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08 : Hostiles

Star Dancer continued to drive closer to home. The vessel seemed to be in a quiet zone of space. There were no habitable planets around the stars, no colonies on suitable moons or asteroids and the ship's astronomers were finding nothing much of interest as they continued their task of charting Star Dancer's route home.
   Ten days out from Osirlanding, the captain finished a routine meeting with her senior officers at the beginning of a ship day by putting on a mild frown. "Do we have some sort of secret society aboard, has anyone heard?" she asked.
   "If we do, it's so secret I've not heard about it," laughed First Officer Tarn-Verat.
   "Actually, we have two," said Chief Science Officer Andersin. "I know that because a lot of my people are in them. The RRF and the RLA. The R'vode Resistance Front and the R'vode Liberation Army," she added in response to looks of puzzlement.
   "Which have what aims, Donna?" said the Captain.
   "Mainly, the destruction of r'vode wherever it's found," said Sub-Commander Andersin.
   "I've heard some of the crew come out in spots if they eat it," said Tarn-Verat.
   "That's true," said Chief Engineer Jones. "One of my senior techs ended up in sickbay. A violent allergic reaction, the doctor called it."
   "The RRF has a membership of thirteen," said Second Officer Orcand in his role of head of security and the man who was expected to know everything that was happening on Star Dancer. "Nine of whom are r'vode-intolerant. The RLA has eighteen members. All members of the night staff and only four are r'vode-intolerants. Which reflects the greater boredom of uneventful nights, I suppose."
   "And what do they do?" said the captain.
   "Exchange coded messages as they plot against everyone involved in the r'vode trade," said Andersin. "I gather they even have secret handshakes and secret recognition signals."
   "Actually, there's a third secret society, the RPL," said Orcand. "The R'vode Promotion League."
   "I must join that," said Andersin. "I like it, r'vode."
   "I gather Mr. Merrith set up just to expose the activities of the other two societies," said Orcand. "He may well be the sole member, although I suspect he has help with writing and circulating his bulletins. Which expose such things as the RLA are plotting a full-scale mutiny to take over the ship, return to Osirlanding and blast it to dust with our enhanced weapons."
   "Goodness!" laughed the captain. "What are the RRF plotting?"
   "Unknown, Captain," said Orcand. "Mr. Merrith is in competition only with Mr. Draxt to see who can be more outrageous and who can accuse the other of the worst crimes. One of my security troopers tried to decode some of the RRF's messages but failed. We suspect Mr. Draxt supplied their cipher system."
   "And Mr. Draxt is the leader of the RLA?" said the captain.
   "I gather he's r'vode intolerant, Captain," said Andersin.
   "As is Sub-Lt. Frand, the leader of the RRF," said Orcand.
   "I suppose the crew has a constitutional right to let off steam in harmless ways," said the captain.
   "Indeed, Captain," said Orcand, deciding not to mention that, according to the RPL, the RLA was planning to raid the food stores on E-Deck and dump all r'vode into space - and then space Catering Officer Metzreg and anyone who had ever eaten r'vode in public.

Three weeks after leaving Osirlanding, Korolas Draxt and Pevel Merrith found that they were able to sketch out a theoretical approach to enhancing Star Dancer's deflectors. The other specialists were eager to have something to discuss and test. The engineers had been reduced to tweaking the systems fitted to the rovers, all of which could now withstand a determined assault by a vessel with Star Dancer's current weapon capabilities for an impressive length of time.
   The first tests of the new components added to the ship's deflector systems provided a twelve per cent improvement in performance, but without the auto-strengthening effect which Draxt's system had given to the rovers. Captain Fregath recovered some of her confidence in the Mathies. Even if Draxt was still dragging his feet, her command was now better protected. And work on enhancing the disruptors continued, increasing Star Dancer's fighting potential.
   Even though Draxt had been reduced to the lowest peg of the scale of officers, the captain noticed that he reverted to his previous habits when he was in 'thinking time'. Captain Fregath was not surprised to find the Mathies together in Detector Control when she arrived as part of her routine rounds. She immediately put on her Dragon Lady face when she realized that everyone was eating.
   "Someone relocated the snack bar and not told me?" she demanded of Lt. Merrith as he was the senior officer in the room.
   "We're field testing an adventure with the synthesizers, Captain," he replied without a trace of guilt.
   "And we'd appreciate your input, Captain." Draxt offered a plate of substantial biscuit-like objects, which had been broken into bite-size pieces.
   "Cheese, spiced ham, something that's alleged to be an authentic caviar flavour, and curry," said Merrith, pointing in turn to the sections of the hexagonal serving dish.
   "How do you tell them apart?" The captain selected a piece of an allegedly caviar-flavoured biscuit and nibbled cautiously.
