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“Room! Ten-HUT!” a deep baritone voice boomed. Sixty-five sentient beings stood, though it’d be generous to say that more than half actually came to the position of attention. The few Star Fleet personnel did by Pavlovian-reflex, of course, as did those wearing Federation Police uniforms. However, those in various other uniforms and civilian attire obviously had a more relaxed definition of ‘attention’.
Three people entered and marched down the aisle to the front of the room. The two human women wore Star Fleet uniforms; the handsome man wore an expensive tailor-made suit that complemented his pale-blue complexion, a stereotypical example of the Deian race. The symbol affixed to his lapel denoted he was a senior official in the Diplomatic Corps.
“Take your seats,” one of the women ordered. Once everyone complied, she continued. “My name is Captain Amanda Littleton, special assistant to Vice Admiral Littleton ... Charles, for those without a current directory of my many cousins.” There was a smattering of laughter in the audience. “This is Commander Sarisha Sahani, tactical coordinator for the Fourth Fleet. She will give you the specifics of your mission. And this is Mister Blake.” Of him, Littleton offered no more introduction. “This is a classified briefing. Please turn all tricorders and communicators off.”
She picked up a remote control device and dimmed the lights. The wall screen changed to show a map of the United Federation of Planets and surrounding empires. The Milky Way’s Shapely Center was someplace off the top of the map. The Federation, a circle ninety-five hundred parsecs across, dominated the center of the map. Four major empires bordered it: the reptilian Gorn to the ‘northeast’; to the ‘east’ and ‘southeast’, the Romulan Neutral Zone; next, the Klingon border, the longest, extended from ‘south’ to ‘west-northwest’; and finally, to the ‘northwest’, the feline Kzintis.
It was that border region the Fourth Fleet and Star Base Thirteen were responsible to protect. Some in the Federation Assembly questioned the need to keep a dozen or more warships stationed there; after all, the Federation and Kzinti were allies now, were they not? However, that relationship was less than two years old, and ‘allies’ is not the same as ‘friends’. There were still several issues of contention, the human colony on Rio Verde one of the biggest, that could spark another war between them.
“We’re here, of course,” a mark appeared highlighting Star Base Thirteen’s location about fourteen hundred parsecs from the border. “As you may know, the Kzintis are at war with the Lyrans,” another feline race somewhere off the left side of the map. Little was known about them, not even their true name. “About three months ago, the Lyran fleet crossed the border in mass -- with perhaps as many as forty-five warships in the initial attack, so this isn’t just another border raid. In fact, we believe it’s more than just a land grab. This time it’s for real.”
The image changed, zooming the map in to display roughly twenty-five hundred parsecs of the Klingon-Kzinti border region with Star Base Thirteen near the right edge. “Intelligence reports indicate the Klingons have upwards of thirty ships along the Kzinti border, and Star Fleet believes they can mobilize at least that many more on short notice without weakening their other borders. Should they invade, too, the Kzintis could very well find themselves pushed back to their home world. We have reason to believe,” she glanced over to Mr. Blake, who shook his head imperceptibly, “that they will not do so for perhaps the next two or three months. But if they should ....”
“The Four Powers War, round two,” someone quipped. A decade prior, war broke out along the Klingon-Kzinti border and soon ensnared the Lyrans and another mysterious race known only by their codename, the Hydra, someplace ‘southwest’ of the Klingon Empire. That war lasted nearly four years and ended ‘with inconclusive results’ ... inconclusive if one only looked at a map showing the before-and-after borderlines. It proved rather conclusively that modern logistics and Warp technology made interstellar warfare possible on a grand scale. It proved that the Klingons, for all their aggressiveness, were not invincible, and it should have also proved to them the folly of fighting a two-front war.
“Yes, quite possibly,” Littleton agreed. “But if the Klingons do invade ....” she paused again, staring at the remote in her hand. She pressed the button hard, slapped it against her palm, and tried it again. “Yeoman, can you fix this damn thing?” she asked as she tossed it to the enlisted man standing off to the side of the room.
Taking advantage of the delay, someone in the front row asked, “Why would they wait, Ma’am? The Klingons, I mean -- why do you think they won’t attack for several weeks?” Isenberg was sure he knew the man, but just couldn’t place him. Where had he heard that (obviously fake) French accent before? That was going to bug him all day if he couldn’t remember.
She looked over at Mr. Blake before saying, “Who knows for sure?”
