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A Problem Like Myra

This part originally appeared on the author’s WordPress blog in January 2016, and is reprinted with permission in the July/August 2016 issue.

Part 1

Jan 5, 5710 CE/005-1192 Imperial
Aboard the Sword Worlds Confederation Starship Vakandi
Spinward Marches jump space, somewhere in the Querion subsector

Korvettenkapiten (Lieutenant Commander) Styrr Ornolf looked up from the data pad before him and nodded his head in approval. “All right, Kapitensleutnant (Senior grade lieutenant), I’ll put in the request. But I doubt we’ll get the parts until we return home.” Even in a private meeting, Styrr didn’t allow himself to get informal enough to address his executive officer by his first name. They had known each other for almost ten years and Styrr considered Arva a friend. But he was a stickler for proper etiquette when on duty. And as Captain of the SWCS Vakandi he considered himself always on duty when on board ship.

Arva Thord was not only used to his friend’s formality, he fully approved of it. One of the reasons they got along so well was a similar outlook of such matters. This was understandable since they were both from the planet Narsil and were both from similar upper middle class backgrounds. The long years of acquaintance helped as well.

Arva typed a note on the virtual keyboard projected by his wrist comm, then flipped to the next page of the meeting agenda. “Onwards and upwards then. That only leaves my status updates on the kadet’s training.”

The Vakandi (“Vigilant”) was one of five Varnarmašutr (“Defender”) class frigates in the Sword World Confederation regular navy. They were considered large for frigates, displacing eighteen hundred tons. They were designed to operate independently in the wilds, so they were built large enough to be multi function, not to mention survivable. In the nearby Imperial Regency they might have been called frontier cruisers. They were considered by the Confederation navy to be ideal ships for Naval Academy cadets to take their final training cruises on. Between their size and the wide range of situations they routinely encountered, they would test the officers in training to the full. Since there were only five in service at the moment, only those in the top of their class tended to be assigned to these ships. As X.O. of the ship, personnel matters were handled by Arva. This included grading the cadets.

This wasn’t just a training cruise for the cadets; it was their final exam. While by this point they had all earned enough credits to graduate, this last test would determine if they would ever have a chance to command. It would even tell whether or not they ever served shipboard again—if they did badly enough, they would be ‘exiled’ for their entire careers to an office, shuffling papers. They were roughly half way through this six-month deployment, so this could be considered the four cadets’ midterm.

Styrr held up a finger in the ancient sign for ‘one minute’. Then he picked up his coffee mug and took a long drink. Unfortunately it was just coffee, but it would do for now. Properly fortified, he waved his hand for Arva to continue.

The X.O. suppressed a smirk and began to read off his reports on the four proto-officers. Generally he sounded pleased by them all, except one. Although she was doing well in terms of skills and ability, Arva had his doubts about cadet Myra Brun.

“My real concern with Kadet Brun is with two areas: how she deals with the enlisted personnel, and if she’s strong enough emotionally to serve in combat.”

The captain frowned; these were serious concerns, indeed. Depending on what her problem with the enlisted was, it might be correctable. The Sword World Confederation navy was small, but aggressive and not being emotionally strong enough for combat was a career killer. ”What’s wrong with how she deals with the enlisted?”

Arva gathered his thoughts for a moment before replying. “She’s too friendly, too close to them. She acts more like a friend then a commander. I don’t think they take her seriously. I’m also not sure how she would react if one or more of them died. There should be a certain distance between an officer and her subordinates. She doesn’t keep that distance.”

The captain nodded his head. “True enough; we can’t afford to get too attached. But it may not be as bad as you think.” The X.O. gave him a puzzled look and Styrr shrugged his shoulders. “As it happens, I had a talk the other day with the Hauptbootsmann about the kadets. He seemed to think Brun was ‘different’ but effective. He gave me an example…”

Hauptbootsmann (Chief petty officer) Falk had positioned himself carefully. He was at a life support control station for the ship’s main deck. To all appearances he was checking gas mixtures and air flow. What he was really doing was waiting. A training exercise was about to start and it would give him a chance to watch cadet Brun’s crew. He wanted to see how the girl was shaping up. More importantly, he wanted to see how the crew of five veteran spacers had adjusted to being under the command of the twenty-year-old young lady. Two of them were older than her, the other three were the same age. But they all had at least two years experience.

