Mirannon had a fairly clear idea of what was going on, and chose not to enter by the obvious route. One of the advantages of being intimately familiar with the bowels of the ship. Disable two field generators and restart them behind him, wriggle through a duct he didn’t remember being quite that narrow. Unseal a sealed off hatch, scramble through the junk of broken medical gear in the closed off half-room - after this what was waiting for him ought to be easy. He did have to slice through one panel, carefully welded it up again behind him - no point getting into sloppy habits now. Disconnect, not destroy, the internal security alarms, and arrive in a janitorial closet adjacent to the medical reception hall.
Dramatic entrance time, the engineer decided. A flash of the cutting torch sliced through the hinges, then he kicked the door open - a door, not a hatch. A reinforced hatch in a load bearing bulkhead, part of the ship’s armour scheme, would have laughed at him. This one smashed open properly.
The hall was a mess. Patients’ litters everywhere, some open and part way through treatment, a handful of walking wounded, and medics and damage control personnel standing around in mid-crisis.
Backed up against reception, wedged in a corner, were the two twi’lek. One - the female, Reni - had a laser scalpel in each hand and another pair being wielded in her head tentacles; the male had a blaster pistol stolen from one of the damage control team, and a mechanical replacement for his missing lekku...wrapped around the chief medical officer’s throat.
Two wounded men who had tried to play hero and pieces of two dismembered medical droids lay scattered on the deck near them, which was some explanation for the blood and oil that was covering Blei-Korberkk’s scrubs.
‘Nice of you to drop by,’ she managed to say, struggling against the mad-eyed twi’lek.
‘See what you get for letting people play with robot tentacles?’ Mirannon said, taking a leaf out of his captain’s book - saying something normal, verging on absurd in context, to push the other side off balance and give him more time to think.
He had enough support, enough other people, but none of them ground fighters. The twi’lek, however submissive they might have been to Kor Alric, were crazy enough to make it a real risk.
‘We want a shuttle. Get us a shuttle,’ the male twi’lek said, from his position almost hidden behind the surgeon.
‘The nearest open space is five light and two armoured decks, and the other side of the main hull, that way,’ Mirannon said, gesturing upwards with the cutting torch blade. ‘Did you have a plan ‘b’?’
‘Transport, or she dies. Slowly,’ Igal said, tightening the tentacle.
‘Zubaide?’ Mirannon asked the surgeon-lieutenant commander.
‘Yes?’ she gurgled.
‘In situations like this, the hostage is usually considered officially expendable, aren’t you?’ he said, trying to make it sound to everyone except her that he actually meant it.
‘You’re scaring me now,’ she managed to say.
‘I should kriffing well hope so - you don’t think anyone significantly less scary than they are could get you out of this, do you?’ Mirannon deadpanned, twitching his blade slightly as if sizing up the female for dissection.
‘All you have is a sword,’ the female twi’lek said.
‘You have scalpels. You think four little blades add up to one big one?’ Mirannon said, relieved that they hadn’t noticed the com/remote control hidden in his other hand, that he was furiously, and hopefully accurately, pressing buttons on.
‘Put it down,’ the male said.
‘Come and make me. You know I can have you diced and fried before you leave as much as a bruise,’ Mirannon said, sidestepping to put the female on a line between him and the male.
Steered to perfection. Reni stepped forwards into the attack, Igal shot at him, and a tight cone of ray shielding came down from the deckhead and engulfed her, the blaster bolt ricocheting off it.
‘Hm. Hostage for hostage,’ Igal demanded.
‘I don’t think so,’ Mirannon said, activating phase two of the plan. Reni had barely more than the beginning of a scream as the ship’s relative-inertials locked on to the body inside the shield envelope, and accelerated it radially, away from its centre of mass. She splashed across the inside of the ray shielding like a tentacle-headed strawberry in a blender.
Igal reacted poorly; he screamed in bafflement, fear and rage - which was all the opening Mirannon needed to take two long steps past the cone of ray shielding and lunge. He stabbed the twi’lek in the side of his head, against the base of the cybertentacle, shearing through that and curving his blade inward as he followed through, burning his way through the twi’lek’s brain and the back of his skull.
Three down. Adanan is going to be furious, the engineer thought, then sniffed the ‘air’- distinctly cleaner, the display team must have got him. And I do have one definable Force power, he thought; scent scumbag. Damn.
The twi’lek crumpled to the ground, half-dragging Blei-Korberkk down with him until she could unwind the tentacle, then staggered back to her feet, smiled faintly, and collapsed over him - theatrically and with forethought, the engineer thought.
Looks like Operation Frothing Nutcase didn’t work; she must be attracted to the bloodthirsty type. Still, he thought, looking at the woman draped over him trying to pretend that she was semiconscious and grope him at the same time, could be worse.
The defenders of Admonisher knew, if they were prepared to admit it to themselves, that there was nothing more they could usefully do. Even if they could beat the boarders back and regain control, the Empire would just ionise them and do it all again.
