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The Human Division #5
Tales From the Clarke
By John Scalzi
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 2013 John Scalzi
All rights reserved.
Tales from the Clarke
"So, Captain Coloma," Department of State Deputy Undersecretary Jamie Maciejewski said. "It's not every starship captain who intentionally maneuvers her ship into the path of a speeding missile."
Captain Sophia Coloma set her jaw and tried very hard not to crack her own molars while doing so. There were a number of ways she expected this final inquiry into her actions in the Danavar system to go. This being the opening statement was not one of them.
In Coloma's head a full list of responses, most not in the least appropriate for the furtherance of her career, scrolled past. After several seconds, she found one she could use. "You have my full report on the matter, sir," she said.
"Yes, of course," Maciejewski said, and then indicated with a hand State Department Fleet Commander Lance Brode and CDF liaison Elizabeth Egan, who with Maciejewski constituted the final inquiry panel. "We have your full report. We also have the reports of your XO, Commander Balla, of Ambassador Abumwe, and of Harry Wilson, the Colonial Defense Forces adjunct on the Clarke at the time of the incident."
"We also have the report of Shipmaster Gollock," Brode said. "Outlining the damage the Clarke took from the missile. I'll have you know she was quite impressed with you. She tells me that the fact that you managed to get the Clarke back to Phoenix Station at all is a minor miracle; by all rights the ship should have cracked in half from material stresses during the ship's acceleration to skip distance."
"She also says that the damage to the Clarke is extensive enough that repairs will take longer to make than it would take for us to just build an entire new Robertson-class diplomatic ship," Maciejewski said. "It would possibly be more expensive to boot."
"And then there is the matter of the lives you put at risk," Egan said. "The lives of your crew. The lives of the diplomatic mission to the Utche. More than three hundred people, all told."
"I minimized the risk as much as possible," Coloma said. In the roughly thirty seconds I had to make a plan, she thought but did not say.
"Yes," Egan said. "I read your report. And there were no deaths from your actions. There were, however, casualties, several serious and life-threatening."
What do you want from me? Coloma felt like barking at the inquiry panel. The Clarke wasn't supposed to have been in the Danavar system to begin with; the diplomatic team on it was chosen at the last minute to replace a diplomatic mission to the Utche that had gone missing and was presumed dead. When the Clarke arrived they discovered traps had been set for the Utche, using stolen Colonial Union missiles that would make it look as if the humans had attacked their alien counterparts. Harry Wilson — Coloma had to keep in check some choice opinions just thinking the name — took out all but one of the missiles by using the Clarke's shuttle as a decoy, destroying the shuttle and nearly killing himself in the process. Then the Utche arrived and Coloma had no choice other than to draw the final missile to the Clarke, rather than have it home in on the Utche ship, strike it and start a war the Colonial Union couldn't afford at the moment.
What do you want from me? Coloma asked again in her mind. She wouldn't ask the question; she couldn't afford to give the inquiry panel that sort of opening. She had no doubt they would tell her, and that it would be something other than what she had done.
So instead she said, "Yes, there were casualties."
"They might have been avoided," Egan said.
"Yes," Coloma said. "I could have avoided them entirely by allowing the missile — a Colonial Union Melierax Series Seven — to hit the Utche ship, which would have been unprepared and unready for the attack. That strike would have likely crippled the ship, if it did not destroy it outright, and would have caused substantial casualties, including potentially scores of deaths. That seemed the less advisable course of action."
"No one disputes your actions spared the Utche ship considerable damage, and the Colonial Union an uncomfortable diplomatic incident," Maciejewski said.
"But there still is the matter of the ship," Brode said.
"I'm well aware of the matter of the Clarke," Coloma said. "It's my ship."
"Not anymore," Brode said.
"Pardon?" Coloma said. She dug her fingernails into her palms to keep herself from leaping across the room to grab Brode by the collar.
"You've been relieved of your command of the Clarke," Brode said. "The determination has been made to scrap the ship. Command has been transferred to the port crew that will disassemble it. This is all standard practice for scrapped ships, Captain. It's not a reflection on your service."
"Yes, sir," Coloma said, and doubted that. "What is my next command? And what is the disposition of my staff and crew?"
"In part, that's what this inquiry is about, Captain Coloma," Egan said, and glanced over at Brode, coolly. "It's regrettable that you had to learn about the disposition of your ship in this way, in this forum. But now that you do know, you should know what we're going to decide is not what we think about what you did, but where we think you should go next. Do you understand the difference here?"
"With apologies, ma'am, I'm not entirely sure I do," Coloma said. Her entire body was coated in a cold sweat that accompanied the realization that she was now a captain without a ship, which meant in a very real sense she was no longer a captain at all. Her body wanted to shiver, to shake off the clamminess she felt. She didn't dare.
"Then understand that the best thing you can do now is to help us understand your thinking at every step in your actions," Egan said. "We have your report. We know what you did. We want a better idea of the why."
