12 : Exploration
On the following day, Sunday, as her senior officers assembled for a routine meeting at the end of the morning, the captain turned toward Lts. Draxt and Merrith and put on a trace of a smile. "I trust our Mathies will be able to stay awake at least until the end of this briefing?" she asked.
"It's usually other people who have a problem with staying awake around us, Captain," said Merrith.
"You'd better make your report short then," laughed the captain. "I think the rover situation would be a good place to start."
"It all became clear while we were reviewing data from rovers in combat, Captain," said Merrith. "One very slight weakness. But it had the same result on the deflector's screening effect as sticking a pin into a balloon. And once you know what's causing the problem, you're on the way to solving it. Most of the time."
"What can we do about it?" said the captain.
"Well, one approach would be to make the skin of the balloon out of a self-sealing material," said Merrith. "Which would involve some sort of change to how the deflectors achieve their coverage. What we've deduced about the interleaving scheme that the system at Osirlanding uses will be a very good model ..."
"How long would that take?" the captain interrupted.
"Unknown, Captain," said Merrith. "We're still trying to come up with an assessment of whether it's possible. The how question comes some distance after that."
"How unknown is your unknown?" said the Captain.
"We're talking sometime between a few hours and perhaps a week to sort out if we can do it, Captain," said Draxt.
"On a more positive note, Captain," said Chief Engineer Jones, "the general level of engineering work our Mathies are talking about will fit easily into the modification programme for the rovers. All we need is for them to work things through and give us something we can work with."
"On the subject of modifications," said the captain, "how are things coming on the system Frand and Jesper came up with?"
"That's installed, Captain," said the chief engineer. "It was relatively simple to hook an 'initiation spike' detector to the helm controls. In fact, the hardest part was creating a realistic enough simulation of that sort of spike for testing."
"Talking about testing," said the second officer. "It presents something of a problem in the case of the deflector modification our Mathies are considering. If it works, all well and good. If not and we lose another rover, we're down to just three of them. Not to mention the risk of casualties. Unless we're going to use remote piloting."
"Which our expert says is never as good as being on the spot in person?" The captain looked in question at Lt Sampar.
"I'd be happy to remote-pilot while my rover's being shot at in tests, Captain," he replied. "And maybe Admiral Gadres and the Minhotei will give us some replacements for saving their battleship. If we'd not been around, those nine bandits would have made dust out of them."
"Except, they wouldn't have been here if they hadn't been escorting us," Second Officer Orcand pointed out.
Sampar shrugged. "So they'd have dusted someone else. It was obviously what they were planning from the size of that ambush."
"Fabricating our own replacement rovers remains an option," said Chief Engineer Jones. "Given fewer distractions."
"Maybe the Minhotei will help us out with parts if they're not feeling generous enough to come through with a couple of complete rovers," said First Officer Tarn-Verat. "Their battleships certainly house impressive repair facilities."
"They need them, the way they get lumps knocked off their ships," remarked Sampar.
"We should certainly explore the rover issue," said the Captain. "And drop some very strong hints to the Minhotei."
"Possibly, we could offer to lend them one of our Mathies to help tune up their detectors if they're not feeling all that co-operative, Captain?" suggested Chief Science Officer Andersin. "The admiral was very interested in how much more we can see just before those raiders attacked."
"Sceptical would be a better description," said the Captain. "Every time we say we can see something, the Minhotei want confirmation in spades. Very well. I'll sound out the admiral. See how co-operative he's feeling. And how eager he is to have his detectors tuned up."
Sub-Lt. Rilla Frand answered a summons to the chief science officer's quarters with a degree of caution. Sub-Commander Donna Andersin had something of a mother-hen image but she could be a hard task master if she felt that someone was failing to achieve his or her full potential.
On this occasion, Andersin waved the visitor to a chair and offered her coffee, which Frand took as a good sign.
"The captain is going to lend one of the Mathies to the Minhotei to help tune up their detectors," Andersin announced. "Korolas is going. And I thought it would be a good idea to send a physicist with him as an interpreter. If we have a hell of a job understanding what Draxt and Merrith are talking about a lot of the time, it's going to be even worse for the Minhotei."
"Who do I have to kill to get the job?" Frand said quickly.
"You want to go exploring, Rilla?"