   "Only by smell at the moment, Captain," said Merrith. "But we could go on to a shape, a surface pattern and or a colour coding system if people vote them a success."
   "This is amazing." The captain took a more enthusiastic bite.
   "Would you care to expand on that, Captain?" said Merrith.
   "I don't have caviar regularly, of course, but this tastes exactly like how I remember it." The captain finished her biscuit and selected another lump. "This is cheese?"
   "Mature hard cheese is the official description, Captain," said Draxt.
   "Yes, it has a fresh-cheese smell. And it's positively bursting with flavour. You have a complete meal on a plate here. I had no idea my Mathies were so handy with the synthesizers."
   "Force of circumstances, Captain." Merrith directed a mocking smile at Draxt.
   "In what way?" the Captain invited.
   "I don't know if you've heard of the RLA or the RRF?" said Merrith.
   "I've even heard of the RPL," the captain replied with a smile.
   "In that case, you'll know certain people have been snacking and keeping well away from anyone eating anything with r'vode in it. This came out of a search for decent snacks which taste like something reasonable. And we had a lot of others contributing to the project."
   "The RLA and the RRF seem to have succeeded very well," said the captain. "What was in the empty compartment?" She looked down at the hexagonal serving dish.
   "Dark coffee and café crème." Draxt glared at the technicians, who were all working and not eating. "But we had a bit of a run on them."
   "Curry," said the captain, tasting another biscuit. "A distinctive flavour but not an attempt to fry the taste buds."
   "The biscuits can also contain nutritional supplements to make them a better alternative to emergency rations," said Draxt. "Although, they're not designed to keep for as long."
   "And this is spiced ham?" The captain helped herself to a piece of the last sort of biscuits. "Do they all have a slightly different texture?"
   "That was another parameter, Captain," said Merrith. "Did you have any preference?"
   "Not really. Different but all very palatable. We shall have to put a broader trial of your biscuits to the next catering review meeting."
   "Did you come here for anything specific, Captain?" Draxt asked. "We seem to have deflected you somewhat."
   "Just a general check that we're not heading for trouble," said the captain.
   "All clear on the last sweep, Captain." The senior technician made a formal report in a self-conscious tone. "No new contacts."
   "Very well, I'll leave you to carry on." The captain nodded to those around her and continued her tour of the ship.

The important of being armed and ready was brought home to the crew on the day after the official transit clock counted down to thirteen weeks from home. Star Dancer had been travelling for fifteen weeks since the black hole encounter and the original six month estimate for the trip home had slipped by two weeks.
   Inevitably, the incident occurred during ship night when Brevett Max Sampar was the Officer of the Watch and Brevett Korolas Draxt was the duty science officer and manning the detector control station on the bridge.
   "Company," Draxt remarked in a conversational tone as Sampar was rubbing his face with his hands at 02:30 hours and hoping that he could stay awake. Another ship had just entered hyperspace in their vicinity.
   "Where away?" Sampar said through a yawn.
   "Three one zero by minus one five. Range three point two grids."
   "Where's that come from?"
   "Maybe it's just lifted off from a lump of space rock. I can't see anything planet-size or big enough to show up on a medium resolution sweep. And it looks like they're on an eventual intercept course. There's a very slight angle of convergence at the moment."
   "When do we converge? After our shift's over?"
   "Yes, pretty much," laughed Draxt. "Assuming they hold their heading."
   "Anything else on the screen?"
   "Nothing travelling at hyperspace velocity."
   "Nothing we should wake the captain up for?"
   "Max Sampar, suicide committed while you wait," laughed Draxt. "You'll be wanting to go to red alert next."
   "What's this other ship's configuration?"
   "A bit smaller than us but a huge drive system. You could track their trail with your eyes shut."
   "Fast?"
   "Possibly even fast enough to satisfy the boy racers among us."
   "Maybe we should go to yellow alert with something that fast nearby. It could be parked next to us before we know it, from what you're showing me, Rol. Bock!"
   The other ship had closed to within 3.1 standard grids of Star Dancer. It changed direction abruptly to an intercept course and piled on more speed. Sampar slammed a fist on the red alert button and prepared to vacate the command chair when the captain arrived.
   "Power up deflectors and weapons, stand by for manoeuvring," Sampar ordered. "Helm, plot a course directly away from that ship and stand by to go to full speed."
   "Outrunning them isn't an option, sir," reported the senior technician at the tactical station.
   "Very well," said Sampar. "We'll just have to dodge and shoot if they want to play rough."
   Captain Fregath arrived at a run when the other ship was just two standard grids from Star Dancer. Sampar gave her a rapid situation report as he moved from the command chair to the helm station.
   "They're really in a hurry," the captain said, trying for an air of calm in the face of the unknown. She could see from her displays that Star Dancer had its weapons and deflectors powered up and the ship was ready to defend itself.
