Jul 25 2012

Author’s Commentary: TQB “Agamemnon”

 In this next episode of Author’s Commentary, I’ll be discussing the impetus and execution of the first part of The Quarterdeck Breed, “Agamemnon.”  Reading the story prior to reading the commentary is strongly advised, otherwise you might be lost amongst the referential material.

Inspiration

As I said in the previous commentary, when I sat down and started writing “Agamemnon,” it was with the intention of showing clashing command styles.  One of my favorite novels of all time is Pulitzer Prize-winning author Herman Wouk‘s “The Caine Mutiny.”  For those who’ve not read it (and if you write Trek fanfic, you really should!), the story is about a reserve officer coming aboard a destroyer in the middle of World War II, assigned to the Pacific Fleet.  After a hundred pages or so of learning about his slightly dysfunctional family and living through his Officer Candidate Schooling, he becomes an Ensign and reports aboard a ship that he feels is not the same Navy he volunteered for.  It’s an unkempt ship, with a enlisted crew he feels are just one step away from the crew of a civilian garbage scow.  There’s a feeling of having your eyes opened to the reality of being in a wartime Navy that Wouk captured so well.  If you click on the book’s image, it will take you to the Amazon.com page, if you wish to purchase it for yourself.

Burning the Candle at Four Ends

“Agamemnon” is really a story about four people, although some may come to think of it as a story about Richard James and his introduction to the Border Service.  There are three other threads:

  • Captain Grayum’s eagerness to obtain that fourth pip.
  • Halley Gage’s resistance to a by-the-book officer as her new superior.
  • t’Aimne’s introduction to Federation ideals.

Out of the seven stories written in this series, I always come back to this one as being the most complex.  “Dallas” is in second place, but I would say that there was a lot of spiritual precedence in “Agamemnon” for what came next in Full Speed Ahead.  Also, this was coming off the heels of my January McKenna novella, in which I was again employing an ensemble cast to tell a short story.

When I starting churning this story out, it took me just under three days to get the first draft done, because I had such a clear picture in my head of how to tell this story.  I credit my inspiration and the rough outline I was using for keeping me on track.  Additionally, the long quiet nights I had while standing watch in a network operations center all by myself for twelve hours every day.  In the time between calls and tickets, I had more than enough time, and I used it to create a lot of fanfics.

Will The “Real” Starfleet Please Stand Up?

Captain Edward Jellico

Captain Edward Jellico (Ronny Cox)

The dilemma I’ve found in writing Starfleet stories is that everyone seems to have a different interpretation of how this organization executes its goals.  I’ve read fanfics about complete breaks in discipline (I once read a fanfic where the bridge crew breaks out into a brawl over a petty issue, and this was an everyday occurrence), and I’ve also read fanfics where Starfleet is a strict military organization with no room for creative thinking.  When I sat down to write this story, I wanted to capture “The Caine Mutiny” in part; the sense of someone coming into a new situation or environment, and trying his/her best to get their bearing using the only yardstick they know.

Richard James, a lieutenant commander, has served all of his career in the Exploration Command.  In that, he’s not too far removed from those serving on board Enterprise-D.  That ship was kept in pristine condition by her capable engineers, her crew in excellent discipline; she was the flagship of the fleet.  James’ previous assignment was USS Fearless, under the fearsome and famous Captain Simpson.  Simpson was never issued a sense of humor when he was at the Academy, and kept his crew in the strictest of discipline in accordance with what he thought was the best way to conduct his command.  Another phrase you might use to describe this type of officer, is “by-the-book.”  Those of you who watched, got a little taste of this type of thinking in the episodes “Chain of Command, Part I,” when Captain Edward Jellico came aboard to assume command.

Not to say that Simpson was like Jellico.  Simpson did not annoy his crew; they (mostly) respected his abilities and toed the line.  James was one of those types of officers.  He did not begrudge the captain’s desire to keep a tight rein on his crew’s discipline… in fact, coming up through the ranks on various ships, he thought that philosophy was the key to the success of the ship under his command.