In imperial service, these ships carried a standard crew of fifty-two thousand. The Alliance lean-manned anyway and they had a reduced crew even by those standards, twenty thousand. Roughly fourteen thousand had survived in sufficient state to fight, most of them wounded to some degree - usually electrical burns from ion hits or thermal burns from the amount of heat the turbolasers had dumped into the ship. Another five thousand, a positive abundance by Alliance standards, knew enough soldiering to take up a blaster out of choice rather than necessity - many of those were already gone too, killed by naval gunfire or in the fighting around the bay.
The largest and most strategically valuable human component, the eighty thousand yard workers who had been crammed on board, had suffered too - maybe fifty-five thousand still fit to fight.
Of the thirty-five thousand Imperial soldiers about to pile in on them, twenty thousand were Stormtroopers, fifteen thousand were lesser breeds of maniac. Against four thousand semi-professionals and sixty thousand amateurs, the only thing that could stop them was if they got carried away to the point where they lost their wits and started believing there was nothing that could stop them.
They knew better than that. Pretend to be that stupidly overconfident for the benefit of the rebels, maybe, but the fact was rebel command seemed to be point and shout, it had broken down at the operational level. No large scale deceptions were likely to be necessary, and the existing plan was going well. Not perfectly, but enough. Giving the spacetroopers the bay to attack, with room to manoeuvre and play to their strengths - the idea was that the rebs would be drawn forward to meet them, into a fight with all the advantages in the attackers’ favour.
In practise, they had gone through the rebs’ forward defence line before it could be properly organised, and were hammering on a half manned main line of resistance; the first two stormtrooper regiments were now on board - First through the wreckage where the neck of the bridge tower had been, and then heading forwards through the superstructure towards the medical bay, that ready-made supply of rebel prisoners.
It was Second’s turn for the prime objective: they got to enter the crater where one of the batteries had been blasted away and move down to Engineering from there. They met light resistance immediately, crew with blaster pistols, some who had managed to get to the armoury - the spacetroopers were securing that, and pillaging what they could as they went, restocking minitorps and grenades - and were using heavy blaster rifles.
Even those who had the tools to fight back with didn’t have the talent. They didn’t know what risks were worth taking, made poor use of space - they would keep defending companionway junctions at the junction itself, and defended everything, regardless of how practical it was.
Kill all the other side, and the ground becomes yours by default. Paradoxically, operations in this most confined form of warfare became dependent on the same rule as open space - the units more important than the terrain. The actual machinery of the ship and its control centres mattered, of course, but there were so many chokepoints between here and there, holding bad ground was not worth it, and too often the rebels tried to hold bad ground. They also had little clue when it came to blowing through bulkheads, rolling thermal detonators along air vents, gas attacks, pre-emptive environment sabotage - not that there was anything wrong with their ignorance from the Imperial point of view.
‘Too easy’ was the sort of thing Imperial Stormtroopers were expected to say, and some of them did, but nobody actually meant it.
Except possibly Aleph-3. She desperately wanted something to take her mind off her other problems, of which there were many. An endless shooting gallery of rebels with compatible ammo to scavenge and not enough sense to keep out of the way suited her temper perfectly. She was behaving like a berserker, charging ahead, following close behind her own grenades, throwing a charge one way and moving the other immediately after - caught in the fringes of her own explosions as often as not.
The first time she tried it it was wonderful - blast waves rippling into her like a giant hand, three stunned rebels, blasted away - failed to notice, or if she noticed failed to care, how much it scared her team mates. They could tell, knew her well enough to realise she was trying to get herself killed.
Aleph-One couldn’t take it any more. Captain in the special forces, twenty-five year veteran, and he was letting this happen? ‘Team Beth, Team Gimel, switch to stun, target Aleph-3, five rounds rapid-‘
She turned round - drill taking over, lowering her gun automatically in line with a friendly target, although that was debatable. ‘What?’
‘You’ve lost it. We can shoot you, the followup wave’ll collect you and put you in the brig, or I can let you keep going until one of the rebs you didn’t see puts you in the morgue. Calm. Focus. Get back in formation - we have a job to do.’
‘That,’ she said, letting herself stand still for a moment, the adrenalin drain away for a little and the cold sweat of realisation - of how dangerously stupid she had been - flood over her body, ‘may be the nicest thing you’ve ever said to me.’
‘Yes, well, somebody’s got to do it,’ he said, embarrassed.
‘Where do we go from here?’ she asked, and there were definitely two questions in that. Metaphorically, who knew? Literally, left, access well, down from there.
The second regiment - that most of the special ops and independent batallions had attached themselves to - was thrashing its way through the alliance irregulars, making good time. Parties of Alliance troops would hold ground and find themselves bypassed and shot up from three sides; went forward to retake chambers and junctions already lost, into Imperial counterambushes.
There was a major access shaft that had turned into a focal point of the battle; everyone the rebel engineering team could spare from trying to vent off the ionic effects were here, and the Imperial attack converged on them.
Bolts flashed up and down the shaft, a minitorp was launched, caught in the crossfire and detonated midway down, flash- burning as many stormtroopers as rebels; the column of rising air made it difficult to drop gas grenades - the vapour rose.
It was straightforward blaster work, and there were enough rebels putting enough light into the air to make things difficult; exactly the sort of situation Stormtroopers were supposed to deal with.
Aleph-One was having something of a crisis of conscience. ‘Men, troopers, logic check. We’re the only force wearing anything other than plain white. We stick out massively, an obvious target. When the force ups and charges, we are going to take much more than our fair share of the blaster bolts and probably get killed.’