She was still in training. Was she able to lead the more experienced men? How were the men reacting to being commanded by the green as grass woman cadet? And there was another issue. There were few women in the Confederation military. Granted, the ones that were in the service were generally as good as the men. But still, she was trying to fit into what was a decidedly male profession. On paper it appeared she was doing well. Her crew was performing all its duties to standard. They were getting high marks on all the various proficiency exams. But was that because of her, or despite her? It didn’t help that she was pretty. That could be adding an entire level of complexity to the issue.

As the klaxon sounded the chief pretended to ignore it and keep working. He was already in his space suit and at what could be considered his battle station. The life support station doubled as a damage control station as well. This gave the chief access to the security vids and computer system. He was able to monitor the entire ship from there. He could hear the sounds of crew running to their stations, donning space suits, closing hatches. More importantly, he was able to watch it all as he sat there. He was even able to listen in on the chatter over the comm channels. All without any of the crew the wiser.

More importantly to him, unlike his usual spot in damage control, from here he was near by to observe the central gunnery stations. This was where cadet Brun’s crew was stationed for this exercise. They were assigned to the four missile turrets, located in the center of the ship, arrayed around the missile magazine. Feed tubes went from the magazine to the turrets. One crewman was to run each turret and the fifth was to run the magazine. There was an extra station in the magazine from which Brun could supervise.

The crew of the Vakandi was well trained and it only took a matter of minutes for everyone to reach battle stations. The reports of the various crew members to the department heads, then the department heads to the bridge, sounded calm and orderly. Brun and her team got into position with minimal chatter, seemingly a well oiled machine. The exercise was to simulate detecting two enemy ships, then defending against their attack. The enemy ships were Vargr corsairs. At four hundred tons, the Rrazaghz class ships were, combined, only half the size of the Vakandi. But they packed powerful close range armament. If they could close, they could do serious damage. Brun’s missile crew needed to do as much damage at long range as possible. They carried longer ranged missiles, and more launchers. So they had the edge. But not by much. When the order to fire was given, the launchers began rapid firing.

From where he was, Falk would have been able to hear and even feel the missiles moving down the feed tubes from the magazine. If this had been a real battle and not a simulation, that is. Over the comm, he could hear the cadet giving calm, precise orders. Her crew responding the same way. It sounded good, professional. But the chief was waiting for the little surprise that the captain had added to the scenario. Just as the first salvo of missiles was closing in on the corsairs they turned on electronic jammers. The missiles were blinded. Three of the four gunners responded right away and corrected for the jamming. The fourth hesitated, only for a second. But it was enough. All four of his missiles failed to re-establish a lock and missed the target. Each of the enemy ships had been targeted with eight missiles, the one labeled ‘bogey one’ was hit by six of eight missiles. Its speed dropped and it turned away, trailing atmosphere and debris. The other, ‘bogey two’, was only hit by one. But, not able to face the Vakandi alone, it too turned away. As a parting gift it launched a salvo of its own missiles. But they were no match for the frigate’s point defense lasers. Soon after, the captain announced the exercise was over and the crew started to head back to their regular duties. But then the chief heard cadet Brun call her crew to the missile magazine on a private comm channel. This could be interesting, he thought, provided she leaves the door open.

The security feed in the magazine gave him visual, but not audio. He shouldn’t have worried. All five crew couldn’t fit with her in the small space. One man had to stand in the doorway. On his monitor he could see the smirking cadet put her feet up on the console in front of her. That girl always has a smirk or smile on her face; odd that, Falk thought. Most Sword Worlders, especially members of the nobility like her, tended to be rather grim. Yet she seemed perfectly relaxed in the small room with the five men as she started her unofficial after action review. She looked at the gunner that missed and asked in a calm mild voice “What happened, Knutsen?”

The spacer looked embarrassed as he answered, “I was surprised, Miss Brun. I hesitated.”

Myra shook her head, “No, you were stunned. We were all surprised. The others either recovered faster, or they expected to be surprised.”

Knutsen and some of the others looked puzzled. But the senior man in the group, Bootsmann (Petty officer) Salidatter, nodded his head and started to match her smirk.

She continued in the same mild, calm voice. No anger, accusation or humor in her voice, just understanding. “In battle, always expect to be surprised. Some opponents, like whoever designed that drill, will actively try to surprise you. Others are stupid and lucky. It makes them hard to predict either way. So we have to expect surprises. Every. Time. That way, if our opponent does something clever or monumentally stupid, we don’t get stunned into indecision.” She tilted her head and her smirk turned into a warmer smile. “Alright, I’m sure you’ll do better next time. Actually, all of you did well today. We’ll do even better with a little more practice.” Then she waved her hand dismissively. “All right, off with you, back to work, lads.”