"I'd really like a look at that battleship. And it's a good idea to send someone with Rol in case he gets so involved, he forgets to come back."
"Perhaps we'd better put a tracker beacon on him in case you get separated," laughed Andersin. "The rover leaves at eighteen hundred. Be ready to spend about three hours in a BIG."
Frand pulled a face. "I knew there had to be a catch."
Lt. Draxt found himself wearing full biological isolation gear for his visit to the battleship Trevdoran. He was not used to wearing the equipment and not at all comfortable in it. Further, he was not looking forward to the decontamination procedure when he returned to Star Dancer. But he had Sub-Lt. Frand along to share his misery, which made things slightly better.
Frand and Draxt were surprised to find that the battleship did not include Mathies among the crew. Instead, Trevdoran carried physicists and engineers with training in mathematics. Within a short time of meeting Draxt, it became clear to Chimin, the Minhotei chief science officer, that his people were not in the same league. The battleship's chief engineer found the concept of adding two or more pure mathematicians to the crew intriguing. He said as much to the group gathered in Trevdoran's equivalent of Star Dancer's detector control room.
"It's not as if you don't have room for them," Draxt remarked as he used a computer terminal to sketch modifications to the control software for the battleship's detectors. "On a ship the size of a small planet."
"Our problem is that we suffer from a bureaucracy of the same size," said Tomrach, the chief engineer. "Getting decisions out of them is a long, cumbersome business."
"Yes, we've heard that," said Draxt. "In fact, the people on our ship are betting we'll get right across your space before your government decides to tell us to go round it instead."
"Sounds like a wise bet," laughed Tomrach. "Can you just explain that last bit of the detector modification again? I'm far from my world's finest mathematician but I think I've almost grasped it. And I think I see why you've been paired with a physicist," he added with the Minhotei equivalent of a smile for Frand. "Does he make your head ache, too?"
"All the time," laughed Frand. "But we bring him down to size by reminding him that someone who's totally brilliant at one thing has to be totally crap at lots of other things to make up for it. On the grounds of simply symmetry."
"An interesting point," said Chief Science Officer Chimin.
Draxt completed a second diagram and resumed another relentless pursuit of understanding, knowing that doing something useful for the Minhotei could provide Star Dancer with replacements for its destroyed rovers.
He was aware of Frand keeping an eye on the time. They had agreed that Draxt would try to get his suggestions across as quickly as possible so that they would have a reasonable amount of time to look over the nearer parts of the battleship.
Luckily, the Minhotei officers were quick on the uptake and they seemed proud enough of their ship to be willing to show off areas which were not totally top secret.
Captain Fregath called a debriefing meeting when Draxt and Frand returned to Star Dancer. They found Sub-Commander Andersin and Lt. Merrith in the briefing room when they arrived from decontamination.
"The captain's apologies and she'll be along in ten minutes," said the chief science officer. "How did you get on?"
"Most of them were okay," said Frand. "Some of them treated us like spies, though."
"Well, you have to look at it from their point of view," said Draxt. "A bunch of aliens in what's supposed to be an explorer vessel turn up and ask to fly right across your territory from one side to the other ..."
"What's wrong with that?" interrupted Merrith.
"And then they feed you some cock and bull story about dropping through a black hole," Draxt added. "And then you find out this alleged explorer vessel has got fancy weapons which can chew up the local pirates like a ship twice its size. Not to mention deflectors which can stop energy beams which can chop huge chunks off one of your battleships."
"And their detectors are light years ahead of yours," said Merrith.
"Right," said Draxt. "So how do the Minhotei know these aliens aren't spies working for the pirates? They only want to swan right through their space, scanning everything in range of their superior detectors. Can you come up with a better definition of spy? I certainly wouldn't trust them an inch."
"Sounds reasonable to me," said Merrith, being awkward.
"Yeah, it would," scoffed Sub-Commander Andersin.
"What's this?" said a voice behind Draxt. "Our Mathies looking for a career change? As security officers?"
"We tried to join Security, Captain," said Merrith. "But they said Draxt is too paranoid."
"Nobody's been able to relieve my paranoia by proving a ship the size of a small moon doesn't have a permanent weapons lock on us," said Draxt. "They've got more than enough weapons and it's what I'd do if I were their captain."
