Cogs in the Machine
Main Hangar, Deck 5
"Chief! I have piloted before." Ensign Leoni Jex implored to Eddie Gardner. "I was a pretty ok pilot even before I was joined. Working in my granddad's workshop, I would use every excuse I could to fly, correction to test fly, the shuttles, zoomers and pods that he had to repair. At the Academy, I got good scores and after my Joining, those scores jumped higher still. Deodzi was an ace pilot."
Eddie scratched his beard angrily. "Still, you're one of my officers and McGregor has no call co-opting you as a pilot just for his own kicks and curiosity. And even if you have good scores you won't have flown the Star Stallions before." He gave the two intimidating black hulled vessels an ominous and yet respectful look. "They're brutes! They've a helluva kick and can be damned wild, loose and aggressively mean. Just why do you think they're called Stallions?"
Jex laughed a little nervously, "I thought it was because the name was pretty." Her own fears were starting to quell as Deodzi's memories had come back to the fore and sitting behind the controls beside the Andorian Keren as they went through one more pre-flight checklist she had begun to feel comfortable and even familiar with helm controls as she once had with Deodzi. Gardner's own worries and bristling mood was also somehow strangely comforting too. Her joke though failed to impress the chief engineer. "I'll be fine Chief. Now sign off on the all clear."
Grumbling he pressed his thumb as an identifier on the PADD and they used a stylus to sign his name. His signature attached he puffed out his cheeks in an exclamation. "Bloody paperwork."
"I'll be fine too Chief."
"You'd better Poulter," Eddie declared grabbing the PADD off him and repeating the thumb verification and signature. "You still owe me fifty credits from the last poker game! And you'd better not scrape it this time. Don't let this noob show you up Chris."
Chris Poulter turned with Jex and laughed off Gardner's jibes. "Honest, I never scratched it, it was only a tiny bump and the Orion raider was trying to get away when it happened."
Strolling away with him laughing, Jex said, "Yeah right. And the fifty credits?"
"Ah well, that's a different story. Good flying Ensign." He waved as he headed towards Stallion Two and his team.
Jex waved him off as she went back to her Stallion and team and wished him the same. She did not notice Gardner giving her a concerned look as she went. "Humph! I'm going back to my engines." He started walking towards the exit and passed Rah and T'Vel and spoke their names by way of address.
"Trying to scrape enough credits together for tomorrow night's poker game Gardner?" Caleb Dexter replied suited up in his armour suit. The deep black mesh sheathed armour was thick but made up of loose plates to allow a greater degree of flexibility despite the sacrifice to over all protection. He approached from behind Stallion Two, his carbine in his hand at his side. "Too bad. I must have cleaned you out bad last week."
Eddie waved him off. "To hell with you Tac. And tell Gunny not to even start. We'll see tomorrow night. And warn Nujinx he had better not blow up the engines of that scow you're boarding. I'll be the one to cop it in the neck if he does."
* * *
S.P.O. Mila Chomsky slapped the power pack into her backup carbine before thumbing through the controls and settings. Satisfied, she secured it and stashed it atop her backpack sitting on the bench along the bulkhead of the Hangar Deck. Standing up, she patted her phaser sidearm as was a customary habit and of course a standard part of the uniform aboard a border cutter. She hooked her thumbs into the space between the under arm of her armour vest and hoisted it into a more comfortable position.
With a purposeful stride, she approached Stallion One. Her hand ran the length of its hull as she connected with the dark menacing machine. The Stallions were a brute machine. They were much more muscular than the standard Starfleet shuttle or even the newer runabouts; whilst they were still smaller than the Danube class the spartan interior meant they could carry up to thirty personnel. The Star Stallions were meaty vessels that carried twin micro-torpedo launchers housed in the roll bar and with the powerhouse engines also allowed them to be equipped with tractor beams. Their engines were more powerful but the trade off was that they were limited to Warp 4 and more suited to shorter journeys, designed for quick sprints that better suited their purpose and mission as rescue craft and assault vehicles. Their hulls were thick and more heavily armoured, relying not on shields alone as their destinations all too often involved harsh conditions that had already crippled other vehicle shields. That said, the powerhouse engines were there to allow the Stallions to produce a strong shield with a higher endurance than most shuttles.
She hunkered down to the prostrate form of an engineer at the Stallion's prow. "Is she ship shape and ready?"
Her Ukrainian accent a telltale to Becca Swift engrossed in her diagnostics. "That she is S.P.O., ready and raring."
