June 2011

Burden of Duty, Debt of Revenge

     Vice-Admiral Hollander watched his display, eyeing the points of light representing the ships under his command, and willed them to detect the enemy. Hollander commanded the rear sector of the Third Fleet, a job involving a lot of work moving supply ships around, and no chance for glory.
     The group of ships stretched in each direction for parsecs, spaced just far enough apart that there was some overlap in their sensor ranges. Every ship in the region, even freighters, was regularly sending updates on anything they had seen, or that they had seen nothing. The tactic was an old one, but the idea to use it now had been his, conceived when the destruction caused by this raider had gone on for two weeks. It had been approved by Star Fleet Headquarters after Third Fleet refused to bless it or reject it. Hollander had gathered up what ships he had, real starships and smaller auxiliaries, leaving convoys and colonies unprotected.
     Some thought that Hollander was glory-seeking - conducting an unnecessary operation just because he was bored (or angry he was not commanding a frontline division). While the responsibility for success would undoubtedly fall on the captains who found the raider, Hollander suspected that if the pursuit failed and Orions or other Klingon raiders picked off key convoys and colonies, he would find himself alone quicker than a whore in church.
     But they would succeed. Naval intelligence had successfully predicted the general area of a convoy strike ten days ago, and the Klingon's general course was confirmed by two subsequent attacks. He was, for a time, staying deep behind Federation lines. Then the raiding X-ship disappeared completely, and five days ago a convoy halfway to the frontline had been smashed. The police ship escorting it got off a report confirming the identity of the raider before being destroyed. As Hollander's skirmish line raced forward at maximum speed, the Nimbus Colony had reported it was under attack, and then had stopped transmitting. The skirmish line raced onward, centered on a straight line from Nimbus to closest Klingon bastion.
     Not that the Klingon ship would travel in a straight line, or that the closest bastion was his destination. No doubt, the Klingon admiral commanding the Southeastern Fleet was planning some kind of local attack to help the raider escape, and that could be anywhere along the frontline. Well, not anywhere, but at any point over a fairly wide area. Hollander hoped he had enough ships to cover the raider's real escape course. If he had succeeded in catching the raider, the Klingon would be forced to fight, allowing one ship to engage him, and more than likely, the ships to either side would have a chance to attack also. Especially if he didn't know they were coming.
    So he thought he had procured the number of ships necessary for the task, he certainly was not sure if he had procured the quality of ships necessary. Many of his 26 ships were transports and auxiliaries, a few armed, many not. Not that a few phasers would stop or even slow down an opponent as powerful as this one.
    The real warships (this ship, a heavy cruiser, a few light cruisers, two of the ancient destroyers, and a few frigates and police ships) were spread out on the skirmish line, with those transports able to maintain that speed mixed in to spread the line out. More lines were forming to either side of the predicted course, mostly composed of slower ships, armed freighters, auxiliaries, even a few Q-ships. Hollander counted himself lucky that he had been allowed to "borrow" the Star League, en route from a major refit at Earth to the frontlines of Third Fleet. His boss at Third Fleet wasn't too happy at that, and his "lease" on the dreadnought would expire in four days.
    Sooner or later, one of the ships would spot the raider, or the raider would attack something, or the raider would smash into the forward elements of Third Fleet's main force. When that happened, Hollander, or his boss at Third Fleet, would have to quickly maneuver ships to join the battle.
    There was the possibility that the Klingon would simply shut down and hide, or turn around and go deeper into Federation space, although no one thought he would do that. The Klingon captain would not know if he was still being pursued by random patrols, or if the Federation had finally formed the available ships into a coordinated operation to destroy him, but a man selected to command an X-ship would be the best of the best. He could and would be ready for whatever happened.