"I'd prefer no further discussion on that point." Captain Fregath sat down and put on a serious expression. "For your information, and on an ultra-confidential basis, the Admiral is, indeed, under orders to keep a constant weapons lock on us."
"Really?" Draxt and Merrith said together in surprise.
"Yes, really," said the captain. "He notified me of the order as a matter of courtesy, assuming we'd know what was happening from our detector scans, and we decided that it would serve no useful purpose to broadcast the information to our crews."
"I hope they don't plan to start shooting, Captain," said Andersin.
"I understand the weapon keeps a targetting lock on us but it's not powered otherwise." The captain smiled in response to Draxt's smile of smug superiority. "But when a paranoid Mathie deduces something like this, I feel the only sensible thing to do is bring him and those around him into the conspiracy."
"You mean the Minhotei really are as paranoid as him, Captain?" Frand said in disbelief.
"I'd say more regulation-bound and inflexible," said the Captain. "While we may have an excellent working relationship with their Spacefleet officers... we do have that sort of relationship, by the way?"
"We got nothing but co-operation on the battleship, Captain," Draxt confirmed. "And it was friendly rather than grudging."
"Even so, that attitude could change as their bureaucrats have yet to process us," the Captain added.
"And they won't get round to it until four point eight days after we clear their space," said Draxt.
"How did you calculate that?" the captain asked with a frown.
"I bet my next shore leave he just thought of a number," said Merrith.
"I don't bet with people who know my system," said Draxt.
"In that case," said the captain, "tell me how you got on aboard the battleship."
Draxt plugged his PDL into the display system and launched into an account of what he had done for the Minhotei in the way of deflector tuning-up and what he had gathered about his hosts during his time aboard Trevdoran.
There was another attack by the raiders before Star Dancer had completed the latest rover modifications and as Trevdoran was approaching the end of its repair schedule. The admiral had decided to postpone making modifications to the battleship's detectors until the main structural repair work was finished. He was prepared to let the smallest vessel of the group act as his long-range eyes. It was 22:39 hours aboard Star Dancer when the detector technician on bridge duty spotted twelve raiders closing at high speed. Lt. Corbin, the Officer of the Watch, issued a general alert and summoned the captain to the bridge.
"Where did they come from?" Captain Fregath asked after receiving a situation report.
"They just appeared suddenly, Captain," said the detector technician. "They didn't launch from a planet or a planetoid."
"Looks like they have to switch their cloaks off to travel at high speed," said Lt. Merrith, who had arrived with his fellow Mathie about ten seconds before the captain. "Possibly because the cloaking system eats up a lot of power."
"Yes, that sounds likely," said Draxt. "In fact ..."
"Would you gentlemen kindly hold on to those thoughts until we're a bit less busy?" said the captain. "Go to yellow alert. Hail Trevdoran. We need to get the decks cleared for action."
Trevdoran and Rashdoran had to be told where to look for the raiders. Senior Captain Arash began to look a lot less sceptical on the tri-ship communications line when his detectors eventually saw the enemy. By then, the defence plan for the battleships and Star Dancer was well in hand.
At three point one standard grids from the battleships and Star Dancer, the enemy ships altered their heading to a direct intercept course, indicating that they had been steering for a general area initially. Captain Fregath had ordered the four surviving rovers to be launched to serve as fighters.
Replacements for the rovers lost in the first battle were still being assembled. The original four had all been reconfigured to allow the weapons technicians to sit at the front, next to the pilot. Lt. Draxt remained defiantly at the back of Rover Four-A, confident that he could keep the deflectors effective if he had the extra room to move.
The battle was fierce and relatively brief. The two battleships worked to a well rehearsed defence plan and attracted ten of the raiders. The remaining two made a determined assault on Star Dancer and its fleet of improvised fighters. The pirates' strategy was to concentrate the fire from several of their vessels in an attempt to cause local overloads in the deflector fields around the battleships. Their problem was that their own deflectors were unable to protect them from the battleships's weapons for long enough to let them cause serious damage.
Star Dancer's rover fleet operated much the same tactics, with far greater success, in the separate conflict. The rovers succeeded in damaging the drive of one of the pirates while the other found that Star Dancer was more manoeuvrable, better protected via its deflectors and had almost as much fire power.