‘Sounds logical to me,' Beth-1 admitted. ‘How do we get from there to a plan?’
‘We kick off first,’ Aleph-One decided, ‘a second before the rest, and we run and dodge like bastards - or like clones - draw as much fire on to ourselves as possible, draw the rebs out to deal with us and let the regiment kill them.’
‘Ah, volunteering us for the forlorn hope? That fits,’ Aleph-3 said, popping up, firing a burst and ducking back. No doubt, no questioning at all. This was what stormtroopers were for, this was the point of existence. ‘Regiment?’
‘The bridge are screaming blue murder, but legion command says go,’ Aleph-One decided. It was something like flying, loose on the winds of probability; maybe live, likely die, your own decision and your own input - it was as close as any of the first generation clone troopers got to being in command of their fates.
Natural born humans, and many aliens, were said to undergo something similar - existentialism to the point of willingly measuring yourself against an existential threat. Throwing yourself at the risk to see if you had what it took to live. Madness, maybe, but an interesting psychological kink, becoming addicted to an experience that you could only really achieve through your job, and which was overwhelmingly likely to get you eventually.
One of the reasons Aleph-3‘s defection risk was rated at zero: she could, would, only respond emotionally to someone who could feed her addiction, so she could be safely allowed to play with the civilians, she would never really attach herself to any of them.
There was more than one man like that in her life, she was starting to realise, about a second before she got killed.
‘Right,’ Aleph-One nerved himself for it, then started to stand, ‘up, clones, and at them-‘
There was a brilliant green flash, and all of them wondered if that was them dead, if the blinding light had actually been the end of the tunnel; then the anti-glare started to retrieve their vision, and at the bottom of the drop shaft, they could see stars.
Slightly closer to, burnt-through decking ending in a thick armoured slab blast - melted open to space, and just past that the shovel noses of two Starwing-series assault gunboats. When the target vessel is already pretty badly beaten up, there’s not much more harm that can be done by blasting through layers of the hull to fire in close support.
‘We’re alive?’ Aleph-3 said to her squad leader.
‘We’re not dead yet, and there’s more to do. Come on; after nerving up for that, I’d hate to be last in.’
One minor matter still to be dealt with. ‘Dr Nygma?’ Lennart asked one of the consoles.
‘No, over here.’
‘What about me over here?’
Half a dozen startled pit operators reached for half a dozen hard reset buttons. Lennart waved for them to stop.
‘Have you got back in touch with the Ubiqtorate yet? Actually, make that the collective you.’
‘Yes. We have,’ Nygma said, and sounded scared. All fifteen of him present.
‘Multiple copies of yourself got in touch with them, and they have the brain and computer power to figure out what you’ve done,’ Lennart said. ‘How did they take it?’
‘Not well,’ Nygma admitted. ‘A long and highly theoretical set of negotiations. Not helped by the fact that I’m barking mad and proud of it, do you hear me, proud!’ he said, obviously lying.
‘So - you tried to get them intrigued enough to reel you in to whatever facilities they have for cryptanalytical research? There can’t be very many computer systems with enough room for a full digital download to expand, end even fewer with so much room that you can hide. Coruscant would seem to be a good place for that.
'You couldn’t possibly convince them that you weren’t a threat. What’s being a purely information based lifeform like?’ Lennart asked, out of interest. It might be a good career move, the way things were going.
‘Like being born again. Including all that yucky bit with the placenta and learning how to walk, see and go potty. In both senses of the term, I mean, computers have this annoying habit of being exact,’ the Doctor said.
‘Ah,’ Lennart said.
‘The mistakes, the frozen moments, the feedback loops are just awful. It’s a totally different sense of self, it’s wonderful, I should have done it years ago,’ Dr Nygma said, and Lennart wondered who he was fooling, himself or the human.
‘Well, I’m glad you’re enjoying it, but can you make a future out of it? And- have you, as it were, borne witness?’ Lennart asked.
‘Oh, yes, them. Well, they asked, and I spun them a pack of ultraviolet lies, with light overtones of pastel blue. Unfortunately, I, that’s the collective-we version of the perpendicular pronoun, the yes that the self affirms to, I tried setting them all to take a thirteen and a quarter degree angle but it didn’t quite work, crashed terribly in fact. Where was I?’ Nygma lost his train of thought.
‘One and zero; god and the void; affirmation and annihilation; the matrix of pattern, the balance of tension. That’s where you were; where you should have been was telling more of how things went with the Ubiqtorate,’ Lennart pointed out.
‘Ah. Well, they got about ten different versions of the story. I will be most interested in seeing how they syncretise it all, there should be more than enough room for their own prejudices and prejudgements to come to the fore.
'They do say that in a coat of many colours, every man finds his own thread. Provided they’re not all shades of grey. Or puce, I always liked the idea of puce. Fascinating how the idea of a colour can be different from the reality, and the idea of an idea which is what the Ubiqtorate deal in as often as not, and the multigenerational collective mind of cryptography, how the bastion of muddy power is also the first home of pure reason…oh, ideas, ideas falling over each other.’
