Ships in the Night; Part Two

       Serge Falstar Dom yiTeris gave the NCO lounge the usual quick scan. No threats, everything as it should be. The conversation was a little more, intense, happier.
       "Serge Falstar, over here!"
       Falstar turned to the voice, an old friend, Serge Torlin Hal teGaleen. Falstar joined the table. "What is the news?"
       "At last we have a First worthy of Acertor."
       "You do not consider Cher'cur worthy? He is a legend in the service."
       "Worthy yes, above all, but not one of our own. First Taggel, he is Vigilant." Torlin stood and raised his glass. "First Taggel, long may he rule."
       The room rose as one, glasses in hand. "FIRST TAGGEL, LONG MAY HE RULE!"

       "Most First attention. We are receiving a distress message from Itiahesh."
       Cher'cur turned to the comm Third. "And what distress do they report?"
       "Heavy flooding has destroyed their food crop Sire. Toc'tur Family solicits aid."
       Cher'cur turned to the navigation station. "Range?"
       "Heading 6, pinion 7 5 light years. It would put the fleet a week off course."
       "Indeed, but it is not like we do not have the time. Call the Firsts."

       Fourth Acke'cur read from the report. "Itiahesh has reported that severe acute flooding has destroyed 30% of the Hait province's food crops, and 50% of the food animals. The world is Tech 5, and has little reserve."
       First Gokot tapped his stylus on the table. "What is an 'acute flood' by the shell?"
       Acke'cur activated the tactical tank. "The highlands above Hait province contained a glacial lake of gigantic size. The ice dam gave way. They possessed enough prior notice to begin evacuations. It is a mixed blessing under the circumstances."
       "Mixed?" Gokot clacked his beak.
       "There are more to starve Sire."
       "Whatever, what can the fleet do?"
       Cher'cur said. "That is why I have gathered you. What can we do? Ideas people."
       There was muttering around the table. First Keechurr spoke at last. "What can we do? Our supplies are not so great we can feed a province."
       Gokot bobbed. "More so my peers. What has House Toc'tur done for the Star Service lately?
       Ceechip jumped in. "As I understood the situation, we were to be of service to the Empire, not the Empire to us."
       Gokot puffed. "Idealistic nonsense. We have to consider the needs of the fleet first."
       Taggel stood. "We must not be niggardly with our mercy my peers. These people are hungry. We are their Lords. Duty says we must act. We have power in plenty, and replicators. Let the planet supply the mass, we will make it into food."
       "What about our antimatter supplies!"
       Taggel turned to Acke'cur. "Fourth, does Itiahesh have the usual depot."
       Acke'cur bobbed his head. "Yes Sire, antimatter and single H in plenty, reserved for the Star Service."
       "Then there is your answer Gokot. We can supply them with food, top off our tanks and be none the worse except for time. Repairing and recovering flood damage will give my ground troops a chance to stretch their legs and breathe some fresh air." He turned to Cher'cur. "Sire, Vigilant is ready and willing to be of service."
       "Then I order the fleet to Itiahesh. We shall be of service."

       "The Kronin are assembled Sire." Least Second Kerchin looked as if he smelt something. Remarkable as none of the Kronin did.
       Taggel paid exactly no attention to his posturing and faced the troops. "Men, this will be a different sort of battle. Your enemy is water and debris, your goal to save lives and recover property. As with any battle there is honor in victory. I expect nothing less than victory.
       "I am not however asking you to be fools. I don't expect the Gormelites to truly understand the greater goals. I am depending on you to find and enforce lessor goals as the circumstances provide. Go, do Vigilant and your Clan proud."
       "BY YOUR WILL, SIRE!"
       Taggel nodded to the Serge in change. Silently, with machine precision the Kronin filed out to gather gear and mount the landing craft. Taggel could hear the orders shouted to the Gormelites on the deck below.
       "Least Second."
       "You will see to the operation, personally."
       Kerchin seethed. "By your will Sire."