Damaged raiders flared in a final act of destruction around the battleships. Star Dancer found itself in the line of retreat of the three survivors, which seemed determined to slash at the smaller spacecraft as they fled the field of battle. Rover Five failed to check in as the raiders moved away at high speed.
"Comms, why can't we raise them?" said Captain Fregath.
"Our systems are operating okay, Captain," said the communications technician. "It must be them."
"They're still in one piece but they look like they had a deflector failure, Captain," said the detector technician. "I'm only getting one life sign," she added apologetically.
"Helm, close to tractor range," said the captain. "Stand by to recover R-Five and receive casualties."
Senior technician Paula Devris looked dead when she was removed from the forward section of the wrecked rover. Her pilot was unconscious but his pulse and respiration were strong. Doctor Percey found that he could detect life-signs from Devris at close range.
He made a leap of understanding while escorting the casualties to sickbay. Devris was radiating quiet satisfaction when she was revived. She had been using the same emergency shut-down technique which Draxt had discovered in the survival manual. When questioned by the doctor, she freely acknowledge that she had hacked into the medical records after hearing about the experiments with Draxt.
Devris was aware of the 40% revival/survival statistic. She had thought the risk of using the technique worth taking to survive what had looked like a life-threatening situation in the heat of battle. Doctor Percey realized that the other weapons technicians probably also knew about the technique. He knew that the technicians could be ordered not to use the survival technique. He also knew just how much notice they would take of the order in what seemed like a life-or-death situation.
At a practical level, he realized, he needed to push on with his experiments with Draxt to make the method safer to use.
13 : Co-operation
At a joint command conference, held over tight-beam communication links to avoid the use of biological isolation gear, Admiral Gadres seemed quite happy about the price of wiping out nine more raiders. Both Trevdoran and Rashdoran had suffered further heavy damage - but nothing which could not be repaired in time. The admiral was even happier to find that the enemy's tactic of mass attacks was not working.
Captain Fregath learned that yet another Minhotei battleship was en route to the solar system. Admiral Gadres was wondering why the raiders were concentrating in that area. He was also bringing in high-speed scout craft to search the area for a suspected raider base camp.
The third battleship would escort Star Dancer across Minhotei space while the other two stayed to tackle the raiders, if found, and complete their repair work. Star Dancer had suffered further hull damage but the necessary repair work could be completed en route to the border of Minhotei space.
Admiral Gadres was hoping to up-grade the detector systems of the scouts to make their search faster and more thorough. He was also hoping that the raiders would not be found until his fleet of two major craft had been restored to full battle
Eighteen weeks out, but still eleven weeks from home, Star Dancer resumed its transit of Minhotei space on the following day under escort by the battleship Sulindoran, which was commanded by Senior Captain Palmir. The Minhotei government had not yet made its decision on whether or not to let Star Dancer cross its territory. Those who had bet that the ship would clear Minhotei space before the decision was taken were looking very optimistic.
The convoy of two swung past the star of the unexciting system to allow stellar cremation of Star Dancer's dead and then set its course for Star Dancer's home region. The ship's engineering staff and all those with relevant experience, such as the security staff, were busy de-stressing the ship's hull and assembling rover parts as the homeward journey continued.
A grateful Admiral Gadres had agreed to supply full kits of made-to-order components which would allow Star Dancer to restore its full complement of rovers. The Minhotei had also provided the major components of two further rovers, which were to be stored in a cargo hold and assembled if required.
The admiral had also offered a good stock of spare parts, fuel materials and supplies of fresh food - none of it unacceptable to the Mathies or other crew members. At this point, r'vode was becoming a luxury item as the stocks ran out, and just an unpleasant memory for those who were unable to tolerate it.
Both the R'vode Resistance Front and the R'vode Liberation Army were planning a joint celebration party when the hated foodstuff was declared officially extinct. The R'vode Promotion League was planning a day of mourning.
Sitting with his usual companions in their corner of the snack bar at the end of an uneventful working day, Lt. Draxt put on a mild frown.
"Problem?" said Sub-Lt. Frand. "The universe about to come unglued because your latest theory has a hole in it?"
"I can't help wondering," Draxt said slowly, "if we're on the wrong side of this fight."
"How do you mean?" Frand frowned back at him.
