Gradivus – A Star Trek Novella with Captain Sulu

I suppose you could say that this story was Captain Sulu when Captain Sulu wasn’t cool. I wrote this right after Star Trek III. At that point, none of us knew that Star Trek IV would sentence Kirk’s officers to stagnation hell. (Sure, the ending was heartwarming, but would fifty-year-olds REALLY want to do the same jobs they did when they were twenty?)

At that time, it was assumed, it having been written into the shooting script of Star Trek II, that Sulu would be commanding the Excelsior immediately, not eight years later as actually happened. Well, I figured you didn’t just walk into command of such a big ship, Sulu must have commanded another vessel pre-Trek II. Knowing that Sulu wanted to be on border patrol (yes, I take The Entropy Effect as Sulu gospel), I thought it made sense that his first command would be a border patrol ship.

I gave him an all-new crew (except for Mr. Hadley, the silent bridge officer from Classic Trek, and Terry Metcalfe, whom I’d created earlier), and named his ship the Phoenix. (No, I didn’t know that would be the name of the first warp-drive ship. Phoenix was my then-still-dead favorite X-man.)

Re-reading this story after all these years, I realize it breaks a lot of the rules of plotting I now follow, and that its plot is very similar to the TNG episode “The Defector.” (I wrote this first, of course.) Still, I think there’s a lot to enjoy within. And yes, Arbiter Chronicles fans will recognize that this marks the first major appearance of Kevin Carson and a Vulcan with the somewhat-familiar name of “Sernak,” as well as the first appearances of Kayan’na Atal, Aer’La and Dr. Celia Faulkner. They may have been born in Starfleet garb, but they’re all mine. And boy, does this one beat them all with my favorite storytelling device: what we now lovingly call “the dreaded Angst Stick ™.”

Originally published in Destiny’s Children #1

Gradivus

By Steven H. Wilson

Out there.

Out there it was black, and empty, and icy cold; but out there was where he was always headed. From the comparative warmth of the spacedock’s observation ports, Hikaru Sulu gazed, possessed, at the massive USS Phoenix, floating gently back and forth in her grav beams for a final eight hours.

Eight hours. And those hours would be spent, by any sensible man, sleeping, preparing for the journey, resting up for the work ahead of him. But Hikaru was not a sensible man, hadn’t been since before he’d joined the academy. Aboard Enterprise he’d become even less so. Enterprise. It had been so long. Though he’d stood on her bridge watching the new trainees only a month or so ago, it seemed a lifetime since held really seen her.

Fondly, he thought of that mission that had become so historic. Of Kirk, not then the quiet, careful admiral. Of Chekov, unseen for three years aboard USS Reliant. Of McCoy, Scotty, Christine, Spock, Janice, Kevin Riley, Johnny Farrell, and of course, Uhura.

“Young man, shouldn’t you be in bed?”

Uhura. He smiled as she crept quietly from the shadows, eyes bright as ever, but with a touch of weariness that only added to their effect.

“Couldn’t sleep.”

She slid onto the back of the couch and took his hands, cold from the chill of air-conditioning in the room. She wrapped them in her own warm ones. “I’m not surprised. Your first command goes out in the morning, Captain Sulu.”

“Not Captain yet,” he grinned.

“So, I’m an optimist.”

“Always.”

Uhura gripped his hands tighter. “So, how do you feel? Like a kid on Christmas morning, I’ll bet.”

Hikaru shrugged sheepishly, looking like a little boy. “I guess so.”

“I could never sleep before Christmas. Ever. Remember Pavel’s first Christmas with us? Oh-six-hundred hours? Vodka?” She giggled. “And the poor boy had to get up in the morning.”

He shook his head in quiet hysterics. “I remember. I never could tell if Jim noticed.”

She laughed again. “With Len keeping him up all night? And Scotty? I doubt it. After a party on the Enterprise, I’m surprised he remembered all our names.” And then they both laughed. And somewhere they started to cry. Uhura drew him into her arms tightly. “I’m tempted not to let you go,” she sniffled.

He knew she meant it. And he could think of nothing to say in reply. Instead they bantered — trivial conversation. They talked of anything and everything but the fact that they wouldn’t see each other again for at least six months. They made plans for the next three week training cruise, and the brief furlough thereafter. They went over the members of his new crew and laughed over the last month of tests on those poor cadets, some of whom were now his officers. And eight hours later, they were still there on the couch. Had there been a sunrise, it would have found them; but there was none here.

The first personnel wandered in for their morning cups of coffee; and the intercom flared to life, calling the crews back to their ships. Six ships went out this morning, and Sulu’s was the first. He knew his name would come soon. “I’d better not be late,” he whispered to Uhura. “It’d look like hell on my record.”

She grasped his hands again, eyes welling up with tears. They backed slowly away from each other, their fingers stretching to prolong the final touch. It always took forever. As Sulu turned to go, Uhura leapt forward and kissed him again. Afterward, she opened her mouth for a long time and nothing came out. Finally, she shook her head and said simply, “Good luck.”

From the cafeteria, he went to the main transporter. His eyes now dry, his mind set on the shift ahead, he went over every procedure for leaving. He ran over the names of the principal crew, at least for the first shift. The only familiar names were from the last training cruise, the young cadets recommended by Spock himself. One name was an exception. His new first officer was Roy Hadley, another of the old crew from Enterprise. Hadley was an efficient man of few words. A fine navigator and science officer, though not one for frantic parties or massive socializing or even conversation, he would be a welcome addition to an inexperienced crew.

Despite their inexperience, though, and the crazy mistakes they had made recently, it was hard for Sulu to think negatively or with apprehension of his new group. They had in enthusiasm what they lacked in experience. It would be, to borrow a copyrighted word, “fascinating” to watch them develop into the crew he knew they would become. He remembered how he had been in their place; and that, he hoped, would be the key to commanding them with the same competence Jim Kirk would have shown.

***

For what might have been the twentieth time, Cassandra keyed the data tape. She knew it all, of course. Name: (Currently) Gradivus. Position: Inapplicable. Age: (Estimated) 300 twin-turns. Three-hundred, so the legend went; and Cassandra never doubted its truth for an instant. For her entire twenty turns she’d known him, been grudgingly encouraged to honor him, out of respect for an old warrior.

Her parents were the grudging ones. She’d needed no encouragement to visit the old man. Mostly, she had listened, although he had politely sat through her childish fancies and dreams. It was he who’d caused her to be here now, in more ways than the obvious one. The tales of battle had inspired her, the stories of a time of great honor and glorious war. He had lived them, and now satisfied himself to speak of them with a patience that knew no limit. He answered every question, tolerated every interruption, and smiled at every tale the children told him in return. If I live to be three-hundred, Cassandra had told herself often, I’ll not be so patient. How childish we all were — even the adults. To him, we were all children. How did he tolerate our insolence?

In the end, of course, he had not tolerated it. Or he would not have come out here. For what, except the brink of madness, could drive one here? Here on the border, there was no life, really. They patrolled in their ships, casting a sideways glance at their opponents on the other side of the zone. Save the outposts, the only life lay within the alloyed birds that soared, never touching down, over the enemy lines. And he had come here, knowing they would follow. He’d probably even known it would be her. Insolence.

A creature of honor, had he not given enough to the empire? Must she pursue him like a fugitive? Treat him with such dishonor? She banished the treasonous thoughts. No one could give enough to the empire. As long as one lived, the empire was his mistress, as it should be.

She would proudly obey her orders and follow. Cassandra, of the Imperial Wareagle Godsfire would find her prize and return him to the Praetoriate. With him at its head, that glorious organization would lead the empire into its most celebrated period of history. They, whom the Federation of Planets called Romulans, would be truly great again, as when he had been born. Against all this, the whims of one old man meant little. A true warrior understood this fact.

But Cassandra remembered the gentle touch of a leathered hand on her chin, and she wasn’t positive she understood.

***

Stardate 7834.3

Here we go, boys!

Warp engines engaged.

Ahead full!

Welcome aboard the USS Phoenix, finest scout in the fleet; or it soon will be. We have all the modern conveniences: hot and cold running sonic showers, food processors hand-programmed out of a computer-gourmet’s software manuals, beautiful technicians (assuming you can get them away from their beloved stations), and, of course, Kevin.

Goddamn you, Nathan, why didn’t you stop me? I know, I know. Rooming with him was my idea, right? I put in for it, right? Well you have known me for eight years, haven’t you? You know I’m subject to bouts of temporary insanity. (I hope communications doesn’t read this letter before it goes out; if Starfleet found out about that family of seven we packed in liquid oxygen and shipped to Orion… We won’t discuss that, will we?)

About this idiot roommate of mine. Why? Why did I do it? What the hell am I asking you for? We’ve been on this ship for eight hours, and I’m already on the brink of insanity. He expects me to make my bed every morning, he wants me to limit my showers to five minutes, he spent fifteen minutes putting his books on the shelf. Ten books that he never reads anyway and he can’t just throw them on the shelf and go somewhere else and quit irritating me? No! They all have to line up, you see. If the spines aren’t perfectly aligned, the magnetic flow on the tape might be distorted, and the books might translate themselves into Vulcan… Lunatic! Psychotic! How much do you think I could get for him in the Orion Colonies? You’re right, nobody would buy him. Maybe if I paid them… It’s worth thinking about.

But enough of my troubles. How’s law school? Maybe you could give it up and transfer to Phoenix? No, stay where you are; I’ll need a lawyer in case I phaser Kevin down in my sleep.

***

Pardon that edit line, I had to stop to listen to one of Carson’s lectures on the proper place to put my toothpaste. Oh, I’ll tell him where he can put his toothpaste! Better yet, I’ll put it there for him! But it isn’t all bad. The ship’s holding up well for a twenty-year-old. I think they put her in for some maintenance last month. I haven’t seen our captain yet. My shift starts soon. I hope he doesn’t mention the Kobayashi test again. But dammit that maneuver should have worked!

Sorry if I’m boring you, I know you’re thrilled with Academy talk. As I mentioned last time, Kaya’s aboard. We had lunch together this afternoon. I’ve enjoyed meals more. “Isn’t Captain Sulu sexy? I wonder if he likes younger women?” Women, Jesus Christ! Why not some airhead yeoman? No, I get caught with an Engineering tech! Sigh! She went on to add things like, “Maybe he likes younger men. You could get lucky, Metcalfe.” The girl is twisted. Oh well, that’s engineers for you, all that time stuffed into a Jeffries tube… Must be going now.

I remain, as ever, Terrence Metcalfe Lieutenant j. g.

Helmsman, USS Phoenix. Exasperated Roommate.

***

Captain’s log, Stardate: 7834.4

USS Phoenix is on its first day of patrol on the border of the Romulan Neutral Zone. All is going as expected, and the new crew seems to be working out well so far. My only concern is the severe ion storm drifting across our path. We will make a brief pass through the outermost edge of it, and the cadet personnel have never encountered one outside the simulator.

Sulu had piloted through his share of ion storms as helmsman on the Enterprise and other ships, but they hadn’t bothered him quite SO much then. It should have occurred to him then, of course, that he was responsible for the ship’s safety as far as piloting it went. Now, however, the weight of responsibility seemed greater since he was in command, even though the helmsman would handle the actual maneuvering of the vessel.

He studied Terry Metcalfe, seated in front of him attentively watching both the screen and his board. As always, there was the look of wonder in his eyes as he took in the stars climbing past them. Sulu wondered if he was counting each and every one of them and logging its position somewhere in his mind.

Metcalfe was competent, of course, as one of Spock’s students. He had graduated the academy with honors, earning himself his j.g. status on his first deep space mission. Sulu had worked with him on the Enterprise and in the Kobayashi-Maru simulator as an overseer. He had shown considerable skill with the controls of a starship, and had a flair for the most difficult maneuvers. Sulu had even been able to teach him a few tricks of his own with the board, and the young cadet had picked them up with more speed than some seasoned helmsmen Sulu had attempted to teach them to.

But an ion storm wasn’t an easy thing to work around, especially on the edges, where they were deceptively hazardous. Believing the turbulence to be light, any helmsman could carry the ship into a current which could rend it end to end in seconds. The same easy carelessness that Sulu had had years earlier worried him now. A moment’s over-confidence on Metcalfe’s part could destroy the ship and crew instantaneously.

He threw a glance back at Sulu. “Ion storm border in five minutes, sir.”

Sulu nodded. “Good, keep her steady, Mr. Metcalfe.”

At his back, Sulu heard the lift opening. Celia Faulkner, his ship’s surgeon, came to his side with a report board. She was another of Spock’s acquaintance, having graduated the academy with him thirty-two years ago. She was in her early sixties, and just beginning to show signs of age: laugh lines at her eyes and mouth, grey sprinkled through her hair, and a line or two appearing around her throat. He could still picture her as the girl-genius cadet Spock had known. Small-built with fierce brown eyes and hair still partially jet-black, she must have been an impressive sight then. Sulu had also heard of her reputation for harshness that rivaled even McCoy’s.

She smiled thinly at him. “The medical records have been coordinated, Commander. Ready to be appended to your log.”

He took the board and signed it. “Thanks, Doctor, I’ll see that they are.”

Metcalfe turned again. “Approaching storm border now, sir.” The young man still looked confident as ever, as did all of the new cadets. Ex-cadets. Whether it was genuine or merely false bravado, Sulu didn’t know. They were all good, and those who had had Spock for an instructor would have been informed of it the logical number of times. He suspected Metcalfe was confident of his abilities, having noticed a touch of cockiness in him on the Enterprise. At navigation, Sernak was impossible to read, as were all Vulcans. He had his suspicions about Carson at communications; he was a bit too sure of himself at times, as if trying hard to cover up self-doubts, and never quite succeeding. Sulu knew that type well.

He found himself standing instinctively next to the helm, watching Metcalfe’s motions over the board. He received the briefest of sideways glances from the young officer as he went about his work, but he showed no signs of nervousness at being watched.

From his science station, Hadley succinctly rattled off data on the storm. The first shockwave hit in the middle of the list. The entire ship shuddered painfully but briefly as Metcalfe, wincing with the jolt as if he were a part of the jolted structure, corrected for the disturbance.

Sulu leaned against the board next to him, “Rough storm, Lieutenant.”

Metcalfe nodded quickly as his commander reached to the controls and began making minor adjustments.

“Sir,” the helmsman began, “you don’t need to — ”

“Quite all right, Lieutenant.” Despite Metcalfe’s protestations, Sulu knew how difficult the first day as a practical helmsman was, having to pilot the ship without the overseer nearby. This storm made it even more difficult. Besides that, Sulu hated to sit by in his command chair and watch the ship go through a disturbance. Lifting back up, he said, “There, that’s got it. Carry on.”

Sulu missed the briefest flash of annoyance across the lieutenant’s face as he returned to his chair.

Settling back, he rubbed tiredly at his eyes. His all night vigil was beginning to catch up with him. Realizing the shift would be over soon, he took another look around the bridge in admiration of his first command. He knew the patrol would soon settle into routine and become boring for all of them after the initial excitement had worn off. His might last a bit longer than the others’, as it was his first ship, but it would go eventually. The one undeniable truth of border patrol, however, was that it never stayed boring. At some point they would encounter a Romulan ship trying to run the border, or perhaps one of the smaller independents trying to get through from the Federation side. Getting trade authorization from both the Federation and the Empire cost too much in money and time for some of the less meticulous traders, and many would try to sneak their way in and out. The unpredictable surges of excitement were one of the reasons he had requested a border ship. Also, the distance from the nearest command bases allowed for more informality among the crew, and Sulu liked that. The Enterprise crew had grown to have a family feeling among its senior officers, but its chain of command was still rather rigid at times, and the size of the crew forced a certain amount of impersonality on its commander. Here he could get to know most of his crew well, and have more time to relax with them than some captains would. He welcomed the chance to let his guard down a little and show the crew his human side.

The third shift replacements began to trickle in; and Hikaru, sleepy and lost in thought, didn’t notice until slender green fingers touched his shoulders that Aer’La had come up behind him. The Security Chief/Second Officer smiled — a stunning effect. Hikaru felt his face growing slightly hot from the compounded stimuli of her appearance and her touch. It wasn’t an easy thing to be surprised by an Orion — especially when one was tired.

She had caught him with his guard down, but there was no danger. Aer’La knew how to handle humans. Not that all Orions didn’t, but Aer’La was a unique Orion. Not many of her race joined Starfleet, but all those who did requested border duty. It suited their somewhat wild personalities better than the controlled environment of military vessels or Constitution class starships. Despite the lesser military discipline she was used to, Aer’La had learned in her years in the Fleet how to work with and around human restrictions and rules. No human whom she caught defenseless for a moment posed any threat to her, nor did she pose any to the human.

