Part of Phoenix: Takin’ Care of Business

Takin’ Care of Business – 3

Deck 3, Phoenix
September 2156
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Black stopped at the voice, turning to see Major Stavros jogging down the corridor towards her. Despite what she assumed of the MACO, her gait and posture as she arrived were much more casual, so Black made sure to keep her expression level. ‘Major. What can I do for you?’

‘A moment of your time. Ma’am.’ Stavros sounded somewhat uncertain, falling into step with that brisk military pace. ‘Obviously, first, you should know me and the MACOs can help out if we have any future missions like Vega.’

Black frowned. ‘We fought at Vega for all of ten minutes.’

‘And then we spent weeks preparing local forces to defend themselves. Me and my guys can offer training for ground-based defence.’ Stavros shrugged as Black opened her mouth. ‘I know, I know – the captain would say the Romulans don’t board. But first: she’s wrong, they’ve done armoured troop drops and that seems way more likely in planetary assaults than ship-to-ship. Second: not all threats are Romulan. Earth’s got other enemies who might go for us while we’re down.’

‘I’d hope we’re not going to get another Vega, where civilians need to fend for ourselves,’ said Black, shaking her head. ‘But you’re right. I knew you were drilling your unit these last weeks, as most of you aren’t familiar with the ins and outs of an NX, so I didn’t want to divert you to what felt like low-priority work. But if we get more time at Vega or, God help us, we need to prepare more civilians for self-defence, I’ll call you in.’

‘Thank you, ma’am.’ But Stavros kept hovering, so Black cocked her head with a curious, questioning gaze. With a sigh, the MACO pressed on. ‘You’ve worked with Captain Lopez before?’

‘We were on the Constellation together.’

‘So… do you know what her problem with MACOs is?’

Black failed to suppress a groan as she rubbed the back of her neck. ‘I don’t…’

‘Because this assignment was a big deal for me. I never met Captain Whittal but I’ve met Starfleet captains before. I met West a few times before. They didn’t seem to so much get the military side of things.’ Stavros hesitated again, before the final veneer of discipline faded and she blurted, scowling, ‘But Lopez acts like she hates the military. And we’re at war.’

Black looked her up and down, then glanced at the nearest door to a storage room. ‘Come on,’ she said, and led her inside.

Stavros followed, frowning. ‘Ma’am?’

There was no answer until Black had checked the rows of shelving in the gloomy room to be sure they were alone, and she shut the door behind her. ‘I know what you’re asking. And the answer is: no.’

‘Really? Because Lopez sure seems like she doesn’t like -’

No, Captain Lopez has no idea who you are. Or rather, who your family are.’ Black folded her arms across her chest. ‘Starfleet types don’t tend to notice these kinds of things or care. They’re all new to space, or from scientist and UESPA families.’

Stavros had a serious sort of face, sharp and measured. But at the dawning realisation it began to crumple, a guarded and apprehensive glimmer creeping in. ‘You’re General Black’s daughter. Admiral Black.’

‘And I don’t care, Major. You think I joined Starfleet because I share my family’s attitude to military tradition, to old grievances? Your grandfather could be Khan Noonien Singh for all I care; I care if you can do the job. Are you going to leave a colony behind to slaughter and enslavement?’

Thunder entered Stavros’s eyes. ‘I could lead my troops to be wiped out, failing to save a colony from slaughter and enslavement while I’m about it, instead.’

Black’s gaze softened. ‘You’ve been sidelined your whole career because of your family. Believe me, I get it. Starfleet would rather tie me to a desk than risk upsetting my father by putting me in the line of fire. Instead we’re both here. It might not feel like it, but I think you belong on Lopez’s Phoenix more than you’d have ever belonged on Whittal’s. Pretty much none of us should be here.’

‘Alright.’ Stavros put her hands on her hips and looked down. ‘Then how the hell do I stop Captain Lopez from constantly trying to bench me? If you’ll help me out there.’

‘I’m pretty used to being the Lopez Whisperer. Or the one who’ll share her secrets, compared to Tak, when I think for that you’d need a Tak Whisperer.’ Black sighed. ‘And you’d face the same problem with him that you’re facing with her: they’re not military.’

Frustration grew in Stavros’s gaze. ‘We’re in a war. A war of extinction, and they’ve fought the Romulans; why are we pretending this is an exploration cruise -’

‘They’re not. Captain Lopez isn’t naive. She commanded a ship at the Battle of Sol, and she’s had a lot of experience of some of Earth’s less friendly neighbours. But you may have picked up that she doesn’t have a lot of time for hierarchy and procedure.’

‘I have eyes, Commander.’

‘Welcome to Starfleet, Major.’ Black shrugged. ‘Most captains who’ve been around a bit are used to being the final word on a situation. Far from Earth, far from anyone who can give them orders, and in situations where there’s no procedure to fall back on because it’s not been written yet. Now that’s changing, not just with technology but with war-time protocol. She doesn’t dislike the military because she thinks we can avoid a war; we’re in one. She dislikes the military because she thinks it opens the door for people who have no better idea than anyone else dictating the way forward with ill-advised protocols and procedures based on decades-old encounters. Why does a general on Earth have a better idea how to fight humanity’s first war in deep space than someone who’s spent half her life out here?’

‘I’m not going to defend the brass,’ said Stavros, ‘but I’m not the brass. And most of MACO protocol out here is based on everything since and including the Delphic Expanse campaign. I get the impression Captain Lopez doesn’t much like orders.’

‘She doesn’t like a chain of command that risks shutting down ideas from below. She’d say that if she ran this ship following military policy and hierarchy, we’d never have results like Tak’s plan at HR-5553. She wants to give her crew a long leash because that gets us results in this unprecedented situation, and she doesn’t think the MACOs do that.’