"And her pilot?" Becca looked up in the direction that Chomsky nodded to herself where Ensign Jex stood presenting the status report to Eddie Gardner awaiting his clearance and approval of the vessel.
"I think she might be a bit nervous but she's been preparing and night and morning."
"Yes, McGregor seems to have given our little Trill friend a heads up. He must be making a project out of her."
"I guess so." Becca said in a noncommittal tone. She knew herself that the captain had made a project out of Becca herself after rescuing her from Orion pirates. "Must be lucky to have lifetimes of experience to call upon."
"Lucky? I'm not so sure about." Mila looked about for Rah when she said this. "Though it certainly would be useful. Good work Becca. Sorry you are not coming vit us on this one petty officer."
Becca sat up and set some of her tools into her cloth tool kit. "Oh capturing a target bridge after a breach and assault. The usual SARAH affair! It sounds boring." She joked.
"I'm sure it is going to be a walk in the park Becca."
"I'm sure it will." Becca's eye then caught sight of the approaching Sebastian Templar and her jovial nature slipped away to be replaced with a cold hostility. "Besides, I wouldn't be sure of the company."
"Oh Submino is a bit of a loudmouth but hardly bad company." Chomsky's joking retort faded, as she understood the tone in Becca's voice and the look of her disapproving frown. "Now isn't the time for a scene petty officer." She gave Becca a dismissive nod.
Getting to her foot, Becca returned it with a crisp and slightly bitter nod of her own. "Understood S.P.O. Chomsky." With that, she ducked away from Sebastian's presence.
"Ensign Templar, have you familiarised yourself with our equipment?" Chomsky looked down at the carbine strapped around his armour suit as an indication of the equipment she most referred to. She understood the rather protracted career path of the ensign and how he had specialised in security and tactical but was nevertheless more Fleet trained. The carbines used by the Border Service were much shorter than a Starfleet phaser rifle, packing a blunt wallop all the same but the more compact design making it ideally suited to the tight quarters the cutter crews found themselves in. The carbines had a hefty kick to them, especially when set to the ‘grenade' level whereupon it could discharge an explosive blast at a bulkhead.
He gave a rather unaffected air. "It was a matter of course, Chomsky."
"That's Senior Petty Officer Chomsky." She pointedly said. "Ensign. And whilst it might be a matter of course, I would be remiss in my duties to allow you on this mission without requisite experience with the carbine and the other arsenal and equipment we utilise. So be it a matter of course or not, I'd sooner know that you did in fact treat it as such."
He gave a long moment before replying. It no doubt rankled with the ensign to have a non-commissioned officer essentially pulling him up short. However, he had to appreciate she had not done in front of others and whilst technically outranked by the ensign, her expertise status and operational superiority in the mission ahead gave her the leeway to speak so. He mulled his response over.
"I did. The carbine is a brute but a beauty to behold."
"Good to know." She then mellowed her tone to mollify the ensign slightly. And it is. It's a hell of a report when you first use it. But you be glad for the kick when in a bind. The puffs and cuffs are going to arrive in short order. Why don't you get the crewmen together? They'll be directly under your control when we board. Just an FYI, Timmian is a lazy beggar but a crack shot, still make sure he has stowed his gear properly. Don't listen to any nonsense about entering his Denobulan hibernation cycle! There'll be no such problems with Keren but he should be in the cockpit going through the checklist with Ensign Jex."
Templar took a moment to take in her ‘orders'. After a small hesitation, he nodded his head accepting her orders as good advice and taking no umbrage at the S.P.O. dishing out the orders to him. Taking heed of her advice, he ducked past Chomsky to check on the lazy Denobulan.
Mila turned then to go back to her own equipment pile to where she found some of the rest of the team doing their final checks. "Ok Submino, you got the charges?"
The Bolian petty officer (third class) looked up at the bawler. "Any louder Chomsky and you'll set the charges off prematurely!"
A drawl to the side of them interjected, "From what I hear, it is Jock here we have to worry about going off prematurely!"
Submino looked over at the drawling Texan and then looked to an embarrassed Sven. "Har! The question I have for you Buchanan is how do you know?"
Buchanan shrugged casually. "Well sir ‘e, that's what the dissatisfied ladies who come my way tell me."
"If they go from Jock to you Buchanan, they ain't just dissatisfied; they're deaf, dumb and blind and severely disillusioned." This come back managed to put a smile back on the blushing Jock.
"Jude, Submino! Knock off the coarse talk in front of the Pips." Mila called with Jex (the ‘Pips') now beside her. "Get squared away onboard. Excuse them ensign, they may be pig ignorant but they know how to knock heads together."