   "Twice as fast as us, Captain," said the Tactical technician. "But they can't keep that speed up for too long. They'll have to slow down and let their systems cool down in time."
   "They should be challenging us any second now," the captain said. "Assuming we've crossed some invisible border."
   Sub-Commander Howard arrived to take over the Weapons station. "They have devices powered up which we assume are weapons and they're coming straight at us, Captain," he reported.
   "Keep our main weapons turned toward them, Mr. Sampar," said the captain. "Stand by for evasive manoeuvres. Hail them."
   "No response to hails, Captain," the communications technician reported as the first and second officers arrived on the bridge.
   "All crew," the captain said over the shipwide address system, "stand by for combat and high-speed manoeuvres. This is not a drill. I repeat, this is not a drill."
   "They're firing," reported Sub-Commander Howard. "They missed," he added as Sampar put Star Dancer through a violent but controlled evasive manoeuvre. "Permission to return fire, Captain?"
   "Comms, are they talking to us?" said the Captain.
   "No, Captain."
   "Weps, return fire."
   "Full power. Their weapons. Shoot," said Howard.
   The other ship managed one more shot, which bounced off Star Dancer's deflectors, before Sub-Commander Howard opened fire. The two vessels then rushed into a deadly dance, trying to manoeuvre out of the line of fire of each other's main weapons while seeking to bring their own heaviest weapons to bear.
   Star Dancer's second shot on target punched a hole clean through the forward section of the other ship. A storm of weapons fire left the deflector control team calling for more and more power from the engineering section. Another hit tore a great gash in the faster aggressor and most of its weapons fell silent. Sub-Commander Howard was just about to fire again when the other ship exploded, launching a debris field in all directions, and dropped out of hyperspace.
   "Disengage the drive," said the captain. "Detectors, what do you see?"
   "No other contacts in free space or hyperspace out to our detector limit on a rapid scan, Captain," Draxt reported. "No sign of powered structures locally, such as survival pods. I have a high resolution scan in progress."
   "Very well," said the Captain. "Stand down from red alert, resume normal running. Well done, everyone. Casualty reports?"
   "None received, Captain," said First Officer Tarn-Verat. "We may be a bit bruised and battered but I have no reports of anyone unfit for duty."
   "Damage reports?" the captain added.
   "The hull is intact, all systems functional," said Tarn-Verat. "But we have checks in progress."
   "Keep me updated, Clivv. Why did it happen, Mr. Sampar?" The captain turned her chair toward the helm station.
   "No idea, Captain," Sampar said defensively. "We were just minding our own business when they came at us and started shooting."
   "They must have been more fragile than they looked," said Sub-Commander Howard. "Blowing up like that."
   "What sort of ship was that, anyway?" said Tarn-Verat.
   "Massive drive, lots of weapons and not very much in the way of deflectors, sir," said one of the technicians. "Built for extreme speed over a short distance and aggressive, high-speed combat. Get a killer punch in before the other side can get organized."
   "We didn't trip any sensors? Picket lines?" said the captain.
   "None that we detected, Captain," said Draxt. "And there doesn't seem to be anything much worth defending around here, anyway."
   "No possibility of survivors," said Sub-Commander Orcand. "But we might learn something from the wreckage before it disperses too far."
   "Agreed," said the captain. "A three-rover search team should be enough. Mr. Sampar, you're the flight leader. You have three hours. Be very careful in the debris field."
   "Aye, Captain." Sampar turned the helm over to a technician and headed for the rover hanger.
   "Interesting configuration," said the first officer. "More or less the specification for a predator. High speed but brief endurance, and lots of teeth and claws."
   "And just one of them," added the second officer. "Clearly not a pack animal."
   "Mr. Draxt, show us your record of their course from initial contact onwards," said the Captain. "And keep scanning for any signs of others of the same breed as our friend."
   "Their detector range is three point one grids, from that abrupt course change," Tarn-Verat said as Draxt replayed the log files on the command consoles.
   "As a matter of policy, it would be a good idea to stay at least four grids from anything else with the same configuration," said Orcand.
   "Agreed," said the captain.
   "The high-resolution scan is showing what looks like some comet fragments, Captain," said Draxt. "That's where that other ship must have been hiding."
   "Is it worth having a look at where they were lurking?" said the captain. "I doubt they'd have any sort of a base around here. Otherwise, we'd have had more visitors."
   "It does look a rather unlikely place for a permanent base, Captain," Tarn-Verat agreed. "A bit too far from anywhere."
   "And it would probably be wise not to be too far from the rovers, just in case any more of these characters drop in on us," added Orcand.
   Korolas Draxt slumped into a more comfortable position in his chair. The moment of excitement was over. He knew that the inquest would drag on for hours.
   "I'm getting a report in from Engineering, Captain," said Tarn-Verat. "Mr. Jones reports some severe hull stressing."