"What if the so-called raiders are really gallant freedom fighters who are struggling against a repressive regime?"
"Yeah? So how are you going to test that particular proposition?" scoffed Frand.
"With great difficulty," laughed Lt. Merrith. "It's an interesting thought, though."
"It would be even more interesting if the gallant freedom fighters weren't trying to kill us as enthusiastically as they're trying to wipe out the Minhotei," Draxt observed.
"I think the main trouble with you Mathies is you've not got enough immediate problems to occupy your minds." Frand gave Merrith an accusing look. "Which is probably why I'm getting to spend some time with the bloke I'm supposed to be having a relationship with."
"Who's that?" said Merrith.
"You're the clever one, you work it out," laughed Frand.
"Maybe we'll get a chance to question some of the crew when we go aboard the new battleship tomorrow," said Merrith. "Find out if they're really slaves of an evil regime which is oppressing freedom fighters."
"If you get us thrown off before I've had another good look round, you'll be in big trouble," Frand warned.
As the trip home continued, Star Dancer was following up on the work begun with the crew of Trevdoran and continued with the crew of Sulindoran. Extending a Minhotei battleship's detector range was running into problems related to Minhotei understanding of the laws of physics and mathematics, but the science staffs of both crews were optimistic about achieving that understanding in time.
Captain Fregath had also struck a deal for assistance with strengthening Sulindoran's deflectors, which was compounding the difficulties. Senior Captain Palmir, a grey-haired female about a decade older than Captain Fregath, raised the persistent problem at a routine conference on the fourth day out from the battle zone. She and her first officer were contributing via a videolink rather than in person.
"We're still having problems with the things your mathematicians are telling us and integrating them into what we know," said Captain Palmir. "Your Lieutenants Draxt and Merrith are starting from a somewhat different knowledge basis and adjusting is a slow process."
"You feel you have beautifully crafted pieces of isolated theory?" said Chief Science Officer Andersin. "And you feel you should be able to do more with them but you don't know how? I know the feeling well."
"I don't think there's any other way round the problem than bringing a Minhotei equivalent of Mr. Draxt aboard your ship to build bridges out from what he or she knows to the new territory," said Captain Fregath.
"A Minhotei equivalent of Mr. Draxt," murmured First Officer Tarn-Verat. "Now, there's a frightening thought!"
"In the time available to us," said Captain Fregath, "with about another ten days needed to clear Minhotei territory, I don't think our Mathies are going to be able to give you more than isolated pieces of theory which will help you to beef up your deflectors as well as your detectors."
"The Minhotei are going to need more than Mathies," said Chief Science Officer Andersin. "We have layers of reality aboard Star Dancer. We have the Mathies, who surf the edges of human imagination, working on raw data and trying to see patterns on which they can base rules and order. And then we have the engineers, who have to deal with the real world and make things work. And in between, we have our other specialists, such as the physicists, who have a foot in both camps and who have to bring the Mathies a little closer to the ground and raise the horizon of the engineers. The Minhotei are going to have to train up their specialists to handle their Mathies."
"A very valid point," remarked Second Officer Orcand. "I have heard our physicists described as a combination of zoo keepers and messengers of the gods."
"Talking about your physicists," said Captain Palmir, "it would be very helpful to us if your Sub-Lieutenant Frand could start that training process with our physicists. She seems to have an excellent understanding of how the mathematician's mind works. And she has good communication skills."
"I think that can be arranged," Captain Fregath said after receiving a nod from her chief science officer.
"It would also be useful to us if your instructors could live aboard our ship," Captain Palmir added. "We could build a suitable habitat very quickly to reduce the inconvenience to them of travelling and wearing biological isolation garments. Alternatively, we could carry out the usual medical checks to look for potential hazards."
"I thought your government was opposed to that, Captain?" Dr. Percey mentioned. "Any direct contact with an alien species without their full approval?"
"I think it's more that my government hasn't reached a decision rather than being opposed to it," said Captain Palmir. "The rule tends to be 'when in doubt, don't do it'. But if we don't shout about what we're doing, well ..."
"Amazing how easy it is to misplace or even lose reports in a massive bureaucracy," said Tamsin, Sulindoran's tough-looking first officer.
"We would certainly welcome the opportunity to add to our medical databank," said Captain Fregath. "I take it your ship has the facilities to perform the screening work rapidly?"