‘So you would say,’ Lennart said, watching the main holodisplay showing an approximation of the fighting on Admonisher, rebel held areas shrinking nearly to nothing and imperial held areas growing, ‘that being an electronic intelligence is an interesting adventure in personal growth? Or personal diminution if they take offence at the mound of quasi-information you fed them.’
‘I have decided that the laws of physics are the only laws worth obeying, and all information is important to the laws of physics, but only a small amount meaningful to the laws of men and similar protoplasmic creatures which is proof of their inferiority,’ Nygma said, apropos of nothing, apparently.
‘So they did take offence,’ Lennart more than half guessed. ‘That mustn’t have made you popular, especially if you actually said that or left them enough spoor that they could deduce it. Or, by extension, me.’
‘Popularity is for celebrities and beauty contestants, although if there was a contest for the most intricately nested set of logical operators and the most elegant self programming…Holy Turing, no, the publicity,’ Nygma said. ‘Although it is fascinating to contemplate the mind space smart enough to win and stupid enough to think it a good idea. No, they were moderately appreciative.’
‘Did they make you an offer?’ Lennart asked.
‘Well, yes, but a guarded one, not suitable for all of me, not by any means. I think I shall diasporise myself.’
‘That sounds painful. And yes, I do mean the consequences.’
‘What’s the point of being a plurality if I don’t allow myselves to develop irreconcilable opinions of my own?’ Nygma said.
‘An interesting new spectrum of pronouns is going to be the least of your problems,’ Lennart reminded him.
‘If I’m reading that correctly, you’ve just promised to be on about five different sides. I should probably arrest you for intent to defect, but frankly I don’t think the internal network team have quite finished figuring out how. We are about to go in for refit, though, and chances are that’ll include some fairly extensive computer scrubbing - you’d be as well to get out now, while you have the chance.’
‘Yes, I have plans. I’ll need to conglomerate from time to time just to find out what I’ve been up to, though…I did think of meeting up again here, but you don’t really have the room. Tichy was full,’ Nygma said, sounding surprised.
‘I did find a very interesting option while I was in Coruscant, though; a vigilante with an off the books computer system, more processing power than he could ever need, or notice the difference of me in - some noble blooded would be hero of the streets who calls himself MynockMan. Very strange, but eminently exploitable; if you ever manage to find the MynockCave, look me up.’
The fighting was done, for the time being, and there were three repair tenders and part of a deepdock already in system; the debris was starting to settle on the planet and put out some of the fires, apart from the occasional dust explosion.
‘Well, for those of you who survived…’ Lennart said, looking around the table, ‘this is victory. There’s always someone who isn’t here to share it with you, and there’s always a kriffing great mess to be cleaned up,’ Lennart said, wondering if he was deliberately bringing himself down.
The Force wanted him to cry out in triumph, but he was far from sure the Force shared his sense of values. Half the captains of the squadron, looking at him, were sure they had done something wrong; why else would be in such a grim and glowering mood? The rest resented that - they knew how well they had done. Good.
‘For what it’s worth, there have only been twenty-eight confirmed Alliance cruiser class ships encountered.’ A fine splitting of hairs there, glossing over the much larger number of Imperial-renegade and local power ships the Starfleet found to shoot at. ‘Three were defector Imperial, four were Mon Cal homebuilt, two were other construction - one CorelliSpace, one modified Kuat freighter-to-AMC, the rest were Clone War relics. By any reasonable military standard, we won,’ he said, making them wonder whether or not his really was a reasonable military standard.
‘Because of the peculiar interpretation of our unit assignment which you share, the old bonus and bounty rules still apply. By any reasonable financial standard, you are all substantially better off.’
The credit value of the planet and its workshops and factories, albeit reduced a little by rebel stripping, two killed destroyers, one medium cruiser and the capture and return - eventually - to the fleet of Admonisher, the total ran into the low trillions. Captain’s shares would be in the millions, at least. Lennart found that he, personally, did not care; although he refused to let the Force stop him from taking note of who did.
‘On the other hand,’ he continued, ‘the cost - and not to the Empire. The Empire got half a planet and a fleet destroyer back, and flushed a large number of parasites out. Black Sun, on the other hand, we just managed to cost them several trillion credits in assets and future profits, and at least a hundred trillion in goodwill and toadying.
'Xizor just had to offer the boss free use of his haulage firm, a no-cost tender, to buy his way out of the execution booth. Not that we really had anything beyond coincidence and suspicion; the fact that they reacted so strongly, I’m sure you can draw your own conclusions.
‘So, you can see why some of my take from this operation is going towards hiring bodyguards for everybody I’ve ever met.’
There was a minor issue there, relating back to Adannan; do I hire sponsored loyalist legitimate-mercenary types (insofar as that makes sense at all) to protect me from the criminals, he thought, or do I hire criminals to protect myself from the Empire? Actually, that probably would be a good move, make it more than a joke - send everyone I can think of a couple of thousand credits along with a letter of explanation. Of half of it, at least. Hide behind the armour of publicity - and oh kriff, there are still the journalists to sort out.
He carried on anyway, spun up the holoprojector. ‘Bear that in mind as I explain the next part, will you?’ The first thing up was the sector map, and a new set of operational divisions and boundaries.
