Hometown Heroes

Hometown Heroes

"Have a seat, and explain to me why you're still aboard this ship," the Captain said.

Lieutenant Pars Kheeilan walked into the Captain's office and took a seat. The office was large, with several chairs sequestered near the walls. In front of Pars was the Captain's large desk, covered with datareaders, and beyond it his personal chair, its seat far more worn than its arms. To one side there was a global recon table that, when activated, would project a 3D hologram. The window behind the desk and the Captain's chair was capable of displaying any manner of vids, both army and private, but now showed nothing but the blackness of space. To another side was an unobtrusive door connected to the Captain's own living quarters. The Captain himself was standing behind his desk, with an immobile expression, and his arms clasped behind his back.

"I wonder that myself sometimes, sir," Pars said. When he saw the Captain's expression, he rubbed his eyes and added, "Sorry, sir. It's been a long day." He reached into a pocket and pulled out a small datakey, leaned foward and put it on the Captain's desk. "These are the people named in the riot. We're treating everyone as a suspect, but there are only a handful who got so involved that they had to be thrown into the brig. The rest were returned to their duties."

"Any more trouble?"

"No, sir. People are keeping quiet and waiting to see what we do."

"Well then, Lieutenant Kheeilan," the Captain said and leaned forward, resting his outstretched arms on the desk for support, his knuckles on its surface, "Seeing as how this happened in cafeteria E-1, which was occupied by your Delta unit, staffed with Delta men, and damaged with Delta weapons, what is the leader responsible for Delta going to do about it? And why were there weapons out in the cafeteria at all?"

"To be fair, sir, the weapons damage was one discharge of an emergency weapon located on-site, fired by a man who'd never handled a gun but nevertheless got the clever idea to break it open and fire a warning shot. He wanted to calm the crowd, I'm told, but managed to fire the gun directly through three adjoining walls. The bullet stopped at the inner shield."

"What is this man's present status?"

"Sick bay. He barely missed the head of Ensign Mjern in the head, and Mjern proceeded to knock him out flat on the spot."

When the Captain didn't comment, the Lieutenant continued, "Sir, it's been a hotbed recently. When it's like that, it only takes one person to light the fuse. I'm not one to single out my men for blame, but I've spoken to several people and in this case it's obvious who's the main party responsible for this."

The Captain stared at him for a while. Then he sighed, lifted his arms from the table and sat down heavily into his chair. His knuckles had gone white from the pressure.

"It's that bloody nitwit Crayan again, isn't it?"

"Yes, sir."

"Have you spoken to him?"

"I have, sir. One of the other Deltas made the usual lunchtime comment about sexual relations with someone else's blood relative, and Crayan took it personally, electing to stab the offending party with his fork and beat him severely over the head with his tray. In his words, his hometown hero never took no shit from no Matar and neither will he. He apparently feels this should count to his benefit."

The Captain grimaced. "I've been reading up on your man, as it happens. Found out some interesting things. This isn't the first time he causes trouble, Lieutenant."

"No sir, it isn't."

"He's a race-barker. Beat up some Minmatar Ensign, and when the man dared file complaints, Crayan drugged and stripped him, took a handheld laser to his tattoos, and defaced them in such humiliating ways that the Ensign dropped charges, lest he be seen and photographed like that. Crayan got a month in the brig for that. Didn't teach him much."

"No, sir. Nor did his other stay in the brig after he torched another Ensign's pet fedo and left it on the Ensign's food tray. He spent much of his solitary time singing songs he learned back home, and talking loudly about this hometown hero of his. Apparently they're distant relations."

"So what do you recommend?" the Captain said.

"Summary dismissal, sir."

The Captain leaned back in his chair and knitted his hands behind his head. "As I recall from the last incident involving your man, Crayan is on a five-year contract, low interest, three years locked in service. Do you propose to break this contract? Because if you do, I know quite a few Lieutenants, Lieutenant-Captains and Captains who will be after your blood."

"But still-"

"These contracts were created for a reason, Lieutenant. How do you think we keep people in the Navy these days?"

"God only knows, sir," Pars said, and winced in regret the second the words were out.

There was silence in the room. Eventually Pars added, "How bad are things, sir? Truthfully?"

The Captain said nothing.

"Sir, we've served together for a while. We're in this to stay. I'm seeing more riots and less signups, and the people we do get aren't anywhere near the old standard. Something has gone very wrong. What happened?"

The Captain turned in his chair, rotating it so that he could look sideways and see out the window. Their vessel was stationary, but anyone looking out into empty space for too long would likely start to feel that the blinking stars were slowly moving by. "It's a nice view," the Captain said. "I've always liked it. Usually it makes people sick after a while, which is good when I'm tired of strategic planning and want them out of my office."

He turned back to Pars. "You seem to be doing fine," he said with a wry smile.

The Lieutenant returned the smile and said, "If it did that to me, sir, I shouldn't even be here."

The Captain nodded. He frowned, then seemed to make up his mind about something; got up, and walked slowly over to the recon table. He activated it and a flat green panel lit up in the air in front of him. Its surface was covered with various tactical display options. The Captain selected one, and the display changed to a space map, highlighting various nearby constellations. "Since our area is one of the Navy's fleet accumulation points, it's a decent representation of all other such locations," he said. "These dots here are the outlying points, frontlines in case of skirmish."

Several points on the display lit up, and the rest darkened. The Lieutenant stood up and walked over to take a look.