Jex smiled in return to the S.P.O. and watched the men file past her into the Stallion to stow their gear. "Oh, I've heard much worse, hell from my own lips, Deodzi was a profuse curser."
"Sounds like she was fun."
"She was. Oh boys she was." A mischievous memory stole a smile across Jex's face as she thought about Deodzi.
Chomsky smiled at the ensign and figured there might be something to her yet. "Checks clear?"
"Yes. We are ready."
"Good, then S.P.O. Chomsky we can have our final run through then." The two women turned to face the imposing figure of T'Vel. The Vulcan somehow looking more dignified and aloof than one could imagine an armour suit would lend. It certainly added to the intimidating stature of the women.
"Of course, Lt. Commander, I'll gather the team." Chomsky moved off to check the team had stowed their gear and to gather them for the final debriefing. Jex went with her to grab her own PADD.
"T'Vel. I mean Lt. Commander; it's good to see you. I hadn't the opportunity to give you your book back. I didn't bring it as I rather assumed a SARAH wouldn't be the best place to give back a loaned book."
"Not quite an astute observation but nevertheless an accurate one, petty officer Cain."
"Perhaps I can return it to your quarters later."
"That would be ... most satisfactory ... Dashiel."
The petty officer (first class) started to walk towards the congregating team but stopped to turn back to the Vulcan. "I was thinking that perhaps you'd be interested in tackling another Earth classic, War and Peace."
T'Vel raised an intrigued eyebrow. "I have heard of it. It should provide an illuminating window into the human psyche. In trade, I would offer the treatise by T'Pol recounting her experiences with the crew of the NX Enterprise. It is more of a Vulcan sociology essay than a voyeuristic account but it still makes for interesting reading."
"I look forward to it. I'm sure that it will similarly be an illuminating window into the Vulcan psyche and the Vulcan view of the human mindset."
"Indeed." T'Vel curtly nodded her head as Dashiel approached the mission team taking up a place beside Mila Chomsky. With her acute hearing, T'Vel managed to pick up the crossly whispered question from Chomsky to Dashiel.
"Still sharing books with her Dashiel?"
He looked guiltily for but a brief second. Then somewhat contritely but with an air of innocence he stated, "It's only books Mila."
She gave no vocal response but gave a cool response a Vulcan would have been proud of as she turned towards Rah and the assembled team. "Everyone fall in." Rah inclined his head fractionally indicating for Mila to proceed and from her leg pocket she pulled out a silicone gel like roll out map. It flapped out onto the deck of the shuttle bay as the members of Team One arrayed themselves around. The roll out map an MSD interactive display illustrated the interior schematic of the target ship Thaddeus travelled onboard. The interactive display was a ready to hand tactical and sensor readout that when tied in with the Kestrel's sensors and those of the Star Stallion gave a real time heads up for the assault team. For now, conjecture and plans of action scrolled across its flexible and durable surface.
"One last time, here's the plan. Phase one ..."
* * *
Senior Officers' Lounge
McGregor took a last swallow of his whiskey tumbler before setting it back into the sink. "Ah. Computer, secure lounge."
With a roll of metal, an automatic shutter descended upon the library shelves encasing the books in a metal mesh cage of protection. Similar shutters came down over the optics and small glass cabinets. The lights dimmed and a low emergency lighting illuminated the room in a soft light that gave the luxurious surrounds a calming atmosphere of rest and quiet belying the action in the offing. Amid this low light, a bubble of sparkling blue hummed into life as a protective shield formed around the bust of the kestrel sitting atop the bar.
The computer reported, "Room secured."
Molly gave the shielded bust and McGregor a pursed frown. "I still think the forcefield for that is a little overkill McGregor."
"Molly! Heaven forefends." He nearly stroked the bust. "There, there, Kes, Mommy Molly doesn't mean it. Anyway, Molls, it is its own power source and you really don't want my Kes to ever break. That would make me rather mad." He rubbed his hands together gleefully. "Let's get to it."
The two departed the lounge as yeomen Harris and Ronak approached the lounge to secure the larger furnishings ahead of the action. McGregor and Molly both darting dark looks at the Vulcan who suppressed a curling sneer himself. Harris as usual walked by with a strut to shame an Orion slave. McGregor giving a salacious wink to Harris as the yeoman passed by.
Cartwright walked onto the bridge throwing what seemed to be an odd look at the Captain. At the tactical station looking ever alert, and while even engrossed on the tactical read outs of her station was ready to pounce on any visitor to the bridge lest they be a threat, was the ship's second senior security officer. The lean, chiselled ebony lieutenant [junior grade] who had dominated the bridge until the entrance of her captain and XO relaxed somewhat at their arrival. Her crisp clear French accent cut across the bridge as she relinquished the conn. to McGregor.