As his second slid sensuously into his chair, Sulu headed gratefully for the lift. It would be nice to get some sleep, but first, maybe a quick workout with the fencing dummy. The first step in relaxation is to release the pressures of the day…

***

It had been well known at the academy and would soon become apparent to the officers on Phoenix that Terry Metcalfe and Kevin Carson were friends. Exactly what kind of friendship they shared was not easily judged by onlookers. In truth, while neither would admit it, they were closer than brothers. Competitive and often hostile, they were two of a kind. Rarely did one have a thought without the other having some idea as to its nature.

Yet they had their differences. Two of the best Starfleet Academy had had to work with, they were both plagued by doubts of their own abilities. The same spark of excellence which made them Starfleet material also made them different from others; and separate. This difference, and the resentment that came with it, even at such a place as the Academy, had brought with it the doubt and insecurity from which both of them suffered. It manifested itself in them in different ways. Terry, temperamental, occasionally pensive, and in love with challenge, furthered himself to the point where each doubt was left behind, only to be replaced by a fresh one which drove him further upwards. Kevin, also temperamental and given to violence, was bitter. He adapted to his own doubts and others’ resentment by pretending these attitudes didn’t exist, or that he didn’t care. He could put up such a show that everyone, including himself, believed he was confident, secure, and unflawed.

Earlier on, Terry had been taken in by the ruse, and had even tried the same pretense; but, for some reason, everyone could see that he really did care. And so he had ended the attempt. He knew that others’ resentment bothered him, but didn’t let it stop him. Perhaps that was why he had graduated the academy with honors,, as a lieutenant, while Kevin was still an ensign. Kevin really hadn’t given a damn, or at least had told himself he didn’t, so he had not bothered with the honors citations.

Still, each saw in the other a part of himself, and the friendship grew from this small bond. Rooming together, however, may have been a bit much. Less than one day aboard, and Terry thought he would be quite happy never to see Carson’s face with its smug “ask me if I care” expression again. More hours in that room with him would be simply maddening. Even if he didn’t say a word, he would be there. He would make the bed, straighten the books, clean the bathroom, straighten the books… even the sound of his breathing would be annoying! And God forbid Carson should make himself a drink!

So, despite wanting to read and get some sleep after the hectic first day aboard, Metcalfe came to the officers lounge in search of other company among his fellow officers. Most of the off-duty crew was here, eating, drinking, playing games from all parts of the galaxy, making as much noise as possible for beings in the Federation, and, in general, doing everything the crew of a border ship did to relax.

In the corner was a single exception. Sernak sat quietly at a table, resting his chin on his hands and studying a tape on the viewer in perfect Vulcan form. Metcalfe headed towards him, in the mood for the kind of quiet but interesting conversation he knew a Vulcan would have to offer.

“Ensign Sernak, I don’t believe we’ve had time to formally introduce ourselves.”

The Vulcan looked up from his reading and cocked his head slightly. “Lieutenant Metcalfe. As we know each others’ names and positions, I see no reason for further formalities.”

Terry laughed at his own mistake. He knew better than to make small talk with a Vulcan. “No, I suppose not. I meant to say that, as we’ll be working together at the helm for a while, we should get acquainted. I believe in knowing my partners.”

Sernak nodded. “Logical. Mutual knowledge is an excellent basis for an efficient working relationship.”

“I’m glad you agree. May I sit?”

Sernak made a casual gesture to the affirmative. “I agree most fervently, Lieutenant. The pursuit of knowledge is fundamental to Vulcan beliefs. It is the reason I am a member of Starfleet.”

Metcalfe settled into his chair and began studying the drinks menu on the table. “I’m afraid border patrol offers few chances for the advancement of knowledge.”

“I must differ with you, Lieutenant,” the Vulcan said, cooly and politely. “This assignment offers endless opportunity for study.”

The table’s processor system activated, and materialized Metcalfe’s drink, a particularly fiery Rigellian beverage he’d only recently learned to tolerate. He took a sip — it still caused him to wince — as he asked, “Study of what?”

Sernak seemed almost to smile at that. “Other life-forms. Primarily humans, although I also have what you might call a fascination with the Romulans and their civilization. You see, Vulcan has a certain amount of rigidity as regards what is to be learned by an individual who is not yet of an age to assume a position at our science academy. There is an almost…” he hesitated uncomfortably, “I suppose… illogical attitude regarding humans among some of the elders. Until one is a full academy member, one’s opportunities for the study of other races are extremely limited. My wish, however, true to my upbringing to believe in the value of knowledge — especially as regards other life-forms — was to avoid the rigid program of studies at the academy and journey outside among non-Vulcans. The reaction of my elders was not positive.”

Terry nodded understanding. “Captain Spock mentioned the trouble he encountered when he signed up.”

“Yes, Captain Spock was among the first in the scientific community to do so. Since then, the number of Vulcan science officers in the Fleet has noticeably increased. You must understand that, even among Vulcans, there are factions of opposing beliefs. Our more conservative elders — such as T’pau, of whom I take it you have heard — have their doubts as to the integrity of Starfleet’s motives. It is a military organization, and they see it as being in violation of our peaceful ideals. I, on the other hand, along with others, see Starfleet as a tool for expanding the frontiers of our knowledge. Like the groups of officers who came together to form the Vulcan starships such as the Intrepid, I decided to apply my skills to this service. I am not content, however, to serve on an all-Vulcan ship.”

Terry found himself fascinated with Sernak’s description of Vulcan society, especially as it related to Starfleet. Spock had had occasion to speak of it a few times while serving as his instructor, but Terry hadn’t realized that the problem carried outside Spock’s own family. Sernak, despite being a distant cousin of Spock’s, seemed to have encountered the problem elsewhere.

It wasn’t an unfamiliar argument to Terry, of course. He had heard it and participated in it often on Earth. Nathan, especially, found Starfleet objectionable. He never had understood how his best friend could possibly have decided to enter the academy. Despite Terry’s constant explanations that he had joined the Fleet to explore other worlds and promote galactic peace, Nathan insisted that Starfleet was riddled with “militaristic warmongers.” A particular unfavorite of his was James Kirk, of whom Terry thought highly. Of course, that could have been the reason for Nathan’s dislike of him. Terry had made some not-so-kind remarks about the legal profession.

Phoenix wasn’t the best opportunity for exploring new worlds or promoting galactic peace. She was more of a galactic police ship, kept in a trouble spot to maintain the two sides of the line, but here among the crew there was an opportunity. Sernak had pointed this out, and Terry understood his logic. His own reasons for being in the Fleet were similar, as were his reasons for taking every chance he could to speak with alien officers. Growing up in a small town on Earth had offered few chances to meet any non-humans. The difference between his native culture and that of his Irish grandparents, though, had always been a great source of interest to him.

He turned back to the Vulcan. “You mentioned being a scientist, yet you chose navigation?”

Sernak gave his slight nod again. “I am a mathematician, actually. Rather than go into the computer or astrophysics fields, I opted for navigation, which allows me to apply my particular field of study most efficiently.”

Metcalfe took another sip of his drink and laughed grimly. “That was a good choice. You handle the board very well, better than some of us, it would seem.”

Sernak’s expression became one of interest now. “Sarcasm,” he observed, “I assume your statement to mean you are unsatisfied with your chosen position?”

Terry set the glass carefully back on the table, studying the hand movements involved in the action, and considered his answer. He needn’t burden his fellow officer with personal problems, and he wasn’t sure what had led him to make the remark. Perhaps he felt too alienated from Kevin to talk to him right now, although it was him with whom Terry usually discussed such matters. “I’m not… really dissatisfied, I… on the bridge, Commander Sulu… I didn’t need any help negotiating the storm.”

Sernak considered for a moment. ‘”No, I didn’t see that you did; however, the Commander is human and therefore outside of my realm of expertise. The actions of your race are somewhat difficult to understand. Perhaps he simply wished to demonstrate to you that of which he believed you to be ignorant.

“I know how to handle the helm!” Terry said, somewhat more angrily than he would have liked. In the way of apology, he laughed silently. “Maybe I’m just being…illogical. I’m sure he didn’t mean to offend me.”

“Doubtful,” Sernak agreed. He said nothing more, and Metcalfe sensed he had made the Vulcan somewhat uncomfortable by displaying his emotions. He rose from his seat and excused himself as Sernak returned to his reading. As Terry was heading for the door, Sernak looked up and called, “Lieutenant?” Metcalfe looked back. “As it does seem to be of some concern to you, I believe the Commander has the utmost faith in your abilities.”

The helmsman smiled unconvincingly and moved on towards the exit, but there he was flagged down by a familiar face. Freshly changed from her anti-radiation fatigues to an off-duty robe that never failed to catch Metcalfe’s eye, Kayan’na A’tal darted up to clutch his arm and lead him to a table on the edge of the crowded hall.

Kayan’na was a Rigellian, or more correctly a QuintiRigellian, native to the fifth of the multi-satellite system’s planets. Her skin was the normal gold, her hair the typical metallic black, which covered her head in ringlets, and her eyes were a pale violet. Like the rest of her race, her hands had but three fingers, accompanied by a thumb. Her feet, similarly, had only four toes. Though Metcalfe had never asked, he suspected that neither would one find in her other primitive attributes, such as wisdom teeth, which humans and the Rigellians’ sister race, the Vulcans, still possessed.

Terry and Kaya had been in the same academy class for the past five years. They shared a relationship which he found difficult to classify, as it was never the same from one day to the next. To others, they declared themselves “friends” (if they were in a generous mood), but they both went to great pains never to use the word “platonic.” In the weeks leading up to boarding Phoenix, they had had little time for each other and had limited their exchanges to sessions in which they sharpened their rapier wits on each other.

She flashed him her customary smirk. “You weren’t really leaving already, were you?”

He shrugged non-committally. “Thought I might catch up on my reading.”

Her face showed approval.. “Doing something worthwhile for a change?”

“Nothing better to do.”

“Criminal. I didn’t think officers ever got bored.”

“No doubt the fault of the crewmen.”

“CrewMEN?”

“An archaic term,” Terry explained with condescending politeness. “No doubt invented by a man who never met your type of woman.”

“My type of woman?”

“The type who might find something more interesting for her senior officers to do off-duty.” He gave her garment an appreciative glance.

His suggestion fell on seemingly deaf ears. “How about practicing at piloting the ship? It would seem you need to.”

Terry bristled. “Just what the hell is that supposed to mean?”

Her smirk grew broader. “I was on the bridge during the storm. I noticed Commander Sulu having to help you with the helm.”

Damn. She would have had to see that. His annoyance at Sulu’s actions was fast growing to anger. Why had he come over to the helm during the storm? Terry knew how to handle it, and had proven as much to Sulu many times on the Enterprise. He hadn’t done anything wrong on the board! Didn’t Sulu trust him? Sure, the Commander was the best helmsman in the Fleet, but did that mean he had to take over someone else’s job?

His anger had been building since it happened; and now Kaya was holding it over his head, using it to compare him unfavorably with the captain she was so attracted to. She had supplied herself as a focal point for all his frustration. “What the hell were you doing on the bridge, anyway?” he demanded.

“Delivering the fuel consumption report,” she said innocently. “You shouldn’t let it bother you, Metcalfe, he just happens to be a better helmsman,, looking out for an inexperienced child on his ship.’?

His temper was beginning to get the better of him. He had never taken well to being teased, especially by Kaya; and the incident on the bridge was bothering him more than he cared to admit. Before he lost control and caused a scene in the middle of a crowded room, he decided he had better leave. “Excuse me, Ensign,” he said quietly, “I have got some work to do.”

“Pulling rank, Terry?” she called behind him. “Is something bothering you?”

***

He would have liked to go to the rec-room with his fellow officers, but he had only a short time before he knew he would reach his natural limit and have to sleep. He had already been awake for over thirty hours, and could not afford to overwork himself — especially on his first week out.

So, instead of the rec-room, Sulu was on his way to the gym. He had neglected his exercise for too long now, and a bit of fencing would fit the bill perfectly. As proud as he was of his body, and as serious as he was about fitness, he had no intention of neglecting these matters now that he was in command. He might, in fact, need to be in shape more than ever.

Carrying his mask and rapier, Sulu left his quarters for the gym. At the corner, he saw Terry Metcalfe stepping off the lift. Walking slowly toward his quarters, the young lieutenant looked preoccupied-obviously with a somewhat unpleasant matter. Since leaving Enterprise, Sulu and Metcalfe hadn’t spoken too often; and Sulu had been meaning to remedy the situation. He felt a certain kinship with the junior officer, perhaps due to their shared position as helmsman, or perhaps because they had both been instructed by Kirk and Spock.

Sulu called out, “Hey, Terry!”

The young man turned, somewhat shaken from his deep thoughts. “Sir?”

Sulu smiled congenially. “You look like you’re doing some serious thinking. Everything all right?”

Terry shrugged. “Fine. Just ah…just thinking.”

“You shouldn’t think too much off duty, it makes you neurotic.” He laughed slightly, but Metcalfe showed no response to his attempt at humor. “How’d you like to come to the gym with me? I was gonna practice some fencing.”

Terry’s expression did not brighten any. “I don’t know anything about fencing,” he said blandly.

“No problem, I’ll teach you. It’s easy.”

Terry considered for a moment. “Well, I…

“Come on,” Sulu urged him, “you might even learn to like it.”

“All right, why not?” he said, again with no feeling.

Don’t worry- my lad, Sulu thought, In a few minutes you won’t have time to be depressed. ***

They held their fencing sessions at every off-duty period, and the camaraderie they had shared on the Enterprise was re-surfacing as they spent their hours of relaxation together. It was several days later, when Terry had almost forgotten the incident on the bridge, that Sulu’s anticipated break in the boredom came.

The Phoenix was making a routine pass through one of the minor solar systems on the border, a dull collection of three tiny planets and an unremarkable sun. The second planet was a class-M desert world, too boring really, and too far out of the way, to be used for a permanent settlement. It had held its share of temporary outposts and research encampments. It was empty now. At-least it was officially empty, but Phoenix was now receiving a signal from it.

Sulu stood expectantly by Carson’s station on the upper level of the bridge. “Nature of the signal?”

Carson adjusted his earpiece, brushing strands of light brown hair out of the way. “It’s faint, sir.” He touched the earpiece again, as if to improve the reception. “Wait… yeah, it’s linguacode, a distress signal.”

Sulu raised his eyebrows. A distress signal out here was, to say the least, unusual. “Nature of distress?”

Carson shook his head. “Just the general signal, sir. No details.”

Metcalfe spun his seat around to face them. “Who would be out here?” He found it hard to imagine that anyone would be interested enough to come to this system at all and, if they did, they probably wouldn’t want to announce their presence to anyone. It was an ideal world for a recluse.

Sulu turned to the science station for an answer. “Any authorized traffic in this area?”

Commander Hadley checked his computer readout and, by way of reply, only shook his head slightly.

Metcalfe watched as his captain heaved an exasperated sigh, knowing what his next order would be. “Lay in a course, sir?” He got a certain pleasure out of anticipating, still not completely forgiving of Sulu’s actions the other day.

“Lay in a course,” Sulu echoed with a grim frown. Metcalfe eagerly reached out to his board, maneuvering the ship smoothly toward the tiny world. Seeing it nearing on his small display, he began to slowly and carefully ease them into orbit. It was the first time he’d attempted to orbit so small a target, as Sulu obviously remembered. He came to stand beside the helm. Oh damn, Terry thought as his commander watched his hands on the board.

“Now correct by twenty degrees,” Sulu said, just as Terry reached for the lever in question. He didn’t need to say that! Terry tightened his jaw to keep from saying anything, releasing a long, slow breath as his only demonstration of anger.

The planet hovered boringly on the main screen now, and Sulu, satisfied that he had caused enough trouble, turned back to communications.

“Anything new?”

Carson began to shake his head, and then took hold of the earpiece once again. Puzzled, he began to play his board. “It’s gone dead, sir.”

“Dead? You’re not getting anything?”

Kevin shook his head. “They’ve stopped transmitting.”

Sulu went over to the station to look at the readouts. Are you going to take over for him too? Terry wondered. But Sulu only looked, finally turning to Hadley. “Any life readings down there?”

Again Hadley shook his head.

“Did you pinpoint the coordinates, Mr. Carson?”

Kevin looked stupid for a moment and then muttered, “No, sir, I… didn’t have time. ”

Sulu went quiet for a moment, apparently trying to decide how to react to the oversight. “If we pick it up again, work faster,” he said quietly. Kevin turned back to his board, his face beginning to redden. Terry felt a twinge of sympathy for his friend, but couldn’t help thinking, At least he got humiliated by his own mistake. What the hell did I do?