       Taggel walked the command deck. He monitored the energy flux as the replicators and transporters worked overtime to meet the demand for the foodstuffs they were producing and the mass they transported up to make into foodstuffs.
       "First on the Deck!" Called the Kronin guard.
       Taggel turned to see Cher'cur coming up deck. He bobbed his head. "Most First, how might we be of service."
       "The operation goes well?"
       "Yes Sire. There is much left to do, but the danger of immediate starvation is past."
       "I wish to speak with you, privately."
       "My day room?"
       "That is sufficient."
       "Taggel caught the eye of the Second on Deck. "You have the Deck Second."
       "By your Will, Sire."

       Taggel went to the rella dispenser at once. "Would you care for a cup Sire?"
       "No, no. My Physician says the habit is doing me no favors. I am trying to cut back."
       Taggel tapped a cup, and waited until Cher'cur sat before he did. "You had something to ask me?"
       "Yes, you are the one commander I have that has seen the United Federation face to face. I want your thoughts."
       "On what subjects, Sire? I have had little personal contact."
       "What do they mean to us?"
       Taggel thought a long moment before answering. "Change. The United Federation means, change."
       "Indeed, what change."
       "I am not wise enough to know the direction, but they will change us. They will change the Empire. The Federation is something we have never seen. They are a vibrant stellar society equal to us in many ways, superior in some ways. They are too strong to assimilate."
       "Vigilant lasted a long time against their ships. She destroyed one in a single pass."
       "And was crippled herself for the trouble. That 'victory' nearly killed me. Within three days the Federation had nine ships to answer us. Four of those ships spent a few great partings lightly pecking at the hull and put us in repair for nine months."
       Cher'cur cocked his head. "How do you know it was light pecking?"
       "I did some counting. The Kongo, the ship we are to meet, has 18 torpedo tubes. That blue fish shaped thing had 32 tubes. One other ship was of the Kongo's class, and the last of the large vessels had ten tubes. To start with they hit us with two a pass, and reduced that to one. They were not firing at anything like a full rate. Every ship in their fleet was covered with beam emitters, hard hitting emitters. Two of our Strikers later had to be scraped. The United Federation builds leeturs of ships, fast, with lots of claws, and the ability to use them. Had they desired to destroy Vigilant she would have been meat for the taking."
       "What about their people?"
       "Aggressive, but friendly, one might say aggressively friendly. We played at sport with them, a game that requires reflexes and thinking. They played well, and sought to win. Win or loose they did not carry the conflict outside the field."
       "Then they understand sport."
       "Yes, and they revel in it."
       "And more than one race."
       "Yes Sire. The Kongo has many races on it. I could not determine which, if any, race was dominant. Not all the Captains of the fleet were human, or any other single race. One was an Ane."
       "I had heard this. What do you think it means?"
       "They are not to be trusted."
       Cher'cur clattered his beak. "Their world is a worthless sinkhole. Since the conquest five families have quit the place poorer than they came. Now the Star Service runs it, and it drains our budget. Were it not for pride I would quit the place entirely."
       "Perhaps we should do just that. What profit has it gained us?"
       "None. I understand another colony effort is being made. Perhaps this time it will work."
       "I seriously doubt that it will be allowed to work."
       "Who would prevent it Taggel, the Ane?"
       "They are a force in the politics of the Federation, Sire. They command and crew warships. They are the one constant of Harmony. We forever fail to make Harmony pay. Yes, I would say it would be the Ane."
       "What would you advise?"
       "Cut our losses. Swallow a little pride and leave them their worthless planet."
       "Back off? Give up?"
       Taggel puffed a little and smoothed his feathers. "How much good do we throw after bad? It profits us nothing, and costs us dearly. There is nothing to conquer, nothing to fight. There is no economic gain to be had either. Harmony is the worse khit-sink in the Empire."
       "Such words are dangerous."
       "Truth should never be dangerous."
       "I'll consider your 'recommendation'. Incidentally, it is much like my own."