Once he had served a full tour of duty under Simpson, the next logical step was for James to move to another ship.  In my version of Trek, officers move around with every tour of duty, be it two or four years.  Officers who stay put risk their careers by becoming too stagnant (Riker in “Best of Both Worlds” is a prime example).  James, by this point, has served on five ships: USS Berlin, USS Repulse, USS Fearless, USS Venture, and then back to USS Fearless.  Bouncing around the fleet provides him with experience enough to be considered for a command of his own someday.  But when his tour of duty is completed on Fearless, Captain Simpson provides him with a couple of options.  He can either remain on the ship for another tour as his executive officer, or he can transfer to the Border Service and potentially command a ship of his own within the year.  Given his history with Simpson, and the fact that the captain has found him to be ready for command, he highly recommends that James take the transfer.

How the Other Half Lives

So, he does.  And Agamemnon is a study in contrasts.  It’s a light cruiser with a crew of just under three hundred, who’ve been together for multiple tours and have grown to become a tight-knit family.  Ranks are meaningless unless someone needs to assert themselves to drive a point home.  Everyone is on a first-name basis, and people execute their orders not because they’re told to, but because they have a sense of pride.

James beams aboard and is greeted by his predecessor, Lieutenant Halley Gage.  Halley is a beloved spitfire, having served on that ship for nearly a full tour of duty.  She’s both the chief engineer and the executive officer, since they’d been without a more senior officer for some time.  That’s how far down on the food chain Agamemnon is.  When they finally get him as a transfer (willing, that is), she’s not sure how to take this guy.  But she knows that he’s from Fearless, and that he’s probably not going to be as happy-go-lucky as their captain, Commander Hank Grayum.

There’s a part of the story that illustrates their relationship very clearly, from that story:

“Something on your mind, Lieutenant?”  James tried to start things out on a good note, wearing his most charming smile.

Gage took her time in responding, curbing her immediate response in the negative, followed by an abrupt departure.  Instead, she decided that Heather was right.  She had not really given the new officer any sort of a chance to earn her respect.  “I just wanted to apologize for my demeanor in the transporter room, Commander.”

The olive branch was extended, and he recognized that it must have cost her more than a fair share of pride to do so.  “There’s nothing that needs apologizing,” said Commander James, returning his gaze to the PADD in his hands.  “Although, I will admit to being taken a bit off my guard at the utter lack of protocol around here.”

“Yeah, well, this isn’t the devil-may-care explorer fleet, with all the pretty little uniforms and pristine starships,” Gage snorted.  “Here in the border patrol, Commander, we find ourselves face-to-face with the leanest and meanest ships.  We’ve fought the Jem’Hadar, the Breen, the Cardassians…”

“In case you haven’t noticed, Lieutenant, we wear the same uniform.  Just because the war’s over, didn’t mean that I sprang into existence on that transporter pad back there,” James replied.  “Fearless was involved in a lot of the same situations that you faced.”

Fearless is an Excelsior-class battlecruiser.  Eight hundred in crew, state-of-the-art weaponry…”

“She’s sixty years older than the Agamemnon,” James rolled his eyes, but spoke with a jovial tone.  “Sure, she’s a little more polished, but she’s old.  I figure by the time I make captain, they’ll probably be scrapping her for parts.  But that does not detract from the fact that you have nothing to prove with me.”

Halley fell silent, appearing to think over his words.  Why was her blood running all of a sudden?  What was it about this man that made her feel as though she was threatened?  Her self-confidence disappeared and anxiety and insecurity began to overwhelm her.  “Once again, I offer my apologies, Commander,” she said in a quiet tone.

James looked at her, “I’ll consider it, Lieutenant.  If you can bring yourself to saying ‘sir.'”

“What is your problem?” Gage asked as she stood up suddenly, knocking her chair back.  She was no longer able to contain her anger.

“I would recommend that you watch your tone, Lieutenant,” he said, his voice barely above a whisper.

Meanwhile, his commanding officer sets a much different tone:

“Welcome aboard the Agamemnon, son.  I’m Hank Grayum,” he rose form his seat, realizing he forgot the gentlemanly nicety of shaking hands.  “Sorry if I seem a little off my game, but there’s this meeting at the port admiral’s office, y’see, and I have to get ready for it.”