"You know the why," Coloma said before she could stop, and almost immediately regretted it. "I did it to stop a war."
"We all agree you stopped a war," Maciejewski said. "We have to decide whether how you did it justifies giving you another command."
"I understand," Coloma said. She would not admit any defeat into her voice.
"Very good," Maciejewski said. "Then let's begin at the decision to let the missile hit your ship. Let's take it second by second, shall we."
* * *
The Clarke, like other large ships, did not dock with Phoenix Station directly. It was positioned a small distance away, in the section of station devoted to repair. Coloma stood at the edge of the repair transport bay, watching crews load into the work shuttles that would take them to the Clarke, to strip the ship of anything and everything valuable or salvageable before cutting down the hull itself into manageable plates to be recycled into something else entirely — another ship, structural elements for a space station, weapons or perhaps foil to wrap leftovers in. Coloma smiled wryly at the idea of a leftover bit of steak being wrapped in the skin of the Clarke, and then she stopped smiling.
She had to admit that in the last couple of weeks she'd gotten very good at making herself depressed.
In her peripheral vision, Coloma saw someone walking up to her. She knew without turning that it was Neva Balla, her executive officer. Balla had a hitch in her gait, an artifact, so Balla claimed, of an equestrian injury in her youth. The practical result of it was that there was no doubt of her identity when she came up on you. Balla could be wearing a bag on her head and Coloma would know it was her.
"Having one last look at the Clarke?" Balla asked Coloma as she walked up.
"No," Coloma said; Balla looked at her quizzically. "She's no longer the Clarke. When they decommissioned her, they took her name. Now she's just CUDS-RC-1181. For whatever time it takes to render her down to parts, anyway."
"What happens to the name?" Balla asked.
"They put it back into the rotation," Coloma said. "Some other ship will have it eventually. That is, if they don't decide to retire it for being too ignominious."
Balla nodded, but then motioned to the ship. "Clarke or not, she was still your ship."
"Yes," Coloma said. "Yes, she was."
The two stood there silently for a moment, watching the shuttles angle toward what used to be their ship.
"So what did you find out?" Coloma asked Balla after a moment.
"We're still on hold," Balla said. "All of us. You, me, the senior staff of the Clarke. Some of the crew have been reassigned to fill holes in other ship rosters, but almost no officers and none of those above the rank of lieutenant junior grade."
Coloma nodded. The reassignment of her crew would normally come through her, but technically speaking they were no longer her crew and she no longer their captain. Balla had friends in the Department of State's higher reaches, or more accurately, she had friends who were assistants and aides to the department's higher reaches. It worked out the same, informationwise. "Do we have any idea why no one important's been reassigned?"
"They're still doing their investigation of the Danavar incident," Balla said.
"Yes, but in our crew that only involves you and me and Marcos Basquez," Coloma said, naming the Clarke's chief engineer. "And Marcos isn't being investigated like the two of us are."
"It's still easier to have us around," Balla said. "But there's another wrinkle to it as well."
"What's that?" Coloma asked.
"The Clarke's diplomatic team hasn't been formally reassigned, either," Balla said. "Some of them have been added on to existing missions or negotiations in a temporary capacity, but none of them has been made permanent."
"Who did you hear this from?" Coloma asked.
"Hart Schmidt," Balla said. "He and Ambassador Abumwe were attached to the Bula negotiations last week."
Coloma winced at this. The Bula negotiations had gone poorly, in part because the Colonial Defense Forces had established a clandestine base on an underdeveloped Bula colony world and had gotten caught red-handed trying to evacuate it; that was the rumor, in any event. Abumwe and Schmidt having anything to do with that would not look good for them.
"So we're all in limbo," Coloma said.
"It looks like," Balla said. "At least you're not being singled out, ma'am."
Coloma laughed at this. "Not singled out, but being punished, that's for sure."
"I don't know why we would be punished," Balla said. "We were dropped into a diplomatic process at the last minute, discovered a trap, and kept the trap from snapping shut. All without a single death. And the negotiations with the Utche were successfully completed on top of that. They give people medals for less."
Coloma motioned to what used to be the Clarke. "Maybe they were just very attached to the ship."
Balla smiled. "It seems unlikely," she said.
"Why not?" Coloma said. "I was."
"You did the right thing, Captain," Balla said, becoming serious. "I said so to the investigators. So did Ambassador Abumwe and Lieutenant Wilson. If they don't see that, to hell with them."
"Thank you, Neva," Coloma said. "It's good of you to say that. Remember it when they assign us to a tow barge."
"There are worse assignments," Balla said.
Coloma was about to respond when her PDA pinged. She swiped to her message queue and read the mail there. Then she shut down the screen, put the PDA away and returned her gaze to what used to be the Clarke.
Balla watched her captain for a moment. "You're killing me over here," she finally said.