       Kerchin finished his report. "The most recent count has over 100,000 dead, and billions of khits in damage. The efforts of the Kronin and other ground troops were able to mitigate the worst of the flood ravages, and were instrumental in the rescue and saving of at least 20,000 persons. Vigilant has made sufficient foodstuffs to prevent a general famine."
       Taggel bobbed his head. "Good, good. Is there more we should do?"
       "No Sire. While yes we could continue as we have, the planet is out of crisis, and capable to handling the matter on its own. The dead are buried. The homeless are housed. The waters recede."
       "Good, you have done well. Recall the troops, and report when they are ready to sail."
       "By your Will, Sire." Kerchin turned to leave.
       "One more thing Kerchin."
       He stopped and turned back. "Yes Sire."
       "You did not sound pleased to get this assignment."
       "In truth Sire, I was not pleased."
       Yet you did well, no, excellent service."
       Kerchin puffed a bit. "I would be less an Acceptian officer if I did otherwise, Sire."
       "Kerchin, your excellence in action in this crisis will be mentioned when I report to Most First Cher'cur."
       Kerchin puffed full out. "By your Will, Sire."


       Lt. Nier rolled his eyes. "Back and forth, up and down. Join Starfleet and see the Federation."
       Ensign Pert talked around her lunch. "That is what the recruitment ads say."
       "No one can argue we don't see a lot of it."
       "Including strange new worlds and people we never met before." Pert fairly bounced in her seat.
       Nier shook his head. "I've been on this ship five years and I don't think we have ever had a regular patrol."
       Avery Solin wagged her finger. "Gentlebeings, regular patrol is not what cruisers are for. Tell, me Mr. Nier, if you knew now that your next assignment would be the Kongo, are you asking for something different?"
       "Hell no. This ship is interesting standing still."
       Solin nodded. "I rest. You like it here. No one that doesn't like it here is still here."
       Pert sighed. "On my cadet cruise I heard a group of old boy wanna-bes condemn 'zoo ships' as they called them as inefficient and difficult."
       Solin chuckled. "We are one of the worst 'zoos' in the fleet. With the two Klingons we picked up at 224, and the Acceptians, we likely are the "worst" zoo in the fleet. I consider it something to be proud of. Look at the ship's history. She has always been diverse."
       Pert bounced again. "There never lacks for people with a new viewpoint to talk to."
       "And that young lady is why we are here."
       The comm squawked. "Nearest security to lounge 7, security to lounge 7."
       Solin dragged herself to her feet. "I wonder what the hell that is about?"

       Solin burst into the lounge. The Acceptians were crushed around two of their number. A fight looked to be in progress. Solin ordered the security forces. "Hose them down, heavy stun."
       The security present followed orders. The entire Acceptian population was shortly passed out over each other on the floor. Solin looked at the pile.
       "Sort them out. The combatants go in the brig. Call the Captain when they can explain themselves."

