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Part of Phoenix: Learn to Fly

Rate of Inefficiency

Main Engineering, Phoenix
August 2156
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Main Engineering was a buzzing hive of activity when Takahashi made it down there. He didn’t envy the staff; they had to take an engine designed to catapult their hunk of metal approximately 200 times the speed of light and make it work perfectly all the time, every time. Without the usual opportunity to familiarise themselves with everything first. But it was quickly apparent the rapid deployment of the Phoenix was not the biggest problem down here.

‘Come on everyone; we’ve got a .2 rate of inefficiency in the reaction chamber and that’s not supposed to happen!’ a terse voice commanded, and Takahashi saw the tall, severe figure he knew had to be Chief Engineer Lieutenant Theodore Hawthorne stalking to the middle of the madness. ‘I know both Starfleet and your mothers might have taught you to love yourselves despite such inadequacies, but in my engine room that simply won’t do.’

So Takahashi leaned against the bulkhead. He had time to take in a show.

‘Sir,’ protested one young engineer. ‘The reaction chamber’s operating within acceptable parameters -’

‘First,’ said Hawthorne raising a long finger, ‘those “acceptable parameters” were established by bureaucrats who have accepted sub-par work. The transference rate is off, and I should know because I helped develop it. Second.’ Another long finger. ‘Don’t call me, “sir.”’

The engineer hesitated, then put a hand on her hip. ‘What do I call you then, uh. Lieutenant.’

‘I don’t know when someone decided that an exploratory body had to set ranks and regulations and demand that you all ask, “how high?” when I say, “jump,”’ said Hawthorne with an exasperated sigh. ‘But I don’t care for it. These are meaningless.’ He pointed at his pips. ‘Jewellery for the insecure who can’t back up their words with accuracy or presence. Don’t listen to me because you’re told to by regulations. Listen to me because I bloody well designed half of the latest upgrades of this engine. Listen to me because, frankly, I’m smarter than you.’

Again, the engineer paused. She was a short and stocky woman, and while Takahashi thought she’d looked a bit perturbed at first, he could see her rallying now, squaring to confront him. ‘That doesn’t answer my question.’

‘Fair enough,’ Hawthorne allowed. ‘If you absolutely insist, call me Lieutenant. I’m not your superior, and I won’t stand for that hierarchical bollocks. If you must be formal, “Doctor,” will suffice; that’s a title I actually earned through hard work rather than hoop-jumping. But, frankly, my name is Theo.’

‘I’m Lieutenant Carvalho. You can call me Lieutenant Carvalho.’ She smiled sweetly, and Takahashi hid his own smile as he watched her, like a snake coiling before it struck. ‘And you’re wrong. I was in the Columbia’s engine room since she launched. Including under Commander Tucker, who had more practical experience of this warp drive than anyone. That inefficiency is normal. Your studies in a lab might not say so, but the collected field experience of Starfleet’s most seasoned engineers says so.’ The smile only widened. ‘Doctor.’

Hawthorne was silent a moment, eyes narrowed as he regarded her. ‘It shouldn’t be normal,’ he said, voice low and determined. ‘So you have one of two tasks: Fix it, or explain it. I accept your experience has said this is something we can live with, right up until a .2 inefficiency rate loses us a micron of a warp factor and we arrive in a combat scenario precious minutes later than we might. At which point it’s an inefficiency someone else can’t live with.’

‘Commander Tucker -’

‘Is dead, and was famously – infamously – informally trained. I do not doubt the man’s results, or the experience you gained under him. If he had a shred of pedagogy about him, he would want you to build upon it; to do better. And, more pertinently, want you to do better.’

‘I thought you said we didn’t have to listen to you because of your rank?’

‘Correct. But you are my assistant -’

‘I’m the second engineer.’

‘…and you clearly care more about this hierarchy than me, so… go on and care, Lieutenant.’ Hawthorne paused, despite his dismissal. ‘No. No, I can’t call you that. You have both a brain and a spine, a combination I find incredibly rare.’

She watched him a moment, and Takahashi wondered if she was going to leave him hanging. Then she smiled again, more sincerely this time. ‘Maria. I’ll go conduct another diagnostic on the reactor core and the EPS manifolds to see if I can identify the cause of the inefficiency. Theo.’

Takahashi watched her go, then lifted his hands to clap his appreciation. Hawthorne’s head whipped around, gaze accusing, and it was Takahashi’s turn to grin. ‘Don’t mind me. Just taking in the show.’

‘Mister Takahashi – I do have it right, don’t I? Takahashi is the family name, Riku the given?’

‘Good catch.’ He’d lost track of how many blathered on in Western ignorance. ‘But you got as much patience for pomp and circumstance as me. People call me Tak.’