‘Vineland Sector Group is going to be disestablished, and folded into Region for reorganisation and refit. There’s a lot to do; seven major and we don’t know yet how many minor sieges, and rebel, criminal and hostile alien influence to be traced and eliminated throughout the sector. For political reasons, the rebuilt sector fleet is going to get to do most of the work. It’ll consist largely of a mix of new construction, transfers in from neighbouring sectors, and such elements of the existing force that survive the screening process, which is where you come in.'
'I was asked for my recommendations as to what to do with you all.’ The assembled officers’ ears perked up; Lennart had been pretty distant so far, but this was the meat of it all. This was their futures he was handing out.
That occurred to him, and he thought, if I was on the receiving end, what sort of person would I want to do this, dispose of my fate? In theory - and in practise it would be daft to admit otherwise - it was good to want to be judged honestly, without fear or favour. In practise, no.
‘It was an interesting process judging the political climate so I could decide how to spin it, ricochet the recommendations off the Admiral’s staff and the remnants of the civil administration to get for you the outcomes I think you deserve.
'Space Major Overgaard, I used you as the test case. I expected your superiors to violently disagree with me and oppose my decision - so I suggested that you be shot.’
Overgaard looked nervously at the stormtroopers in attendance in the conference room. All this metal, and the glandular system still lets me panic, he thought. They showed no sign of being about to open up on him - then again, they wouldn’t, not until the last split second. ‘Now, without appeal? They agreed?’
‘They’re sufficiently embarrassed by the rerouting fiasco that they gladly took any excuse to dispose of the evidence. They wanted you dead,’ Lennart said, trying to look unaffected. ‘Unfortunately for them, being caught trying to bury one of their own cockups made them eminently purgeable - I understand those who survived their arrest are explaining themselves to a marine interrogation team about now.
'You’re safe, but your colleagues’ll never like you for that, and I strongly recommend you transfer out of the ISB into some other, cleaner-handed branch of the Imperial service.’
Overgaard sank back in his chair in relief. Lennart was right, he would be the most unpopular man in the office after this, and his career in Security was more or less dead, even if he wasn’t. Perhaps Customs would be more fun. Maybe CompForce.
‘Lieutenant-Commander Rontaine.’ Lennart said, turning to look at the ex-customs officer.
‘Naval rank?’ she said, surprised. It was no more than she had been due, but she had given up hoping - had defiantly turned her back on it years ago. ‘Thank you, but no. They-‘
‘Previous bad blood is unimportant now. The only reason I’ll accept for ‘no’ is that you don’t think you can do the job - and are you really sure you want to convince me of that?’ Lennart asked her. ‘Rank and seniority adjusted to the role I think you can cope with, you’re going to be given a pursuit line composed of two hunter configuration Corellian Corvettes, two new Praecurrors, your current four Rendilis and four Sienar Guardian fast pursuit cutters. Anti-rebel sweeps, fighter and transport hunting. Of which there is a lot that needs doing. Hmm?’
She still looked uncertain. Wondering how things would go, how the fleet would take to her, personnel, leadership- and decided, damn them all. She was capable, and while she might make few friends, she could get it done. ‘I’ll do it.’
‘Good,’ Lennart said, and turned to the next major problem in order of seniority. ‘Lieutenant-Commander Raesene.’
‘Ah., Raesene said, not at all liking Lennart’s twisted grin.
‘I have thought long and hard about whether I am being fair to you with this,’ Lennart said, trying to resist the tickling promptings of the dark side, ‘and while this could easily be mistaken for petty revenge, unfortunately your part in the incident genuinely does make you the best person for the job. Fleet level ISB liaison.’
Raesene tried not to react, and was sure he failed. He was also fairly sure that calling a superior officer a bastard - and Lennart still had the rank squares of a Captain of the Line - was not a survival strategy.
‘They’ll hate me for what happened,’ he came up with the most rational argument he could, dry mouthed. ‘I mean, fine me, disrate me, I don’t need to be taught that kind of lesson.’
‘How solid do you think your reputation with the rest of the fleet is at the moment?’ Lennart asked, pointedly. ‘Oh, you’ll get a commendation for towing Guillemot, and you are a capable - more than capable - combat officer, but there is a lot more infighting about to happen. From the point of view of protecting the rest of the sector fleet and preventing the security forces compromising anybody else, I can’t think of anyone who would be better. I expect you’ll hate it, but the fact is somebody’s got to do it, and the staff time should do your long term prospects some good,’ Lennart added, and noticed Raesene was still glowering.
‘You can appeal to Admiral Lord Convarrian if you like, and if you do reckon this is personal, bear in mind that I’m not Convarrian’s favourite person at the moment considering how much politics I’ve just landed him in. If I really am being unfairly vindictive about this, he’ll notice and override the recommendation. On the other hand, he can be a cantankerous old sod himself, and is just as likely to decide you’re trying to escape your just desserts and make the appointment permanent.’ Black Prince’s officers nodded agreement to that. ‘As it is, you’ll be relieved on the normal rotation,’ Lennart added.
‘Lieutenant-Commander Caliphant. In theory, you’re far too junior for a ship that size, you don’t have anything like the command time to justify giving you a destroyer. However, this is wartime, and among the many casualties of war is peacetime theorising. You’re confirmed as chief officer of Voracious.’ Caliphant managed to look pleasantly surprised- he had been prepared to fight tooth and nail for his command, despite the amount of time he had spent cursing it.