   "Captain to Mr. Jones. How bad is it, Arrik?" the captain asked.
   "Not quite at a catastrophic level, Captain," Commander Jones replied. "But I'm glad we didn't have to fight them much longer."
   "Repair time?"
   "It will take a couple of days' work to counteract the pounding we took, Captain. We'll be as good as new then."
   "Give it a number one priority, Arrik. Captain, off." Captain Fregath closed the communication channel then directed a thoughtful look at the sprawled figure of Korolas Draxt. "Just as well our Mathies managed to beef up our deflectors somewhat," she remarked.
   "Not to mention the weapons," Tarn-Verat added.
   "Let's just hope today's excitement stimulates Mr. Draxt's thought processes and he gives us more than a twelve per cent increase in the deflector efficiency," said the Captain.

Half a day later, Sub-Lt. Rilla Frand found herself working with one of her friends, Senior Technician Engineer Olga Maiskiy, when she reported for duty in the rover hanger in the early afternoon. Her task was to tune up some improvements to the new rover from Osirlanding after it had participated in the search of the alien ship's debris field as another field trial.
   "You can tell this used to be a civilian craft," Maiskiy remarked, running a hand across the fabric of the pilot's seat. "Comfortable to sit in and nice to look at."
   "You don't find the pattern a bit eye-twitching and totally alien?" laughed Frand.
   "It's alien and different and interesting. And I like it."
   "Everyone's entitled to their own opinion." Frand completed a set of circuit tests at an open control cabinet. "Okay, I think we need to match these two boards more closely."
   "Yes, we can do that easily. How are you getting on with Bad Boy Number Two, by the way?"
   "People keep asking me why I should want to get involved with someone who only interfaces with the real world for about ten minutes each day."
   "What do you say to that, Ril?" laughed Maiskiy.
   "I just tell them I don't have any problems with keeping his attention fixed on me while we're together."
   "Good answer," laughed Maiskiy.
   "And it's also true. And, ..." Frand started to add.
   An alarm began to blare and red bars appeared on the walls.
   "Battle stations, all crew stand by for combat and high-speed manoeuvres," the first officer voice said over the shipwide address system.
   "Here we go again," said Maiskiy as she and Frand disengaged their monitoring instruments and checked that there was nothing lying around unsecured, which might cause damage to the interior of the rover if Star Dancer were thrown around by weapon strikes.

Star Dancer was passing a planetary system consisting of two gas giants, two huge ice balls and just rocky bits in orbits closer to the star. First Officer Tarn-Verat hit the red alert button automatically when two vessels moved out from behind a remote moon which circled the outer gas giant and came at Star Dancer with reckless speed.
   "Not responding to hails, Captain," Tarn-Verat reported as the captain took over the command chair. "Our weapons and deflectors are now powered up. As are theirs. And I turned our main weapons toward them."
   "Very well." The captain glanced at the helm station to see who was on duty. "Stand by for evasive manoeuvres, Mr. Sampar. Weps, return fire at whichever shoots first."
   Both officers acknowledged their orders.
   "They're both firing," Sub-Commander Howard reported when the alien vessels reached their previous weapons range. "Returning fire."
   "One hit on us. No damage. Our deflectors are holding, Captain," reported one of the technicians.
   Using performance data gained from the earlier battle, Star Dancer slipped out of the projected path of energy beams and fired at calculated points in space. The plan worked eventually.
   "First target destroyed, sir," said the weapons technician.
   "Very well. Concentrate on the second," said the captain.
   "Severe hull stressing on C-deck, Captain," an engineering technician reported.
   "Mr. Sampar, manoeuvre to protect the damaged areas," the captain ordered.
   "Sir," Sampar replied intent on his piloting. He saw no point in telling the captain that he was doing just that, even if it was making life difficult for Sub-Commander Howard.
   "A fair hit on their drive, Captain," Howard reported as the deflector team demanded more and more resources.
   "The target's no longer manoeuvring," the detector technician reported.
   "Fair hit on their forward section," Howard said. "If only we knew where their control centre is."
   "Target destroyed," the detector technician said with a note of surprise.
   "That wasn't us," said Howard. "They must have blown themselves up."
   "It's all or nothing with these characters," remarked the captain. "Can we see any more of them?"
   "Scans clear, Captain," reported the detector technician. "Although there may be more hiding behind moons."
   "Stand down from red alert to yellow alert," said the captain. "Mr. Sampar, set a course directly away from this system for one hour. Let's give ourselves a bit of sea room. Casualty reports?"
   "Four slightly injured, Captain," said Tarn-Verat.
   "Damage reports?"
   "Parts of C-deck have been posted off-limits while the hull stressing level is determined. Basically, the damage we took during the night is worse and we have a number of other over-stressed areas of hull. Mr. Jones is assessing it."