‘Theo. What brings you down here, Tak? Other than the blistering inefficiency of my engineering staff providing amusement for the peanut gallery?’

‘Nothing to do with the engines, for once. No, I came to beg you for some computer time. I understand why you’ve capped CPU usage by department, but I need to throttle mine up a bit.’

Hawthorne squinted. ‘What does Comms possibly need with the main computer?’

‘Decryption. We still have petabytes of encoded Romulan transmissions.’

‘Surely Starfleet Command have decrypted and translated anything useful?’

Tak shrugged. ‘I mean, how can we know if it’s useful until we decode it? But that’s not my point.’ He hesitated. ‘You’re at the end of your shift, and I’m starving. Let me explain over food.’

Hawthorne’s frown deepened, and he checked his old-fashioned wristwatch. ‘If the food on this ship didn’t taste of plastic, that’d be a pleasant proposition instead of just a necessary one.’ He turned to his crowd of engineers. ‘Maria! I’m clocking off!’ Once in the lift, Hawthorne looked at him. ‘So I know why don’t care for the propriety of Starfleet; I’m a researcher, not a soldier.’

‘Me? Oh, I just don’t like being told what to do,’ said Tak. ‘So you’re not really an engineer?’

Not -’ Hawthorne scowled at him. ‘I have a PhD in Engineering from Imperial College London. I spent more time in the guts of how to actually integrate a Warp 5 engine with the rest of our systems than some grease-monkey crawling around with a hyperspanner.’

‘Is that how Lopez sniped you, huh?’

‘I wasn’t sniped,’ Hawthorne grumbled. ‘Starfleet proclaimed they need bodies in engine rooms more than they need minds in R&D. As if wars aren’t technological arms races. I never met Lopez before, but I knew her by reputation of her work on the NX Project, and I expect vice versa. I suspected she might actually appreciate my talents in the engine room.’ He shrugged. ‘And if I have to degrade myself in this way, better for it to be on the NX-08 than some last-generation Daedalus.’

Takahashi chuckled. ‘Look at the lot of us. Gathered from the four winds from wherever Lopez could dig us up. God, Starfleet must expect us to explode on contact with the enemy.’

‘Oh, yes. If we can’t salute fast enough, obviously the Romulans will win.’

‘That’s fine, I reckon Commander West can salute quick enough for all of us.’

‘We’re hardly out of Sol and he’s already interfering in my department, did you know that? He doesn’t like the extra shifts I’ve set them when their work isn’t up to snuff.’ Another snort. ‘So they have to curtsy every time I come in a room, but God forbid I hold them to standards?’

Takahashi laughed as the lift stopped and they headed through the corridor to the mess hall. ‘You should see my Comms staff. I set them some translations as something to work through on the side, without setting a specific deadline, and they looked at me like I’d sprouted a second head. Starfleet would rather not treat any of us like grown ups who made a commitment.’ He didn’t mention how he’d hardly made a commitment himself, with his record and being reinstated after losing a bet. But he was aboard, now. It was different.

Quite,’ sneered Hawthorne. Dinner was a sloppy offering of a lasagna and salad, but they could grab a table easily enough. ‘Is this what you need the processing for?’

Takahashi leaned in, now he had the engineer as a captive audience. ‘We’ve acquired and translated enough of Romulan language for the Universal Translator to deal with most interactions. Starfleet has given up on many of the coded transmissions we’ve intercepted, which is understandable; it’s beyond anything we’ve ever encountered in sophistication.’

‘So what’s the benefit of going back through it?’

‘There are clearly tiers of encryption,’ Takahashi explained. ‘Obviously the most major ones – the timing suggests priority orders to their ships, that sort of thing – we can’t get through. But there’s a steady string of communications between ships using a distinctive and less secure encryption that I know we can break. We’ve broken it before.’

‘Why aren’t Starfleet all over it, then?’

‘Because they’re not military transmissions. These are crew people’s personal communications, I’m pretty sure. And they’re resource-intensive and time-consuming to decode, so they’re the lowest priority.’

Hawthorne ate a mouthful of lasagna and looked like he regretted it. ‘So why should I care?’

‘We know so little about the Romulan people. Somewhere in Starfleet HQ there’s a whole processor dedicated to these petabytes and decoding them, while sociologists pore over what little we have, and I’ve listened to some of it – it’s one thing to understand the words, but opaque without the contextual data and personal communication is more likely to include terms that the UT can’t cover.’

‘This is selling it even less, Tak.’