With nothing better to do, Sulu sat down in his chair. There was no point in sending a landing party, of course, since they wouldn’t know where to send them; and the lack of life readings probably meant that whoever sent the signal was dead. Terry wondered if Sulu felt responsible for that; he certainly looked grim enough.

He looked over at Terry; there was a resigned quality to his voice. “Hold us here for a little while, anyway. We might as well be thorough.” He turned back to Hadley. “Maintain scanning. Yell if you find anything.”

Terry smiled at that despite himself. Commander Hadley had uttered maybe ten words since coming aboard. The picture of him yelling was humorous to say the least. The rest of the shift passed quietly. Sulu thought solemnly of the signaler, perhaps now dead, on the planet’s surface. Kevin made no sound, obviously too embarrassed to speak yet. If not for his error, after all, they might have found the signaler and brought him, her or it aboard. And Terry mulled over thoughts of depression. He wasn’t specifically angry at Sulu, he was just angry; and not being able to clear the feeling from his mind made him even angrier.

The reliefs came in and the first-shift personnel began heading for their various off-duty pursuits. As always, Sulu and Terry met in the gym in their fencing gear. Terry was fiddling with the mask — which he had not yet adjusted to wearing — when Sulu entered, fully prepared for the session, all trace of his depression gone. He envied his commander this ability, which gave him such decisive control over his moods. Terry wished he could as easily forget his anger and frustration.

Sulu smiled at him as he adjusted and readjusted his mask’s fasteners. “You’re never going to get used to that, are you?”

Terry forced himself to return the smile. “I don’t believe in wearing clunky armor in physical combat; it slows me down.”

“There was a time when nobody went without it,” Sulu reminded.

“Fortunately we’ve become civilized since then.”

Sulu laughed to himself as the assumed their respective positions on the mat. “Okay,” he said to his student, “let’s try one round with the maneuver I showed you yesterday.”

They moved through their choreographed sequence on the square of mat, Sulu darting fluidly about with the benefit of his years of experience and training, Metcalfe looking something like an old-style football player in Swan Lake. He tried hard to concentrate on the simple techniques they’d gone over yesterday, but he was too tense, trying to control the anger which had not yet vanished. It would take its own time, as always.

He parried Sulu’s attack with an angry force which he thought would break the blade, unwillingly seeing the object of his wrath in front of him. The exchange was lengthy, and each thrust which Sulu easily blocked frustrated Terry more. With Sulu on the defensive, he thrust his blade with all the force of his anger. Uncontrolled, it went wild and was easily blocked. Thrown off balance by the force with which he’d struck, Terry found himself unprepared for Sulu’s immediate counterattack. The foil caught him easily in the chest.

“That one’s mine,” Sulu said, lifting his mask to wipe the sweat from his face. He noticed Terry rip the mask from his head and he smiled at the evident frustration. Giving his young helmsman a sympathetic pat on the back, he assured him, “Don’t worry. Nothing’s ever easy for a beginner. You aren’t doing badly.”

Terry nodded quietly. He looked away for a moment, and something caught his eye. Kaya was working out on the bars in the corner; she had obviously been listening in, and was smirking at Sulu’s remark., Without noticing, Terry tensed the muscles in his forearm, causing the foil to bend precariously.

Sulu did notice, however, and he reached out to grasp Metcalfe’s shoulder. “You okay?”

Terry’s glance was angry, his voice cold. “Fine.”

“Something else is bothering you.” The young man offered no response, so Sulu prodded him. “Is it something I should know about?”

Metcalfe’s lips twisted ironically. “Probably.”

“What?”

He was answered with silence.

“Terry, I’d like to help.”

Terry’s face softened, and he gave that grim smile of his. “Yeah, I know. Never mind, Captain, it’s … nothing.”

Captain? During their practices he never called him that. He had extended to Terry the privilege of knowing his first name, which he wasn’t fond of giving out. Why this formality? “Terry… ?” he muttered, perplexed.

He slipped his shoulder from Hikaru’s grasp. “I, uh… excuse me, sir. I’m a bit tired.” He transferred his mask and blade to one hand and started out.

What the hell? What could be bothering, him? “See you tomorrow?” Hikaru asked hopefully.

Terry paused a moment by the door and looked back, his face unreadable. An eternity passed, then he said, “Yeah,” and walked quietly from the room. After standing there dumbly for several minutes, Sulu also left, making a note to find out what was going on. ***

Kevin Carson gaped in shock at the mess in front of him. Metcalfe had strewn his fencing gear all over the floor, knocked one of the chairs back under the table, somehow scattered an entire collection of tapes around the room, and left several deposits of broken glass in spots strategically calculated to cause the greatest possible damage to anyone who happened to wander the room at night without boots.

“What the hell?” he muttered, reaching for the light switch. As the ceiling lamps flared to life, he saw his roommate’s head coming up above the back of the chair which was facing away from him. “Metcalfe,” he demanded, “have you lost your mind? This place is a goddamn pigsty!” Angrily, he took hold of the chair and spun it around. Terry was sprawled precariously in it, an empty decanter of Saurian Brandy held over his chest in one hand. “Oh, Jesus.”

A few light slaps brought him partway back to reality. He opened his eyes and stared unknowingly ahead. “Did you drink that whole damn bottle?” Kevin asked.

Terry licked his lips and put great effort into speaking. “I tried the glasses, but they kept breaking.”

Kevin surveyed the floor again. “I can see that. Are you all right?”

Terry grabbed his head painfully. “Please don’t yell.”

“I’m not yelling!” Kevin insisted before realizing that he was. “Just how do you propose to go on duty in ten hours?”

Terry spun around in his chair like a restless child. “Duty? You are asking me about duty?”

“Jesus Christ! Can you walk to bed, or do I have to carry you?”

“I’ll manage myself, thank you. I wouldn’t trust you to put me to bed. You’ve got a reputation for not keeping your hands to yourself.” He pulled himself painfully out of the chair and used the desk as a support to stand against. “Besides, I’d probably just throw up on you.”

Kevin shook his head. “We’ve gotta get you dried out. How much have you had?”

Terry slumped against the tape viewer. “Does it matter?”

Kevin had begun gathering up debris from the floor. “Hell yes, it matters! You can’t handle the helm with a hangover!”

Terry’s face became angry — not a pleasant sight, as his facial muscles were no more coordinated than the rest of him at this point. “I won’t need to. Captain Sulu can handle the helm; God knows he don’t need me!”

Uncomprehending, Kevin shook his head. “Huh?”

“You — you mean you didn’t notice? Our heroic captain taking charge, doing everybody else’s job for him? What does he need us for, I ask you?” Terry headed forward to his bed, cursing as the fencing jacket at his feet wrapped itself around his ankle.

“You’re upset just ’cause Sulu took the helm during the storm? Once? What did you want him to do, trust you with the ship?”

Still unwrapping the jacket, Metcalfe hopped a few steps forward. “It’s my job, dammit!”

“So who said you’re ready for it?”

“You want a list of my recommendations, Ensign?”

You bastard, you’ll never stop reminding me that you got that goddamn citation will you? “Your recommendations from who? Fucking Lieutenant! The board had already passed you up for it and you know it! You only got the damn citation ’cause Kirk stepped in!”

“Is there something wrong with that? He’s the finest commander — ”

“Bullshit! He’s a goddamn has-been!” His voice became gentle, he tried as kindly as he could to make his friend see the truth. If he faced it now, he wouldn’t get hurt later. “Terry, we’re just a couple of junior officers out on the edge of fucking nowhere. We’re not the best — we’re not even good at it. Kirk only stepped in because… because he felt sorry for you — because you’re just like him, a hot-tempered little shit who thinks he’s really something he’s not.”

Terry looked at him for a moment before answering, and when he did he used none of his friend’s gentle tone. “That is such bullshit! Is that all the faith you’ve got in yourself? Just because you forgot to take one set of coordinates?”

“Shut up,” Kevin said quietly.

“All right, you go ahead and wallow in your goddamn self-pity! Tell yourself how bad you are, just so you don’t have to try any harder, so you don’t have any standards to meet up to! So you’ll never fail at anything because you never fucking tried in the first place!”

“Shut UP!” shouted Kevin, red-faced with anger.

“Well,” Terry went on, quietly now, as his throat was raw, “you may just be the worst officer the Academy ever turned out, but I’m a damn good one, and — ”

Kevin silenced any further words from his friend by taking hold of his collar and shoving him against the wall. He bit out his words, infuriated. “I’m not going to listen to any more of your pathetic ramblings. Get in your goddamn bed and sleep this off.” He found himself being suddenly forced backwards by two hands. Terry’s shove sent him to the floor.

As he grabbed his tunic and started out the door, he turned back to Carson with a look of quiet rage. “I don’t know where you developed this complex of yours, and I feel sorry for you. But that doesn’t mean I want to listen to your shit! Just because you haven’t got any self-respect doesn’t mean I don’t!”

Kevin silently watched the doors slide shut. Some day Terry would learn. Idealism like his, blind hope, were just crutches for those who couldn’t bear to see reality. All such delusions brought was pain.

He knew, he’d thought that way once… ***

Cassandra entered the tiny bridge, dim again as the automatic cycle halved the lighting to conserve power. Damn Imperial engineers anyway, why couldn’t they build a ship that worked all over, all the time? With a stiff salute, her senior centurion surrendered the command chair, the only seat in the small room, and that an addition of Cassandra’s since assuming captaincy of the ship.

“Any new developments?” she asked the old man in a businesslike tone.

“Not since the first bit of the signal we received. We’re approaching the border now.” The old man licked dry, cracked lips with a colorless tongue that Cassandra thought one of the most obscene objects she had ever laid eyes on. He said resentfully, “Your approximation was correct. The charts place his coordinates outside the neutral zone.”

“I do not approximate, Centurion,” she told him in a warning tone. His double-checking her statements on the charts both angered and amused her; it was humorous to discover what lengths he would go to to find her decisions wanting. Even to checking her statement that the coordinates were in Federation space! It did not bother her that one of his kind resented her, but it bothered her to think what she would do to him should he one day catch her in error.

“You do intend to cross the zone?”

She shot him her best disdainful look. “Have I not powered the cloaking device? We shall cross.”

The Centurion smiled a disgusting smile. “It will be dangerous,” he said baitingly.

She snorted at his pathetic attempt to anger her. “Yes.”

“What if we should meet up with one of their ships, Commander?” he asked mockingly. “You might have to do battle.”

Cassandra turned the chair around violently. She was growing tired of his insinuations. “I am not afraid of battle, Centurion, as any Earth commander who interferes in my search shall quickly discover.” Stroking the jeweled head of her dagger in its sheath, she leaned close to that repulsive old face and said threateningly, “As anyone who interferes with me discovers, Centurion…sooner, or later.”

The Centurion met her gaze with the dull, flat eyes of a dead beast. Then he turned, wordless, to show his fierce scowl to the on-looking crew.***

“Care for some company?”

Shaken from his thoughts, Hikaru looked up to see CeCelia Faulkner standing across the table from him. He waved his hand vaguely. “I hate to see anyone spend dinner alone,” she said, placing a tray in front of her and seating herself. “Especially when he looks as grim as you do. Problem?”

“Nothing really.”

She sipped her coffee, chuckling. “Come on, trust me, I’m a doctor.”

He laughed softly. “I heard that line in a movie once.”

“A what?”

“An old 2-D video presentation,” he explained. “I thought you’d know.”

“Me?” She let out a harsh breath. “I hardly have time for my job around here ‘ much less frivolous entertainment. Come on, the Feds pay me to do this. What’s wrong?”

Twisting a bit of lettuce about his fork, he sighed. “Nothing new, I’m sure.”

“Nothing ever is, dear boy — I mean Captain.” She smiled one of her warmer smiles — reserved for special patients. “Shoot.”

Leaning back, ignoring his food, which he hadn’t been eating anyway, he explained. “Terry Metcalfe was acting a little…well, he seemed abnormally tense in the gym this evening.”

“How tense?”

“He seemed to take it pretty hard when he lost our first round of fencing. ”

Celia grinned wisely. “I’ve seen the boy’s psych-profile. He’s a hard loser.”

“Yeah, but … well, I think there was something more. He seemed… well, angry…all during the round. His control was low… his thrusts were way too wild. And then he bent the foil — but I don’t think he even noticed. It was sort of unconscious, like someone had suddenly insulted him.”

“Did he say anything?”

“I asked him if there was a problem I should know about and he said ‘probably.’ I can’t figure it out.”

She smiled rather sadly. “I think I can. You’re the problem.”

“Me?”

“You’ve got a reputation for being the finest helmsman in the Fleet — don’t bother blushing, I’m immune — and the boy really looks up to you. You remember the ion storm? He didn’t look happy when you took the helm.”

Sulu’s face showed remembrance and an “Oh, yeah” expression. “You think he’s angry at me?”

“More at himself. He probably wonders what he did wrong.”

“I did take over right after the first current hit us — did he think I blamed him for that? He knows no helmsman can compensate — ”

“But you’re the best,” she reminded. “He’s trying to be perfect for you.”

Hikaru felt a twinge of guilt at his own insensitivity. “I hadn’t realized,” he admitted. “Okay, I’ll try to ease up, but…

“But?”

“When I took command, I promised myself I wouldn’t lose touch with the feelings of the juniors. Now and then they need help — an ion storm is rough — ”

“Now and then they also need trust, Captain,” Celia reminded him.

“I’m responsible for the ship,” he said as gently as possible. “A commander can’t just sit by and watch, or he’s just a… he’s useless.”

She smiled knowingly, as always. “I understand. I know you’ve always been a man of action — that doesn’t have to change — a commander can still participate. Hell, look at Jim Kirk.” They both laughed. “But I’ve seen a lot of commanders in my time — good and bad — and all the good ones had learned at some time or other to have faith in their crew. The bad ones either learned that, or stayed bad. No offense, Commander, but my medical advice is that you start learning now.”

Hikaru smiled and nodded. “You remind me of a doctor named McCoy.”

She laughed. “Who d’ya think coached me through all my exams in med school?” ***

The following duty shift went somewhat more smoothly as Sulu made an effort to restrain his desire to “help out.” Terry Metcalfe seemed to have cooled off, although otherwise he didn’t appear to be feeling well. Sulu hoped it wasn’t a sign that boredom had set in and he’d start having to put up with half his crew on sick call every shift.

Although smooth, the shift was not very lively. The normal dialogue that the bridge crew used to entertain themselves was missing. Hadley was not expected to say much in any circumstances, and Metcalfe’s silence could be chalked up to mild illness. But Carson was silent too — a great rarity — and he particularly seemed to avoid the humorous dialogues he often engaged in with Metcalfe from across the bridge.

Sulu himself found the quiet depressing. He was damned tempted to on the intercom and announce, “this is the Captain speaking. Will somebody please say something?”

Before he could laugh at the absurd idea, Carson swung around to him. “I’m picking something up, sir. I think it’s our distress signal again, but it’s on another frequency. Same signal, though, and it’s from the planet’s surface.” He started to turn back, then met Sulu’s eyes and said, “I’ll feed the coordinates to the computer.”

Sulu nodded his approval-and heaved a satisfied sigh. At least someone was alive down there. But why the gap in transmission — almost 24 hours? And why a different frequency?

After a moment, Carson turned again. “It’s stopped again, sir. No further information.”

Deciding to go find his answers, he rose and said to Carson, “Give those coordinates to the transporter room, Ensign, and have Dr. Faulkner meet me there. Lieutenant Aer’La.”

The green woman turned to him.

“Come with me and have two of your officers meet us.”

Metcalfe sprang up from his seat. “Sir? Request permission to accompany — ”

“Denied,” said Sulu firmly. Metcalfe’s face registered his disappointment as he seated himself. Hikaru had a sudden thought and, grinning, said, “Lieutenant?”

Metcalfe looked glumly back. “Sir?”

“You have the con.” How’s that for faith? he asked himself.

The helmsman gave a surprised smile as he moved to take the center seat. From the lift, Sulu gave Hadley a conspiratorial look which the first officer met with a silent smile of understanding. That was a relief, as it was within Hadley’s authority to object to being superceded on the bridge during a possible emergency. Sulu thanked the gods that someone understood what he was up to. ***

The planet’s surface was everything it was reputed to be by the ship’s records: dry, barren, hot, boring, and empty — at least it looked empty. Hikaru surveyed the area, having to slit his eyes against the glare of the sun, small though it was. The planet’s closeness made it appear as bright as Earth’s own might be in the Sahara.

Aer’La wrinkled her nose — a very human gesture, the gods only knew where she had picked it up. “I don’t see anything.”

CeCelia Faulkner studied her tricorder. “Well, something’s here. One life-form, vulcanoid, twenty meters… ” she pointed a finger. “That way.”

Sulu and Aer’La simply glanced sharply at each other. “Vulcanoid,” he repeated.

“Romulan,” she suggested.

