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Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Captain's Log #44: "A Call to Arms"

Steve Cole writes:

A Call to Arms: It seemed so easy when I agreed to it, such an obvious and simple project. To support the new ACTASF product line, all I had to do was write the history of Day One, the day that the Klingons invaded the Federation. Players have been waiting for this story to be written for a long time. It proved a difficult challenge (just tracking down which ships were known to be, or could have been, with the Third Fleet on Day One took entire days of digging).

My plan was to write not just one big story about one ship and what they did on that one big day, but (to honor the title) I wanted to show readers everything about what happens to a very large military force and an entire nation when a whole lot of things happen in a very short period. I decided to tell the story through the eyes of "one of every kind of person" who would experience it. That lofty goal proved impossible (there was not time or space to include some "kinds of people" such as a diplomat, a high government official, the real wonks at Star Fleet Intelligence, a freighter captain, a small mining station) but in the end I surprised myself as to how many different "kinds of people" were included. By showing how multiple ship captains each met the situation in their own unique way, I could show that not every professional officer is an interchangeable part. I have always been fascinated with the concept that people on the first day of a war do not know what the readers (long after the war) already know (and subconsciously assume everyone who was actually there already realized).

I started doing research: what stories had already been written during and around the Day One events? There were several of these, and I almost wanted to include notes to tell the reader "now go get this story and read it before you go on." Conscience requires me to note that "my" story sometimes includes a few lines of dialogue from these other authors. I consulted with an expert on the subject of "authorship" who said it would be ok to do that without listing them as co-authors of the greater story (their contributions amounted to about 1% of the total), but I insisted on acknowledging them in these notes.

"Ghostlight: Day One" by Ed McKeown from Captain's Log #9 was always a favorite story, covering the destruction of Battle Station K7. I decided that one part of my very large project would be to tell the story of the same battle, but from another point of view. That made it easy for me, as I did not have to invent the tactics, which is always the tough part. It bothered me a great deal to kill off Commodore Thomas.

"A Friend in Need" by Allen Gies from Captain's Log #18 happened a few days after Day One, but included some key information about the battle. My scenes for the Oaxaca take place before and after that story. Having two sub-stories about battle stations allowed me to have one of them surrender and another be destroyed, because war happens that way.

"Return of the Hood" by Dale McKee in Captain's Log #25 took place years after Day One, but included a flashback to that day. I added two scenes to that story, and borrowed several lines and elements of the Hood's final battle, more than I was really comfortable with, but to include that final scene at all required that much re-use of another writer's work.

"For the Honor of the Flag" by Mark Tippet in Captain's Log #26 takes place a month after Day One, but the first scene includes a key review of things that happened, and all of that information was worked into my story. (A passing reference to the deceased captain of Agincourt tore at my heart, and I had to bring him alive if only to kill him off.) I wrote some of the same scenes from the point of view of the guy on the other end of the intercom, copying a bit of dialogue into a different setting.

"Snap Count," one of my own stories published in Captain's Log #33, took place a year or two before Day One, but I brought in some of the characters, including the irascible Commander Crawford (the namesake of both Tos Crawford and John Crawford, two great friends).

"The Librarian," a snapshot I wrote in Captain's Log #39, was brought in, at least one scene from it.

When Mongoose did the cover for ACTASF they asked me for a ship name to use. One of those available was Valiant, and they picked it. Writing the scenes for that ship was kind of fun, as I could use a character I had created (but never published) some time earlier. Captain Rankin was a man who had the highest medal Star Fleet could give him but was filled with self-doubt about his own abilities. I asked Steven Petrick to review my battle plan and he said "you have to first feint at this ship to get him to drop his speed before you can run off to bag that ship" and that is just what Captain Rankin did in "my" story.

I must confess that the "town council" scene on Delta Pavonis III was inspired by a real-world meeting I took part in as a military police unit commander assigned to support local authorities. No person or words from the real-world event were copied into my fiction, but seeing so many talented people trying to simultaneously contribute their talents and protect their own turf was as fascinating as it was terrifying. Well, ok, the local sheriff did want to be absolutely positive that my troops were not going to be carrying firearms in his town. I couldn't blame him for that, and that wasn't what we were there for. (We just managed the traffic flow that time, but I did see a different real world sheriff send troops including myself to deal with drug gangs who were "not afraid cops but were terrified of soldiers.")

As I wrote the different scenes, I took time to bring in the individual flourishes and character traits that sometimes get lost in writing a big story about one small group. Jean remarked that I had done more to "make her love the characters" than anything I had written before, which was surprising to me since each character got so few words in the overall story.

I also took time to bring in some themes that had bothered me for years. Commander Crawford was good enough at his job to be kept in it, but I felt I had to say that nobody really wanted an officer who had been held captive (and brainwashed) by an "evil alien enemy about whom far too little is known."

Being a guardsman myself, I had often had the feeling that "the regular military" did not give us enough respect. (Being a State Guardsman I often felt that the National Guardsmen regarded us a people they'd rather not have around. I also, many times, had to accept that the "real cops" were not excited to have the help of half-trained "military policemen" who were sent to help them during major events and emergencies.) I could actually see Star Fleet taking guardsmen who were serving on starships and using them to fill up remote stations so they could use their own (less qualified) Star Fleet people on newly activated ships. I have, from personal experience, seen business and military organizations shuffle their own less-capable people off to third-rate jobs but still prefer their own people to better-qualified strangers from another organization.

I wanted to show people that fighters in SFU must be integrated with ships and used in mass formations if they are to be used to their best advantage.

Most of all, I wanted to show that you don't always know what's really going on. For a student of military history, those nice pretty maps of what everybody was doing on the first day of World War II or during Operation Desert Storm all seem so complete, so organized, and such a perfect picture of what happened. For the guy actually at headquarters trying to figure it out from radio reports, it's not that pretty and not nearly that clear or obvious. Having been (on a much smaller scale) the military commander trying to keep track of a dozen moving elements by way of unreliable radios, I can tell you that it's quite a challenge.

In re-reading the story I wrote, I found myself wanting to tell more of the story, and wanting others to tell other parts. I am already writing the story of Mister Oregon, the fascinating story of that Dunkar linguist on the Klingon police ship that gathered up those outpost crews, and the story of Commander Crawford. I really want to read stories other people write about the Hornet and the Agincourt in the days between Day One and "For the Honor of the Flag."