Spero Karas was pleased. Through the first two fleet exercises, there were no significant injuries with the regulars or recruits. Oh, there were the minor issues, like cramps and space sickness; Roddy, the supremely experienced probe commander, had a minor injury during a skirmish in the scoring zone of the second exercise. But he was not likely to miss time during the Campaign, so there were no serious setbacks, so far. The Millenium Falcon veterans and recruits even seemed to be behaving. There were no reports of inflammatory sparks on their Sparkle accounts, or offensive entries in any Spacebook accounts. All in all, a healthy start to the weeding-out exercises. During these exercises they weren't under intense fire, facing primarily practice rounds. Generally, the worst Doc Karas was likely to see were minor injuries. Occasionally, there were serious issues. A torn ligament, damaged cartilage or even a badly sprained ankle was apt to separate a trooper from fleet service during at least a portion of the upcoming campaign. That would be a shame, as Doc was close to the veterans and was even getting a little attached to some of the new recruits.
The first exercise had been against the garishly striped Tigris Panthera from the Roebling galaxy. Capable fighters, the Tigris held their own against the Millenium Falcon's regulars, and then rather embarrassed the raw recruits. Ironically, the Tigris also supported an unusual mascot, a furry striped creature they called "Who Dey." That was a bit disconcerting, since one of starfleet's arch enemies, the sweaty, small-headed fighters from the boggy planet Etoufee in the Creole galaxy, had a strange habit of hooting "who dat" during prior fights. Hard to tell whether it was some strange battle custom, or if the Etoufees simply couldn't figure out who they were fighting. In any case, it was widely rumored that the Big MF (as the Millenium Falcon was affectionately known among the fleet) would be carrying the upcoming campaign to the boggy planet itself in a matter of weeks, after the MF personnel were pared down to their select crew.
In the second exercise, against the dark Birdmen of Baile an Tí Mhóir, the recruits, and especially the veterans of the MF, fared better. The current Birdmen didn't appear to be as fierce as their fighters who won the last interstellar war, the one in which the MF had been disabled near the end, and couldn't participate. Other than the minor injury to Roddy, and a rib injury to Ensign Moore, the MF crew acquitted themselves well, with minimal injury. "That's more than I can say for the majority of the fleet," thought Karas. Many of the other starships had experienced serious injuries during the exercises.
Within a couple days, the MF was scheduled to meet the Ti-tânes, a group of Toiler transplants currently in the LiP galaxy. The Toilers fancied themselves as immortals, but had been fearfully exposed during the recent exercises. Karas thought it likely the current crop of MF defenders, especially ensigns Joplo Bartu from the Texian star system, and Paul Worrilow, a surprisingly effective product of the home planet, would be seriously tested during the exercise. He secretly hoped they would be successful; he knew Bartu as a self-effacing, god-fearing young alien of class, and Worrilow had actually been reported to him has a medical volunteer, offering his own marrow to save someone he didn't know. As hard as Karas tried to be aloof, he was becoming attached to some of these newer recruits.
Spero's personal communicator issued a hologram. It was Admiral Smith, the MF's Commander. "Doc, would you come see me?" said the Admiral's hologram.
"Sure, I'll be there in a minute," said Karas.
When Karas arrived at the Admiral's portal, he placed his thumb on the pad next to the door. Since he was expected, the door irised open to the Admiral's study. When he walked in, the Admiral was waiting for him. "Hi Doc," he said,
"Smitty, good to see you."
Karas didn't call the Admiral "Smitty" in front of the crew, but they had an easy, mutual respect that allowed for familiar communication in private. "So what's up?" he asked.
"Have a seat," said the Admiral.
Karas sank into a molded seat, one of several arranged around the Admiral's study. Smith gave him a long, steely-eyed stare. The Admiral was known for searing looks in the practice arena, but Karas hadn't often been on the receiving end of the Admiral's legendary glare. He knew his work was valued and he had a regular (and very lucrative) practice stateside, far away from the Millenium Falcon; nonetheless, the stare unnerved him. "What's up?" he asked again, softly.
"We're near the first cuts," said the Admiral. "I know you did a miraculous job with Mensley, breaking that nasty Twinklies addiction..."
"He's practically down to his fighting weight," Karas offered helpfully.
"Yes," the Admiral admitted, "but I think we have a new problem."
Karas thought the Admiral looked tired, and sensed he wanted a sounding board. "What's the problem, Smitty?"
"The entire right side of our battle line is turning into sacred cows! They're not picking up the strategic plan, or executing. Dammit," he thundered, "I think they're actually growing hooves!"
Karas stared at him in amazement. "Smitty, that's about as likely as an asteroid swarming with Arquilian squid crash-landing in Canada! Both Reynolds and Holmes are from the home planet. They can't grow hooves!"
The Admiral waved his hand weakly. "Spare me the neologism. I'm trying to figure out who can form the backbone of the right side. Who can form the defensive thrust. But, it's just...it's just...so hard..."
For the first time, Karas really noticed the depth of the circles under the Admiral's eyes. The slight shake in his hands, the huskiness in his voice, and tinge of grey in his normally robust complexion. "Smitty, are you all right? It's getting to you, isn't it? The pressure...or is it the kids? Cutting them, I mean?"
The Admiral sat in one of the other molded seats, his face in his palms. "It's all of it, Doc." His voice was muffled by his hands. "Trying to protect Matty behind thin shields. Trying to mold our defenses with inexperienced troops. But worst of all, trying to decide who to leave behind..." he trailed off.
Karas spoke to him gently. "I like ‘em, too, Smitty. But you can't keep all of them; you know that. If it's any consolation, you must know now that you and the General made good choices. You picked good kids, with good character."
The Admiral looked at him with tired red-rimmed eyes. "Yeah Doc, they have character. But can we do it? Can we make the right cuts? Most important of all, can they win?"