Faulkner snapped the tricorder off. “What the hell would a Romulan be doing here — alone?”

“I don’t know what anyone would be doing here alone, Doctor,” Sulu remarked, as he gave the area another looking-over. He turned back to the landing party. “Why don’t we find out?”

Leading the way in the direction Celia had indicated, Hikaru took in every detail of the surroundings. There were surprisingly few to take in. The land took a steep drop at one point, and they had to carefully lower themselves down feet-first. Not used to such climbing, Celia Faulkner had a bit of difficulty and had to be spotted by Sulu and Aer’La.

“I’m not used to such unlevel ground in the desert,” the doctor said, brushing the yellow-gray dust from her jacket and coughing as some of it entered her throat. “Isn’t it a little abnormal?”

Dusting himself, Hikaru explained to her. “Astro-mappings show an asteroid belt outside this planet’s orbital path. If that’s the remnants of another planet that exploded or was destroyed somehow after this system formed, the resultant change in gravitational fields would have had a helluvan effect on this one.” Looking back at the dusty incline, he shook his head. “This place is a geologist’s nightmare.”

She made a face and said ironically, “Geologists can keep their nightmares, I’ll take mine any day of — ”

Aer’La, who had gone a little ahead, silenced her with a backhand tap on the shoulder. “Look!”

Hikaru’s eyes followed her pointing finger to a large depression several meters away. In front of it, sand-blasted and eroded to the extent that it might have been mistaken for a rock formation — had this world had any that large — was what appeared to be a man-made space-craft. Or at least what a man-made space-craft might have looked like after it had been dropped from several thousand kilometers in the atmosphere, allowed to crash, and then left to sit on this planet where sandstorms had blasted over it for years and turned it the same dingy yellow-gray as the rest of the surface.

Hikaru motioned for the others to follow and moved cautiously up to inspect it. Obviously designed for no more than one passenger — if that — the craft was merely a skeleton. Where there had obviously once been side panels, there were now gaping holes which had left interior instrumentation and structure exposed to the violent forces of a desert planet. A supporting strut, ripped violently from its position by some unknown force or other, jutted awkwardly outward. Hikaru grasped it, only to have the thing come off in his hand and clank to the ground.

CeCelia came up beside him and stuck her head into one of the openings. “Recognize the design?”

He stifled a laugh. “I doubt if anyone could anymore. It’s obviously designed for one passenger, but — ”

“Captain!” Aer’La emerged from the other side of the craft, bearing a relatively well-preserved plastic object. She offered it to Sulu.

Inspecting it, he raised his eyebrows. “A crash helmet.”

Aer’La nodded vigorously. “And I recognize the design, sir.” She nearly spat the word, “Klingon.”

He turned it over in his hands. “Yes, but no markings. Klingons have a technology-exchange arrangement with the Romulans. This was probably worn by a Romulan pilot. So where is he?”

Aer’La had been anxiously waiting to say, “I’ve got a good idea.” She jerked her head towards the other side of the craft. “In the depression, we couldn’t see it before, it’s too well camouflaged — there’s some sort of shelter.”

Even at this distance, bleached white by the sun and obscured by sand, it wasn’t easy to see. It was built in the deepest part of the depression, its walls standing perhaps three feet — and almost four in places — above the sand built up against the base. The walls and roof had been fashioned out of some sort of cloth-like material and the side panels from the wrecked ship. On the side they were facing, a door of sorts peeked out. From it jutted a stairwell which went another three feet into the dusty ground. There was no lack of headroom inside, apparently.

Sulu started for the door, but Aer’La’s hand restrained him — a surprisingly strong hand — fortunately, with its claws retracted. “Don’t you think I should go in first, sir?” There was a bloodthirsty quality to her voice, as if she were looking forward to doing some damage to an enemy. She probably was. It was an old saying that you couldn’t trust your daughter with an Orion man, but you couldn’t trust your life with an Orion woman — unless of course she liked you.

Not wanting his unknown signaler torn to pieces, he gave the hand a quick pat and said, “Stand by, Lieutenant. I’ll — ”

One of the guards interrupted him, pointing his phaser toward the edge of the depression. “Captain Sulu!”

Hikaru looked in the indicated direction to see a figure, tall and proud, if somewhat shabby in tattered robes, advancing toward the landing party. He was obviously of advanced age, with stark white hair and a craggy face; but he was powerfully built and handsome. Outstanding on his hawkish face were two elegantly pointed white eyebrows, not to mention the two flanking ears which also drew to a most Romulan point.

Observing Aer’La’s and her guards drawn phasers, one of which gave off loud, protesting screeches as four green claws extended against its grip, the old man smiled approvingly. “Welcome, Captain,” he said in a voice stronger and deeper than that of many young men Sulu knew. “And your officers. I’ve been waiting for you. I’m afraid I require your assistance.”

***

“Approaching the coordinates of the signal now, Commander,” the ante-centurion called from his stooping position over the sensor board. They had been in orbit for a short while now, scanning in a paranoid manner for any Federation traffic in the area.

Cassandra nodded. “Good. Prepare a landing party.”

“Commander, a vessel!” the man announced excitedly. “Orbiting just ahead of us.”

Cursing, Cassandra moved to his side. “Federation?” she asked routinely, expecting, of course, that it would be.

“Yes. ID code calls it USS Phoenix.” He had some trouble pronouncing the name.

She allowed a small smile. Federation standard was such an annoyingly difficult language; it always made her tongue sore to speak it for an extended period of time.

“One of the regular scout-class patrols,” the ante-centurion continued. “If we attempted to beam down they would surely detect us on scanners.”

Cassandra frowned; he was quite right. While they were safe in the ship, behind the cloaking device, there was no way the could go down undetected to retrieve the old man. Worse, the scout had obviously picked up his distress signal, as they had. She cursed again, silently. “Scan the surface,” she told the younger man. “How many life-forms and what kind?

Bathed in the red-orange light from the screen, he shifted to the surface scanners. “Six total, Commander. Five humanoid, one Romulan.” And again she cursed. He had found aid in the hands of Starfleet. At least, he probably had. An excessively rigid commander would have him under arrest; but then, of course, he would still have escaped her. As a treaty violator, he would be difficult to wrest from Starfleet’s grasp.

The aged centurion came into the room, his repulsive face full of questions. “Reports tell me we have entered orbit. Why have you not sent a party down?”

Shaking her head tiredly, Cassandra told him, “There is a Federation scout in orbit and a party on the surface. We cannot beam down.”

He was not satisfied. “Why should we fear them? We can kill them and take what we want!”

Disgustedly, she asked, “And what of the ship? We are in their space, Centurion — in violation of treaty. Should they report — ”

‘”Destroy the ship!” he insisted lividly. “They have not seen us. We can decloak behind them and attack! They will be taken by surprise, and we will be able to finish them easily. The party on the surface will then be defenseless!”

Cassandra flung herself around. “Where is the honor in attacking unsuspected? In stabbing one’s opponent in the back? I will not disgrace my elders and my ship by using such tactics when they are yet unwarranted! ”

The old man scowled contemptuously. “And just what do you intend doing, Commander? How will you capture our prize?”

At the top of her lungs, she yelled, “He is not a prize!” Taking deep breaths, Cassandra fought to control herself as her bridge crew turned their heads warily to watch her. She knew she must not lose control of herself. Her voice now even, she went on. “He is a revered citizen of the Empire; he must be treated as such. We will not hunt him down. We will return him to the Praetor — honorably.”

The Centurion nodded in the manner of one who has assured himself that all the answers lay in his grasp. “How will we do that?”

She sighed and tightened her jaw fiercely. “That is my concern, Centurion. Do not worry yourself over it.” Turning back toward the screen, she silently asked herself the Centurion’s question over and over.

***

The old man stepped down into the depression towards them, holding both hands out at his shoulders in a vaguely calming gesture. He directed his gaze at the two guards and their fierce leader. “Please, lower those weapons, children. I am not armed, I assure you.”

Hikaru looked at him pointedly. “Oh? Would you mind telling us just what you’re doing here?”

The man smiled graciously. “Not at all, Captain Sulu, or may I call you Hikaru?”

Sulu’s face dropped slightly. “How did you know that?”

The old man now laughed. “A good question. Simple and straightforward. I appreciate such questions, they are the best kind.”

“I’d appreciate a simple answer,” Hikaru responded drily.

“Then I am afraid you have no true appreciation for the art of questioning. Compared to a truly great question, an answer is of little aesthetic value,” he said sadly.

“I’d like one anyway.”

‘”I’m sorry, I did not mean to make you impatient. Quite simply, your name is an obvious characteristic. I see it in your face, along with all your other characteristics. That is all,” he added, seeing the skeptical glare on Hikaru’s face. “There is no magic about it.”

Sure there’s not. “I wasn’t suggesting magic. I was suggesting espionage. This planet is well over the border of the Neutral Zone. What were you doing here when you crashed?”

“Oh, I didn’t crash,” he laughed.

“Then what the hell happened to your ship?” Aer’La asked, obviously frustrated at not being able to use her claws. She detested Romulans thoroughly. Sulu shot her another “stand by” glance.

“I cannibalized it for material for my modest home,” he gestured at the hut behind them. “And I planted explosive charges in the rest.”

“You blew up your own ship?” Celia asked, gaping and saucer-eyed. Despite the situation, Hikaru couldn’t help smiling; it was the first time he had seen the wise old doctor shocked by anything.

The old man shrugged. “I had no further use for it.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Then I’m afraid you never will,” he said apologetically.

Growing impatient with the bantering, Hikaru stepped up to the old man. “All right, enough is enough. We received a signal from this area of the planet twenty-four hours ago. After it went dead, we detected no life-signs here. Now, this morning, the signal is back and your life-readings are standing out on the scanners like a supernova. I want an explanation.”

“Yes, I can see that. I’m afraid I could only allow myself to be detected while you were directly over my position, lest someone else find me here.”

“How did you know we were directly over you? And how did you mask your life-readings from our sensors?”

“Such beautiful questions. However, I must allow you to appreciate their beauty — unanswered.”

Hikaru began to say something, but decided to give up. Instead, he shook his head hopelessly and asked, “What do you want from us, can you tell us that?”

“Oh, yes,” he said with enthusiasm. “I want asylum, I suppose you’d call it. I wish to defect to the Federation.”

Hikaru’s jaw dropped. “You want to… ” he shook his head again, doubtfully this time. “That’s very unprecedented.”

“I know that better than most, Captain; but I still request that you make the arrangements. I don’t require very much, a small planet somewhere away from others where I can stay undisturbed. You see, I have no desire to help your Federation. I just want to, shall we say, remove myself from the Empire. I am quite willing to supply some token aid in return for your protection, however.”

Disbelieving, Sulu asked, “Is that all?”

“I realize this must sound quite unusual, especially from a citizen of the Empire; but I do need your help. You need only take me to the nearest command base… ”

Of all the incredible experiences that made up his career, this had to be the strangest. Romulans just didn’t fly across the neutral zone and ask for asylum; but this one had. So what to do with him? Taking him aboard the ship was a risk if he were, indeed, a spy or saboteur; but he also had orders to aid anyone in his zone of patrol who needed him. He sighed heavily and turned to Aer’La. “Signal the ship to beam us up, and have accommodations ready for our… guest.”

***

In her quarters, perhaps the largest single area on the ship aside from the engine room, Cassandra reclined at her desk with her feet propped over the tape viewer, listening to the Centurion’s ramblings. Ordinarily, in the presence of her crew, she would not assume so undignified a position, but for the Centurion she had adopted special mannerisms. Keeping her air of dignity about her was essential for the continued respect of her crew. By behaving in such a manner, she was indicating that the Centurion’s respect was not worth having. She wondered if the dull-witted fool realized this. If he did, of course even he wouldn’t be stupid enough to actually confront her with it.

“Your actions have only served to complicate matters!” he raved, coming just short of putting his fist on the desk in front of her. Had he done so, she probably would have overlooked the insubordination for the sheer pleasure of seeing him so incensed. “You should have destroyed the Federation vessel while he was still on the planet! The kill would have been an easy one.”

Inhaling sharply, Cassandra rose and moved slowly around the desk, as if contemplating his words. As she passed him she struck. With a sudden, violent gesture, she caught the collar of his tunic in her fist and hurled him to the floor near the entrance. He rose stiffly, taking great care not to show signs of his pain or shock.

She laughed softly at him. “Surprise attack, Centurion. Are you impressed? I doubt it. You are probably amazed at my behavior, my breach of honor. To attack one of my own crew while he is yet unsuspecting…” When he did not respond to her baiting, she became severe. “There is as little honor in attacking an opponent unsuspecting as there is in attacking an ally…if not less. I will not disgrace honor for any purpose, least of all this.”

He found his voice and employed it fiercely. “He must know we are here, and he will tell them, the old fool! They can destroy us here and now and we will go unavenged because we have breached the treaty — without authorization, I might add. We must eliminate them now, or we will never see home again!”

Cassandra was silent, and then she smiled again, pleased at how much it seemed to disconcert him. “Destroy them in their own space? No, Centurion, I’ve a better idea. We shall retrieve the old man from their ship, and they will follow us into the neutral zone.”

“Where will we destroy the ship?” he asked, his dull eyes lighting.

“You are beginning to annoy me, Centurion. We will take her back with us. A gift to the Praetor.”

He nodded, suddenly angered. “Thus elevating your position, Commander? A Bird of Prey for the young hawk? Tell me, what if the Earth ship does not follow?”

“Not follow?” She shook her head and picked up a tape on her desk, waving it at him. “Do you know what this is, Centurion? It is the data we have recently received on the border patrol ships the Federation has sent to the neutral zone. The commander of the Phoenix is familiar to me. He was on the Enterprise once.” She paused to give him time to react, which he did, his eyebrows shooting up. “I know a bit about this man. He is bound to his crew; he also possesses that quality his people call ‘heroism.’ Do not ask me to explain,” she told him drily, “it is beyond your comprehension, old man.”

She set the tape gently down on top of the viewer and smiled once again. “He will follow, I promise you.”

***

“Extend your arm, please.”

“Another immunization, Doctor?” the old man asked as he held the arm out.

Celia smiled tightly. “No, we’re through with those,.” Pressing the unusually large hypo to him, she explained, “this is a scanner implant — we all have them; they’re standard issue in the Fleet. It’s connected to the ship’s medical computer. Should you be seriously injured — in need of immediate treatment — the computer would alert me.”

“How convenient. We have nothing like them, I’m afraid. Medicine is not our strong point, as I’m sure you’ve heard, Doctor.”

The old man’s tone made her quite uncomfortable. Yes, she had heard many things of the Romulan Empire. She had heard of them as enemies, as threats to Federation security, as bloodthirsty warriors — and he knew it. But his tone reminded her that even those bloodthirsty savages could take offense to being insulted — even their feelings could be hurt.

“I’ve — I’ve heard a thing or two. I suppose,” she said in an unveiled attempt to change the subject — there was no deceiving this man — “that such procedures as this are foreign to you, never having emigrated before.”

“Few things are foreign to me, Doctor.” From any other man, such a statement would have seemed extremely pompous, but coming from this aged one it seemed the absolute truth. “I have been through many such procedures — though never for quite so benign a purpose.” He smiled, but she felt no desire to smile back. It was an almost pathetic expression.

But she mustered the most pleasant look she could under the circumstances and said, “Well, this is what everyone who wants to move freely among Federation common areas must undergo.”

“And I assume,” Gradivus replied knowingly, “that each of your worlds has another program of its own?”

She shrugged. “In many cases.”

The old man shook his head-and gave his sad smile. “All so protective. Wherever I go, all is jealously guarded.”

Celia tossed the disposable hypo into a chute and ceased her busy maneuvering about the room. The examination was over — at least officially. There was still her own curiosity to be satisfied.

“Is that why you came here? To escape — ”

“Yes, Doctor. To escape the crowded rush of civilization — something many have tried to do before me. Perhaps I am as mad as they.”

“Those who try to escape,” she observed, “would miss company, I would think.”

“As I have, but with the companionship of others comes their expectations of you, expectations which must be fulfilled every waking moment, every day, forever. And should you fail to fulfill them, they will deny you their companionship, but never their interference. They will do everything but leave you alone.”

Gradivus faced her, even the small humor afforded by the sad smile lost from his face. “I have failed, Doctor. For nine-hundred years I have fulfilled the expectations of others, and now I have failed them. I am tired. Nine-hundred years is enough.”

“Apparently,” Celia said quietly, “it’s not enough for them.”

He rolled his eyes. “Nothing is ever enough for them. I suspect that is true in any group. It must be up to the individual to declare when enough is enough. ”

“My ancestors once built an entire society on that premise,” Celia pointed out.

Gradivus shrugged and said with genuine humor, “So did mine, Doctor, so did mine.”