"Gladly Contessa. And I'll take whatever else you are offering." He approached the tactical station and leaned forwards to kiss the back of the hand of the tall ebony smooth skinned woman at it. "Magnificent as always, Contessa."
McGregor's charm did not terribly impress the lieutenant but she offered him a slight demure smile by way of thanks. Her posture was rigid but poised and elegantly graceful in the flowing moves she took. Molly knew just how gracefully and covertly the woman could move upon her enemies. And for all of her grace, there was no doubting that Contessa was a woman not to be crossed.
He turned to the science station and called out. "Denora! Has Stanley the ole fox asked you on a date yet?" In contrast to the human at tactical, was the officer staffing the science station in the absence of T'Vel. Lieutenant Denora was an Avian and her physical stature towered over that of everyone else on the bridge but her much more passive demeanour lessened that presence. Her dove grey feathers and golden beak a soothing appearance to the otherwise fierce size, dangerous talons and potentially deadly serrated beak. However, Denora herself was but an inquisitive and genteel scientist who at times seemed too gentle and kind for the rougher and readier kind of work a border patrol vessel pulled.
Her shrill squawking reply was mortified. "Captain! No!"
Turning to Stanley, he wagged an admonishing finger. "Tut, tut Stan! I thought you were a true gent. Trust me Denora. He has the hots for you. I'll fix you up on a blind dinner date with one another after this."
In confusion, Stanley blinked at the captain and then the Avian. "I do not see why we should be blind in order to eat."
It was hard to tell with her feathered face, but Molly swore the ruffle and way in which Denora pulled in her wings and talon claws indicated she was flushing at how forward McGregor was being. She but positively beamed though when Stanley continued, "Though dinner with Lieutenant Denora itself would be a most welcome activity."
"Ah, there you go then! All sorted. Now, to business Denora. Tell me what do your sensors show ..."
Molly turned her attention away and to Noah Cutler as she approached the Ops station. She bid him a curt hello through a simple address of his rank, "Ensign."
"Commander." She pursed her lips at the hint of nervousness in his voice. No doubt, a similar sense of nervousness and anticipation filled many of the crew ahead of the captain's plans. The kid had a huge self-esteem complex. Molly wanted to shake him and have him understand just how capable he was of his job. The ensign was a bridge officer. He operated a vitally important and complex station. He not only assumed bridge duties here, but also directed other Ops personnel throughout the ship. His Academy record proved his ability for the job now was the time for him to prove it to himself and to stand up and do the job.
"No need to be nervous Cutler. You have trained for this and are skilled in the task before you." ‘Unlike your friend,' she frowned to herself. Whether Noah himself imagined that she was in part alluding to Leoni about to pilot a Star Stallion in the upcoming operation she doubted. She hoped though he took some confidence from the fact she had confidence in him. "Ok, let's run through this."
She focused her attention on the display board, tapping controls and reaching back around to look at the damage control systems. "The first thing you have to be aware of in a tactical situation is that time is precious. Normally, you are coordinating with the team in operational control. But given the time pressure issue you are going to have much more direct control over the distribution of ship power and resources. That said, you have a team down below who can be delegated and made to prioritise according to your requests. Likewise, here on the bridge, you will have a damage control officer who takes up their position when the ship goes to alert."
"That said, you are still the circus manager. You have to keep a lot of balls in the air and bring certain things to the commanding officer's attention that merit it. But this is where your training kicks in and experience teaches you, you have to decide what merits the C.O.'s attention and what does not. The things that do not, you take the decision and sort them. Remember again your team in Ops control, that's what they are for."
"It is not exactly straight forward is it?"
"No Cutler it isn't. In Ops, we are the balancing act. Engineering has to come up with the power, fix what's broken, and deliver that power. But it is up to you to prioritise where the power has to go. That means balancing it between sudden power curves from the warp engines to meet the demands of the helm or security firing phasers. Sometimes it is a carefully orchestrated choreographic synchronised dance that no one ever knows or appreciates because the person is to ensure a safe and even flow of operations. But in a pinch you'll be the one expected to facilitate the miracles. But before you get a big head, we are but cogs in the machine, each one of us, each department is dependent upon the other. That said, I like to think Ops acts as the grease for the gears."