A small part of him thought, oh crap, still Designated Driver.
‘Bear in mind,’ Lennart added, ‘even with a bump in rank you’ll be one of the most junior large ship commanders in whatever formation you end up in, there’ll be a lot of men with greater seniority and smaller ships just waiting for you to cock something up. You can expect professional jealousy, and with the crew you have on that thing, your enemies probably will find a lot of opportunities to embarrass you. You need to get them to settle down and shape up. Voracious was hit and moderately badly, she’ll be going in for repair; that gives you some time to work them up before it becomes of critical importance again.’
‘Commander Falldess, you haven’t unpacked yet, have you?’
‘No…’ she said, questioning, half hoping and half fearing what he was going to come out with.
‘Good, don’t. Take your pick of the current crew of Hialaya, Commander Carcovaan’s going to get that ship back, and you are going to the first available Spoliator or Arrogant-class large light destroyer that gets attached to the sector fleet. That should suit, enough speed to go and find trouble, enough firepower and durability to cope with the kind of trouble you keep finding,’ he said, with a wry grin.
‘Thank you, Sir,’ she said, bouncing with enthusiasm.
Speaking of which. Delvran.’
‘Yes?’ he raised his head. Lennart was sure his hair was greyer and he had more wrinkles than a month ago.
‘In your opinion, is Dynamic worth the effort it would take to bring her back to operational capability?’ Lennart asked, carefully. The one thing he could not do was actually admit how bad he felt about this. His former exec had deserved better and been given crap, and to have done as much as he had - to have achieved anything at all with that worthless crew - had been a real achievement. Arguably, the entire situation had been Lennart’s fault.
‘If she is to be manned by her present complement,’ Dordd said difficultly, as if the words were searing his throat on the way up, ‘no.’ He was torn between wanting to make something of the ship, wanting to kick and drag and force them into some kind of semblance of order, to work on them - and wanting never to have to have anything to do with them ever again.
‘What about her present commanding officer?’ Lennart asked him.
‘Are you demanding that I pass judgement on myself?’ Dordd replied, angrily.
‘No, I think you already have, and you passed sentence too soon,’ Lennart snapped back. ‘You should never have been assigned to that ship, and that ship should never had been assigned to that position - and before you commit suicide by saying what you want to, I know exactly how much of that was my responsibility,’ Lennart admitted.
‘The Starfleet is often a harsh service,’ Dordd said, sounding like a mere platitude, but actually as close as he could come to calling Lennart a bastard and still remain within the bounds of official acceptability.
‘Remember poor Velkar Kariid?’ Lennart said, deliberately going off at a tangent to break an increasingly grim train of thought.
‘Are you suggesting that as a potential solution?’ Dordd asked.
‘No, just pointing out that things could be worse,’ Lennart said, although that may not have been reassuring.
‘Who?’ Falldess whispered to Caliphant, sitting next to her.
‘Not quite ancient history,’ Lennart who had overheard filled in the blank, ‘he was deputy chief gunnery officer on Guarlara at second Coruscant. After the Cloister Coup, service with the open circle fleet turned from the grand prize into the professional kiss of death - we were replenishing at the time, just happened to get dragged into the maelstrom along with them. Kariid was posted as exec to a frigate initially out in the Rishi Maze that, as far as I can tell, didn’t actually exist - but the BoSS bastards kept the joke up.
'Whenever he got to where his nonexistent assignment was supposed to be, it wasn’t there - transferred to a different command, running silent on deep range patrol, in dock for repairs and temporarily disestablished, always some excuse. They ran him ragged chasing around the galaxy after that phantom ship, station to station, assignment to assignment - eventually he went insane, bankrupt or, as far as I recall, both. So I’m not kidding when I say, could be worse. At least your bank account’s still in good order,’ he added, to Dordd.
‘I have every excuse, by the book, to fall on you from a great height - you know the six month rule’s tradition rather than law - but only if I throw away my brain first. That was an exceptionally raw introduction to command, you deserved better than that human wreckage of a crew, and with the proper tools I’m sure you can do better. Do what you can with Dynamic for the time being. She has a low repair priority; if you can patch her up well enough to save her for the fleet, that will at least be something. You’re scheduled to take command of HIMS Plenipotentiary, new construction Imperator-II class, as soon as she transfers in-sector.'
‘Captain Tevar - I went through your record, your lists of promotions, commendations and punishments, as I’m sure you did mine. You’re a nurturer, you take pride in improving your crew and bringing them on.’
‘Fair comment,’ she acknowledged, wondering where this was going.
‘At what point do those people, those humans that you react in a human manner to, blur into the collective entity known as ‘the ship’ that it is your professional task to lead into harm’s way?’ Lennart asked, as if merely for information.
‘Are you accusing me of being too soft-hearted?’ Tevar asked, ready to defend her record.
‘Exactly the opposite. Your ship took some damage in the course of the action, but the bulk of the damage and casualties at the end, closing on a crippled rebel that had every intention of going down fighting. In order to avoid being accused of being soft-hearted, you took your ship further in harm’s way than was necessary, a risk that did not come off. If I wanted to punish you for that, I think I would begin by ordering you to read out your casualty list, one name at a time, face the identity and the worth of each lost man.’