***

“His name is Gradivus., He’s a normal, healthy Romulan elder statesman who wants nothing more than to retire. Unfortunately, they don’t allow retirements on the other side of the zone. You just work till you drop… or get dropped by someone else.”

Hikaru grimaced at the doctor as she handed him a tape across the desk. “Here’s my medical report. Security’s taken him to his quarters and put a guard on him.”

He nodded. “Wonderful. Now all we have to do is turn around and go back where we came from. and hand him over to the proper authorities.” He shook his head in the eternal “why-me” gesture of starship captains everywhere. “I take it you found nothing unusual about him.”

CeCelia spread her hands. “As I said, he’s a perfectly healthy old Romulan. Except for the fact that he’s somewhere on the order of nine-hundred years old, there’s nothing at all unusual about him-physically. ”

Hikaru’s shoulders fell. “Please, Doc, spare me your acidic sense of humor; I’m not in the mood.”

She looked at him seriously. “I’m not kidding, Hikaru. He’s at least nine centuries old.”

He looked at her, still doubtful, but decided she wasn’t kidding. “That’s a bit much — even for a Romulan.”

Celia laughed harshly. “You’re telling me, kid. I didn’t believe it either when the scanner told me,, so I checked again — three times. No change — he’s nine-hundred. He even knows about it, but damned if he can explain it any better than my instruments — and that’s not at all. Whatever his secret is, we can’t find it; and he can’t tell… or won’t tell. ”

Had Jim kirk ever told Hikaru that this was what it was like to command a ship of your own, he might still be helmsman on the Enterprise. “A mystery — a whole platter full of unanswered questions presented for our approval — or appreciation, as our friend might put it.” He leaned back in his chair and assumed a defeated slouch. “So, you’re here to tell me that we know even less than we did before, is that it?”

Celia smiled sadly. “It isn’t all bad, anyway. He told me why he left the Empire and why he was on that God-forsaken, first-year cadet’s excuse for a hunk of rock in the middle of nowhere.”

“You have a gift for words, Doctor, that I find myself appreciating less and less as this… ” he tilted his head at a bizarre angle, “this situation goes further. Okay, shoot. Why?”

“It’s really very obvious. The Romulans are a warrior race.- and he’s a nine-hundred year-old Romulan.” Noting his blank expression, she explained further. “What happens, Captain, when a warrior lives on and on through every battle he fights?”

“He… gets better and better.”

“Good boy. Now, what wins wars more than any other single weapon any army might possess?”

“Strategy? Experience? Leadership?”

“All of the above. He’s accumulated a lifetime — three or four lifetimes — worth of experience; and he’s had the time to see what tack and strategies work and which don’t. And as for leadership — well, you’ve talked to him; he’s one hell of a charismatic old bastard. He’s the ultimate warrior, and thus the ultimate Romulan.”

Sulu grimaced. “Speculation?”

She nodded. “Based on years of experience in the field and close observation of the subject. Now for the fact: Gradivus is the ultimate warrior, and his people, being the crafty ones they are, realize that and decide to take advantage of it. Fact: the Romulan Empire has fallen on hard times lately. Fact: Romulans are a proud race who would pay any price to retrieve their former glory. Fact: They’ve summoned Gradivus to join and lead the Praetoriate, their most powerful body. Imagine someone with his talents and experience leading the Empire. Imagine the victories they might win! Imagine the status and pride they could regain! Imagine the power of such an Empire!”

He imagined. “Fantastic — and dangerous as hell. So what’s he doing here?”

“He doesn’t want the job.”

No reaction.

“Well, goddammit, Hikaru, don’t you see? He’s nine-hundred years old. He’s tired. He’s seen enough of life and certainly enough of death — even for a Romulan. Why should he want the job?”

Hikaru considered all this for a moment, then asked, “How did you manage to discover all this?”

“He told me.”

“He’ll talk to you about it?”

“He’ll talk to anyone about it. He’s got a lot to say, and I wanted to hear it.”

“Personal interest?” Hikaru was actually grinning.

“Not exactly. I just feel obligated. I’ve been this ship’s old smart-ass for years now; and he’s threatening my claim. Worse, he really is as wise as he acts. He can’t help it.”

But Sulu had forgotten the momentary lightness of the conversation, and was beginning to look worried. “So they tried to draft him, and he ran away.”

“It’s as simple as that.”

“No. No, I’m afraid it isn’t. They’ve got a lot to gain by having him on their side, and a whole lot more to lose if he suddenly goes over to ours. If you were the Romulan government, would you let the matter and here?”

Out of her field now, Celia said uncertainly, “I-I guess not.”

“No, you wouldn’t,” Hikaru went on with a growing look of fear and sudden realization. “You’d try to get him back.. You’d do anything it took to get him back, no matter how difficult it was. You’d certainly try to find him, and when you did…” his voice trailed off, and his expression was now one almost exclusively of fear.

Disconcerted, Celia asked, “When you did?”

Straightening himself in his seat, Hikaru said with sudden determination, “We may be in a lot of trouble, Doc. Bringing him aboard this ship might have been a fatal mistake on my part. Fatal for all of us.”

Before she could ask what he meant, red alert klaxons screamed out over every part of the ship. Metcalfe’s voice could be heard urgently ordering all hands to their battle stations. Sulu hit the intercom. “What’s going on up there?”

Metcalfe’s voice was somewhat shaky as he told the captain, “A Romulan Wareagle has appeared in our orbital path, sir.” He waited a moment and then said quietly, “I believe we’ve got something they want.”

Hikaru was now a blur of fluid motion flowing out the door of his cabin in the direction of the nearest turbo-lift. Watching him go, Celia Faulkner realized with growing horror what he had meant about fatal mistakes.

***

He made one stop on his way to the bridge: the old man’s quarters.

Although somehow any kind of blatantly underhanded behavior seemed beneath the dignified old warrior, Hikaru had no choice but to consider that all of this could be part of some treacherous plan against Phoenix. Gradivus could simply be bait for a trap. Then again, he could also be exactly what they speculated he was, an important defector being hunted by his people. Either way, Hikaru wanted him on the bridge where he could keep an eye on him and possibly use him as bait for a trap of his own.

He quickly slid into the command chair as Hadley surrendered it. He waited for a report from the first officer.

“She’s running with shields down,” Hadley told him quietly. “No offensive maneuvers yet; she’s just watching us.”

Metcalfe looked back a little nervously, his finger hovering lightly over one particular control pad. “Raise shields, sir?”

“Not yet, Lieutenant. Not while theirs are down.” Hikaru turned to communications. “Hail that ship, Mr. Carson.”

“I’ve been trying, sir. No responses.”

Biting his lip, Hikaru asked out loud and of no one in particular, “What the hell are they doing?”

Gradivus volunteered an answer. “Perhaps waiting for you to respond to their presence. Another commander might, and this one may not know your record.”

Hikaru looked up sharply. “Mav not?”

“Their information-gathering capabilities are excellent. Should they have received the file on your ship, which I am told is recently assigned — thus increasing the probability of a new report — they might use your reputation to plan their strategy. If not — ”

“You think they have?”

“If it is who I suspect, she would have. She is thorough.”

“And the chances that it is her?”

“I do not calculate odds, Captain. In the end, something either happens or does not; I prepare myself for both possibilities. If I must choose, I simply use my instincts — we all do, no matter what the odds. I do have great faith in her abilities, however. She would not want this assignment, but neither would she allow another to have it. She will either live up to my expectations of her, or she will not.” After a moment’s pause, he smiled and added, “She has never disappointed me.”

Hikaru let that rest, turning back to the hawkish image of the ship on the viewscreen. He was beginning to tire, he thought, of the old man’s ageless wisdom; but he was sure that Gradivus knew that, too. What to do next? The ship refused to open frequencies and speak to them. Legally, he had every right to blast her out of space. As Gradivus had pointed out, many other commanders would. But, legalities or no, he could not simply fire on a ship just sitting there with her shields down. It was his job to avoid violent confrontation with the Empire, even at the cost of his life and his ship. Also, if the ship was just waiting to be fired on, it was probably what their commander wanted. And you never give an enemy what she wants.

Hikaru almost wished for something to happen, just to end his indecision. And although he had only almost wished, his wish was fully granted. Roy Hadley spun in his seat at the science station to announce it. “Transmission of energy from the Romulan ship, Captain.”

“What kind of transmission?” he asked, thoroughly puzzled. On a Wareagle, any attack would take the form of a plasma torpedo; or was this something new?

Hadley wrinkled his brow in surprise. “It appears to be a…a transporter beam.” It was almost a question.

As Hadley spoke and before Hikaru really had time to digest the significance of his words, eleven distinct pools of light shimmered in front of the main screen. They danced about in the air until they coalesced into the forms of Romulans — male and female, officers and centurions — and one who was obviously a commander.

She was not an imposing figure, but an impressive one — one who you were careful with or she’d tear you to pieces with her bare hands. The commander stood confidently, surveying the bridge of the ship she was now an intruder aboard. Hikaru had considerable difficulty taking his eyes off her to look at the rest of the party. She was exotically beautiful in a way few women in the universe could hope to be described. He realized also that she was the first blonde Romulan he had ever seen, and the first he’d come face to face with aboard a ship.

Around him, the computer was announcing the presence of an intruder on the bridge. A security patrol would be here within the next sixty seconds. In the meantime., their forces were evenly matched — eleven for eleven. The Commander had made her plans well. Any attempt made by the bridge crew to defend the ship would most likely be unsuccessful, given the superior physical strength of Romulans to humans and the fact that all of the intruders were armed, while most of the Phoenix crew were not.

Golden hair shining like flame in the crimson of the emergency lighting, the commander stepped forward and favored Sulu with a smile from generous lips. “Commander Sulu? I’ve heard of you. I am the commander of the Imperial Wareagle Godsfire. I believe you have picked up one of our citizens recently?”

“Gradivus? Yes. ”

“That is the name he calls himself now. Would you kindly surrender him to me? He is an important prisoner — ”

“If you wanted to request this kindly, Commander,” Sulu observed drily, “you could have hailed us from your ship.”

For a moment she almost laughed. He imagined that her laugh must have been a pleasant thing to hear, but kept his mind on the business at hand. “You would not have cooperated, of course.” Her face now drew to utter seriousness. “Now, Commander, if you would surrender this man,” she gestured toward Gradivus with her disruptor. It suddenly occurred to Sulu that she had not faced the old man outright. Was she afraid to look in his eyes? Hardly the attitude of an arresting officer to a prisoner; he must indeed have been respected.

“At the risk of sounding mundane, Commander,” he said quietly, if you are in violation of treaty, both by entering Federation space and by boarding this ship. You’re hardly in a position to make demands.”

“I hold the weapon, Commander. I could force you to surrender, or simply kill you all and take the old man; but I do wish to have you understand my position.” That, at least, seemed a genuine sentiment. He found himself unable to completely dislike this woman — enemy or not. “He is a respected statesman, and very important to my people. And I must point out that it was he who broke treaty; we simply have come to recover him.”

“By avoiding official channels, you have also broken treaty,. And you must understand that I am authorized to grant political asylum to a defector within my zone of patrol. You might even call it an obligation. I can’t allow you to have him.”

“Commander,” she said, smiling, “you wouldn’t want to create an incident? This is a trivial matter.”

“No matter which involves the freedom of another individual is a trivial matter to the Federation, Commander,” Sulu countered vehemently. “I will make use of every weapon and means at my disposal to defend this man.” He rose to meet her eyes and said levelly, “If you have heard of me, you know that’s no bluff.”

The other Commander’s tone became subtly threatening. “You might find he isn’t worth it, Commander. Causing an incident would make you …unpopular.”

“I’ll take that chance.”

“Will you? I suppose you are wondering what could have happened to your security patrol by now. I’m afraid they won’t be able to make it in. You see, I’ve jammed the turbo-lift system.” She indicated a small silver device attached to her belt. “A very useful weapon. Now, Commander, I’m out of time, and you have no choice but to surrender the prisoner.” She gestured again at Gradivus by Sulu’s chair. When Sulu turned, he saw that one of the guards now had a disruptor pistol pressed against the old man’s head.

Her face hardened. “I will take him with me, or I will leave him here — dead. And just to insure the safety of my party,” she paused to gesture at two of her men. “I’m afraid I will require one of your crew.” The indicated Romulans surveyed the bridge, taking in each member of the crew and noting the rebellious looks on every face. Their decision made, they advanced towards the communications board, reaching out to take hold of Carson, who backed as far as he could up against the panels of his station as two disruptors were held in his face.

Sulu fumed with rage. Against the armed party, there was nothing he could do; but now they were going to take one of his men! Before he could voice his anger to the Romulan woman, an anguished cry caught his attention.

“No!”

Metcalfe, standing, clutched the back of his chair with two trembling hands. “Stay away from me!”

The capable officer who had manned the helm a moment ago was gone, and in his place was a terrified child, screaming and trembling with fear. He threw his head about wildly, seeing the Romulan blasters pointed in his direction, and began to back away. One of his outreaching hands caught Sernak’s shoulder, and Metcalfe flung about, shocked, ready to attack. Then he recognized his fellow officer. “Keep them away!” he pleaded with the Vulcan. He continued to rant paranoically, despite Sernak’s attempts to calm him.

Sulu came forward, under cover of Romulan sidearms, to take the young man’s shoulder. “Take it easy, Terry,” he whispered soothingly. But Metcalfe refused to listen. It was like trying to quiet a frantic child — no amount of reason came across to him. As his helmsman threw off the comforting hand and leapt to the upper level of the bridge in terror, Sulu was reminded painfully of Joe Tormolen, his friend of long ago, who had gone into fits of sudden anxiety and finally stabbed himself. If there was anything to be done about it, he would see this time that no such thing happened.

The guards, now staring at Metcalfe, had released Carson and were looking to their commander questioningly. She nodded slightly, ant they began to advance on the horror stricken lieutenant. Obviously, they had decided who among the crew had the least courage and would prove the most effective hostage.

“Don’t touch me!” Metcalfe cried out as they advanced on him. He threw Sulu a pleading look. “Keep them away! Don’t let them take me! Please!”

Sulu fought for control. Every muscle in his body wanted to lash out at the advancing men and the scheming bitch who commanded them; but he knew that such an action could well bring about his own death while accomplishing nothing. He concentrated, thinking individually of each muscle and willing it not to act, holding himself perfectly in check, controlling all his anger and pity for the boy who struggled in the grasp of two Romulans.

Now, with both prisoners under cover of disruptors, the Commander smiled again at Sulu. “I am sorry, Commander,” she said with no feeling, as she pressed a control on her communicator to signal for return to her ship. Thirteen figures shimmered, flashed into fiery light, and faded from view.

For several long minutes Hikaru did not move. The shock of Metcalfe’s sudden terror, so unexpected, plus his own feelings of guilt and stupidity for having allowed the entire situation to go this far, left him lost for a course of action. But with concentration, by using his mind to master shock and guilt and rage, he brought himself around and began to evaluate the situation. They must keep moving. “Mr. Hadley,” he said quietly, “take the helm.” As the exec did so, Hikaru turned to Sernak. “Keep an eye on that ship, Ensign. I want to know her every move.”

The Vulcan nodded. Of them all, he was the only one whose face did not register shock and anguish; but he felt it anyway, of course.

Carson was up from his board, standing next to Hikaru. His face was white, and his hands trembled slightly. “We are going to follow them, sir?”

Hikaru felt a surge of pity at the way he asked the question. Carson had never allowed himself to seem at a loss, or to be humble, even with superiors. The disappearance of his friend must have affected him more than he would care to admit. “We’re going to try, Mr. Carson.”

“Sir,” Sernak called from the helm, “the Romulans are cloaking their ship.”

On the screen, the ship faded slowly from sight, leaving only the view of the planet spinning below. “Continue tracking, Mr. Sernak. Follow their path on motion sensors.”

“Aye, sir. Sensors indicate a blip moving on a bearing of one-ten, mark twelve — the neutral zone, sir.”

Hadley rolled his eyes. “Of course.:

Hikaru nodded. “Of course, Mr. Hadley. Take us after her, match speed and follow parallel course.”

The exec hesitated. “Captain, if we enter the neutral zone — ”

“They entered it, didn’t they?”

“Sir,” Hadley said, explaining as though to a child, “once they have us on their side, they can deny that easily. We won’t be around to argue.?’

“I intend to be around, Mr. Hadley.”

“But the breach of treaty — ”

“Is a minor matter, as we all know. Both Phoenix and the Romulan ship are considered to be expendable when trying to avoid a war between the Federation and the Empire. If we can resolve this conflict peacefully, there is no reason why it should become an incident.”