   "Very well. Any thoughts on why they were here?"
   "It's unlikely to be their home system," said the first officer. "But they may have a base closer in to the star."
   "Detectors, any evidence of habitation?" said the captain. "Or mining operations closer to the star?"
   "No signs of communications traffic, large energy sources or spacecraft activity anywhere in the system, Captain."
   "Possibly an ambush point on a trade route," said the weapons officer.
   "Probably one of life's little mysteries," said the second officer.
   "Unless we can devise a strategy for capturing one of them, you're probably right, Mr. Orcand," said the captain. "Stay vigilant, everyone. You have the bridge again, Clivv. Senior officers' meeting in one hour for situation reports."
   "Aye, Captain," said the first officer as he took over the command station.
   Clivv Tarn-Verat had viewed his posting to Star Dancer as something of a sideways career move. He was a Spacefleet officer at heart and he preferred to serve on a military vessel. Now, however, he could see distinct new possibilities opening up ahead of him.
   None of his contemporaries had ever been hurled elsewhere by a black hole. None had ever come under fire from an enemy which had enjoyed superiority of speed, weapons power and numbers. If the ship survived the trip home, Tarn-Verat could see his posting to Star Dancer counting as a very big plus when a promotion board considered his case.

09 : Command Proposition

The night watch was called the Graveyard Shift by tradition, even though a full one-third of the crew of Star Dancer was up and about. Also by tradition, it was a time when junior officers were allowed to sit in the Captain's Chair on the bridge as the Officer of the Watch and pretend that they were the boss of the universe.
   Korolas Draxt was struggling mightily against boredom as the half-way mark of his night-shift approached. Nothing was happening, the star cruiser was humming along in a dead zone of space and long-range detector probes were showing nothing of any interest. Three days had gone by since their last encounter with one of the region's violent hunter-destroyer spacecraft and Star Dancer was now officially thirteen weeks from contact range with a Spacefleet base.
   Most of the engineering work on the ship's hull had been completed and Star Dancer had been declared 92% stress-free in the last engineering report. Draxt had studied it as part of his time-wasting campaign. He fought off an impulse to retrieve his personal data logger and continue to work on his current major assignment.
   The search for a means of beefing up the ship's deflectors was proving to be slow and lacking in intellectual entertainment value despite its obvious urgency. Draxt felt that there was a solution somewhere but he was lacking inspiration.
   The big problem was that nothing ever happened while he was on bridge duty. Draxt spent most of the time sitting in the command chair and either tapping the keys of his personal data logger or thinking. At the current point in this ship's night, he had just reached the logical end point to a train of thought and found that it had taken him nowhere useful.
   He decided to take a break from serious thinking. In search of diversion, he reviewed yet again the displays on the captain's navigation screen. He chose the nearest significant target for further investigation.
   "Herlith," he said to Brevett Grad at the detector station, "give me a scan of those objects bearing two three five minus four zero. Minerals. And drive residuals," he added, realizing that the space junk offered a good lurking post.
   "I'm getting ready to re-calibrate the rearward detectors," a muffled voice told Draxt. "Your scan will hold that up unnecessarily." Lieutenant Corbin had been lurking around on the fringes of the bridge, trying to catch up with some routine engineering maintenance which was hours overdue.
   "The quicker I get the scan, the quicker you'll be able to get on with the re-calibration job," Draxt said, not letting his current rank of brevett get in the way of his status as Officer of the Watch and Boss of the Universe.
   "I don't think that scan will tell us anything," Corbin insisted, turning to glare in the direction of the captain's chair.
   "We won't know that until we get the scan results," Draxt returned evenly. He was not going to call Lt. Corbin 'sir' unless the senior officer made an issue of it.
   "This scan is a waste of time, Draxt. Which would be better spent re-calibrating."
   Draxt rotated his chair toward the round face of Brevett Grad, who was waiting to find out who won the argument. "Herlith, kindly get on with my scan," he said without pushing.
   "But ...," she said.
   "Brevett Grad, you have your orders, kindly execute them." Draxt gave her the hard tone of the Second Officer at his most commanding.
   "Belay that," said Lt. Corbin.
   "Belay that belayal and get my scan done, Brevett Grad," said Draxt.
   "You're getting a bit above yourself, aren't you, Brevett Draxt?" Lt. Corbin leaned on their difference in rank pointedly.
   "Mr. Corbin, you're disrupting my watch," Draxt returned. "Would you kindly leave the bridge. Brevett Grad, perform that scan as ordered."
   "Stand fast, Grad." Corbin was becoming annoyed but trying not to let it show.
   "Brevett Grad, get on with my scan. Lieutenant Corbin, either relieve me or get off my bridge." Draxt put on an uncompromising tone and fixed the disruptive influence with a hard stare.
