I Can't Stress This Enough...
Mal entered the holodeck he'd chosen for Nexi's bridge stress test and activated the program he'd selected. The simulation took place on the Hera's bridge and would involve an attack by multiple Jem'Hadar attack craft. Once Nexi got that situation under control, a Jem'Hadar battle cruiser would be added to the attack, then another. If by some chance the simulated Hera had not been destroyed at this point, a third battler cruiser would be added to the fight. Even if Nexi had the skills, talents, experience, training and luck of Garth of Izar, or any of the current renowned tactical geniuses, there was no way a Nebula Class starship could stand up to a squadron of Jem'Hadar attack ships and three Jem'Hadar battle cruisers. However, Mal was prepared in case it looked like Nexi was getting the upper hand after the arrival of the third battle cruiser. From that point in the simulation on, the number of ships added to the enemy forces would double every time. So two battle cruisers, then four, then eight.
To keep her from running away, there would be a ship with high value passengers to rescue and the warp engines would fail early on in the skirmish. Nexi would be told none of this in advance. Of course she was coming to the test understanding in a general sense what was supposed to happen, but Mal would not be giving her any specifics in advance. The simulation was set. All that was missing was Nexi, and Mal expected her to arrive any minute.
Mal smiled, remembering Enalia's suggestion that they do this test in the nude. Mal was fine with nudity, but he was more comfortable with it in social situations. Lounging around his quarters, even in the outdoors on Pomtol. But even the Pomtoli put on clothes when there was work to be done. Besides, as he'd told Enalia, Nexi was forced to be naked around men when she was just a child. The Ferengi were not known for their decent treatment of females. There was no way Mal was going to order Nexi to do the simulation naked and he didn't feel that a superior officer asking a subordinate if they 'felt like getting naked' was appropriate. So Mal had been very relieved when Enalia finally admitted that she'd been trolling him and the temporal agent.
Nexi strolled into the holodeck wearing a trainee uniform; since she would have to wear a uniform for any Bridge duty shift, she was assigned a uniform to wear, similar in style to the Cadet uniforms but for the Enlisted trainees instead. But the derned thing was so uncomfortable, she was tempted to do as Enalia joked about and do this test naked; she was definitely going to be having words with Enalia later about this uniform...
"Uhhh, hey," Nexi said in an uneasy tone and an wary shift in her gait. "Uh, I guess... I don't know what you want me to do for this thing. Enalia said I'd be an acting pilot from time to time, but I know you gotta test me doing other stuff too."
"Actually," he said. "I'm going to put you in the center seat. At some point I'm going to have to test your ability to obey orders, something that I know will be a challenge for you. I mean no offense by that statement. I am simply stating what I think we can both agree is a fact. But in this scenario, all I really want to learn is how you handle pressure. Are you ready?"
"No offense taken; you're right, I do have issues with following orders," Nexi said, tugging at the uncomfortable collar of her uniform, but she stepped forward to sit in the big chair. She had sat in this chair more than a few times as an act of defiance towards the Chain of Command (and Enalia thought it was funny), but now she was actually supposed to be running this thing, and that was actually kind of intimidating; in this simulation, she was responsible for the lives of the Hera, and being responsible for other people was still a new thing to her. "Any advice before we start this?" she asked.
"Yes," Mal said. "Winning isn't the object. Keeping your cool is. Computer, activate simulated bridge crew."
Helm, Operations, Tactical, and Engineering were now all manned.
"Remember," Mal said. "For all intents and purposes, this is the USS Hera, with all of its crew...and its passengers. Any other questions before we start?"
"No, I think I got it," Nexi replied, looking at the crew she had to work with; no one she knew, so either new crew or random creations specifically for this simulation. She took a breath to center herself, then nodded. "Let's do this," she said with determination.
Suddenly the bridge shook, the Hera taking fire from some unknown source.
"What are we dealing with?" Nexi said to her Tactical Officer.
"Jem'Hadar fighters," came the response from Tactical.
"Alright, bring us around and return fire," Nexi ordered, looking at the Jem'Hadar fighters on the main view screen. But then she noticed something else, another ship, Starfleet in origin. "Wait, what is that?" she pointed out, addressing Mal directly.
"Captain!" the Tactical Officer cried. "we're receiving a distress call! That ship, Ma'am, it's some kind of hospital ship. They are carrying a shipload of...of children. Apparently they are orphans from a nearby conflict. Their engines are damaged. They need time to repair them so they can get away from the Jem'Hadar!"