Hadley was not ready to give in. “If we contact the proper authorities and report the Romulan actions — ”

“Both of their captives could be dead by the time that this was resolved between the two governments, Mr. Hadley. And nothing would be done about it, because to try to do something might disturb the peace.”

“So we do it ourselves?” Hadley asked skeptically.

“We do it ourselves.” For the first time, a little of his anger found its way to his face. He let it stay, luxuriating in the feeling. “I’m not letting that bitch get away with this.”

***

Eating was never one of Kevin’s more favored pastimes — now least of all. He pushed the tray away from him in disgust and surveyed the table’s menu of drinks. Not in a creative mood, he selected beer — an ordinary Earth variety as opposed to one of the more exotic alien varieties he usually inflicted on Metcalfe. Not waiting for the glass to complete its shimmering into existence on the table, he put his hand into the transporter beam and drew back painfully as the beam began to take effect on his hand. He cursed and took the now solid glass.

Several gulps of beer did nothing to improve his mood, and nursing the glass only made him think of several recent drunken evenings with Terry at Academy. He sent the beer sliding across the table to join his former dinner and rested his chin on both hands.

“May I join you, Mr. Carson?”

Kevin motioned his hand in a what-the-hell gesture and Sernak seated himself. “You seem somewhat distressed. I take it you are concerned for Lieutenant Metcalfe’s safety?”

“To a degree,” he responded, quietly and bitterly.

“Then something else is troubling you,” Sernak observed cooly, “Might I ask what?”

Kevin looked resentfully up at this Vulcan who was prying into his personal matters. What the hell did he care, anyway? Vulcans didn’t have feelings, so why even ask?

“I have noted in my time with humans that the vocalization of a problem often eases the pain it causes,” he said helpfully.

“All right,” Kevin said, his anger bringing out things he would rather have kept to himself. “I’m concerned because my friend over there might be a coward!”

Sernak raised an eyebrow. “I see., I assume you have some reason for believing this?”

Kevin looked shocked. “You saw what he did on the bridge! He broke down, he went off the deep end!”

“Is that what you call what he did?”

He was beginning to grow annoyed at this moronic Vulcan babbling at him so enigmatically. Why couldn’t’ people simply leave him alone? “What do you call it?”

Sernak answered quietly. “It seems I am upsetting you. Forgive me, I mean no offense. I realize that my experience and knowledge of your race are as yet limited, but it seems to me that you have drawn a false conclusion. From observing your friend, I can see that he is not a coward by human standards. Indeed, he would not be in Starfleet, nor would he have accomplished the things he has, if he were. As someone who calls himself Metcalfe’s friend, I would expect you to see this. Are you sure that you are as much his friend as you claim to be?”

You razor-eared sonofabitch! “Of course I’m his friend! If I weren’t, would I care whether or not I’m gonna se him alive again?”

“Ensign,” he said in that damnably calm voice. “If you are indeed his friend, perhaps you should be asking yourself not whether you will see him again, but when and how you will.” Sernak quietly excused himself and left the mess hall,

She was surprisingly gentle for a Romulan, though he had never considered exactly how a Romulan would be. Now he couldn’t remember why he never had, and everything seemed quite as it should be.

Hikaru couldn’t’ get over that golden hair, so fiercely colored that it didn’t seem natural for it to be so soft to the touch. Nor did her skin feel as he would expect that of one who led ships into battle to feel. It was too soft and warm, or perhaps even hot. She was a Romulan, after all.

He wondered how it had come to be that she could be here with him; he would never have considered it before. Yet here she was, soft and warm, and with him. She caressed his body gently, at once arousing him and helping him to relax after the stresses of the day. Then she reached into his mind and began to caress him within. After all, she was a Romulan…

A Romulan, an enemy, something he had no right to touch…and yet he had enjoyed touching her … no, he couldn’t have! He wouldn’t! How could he allow himself to do such a thing? But he had…and then he realized that he hadn’t… it was only a memory … no, it was only a dream…

A dream.

And Hikaru was awake. He exhaled heavily in relief, and wiped the sweat that had formed on his brow and neck. He picked himself up off the bed and was glad that the trouble sleep was over. Not that he had really meant to sleep, he had just dropped off as a result of being awake for too long.

Celia had recommended that he get rest, but he doubted that what he had just gone through was what she’d had in mind. That awful dream! The thought of it shook him to his core. He had found it impossible to dislike the Romulan woman, granted, but this? And after what she had done to Metcalfe?

Forget it, he told himself, it’s just a dream, something you can’t control. It’s meaningless. It can’t control you unless you let it. But still it upset him to find himself reacting in such a way to an enemy — even subconsciously.

The whole situation upset him, of course. Upset him to the point that he couldn’t even escape it in his dreams. Even while he slept, he still saw the face of that woman he hated. He did allow himself to hate her, much as he disliked the emotion. His own guilt had probably created the dream. His subconscious knew better than any how distasteful he found hatred — especially in himself.

And yet he gave himself the luxury of wanting to blow the woman out of space. If only the motion sensors were more precise — if he could have found her ship, it would have been an easy matter to eliminate her threat once and for all. No! He would not resort to violence. Not only was it dangerous to fire on a Romulan ship in its home space — and he was already in violation of the treaty — it would also lose him a valuable officer and a valuable defector. And that wasn’t even including his own feelings about killing other creatures.

The door buzzer sounded and he called permission to enter. Almost instantly he regretted it; he wasn’t in any mood to speak with anyone. Strange that he felt that way now; it wasn’t typical for him to want to be left alone. Hesitantly, Kevin Carson entered his quarters. Hikaru quickly put aside all feelings of need for isolation. He had not often, after all, had the chance to speak with Carson, who was usually very withdrawn around the rest of the crew.

He didn’t know what it was that made him glad of the chance for conversation with one who was by all appearance a cynical, temperamental egotist who had no time for anyone on board but himself; but he did feel a desire to break down that barrier of hostility. He had seen it often enough to recognize it as the defense shield of someone who had been hurt, of a child who was wounded.

“Mr. Carson,” he said, mustering a smile, “come in.”

Carson moved forward and slouched easily against the edge of a partition; the position reminded Hikaru that he had never seen the Ensign not relaxed. He always appeared quite comfortable, physically, with his surroundings. As always, the appearance was deceiving.

Carson seemed to think for a moment before acknowledging Hikaru’s greeting. “Sorry to disturb you,” he said awkwardly, as if trying to force believability into his words. “I … uh…

Another first. He had never seen Carson at a loss for words. When he did speak, he always knew exactly what he was going to say. What he said was rarely important — he tended to try to amuse people, and especially himself. Hikaru was somewhat touched. “Is something bothering you?”

He saw the defenses beginning to rise. The tone was one of casual denial. “Not really bothering at all. I was just sort of thinking about what happened to Metcalfe… ”

“We’ll get him back..” Hikaru said reassuringly. Perhaps a sympathetic attitude would help.

Carson shrugged at that. “Yeah. Y’know, Terry’s never really broken before. I mean, I don’t think he’d get shaken this easily.” The confidence was beginning to come back. “I think all that was faked.”

Faked? The thought hadn’t occurred to him. Hikaru had rarely seen such terror in the eyes of any being, and nothing had indicated to him that it wasn’t genuine. But wasn’t it odd that such an officer would so suddenly break down in fear? Maybe, or maybe Carson was trying not to believe the truth. Maybe he was justifying what his friend had done so that he would be able to handle it. “I hadn’t thought of that.”

“He had to be faking. It was all just too sudden.” He thought the boy’s tone vaguely insistent, as if he were trying to make himself believe what he had said.

“But what could he hope to accomplish?” Hikaru asked gently, not wanting to hurt him by too violently attacking his explanation.

Carson was again at a loss. “I don’t really know. He does some pretty crazy things when he thinks he can get away with them. If he thought there was something he could do — If

“Such as get our prisoner back aboard Phoenix? Or signal for an attack on the Romulan ship?”

“Something like that. “How???

Carson shrugged again. “I guess if we were in his place, we’d find a way.”

Hikaru nodded sadly. “Maybe.”

Carson came out of his slouching stance. “I’ll be going now.” He thought he should stop the boy and try to speak with him more, but could think way to suggest it, and so let him go. He wondered if perhaps he should have made Carson see his ideas as what they were — a possible device for ignoring the truth of the matter. The idea of Metcalfe finding a way off the other ship was outlandish, after all. Who could do such a thing?

An answer appeared in his mind: Admiral Kirk. He had always done such things, why couldn’t someone else? Especially if that someone held Jim Kirk as his personal hero-.-, And what was it Carson had said? If we were in his place… If Hikaru were in that place, might he not try some outlandish action? Wasn’t following the Romulan ship into the zone an outlandish action grown out of desperate circumstances? Hikaru suddenly realized that, despite his best efforts, he had forgotten some of what it was like to be a junior officer. He had wanted to be like a father or older brother to his younger crew, but he hadn’t taken into account that they were old enough to think for themselves. They didn’t often need a father or older brother to help them out, only a friend. Was that his mistake with Metcalfe? Obviously it was. He had become so smug, so content with what he had done that he had elevated himself to the role of the teacher; he had forgotten how much he had yet to learn, and that he might learn it from his own officers.

Had Metcalfe seen a possibility where he had missed one? Had hi own satisfaction with his role as commander prevented him from seeing what the younger, less experienced, or perhaps more imaginative helmsman had seen? Or had Metcalfe’s feelings of inadequacy, spawned by Hikaru’s condescending treatment of him, driven him to simple desperation?

An uncomfortable thought, and one that made him more determined than ever to see all of them through this mess alive. He threw himself off the bed, no longer tired, and pulled on his tunic. He headed for the bridge, to find out what else might be waiting to be discovered by a young captain who was still willing to learn…

Between her subject’s lack of cooperation and her own unwillingness to be involved in this whole business in the first place, Cassandra was beginning to lose patience. There was nothing really important to be discovered from this young lieutenant, save the Federation starship’s prefix code, which would help matters, but was not absolutely vital. It was standard procedure, though, to get information where it was available; and it was available here. She was obligated to try, at least.

Terry Metcalfe crouched on the pallet on one side of the detention cell, still in terror of her as he had been from the moment they had brought him here. Perhaps they had not chosen the proper hostage after all. This one was too concerned with his own safety to even answer her questions. Threats did no good, only making him launch into more fearful ravings.

It seemed odd to her that one so cowardly, especially a human, could hold out so long without telling her a thing, even if he was in a state of shock, as her medical officer had suggested. She couldn’t help wondering if he were not, on truth, braver than he appeared. It could explain why she felt herself experiencing, not even sympathy, but a kind of affection for him, as one did who admired the struggles of an animal in a trap.

Before she left to rest herself, there would have to be one last attempt. She prayed it would be successful, as she knew what the Centurion would insist she do next; and she knew that she would have no other choice.- The one bit of information, the prefix code, would be gained despite its relative triviality. she herself would be expected to rip it from his mind, leaving it ravaged and useless. Damn policy anyway!

She bent down and gently touched his face, hoping to bring him around, to get his attention. She stroked his cheek and ear affectionately, using pleasure to evoke a response. Gods, how she hated this!

“Come now, Lieutenant,” she whispered, “wouldn’t it be easier for you to just tell me what I want to know?”

In response, he backed closer to the wall, trying as best he could to become a part of it. His jaw still trembled in fear; his eyes shot madly back and forth in their sockets. “Please,” he muttered.

“Please what, my love?” Cassandra asked in a voice so honey-sweet she wondered if it could be her own — and how she could use it for such a purpose as this. “I’ll do anything you like, if you’ll only cooperate.” She moved her hands down now to his shoulders, feeling bare, soft, human flesh where she had ripped the tunic away earlier. That was part of the pattern: violence, followed by affection, followed again by sudden violence. Her last act had been violent; she had struck him repeatedly, to the -point of drawing blood from his mouth. Still he had only become more frantic.

Now, as the last part of this particular session, she must be gentle again, to insure hi — trust, to make him ready for the next time — if there was one. “The prefix code, that’s all.” But this only made him worse, and he began to push away her arms and sob.

“No,” came the sound from his bleeding lips, “No.”

Slowly, very slowly, she brought her hands back to his neck. She had to show the utmost care, or he would retreat even deeper into his fear. “Terry,” she whispered, putting effort into the pronunciation so that his name might trigger some response. “Easy, take it easy.” Cassandra’s voice was a match in tone to that of Sulu’s earlier, and the boy began to calm. She smiled with enthusiasm. “That’s it, my love. Trust me. I want to help you. Will you let me?”

He had quieted now, and she decided on her last action for the time being: the one to which human males were known to be the most responsive.

Swallowing the distaste she felt at this atrocity, allowing her mind to focus on that one spark of affection she had felt earlier, she brushed a hand over his crotch. She moved the hand slowly, trying to capture her affection and sympathy on her face. Gods, how I loathe this. It’s such a flagrant misuse of mind and body — mine, as well as his.

For the briefest moment she thought she saw the insanity in the black eyes turn to reason, or even … appreciation? For a moment she thought it had worked. Then a harsh, grating, thoroughly ugly voice came from the door, and Metcalfe jerked away, again hugging the wall.

“Well?” the Centurion demanded. “Have you found what we want?”

Damn you, old man. Holding her composure strikingly in check, Cassandra rose from her subject to join the repulsive old creature at the door. “No,” she said cooly, “I haven’t.”

“Then you know what we must do next,” the old man said, not without pleasure. It

“I know what I must do,” she told him reproachfully. “What you must do is entirely up to me. Don’t forget that, Centurion.”

“My apologies, Commander,” he said unconvincingly. “I take it, however, that you will perform the necessary operations.”

“If it becomes necessary to use the Klingon equipment, I will… in my own time.”

The old man’s voice flared in anger. “Why do you delay? Why not take from him what you want and dispose of him? The starship commander will not know until it is too late, and he will be disposed of as well — sooner or later.”

“Do not count on that, Centurion,” Cassandra warned. “And as to the Lieutenant,, he is a child.”

“As are you,” the Centurion said meaningfully. “Perhaps you find Earth children attractive?”

She ignored the barb, as she knew that her anger was all he wanted. “I am tired of causing pain to children.”

“Such is the price of war. You are a warrior, aren’t you?”

Cassandra felt her face turn crimson with rage, but answered him calmly. “Perhaps not by your definition, Centurion.” She allowed him to bask in his victory for a moment and then added, “But I am in command.”

Defeated, he asked again, “You will use the mind-sifter?”

“If it becomes necessary, I will, I have told you. I will try my last few techniques of persuasion first. This young Lieutenant’s mind may be too valuable to feed to that filthy Klingon contrivance.” She left him with that, and went on down the corridor toward the bridge. : -. Gods, how glad she was to be rid of that hateful creature, if only for a moment! She wondered at how one could be so bloodthirsty, so insensitive! His kind cared nothing for honor, only for some nebulous thing they called the glory of the Empire. But it was not the Empire the Centurion and his fellows served — and there were many of them, both in the military and in the government — it was themselves. Power was all they craved, and hang the Empire if it didn’t bring them that. In the name of power, they would see the praetors burn in Hell; they would join the Federation they so despised — or even the filthy Klingons.

And such as they dared to say she did not serve the Empire! It was true that she had her differences with some of those in power, but only in the name of the Empire itself. Her only treason lay in opposing those who would see honor die in the name of power and glory.

Cassandra knew that the Centurion would eliminate her, if he thought he could get away with it; and he was always waiting for his chance. He hovered over her, waiting for her to make some mistake which would supply him with justification. She would never make that mistake. He thought he saw his chance coming with Metcalfe, she could tell. He thought she was treasonously aiding an enemy when in truth she was only being practical — and honorable. No matter how much they wanted to, the Centurion’s friends in the Praetoriate could not take her ship away from her because she acted out of honor. No, he would have to do better than that.

And could she be condemned for disliking that primitive. Klingon invention, the mind-sifter? It was a rapist of the mind, and it left nothing but madness in its wake. One did not use such a weapon on an honorable opponent. ‘Lo do so would violate all rules of decency. And the Centurion would use it in a minute.

And was Cassandra any better? She would also use the device on Metcalfe if there were no other way. How did she differ? By waiting an extra day? There was no honor in delaying the kill. Yet she was bound by her orders to use the sifter if all other methods failed — and her government did not allow truth drugs. No, these they considered dishonorable. Gods! Did being bound by orders, thought make it any more honorable? Someday, she knew, honor and orders would clash directly. She dreaded the possibility.

Entering the bridge, she put these treasonous thoughts from her mind. If her estimation of Commander Sulu was correct, the critical time would be approaching, and she would need to be able to concentrate. Sliding into her chair, she demanded a report of one of her antecenturions a little more harshly than she had meant to.

Slightly cowed, the man just shook his head, indicating no sightings. Only a moment later, he spoke up, still a little hesitant. “I have a sighting now, Commander. It appears to be the Federation starship. Yes, it is — the Phoenix.”