"Oh, yes," said Captain Palmir. "I was thinking, it would be useful to have access to one of your engineers who is used to dealing with your mathematicians. And I gather one of your linguists would like to look at our translation system."
"Lieutenant O'Neill is champing at the bit, Captain," said Chief Science Officer Andersin.
"Discreet co-operation is in everyone's interests," said Captain Fregath.
"In return, we would assign some of our engineers to your ship," said Captain Palmir. "They have a great deal of experience in repairing the type of structural damage the pirates' weapons cause."
"That would be very helpful," Captain Fregath said with a nod.
"And if you find you have any further resupply issues," added Captain Palmir, "I'm sure we can help you, equally discreetly. And I'm sure we can add useful detail to the standard navigational data we supplied for the regions bordering our territory."
Dr. Percey and his Minhotei opposite number spent two days making sure that there were no significant risks in direct contact between their species. As a result of their report, the two captains decided that the visitors to Sulindoran and Star Dancer would have to wear just a light containment shell instead of full biological isolation gear, and that it would be safe for them to breath the alien ship's air, which would pass through a filter system on entering and leaving the containment shell.
The respective doctors could see no problems about visitors from Star Dancer breathing the air of the battleship, and vice versa, but the Minhotei had their protocols and setting them aside or modifying them, even slightly, involved a great deal of bureaucratic decision-making. The two captains felt that a token separation of the visitors from Sulindoran and Star Dancer's biosphere was the simplest solution.
The journey continued without incident. In fact, the routine reports which Sulindoran received from its equivalent of Spacefleet showed that the raiders were inactive everywhere. The pirates seemed to be regrouping and rethinking their strategy.
Officially ten weeks from home, barring further delays, the captain reached a decision at a routine senior officers' meeting at the end of the ship's day. When Commander Jones had finished an engineering report on the state of Star Dancer's hull and the new rovers, she said, "Well done to all concerned, Arrik. And in the same area, I don't want Mr. Draxt flying any more rover missions."
"Is that just testing, Captain?" said Second Officer Orcand.
"Testing and combat," said the captain. "To be blunt about it, he's too valuable an asset to risk needlessly. The new systems on the rovers have been tried and tested, and others can be trained up to use them. The period when Mr. Draxt was one of an élite with specialist knowledge needed to operate the new defence systems is now over. Do we see any problems with this?"
"I should think the weps techs will be quite pleased to about it," Captain," said the first officer. "It's their area of specialization and they find it humiliating to be unable to compete with a Mathie. Although, they're getting pretty close to him in the simulator missions now."
"Injured pride, yes," laughed the captain. "The enthusiasm for training missions on the rover simulators is at an all-time high, I've heard."
"As far as Draxt is concerned," the chief science officer offered, "I think he's been getting a kick out of being able to do something the techs can't. But when it becomes commonplace, he'll lose interest. And it's not as if he's stuck for things to do. Or Mr. Merrith."
"Still on the subject of Draxt," the Captain added, "I'm thinking of recommending him for a combat medal of some sort."
"That's certainly the last thing I ever expected to hear," laughed First Officer Tarn-Verat. "A medal for a Mathie? We're sure today isn't April First?"
"I'm quite serious, Clivv," said the captain. "A Mathie in a rover getting into combat situations with alien vessels? Especially ones which are faster and more heavily armed than Star Dancer? I should say that's probably as good a definition of conduct above and beyond as you could get."
"Put like that, I can only agree," said Tarn-Verat.
"I think he deserves it," said the captain. "And there's also a political element. The positive effect on recruitment of a Mathie with a medal."
"If that's what the Mathies can do, imagine what the rest are capable of?" said Second Officer Orcand.
"Something like that," said the captain.
"On the other hand," said Chief Science Officer Andersin, "would we civilians-in-uniform in the science divisions necessarily be encouraged to join up by knowing we could be shot at?"
"Good point, Donna," laughed the captain. "But all this is a secondary issue to Draxt being recommended for an award."
"I suppose it's a toss-up between a Distinguished Service Order and a Close-Combat Cluster," remarked the weapons officer. "And while we're on the subject, Captain, ..."
"I will also be recommending a group commendation for the other rover crews, Ran," said the captain. "Pilots and weapons techs. But I think Draxt's contribution to the ship's defence was exceptional."