"Remember when you said that there are worse assignments than a tow barge?" Coloma said, to her XO.
"Considering it's the second to last thing I said, yes," Balla said. "Why?"
"Because we may have just gotten one of those assignments," Coloma said.
* * *
"The ship was the Porchester," Colonel Abel Rigney said. "At least for its first thirty years of service, when it was a Hampshire-class corvette in the CDF. Then it was transferred to the Department of State and renamed the Ballantine, after an old secretary of the department. That was another twenty years of service as a courier and supply ship. It was decommissioned last year."
Coloma stood on the bridge with Rigney and Balla and looked over the quiet banks of monitors. The atmosphere on the ship was thin and cold, befitting a ship that no longer had a crew or a purpose. "Any immediate reason for the decommissioning?" she asked.
"Other than age? No," Rigney said. "She ran fine. Runs fine, as you'll discover when you put her through her paces. She's just old. There are a lot of klicks on this ship, and eventually being on her began to look like a hardship assignment."
"Hmmm," Coloma said.
"But it's all a matter of perspective, isn't it," Rigney said, quickly, moving past the implied but unintentional insult he'd just offered Coloma. "If you're new to space travel, and don't have your own fleet of ships, then what you and I see as old and past its prime will look shiny and new. The folks from Earth who we are proposing to sell this ship to are going to look at this baby as their first step into the wider universe. It's right about their speed."
"So that's my job," Coloma said. "Take a hand-me-down and convince the rubes they're getting something that's top of the line."
"I wouldn't put it like that, Captain," Rigney said. "We're not trying to deceive the folks from Earth. They know we're not offering them the latest technology. But they also know they're not trained and ready to handle our latest ships. The only real spacefaring tech they've had to this point are shuttlecraft working around the space station over their planet. We've handled everything else up to now."
"So we're giving them a ship with training wheels on it," Coloma said.
"We prefer to think of it as that we're offering them a classic piece of technology to learn on and build from," Rigney said. "You know the Earth folks aren't happy with the Colonial Union right now."
Coloma nodded; that was common knowledge. And she couldn't blame them. If she were from Earth and discovered that the Colonial Union had been using the entire planet as a farm for soldiers and colonists, she'd be pissed at it, too.
"What you probably don't know is that the Earth folks aren't just talking to us," Rigney said. "The Conclave has been very aggressively courting them, too. It would be very bad for the Colonial Union if Earth decided to join the Conclave, and not just because we'd be fresh out of colonists and CDF. This ship is one of the ways we're hoping to get back on their good side."
"Then why are you selling it to them, sir?" Balla asked. "Why not just give it to them?"
"We're already gifting the Earth folks lots of other technology," Rigney said. "We don't want to start looking like we're offering reparations. And anyway, the governments of Earth are suspicious of us. They're worried that we're offering up Trojan horses to them. If we make them pay for this ship, they're more likely to trust us. Don't ask me about the psychology here. I'm just telling you what they tell me. We're still giving it to them at a sharply reduced price, and mostly in barter. I think we're selling it mostly for field corn."
"We're selling it to the Earth folks as a way to get our foot in the door," Coloma said.
Rigney rolled his hand toward Coloma. "Precisely," he said. "And so we come to you and your crew. It's perfectly reasonable that you would see a temporary assignment to a decommissioned ship as punishment for what happened at Danavar. But in fact, Captain Coloma, Commander Balla, what we're asking you to do is a task that's of great importance to the Colonial Union. Your job is to highlight the ship, to make the Earth people feel that it's going to be of benefit to them, answer all their questions and give them a positive experience with the Colonial Union. If you pull it off, you'll be doing the Colonial Union a service. A very significant service. One that means you'll be able to write your own ticket afterward."
"I have your word on that, Colonel?" Coloma asked.
"No," Rigney said. "But that's my point. Sell this ship and you won't need my word."
"Understood," Coloma said.
"Good," Rigney said. "Now. Tour the ship, check out the systems, tell me what you need, and you'll get it. But do it quickly. You have two weeks from today before the Earth delegation arrives to see what this ship can do. Be ready for them. Be ready for us."
* * *
"Here's the problem," Marcos Basquez said, pointing to a series of tubes in the engine room of the ship. He was yelling over the din of his crew banging away at updates and repairs.
"I see tubes, Marcos," Coloma said.
"You see power conduits," Basquez said.
"And?" Coloma said.
"We have two types of engines on a spaceship," Basquez said. "We got the conventional engines, which push us through normal space, and we got the skip drive, which punches holes in space-time. Both of them are powered from the same source, okay? These days, because we know what we're doing, we can seat the engines and the skip drive in the same place. Fifty years ago, when this pile of shit was put together, we had to separate the two." He pointed to the power conduits. "These are the conduits that send power to the skip drive from the engine."
Excerpted from The Human Division #5 by John Scalzi. Copyright © 2013 John Scalzi. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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