James made an attempt to be sensitive to his captain, his tone concerned, “Sir, if this is a bad time, I can come back later.”

“Shit, son, call me Hank.  Everyone else does,” Hank said, smiling widely at his new exec’s dropped jaw.  “I had a chance to chat with your old skipper last night about you.  He said you’re one of his best officers.” Missy had returned with the cup and set it on his desk atop a coaster she provided.

“That’s very kind of him to say, sir.  I had the good fortune of serving under Captain Simpson for three tours of duty,” replied James, as Missy pulled up the requested service record for the captain.  Three tours of duty equaled over six years of service, which was often the mark of a good ship captain within Starfleet.

“Yeah,” Grayum said.  “B. J. and I are old friends.  We graduated from the Academy and did our first tours together.  I know when a CO is bullshittin’ me about a person, but if you get Simpson’s good word, then that’s more than okay with me.”  Missy disappeared, moving into the captain’s bedroom and remaining there.

After meeting these two officers, James is kind of left with a sense of not knowing what to do, now.  Although he knew it was going to be different, he’s very worried about how he’s going to fit in with this rabble.  Readers of Full Speed Ahead might find this to be a somewhat familiar when Commander Kincaid arrives aboard Farragut and meets Captain Leone and her rather informal crew.

To my mind, I felt that the Exploration Command-assigned starships were the poster children of Starfleet.  They flew the Galaxy-class ships, got the latest gear, the best and brightest people, and the choice assignments of diving into the unknown and reaping the glory of discovery for accolades back home.  They’re the reason people sign up for service.  And then, the Border Service is the lesser, perhaps the ginger child… they get the hand-me-downs from the exploration fleet.  The old Excelsior on her last legs, or perhaps an eighty year-old Constitution-class that has seen better days.  Sure, maybe they have a bone thrown to them once in a while with a new ship, but that ship is almost always given to the upper echelon of the Service.

And so, after a while, there’s a morale situation on ships like Agamemnon, but not in the sense that it would affect their attentiveness to their missions.  More like, “we all in this together” in a sense that it would cause a little resentment toward the explorers for receiving the best while they’re the last at the table, hoping for the scraps to fill their bellies.

Someone Moved My Cheese

Halley Gage is on the other end of the spectrum within the story.  Her issues with James have everything to do with the fact that this was some asshole who showed up one day and decided that he was going to do things in a manner contrary to what Hank had set forth.  However, what I felt that this was really about was that Halley took James’ changes to be an affront against her performance.  She was pulling double-duty, and my view on wearing multiple hats is that with each title you take on, that’s one more job that does not get the full attention it deserves.  Perhaps she did so because there was no one else to do it, but her first love is and always will be engineering.  Therefore, is it any wonder that she conducted herself as a purely procedural executive officer?

In spite of her first career choice, though, her character carries a point of pride in her duties.  That pride is injured when James makes his changes and starts adhering more to Starfleet specifications.  Those decisions impacted her morale and she chooses to communicate that by bucking the imposition of Commander James’ determinations.  There’s a sense of defending her own performance in her word choice when she sits down with him in the wardroom as excerpted above.

I didn’t want Halley and James to become friends in the end.  At the most, all I wanted from her was a grudging acknowledgement that he knew how to do his job.  Maybe even a little bit of respect for what he was trying to do with the ship.  But there was no way that one mission was going to change her mind about who he is and what he represents for the crew.  The ending of the story may have been too abrupt to get that across, but I certainly got a chance to define that relationship and those personalities much more in the sequel.

