of his discretion, but every one of them was the low-risk approach."
      "There was nothing that ... forced me to relieve the captain," the Admiral said, "but in any other case I would have, as it was within my discretion to do so. But there was pressure from the Imperial Palace, and no doubt from the Klegarine government and the government of other planets paying for extra ships, to leave the ship alone. It was against my better judgement, but I kept the ship in secondary sectors expecting that, in a few months, new ships would be under construction and the political pressure to leave Axe Wielder alone would have been removed. But war is war, and the Kzintis attacked one of our mining colonies, and Axe Wielder was close enough to be called into the battle. After refusing one dangerous mission, the ship was caught in a crossfire and crippled."
      "Is the ESS replacing their detachment?" Wallek asked.
      "They cannot, for political reasons," the Personnel Officer said. "But they have taken the second best solution."
      "Which is," Wallek asked.
      "The detachment's junior officer and two mid-grade technicians were casualties," the Personnel Officer said. "The ESS has replaced them with new personnel, not from Klegarine. The new officer is senior to the detachment commander, and the two technicians have been replaced by master petty officers who are senior to any of the enlisted technicians. Indeed, one of the senior petty officers is from Walkuria. They will report on board the day that you do. They have their work to do, but it will get done."
      "Does the crew know I am coming?"
      "No," the Admiral said, "they do not."
      "Good," Wallek said. "I don't need them preparing an ambush."
      No one considered that he might be joking, and indeed, he was not.

      "Repair schedule from the base, Captain," Lieutenant Krealander said.
      "Hm..." Commander Kaustin said, going over the schedule. "They've completed repairs to all primary systems and the principle backups, but have no plans to repair the tertiary or even the secondary backup systems. We are to prepare for space within two days."
      "That confirms it," Lieutenant Koriyan said. "We've been patched up to go back to Klegarine. They cannot possibly send us back to combat without full repairs, so we're being sent somewhere else to complete them, and the only logical place is at the Klegarine repair station. We've had several battles, and acquitted ourselves well, and a visit home to inspire the citizens is clearly the intent. We'll all get a couple of months on the surface, time to see our families, as we deserve after what we've been through. Maybe they're planning a tour for us, to appear at public rallies in major cities and encourage more donations for the new cruiser?"
      "That much seems obvious," Commander Kaustin said.
      "I am somewhat concerned," ESS Lieutenant Kaltrop said, "that while it's obvious to us that we're going home, I haven't seen any preliminary movement orders. Normally, they'd have warned the captain of our movement and myself as well. Now, to be sure, given that we're being kept together as a crew and repairs are only to minimal levels, we have to be going home to Klegarine, but the lack of preliminary orders makes me nervous. For that matter, the lack of orders confirming Commander Kaustin as the new Captain is also worrying."
      "You worry too much," Koriyan said. "It's wartime, and the documentation follows rather than leads the reality."
      All of the officers settled in to eating their lunch, calmly discussing their plans for their homecoming.
      "Captain, this is the bridge," came a voice on the intercom.
      "What is it?" Kaustin replied after pressing the button.
      "A group of officers is at the dock wanting admittance. Their passes are in order."
      "Probably an engineering survey team," Koriyan said, "to confirm that we're ready to fly home."
      "Let them in," Kaustin said. "And have their senior officer report to me here."
      Everyone went back to their lunch, but two minutes later a pair of Walkurian Marines, bayonets fixed to their disruptor rifles, walked through the door and took post to either side. Before anyone could ask "What is this?", a Walkurian Marine captain strode through the door and announced: "On your feet, and salute your new captain!"
      The officers in the room leapt to their feet by reflex, but before they could fully reach the rigid position of attention required by the Klingon manual of arms, they began to ask questions, all at once. "Who are you people?" "What new captain?" "Our captain is right here already!" and even "What are you people?"
      "Silence!" ordered the Marine captain. "Stand to attention! Do not speak unless you are asked a question!" His hand stayed menacingly on his pistol, and both of his Marines shifted from the "Guard" position to a "tactical" one. The officers of the Axe Wielder managed to comply with the instructions. Commander Kaustin started to speak but the glowering eyes and long wild hair of the Marine captain silenced him before he could do so.
      "Officers, are you?" Wallek said as he entered the room. "I am not impressed. Perhaps that will change, after I break your bad habits and get you trained." He reached for the communicator on his combat jacket. "Master Petty Officer, bring the crew on board. Every man is to report to his duty station at once and secure it. Marines are to secure the crew quarters. If anybody is on duty, leave him alone unless he argues, in which case lock him up in the brig.
      "Communications, report to starbase control that I have taken command. No further communications are to leave this ship except by my order.
      "Marine commander, secure all docking tubes. No one leaves the ship. No one comes on board unless they are part of the crew or have my permission.
      "Now, which one of you 'gentlemen' is Kaustin?"
      "I am," Kaustin replied with a tremor in his voice.
      "Here are my orders," Wallek threw a data disk on the table. "I am your new captain. I am reporting aboard with a detachment of 70 replacements, including nine officers, twenty-one petty officers, and forty crewmen, plus myself. You will remain as executive officer until I say otherwise.
      "Everyone else will continue doing their assigned duties until I change the assignments. Assignment changes will be made tomorrow and the ship will leave starbase for an extended combat patrol the day after.
      "I understand that your original Captain was killed in your last battle. Your time to grieve for him is over. I am here, I will stay here, and he will not be returning. Nor will his relaxed standards and lazy training schedule.
      "For now, every one of you is to get to his combat post. You will find some of my crew at those posts. They will expect you to brief them on the post and your duties. Everybody leave now, except for you, Kaustin. You stay here with me." Everyone filed out of the room except the two Marines, who remained at the door. Wallek dismissed them with a wave of his hand.
      "If you have something to say to me," Wallek said, "say it, because when I start talking I don't want to be interrupted."
      "I don't understand!" Kaustin said, his voice almost a squeal. "I'm supposed to be the captain, and we're supposed to be on our way to Klegarine for full repairs and a visit to inspire the citizens. This is to be our reward for doing well."
      "Listen, puppy," Wallek said, his voice rasping with all the contempt he could muster, "for you must get a grip on an entirely new view of your delusional little world.
      "This ship has not done well, not at all. This ship has never made a kill, never pursued a wounded target, never taken a risk, never pushed its orders to the limit, let alone beyond the limit, to make a kill. You do not deserve to go home covered in glory; you will not be sent home covered in shame. You will rise to the standard that the Empire expects of you, or you will die in the attempt.
      "This ship has the lowest standard of gunnery in the fleet. This ship does the fewest combat drills while on patrol. There is a connection to be made there, and the combat drill schedule changes now. This ship will conduct more drills than any other until we meet minimum standards. There will be at least one drill during every watch."
      "But that means we'll never get a full night's sleep!" Kaustin protested. "We cannot function that way. I presume that those on off-duty watches are exempt from drills?"
      "All off duty watches end now. You have not earned them. Not one of your crew has earned them. And I told you not to interrupt me. That was your one mistake. Do not make another one while I am Captain. Am I clear?"