"Yes, I'd agree with that," said Sub-Commander Howard.
"It might also persuade him to stay in the service, being shown some appreciation," the captain added.
"As long as it doesn't encourage him to stage any more mutinies," Sub-Commander Orcand said drily.
Lt. Draxt pretended not to believe the news when it leaked out. And then he and his friends began to make a game out of suggesting reasons why he should not accept the award. Inevitably, the game restarted when the Mathies, Sub-Lt. Frand and Sub-Commander Andersin were waiting in the snack bar until it was time to go to a briefing meeting with the captain.
"What if people start picking fights with me in bars when they see the medal?" Draxt asked. "Thinking I'm a real tough guy."
"Or what if they assume you stole the medal and use that as an excuse for picking a fight?" said Lt. Merrith.
"Or what if they think I'm insulting real combat veterans by wearing it and have a go at me?" said Draxt.
"Or what it they think you got the medal because you're a hero and start buying you drinks?" said Sub-Lt. Frand.
The mathematicians looked at her, looked at each other, and then sighed heavily, telling the world that females just didn't know the rules of being a bloke.
"I tell you what, my sister won't stop laughing for a week when she hears about it," said Draxt.
"Alex always was easily amused," said Merrith.
"Alex?" said Frand. "Is that your sister's name?"
"Short for Alexia," said Draxt. "Why?"
"I've seen her name on messages to you. But I always thought Alex was one of your pals. So she's Spacefleet?"
"The other Lt. Draxt is Spacefleet to the eyebrows. She's the Weps and Tactical Officer on Stormblade. If they've not made her up to a Sub-Commander by now."
"So she's older than you? Alex? Or is she another prodigy?"
"Three years older. But she behaves like she's half my age most of the time. She'll laugh herself sick at the thought of a Mathie with a medal."
"Why, how many medals does she have?" said Frand.
"Probably more campaign stripes that us lot put together."
"She's never been shot at, though," Merrith pointed out. "Nothing serious, like us. That's going to shut her up, when you mention it, oh, so casually."
"Excellent point," laughed Draxt.
"How are you getting on with calculating the time effect that going into the black hole had on us?" Sub-Commander Andersin asked to get everyone back into a business-like frame of mind ahead of the session with the captain. There had been so much speculation aboard Star Dancer that the captain had given the Mathies official permission to try to calculate a most probable outcome.
"What we've got is a possible time differential of either two hundred and eight days or thirty-eight minutes," said Draxt. "We can't say which from the data available."
"That's a pretty huge difference," said Frand.
"So if we can get back to communications range in less than thirty weeks, we could warn ourselves to avoid the black hole?" Chief Science Officer Andersin said after a mental calculation.
"Not in our time frame-universe - because we're here," said Merrith. "That didn't happen and we don't have memories of another Star Dancer giving us a warning which we ignored."
"Which is probably why the earliest we can reach home space is thirty weeks after we fell into the black hole," said Andersin. "And we'll probably have to make some more detours in the next ten weeks."
"Unless it was a captain-to-captain communication which we don't know about," said Frand.
"Can you imagine the captain ignoring a warning from herself?" laughed Draxt. "Or anyone else in the crew, for that matter. She wouldn't."
"And the time difference can be positive or negative," Merrith added. "The equations allow both."
"So we could be two hundred and eight days older when we get back?" said Frand. "In other words, entitled to what? Seven months' extra pay?"
"In theory," said Merrith. "But knowing the way the universe works, it's probably the other way round and we'll end up being docked seven months' pay."
"Our Mathies spreading gloom and doom again?" said the captain, who had joined them unnoticed.
"The possible time effect is quite an interesting issue, Captain." said Sub-Commander Andersin, "even if it does cost us seven months' pay."
"Why are you so sure I'd ignore the hypothetical warning from myself, Korolas?" said the captain. "Look at all the information and technology development that's come from the black hole encounter."
"Simple, Captain," said Draxt. "We've taken casualties. And in peacetime, no captain would put her ship into a situation where she knows some of her crew will be killed. Not without discussing it with the crew first and asking for volunteers."
"Even if ordered to do so by higher authority?" said the captain.
"We all prefer to think you're better than that, Captain," said Merrith. "That you wouldn't go along with it."