"Tell them to hang tight, we're on our way," Nexi replied. Orphans? That sneaky son of a- "Helm, lay in a course to intercept, keep us between them and the Jem'Hadar. Tactical, return fire when you can. Ops, monitor the hospital ship in case they require en emergency evacuation," she ordered. There, she had covered all the bases, right?
There was a chorus of 'aye, ayes' and everyone got to work. More of the fighters turned from the hospital ship and moved in on the Hera. The smaller ships were fast, maneuverable, well shielded, and could deliver accurate fire rapidly. The Hera shook as the enemy's phased polaron weapons blasted it's shields.
"Shields down to 85%!" said Tactical. "But they're holding! Returning fire!"
There were several misses, but one of the fighters exposed the weak point in its shields and was destroyed by a well aimed shot. Given enough time, the fighters could nickel and dime the Hera to death...more like quarter and fifty-cent piece. Either way, she only had to hold the fighters here while the hospital ship warped out.
"Captain!" Tactical called out. "Sensor contact! Jem'Hadar battle cruiser!"
"What the hell!" Nexi blurted out as the battle cruiser appeared on the screen. "Uhhh, don't let them get to the hospital ship," she said, hoping that would mean something to the officers on the bridge.
Helm placed the ship between the battle cruiser and the hospital ship. The battle cruiser fired on the Hera which shook violently under the assault. Conduits around the bridge exploded, sending out showers of sparks.
"Shields down to 40%!" said Tactical.
"Warp engines are offline!" said Engineering. "Diverting auxiliary power to structural integrity field!"
Helm looked like they were about to say something but was cut off when they were electrocuted by their console.
"How long until the hospital ship can go to warp?" Nexi called out as she jumped up from the Command chair and removed the deceased helmsman from the CONN, then placed herself in the now vacant seat to continue maneuvering the ship. "And what the hell are we doing, shooting the Jem'Hadar with pea shooters?! Do some damage to them!"
"Yes, Ma'am," Tactical responded. "Uhm, may I suggest that we activate the point defense system? It will deal with some of the polaron torpedoes they're firing at us and take some of the pressure off of our shields...maybe give them a chance to recharge?"
"Yes, do it!" Nexi said, maneuvering the Hera into the path of another volley of weapon fire aimed at the hospital ship. "Ops, how much longer does the hospital ship need?!"
"Ma'am," Ops replied. "They say they need five minutes and their engines will be back on line...Ma'am, five minutes is like a lifetime while we're taking this amount of fire!"
There was panic in the young man's voice.
With the point defense system activated, the torpedo fire was being shot down before it reached the Hera. The polaron beams were another matter.
"Yes!" cried the tactical officer. There was one explosion each off of the port and starboard bows. "That's the last of the fighters. Now we've just going the big one to deal with. Oh no! The battle cruiser has targeted the hospital ship and is charging it's main cannons! All those orphans!"
"Put everything we've got left into the shields and the point defense system," Nexi commanded as she attempted to keep the Hera between the battle cruiser and the hospital ship. "We just need to hold out for five more minutes!" she said to the crew. She knew with such an order, they were essentially on a course for suicide, but she could see no other way out; as long as the kids were able to make it to safety, that had to count for something, right?
The battle cruiser opened fire just as the Hera moved in. The polaron beams hit the Hera, which shook more violently before. Consoles around the bridge exploded, conduits fell from the ceiling, extraneous crewmembers were flung around the bridge. There was the wet sound of meat smacking metal, and the sickening smell of burning flesh. The overhead lights, what was left of them, were flickering.
"Ma...Ma'am?" said the Engineering Officer. "Shields are down, but give me a few seconds and I'll have them back to 30%, maybe 35%. A full ten seconds, and I might be able to get...there. Shields at 43% and holding. Uh...it looks like warp engines are offline, not sure how long that will take to fix or even if we can fix it under fire. We took some serious hits in the moments after our shields went down."
"That big bitch is coming around again," Tactical said. "I'm trying but she's heavily shielded and she hasn't taken as much damage as we have. Wait...YES!"
There was a noticeable explosion on the battle cruisers port nacelle. Then a flash of light and another battle cruiser appears.
"Aw, come on!" the Engineer said.
There was a heavy sinking feeling in Nexi's gut when she saw the second battle cruiser drop out of warp. "Alert the hospital ship to go to warp as soon as they're capable," Nexi said as she brought the Hera around to face off against this new battle cruiser. But the Hera couldn't go to warp to continue to protect the hospital ship, so what to do? They couldn't let the battle cruiser pursue the hospital ship, not after all they had done to keep the ship safe. "Inform Command of Jem'Hadar incursion and alert all nearby Federation vessels of the threat... Then prepare for collision with the battle cruiser," Nexi ordered in a somber tone.