   Corbin stared in outrage at the captain's chair. He had no intention of taking over the watch, which would involve explaining to the captain why he had done so, and he had no intention of being ordered about by a lieutenant busted down to brevett, even if Draxt was nominally in charge of Star Dancer for the moment. "I think you have what they call Captain Bligh Syndrome, Draxt," he said at last.
   Draxt considered further argument, then he decided to up the stakes. Stabbing at a communications button on the arm of his chair, he said, "Security."
   "Security, aye?" said a female voice almost at once.
   "Security, send a trooper to the bridge."
   "Who's that?" the female voice said suspiciously.
   "This is the Officer of the Watch," said Draxt with maximum command impatience. "Kindly execute my order."
   "Security, acknowledged." The duty security co-ordinator had decided not to get involved in an argument.
   "You can't do this, Draxt," Lt. Corbin told him. "Who the hell do you think you are?"
   "I'm the Officer of the Watch, Mr. Corbin," Draxt reminded him. "I have the bridge and all the authority that goes with that job."
   "I outrank you, Brevett"
   "Not while I'm Officer of the Watch, you don't. Sir," Draxt added to drive home his point. Some of the ship's lieutenants and sub-lieutenants derived mild pleasure from ordering the former lieutenants Draxt and Sampar around. It was well known by now that being called 'sir' by Draxt or Sampar was a warning that a devastating burst of character assassination would be delivered the moment the offender's back was turned.
   "Security, sir." A security trooper arrived at the captain's chair. He offered a doubtful salute, his body language saying that he could not see an emergency in progress - even though he was keeping his hand on the stunner on his belt.
   "Kindly escort Mr. Corbin off the bridge," Draxt said.
   "Stand fast. That's an order," said Corbin.
   "Trooper, Mr. Corbin is off duty and I am the Officer of the Watch," Draxt said in his uncompromising tone. "And I am ordering you to remove Mr. Corbin from the bridge. Right now."
   "Stand fast, Trooper," Corbin repeated, becoming more outraged by the second.
   "Trooper, are you going to remove this officer from the bridge?" Draxt demanded.
   "I don't know, sir," said the trooper.
   Draxt pushed the comm button on the arm of his chair again and said, "Security?"
   "Security, aye," said the same female voice.
   "This is the Officer of the Watch. I require two more security troopers on the bridge. Right away."
   "Security, acknowledged." The duty co-ordinator still wasn't getting involved.
   "You're getting in a bit deep here, Draxt," Lt. Corbin warned.
   Draxt looked at him, keeping his expression neutral, until a new voice at his elbow said, "Security, sir?"
   "One of you, kindly remove Mr. Corbin from the bridge," said Draxt. "This is a direct order from the Officer of the Watch and there can be no come-backs on you."
   "Stand fast, Trooper," Lt. Corbin growled.
   "You have my permission to stun Mr. Corbin and carry him out of here, if necessary," Draxt said calmly. "But I want him off the bridge without delay."
   Realizing that he was in danger of being humiliated, Lt. Corbin allowed himself to be escorted from the bridge in a way which suggested that he was leaving anyway and his escort was just going in the same direction.
   "What about me, sir?" said the other newly arrived Trooper.
   "Kindly disarm your colleague," Draxt pointed to the first security trooper, "and take him to the brig. The charge is failing to obey an order from a senior officer."
   "You can't do that, sir," the trooper said, but with a note of uncertainty.
   Draxt fixed him with a steely gaze. "Oh, yes I can. I'm the Officer of the Watch and I'm in charge here. So kindly execute my orders."
   "I'm not sure about that, sir."
   Draxt pressed the comm button again. "Security."
   "Security, aye?"
   "Send another security trooper to the bridge. Right away."
   "Have you got a problem, sir?"
   "I hope not. If you'll kindly execute my order."
   "A security trooper to the bridge right away. Yes, sir."
   "Very well." Draxt released the comm button and looked at the outraged security troopers. "As for you men, you'll either submit to arrest when another of your colleagues arrives, on a charge of failing to obey an order, or I'm going to Yellow Alert and the charge will be mutiny. Your choice, gentlemen."
   Draxt poised his finger over the appropriate button on the arm of his chair and directed an unconcerned gaze at the troopers.
   "This is getting a bit out of hand, sir," said one of them.
   "The getting out of hand can stop right here," Draxt returned. "If people will start obeying orders. And you can get that process going by disarming yourselves, right now, before the trouble gets more serious."
   "What's the captain going to say when she finds out you've got half the duty security team in the brig?" Brevett Grad remarked.
   "Have you performed that scan yet, Grad?" Draxt asked.
   "Not yet, but ...," Grad admitted.
   "Then kindly get on with it instead of questioning my performance as Officer of the Watch. And I expect to see two weapons on the deck right away, gentlemen.," Draxt added to the security troopers. "Don't fight me on this because you can't win."