Enter the Wild Card

My Enemy, My Ally by Diane DuaneThe idea for a Romulan exchange officer was torn straight out of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.  Because the mission required a cloaking device, I felt that it would be great to introduce a new character in the form of khre’Arrain t’Aimne.  I fully admit to appreciating Diane Duane’s interpretation of the Romulans in the form of the Rihannsu culture.  On my online RPG, “Where No One Has Gone Before,” we have fully incorporated Duane’s Rihannsu books into how the Romulan faction conducts itself.  I believe that you will find this to be prevalent in my own writing on Romulan characters (ie: “The Tides of Time and War“).  If you haven’t read Duane’s Rihannsu series, I highly recommend purchasing by heading to the new eBookstore under the category, “Pocket TOS.”  There are five books in all, and I value them as a great insight into a fictional culture; moreso developed than the Romulans we come to see on the actual show.

t’Aimne is sent to oversee the operation of the cloaking device, but also to act as the Romulan Star Empire’s eyes and ears aboard Agamemnon.  In doing so, she’s providing a daily report of her activities, and those of the officers and crew that she observes.  As I continued to write her scenes, I realized that I was growing to like this character a lot more than I had thought; while I try to give depth to every character in a story regardless of their “screen time,” I dug in very deep into t’Aimne’s point of view.  Much so that I decided to use her as the focus of my in-progress sequel novella, “The Sacrifice of Agamemnon.”

Her stance is to keep her distance from the crew and her eyes open, however, their penchant for including her in their daily activities is not without its effect.  The perceived insidiousness of meals and conversations has led her to unknowingly become acclimated to the crew… going native, in a way.  But in spite of doing so, she maintains a handle on her clandestine objectives.  She will never put on a Starfleet uniform while she serves, always clinging to her origins by putting on the shoulder pads and wearing the intricate rank insignia of a khre’Arrain (Lieutenant Commander).

No Country for Old Hank

Ah, Hank Grayum.  Out of the cast of characters, he is the most caricature-like than all of the rest because I never intended him to be anything more than a cut out of Captain DeVriess from “The Caine Mutiny.”  In his character biography, I wrote a minimum understanding of his personality and that he was over fifty years old with nearly thirty years in Starfleet, serving in three wars (Cardassian, Tzenkethi, and Dominion).  He had a bit of trouble in his later career that resulted in a black mark on his record.  For that, Starfleet held him to his current rank of Commander.  Fortunately, his relationships and reputation within the fleet demanded that his abilities be placed in command of a ship, where it would do the most good.  In the Border Service, where he could do the least amount of damage by patrolling the same patch of space over and over again.

I hoped that my portrayal of Hank within the story might put forth the fact that he tends to remain in his quarters when he’s not on duty.  He likes to relax and unwind from putting in the casual appearance on the bridge, where his officers refer to him by his nickname rather than his rank.  He figures, well… they’re going to retire him as a Commander, then there’s no point to keeping up with every single little protocol, is there?  He will finish out his thirty years, retire to Risa and live out a life of modest luxury surrounded by beautiful women within a climate-controlled paradise.

So resigned to this fate is he, that when James arrives on board, he is surprised by the sudden opportunity he is given by his most superior officer, Admiral Davies.  A successful mission of this nature would be enough to wipe the reprimands clean enough to provide him with that coveted fourth pip.  Does he care that this officer wants to shake up the crew with discipline?  Hell, no!  In fact, he may even feel that it is necessary to his success.  He’ll even take on a Romulan woman to run the cloaking device, if that’s what it takes to get to what he wants so badly.  Within the span of a day of these changes, he’s ready to throw out his usual temperance and embrace the holy writ of Starfleet protocol to make it happen.

The bright spot in his most recent service is his new yeoman, Melissa Davies.  He knows she’s the youngest daughter of their commanding admiral.  She’s only serving because it’s expected of her.  Hank and Missy (as he comes to call her) get along famously, spending so much time together as a virtual couple that a romantic relationship begins to form under their noses.  Despite their severe differences in age, she finds his sense of humor alluring and he cannot deny her charming and disarming personality, even in those instances when his temper is in full force.  By the beginning of “Sacrifice,” they’ve both resigned and retired together, as his Risa-bound shuttle has two berths instead of the one.

Conclusion

“Agamemnon” was a necessary part of my honing my craft as a writer.  As I said in the TQB commentary, this was part of a larger experiment in pushing the envelope in my writing at that point.  A lot of lessons learned in writing this series was very helpful in executing other stories, not just in my fanfic writing, but also my original storytelling.  The outlining process, the discipline in sitting down and digging in on a daily basis to just get the story done… something I wish I had more recently than I have in the past.

Coming up next, on Author’s Commentary…  “Bellerophon.”