“Perhaps,” interjected Commander Sahani, “they want the Kzintis to commit their defenses to the Lyran front; perhaps they want to see how long and how far the Lyrans are willing to push forward; perhaps they’re already in a fight against the Hydra; perhaps they want to see what we’ll do first; or perhaps it’s just the wrong holiday. We don’t know whether they’ll wait or not, just as we don’t know whether they’ll ever invade at all. But our best guess is they will attack, ten weeks from today. Twelve at the latest.” She never looked at Blake and therefore didn’t see the ‘Shut up!’ look he was giving her.
“Before that happens,” Captain Littleton accepted another remote from the Yeoman, “we have to deal with the issue at hand. There are over twelve hundred Federation citizens in harm’s way.” She pressed a button on the remote. This time it worked, and numerous green dots lit up across the map in both Klingon and Kzinti territory, and a few in the neutral zone between them. “Doctors and scientists, merchants and missionaries, sociologists and archaeologists ... your mission is to evacuate them. Gather them up and bring them safely home.”
This prompted several comments from the stunned audience: “You’re kidding, right.” “Why? They knew the risks, let’em live with it.” “No way!” “Isn’t that Star Fleet’s job?”
“Quiet,” Littleton said, holding her hand for silence. “Okay, quiet down, people.” The chatter continued. “ENOUGH!” she roared. “Quiet. Alright, now then ... I heard one valid question in all that: why aren’t we sending Star Fleet ships in? Quite simply because the Klingons won’t let us. If we send so much as a single Frigate over the border, even into Kzinti space, they’ll view it as an act of war. Ergo, we’re limited to utilizing civilian craft.”
The man in the front row interrupted again, “The Klingons, Ma’am ... they’re going to be okay with this? They’re going to let us simply sail across the border unimpeded and fly all over the Empire picking up these people?” This time, Isenberg recognized him as Lieutenant Commander-select Pierre Faucheux, the First Officer from the Cutter Gendarme ... and the biggest pain in the posterior one could imagine. Hard to imagine that Pierre would be getting his own command soon.
“Not quite as simple as that, but essentially yes.” Again, she glanced to Mr. Blake, “In fact, it was their idea. Their demand ... the Emperor’s decree, to be more precise. We expect no more, and no less, trouble from the Klingons than normal. The Kzintis, however, may be more problematic. They are at war and are not in a position to be all that trusting. We’ll get into the specifics and details next, but this is important: do not, under any circumstance, cross from Klingon space into Kzinti space, or vice versa. To do so may initiate war prematurely, and drag the Federation into it as well. Understood? Good. Risha, the floor is yours.”
Commander Sahani took the stage. Isenberg watched her with fascination -- so this was the famous Sarisha Sahani from Roger Guzman’s past. He stole a glance at the Chief and found his face implacable. Never before had he seen a poker face so unreadable. He turned his attention back to the woman standing at the front of the room. She was petit yet athletic, much like Gunny Thorns only a little taller, with a medium-dark South-Asian completion and jet-black hair streaked with silver highlights. Time was not at all unkind to her. He found himself comparing her to Rosalina Chavez, and surprised himself for wanting to see the freighter captain again.
“Ladies and gentlemen, I’m Commander Sahani,” she began. She had a slight British accent, Isenberg noticed, and not the singsong cadence so common to South-Asians. “This will be your mission prep brief for Operation Cougar Roundup. If I didn’t know the computer picked it, I’d suspect it’s so named because by the time you gather up all these civilian refugees, you’ll feel like you were herding cats.” The audience laughed dutifully. “We’ll issue written orders before the end of this brief, so there’s no need to take notes. Please keep your tricorders and PADDs turned off.
“Today, your ships will be prepped for the mission. You’ll receive all the supplies you need -- food, both standard meal packs and emergency rations, medical supplies, extra bedding and clothing, passenger-grade E-suits, and so forth. We’ll flush and fill your water and air tanks, and refuel your ship if it’s below fifty percent.
“Any of your crew that wishes to leave personal items behind will be issued a standard deployment locker free of charge. That includes civilian personnel. Given the nature and risk level of the mission, we request that some items be left behind. A listing of said items is in attachment seven of the op-order.
“Also, as a security measure, we will also dump your ship’s entire computer core, to include all official and personal logs, into secure storage then purge your computers to take them down to level two baseline. We’ll upload navigation charts only to the level of detail that we know the Klingons and Kzinti know we have, and nothing of Federation territory deeper than fifteen hundred parsecs from the neutral zone. While it’s not what your used to, the map detail should allow for safe passage around any significant hazard.” Some members of the audience shifted uncomfortably in their seats, but no one complained. At level two baseline -- factory settings plus all current software upgrades and patches -- there would be no sensitive data for anyone to steal. The precaution was a wise one. Even with the altruistic nature of the mission, there was nothing to stop the Klingon authorities from ‘inspecting’ their ships.