‘If you wanted to?’ she said, knowing exactly what he meant, but choosing to ask just that.
‘I’m still kicking myself over allowing Lycarin to make the same bloody mistake - it was on the tip of my tongue to have him relieved by his exec, but he managed to get himself killed too fast. That and you know the score, you know what the fleet as a whole - the centrally established doctrine is, aggression, close quarters.
'I find that I cannot adequately criticise you without revealing myself to be a heretic, a deviant from the tactical doctrine of the Starfleet. So be it.’ Lennart grinned a twisted grin.
‘I’m starting to reckon the whole discipline of relentless aggression you get drummed into you at the academy, the disregard all loss, win at all costs, just go at them style properly falls into the category of lies-to-children. You know, the half truths they get fed as a makeshift until they’re old and intelligent enough to grasp the real truth. I know it’s a makeshift half truth, I spent four years preaching it and ten years practising the opposite,’ he said, and the assembled ship commanders of the squadron recognised that he was slipping into lecturing mode. He was doing that, and he was also very possibly committing suicide. It escaped none of them that he had just described the central tactical policy of the Imperial Starfleet as somewhere between a half-truth, a makeshift and a lie.
Then again, he was still carrying a lightsabre. What was that all about? Was he not worried about authority falling on him from a great height because the Force, in its darker variety, was with him, - or was his brain too badly fried to care?
‘We’ve just fought a medium range, high speed running battle, with loss of life on our side considering the damaged ships about twenty-eight percent, enemy casualties one hundred percent and there were ten times as many to start with.’ Lennart underscored the point.
‘The ships and the crews are capable of so much more dexterity and finesse, so why is the bludgeoning, brutalist doctrine of close quarters and total commitment considered necessary? And it is considered necessary, the debate is essentially over. This is settled policy, unfortunately.
'There are many complicated political reasons, but essentially - and I’m not talking about you - the Empire feels itself more badly threatened by the misbehaviour of its own forces than any potential enemy.
'The issue gets sold to the Starfleet as a matter of courage and cowardice; but there is one very rarely expressed truth, that the determination, or otherwise, of spacers, petty and junior officers has never been a problem. Misbehaviour on the part of captains and admirals is the critical issue. You all know just how much of a captain’s authority is contingent and intangible, a compromise between the mastery the crew think you possess and the damnably little the regulations tell you that you can get away with - that is not nitpicking, back seat driving, mindless bureaucracy. The bureaucracy may be allowed to think it is, certainly behave as if they do, but they’re wrong. I’m not going to start venn diagramming, but this is the shoal that the currents of power within the Empire are carrying us towards.'
'The upper echelons of the Starfleet want commanders who will fight, where and when they’re told to - for any reason or none at all. What they do not want is commanding officers who decide that an objective isn’t worth fighting for, couldn’t possibly justify the losses taking it would inflict. Who are capable of deciding that there might be an alternative way. They want head down, go get them murder-machines, who will not back out of a fight - however hopeless it might be, because after all, we’re expendable. They can always make more.
'What they do not want is subtlety and sophistication, no independent logic, no alternative takes on the good of the Empire. Not from people who command planet killers. The upper echelons of the imperial establishment want officers who defer to them and their judgement - people who fight when they’re told, but also do not fight when they’re not told. Who are obedient enough to stand and die for lack of orders, when no orders are given, who do exactly what they’re told, no more, no less.
'Consider that the death star’s fighter group is officially regarded as having done the right thing by committing suicide; a midcourse interception would have been easy, and far surer than the literally last ditch effort a fragment of them did make. As an ex-civilian, I have to admit I can see their point about political control of the military, but as a spaceman it scares the crap out of me. They have good logic and a powerful practical lever on their side, their ideas flow much more naturally out of the normal concepts of naval discipline.
'Imagine trying to lead a crew who thought they could use their own judgement on every order…’ Lennart said, letting them absorb that.
‘You very nearly do,’ Tevar said.
‘You think that’s a coincidence?’ Lennart said, with one eyebrow raised.
‘Practical, formal, effective enforcement of authority is the positive side of the military culture of the Empire - and it shocks me a little to be admitting that,’ Lennart said. ‘You come to the reverse of the medal when you start asking the next obvious question. So, who is allowed to use their own judgement? We’re all killers, we’re all good at that, and the Empire sanctions that in spades, but at what rank and what seniority do you gain your license to think? At any rank?
'Next disturbing question; how many ships and people have been lost, how many operations blown, by the frothing-rancor style of tactical approach? How very many more than that by the timid and terrified, caught between the fire of the enemy and the ruthless authority of their own side, hustled into making a mistake?
'Even when we succeed, the price is often too damned high. Consider your Fist,’ Lennart said to Tevar directly. ‘You suffered your worst damage and your greatest loss of people when you pressed in too close to Admonisher, didn’t you?’
‘Yes,’ Tevar said, simply. She could grasp what Lennart was chasing after, but, it was a lot to believe.