Cassandra, despite her mood, allowed herself a smile of triumph. “Maintain cloak; they still don’t know exactly where we are. Are her shields raised?”

“Affirmative, Commander.’?

“Good, Commander. You learn quickly,” she muttered. Turning to the door, she addressed one of the guards standing behind her. “Bring our guests up. I have something to show them.” Again Cassandra smiled as her prize loomed closer on the screen.

Looking up from his thoughts, Hikaru noticed Hadley, still at the helm, watching him expectantly. “Aren’t you going to ask me my plan?”

“I assume you have one,” the exec said.

“In a manner of speaking,” Hikaru replied, enjoying being vague.

“How do you plan to find them? And what will you do when you have?”

Sulu smiled mysteriously. “In answer to your first question, I’m playing a hunch. As to your second… I suppose that depends on the success of my hunch. If I’m wrong, we won’t be here to worry about it.”

Hadley sighed in exasperation, one of the few signs of emotion he ever showed. “Blind chances aren’t your style, are they?”

“An old captain can always learn new tricks, can’t he?” Still unsatisfied, Hadley turned back to his station. Hikaru found it rather funny that the exec didn’t understand a word of what he was saying. Hadley was a good officer, but he didn’t tend to be overly imaginative. Then again, that might not be a bad thing, After all, look where Hikaru’s imagination was taking them; and what if he was wrong about Metcalfe? He’d think of something in that case, but he didn’t believe he’d have to think of anything.

“No sign of the Romulan ship, Captain,” Sernak said.

“We won’t see them until they want us to, Mr. Sernak,” He replied quietly.

“And when we do,” Hadley added ominously, t”here may be more than one of them. We may not able to get out of here.”

“Oh, I’m counting in there being more, Roy. They’ve probably already signaled for reinforcements. But it’s not getting out of here I’m worried about; it’s whether we’ll leave with what we came for.”

“Hikaru, have you considered the possibility that Metcalfe might supply them with our prefix code?”

Hikaru had to admit he hadn’t thought of it. After all, he wasn’t counting on Metcalfe cracking under pressure — not even Romulan pressure.

“I doubt he will.

“As terrified as he was?” Hadley asked, his face as close to animation as Hikaru had ever seen it. “Why should they have any trouble getting it from him? They have mind-sifters, remember.”

He felt a bit foolish. Granted, he hadn’t thought of it, but it was possible. He nodded agreement at Hadley. “You have a point. I think it would be a good idea to change the code — just in case.” Hadley moved quickly to his station and began the necessary dialogue with the computer.

Sernak looked uncomfortably back at his commander as the exec carried out his instructions. “If Metcalfe has been … persuaded to help them, we won’t have much chance against them.”

Hikaru only smiled confidently and, with a meaningful glance at Carson, said, “I’d say we’ve definitely got a chance.”

“Commander?” the ante-centurion called, rousing Cassandra from her thoughts, “the signal has been acknowledged by the sector defensive unit. They’re underway now.”

“How long?”

The younger officer smiled savagely and supplied her with the time figure. “They haven’t got a chance.”

Cassandra merely returned his smile, feeling vaguely ill. The guards came in, leading Gradivus and the relatively docile Metcalfe. “Hello, Lieutenant,” she said pleasantly. She still did not acknowledge the old man, nor did she meet his gaze. He made no attempt to communicate with her.

Metcalfe also remained silent and looked painfully at the screen where Phoenix‘s image grew larger with each second. “They’re catching up, Lieutenant. With our cloaking device — and certain other advantages-we’ll have no trouble taking their ship. Why don’t you simplify matters and supply the code?”

He mustered a ragged breath and whispered, “Fuck you.”

Cassandra laughed. “Come now, darling, there’s no need to start being brave now.” He winced at that. “You know your captain won’t fire on us while you’re aboard.”

Metcalfe’s voice raised sharply. “He wouldn’t risk the ship!” “Of course he would. Why do you think he came after us? He wouldn’t come all this way just to eliminate us and take you along. He’ll want to keep you alive — at any price.”

His head hung and she thought his voice broke. “I’m not worth saving.

She shrugged. “If you wish. Still, it would save your shipmates a great deal of pain if I could have the code. As it is, I’ll have to just keep battering her until the shields come down — that would cost lives.”

“How do you know you’ll win the battle?” Suddenly he seemed to be gaining courage. It wasn’t a good sign.

“Oh, we will. Especially since reinforcements will be here at any moment.”

His mouth hung open dumbly. “Reinforcements?”

“Of course. Wouldn’t you expect them?”

Gradivus had been watching in silence, but now looked sympathetically at Metcalfe and said, “She is correct, you know. Telling her what she wants would only make things easier — for all of us. Your captain won’t fire while you are still alive on this ship. Tell her, my boy.”

His eyes were now growing wet with frustrated tears. “I can’t.”

Gradivus smiled sadly. “I can’t allow it to go on — especially since I am responsible. Cassandra?”

She looked up sharply. It was the first time he had addressed her directly, and it sent a flood of emotions through her that no commander could afford to have. Her voice weak in her throat, she answered. “Yes?”

“I will supply the code to the computer. It is quite evident in the boy’s mind. If you will allow me?”

“Of course.”

“No!” Metcalfe cried out suddenly, grabbing the old man’s arm frantically. “You can’t! She’ll — ”

Gradivus took the boy’s hand gently in his own. “She’ll take your friends anyway. This is best.” He moved to the console on the side wall and began keying in the numbers that would enable them to render Phoenix defenseless.

Metcalfe became hysterical. “No!” he moaned again, bringing his hands to his wet face. He seemed beyond words again. All he could do was make pathetic sobbing sounds.

Guilt and anguish welled up in Cassandra’s mind. She had done this to him, reduced him to this sniveling coward who stood before her. She had had no other choice, but that hardly absolved her of guilt. Silently, she slipped the elaborate dagger from her side and held it out. She hoped he would know what to do with it. Any Romulan, at this point, would know, and would use it.

Looking up, he began to stare at the dagger, unmoving. Not feeling able to speak, Cassandra pushed it closer to him, encouraging him to take it. Finally, slowly, he did so. He studied it, holding it in front of his eyes, his hands quivering madly. Turning it in his hands, he contemplated its uses for some time.

Metcalfe looked at Cassandra again, meeting her eyes fully, not showing fear in his expression, but understanding — and gratitude. He held out one exposed wrist and positioned the dagger over the flesh. Without a sound, he brought the weapon down, forcing it firmly into the skin and pulling, rending the pale smoothness of his wrist. The dagger clattered to the floor, spattering it with blood. Metcalfe began to look wildly around, searching out a pair of sympathetic eyes. He stopped when he saw Gradivus, now standing near him and watching sadly.

Staggering drunkenly forward, he gripped the old man’s arm again, and collapsed against him. As Gradivus gently lifted the boy’s body into his arms, Cassandra thought she saw something flash across the young face. A smile?

“Still no sign, Commander,” Sernak reported quietly. Even he was beginning to sound a bit doubtful. Hikaru had to admit he was beginning to have doubts of his own.

A red panel over the main screen lit up, and the computer began to chant frantically. “Emergency medical alert: Crewperson endangered, Emergency medical alert: Crewperson endangered. Emergency… ”

Hikaru’s eyes lit up with triumph. He hit the computer control with a force that threatened to break it. “Identify.”

The computer ceased its methodical repetition and answered. “Chief Helmsman Metcalfe, Terrence A, Lieutenant Junior Grade.”

As Hadley’s mouth dropped and Sernak’s eyebrow raised, he hit the intercom. “Transporter room, emergency beamup! Medical computer will feed you the coordinates.” He flicked the switch again. “Dr. Faulkner, meet me in the transporter room with a team — ”

“On my way, Captain,” the woman interrupted. Hikaru grinned. He felt perfectly justified in doing so: his hunch had played out. Terry had done exactly what he had expected — the impossible. No one else would have thought twice about those medicomp implants, but Terry had just got one; and an imaginative mind thrived on new data. He had improvised the perfect distress signal.

“Mr. Carson,” Hikaru said to the ashen-face communications officer, “If you’d care to join us in sickbay in five minutes, you have my permission to leave your post.” Carson managed a weak smile. As Hikaru headed into the lift, he realized he had never seen him do that before.

From out of the darkness, two shades lifted, and blinding light flowed in; the shades quickly lowered again. “Well, I’ll be damned,” a familiar voice said, “it’s alive.”

“Just for the record,” Terry heard himself saying, “Am I alive?”

Celia’s voice laughed. “I never lie to my patients, kid.”

He slitted his eyes against the glare this time and looked around,. Kevin and Hikaru were beside the doctor, both grinning with relief. “You had us worried for a minute there,” his captain told him. “Next time call if you plan to stay out late.”

Terry laughed and wished he hadn’t; his head rang with pain that any motion only increased. “Sorry, Dad. Took me a while to find a phone.’?

Hikaru laughed too, perhaps more than was appropriate; but he couldn’t help being relieved. “You’ve got a hell of a flare for dialing.”

CeCelia, her moment of high spirits over, turned on them both. “You might tell people what the hell you’re talking about.”

“Historic references,” Hikaru explained, “never mind.”

“I won’t; I’ve got better things to worry about.” She turned a wrathful eye on her patient. “Especially when you people insist on using pieces of your bodies for communicators.”

“Should I log that as an official complaint?” Hikaru asked wryly.

She cast him an annoyed glance, but her reply was cut off by the intercom buzzing. Sernak was on the other end, sounding Vulcanly concerned. “One of the problems you were anticipating has arisen, Captain. You presence is required.”

Hikaru frowned. “Reinforcements?”

“Affirmative.”

“On my way.” He took a step toward the bed on his way out. “Can you have him back on the bridge in five minutes?”

Celia twisted her face into an ugly frown. “You’ve gotta be kidding.

He shook his head. “We’re going to have a bit of trouble getting back out of here. I’ve got a plan, but I can’t do it alone.” He gave Terry a playful slap on the shoulder.

Surprisingly, that explanation seemed to appease the doctor. She smiled tightly. “He’ll be there.” She turned to Terry. “Let me get you something to keep you on your feet, then you and the Captain can go play hide and seek.”

As she left, Terry got up and began to pull on the remnants of his uniform. He sped up a bit as the red alert klaxon began to sound, but still had to take it slow to keep his aching head happy. Kevin remained and silently watched him. His mouth opened a few times, but no words seemed ready to come out.

Terry smiled at him. “Did you think I wasn’t coming back?”

“I figured you would,” Kevin responded quietly.

“That makes one of us. I don’t know what the hell made me think that would work. I’m not sure I did think it would work.”

“Then why did you do it?”

The answer came almost instinctively, but Terry bit it back. He had never been able to speak easily to his friend on some subjects. That he had almost got himself killed to spare Kevin was one of those subjects.

Kevin seemed satisfied that he knew the answer. Without facing Terry, he said, “I’m sorry.”

Terry knew saying that couldn’t have been easy. He tried to lighten the blow. “For what? Expecting me to act my age?”

“You weren’t — ”

“Don’t bullshit me. I was acting like a thirteen-year-old — lying around feeling sorry for myself because… Oh, hell. Never let it be said I was level headed where Kaya was involved, eh?”

Kevin smiled, finally letting his mood lighten. “You’re in love with her, aren’t you?”

“I’m not. I don’t even like her.”

“Then how do you explain yourself?”

“I didn’t rule out lust.”

They laughed. It was good to laugh together again, but it also made Terry uncomfortable. They showed their friendship so little that it was hard to deal with it when they did. Celia came in and saved them from any embarrassment. She held up a hypo.

“Give me your arm so I can get you out of here.” She injected the contents into him and made a dismissing gesture with her hands. “That should keep you going.”

Terry headed out the door, Kevin following. Celia called to them again. “Can you stay a second, Carson? I have a question for you.”

“I’ll see you on the bridge, then,” Terry said and went on toward the turbo-lift.

“Well, what’s the question. You think I’m sick?”

“Oh, physically you’re fine. I’m a bit concerned about your morale, though. That’s my responsibility, too. You and Metcalfe stop fighting?”

“What makes you think we’ve been fighting?”

“Don’t ask stupid questions, I’m a doctoral She studied the light-haired young officer for a moment. They had quite a bit in common, as a matter of fact. She too, had a cynical outlook in many ways; but she found Carson’s outlook a bit extreme. She also found herself in empathy with him — and not many people were — and a sympathetic impulse had made her call him back.

“I guess we’ve had our differences lately,” he admitted. “But we’re doing all right.. He’s a bit…

“A bit what?”

Kevin found it hard to answer. “Well, I…I guess idealistic.’?

“He has a right to be. He’s one of the best.” Carson said nothing. “So are you,” she added.

“Give me a break.”

“You don’t deserve one,” she said matter-of-factly. “You give yourself enough.”

“What the hell does that mean?”

“It means that you don’t drive yourself. Why not? You could be as good as — or even better than — any officer in this section of the Federation. Why aren’t you?”

“Because I’m not,” he shot impatiently. “And I never will be.”

“Probably not, ” she agreed.

“Look — ”

“I’ve been looking, Ensign. I’ve been looking at you alienating the crew, refusing anybody’s friendship, mistreating the friends you do have — and God only knows why you have them. What the hell makes you so sour on people?”

“I just don’t have any illusions, that’s all.”

“I don’t agree. And whose illusions are you referring to? Who has these illusions you’re so free of? Metcalfe?”

His patience had worn thin. “Probably.”

“He certainly does well with his illusionary career.”

“Come off it!” Kevin said in disgust. “You can see as well as I can what a … a dreamer he is. He thinks everything’s a challenge, an adventure. He doesn’t see life for what it is!”

“And what is it?”

Kevin shook his head and tried to regain his patience. “Look, he’s a nice kid, but he… he’s just a little immature … a little idealistic. He hasn’t been disappointed by life yet, and he will be.”

You’ve got all the answers, haven’t you?” She asked angrily. “Bullshit! Take it from me, kid, being cynical doesn’t make you more mature, it just makes you bitter and unhappy and a pain-in-the-ass. Maybe you’ve seen some disappointment, so you’re going to avoid any future ones by not having any hope? It doesn’t work, kid. As long as you expect the worst, you make it happen yourself. Take a lesson from your friend, and believe in yourself. Or you might find after a while that you don’t have any friends left.”

“Spare me the sentimentality. I don’t believe any of that,” he lied. “And I’ve got work to do.” Celia watched him out the door and hoped that he’d listened — at least a little bit.

Terry got to the bridge, dim and red in the emergency light, and immediately spotted the Romulan reinforcements. On the main screen, two D-7 cruisers, given the Romulan Empire by the Klingons in trade, hung large and threatening before the Phoenix. Hikaru finally silenced the klaxons as Terry joined Sernak at the helm.

Gradivus had come to the bridge after carrying Terry to sickbay, and now watched the screen worriedly. “What do you intend to do, Captain?”

“I intend to leave, Gradivus,” Hikaru responded sincerely, despite the absurdity of the statement.

“You will not attempt to do battle?”

“I’m not exactly in a good position for it — legally or strategically. Those ships could tear me to pieces in a matter of minutes; and, even if I were to get lucky, I’d be court-martialed or taken prisoner for breaking treaty.”

The old man had an ominous look in his eye. “They will not let you leave with me. They can’t let you take their prize from them.”

“If we escape with you, we’ll have time to worry about pursuit. Besides, you know as well as I that there are probably even more reinforcements on the way.”

Gradivus nodded reluctantly. Hikaru turned to the helm. “We seem to need an escape route, Mr. Metcalfe. Any ideas?”

Terry exhaled heavily. “I don’t suppose the dagger trick will work again? This is what they called a no-win situation at the academy.”

Hikaru smiled. “And what did you do about a no-win situation at the academy? Like the Kobayashi-Maru?

Oh no, Terry thought, does he have to bring that up? Then he was struck with a memory: his solution. It hadn’t worked, but it had been close. It had been a trick Hikaru had taught him — a full warp dive. It involved maneuvering the ship at maximum speed through a veritable obstacle course. It pushed the super-structure to the limits of its endurance, and required computer assistance to keep track of the stress figures. The simulator at the academy, of course, had made the computer malfunction. It was programmed to make the situation impossible. “You’re not suggesting — ”

“A full warp dive? Why not? It almost worked once.”

“That was in the simulator,” Terry protested. “Don’t forget, I lost the ship.”

“That was in the simulator,” Hikaru reminded him.

“We’ll need a damn good team at the helm. You could handle the piloting, but without an experienced navigator — he really has the tough job, after all.” As an after thought he turned to the station on his right. “Sorry, Sernak, I didn’t mean — ”

“Understood, Lieutenant. I am unfamiliar with the maneuver, so I cannot hope to accomplish it.”