As Cartwright went through the duties of the Ops station at red alert in order to calm Noah, she sensed how appreciative he was of the Commander's assistance. Even if it made him look less than capable in the eyes of the captain, who seemed to be studiously ignoring his XO, the ensign was glad for the reassurance that helped his find his focus and remember that he could do this job.
McGregor's focus was elsewhere as he circled the bridge casually checking the status of the ship, its crew and mulling his plans over in his head. Molly had seen him in this more subdued mode before. As per usual before heading a potential firefight, McGregor would stroll around the bridge visiting each station collating up-to-the-minute information on the ship and its systems. The bravado and outrageous remarks were forgotten as he assimilated the information into his head with a perfect clarity. Despite his many detractors, Molly knew he cared for the lives under his charge and he amassed information from all over the ship to better inform himself. When he spoke in the meeting with the senior officers about sitting up and reading the relay information, he did not lie or over state the fact. In truth, Molly doubted there was a captain with as intimate a knowledge of their ship or the region of space in which they travelled. Of course, this was an attribute he hardly admitted aloud, which considering how much he liked talking himself up was strange. Modest he was not. However, his ability to soak up such vital information and use it to his advantage was a strength he had and one she herself envied. Not that she'd ever admit it aloud to him!
Keeping a careful eye to Noah Cutler, she watched McGregor too. With a certain fascination, she could see his mind working behind his eyes. She could see the unfolding plans playing out in his head with the flash of his eyes as he scored a victory or a loss at some stratagem or other. She recognised it as the predatory streak in him that he shared with the likes of Rah, the dark hunter mentality that would keep on hunting down its prey, would never let go of the bit between his teeth, that might not know when to stop. Then would come that secret smile of his. The smile that would play at the corner of his mouth and tug his craggy face. The smile that would creep into his eyes and they would flash with a demented glee. That wolfish grin of his, when he would preen to himself, when he delighted in besting an enemy, and when he harboured whatever dark thoughts he kept. When it came, Molly sometimes felt herself shudder for she feared just what lengths he would go to. There was much to marvel about the man known and cursed as the captain of the Kestrel. There was much to be feared too.
"Captaine. All tactical and security stations report ready for action."
The smile on McGregor's face widened. "All set then."
"No thanks, I've just been, captain's log and all that."
Noah covered his mouth surprised at the captain. He also struggled to stifle his own laugh. Cartwright gave Noah a withering disappointed look at his distraction whilst the alluring French woman exclaimed, "Merde! Captaine!"
"Hee, hee." He laughed rubbing his hands together before jumping into his command chair. Spinning in the chair his smile was almost maniacal. "Time for fun. Stanley?"
Molly found the blank blink of Stanley unnerving as he responded, "The helm is ready."
"Good, good. Contessa ready phasers."
The towering woman nodded slightly as she responded, "Aye captaine."
"Ops? Looking forward to the action Cutler?"
The ensign wanted to faint under the scrutiny but composed himself and gave a stoic reply. "Operations ready captain." He refused to gulp and show his nervousness.
McGregor moved on acting as if offended at Noah's lack of further response. "Denora, sensors?"
The Avian's feathers ruffled in a telltale sign of agitation or excitement. Her response a sharp shrill voice with clicks underneath as she dutifully replied, "Sensors fully functional. Target still on the periphery of sensor range."
"McGregor to Engineering, Eddie what's the score?"
Gardner's rather fed up voice came over the comm. tickling McGregor's mood. "Aye, whatever, just get on with whatever you plan to do and leave me to my engines."
"Open a comm. to the Stallions. Stallion Leader One, ready?"
The cool aloof voice of T'Vel responded clearly. "Ready captain." Molly wondered how poised the Vulcan really was.
"Stallion Leader Two, ready?"
Dexter's cynical response, which came across with the eye roll near virtually audible in his tone. "Ready." Molly could appreciate the cynicism.
"Now, now, Dexter, sound a little bit more excited about it. There's fun to be had." McGregor twiddled with the controls on the armrest of his chair to open a ship wide comm. and so addressed the ship. "This is the Captain ..."
He spun the seat and faced the viewscreen as he gripped the armrests and leaned forward on the edge of the command chair. He sat like a general atop his steed on the field of battle. Ready. Waiting. Baiting. Hungry. The inexperienced ensign at Molly's side leaned forward to listen raptly without intention to the captain's words. A sense a quiet fell over the entire ship. An expectant collective breath awaiting rallying words to battle. Words of courage and bravery and bold moves. Words to raise the blood. All always, Molly knew better when it came to McGregor. A wry smile played across McGregor's face. "Anyone for a game of ping pong?"
* * *