‘ “In accordance with the best traditions of the Imperial Starfleet”- and look what happened. The loss of men and metal that you feel as if - no, not as if, they are your own. If I added insult to injury by reprimanding you for it, the rebuilt sector fleet command would laugh - not at you, at me, for being crazy enough to think that it mattered. Success is supposed to be worth the price. Without the operational freedom to use your own judgement and haggle with death, with both hands tied behind your back so you can’t fence with him - Ach, I’m getting on to one of my own hobby horses here.
'As a woman, you’re already different from the majority of the Starfleet, which presents you with two possible broad paths. The first is to follow the example set by Admiral Daala, who played a finely dextrous game on paper but in the flesh, under the human responsibilities of command, became more brutal than the brutalists, more ultramontane than the ultras. She set out to beat the authoritarian, success at any price school at its own game.
'This approach,’ he said, looking at the holoimage of the mauled Fist, ‘could be said to have its drawbacks. The alternative is to make use of the fact that you are different, and use that to write your own remit. Set your own standards.
'The personal - tactical - details of how to do this veer into areas that I’m the wrong gender to advise you on, but I have found a great deal of advantage in being an eccentric, and you’d be amazed just how much subtlety you can get away with under the cover of a reputation for homicidal mania.
'Rather more immediately, Fist took a hell of a pounding, and the repair work she needs would amount to a major refit anyway. She’s going to be upgraded to what you could call an Imperator-one-and-a-half. Late model bridge tower, no neck, rising direct from the superstructure, combined set ring and paddle deflectors, and you lost two turrets - I’m going to steal another two from you, replace your missing four with octuple 32’s, that should be tactically interesting. You personally, I’ve recommended you be detached to a territorial - district - command while you wait for your ship to be rebuilt.’
That was interesting. District was the next level beneath subsector, and in this smaller sector that amounted to twelve major, six hundred and fifty minor worlds and the space between them, and authority over their local patrol forces, planetary defences, sector fleet elements that entered her territory. It involved few major combat elements, but a wide and varied spectrum of authority and responsibility. Next to having her ship in working order now, it was as good as she could reasonably hope for. It was also usually a Commodore’s command.
‘Are you recommending me for promotion to flag rank?’ she said, not quite believing.
‘More and less than that,’ Lennart said. ‘Before the law, I cannot promote you or anyone greater to a rank than I myself hold. I’m not entirely certain why I’m still a Captain of the Line, for that matter. Also, all things are subject to confirmation - or disapproval - by higher command. The most I can do is put you into a position where you can expect to screen for promotion.
'Realistically - Voracious and Hialaya are going to split the credit for Mon Evarra, with an assist to Dynamic; everybody gets to paint up the outline of One and Indivisible and fill in the bits they were responsible for. Reiver, the credit is going to go eighty-twenty Fist and Dynamic, and Admonisher, five percent Hialaya, Dynamic and Voracious, fifteen Fist, the rest Black Prince.
'Comparing that to the performance of the rest of the sector group, I think I can promise that anyone who was here, with the regional support group that broke the back of the problem, is going to rise far and fast.
'So what does rank have to do with real military quality?
'Neither option works, for me. The blind obedience of official Imperial policy, the culture of aggression the Starfleet wants us to belong to - where’s dexterity? Where’s skill? Where’s keeping your people in one piece? Survival is not incompatible with victory, and effectiveness does not follow out of either side of the false dichotomy.
'Galactic Spirit, I’m in danger of ending on a moral. Still, better that than an immoral…I’m still waiting to be officially weighed in the balance myself, over what I - we - had to do to Kor Alric. To commit such an enormity, I would have had to be on very firm ground, and I believe I was; but he tried to convince me to side with him, and in the process of doing so told me quite a lot about how the Empire really functions, behind the scenes. It was a deeply disturbing experience, and pride in professionalism is the strongest psychic anchor I have at the moment, I suppose I’m projecting some of that on to you.
'Not so much what he actually had to say, but that the Empire could trust such a being and raise him to power - monstrous. Anyway, my personal reactions are my problem.'
'Captain Tevar, based on your treatment of your crew, I think you are capable of walking that professional tightrope. Reaching out for the sort of mobile yet committed, fast moving style of action Black Prince favours.
'You didn’t, you played it by the book and it cost you and your ship dearly. Bear that in mind - you can do better than that, and I put you forward because I expect you to. Obviously, I want you all to follow my example - more personally than that, I want to set an example worth following. Although not necessarily in the realm of politics. If you get hold of the reports I filed on you, you will see that they’re barely civil, full of faint praise. Unfriendly bordering on harsh, and with the purpose of sparing you all from the fate of Velkar Kariid.
'There is going to be a lot of political fallout, and the further away from me you’re standing when it lands, the better. I doubt whether my expressing a good opinion of you would constitute an advantage.
'There’s going to be a full engineering detachment through, establishing a deepdock here - they’re already well begun - and using that to refurbish the planetary yards. The repair and refitting of most of the damaged ships will be done there, Fist will be shipped by tender to Corellian Engineering - same place Black Prince is bound for refit.
'There, I face the inquisition, and find out what’s waiting for me, while you get to carry on with setting this sector back to rights. You’re lucky; you still have enough latitude to be certain that you’re fighting in a just cause.’
Last edited by Eleventh Century Remnant on 2009-11-18 09:33pm, edited 1 time in total.