   "Security, sir," said another new voice.
   "Collect those weapons and take these two to the brig," said Draxt. "The charge is failing to obey an order."
   "What appears to be the problem, Brevett Draxt?" said the ever calm voice of Second Officer Orcand.
   Draxt turned his chair toward Sub-Commander Orcand but, as the officer in charge of the bridge, he remained seated even though he was outranked. "The problem has been resolved, sir. Or it will be when these men clear the bridge."
   "You have your orders," Orcand said when the last arrived trooper looked to him for confirmation.
   "Sir!" The three troopers left the bridge as a loose group, in which the identities of the prisoners were not clear.
   "Have you made that scan yet, Brevett Grad?" Draxt asked over his shoulder.
   "You're not going to believe what it shows," said Grad.
   "Try me." Draxt gave his attention to the navigation screen at the captain's station.
   "I think I can see at least two ships with eleven stony asteroids. There are mingled residual drive trails going to the asteroids but I can't see the ships clearly. But I think they're producing a distortion effect in the gas and dust around the asteroids. It looks like they have some sort of cloaking device, if that's possible."
   "I suppose it is, theoretically," said Draxt. "Interesting."
   "Are we in their detector range?" said Sub-Commander Orcand.
   "If their detectors are no better than the ones the other hostile ships had, sir," said Grad. "with a limit of three point one standard grids, then not by a long way. They're eight point two grids away."
   "What's their size compared to the ships that have been attacking us?" said Draxt.
   "The same plus or minus fifty per cent, sir. I can't get a clear look at them. Because of the distortion effect."
   "Give me a full forward scan looking for the same sort of distortion effect," said Draxt.
   "Aye, sir," Grad said efficiently.
   "Mr. Draxt, I am relieving you," said Orcand.
   "Yes, sir. Computer, log entry. Commander Orcand taking over from Brevett Draxt as Officer of the Watch at this time point."
   "Acknowledged," said the computer's voice.
   "Assist with the scans, Mr. Draxt," said Orcand.
   "Sir!" Draxt moved to a work station beside Grad's.
   "I don't believe you," Grad whispered to him, fixing him with a disapproving glare.
   "I think you missed a bit," Draxt told her.
   "Where?" Grad looked back at her screen. "Contact," she said urgently. "Edge of range. Thirty-two point seven grids. Zero three one plus two two."
   "Disengage the drive," said Orcand. "Captain to the bridge."
   "Forward scan completed, sir," said Grad. "One single contact, as reported, with space debris."
   "The backward scan suggests there may be three ships behind us," said Draxt. "With two leading ships obscuring one behind them. I'm trying to tune up the scans but they all look like vessels of about our own size plus or minus twenty per cent."
   "Very well," said Orcand.
   "If we're getting the sightings back so quickly, that suggests they've been there, holding a station, for some time," Draxt added.
   "In line with your modified event theory, yes," said Orcand.
   "Captain on the bridge," someone said in a self-conscious voice.
   "Carry on," said Captain Fregath. "What's going on, Mr. Orcand? I've just been told half our security personnel are in the brig."
   "We have detected four cloaked vessels, Captain. Three behind us, one ahead."
   "You've detected cloaked vessels, Mr. Orcand?"
   "Mr. Draxt will, no doubt, explain how his modifications to the detectors have made that possible, Captain. We can't see them directly but we can detect their cloaking field's effects on nearby gas and dust."
   "But we're outside their probable scanning range?"
   "Well outside, Captain. Unless they have parallel modifications to their detectors."
   "In that case, we'll repeat the scans. A full scan with all detectors in all directions at high resolution. When we have the results, we'll rethink our course."
   "Yes, Captain. That should take about fifty minutes." Sub-Commander Orcand offered to surrender the captain's station.
   The captain shook her head and turned toward Draxt. "You have half the duty security team in the brig, Brevett. And you've been throwing senior officers off the bridge. You can give me your explanation in my ready room."
   "Yes, Captain." Draxt had to bite back a smile at the expression of comical dismay which Brevett Grad assumed out of the captain's line of sight.
   The captain led the way to her adjacent ready room - her private thinking area beside the bridge. She sat at the desk and put on a receptive expression. Draxt stood in front of her in a non-slouched but not-at-attention pose.
   "A proposition, Captain," he said. "In theory, the Officer of the Watch is in charge of the bridge no matter what his, or her, rank. I gave a legitimate order for a detector scan and I found myself testing the proposition in practice."
   "By having one half of the duty security staff arrest the other half?"
   "I attempted to remove a senior officer from the bridge when he challenged my authority, sir. And disrupted the smooth running of the ship by countermanding my order needlessly."
   "And the security people?"
   "I issued a lawful order, sir, and they chose to question it. And then I kept on calling in security teams until I found people who would execute my orders."