‘I can’t give my guys a long leash in combat,’ Stavros protested. ‘MACO discipline maintains unit cohesion in the face of the enemy. It provides structure against uncertainty. The military culture creates an esprit de corps which makes every soldier stick by their comrade, and maintain discipline in a crisis.’

‘Textbook answer,’ Black said before she could stop herself. ‘But making people follow orders without hesitation requires breaking them down on a psychological level to place absolute trust in a superior. That’s compounded when those orders are to enact violence without question. That’s the fundamental goal of military discipline: to make soldiers hurt people on command. And you’re shielded from that truth with this constructed identity that you’re warriors, which makes soldiers more likely to cling to personally destructive, macho behaviours, and with a sense of duty that makes you less likely to think critically about the institutions and hierarchies you serve.’

Her words bounced through the storage room more than she’d intended, with more fire than she’d intended; all that aggravation of every lesson her father had tried so hard to drill into her, and every shred of indignation at how she’d fought to build her own path through education and science and Starfleet, only for the military to follow her.

Stavros was silent for a moment. Then she raised an eyebrow. ‘We still talking Captain Lopez’s objections to the military, Commander?’

Black sighed, strength fading from her. ‘Don’t tell me I don’t know what I’m talking about because I never wore a uniform, Christ, that’s condescending -’

‘I’m no stranger to military hierarchy prizing protecting itself and its own. You clearly know enough about me to get that.’ Stavros set her hands on her hips. ‘But we’re at war. With an enemy who wants to wipe us out. I’m not here to force Starfleet into my way of thinking, but constantly benching the MACO unit because you and Lopez don’t like the military is short-sighted. You’re risking the lives of everyone on this ship because you want to show you can fight a war without being whatever you think “military” is.’

Black straightened. ‘I’ve just said I’d accept the MACOs’ help if we train any future militia.’

‘And when I suggest we have a MACO unit on standby when we’ve got a missing ship that could have been attacked by anyone?’ Stavros shook her head. ‘I’m not here to debate the psychological impact of military culture. Captain Lopez hasn’t refused my help in a way I think is irresponsible, unprofessional, or dangerous. But I want to make sure it doesn’t get that far.’

Exhaustion tugged at Black’s insides, and she looked away with a sigh before she met Stavros’s gaze again.  ‘Keep doing what you’re doing,’ she said at last. ‘And I will support and suggest the use of the MACOs when I agree that you’ll add necessary firepower. Push the captain; it may not be what you’re used to, but she wants it from her subordinates. Show her you’ve thought about what you’re saying, that you believe it, that you’re not just a military robot spouting protocol. She wants you to have an opinion. She’ll respect you if you say what you believe.’

‘Until she doesn’t, and then I’m brought up for arguing with a superior.’

‘This is the Phoenix. We can figure out how to work with MACOs, but you’ve got to figure out how to work with us, Major. And Captain Lopez runs a madhouse of brilliant individualists.’ Black looked her over. ‘I don’t get why you joined the military, with all they did to your family.’

Stavros shrugged. ‘I’m the first of my family to become a MACO, Commander. It’s not my fault the same good old boys’ club followed from the GDF and the Hegemony Armed Forces. I believe in humanity.’

Before Black could press that point, there was a chirrup at the com panel on the wall. ‘Commander West, Commander Black: report to the bridge.

Stavros glanced up. ‘We must be approaching the Cormorant.’

‘But that’s not tactical alert.’ Black looked over. ‘Join me, Major. See how decisions go down on the bridge.’

Of course, when they got there, Lopez didn’t look particularly thrilled by the MACO’s presence, but Stavros stood near the briefing section at the back of the bridge, far out of the way. Black crossed the chamber to assume her post at Tactical, surrendered to her by Dynevor.

‘Nice of you to join us,’ said Lopez as if she were late but Black knew was a comment about her bringing Stavros. ‘We’ve picked up the Cormorant on mid-range sensors; they appear to be running on low power and they’re about half a light-year off their expected flight plan.’

Takahashi looked up from Comms. ‘Still about ten minutes out of range for a hail.’

Black’s hands danced across her control panel as they travelled, and she fought desperately to bring herself up to speed on the local area and continue threat assessment at the same time. ‘Absolutely no sign of any Romulan vessels in the vicinity,’ she said at last as they approached comms range on the Cormorant.

‘No,’ West agreed, ‘but there’s a nebula beyond the Cormorant that I only have a limited view of on sensors. Anything could be in there.’

‘Let’s try to hope this one isn’t a trap,’ Lopez mused.

‘Actually…’ Takahashi frowned before he looked up. ‘Taking a look at the Cormorant’s flight path and their current course, I think they’re headed out of that nebula, Cap.’

‘You think something spooked them and they went to ground?’

‘Could be. We should be able to ask them now?’ At her nod, Takahashi opened the Phoenix’s hailing frequencies, and gave her a thumbs up.

Lopez straightened, though they were still on audio-only at this range. ‘Freighter Cormorant, this is the Starfleet ship Phoenix. We noticed your arrival at Vega was delayed and you’ve altered your flight route; do you require any assistance?’

There was a pause, then a deep voice burst back. ‘Boy, Phoenix, are we glad to see you! We met trouble and had to run; we ditched our cargo and hid in that nebula a ways back, and we were trying to sneak to Vega on low power. But we don’t know if they’re still out there.’

Lopez glanced at Black, who shook her head, and the captain pressed on. ‘Don’t worry, Cormorant; we’re not detecting any Romulan ships. You should have a clear run at Vega, but we’ll meet up with you and offer an escort.’

That’s very kind of you, Captain, but… I’m not surprised you’re not detecting any Romulan ships.’ The Cormorant captain’s voice sounded guarded. ‘We weren’t attacked by Romulans.’