Bootsman Salidatter stayed behind as the other four saluted her and left. Chief Falk wasn’t sure if she had made some sort of signal for him to stay behind or not. But, after the others were gone, he asked, “I take it you want me to work with Knutsen?”

She shook her head, “No, just keep an eye on his training. It was a simple mistake. I don’t want him to drive himself crazy over it. He just needs a little more experience. Besides, if we fuss over it, it will hurt his confidence. What I do want you to do is start working on Ackerman. He did well in the magazine, today; I think we should start getting him ready to man a turret soon.”

Salidatter nodded his head, “Yes, he’s about ready. Anything else, Miss Brun?”

She shook her head again, “No; I have to make my report to Leutnant Feldmann. Dismissed, Bootsmann.” He saluted and left.

The chief noted that the petty officer seemed pleased as he headed off. He shut down the video feed and leaned back in his chair thinking. It was unusual for a cadet to handle personnel issues that well. Thinking about their advancement and training like that? Most cadets were still thinking about their own training at this point. He almost didn’t notice the cadet walk up to his station and pass by. Without looking at him she said, “Hello, chief.” He looked over at her and … Did she wink at him? He wasn’t sure, as she continued toward officer country and her meeting with the head of the gunnery department. The chief chuckled to himself and thought have to keep an eye of this one. She could be interesting.

“… It seems she’s turning her crew into her own little team. That may not be such a bad thing. There is something else you should consider: How many Orcrists do you know? I mean really know well?”

Arva paused at the seeming non sequitur. “None that I would say I know well, kapiten. Miss Brun is the first I’ve served with.”

Styrr nodded his head and took another drink of his coffee. “There obviously aren’t a lot of them in the navy. They only make up, what … point zero, zero, two percent of our total population? Early in my career I was stationed at the base on Orcrist, so I got to know a lot of the locals. Including some of the nobles. They’re an interesting bunch. Historically, the people of Orcrist have had a strong ‘us against the universe’ ethos. They spend so much of their lives fighting to survive their world’s hash environment, they tend to stick together. Take care of each other. Unfortunately, that only applied to other Orcrists. They tended to view everyone else as fair game. Their reputation as crooks and con men was based on how they viewed outsiders. But that all changed with the start of the third occupation1. They got their fair share of refugees fleeing the Imperials. Millions of frightened and desperate people. Most with nothing but the clothes on their backs. They felt for them and it changed the Orcrists; they started to view all Sword Worlders as ‘us’. Not just the people of their own world. So as far as they are concerned now, when they think of ‘us against the universe’ these days that includes all Sword Worlders.”

Styrr reached for the carafe of coffee on the table as he spoke, he held it up in offer to Arva, who nodded his head and held up his mug. After topping up both mugs he took another drink then continued. “One of the things I also noticed on Orcrist was the local nobility shares these attitudes. As a result, most of them have what might be called ‘the common touch’. They’re not nearly as haughty and distant as nobles from Narsil. One of them explained it this way: ‘When everyone is choking to death because of an environment breach, social status doesn’t mean all that much’. I think kadet Brun acts the way she does because of her background. Not necessarily because of weakness on her part. You might be surprised at how well she handles death. I’m sure she already has experience with it.”

The two men both paused to drink their coffee and think. The captain put his mug down and asked, “None of that addresses the issue of her emotional toughness. Do you have any ideas on that, kapitensleutnant?”

Arva collected his thoughts for a moment before he answered, “Well, short of actual combat the closest we can come is to put her in high stress situations and see if she breaks. I was thinking, when we make planetfall on Rushu, have her crew be assigned to the shore party. Can’t think of a more stressful situation then dealing with a planet full of nervous Vargr, can you?”

Despite himself Styrr let out a snort of laughter. “You have a sick and twisted mind, X.O. I’ve always admired that about you!”

Arva grinned in response. “Thank you. It’s nice to be appreciated, kapiten.”

Note 1: The first occupation was of ten of the Sword Worlds some 572 years before this story takes place. It lasted for six years. The second was the occupation of the 12 so called Border Worlds 82 years before this story and lasting for 22 years, until the third started with the occupation of a further 7 systems. Unlike the first two occupations, this time the Imperials are trying to annex the occupied worlds permanently.