Boldly Reading Bool Club #8 Celestial Fire

Boldly Reading Book Club #8 selection is CeJay’s Lower Deck Tales: Celestial Fire. Spoilers contained within.

Labor to keep alive in your breast that little spark of celestial fire, called conscience.
~ George Washington
Story blurb: The Talarians have launched an incursion into Federation space and Starfleet can ill-afford another conflict so soon after the devastating Dominion War. A newly elected administration led by President Noah Satie is determined not to be another victim.

Now, the outcome of this newest war may depend on the decisions made by a first-year Starfleet cadet.

I am an admitted fan of CeJay’s work. His was among the first fanfictions I ever read and so I’ve been a largely loyal reader ever since. As an author, I often think CeJay is much underrated. He doesn’t go for spectacle or gimmicks or to corner a niche market of the Trek fan fiction world. Instead, his stories are solid vehicles for character development or to tell a moral tale. As he states in his interview, CeJay likes to explore themes with his stories. In many ways, he is the summation of the Roddenberry Trek universe presenting stories with characters who believe in a better utopian vision. Yet he manages to write those kind of characters in settings and stories that challenge that – either threatening the utopia or threatening the moral fibre of the characters.

Despite the Owens character being an intellectual, from an outside perspective a stuffed shirt and an idealist, he’s man who is faced on more than one occasion with troubling decisions. Far from the maverick ruler breaker in the ilk of Kirk, Owens plays by the rules (largely – he actually breaks them more than he realises) and you know what, that makes CeJay’s job as an author way more difficult. It also lends his stories a more cerebral feel and aspect to them. He stories have tackled issues of the Prime Directive (Lower Deck Tales: Horizon Protocol and When Gods Smile), terrorism (All the sinners, saints) and the moral quandaries of using drones in war time with Lower Deck Tales: Celestial Fire.

One of his other central characters is Talza Star. She’s a horrible person and not a good fit onboard the ship at all as its new XO after a straight-laced and warm genial XO is killed off. She herself is introduced to the Eagle in a tale where she played a baddie role in many ways with an agenda that ran contrary to the ship’s mission.Star butts heads with many of the other figures that populate the Eagle and so very quickly you realise that CeJay is scrubbing away what appears at first to be a TNG veneer to his universe. Truthfully, rarely are his stories quite so TNG veneer. Instead, they have all the character shades and machinations we expect of DS9 and indeed of the shared universe CeJay writes in, United Trek.

Here in Celestial Fire again we see CeJay introducing a character seemingly filled with optimism and the spirit of Starfleet only for it to be revealed that young cadet Rhory is actually serving as an analyst for Starfleet Intelligence in deploying the the Unmanned Warp Combat Vehicles. Again, we have CeJay exploring deeper political themes but at the same time, it is serves the story rather than used as a disguised mouthpiece on political or social commentary.

There are obvious parallels with the story and today’s issues with the use of drones and targeting targets with the chance of collateral damage. In an age where the prevalence of intelligence snooping is headline grabbing we realise that in the war theatre, intelligence is all too often not so mighty and powerful and huge gaps exist where military minds appear to be making best guesses and tactical decisions. The parallels are obvious and from the beginning CeJay uses the nucleus of the Owens family on Earth watching a FedNet newscast on the topic to explore some of the issues and viewpoints. However, much the story can be seen as a moral tale, CeJay avoids trying to make a particular statement and moves the story into an examination of one young man’s choice in that style of warfare war front.

Rhory is clearly a young man with hopes and dreams and an optimistic and idealistic viewpoint of the world and what Starfleet should be. He’s been forged by his parents who argue in friendly terms or debate the issues from differing idealistic perspectives. One imagines it is a common occurrence in this family home for his parents to thrash out issues and debates over breakfast. No wonder the young man himself is shown to have an acute mind made for analysis and data mining. However, as the events in the tale spin out, Rhory is shown the consequences of decisions and tactical input. The lack of consideration for what the target’s location could be and the possibility of collateral damage is not taken into account – certainly not correctly. Rhory has the ramifications of his cold analytical choices starkly presented when a school (albeit a school training young Talarian soldiers) is hit in one such drone strike. Before hand, he’s been at a remove from the devastation wrought by the powerful weapons he is playing a role in targeting.

And isn’t that the thing however, so many of today’s technological advances allow for ‘armchair’ commands and tactical insertions. With the ability to play god in the most stark manner of handing out a death sentence through supreme fire power but at such a remove it is a scary, scary prospect. Worse, I’m not sure what the psychological scars and amounting damages to those who operate these drones are. Post traumatic stress and otherwise are more readily accepted nowadays but from those who operate on the war front. Can we believe that those who operate these drones don’t incur some sort of damage too? But to what degree is that recognised or supported?

The skill here in CeJay’s piece is to get me thinking about the individual operating or playing a part in the analysis that selects a target. It becomes about Rhory, rather than the debate itself. One is left wondering what his choices will be and at the end what the cost will be to his soul as he accepts his skills and the role he can offer in his future as a Starfleet officer. Gone are the dreams of becoming a starship captain like his cousin. Instead, Rhory accepts a darker mantle and more scarily is the fact he does so knowing the decision is going to cost him.

In many ways, I hope we see a return to the Rhory character. As I mentioned in my review, he’s a Talza Star in the making. Some point in the future of CeJay’s story telling we could be treated to seeing an older Rhory and to see how much he has changed or been damaged or whether accepting his role and mission for the better and the continued safety of the Federation is enough to fortify him.

Lastly, it has to be said, I loved the story for the fact it was a political and moral analogy, for being a great short character piece and for how it expands and adds to the wider United Trek universe. The story is feasible in-universe and speaks of the troubling nature of a sovereign the size and power of the Federation. It speaks of the troublesome, dual nature of an organisation such as Starfleet Intelligence and of course, the fact is with Mr Tweed and the padd with the answers and the AI computer VIRGIN, one never knows who is actually making these decisions. It is some nefarious committee at the top of Starfleet dictating these decisions? Is a military junta or elite that makes the command orders, thinking solely in terms of numbers and military strength and projecting fear and power? Is it the political leaders pushing an agenda and fighting an ideological cause? Or some clandestine organisation or sub-faction (such as Section 31) that holds the power? Or, is it VIRGIN itself or some powerful AI dictating terms for all of Starfleet without their knowing it? Or is it the scary fact of lowly cadets and ensigns, young keen and analytical minds without the experience of the true horrors of war making the choices that get unchecked by those higher up the command chain?

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