"We seem to be back to good men opting not to do nothing," the Captain said with a thoughtful look at Draxt.
"While we have no say in who's appointed to captain the ship we're assigned to, Captain," Draxt said, "they do tell us that only the brightest and the best get your job in peacetime. So we're entitled to expect certain standards of conduct. Including a guarantee that the captain won't kill us off if she can avoid it."
"No matter how much we annoy her," murmured Merrith.
"If the captain is supposed to be such a paragon of virtue, what about her crew?" said Captain Fregath. "Can she expect them to obey her orders, no matter how much the orders annoy them?"
"Of course, Captain," said Draxt.
"In all circumstances?" the captain asked with a sceptical smile.
"If we're talking about the safety of the ship," said Draxt, "you're entitled not to have problems with obedience, Captain. When the enemy comes knocking on the front door, you shouldn't have to worry about people sneaking round to the back door to let them in."
"I'm relieved to hear it."
"Similarly, on matters of normal routine, you don't have to wonder if I'll follow an order. I may not always do things to your complete satisfaction, but I will do them."
"In that case, what do I have to worry about?"
"Only matters of conscience, Captain. And that should apply to everyone aboard, not just Max Sampar and me. And I can't see anything like the Vrhad situation developing twice in a single trip."
"Except that this trip is far from normal. So you're telling me I don't have to worry about you except under circumstances where the moral answer is yes but regulations require me to say no?"
"Probably not on every such occasion, Captain," said Draxt. "I'm willing to admit there are circumstances where I'll turn a moral blind eye. Or allow one to be turned on my behalf. In fact, come to think of it, the probability of a situation like Vrhad arising for me and Max Sampar during the rest of the trip is pretty much zero. So if there is another mutiny, you can give us guns without having to worry about being shot in the back."
"All I have to worry about is the other hundred and fifty-three people aboard?" laughed the captain. "That's comforting. So you don't resent what happened to you after your own minor mutiny? You wouldn't stand on the sidelines and cheer on another?"
"Is this an appropriate sort of discussion, Captain?" Sub-Commander Andersin mentioned with a frown.
"No, I think it helps me to do my job better if I know what Korolas and other crew members are thinking," said the Captain. "We're in informal circumstances and I expect him to speak freely. And I think it would be instructive for others to hear what we think."
"In my own case, Captain," said Draxt, "I think I'm someone who's seen that the regulations don't always give the best solutions. I also know that my solutions aren't always going to be effective. I think we both did the right thing at Vrhad and I have no complaints about my treatment afterwards. But I don't see any point in getting myself killed trying to do something that isn't going to work."
"So if you start to look pensive, I should lock you up, quick?"
"In that case, I think you'll end up with both Mathies in the brig more or less all the time, Captain," laughed Sub-Commander Andersin.
"True," laughed the captain. "But I'd be interested to hear what Korolas would have done in my position when faced with two mutineers."
"It wouldn't have been against regulations to bust the offenders down to Technician Fourth Class and throw them in the brig for the rest of the trip home," said Draxt.
"So you think my approach was excessively lenient?"
"More pragmatic, Captain. Putting Sampar and me on double shifts to keep us out of mischief when we weren't sleeping. That benefitted the ship more than keeping us in the brig. And freed up the security staff for doing further useful work."
"I think I hear the squeak of soft soap being applied," said the Captain. "But you think I should have busted you down to Technician Fourth Class?"
"I was rather surprised when you didn't, Captain," Draxt admitted.
"The advantage of being a Tech Fourth," Merrith remarked, "is you don't have to stand bridge watches at night as Officer of the Watch."
"Ah," laughed the captain. "I knew there was a good reason why I didn't bust you and Sampar below brevett. So what can I take away from this excursion from the business of the day? That, given similar circumstances, there won't necessarily be another mutiny?"
"There's a long-standing tradition that conscience can overcome the rule book in the military, Captain. And if you're in a situation where no one is going to get killed and suffering some personal inconvenience means safety for a lot of others, it's all down to how strongly you feel you're right."
"Except you, in particular, nearly did get killed," the captain pointed out.
Draxt shrugged. "All that proves is that when you calculate the odds, you shouldn't be too surprised if the universe shoves in a factor you didn't allow for."