“Tomorrow, you will depart Star Base on a staggered schedule. That schedule is flexible; you may depart early if ready, or delay if you need more time. However, we would like all ships off station by twenty-hundred hours. We do not want everyone to scatter at the same time, as that would bring undue notice to your departures, so please don’t wait until the last minute to leave. You will then proceed by circuitous routing to the border station designated in your specific orders.”
“Border station, Ma’am?” Lieutenant Faucheux interjected, “They haven’t been called that in years.”
Commander Sahani looked at him as if examining an alien insect. It was a peculiar mannerism, almost Vulcan-like, with her head tilted slightly to the side and one eyebrow raised. “So I’m old school. Border station, base station, battle station ... whatever we call it now, it’s still a space station near the border. Now please don’t interrupt again.” Faucheux was obviously unhappy with the admonishment, but wisely held his tongue.
“You will then have between six and twelve hours to top off your fuel tanks and run a complete systems check on warp drive, weapons and life support. That will be your last opportunity to make any last minute repairs at a Federation facility.
“Next, you will make sub-space radio contact with the foreign customs officials, using code phrases and counter-signs you’ll find listed in your orders, and request permission to cross the border. They will probably send a security skiff or a police gunboat to escort you. In fact, for those of you going into the Klingon Empire, you can count on having an escort for everywhere you go. The Kzintis also might insist on escorting you while in their territory, but possibly not. Even so, I would strongly suggest you stick to the mission plan and don’t go off exploring.”
She paused to change the view screen such that several planets were color-coded. “You will then proceed to your designated pick-up points, as listed in your specific orders. The bulk-cargo freighters will go to these seven planets,” the blue dots on the screen began to blink, “with the highest concentration of Federation citizens. Happily, these are also some of the planets closest to the border, so it’ll be in and out for you. That will account for nearly two-thirds of the folks we want to bring home.”
Isenberg noticed that Rio Verde wasn’t among the color-coded planets and mentioned that fact. Mr. Blake gave him that same sort of ‘Shut up!’ look, and Captain Littleton told him not to worry about it, as they “had other plans for dealing with the Rio Verde colony.”
“The smaller freighters will go to the planets within twelve hundred parsecs of the neutral zone,” Sahani continue as if the interruption had never happened. Now thirty or more yellow dots blinked. “You’ll find people in groups of a few dozen at most on any one planet, so you won’t have time to dilly-dally. Pick ‘em up and move on. If they give you any lip, remind them of what a Klingon prison is like ... anyone still in the Empire after the deadline is subject to arrest. Their only other option is to make their own way to someplace safe like Mad Jack’s Hole.” Obviously, ‘safe’ was a relative term.
One of the civilian freighter masters raised his hand, “What about those in Kitty space? What threat do we use on them?”
Sahani bit back her first retort to the derogatory slang, and before she could formulate a proper response, Mr. Blake answered, “Tell them that if the Klingons invade, any humans they capture in Kzinti territory will be considered spies.” No one had to explain what the consequences of that were.
“Exactly so,” the Commander nodded. “That includes you, too, so get in, get the job done and get out. Now, you can expect some of them will want to pack up their whole house or business. There’s not enough time for that, nor do you have the cargo room for it all. Tell them they can bring whatever they can carry, and to sell the rest or hire a local contractor to ship it later. The bulk-cargo freighters might have room for more personal belongings, but I’ll leave that up to you to decide if you have the time to load it.
“Now then, to the last two groups of ships. The Express boats,” she referred, of course, to the tiny but super-fast mini-freighters designed for courier duty and for transporting small but high-value, high-priority cargo, “have very specific targets, mostly diplomatic staff and their families. You will pick them up and no one else. And the Police Cutters will evacuate the planets beyond the freighters’ reach.” Red dots blinked on the map. “The Cutters Mazza, Gendarme and W. Stuart will go into Kzinti space; LaMagne and Magnum will work the Klingon Empire. Again, you will find our people in small clusters. However, instead of businessmen, these are mostly archaeologists and other scientists. If you’ve ever dealt with these types of people, you know how stubborn they can be -- surely the evacuation orders don’t apply to them. Their work is too important to interrupt,” she finished with a thick layer of sarcasm.
Several members of the audience nodded and some chuckled. Isenberg sighed. Yes, he knew the type all to well. He once worked with a botanist that tried to pick flowers during a forest fire, totally oblivious to the danger around her. And talk about absentminded! On another occasion, she had a sudden thought while in the shower and forgot to dress before going to the lab to test the idea.