‘I think,’ Takahashi pressed, ‘I’ve found a string of transmissions discussing some important Romulan officials in the field. Maybe ship commanders. think they’re political agents or intelligence officers, though. Present at the Battle of Sol and several other major engagements. People I think it’d be useful for us to know more about.’

‘Why didn’t you open with this?’

Takahashi shrugged. ‘You’d have asked me to show my working anyway.’

Hawthorne clicked his tongue. ‘True enough. But this is all still a lot of maybes for me to give you time hogging our processors when we’re trying to keep the warp core fine-tuned and process sensor results.’

‘But we’re not using half of the science sensors; we’re not out here to conduct surveys of stellar phenomenon or whatever West wants to waffle about. Just allocate me some time to work through these transmissions and throttle the science department.’

‘Their usage or their necks?’

Takahashi grinned, and knew he had him. ‘At best, I find out new things about our enemy, an enemy we still don’t get. I know Captain Lopez; she’s better when she’s crawling inside an enemy’s head and beating them at their own game. At worst – you get to annoy Commander West on a matter of military intelligence.’

Thoughtfully, Hawthorne took another mouthful. Again, he looked regretful at once. ‘You drive a hard bargain, Tak. But you found the way to my heart.’

‘They say it’s through a man’s stomach, but not with this food.’ Takahashi glanced up to see a familiar face with a dinner tray, and waved. ‘Commander! Join us?’

Helena Black looked a little guarded as she approached and took the chair between them. ‘Lieutenant Takahashi. Lieutenant Hawthorne. How’re you settling in?’

‘Oh, I always wanted to be trapped on a tin can with a half-trained staff forced to kick around a piece of machinery in bad need of further development and fine-tuning,’ grumbled Hawthorne. ‘Especially with this exquisite cuisine.’

Black poked her lasagna. ‘I’m not sure Chef Moretti has ever been to Italy, no. I’m sorry the engine room isn’t to your liking, though.’

‘It will be,’ Hawthorne said ominously. ‘How did the weapons recalibrations go?’

‘It’s a process. I’m integrating some of the developments the Atlantis’s Armoury Chief implemented in the targeting protocols, which should off-set the inefficiency.’

Takahashi rolled his eyes. ‘Are you ever satisfied with the tactical systems, Helena?’

Hawthorne glanced between them. ‘You know each other.’

Takahashi slung his arm over the back of his chair and fixed Black with an amused look. ‘We were on the Constellation when Lopez was XO.’

Briefly,’ pointed out Black. ‘Lieutenant Takahashi was drummed out not long after.’

‘Why do people keep saying that? I resigned -’

‘Before you could be court martialled.’ Black leaned forward as Takahashi went to argue further. ‘I didn’t fight with the Captain over your assignment. Frankly, she doesn’t need that; she’s got enough people against her. But you weren’t my first choice for senior staff.’

‘I don’t think anyone here is first choice for senior staff,’ Takahashi pointed out. ‘Not even our own. And that was a long time ago.’

‘You know,’ grumbled Hawthorne, ‘the bickering doesn’t make the lasagna taste any better.’

‘You’re right, Lieutenant. It is bad food,’ Black agreed, pushing her chair back.

Takahashi raised his hands. ‘You just got here – I’ll go.’

I could go,’ mused Hawthorne to his dinner.

Black subsided with a sigh. ‘This is ridiculous,’ she said at last. ‘It was a long time ago. And we have to work together. Live on this tin can together and deal with this second choice crew together. And I include myself in that.’ She grabbed her fork. ‘So do you think Chef Moretti’s cooking is an acquired taste?’

Takahashi observed her a moment. They’d been friends, once, but hadn’t spoken in years; not since he’d left Starfleet, and he hadn’t recalled their parting to be acrimonious. He remembered Helena Black as a bright, brilliant young officer, not prone to holding grudges, but she’d reacted to him more like he’d expect from Commander West. Even with her acquiescence now, he could read something bubbling under the surface, some aggravation at him still harnessed and controlled.

But at least it was controlled, which was more than most of the senior staff managed. ‘I was just asking Theo here about some priority computer core time,’ he said, stabbing his salad. ‘But you think that might be better spent on the resequencer?’

Black smirked and looked at the engineer. ‘I don’t know, Doctor Hawthorne; I’m familiar with your reputation, but are you that much of a miracle worker?’

‘Engineers are called miracle workers because people don’t understand what we do,’ said Hawthorne huffily. ‘Sufficiently advanced technology being indistinguishable from magic, and all that. I’m a scientist with robust methods and brilliant theories, pushing human ingenuity towards achieving the difficult, not the impossible.’ He tilted his fork and let the lasagna fall off it onto the plate. ‘Aspiring to transform this into something tasty, however, would be hubris on a par with Prometheus.’