Mission Archives: Season 1

Episode 4: The Fire Within


Bright orange streaks of sunlight beamed through the gigantic sandstone outcroppings of Mount S’laya.  The enormous natural monoliths were carved over eons of desert winds sweeping across an ancient, dry potassium seabed.  Although the Planet Vulcan boasted many of these awesome structures, none were as beautiful as the ones surrounding this sacred temple hilltop.

Gathered on a flat, stone platform near the summit, six Starfleet officers were dressed in class-A uniforms with medical blue piping on the sleeves.  Also joining the officers were two Vulcan civilians donning ceremonial attire and Doctor Leon Cromwell dressed in a formal gray suit.  The assemblage stood in a half-circle around a raised, one-meter wide circular platform where a translucent hologram of Doctor Y’lair was active.  He was wearing a black burial robe, and stood with his hands folded at chest-height.  The emotionless face spoke in a straightforward tone.

“Greetings, my fellow crewmates.  By playing this message it is assumed that I have lost my life, most likely in the line of duty.  I ask that you each grieve as little as possible at my passing, for it is not the Vulcan way.  On our journey through life, we each strive to give back to the common whole of our societies.  Despite how we go about doing that, there is one logical conclusion: the journey eventually ends.  The longer we pause our journey to grieve the death of another, the shorter our paths become.  I chose the field of medicine so that others may extend their path, and I would prefer that others not shorten their own by taking time to mourn my passing.  Death is an inevitability that we all must face.  Know that if you have benefited somehow from my presence in this universe, then I consider my path fulfilled.  May you all continue your journey in peace and with long life.”

The projection of Y’lair raised its hand, and displayed the symbolic V-shaped finger-split of the standard Vulcan goodwill gesture.  “Live long, and prosper.”  With a soft electronic whisper, the hologram ceased.

Doctor Cromwell walked up to the platform and turned around to face the crowd with a mournful expression that betrayed no sign of joy at what he was about to say.

“My friends, thank you for coming.”  He looked at the six familiar faces of Doctors Yezbeck, Harris, Fernmoore, Ryda, Favuuk, and even Hudson who stared at the ground with humility regarding her past behavior as temporary Chief Medical Officer.  “I know this is not as large nor public as Ensign Brooke’s burial-at-space this morning at The Hill.  But Y’lair’s parents have assured me that his wishes were to share this with only his closest colleagues.”  Leon looked at the two Vulcan attendees with a sorrowful smile.

“Doctor Y’lair was with us for only a short time, but during our tenure together, I quickly learned that he was a person whom I would trust my life with.  He was the most efficient and reliable medical officer I have ever had the pleasure to serve with, and the rest of us can only hope to come close the level of proficiency and professionalism that he displayed on a daily basis.  It is people like Y’lair that make it worth being a doctor; knowing you have a colleague like him at your side. 

“I don’t think I will ever truly be able to get over his loss, but it makes it bearable to recall Y’lair’s words to me when we went on our first away mission.  During the rescue of the Starship Zurich, Y’lair, ten others, and myself were on way to the shuttle deck to be part of the rescue team.  It was my first away mission in two years, and when I told him in the corridor that I was really nervous about the mission, he replied, ‘it is illogical to expect you to do your best work while allowing your emotions to run rampant.  Since lives are at stake, perhaps you should put them aside for now.’  From this moment forward, whenever I doubt myself as a doctor, his words will always put me at ease.”

With that, Leon turned around and placed a Starfleet issue communicator on the hologram platform where Y’lair’s image had been moments earlier.  The Vulcan visitors began chanting in their native tongue as the traditional prayer cymbal sounded nearby.  The deep metallic resonance brought the group of Starfleet officers to the position of attention.  Each rendered a rare, quaint military salute with the exception of Doctor Cromwell, who held his hand to his heart.  With Y’lair’s parents completing the ceremonial dirge, the cymbal sounded one last time before the officers dropped their salute.  Leon pivoted around to face the crowd and announced, “dismissed.”  With that, the gathering dispersed as Doctor Cromwell turned to the Vulcan visitors.

“Thank you for sparing the time for a holo-transmission,” offered Leon.  “I’m sorry about your son.”

“We place no blame,” replied the taller, male Vulcan.  “Y’lair was one of six out of our entire progeny.  We are thankful that we still have the other five.”

“Our son died doing what he felt was the logical course for his life,” added the female Vulcan.  “His death was in the line of duty, and he did no more than his appointed task.”

“We must now take our leave of you, Doctor,” concluded Y’lair’s father.  “We are appreciative of your efforts to fulfill our son’s funerary requests.  Peace and long life, Doctor Cromwell.”

With that, the male Vulcan dialed an invisible keypad that could not be seen on the receiving end of the transmission.  In the blink of an eye, the images of Y’lair’s parents dissipated, and the long-range holographic communiqué ended.  As he stood alone among the reddish rock backdrop of the Vulcan landscape, Leon announced, “computer, end program.”  The fabricated environment faded at the sound of his voice, revealing only the black and yellow cubic matrix of the inactive holo-grid.  Leon paused briefly in hopes to rid his mind of the dread-filled gloom that manifested in the wake of these recent deaths.  After realizing that it was a futile attempt, he turned and exited the holodeck.