“Go to the planet farthest away first and work your way back -- no sense in taking refugees along for the ride. Also, you may have to pick up any strays the freighters leave behind on your way out.”
For the next ten minutes, Commander Sahani covered the Rules of Engagement in great detail. Isenberg thought they should be called “rules of non-engagement” considering how limiting they were. Basically, they could only fire if fired upon and then only to the degree required to make their escape. Even if the Klingons (or Kzintis) should suddenly declare war against the Federation, this was still a humanitarian mission and thus the rescue ships were “non-combatants.” If need be, they should surrender for internment rather than fight and risk being destroyed.
Even more interesting was the R.O.E. that said they were not allowed to fire on any civilian ship for any reason unless absolutely required to save themselves -- not even if said civilian ship was a pirate raider from one of the Orion Syndicate cartels. When asked about this, Blake gave a cryptic reply that left Isenberg suspecting that this wasn’t the only mission the Federation had going on in foreign territory.
“Okay,” Commander Sahani continued, “Before the Cutters leave here, we’re going to supplement your crew with a thirty-man detachment of Marines. Actually, they’re going to replace your Tac-Teams, which will be temporarily reassigned elsewhere. If any of your people is due for leadership or technical school, now is the time to have the Chief of the Boat do some body swaps between the Tac-Team and regular crew. For that matter, if someone has a bunch of leave they want to burn up, now might be the time to let them go. Except for the Magnum, you’re all suddenly over manned by about twenty people.”
Lieutenant Faucheux raised his hand just high enough to get her attention. “Marines on a Police vessel, Ma’am? Why? And why would either the Klingons or Kzinti allow them in?”
“We’ve had a Marine detachment on the Magnum for a few months,” Isenberg responded, “and the Klingons know about it. My guess is either they forgot when they agreed to this mission, or they just don’t care. As to why you want or need them should be obvious: we have no idea what we might run into, and some extra firepower might come in handy. Besides, citizen evacuation has always been a Marine mission, historically speaking; somehow I doubt they’d let us leave them out of this.”
“Yes. Exactly so, Commander,” Sahani confirmed approvingly.
“Thank you, Ma’am. The question that’s running through my head,” Isenberg continued, “is why were those Marines assigned to us back then in the first place? Is this all just a happy coincidence now, or did someone plan it this way so the Klingons would get so used to the idea that we have them onboard that they’d forget about them now?”
The three briefers looked at one another before Mr. Blake said, “My word, what a Machiavellian mind you have there, Lieutenant Commander.”
“What about the freighters ... will we be getting any extra security detail?” someone from the back of the room asked.
“I was just getting to that. Yes, if you want them, you can have a team of five to ten men, either Police Tac-Team or Marines. The bulk-cargo freighters will get twenty-man teams. You don’t have to take them, but I’d recommend it. We don’t expect trouble, and we expect you to run away from any that you find. On the other hand, as Commander Isenberg said, you never know when you’ll need the firepower. If nothing else, you’ll want them to keep your passengers out of trouble.”
The Commander pause long enough to take a folder from the Yeoman. “Before we pass out your orders and Intel briefs, let me show you this.” She opened the folder and flipped it forward until it was nearly upside-down. Several ribbons about fifteen centimeters long dangled from it. “If you’re boarded and/or expect to be captured, destroy the documents in these folders. Flip it open like this, pull the safety pin,” she indicated the metal pin in the spine of the folder, “grab the ribbons and yank. Oh, and don’t look at it when you pull those.”
She took one loose page from the Yeoman and demonstrated by pulling the ribbon then dropping the sheet. There was a bright flash and a puff of smoke, and nothing remain of the paper or its protecive cover before it hit the floor. “That was one page. You can imagine what forty going off together is like. Don’t look at it,” she warned. “If you cut or tear the protective cover, it will ignite, so be careful with them.”
She retrieved the folder from the Yeoman again. “You’ll receive two folders. The first contains your orders, either a certificate showing that you were deputized into the Federation Police Forces or a copy of the contract showing that your civilian company was hired for the mission, a statement of diplomatic immunity, your basic itinerary and so forth. This folder does not have the destruct feature. The second folder, which is rigged for quick destruction, has intelligence data regarding the authorities you’ll likely deal with, the planets you’re going to and the Federation citizens you’re to pick up. There’s also a listing of safe havens, contact data, radio frequencies, code phrases, and such to cover any anticipated contingencies. Lots of important information ... don’t lose it, but don’t let it fall into the wrong hands either. So, are there any more questions before we pass these out? Yes, Yvonne?”