Terry felt his point proven. “There. No one else knows the maneuver.”

Hikaru smiled, a devilish, even fierce expression. “You know it, Mr. Metcalfe. I’ll take the navigators slot.”

“Sir?” He felt his voice slipping into his throat. Hikaru did trust him, and he should never have doubted it. But now, since he had doubted, Hikaru was putting the ship at stake in a foolish attempt to restore Terry’s faith in himself. Goddamn it, Metcalfe! Look what your temper’s _cot you into this time! “I only have one hand,” he finished weakly, holding up his right arm to display the plastiskin which stiffened it past the point of efficient use.

“Activate the computer, Mr. Metcalfe,” Hikaru said quietly.

“Hikaru,” he began, self-conscious at using the captain’s first name again.

“Take it from one who knows, Terry,” he told him with a reassuring smile, “you could fly her with your teeth.”

From his station, Kevin called to Sulu. Terry wondered when he had come in, and how much he had heard. “Transmission from Romulan ship, sir.”

“Onscreen.”

The main screen flashed from a picture of two looming cruisers to a shot of Cassandras beautiful, if harried features. “Commander,” she said cordially.

“Commander.

“It would seem you are in an uncomfortable situation. As you are in violation of our space, I believe it only proper that you surrender your vessel. Your crew, of course, will not be harmed.”

“And our passenger?” Hikaru asked bitterly.

“He is our concern,” she said tersely. “Now, what is your decision?”

“A moment, Commander.” He moved quickly to Sernak and tapped him on the shoulder. The Vulcan quickly vacated and Hikaru slipped in at the console, still standing. “We ready?” he whispered to Terry.

“Any time.”

The Romulan woman spoke up from the screen. “Commander?”

Hikaru looked up innocently.

“Your decision? You have no alternative, you know.”

Hikaru nodded with a lame smile. “Agreed, Commander.” He turned to his left and whispered urgently, “Ahead full, Mr. Metcalfe!”

Cassandra wondered if perhaps the human wasn’t giving up too easily. Humans could be stubborn, after all, almost as much as Romulans. He was a good officer, she knew, so he must be thinking something…

Her timid ante-centurion called out in a breaking voice, “Commander, the alien ship is moving! Full warp!” He looked again at the monitor, then up. “Commander, no man could pilot a ship that way! He must be mad!”

Not really shocked, Cassandra turned to see that she had lost the picture of the Phoenix‘s bridge. “Exterior visual!” she snapped. The front screen flashed to life just in time to show the Federation ship dash crazily out of the range of Godsfire‘s sensors in a multi-colored pattern of wavy lines.

The ante-centurion was shaking his head. “Impossible.”

Facing the now blackened screen, not needing to see the motion sensors to know how Phoenix moved easily through the blockade of warships meant to stop any opponent of the almighty Empire, Cassandra allowed herself an appreciative smile. “He must be mad,” she whispered to herself.

Interrupting her quiet moment of admiration for the human in a burst of his loud, grating voice, the Centurion was immediately beside her. “Commander! Are we not going to pursue?”

She sneered at him contemptuously. “Even if we could maneuver so at full warp, they have the lead, They will cross the zone ahead of US.” She touched the stud which sent the screen into blackness. “We have lost them.”

He placed his obscene face near hers. “Commander!” he hissed.

Cassandra turned and favored him with a condescending smile. “But we shall follow,” she said resignedly. “We must.” She gave the orders to follow to her crew, despite the fact that they all knew how hopeless following would be. The Phoenix would be well over the border and well on her way to the nearest base to deposit their guest. There would be no possibility of bringing Gradivus back, and a treasonous part of her mind sighed with joyous relief at that thought.

The corridors were no different from those of a thousand other starships — and a thousand others he had seen, as a Romulan or one of the many other races he had belonged to. One useful fact lodged deep in the lowest reaches of his mind, where he kept his earliest and most basic memories: moving through a crowded area such as this, especially in a hectic time such as now, presented no obstacle if you knew what you were doing and where you were going and let it be evident on your face.

A hundred alien faces looked passingly at his, but not one registered the fact that he should not be here, just as none had noticed on the bridge as he had slipped into the turbo-lift when the ship went into its emergency maneuvers. Only another few hundred feet, and he would have no more cause to worry about being accosted by the crew. Another few minutes, and he would have no cause to worry about anything. Remember what I taught you, Cassandra, only a short time ago. Remember only one thing that I made you believe in, only that one thing. You will not fail me. You never have.

Hikaru tensed his muscles desperately, trying to hold himself in position at the navigator’s station. If he were thrown from his place by the shaking of the ship in its mad, seemingly uncontrolled dive for the border of home space, Metcalfe could lose control of the ship and it would shake itself to pieces as surely as if it had flown unshielded into Klingon disruptor fire.

The computer’s calm monotone read out a constant stream of numbers, the rapidity of which might have confused him had not his ship been at stake. He set and reset his controls with fine precision and care in response to each new piece of data from the speakers overhead. The tolerance margin of the superstructure to the stress this maneuver was imposing on it grew smaller and smaller. Each second brought the Phoenix closer and closer to destruction.

At his helm console, Metcalfe guided the ship forward and around in circles simultaneously, oblivious to the destruction which was closing in. To him, it was only a data point in the readout. He kept himself locked to the board, thinking only of each maneuver as it happened. He had made himself one with the starship. Hikaru wondered it Terry had time to truly appreciate, or even recognize, the euphoria of unhindered motion. Did it even cross his mind that he was the one controlling the fate of over two-hundred lives, and that their survival would be his doing? Did he wonder at his own potential accomplishment. or cringe at his own potential failure? Or did he have time to think at all?

Calmly, despite the sweat pouring down his face and drenching his uniform, Terry turned to Hikaru. “Beginning deceleration now, sir.” And he was immediately locked to his board again. The numbers coming over the speaker grew larger, the stars became stars again, instead of lines on the screen, and the crew on the bridge let out a long, collective sigh of relief.

Hikaru himself released his controls and slumped back into his chair. From a similar position, Metcalfe looked again at him. “We’re now in Federation space, sir.” He smiled nervously and rubbed his face with one hand. “I didn’t think it would work.”

Hikaru laughed. “To tell you the truth, Lieutenant, I had my doubts, too.” They and the crew around them burst into gratefully relaxed laughter.

As he looked around to see that the bridge was, indeed, still there, Terry called out. “Commander!” And Hikaru saw that he was no longer laughing. He stared instead at a tiny yellow indicator on his board. “Shuttle bay doors are open, sir. One of the craft is now exiting the ship.” He looked up. “I’m sorry, sir. I didn’t notice.

It must have been on for — ”

Hikaru waved him silent. “You had a few other things on your mind.” He turned to Carson. “Get me that shuttlecraft. Onscreen.”

The face that came on looked older — perhaps it only looked its age — but still held a familiar sad smile in answer to Hikaru’s questioning glance. “Hello, Commander,” Gradivus said quietly.

Hikaru faced him sternly. “Return to the ship immediately. You are making unauthorized use of Federation property.” He knew it wouldn’t work.

“I have made unauthorized use of many things, my friend,” the old man said apologetically. “‘And many people. This shall be my last such use.”

“Gradivus,” Hikaru began.

The old man held up his hand. “No. As I told you, they will not go without their prize. Soon, they will appear in chase, and you will escape them. Still they will not forget. You know the lengths to which our governments will go to preserve the peace. Should mine insist, and they will, there will be an investigation. Favorable or not in its outcome, it will remove you from command — disgraced. It would appear, Hikaru, that I am a warrior no longer; but I would wish that fate on no one so honorable. It is said that old men are selfish, and it is often true; but perhaps now I will be able to make up for my selfishness. I will give them their prize,” he said finally and with regret. “Go in peace now.”

The screen went black.

Hikaru leaned to Carson with a look of inquiry, unable to bring out any words. Carson was also silent. In response, he shook his head. “He refuses to answer.”

Terry smiled humorlessly. “I take it that means we’re safe.”

“We are,” Hikaru agreed, “but Gradivus…

“They won’t kill him. They need him.”

“Yeah,” he whispered. “They need him, and they won’t let him go. He couldn’t die if he wanted to.”

“A sighting, Commander!” the ante-centurion cried excitedly. “The Federation ship. Just over the Neutral Zone border.”

Cassandra gave him a bored look. “Continue to follow.”

The man nodded and turned back to his board, this time to react in surprise. He squinted his eyes and rechecked the reading, then reported his findings in a disbelieving tone. “The starship is discharging a shuttle, approaching us at top speed. It contains — “he raised both eyebrows. “It contains one Romulan life-form, Commander.?’

The Centurion turned jubilantly to her. “We have him, Commander!”

Apparently, they did. As was its habit, her treasonous side showed itself to her now. Do you want him? it asked mockingly. Can he not have his freedom someday?__ Stop hounding him. It is dishonorable. Remember your honor, Cassandra. Remember what he taught you.

Despite her efforts to banish her treasonous thoughts and think clearly of the things her duty demanded, the inner voice continued to mock her. She found herself unable to ignore it. Wasn’t it, after all, her own voice, despite its treasonous content? Was it not the voice of her mind speaking the truths it knew from an entire lifetime of honor and loyalty? Loyalty. She had always been loyal — to the Empire and to her loved ones. Now, which loyalty took precedence? Any act against the Empire was treason, but any act against a loved one was dishonor. Above all, she could not violate honor.

But what was the logic behind honor for honor’s sake? It is an impractical concept, and above all else a warrior must be practical. Gradivus, friend or not, was wanted — needed — by the Empire. He had no right to refuse his services, and she had no right to defend a traitor. To do so would jeopardize her position, and to do that would, naturally, be impractical.

Cassandra had never been a practical creature.

The time she dreaded had arrived. Honor and orders clashed, as she knew they inevitably would. Was she to save herself, the Empire and her honor? Or was she to spare the old man, give him his rest, and take her chances? She now saw that she had the opportunity to fulfill honor, and yet save herself. It would be so simple. She need only take the chance and make use of it.

Above all else, a commander must be decisive. “It is a trick,” she whispered, barely aware that the words left her lips. “Arm plasma torpedo,” she told the ante-centurion, who did not dare show the surprise he must feel.

“Torpedo armed, Commander.”

The Centurion was not afraid to voice his feelings. ‘”I tell you it is him!” he insisted desperately.

Cassandra gathered all the strength in her trembling body and directed it to her voice. Her palms, soaked with sweat, clenched tightly as she gave the simple order which would solve the problem — for now. “Fire.”

The ante-centurion responded immediately. “Firing.” On the screen, a gentle light began to form, taking shape and expanding to a harsh glare which dominated the view and caused all eyes in the room to squint. Then it was gone, and with it, the tiny prick of light which had indicated the presence of a ship. The ante-centurion looked backwards. “Target destroyed, Commander.”

The Centurion was on her immediately, his hot, rancid breath on her face. “Do you know what you have done?” he demanded.

Cassandra mastered her every muscle and said quietly, “I do.” It surprised her that she could open her mouth and not scream in pain.

The Centurion shook his fists in uncontrolled anger. “Don’t you realize that it had to be him?”

She eyed him for a moment, the ugly creature who served the Empire faithfully, giving no thought to honor. His continued existence was an insult to the memory of an honorable man. “Of course it was him,” she said tonelessly, not wasting any display of emotion on him.

“You have committed treason against the Empire!” His exclamation was loud, and faces turned to watch the battle between the two seniors.

Cassandra had wasted enough time and energy on him. She turned slightly, facing him straight on, and spoke in measured words. “Prove it, then, and report it. It is your duty, and your decision.”

The Centurion shook his head helplessly. He knew damn well he could prove nothing. “You are a fool, Cassandra!” he hissed through clenched teeth.

With calculated fury, giving only the necessary energy to the task, she struck him up against a bulkhead, giving no further attention to him once he slumped against it. She wasn’t sure why she had done it. She was too tired to be genuinely angry at him, despite his use of her name in public, a grave offense against a superior. Even though she despised him, taking out her hatred and anger on him had relieved nothing. She was beginning to find that such was often the case with violence.

On the screen, the Phoenix was just now growing visible as they approached the Federation border. Cassandra watched it closely, wondering about its reaction to what she had done. They wouldn’t understand, no human could. Unfortunately, few Romulans did either these days. If she looked long enough, she imagined she might see some tiny item of debris left over from the shuttle. Of course she couldn’t, but she saw a face in her mind. For the first time in ages, it smiled.

“An honorable death, my friend,” she whispered, oblivious of her crew. “Rest now.”

The ante-centurion was beside her. She hadn’t noticed him, and she wondered briefly how long he had been there. “Commander?”

Looking up at the taller man, she smiled sympathetically at his timid tone which she knew she herself had cultivated. “A prayer, that is all. A prayer for an old friend.” Again she glanced at the screen and smiled. Then, turning decisively, she addressed the ante-centurion with a crisp tone. “Log the mission ended, Technician. Take us home.”

Exiting with a decided stride, Cassandra took no notice of gaping crew members, or of the Centurion, whose lips, stained with green blood, were twisted in a hateful sneer.

The last glaring light from the explosion danced momentarily on the screen before fading and dying completely. Hikaru, like the others, watched silently in a state of partial shock. He had considered the old man a nuisance…

Terry Metcalfe shook his head in disbelief. “The fools! Those goddamn fools!”

From beside him, Sernak agreed quietly. “Indeed. A tragic waste.”

“She must have known,” Terry insisted.

“After nine-hundred years of war, he could have wanted nothing but peace. She knew, Mr. Metcalfe,” Hikaru sighed. “Continue patrol, ahead full impulse.”

“Goddamn it, Metcalfe, you’re getting water on the floor! I’m not cleaning it up!”

Terry flung the towel at his roommate; it wrapped itself around Carson’s head. “I don’t want to hear from you, I’m tired.”

“Dashing about the cosmos like you were trying to create a new prototype for heroism? I’m not surprised.”

Terry reclaimed his towel and fell back on his bunk. With Carson, this kind of exchange counted as relaxation; they were back on speaking terms. He rubbed three fingers over the plastiskinned wrist. The rough texture was beginning to wear down, and the wound would soon be fully healed.

The door buzzer rang, and of course Carson answered it almost before Terry had a chance to struggle into a robe. Kaya was at the door. Carson quickly but somewhat conspicuously excused himself. He and the Rigellian had disliked each other since Academy.

“I take it you weren’t expecting me?”

Still fastening the ties at his waist, he shrugged. “You could say that.”

“I came to congratulate you.”

“That’s out of character.”

Kaya heaved a sigh. “Terry… ” Unable to think of a suitable threat, she gestured at his arm. “How’s the wrist?”

“Well enough. Mother Faulkner may never forgive me for ‘inappropriate use of Fleet personnel,’ but — ”

“I thought it was brilliant.” She smiled her softest smile. It wasn’t easy for her.

Terry grimaced. “Technically, perhaps. As to my motivations… it was damned childish.”

“Can you think of a better solution?” she asked impatiently.

“It’s not the bloody solution I’m talking about.” He snapped the towel against a chair. “It’s what was going on in my head.”

“For instance?”

“Anger. Jealousy. Maybe wanting to prove myself to…to the galaxy in general, I guess.”

She was silent for a moment. “Did it have anything to do with what I said earlier?”

He grinned. “Maybe a little.”

She smiled at him impatiently. “You didn’t think I meant any of it, did you? I know how good you are at your job.”

“Like I said, childish. Maybe you just caught me at the wrong time.”

“Just trying to keep you on your toes, as they said on Earth,”

“Unfortunately, everyone seemed to be trying at once.”

“Childish or not, no one who did what you did has any business doubting himself.” She held out her hand. “Friends?”

Ignoring the hand, he caught her up in the towel and pulled her toward him. His answer was obvious.

Well, Hikaru, he told himself, you wanted a break in the boredom. He had never intended that break to cost anyone’s life. Gradivus had been ready to give up his freedom to protect Hikaru and the others aboard Phoenix, and he hadn’t even liked the old man.

Of course he had given more than his freedom. Could he have known that too? “She has never disappointed me,” he had said of the Commander. Had he expected her to do what she did? Had he somehow asked for the gift of peace she had given him? Perhaps. If you learned one thing in nine-hundred years, you certainly learned to plan ahead.

If he had expected what happened. he had sacrificed more than it appeared he had. Gradivus had forfeited his only chance at freedom for death. Freedom. How much could he have had, even in the Federation? Had he gone ahead with his plan to defect, it would have cost Hikaru’s career, as well as that of the other commander — and she might have lost her life, as well. Would that have been freedom? And, at that price, would it have been worth it? To a selfish man, perhaps; but Gradivus had proven himself unselfish. It was just possible that he had found the only true solution.

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