 

<location: U.S.S. Republic, main bridge, captain’s ready room>

Captain Marshall sat behind his desk reviewing the repair logs of the Republic.  The engineers and technicians of Starbase Delphi were working diligently to prepare the saucer section for the eventual re-mating with a new stardrive section from Utopia Planitia.  Although the Republic crew had been granted extended shore leave, Jim remained aboard for the time being with a skeleton crew to ensure that repairs went to his specifications.  It was actually rather peaceful without the continuous hustle-and-bustle of an active-duty ship.  Since non-Republic personnel were doing most of the repairs and modifications, those still aboard had a light duty schedule.

The quiet atmosphere of the ready room was broken by the warble of the door chime.  “Come,” announced Marshall without removing his eyes from the computer screen.

As the doors whispered open, Leon walked into the room.  He was wearing a brown leather jacket, and slung his cylindrical boarding bag over his shoulder.  Realizing that the captain was still in his duty uniform, the doctor asked, “working late?”

“Not really,” the captain replied.  “I’m just enjoying the Republic while she’s in port.”  He squinted at Leon’s attire after looking aware from the screen.  “It looks like you’re headed somewhere.”

“Just taking some time away,” he replied with a shoulder shrug.  “I’ve lost a couple of my best people in sickbay, and I could use some time away.”

In conciliatory tone, Marshal offered “I’m sorry about Y’lair.  He was a good doctor.”

“Thanks.  I only hope we can find a replacement that comes close to his level of proficiency.”

“Speaking of replacements,” interjected the captain.  “I’ve been thinking about Doctor Hudson along with a lot of the other junior officers B’Rell put in charge of departments.  Her behavior put the ship in danger, you know.  I’ve been thinking of demoting her to Lieutenant Junior-Grade and requesting she be transferred.  What’s your take on it?”

With a sigh, Leon explained, “well, I don’t really think she deserves that, Jim.  Nor do the officers B’Rell reassigned.  After all, the counselor was a psychiatrist who knew about behavioral patterns.  He pumped them up to believe they were ready for leadership positions when they weren’t.  In all actuality, I think Hudson is already suffering though the humility of her actions, and that in itself is a good punishment.”

“Then you still want her on your staff?” he asked straightforwardly.

“I didn’t take her premature acceptance of my death personally, and we’re in need of a head nurse now with Ensign Brooke gone.  Yes, I think she would benefit from remaining aboard.  Demoting her would only put salt into an already stinging wound.”

“Alright,” conceded Jim.  “I’ll let it slide.  But she better not slip up again.”

“What about B’Rell?” the doctor asked, changing the subject.

“He’s in detention on the Starbase.  I still haven’t decided what I’m going to do with him yet, but he’s definitely not going out on another cruise with us.  His Starfleet civilian contract will probably be terminated.”

“Can’t say I’m sad to hear that.  Will we get another counselor?”

“Hard to say,” Jim said, sitting back in his chair.  “I’ve put in a request for one, but we may have go on our next mission without one.  You’ll probably have to promote someone out of your current staff to take the position for now.”

“Speaking of promotions,” the doctor started while placing a datapad on the captain’s desk.

“What’s this?” Marshall asked with curiosity.  He leaned forward in his chair and picked up the item.

“Promotion recommendations,” stated Leon flatly.  “With the recent upheaval in the sickbay’s chain of command, I was hoping to establish who my senior people are.  I think they’re very deserving, especially with the past events.”

Marshall scrutinized the list.  “Yezbeck, Fernmoore, and Harris . . .”  In a moment of thought which had him flipping through the various pages of personnel records on the pad, Jim continued.  “Well, Yezbeck and Fernmoore are definitely up for a promotion, but I don’t know about Harris.  She’s awfully young to be holding rank as a Lieutenant Commander.  It’s a senior officer rank, you know.”

“Well, she’s not much younger than our executive officer,” replied Leon.

The captain thought for a moment, remembering that Carter was in his late twenties, and one of the youngest people in Starfleet to have achieved such a rank at his age.  From his point of view, Jim felt it wasn’t a fair comparison since Carter was a well-decorated flight, tactical, and security officer.

“I’ll consider her for promotable status,” Marshall finally said. “That should give her the seniority you want her to have in sickbay, but I can’t see a rank change in her near future.  As for the others, I’ll think about it.”

“That’s all I ask,” Leon replied.  He was about to turn and leave when Marshall stopped him.

“While you’re here, doctor,” the captain said while reaching into a lower desk drawer.  He produced another datapad which he paced on the counter and slid towards Leon’s direction.  “I’d like you to look this over.”

“What is it?” the doctor asked while examining the appliance.

“It’s just some standard forms.  The first is a request to take the Starfleet bridge officer’s course, and the second is an SF-4187 . . . a request for change of duty status . . . to active Starfleet.”