Commander Christensen stood up. “This has all been fascinating, Sarisha, but I don’t understand why I’m here. It’s not like I can take Cygnus Police Station on this mission.”
“I believe I can answer that,” a male voice said from the back of the room. Christensen turned to look, then started to call the room to attention, but he waved her off. “As you were. Keep your seats.” The man walked the front of the room and stepped up on the stage. He towered over Commander Sahani. His skin was as dark as night; his hair might have been in years long past but was now a distinguishing silver. Upon his Police uniform, which he filled out with a bodybuilder’s physique, he wore the rank insignia of Commodore.
“Sorry for the interruption; I just stopped in to have a word with the Captain. But since I’m here, let me introduce myself. I’m Dennis Hammerstrom. One of my many hats is that of District Commander, Fifty-First Cutter Group. Since most of the Five Two Eight Cutter Squadron is here, I thought I might recall the rest of the boats and have a Commander’s Call. I wanted to have it at noon, before this briefing, but the schedule was overcome by events. I was going to make this announcement there, Commander, but I need you to take command of one of the boats for this mission. Can you do that for me?”
“Aye aye, Sir,” Christensen barely contained her glee. “Might I ask which one, Sir?”
“I’m sorry, Commander, but you’re not getting the Magnum back ... I need you to take over the Gendarme, please.” Faucheux was obviously unhappy with the Commodore’s announcement, but managed to contain his reaction. “Commander’s Call will be at sixteen hundred hours in the main auditorium, followed by dinner and a reception for officers and chiefs at the O-Club.” He turned to Sahani, “My apologies again for the interruption, Commander. Please, carry on. Captain, might I have a word with you outside?” The two of them started for the door. “Keep your seats,” he ordered on his way out.
Sahani resumed her place on the stage again. “That pretty well covers everything. Make sure you read the contingency plans carefully. Mister Blake, do you have anything for the group?”
“Yes, thank you,” he stepped up beside her on the stage. “While your mission is to evacuate our people, please remember that it does not supercede the Prime Directive. Believe it or not, there are still many un-contacted worlds in both the Kzinti Hegemony and the Klingon Empire. These are clearly marked on your navigational charts. You are to avoid all contact with said planets, save for the most dire of circumstances. Don’t even think about trying to recruit the natives to fight against the Klingons ... the last time we tried something like that, it backfired spectacularly.
“As the Commander mentioned during the Rule of Engagement brief, the Klingons will not allow any active scans. They are deadly serious about this. Nor will they let you near any military installations. You’re not there to spy, of course, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t keep your eyes open. Make note of anything unusual, including any areas they won’t let you see that aren’t marked on the charts. Star Fleet Intelligence will debrief you upon your return.
“One more thing: war appears inevitable, but let’s not invite it early. As heartless as this might sound, we’d rather see you captured and interned in a forced-labor prison than get the Federation involved in a war we might not be ready for. Should the worst happen, we will do everything in our power to obtain your release. We’ll avail ourselves to every diplomatic avenue first, so it may take some time. But one way or another, we will bring you home. The Federation never leaves anyone behind.”
He returned to his seat. Commander Sahani gave him a very curious look. Isenberg glanced over to see the same sort of look on Senior Chief Guzman’s face, and he wondered what was being left unsaid. As the Yeomen began passing out the folders, Sahani reminded everyone that this had been a classified briefing and that the material they were now receiving was also considered classified and needed to be safeguarded.
Captain Littleton returned and asked if there were any more questions. One of the civilian freighter masters asked about fuel costs: were they to pay market prices or government contract prices? She answered that Star Fleet would top them off for free for the mission. Another asked about refueling and other supplies once on the other side. Mr. Blake replied that, as clearly stated in their contract, they would be fully reimbursed for any legitimate costs they might incur and were therefor authorized to buy supplies from anyone available, including pirates and smugglers (though he recommended against that). However, as they would be topped off before departing Federation space, he didn’t see why they would need to purchase anything while in foreign territory. That said, the mission plan did allow for contingencies, of course.
There were no further questions once these few minor concerns were taken care of. Littleton dismissed the briefing but asked the police officers to stay for a few extra minutes. She also asked the S&J captains to stop by her office in one-half hour for some “important company business.”
Isenberg was still pondering Sahani’s reaction to Blake’s last comment while he scanned the documents when he found something else to ponder. He was checking the list of refugees, looking to see what type of scientists he’d be rescuing, when a name halfway down the page brought back a flood of memories. Ensign Kallie Miller, the airhead blonde botanist from the Destroyer Sargon. Girl, just what had you gotten yourself into this time?
~~~ ~~~~ ~~~