"Do you know who's manning these?" the Captain said. "The points of utmost importance in case we get called on for anything more than capsuleer patrol? The Matari." A disc expanded around each point, its area pie-sectioned like a flower blooming with petals purple and green. Each circle was composed of far more purple sections than green. "Distribution of troops according to race. Matari outnumber us and everyone else."

"Those guys have always sought out the army," Pars said.

"And now we're putting them in the line of fire. Doesn't it strike you as odd that the people supposed to die for this empire are the ones who probably came here to find a better life?"

"It's the way of the Navy, sir," Pars said and shrugged.

"It was, Lieutenant," the Captain said. "Except now our own people beg off serving there, in the apparent belief that the Navy should offer them a nice, safe working environment, preferably with a corner office. Look at this." The entire map was lit up and each Captain point sprouted a disc, this time sectioned into greys and greens. There were vastly more grey sections everywhere.

"Don't tell me those are non-Gallente, sir," Pars said.

"Those are non-humans, Lieutenant, though likely a step over some in Delta squad. They're drones. Those are our defense capabilities, measured in drone and human output. I hardly need tell you that we're allocating record funds to drone tech manufacturers, money that is not being equalled in our recruiting departments." The Captain sighed. "Long and the short of it, Lieutenant, we're not getting the people we need, nor the type of people we need. Everyone has it too good planetside. They'd much rather do a terraforming project or two and settle down in a bungalow somewhere than risk their necks in a fleet that's going nowhere fast. All we're getting these days is the hotheads and the idiots, and we're having trouble even holding on to them. Even the Minmatars - who're fine workers and decent people, don't get me wrong - even they don't join up anymore. Some of the tougher ones still show up in the army, and I expect we'll always have a steady trickle of Brutors happy to fight anyone we put in their way, but by and large they treat this as a land of opportunity, with a stable government, and they work hard and make their own way, leaving us stuck with what remains. I just hope we can stay out of trouble, Lieutenant."

Pars blinked a couple of times, then stammered in surprise, "We're the Navy, sir."

"Exactly," the Captain said, and sat back down at his desk. He knitted his hands behind his head, put his feet up on the desk, leaned back and stared at the ceiling. Pars sat back in his own chair, waiting patiently.

Eventually the Captain seemed to reach a decision. "I'm not going to put you through hoops, Lieutenant," he said, "because frankly, there's no point. You're no more responsible for this mess than I am. Delta is what we have to work with, they and everyone like them, and regular punishment won't cut it. If all we do is push people, we'll eventually push them out. We need to get back to our roots as a proper fighting force, which includes the break-and-rebuild tactics. And Crayan is a perfect example of that. If we can remould him, the rest are going to follow. We only need to find the right entry point, something that'll unsettle him enough that he'll be easy to shake to pieces after that."

"What do you suggest, sir?"

"The problem with Crayan is that he's got an ego complex. Breaking and rebuilding him won't get rid of that; it'll only push those things so deep we'll never reach them. And this hometown hero thing of his is another anchor. He clearly believes that he's going to achieve the same fame, and it keeps him going. So we'll take that away from him." The Captain smiled again, but without warmth. "Ops contacted me recently, as a matter of fact. They're starting in on one of their outreach programs for young recruits, where they pick someone and make him our spokesperson in ads shown all around the empire. Crayan wants to be famous; we'll make him famous."

Pars raised an eyebrow. "There's a catch to this, sir, and I'm waiting to hear it."

"Of course there is," the Captain said and gave him a big, bright smile. "Ops have given up on the usual macho stuff and are going for those weird ads again, the surreal ones some marketer cooked up to grab the eyes of our shellshocked, vidwatching youth. So this isn't some guy going," the Captain's voice shifted down an octave, "'It's great to be in the navy. Be a man in the navy.' It's something else entirely. It was suggested a while back and was quickly shelved due to being too stupid, but Ops is feeling the pressure same as me, and they're digging up any old idea and dusting it off. Personally I don't think it'll help a bit, but it wouldn't do my career or yours any harm to show a little spirit for once."

"What'll Crayan have to do?"

The Captain's smile widened even further. He spoke slowly, as if enjoying the passage of words. "He'll have to dress up as a Fedo and talk nonsensically about synthetics for ten seconds, after which we'll flash our logo and something about a different life. He'll be in full costume, but even so, his voice will be unaltered, recorded separately. I imagine that eventually someone in his hometown will recognize it."

"That's ... insane."

"That's what we need to show our civilians, apparently. Shock them a bit, so they'll pay attention to the final image."

"He'll never go for that," the Lieutenant said. "He'll be shot into space rather than do this."

"Funny you should say that," the Captain replied. He stood up and walked to the door, and the Lieutenant followed. "As I said, it's all about breaking points. You find one, and you push it hard, knowing that something will give way. Once he's done with this ad, he'll crawl over broken glass to do anything else instead, and that's when we'll start him in on proper retraining. To make him do the ad itself, all you need is to create enough uncertainty that you can manipulate him into it. Cut him off from his anchor, his idol."

"His hometown hero," the Lieutenant said.

"Precisely," the Captain replied, ushering Pars out the door. "I looked through Crayan's records, same as you, and same as others, I'll venture. But I looked one further. And this guy he so worships, the one who drew him into service, the one in whom Crayan's belief has seen him through the roughest of times?"

"Yes?"

Before the door closed, the Captain said, "He never made it to deployment. Old tale spread to his people back home to preserve the poor boy's integrity. He barely crawled through basic training, got drunk as a dog on the way to base, landed himself in all sorts of trouble and ended up jettisoning himself into space by accident. Might want to mention that to Crayan, right before you give him the one big chance for his own grab at fame."

The door closed on an astonished Pars.





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