       Provisional First Ga'fer presented himself, once he could walk without staggering. Kirk braced him. "Provisional First Ga'fer, what part of the rules and regulations briefing did you and your men not understand?"
       "No part sir, we however have certain cultural, imperatives."
       "As do we all. I have two Klingon officers on this ship mister, as well as a number of Andorians. They manage to hold their natural aggression in check to be of service to the ship. And through you are unaware of it we all should be grateful the Vulcans hold in their natural aggression."
       "I thought you understood Acceptian culture?"
       "Yes, as well as anyone with my limited exposure. That said, were you not informed that you were under the rules and regulation of this ship?"
       "Yes Sir."
       "Do you understand those rules?"
       "Yes Sir."
       "The combatants are confined to quarters except to exercise. They can contain their hostility for each other until they are under Acceptian command.
       "I hope that is possible."
       "Cultural imperative or no Ga'fer. I will have order. Humans use to face each other on the so called 'field of honor' with swords or projectile weapons to right perceived wrongs such as insulting one's hunting animal. We don't do it any more. We have learned better."
       Ga'fer slicked his feathers. "Captain Kirk. We are not proud of that behavior, it is not 'cultural' in the sense that we approve. It's deeper, wired in." He stood and looked out the window. "As a young officer I helped kill and dismember my best friend because he lost a challenge over courting a woman. When two of us start fighting the cognitive parts of our brain go away. It is not something I am accustom to explaining to... outsiders."
       Kirk just stared at Ga'fer. "I.. Have you tried to stop it?"
       "Yes, medical science has worked on the problem for centuries. An acceptable solution has not been found. So we work it into our culture as best we can. Is there nothing in human culture you are unable to stop?"
       "No, not like that. Mating, but we don't want to stop that. We are not very 'wired' Ga'fer. It makes us flexible. It also means we can act like utter idiots in ways that get vast numbers of us killed."
       "What do you intend to do Captain?"
       "Nothing other than what I have done. I must maintain the discipline of the ship."
       "I understand Sir. I will talk to them, and will ask you to reconsider confinement at a later date, if I have new information."
       "No promises, but I will listen. Dismissed."
       Ga'fer left. Kirk went to the replicator. "Anti-nausea, standard human dose and a glass of water."
       **I will have to tell Dr. Hanson about that.**
       **Make sure to tell him why. He might want some too.**


       Cher'cur listened again for the subsonic hum, something you felt more than heard. He noted the last of the officers enter, First Ceechip from the striker Destroyer.
       "We are gathered, good. My Peers, we have a minor situation on Quri. Monitors have detected a warp signature in that system."
       First Gokot of the seeker Instigator spoke. "Is not that one of the systems we have been, acquiring?"
       Cher'cur nodded. "We discovered them 50 years ago. They are a late industrial world with considerable technology boosts from us."
       Gokot bobbed his head. "Yes, and now it seems they have gone too far."
       Taggel snapped his beak. "Let us not assume too quickly. It could be an intrusion from another system."
       Gokot puffed. "Soft on the clients Taggel?"
       "Unwilling to jump to conclusions Gokot."
       Cher'cur interrupted. "We will investigate, then decide the course of action. Return to your ships, we will make course for Quri."

       Taggel paced the command deck as they approached Quri. "Sensor, report."
       "No indication we have been detected Sire."
       Taggel looked to the overthrone.
       Cher'cur nodded. "Fleet disperse, strikers to screen, seekers to outer patrol. Vigilant to approach."
       Taggel looked back to his own command. "Helm, make lightspace 2."
       "Lightspace 2, Sire."
       "No change in aspect Sire."
       "Three partings to orbit Sire." Reported the Navigation Third.
       Taggel waited, just a little longer. "Drop to sublight."
       The Vigilant suddenly slowed with the planet before it.
       Taggel peered in to the tactical tank. "Sensor report."
       "We have a space station dead ahead, three ships docked. Update! Two ships are pulling away."
       "Who is on them Sensor?"
       "Natives, Sire."
       "Tactical, advice. Will that station survive a full impulse impact with our shields raised, and what would be the effect on Vigilant?"
       "They would be destroyed Sire, and we would suffer a slight reduction in forward shield strength.
       "Make is so."
       The ship's officers turned to their boards. Taggel casually sat on the command throne. He didn't even feel a shudder as Vigilant shouldered its way through the tiny station and remaining ship.
       "All stop. Make orbit." Taggel tuned again to the overthrone. "Most First, we have arrived as per your orders."
       "I shall require an escort of your best troops First Taggel."
       "They are at your disposal Sire."