   "And your threats to go to yellow alert and charge everyone in sight with mutiny?"
   "At one level, they were just variables in the proof of the proposition, Captain. At another level, they were devices to force obedience and avoid a confrontation which could have had serious consequences for the security troopers. I wanted to keep their disobedience to a purely nominal level."
   "I think you need a lot more training in command decision-making, Draxt. You're going to have to learn that mathematical rules can't be applied to command situations."
   "An interesting proposition, Captain. But might I respectfully suggest a thorough review of the bridge logs before you assemble the firing squad? At no point did I exceed my authority as Officer of the Watch and, I suggest, neither you nor any other senior officer would have stood for the challenges to your authority that I got."
   "Mr. Draxt, I don't think you're entitled to give lectures on challenges to authority after your fun and games at Osirlanding."
   "But I can serve as a living example that anyone who disobeys a senior officer's legitimate orders will suffer serious and lasting consequences."
   "While that may be true, I don't appreciate my junior officers running human behavioural studies when they're supposed to be the Officer of the Watch and minding the store during a quiet period."
   "Yes, Captain. Although the results were extremely interesting in the way that they showed such large discrepancies between the theory and practice of being Officer of the Watch."
   "You're excused watch-command duties until further notice, Draxt."
   "Yes, Captain."
   "By the way, what would you suggest I do with your collection of prisoners?"
   "Read them the riot act, give them a token shift of extra duty and tell them they'll be in real trouble if they do it to a proper Spacefleet officer."
   "You don't consider yourself a proper Spacefleet officer, Draxt?"
   "I'm a Mathie, Captain. I don't get to be captain until pretty well every other lieutenant on the ship is dead. No, if I'm a brevett now, make that pretty well every other officer aboard. I sit in the big chair until something happens. Then I call a proper Spacefleet officer to handle it."
   "Not a point of view that would go down well with a promotion board."
   "Except that any promotion boards I attend won't be looking at my command skills, Captain."
   "Which is true enough. Very well. You're dismissed, Mr. Draxt."
   "Yes, Captain."
   "Mr. Draxt, why are you still here?"
   Draxt blinked, as if suddenly finding himself in unexpected surroundings. "I was just thinking, Captain. No one's ever done a rigorous investigation of the mathematics of what we know about cloaking theory. Getting the signature of those ships from the effects on the small debris surrounding them was pure luck. But it may be possible now to calculate most probable variances, which may help us in scanning for hidden enemies. In fact ..."
   "Mr. Draxt, you're excused. Go and think about it on the bridge."
   "Thank you, Captain." Draxt returned to the bridge to await orders and think about his new proposition. He moved automatically to the work station which he had occupied earlier.
   "You don't look too badly chewed," Brevett Grad muttered.
   "Thanks." Draxt gave her a brief and clearly insincere smile around tapping out instructions to the detectors.
   "What were you thinking of? Ordering Corbin off the bridge?"
   "He was getting my way." Draxt admitted to himself that he had been feeling bored when he had asked Grad to perform the scan which had begun the trouble - but he had no intention of sharing his secret.
   Draxt was feeling quite pleased with the outcome of his experiment if it had relieved him of watch duties., especially if he no longer had to be officer of the watch during the ship night. Draxt could stay up all night working on an interesting proposition but he found that he was constantly fighting off an urge to close his eyes when he commanded the bridge at night.
   His periods of duty as officer of the watch were an eternal search for some source of diversion to keep himself awake - such as aiming the detectors at nebulae and other phenomena to see if they could throw up interesting data.
   "Mr. Draxt," a voice was saying.
   Draxt could tell from the note of patience in the second officer's voice that he was repeating himself. "Sir?" Draxt said, turning his chair to face the centre of the bridge area.
   "I wish you to perform a sequence of scans of the cloaked vessels behind us," said Sub-Commander Orcand. "Watch for changes in their signatures which might indicate that they cycle them to make detection more difficult."
   "That's already in hand," said Draxt. "What would be useful now would be to do some calculations to see if we can come up with most probable variances of their cloaking scheme, which other members of their fleet might be using. It makes sense not to use the same system on all their ships."
   "Yes, that sounds very sensible," Orcand said with a nod. "Brevett Grad, you have the bridge. I shall be assisting Mr. Draxt and I require your work station beside his," he added, noticing the uncertainty in Grad's eyes.
   "Yes, sir." Grad moved to the captain's chair and settled herself cautiously. It was the first time that she had been, nominally, in command of Star Dancer. Being in charge, but without the full weight of responsibility of the post, felt quite exhilarating.
 

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Created for Romiley Literary Circle by HTSP Web Division, 10/12 SK6 4EG, Romiley, GB.
The original story Merik Katuryan, 2002. This version Merik Katuryan, 2005