    Hollander and Third Fleet had been surprised by the depth and duration of the raid. Raids happened every week, but only for a few days and much closer to the frontline. Raids this deep meant a specialty fast raider, and the Klingons had few of those left. (For that matter, so did Star Fleet.) Such fast raiders were under-armed and unlikely to attack major targets, and beefing up convoy escorts and sending every real warship on patrols was the standard response. But this raider quickly showed he was willing to fight anything, and his ship was more than capable of destroying it. Only an X-ship could do that, and Star Fleet had never believed the Klingons would use their X-ships as deep raiders. It made sense, however, as it was the lack of logistics, not the lack of firepower, that was stopping the Federation advance at about the original border. Lots of politicians back home wanted to let the war stall there, and turn their attention to the Romulans, who were considered more dangerous.
    So if Naval intelligence had been correct in their extrapolation of the raider's course, and if the ship the Klingon bumped into was strong enough to survive for a few minutes, and if the Klingon still thought he was bumping into random patrols and could risk a fight; the plan stood a good chance of success. That was one hell of a chain of "ifs".
    Hollander sighed and rubbed his eyes. The Klingon couldn't slip through this skirmish line without being spotted. He could go around it, if he detected it and was close enough to one of the edges. He could potentially break through it. Or he could possibly hide underneath its vision. All three of these options were considered to be unlikely at best. Lights flashed for his attention on the display. And it looks like he won't do any of those three, he thought with a grim smile.
    He was still digesting the data when the com chirped. "Admiral, we just received some good news. Positive identification on the raider."
    "I just noticed the computer update. Which ship sent the message?"
    "The USS Arbela, Sir."
    The admiral's smile grew wider. That was an optimal point in their line to stumble over the Klingon. A heavy cruiser, with frigates to either side that could be at that location within minutes. Arbela and Star League were each one-third of the way from the outside edge of the skirmish line, so the Klingon had clearly been moving to the left of the predicted course. Pity the Klingon didn't go this way and let me catch him. "Send a message to every warship in our command. Have them converge there, as rapidly as possible."
    He turned to his communications officer. "Prepare to record a message to the USS Arbela. That's Captain Dunn, correct?"
    The com officer nodded twice, a second later, "You may begin, Admiral."
    He looked toward the visual pickup, there was a blinking red light on it now, signifying it was recording, and he began to speak.
    "Captain Dunn, good work. I cannot stress enough the importance of keeping that ship engaged, and that does not allow you to sacrifice your ship. Stay alive, stay fighting, and stay in contact. The success of this operation now rests squarely on your shoulders. Don't let that ship out of your sight and keep us informed on his position and heading. You're facing a stiff fight until the rest of the fleet gets there. Good luck. If you can't hold him, at least get a good track on him. Hollander out," he finished, signaling with one hand to stop the recording.
    "Transmit that ASAP. Tell the Bridge to get us moving in that direction, as fast as she'll go."

    Chief Engineer Kleth peered through the access hatch, but all he could see was the bottoms of several pairs of work boots in the dim illumination from the work light on the opposite side of the technicians.
    "How's it going in there? The other two teams are finished, but we cannot restart until all three flux couplers are installed."
One of the pairs of boots squirmed, bringing the owner's head into view. The sudden shift in position caused the work light to shine directly into Kleth's eyes and he squinted against the glare. "Maybe 45 minutes left."
    "That's what you said 30 minutes ago!" Kleth protested. "What's the problem?"
    "No problem really. It's just cramped in here. Hard to work."
    "Hard to work! That's why they call it work! You've got twenty minutes to get this back together or you'll be on extra duty for a month! Some of that duty will be in the agonizer booth!"
    The sweating Dunkar turned back to his task, sweating harder now, and urging his lower-ranking fellow technicians, two Cromargs and another Dunkar, to greater efforts. As Kleth backed out he heard the beginnings of the pep talk. "All right, you heard the man. Move it! That bastard is mean enough to do it, too!" Someone protested, Kleth was already too far out to hear what was said, but heard the bellowed reply; "Get this damn thing back together or I'll throw you in the agonizer booth!"
    He smiled as he finished extricating himself. Nothing like a little motivation. The smile began to fade when he remembered the Captain expected to be back at speed in twenty minutes. He cursed and swore his way back to his office, the assistant engineer following in his wake. The chief had a foul temper, and it was widely recommended to steer clear of him when he was swearing, which was almost continuously.