       Third Trrmel came out onto the Junior officer's lounge deck of the flight tank. The great thing about serving on a Mothership was the biggest flight tank in the fleet. It was sixteen spans deep and wide, and eighty spans long. You could get some real flying in. He stepped up to the perch bar and examined the current occupants. No Seniors, a few Buteos.
       "Hey Trrmel!"
       Trrmel looked to the voice. Kerchin and flock. Kerchin called again. "You flying?"
       "I had planned on it."
       "Come tell us what you saw."
       Trrmel moved from the perch bar towards Kerchin. "What I saw? I don't understand."
       "You were on the command deck when Taggel ran that upstart mammal station down."
       "Yes, I was sensor officer."
       "What was he like? What did he do?"
       "It was nothing really; He affirmed that Vigilant would not be damaged and ran them over."
       Gezeet clacked his beak. "That's it, just cold as a lizard?"
       "Yes, cold as a lizard. He ordered the station run down and tuned to Most First Cher'cur 'Most First, we have arrived as per your orders.' Nothing more." Trrmel bobbed to the group and took a running hop off the lounge and into the tank.
       Gezeet looked back to his fellows. "See, like I said. Taggel is a cold one. A natural killer."
       Kerchin clacked his beak and puffed. "We are all natural killers. It is our nature to hunt and kill. Why should we respect Taggel?"
       Second Keert puffed and smoothed. "Because Most First Cher'cur sees him as worthy to be First. Because he was worthy to win while badly wounded."
       Kerchin glared. "He savaged our pride with that 'win'."
       "Our pride was savaged a-plenty before that fight. Where was your pride Kerchin?"
       "My pride was undiminished!"
       "Is that why you shivered in a corner of the sick quarters."
       Kerchin lunged for Keert, two others stopped him. Gezeet fluffed out. "No Kerchin. It is truth, and not worth a fight. Too many of us, myself included, broke. Too many to take shame over it."
       "I am no coward."
       Keert bobbed his head. "None of us had pride that day. Kerchin you are unshamed, and I do not mark you a coward. We broke, but Taggel rose from his deathbed, and took out Tercert in challenge. In him is pride, and courage beyond us all. He is cold as a lizard, and ruthless in command. He is dangerous."
       Gezeet was bobbing broadly. "Yes, dangerous, it is good to have a dangerous First."
       Kerchin bobbed back. "He is cold now. But until we face a true foe, we will not know how dangerous he is."
       Gezeet continued. "We are not likely to see a war city so far from the Leadward Marches."
       Keert bobbed as well. "True, and Kerchin you are correct. That is the true test of the commander. No doubt that day will come. Come, let's fly some more."

       Taggel paced the deck. Welfare reports were positive. There had been little shooting. The strikers had gotten the two ships that got away. "Second!"
       "I will be in my dayroom."
       "By your Will, Sire."
       Taggel let the door close behind him. The planet rolled across the top of his windows. Distant voices called, distant shouts of "No, No, No!" Fists were shaken at him. Humanoid faces twisted up in... hate. Taggel shivered. Here was another people to hate them. He suddenly felt very sick to his stomach. He turned away from the windows only to see the world reflected in his trophy case, just another trophy. He fell back into his chair. Whose loved ones were on the station he so negligently ran over. Would their children swear his death, not even knowing his name?
       What could they do? To change would be to admit weakness. Control of space was all the Empire had. Control of space must be maintained. Weakness would destroy them. Control required a harder and harder grip. How long could they hold on? The answer was grim. They could not hold on much longer two generations, three?. The United Federation would be a place to run. The people would run. Federation traders would come in, and the peoples would demand ships of their own.
       War with the Federation? Kirk had spoken of 20,000 ships inside six months. He didn't speak as a man making idle boasts. War was a quicker way to die. War without reason was wasteful. He didn't feel like wasting the life he had fought so hard to keep. Taggel felt trapped, and could see no way out.

       Taggel waited in the Executive hangar for Cher'cur to dismount his ship. The older man fairly bounced off the shuttle. He looked fluffy, a sure sign of pleasure. Taggel's crest popped up when Cher'cur jumped up and flew over the heads of his staff to the hangar entrance. He dropped to his feet next to Taggel.
       "You seem pleased."
       "I am pleased. Things went about as well as can be expected. Their government understands it must hue the line."
       "What about their future development?"
       "Ah, I will contact the Hall of Pinions and get someone out here to supervise. It is well past time we did that."
       "Of course. As it should be."

Continued in Part three

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