      "Are we safe here?" Kaustin asked.
      "For a few minutes," ESS Lieutenant Kaltrop said. "I have two of my trusted sergeants monitoring this section. They won't see anyting."
      "Can we do anything about this insane plan to take the ship into combat?" Kaustin asked.
      "Negative," Krealander said. "Their orders are valid. And you may as well delete any requests for transfer. They won't be any transfers off of this ship, other than to a penal ship, a hospital, or a mining colony."
      "Those orders must be based on invalid reports," the Weapons Officer said. "Our combat record is exemplary."
      "You need to catch up to reality," Krealander said. "Our combat record is not exemplary. The fact that simulated gunnery has improved every day since Wallek arrived shows that our gunnery was never up to standards. We never made a kill. We never followed up reports that could have given us a kill."
      "There is more to being a warrior than killing," Kaustin said.
      "That way of thinking is why you failed," Krealander said.
      "Can we do something about all of the hitting?" the Weapons Officer asked, trying to change the subject. Everyone was starting to expect that Krealander would be the new XO as soon as Wallek decided to send Kaustin away, and more than a few thought that Krealander had changed sides to join the Walkurians. "I've been knocked to the deck several times per day. Is that some kind of humiliation ritual?"
      "No," Krealander said. "It's just the way that warrior-class Klingons greet each other. The Wakurians are more enthusiastic about it than most."
      "Kross got rid of that nonsense when this ship was commissioned," Kaustin said. "We'd be better to have stayed rid of it."
      "The state of training is improving," Krealander said.
      "Not really," the weapons officer said. "These Walkurians are too stupid to run a starship. Our crew is doing all the work!"
      "And there is more work than there should have been," the engineer noted, "because we were sent back on patrol without full repairs. It has been impossible to get any further backup systems on line due to the constant training."
      "No matter," Kaustin said. "Stay alert, stay alive. Sooner or later, the Klegarine government will find out what has happened and will deal with this."
      "In the alternative," Krealander said, "we could train hard and become better warriors on a better ship."
      "You have made your position clear," Kaustin said.

      "Found it!" the sensor operator reported.
      "Captain to the bridge!" the XO said into the intercom. "Where is it?"
      "Bearing 42 right, range two hundred thousand," the sensor operator said. "It's cold, should be after all this time, but that is the Free Trader XT33. She was assigned to supply runs between outposts and colonies in this mandate. She was reported missing five months ago about a parsec from here."
      "Any life signs," Korack asked as he entered the bridge.
      "No signs of life," the sensor operator said.
      "Orders?" the XO asked.
      "Standard protocol," Korack replied. "Beam aboard samples of the floating debris, and send over a boarding team with a crime scene kit. If there is DNA from whoever looted that ship, I want it. Two teams, in fact, with full scanners. One in suits to search the outside, one in battle dress to search the inside." Thinking more about it, Korack made a decision.
      "XO, you have the ship. I will board with the inside team after they report it clear. Ask the ESS to send someone with me, a senior sergeant or an officer."
      "In and out?" the XO asked. "We have a patrol route to get back to. Not that I object to command."
      "Enjoy the command," Korack answered with a grin. "We have all day, and I need evidence. I need weapons traces, fingerprints, bodies for autopsy, a copy of their log, whatever we can find. If they knew what was happening, somebody recorded something, and hid it hoping that the pirates couldn't find it. If they didn't, I will. While I'm over there, take the ship and circle the area, full on search, active scanners.
      "You can send the report to the Police Commandant at Battle Station Z9. Emphasize that we have found nothing, but are conducting an exhaustive search as a training exercise for the new personnel on board."
      "We don't have any new personnel," the XO said. "The whole crew is the same hand-picked team you have kept together for six months."
      "I know that," Korack laughed. "I don't want the Fleet coming around to see what we're up to, or to interfere. And get a harbor tug out here. I want that hulk taken somewhere that the lab techs can spend a week scanning down to the sub-micron level."
      "You want this pirate, don't you?" the XO asked.
      "I want justice for the crew of that freighter," Korack said. "I don't care who killed them. Pirate, Klingon, Kzinti, someone else. They will be identified, and they will pay for their crime. Order must be restored."
      "The boarding team says they are ready for you," the communications officer reported."
      "Tell them I am on my way."