    Once in his office, he glared at his assistant engineer until the dwarfish Cromarg left, then began reviewing paperwork. He wasn't operating very efficiently; he kept glancing at the clock. After ten minutes of this, he muttered, "The hell with it," and stalked back toward the port access.
    He inserted his head and shoulders into the opening, noting with satisfaction that a burned and blackened something, undoubtedly the old flux coupler, lay near the opening. Without preamble he bellowed, "Time's up! What have you got for me?"
    All four pairs of boots stiffened this time, the same technician turning to address him once more. "The new flux coupler is in place, we're fastening it now and completing the wiring."
    "Almost on time," he replied, "Let's see if you can bolt that hatch down in five minutes."
    One technician gasped and cursed, the senior glared the weak-willed technician down and shot back, "We'll have it done, Sir," but he was speaking to the chief's departing shadow.
    "See that you do," he echoed back.
    The technician frowned, then cuffed the swearing tech. "You'll have us all in the booth, you fool!" he hissed. "He may be a heartless bastard, but he will also reward you if you do well. Now let's get this back together."
    Unaware of an exchange that he would have declared disrespectful, Chief Kleth arrived back in his office just as battle stations sounded. Sweaty cold horror gripped his heart as he tapped in the code for the captain.
    "Kleth, good of you to call," Kinzek said sarcastically. "There is a Federation ship inbound. Where is my propulsion?"
    "Three minutes, Captain!" he shouted, already halfway out the door.
    "They were supposed to be done five minutes ago!"
    Kleth scrambled back into range of the microphone, a glance at his watch showed him the captain was off in his time. No need to remind him at a time like this. "Small conflict easily resolved. I must go personally supervise the last steps of the procedure!" and he was out the door again. He heard the captain's voice speak over the com one more time, and assuming he was saying something akin to "see that you do", ignored him and beat feet back to the port access, now a very familiar route.
    He leaned into his run, rounded the last corner and almost skidded into the senior technician who was moving the opposite direction as him. "Is the job completed?" he asked, with horror, seeing the other two techs lounging about the still open hatch.
    "We weren't sure if we should report to our battle station," the technician managed to get out. "I went to askŠ"
    "Don't you think mobility would be handy in a battle? Probably worth more than your lazy ass in a vacuum suit! Now get that hatch torqued down!" he finished with a roar that set all three technicians scrambling.
    He stuck his head through the hatch one last time, checking for any tools left lying around. Wouldn't do to energize the coil with a work light or tech manual in there, he thought. He slammed the hatch shut himself while the others busied themselves finding the fasteners.
    "Sir," the senior technician interjected, "regulations require at least a two-person close-out team, along with a department head inspection before sealing either warp access."
    "I am the department head, you idiot," he replied, a bit more fiercely than he had intended, "and I'm smarter than any two of you put together, so I just did the inspection. Now get that damn hatch on and feel lucky I didn't lock you in there to help jumpstart the warps. As much mass as you carry would fire them up with a nice pop. Move it!"
    The portly technician reddened but followed orders. Seconds later, his com chirped and the captain's voice floated out. "Where is my propulsion, Engineer, or shall I ask the Federation for a tow?"
    "Two minutes," he lied, closing the channel with a snap of his hand.
    He opened another channel to the assistant engineer. "Commence jump start sequence, prepare to initiate."
    "Sir," the voice crackled back, "Our indications show the access hatch has not yet been properly fastened down. Would you like me to send a team up to..."
    "We're in the process now," he snapped. "Light the engines off."
    "Sir, with all due respect, procedures stipulate..."
    The engineer nearly hurled the com down the passage. "By the time you get to the point where it matters, the hatch will be shut. Now by Kavar, you will follow my orders!"
    "Yes, Sir!"
    Did these fools not understand there was a time and place for procedures and caution, and there damn-all-present was a time for getting the job done? True leaders knew instinctively when each was necessary, and proceeded as necessary.
    He turned back to the techs still locking down the hatch, "You have roughly two minutes to secure that hatch before this whole area is flooded with a lethal level of radiation," he said with a grim smile, noting with satisfaction the increasing rate of motion by the techs. Nothing like a little motivation.