"Computer," Mal said. "Freeze simulation. Restore bridge to normal operating condition and remove simulated crew. One glass of sweet iced tea, please."
A glass of cold, sweet, iced tea appeared in his hand. Mal walked over to Nexi and placed a hand gently on her shoulder.
"You did well," he said gently. "Drink this. You'll feel better."
"I'm not really the 'tea' sort of person," Nexi said, but she took the glass anyway and hesitantly took a sip, a relief to her now dry mouth. "So, how badly did I mess up?" she asked. She was no tactician or strategist, she knew there was probably a million different ways she could have made this simulation end a little differently, but she had still done the best that she could.
"I could make it a...oh, what do the humans call it? Yes! A Long Island Iced Tea!" Mal said. "No tea in that! Finish what I gave you first, though. Stress is dehydrating. Then we'll both have one. And I said you did well. I wasn't judging you on your tactical skills, but on your ability to handle stress in an unfamiliar situation. You handled it well. You only lost your temper with the crew once. You'll have to watch that. It's counterproductive in a team environment. Otherwise, you did fine. Anything you want to ask me about?"
"Did I do the right thing?" she asked hesitantly.
"Do you think you did the right thing?" Mal asked.
"I don't know," Nexi answered honestly. "I feel like there was something more I could have been doing, but this was all I could think of to ensure the hospital ship got away safely, and even then I don't feel confident about my choices, because what if another ship showed up?"
"Then it is likely that all of those orphans would have been killed or taken into custody by the Jem'Hadar," Mal said. "Or maybe those engineers would have gotten their engines online faster than estimated. Some things are beyond our control. When you've exhausted all reasonable options, and even a few unreasonable ones, then you may have to offer the ultimate sacrifice. It's one of the things we do in Starfleet. We try not to play that one up too much on recruitment drives, but there it is. I might have tried to hold out a little longer than you did, maybe give non-essential crew and passengers a chance to evacuate, but I'm more familiar with the tactical capabilities of Federation starships than you are, and I have more command experience."
Nexi nodded as she listened; he made valid point, but she still couldn't help but feel like she had failed. "I kept getting the sense that there would be more; I guess I was picking that up from you since you designed the simulation, so I had to remind myself that if this was real that I would have no way of knowing if more enemy ships were coming or not, that I had to deal with what was right in front of me," she said.
"Hmm..." Mal said. "My apologies. I should have taken you psionics into consideration. I mean, I did, of course, but I didn't think about you being able to read me. Thank you for pointing that out. But back to your point, you do have to deal with what's in front of you, that's true. In an enlisted or junior NCO position, you're assigned a task or objective and you have to use your resources to accomplish that objective. Many times it's about trusting the orders of your commander. But developing an instinct about what's coming next, being able to think one or two moves ahead is good, too. Just as long as you don't get so focused on the next move that you miss the one in front of you...and I think I just repeated myself. I do hope that made sense. I'd hate to think I've just been nattering on here without making any sense."
"Nah, I get it, foresight is good so long as it doesn't come at the cost of what's happening now," Nexi said. "With my old line of work, it was all about adaptability; sure, I'd have to plan for a bunch of contingencies before hand, but mostly I'd go in without much of a plan, I'd have to make things up as I go along. I guess I kinda fell back onto that in this test."
"Well," Mal said. "I didn't really give you much to go on, so flying by the seat of your pants was to be expected. It all seems very contradictory when I say it out loud. 'Be adaptable!' 'Follow the plan'. No you like working freelance and solo. Ah, well...Computer! Corner table in a quiet bar and two very cold Long Island Iced Teas, please!"
There was a flash and now Nexi was sitting at a corner table in a quiet bar. On the table were two drinks. Mal slid into the seat across from her. He raised his glass at her.
"I did promise you something stronger, did I not?" he said with a grin. "And I know you're not a tea person, but this isn't actually tea, so clink your glass against mine and drink up!"
Nexi gave the drink an experimental sip, the grinned. "This is more like it!" she said, the took another good swig. "So, did I pass?"
Mal took a sip of his own drink and sighed.
"Ahh..." Mal said. "That is better! And yes, you passed. Congratulations. One step closer to becoming an official member of our highly dysfunctional family."
"Like I'm a picture of stability?" Nexi countered with a chuckle. "Dysfunctional or not, it's still more than I had before. That's enough for me."