Leon closed his eyes and grimaced with frustration.  “Damn it, Jim!  How many times do we have to go through this?”

“Before you fly off the handle, Leon, see it from my point of view.”

“And that is?” replied the doctor with exasperation.

“I prefer to have a certain formality on the bridge, as well as with my senior officers,” explained Captain Marshall.  “Before we left port for the first time, I was told that I was to have a Starfleet civilian as my chief medical officer.  That mildly annoyed me, but felt that I would let you stay for the first cruise before submitting a request for an active duty CMO.  Now that we’ve actually spent some time working together, not to mention through life and death situations, I don’t want anyone else to fill your shoes.  You’re the best, and I want to keep you aboard.”

“But . . .?” Leon chided, knowing there was something else.

“But,” Jim continued, “if I keep a civilian as one of my senior staff members, it puts me in an odd position if I have to hand command over to you in an emergency situation.  Having a civilian in charge without bridge experience upsets the crew, no matter how much they trust either of us.”

“Jim, I’m just a physician,” admitted the doctor.  “I’m not a starship captain, nor do I plan on being one.”

“I’m not asking you to be.  All I’m asking is to have one of my officers be an officially sanctioned senior leader.  With everything that’s happened on this ship recently, not to mention at the Kreltan base, I need you to seriously think about this.”

“Jim, are you deaf?” explained Leon.  “I told you that my career is my business and I . . .”

“Most people would give anything to be a Starfleet officer,” interrupted the captain.  “And you’re practically having it handed to you on a silver platter.  You’re lucky, most divisions in Starfleet only want people who’ve been through the academy.  Fortunately, Starfleet Medical accepts direct civilian transfers to active duty.”

Leon pursed his lips before turning to leave the ready room in aggravation.  As the doors opened, he paused at Marshall’s last words.

“Think about it Leon.  I don’t want another B’Rell incident.”

With that, the doors slid closed as the doctor left the room.

 

<location: Shuttlecraft Slayton, docked at berth 12 shuttle port, Delphi Station>

Carter was dressed in black boots and slacks, with a gray, long-sleeved jersey underneath a sage-green flight jacket.  The coat was of ancient military-style, designed during Earth’s information-age a few centuries earlier.  They were issued as team icons by Carter’s first flight squadron after the academy, and had the emblazoned logo of his first ship assignment was on the upper left breast.

Doctor Cromwell sat in an acceleration chair next to the viewport while Carter packed his vacation bag.  Outside the viewport, the metallic interior walls of Starbase Delphi’s huge starship berthing complex stood in sharp contrast to the normal star-sparkled backdrop of space.  Several other ships were moored in various states or repair, as well some that stood by awaiting launch orders.

“Shall we hijack a runabout to the Sol system and visit the newly-promoted Lieutenant Commander Virtus?” said Leon with the voice of a salesman.  “I’ll bet Vic would like to hear about our recent Kreltan adventure over a nice cup of frappuccino.”

“I think he’s a little busy with his new position right now,” said Carter.  “Besides, I’d like to do something that would take my mind OFF the Kreltans.”

“Where then?  Riza?”

“No, a bit too spicy for me.”

“How about Wrigley’s Pleasure Planet?” Leon offered with a hint of humor in his voice.

John chuckled.  “Not only is it all the way over in the next quadrant, but I think we’re both a little too old for THAT place!”

“Well, where do you want to go?”

John Carter leaned back in the acceleration couch of the small craft's cockpit as he thought. "Tell you the truth Doc, this SHOULD be a no-brainer for me. I mean, I usually just go back home to Mars, but . . ."

"Is that important to you? It's not like I have any . . ."

John held up a hand. "Whoa Doc, it's ok. Believe me, after the week we just had, the farther I am from a sun baked desert, the better."

"Yeah," Leon agreed, "I see your point." Leon stood up and stepped slowly to the replicator. "You want anything?" he asked John.

"Anything but raktagino!" John answered, "I don't understand why anyone can handle that stuff!"

Leon smiled and turned his attention to the replicator's audio pick-up. "One shot of Glenfiditch scotch, one shot 'langrinaq'."

John quirked an eyebrow, he didn't recognize the last word of the Doctor's request. Carter watched as the replicator fashioned two shot glasses out of a swirl of light and a soft hum. One of the glasses was filled with a mellow yellow liquid, the other with an iridescent blue. Leon took the glasses from the replication pad and made his way back to his seat, handing the 'blue' glass to John on the way.

"Grozit, Doc," Carter blurted out, "what's that?"

"Rule number one John . . ."

"You have rules now?"

Leon chuckled, but kept his train of thought. "You can't ask what it is. You can only ask what it was."

John held the small glass up to the light and watched the blue liquid sparkle. "Right...this is gonna end well."

"But since you asked," Leon said simply, "It's blue."

Carter downed the shot and then smiled as the blue drink warmed its way down his throat, seeming to spread through his whole body. "Wow."  He said, almost in shock. "That wasn't bad."

"Glad you like it." Leon said. "It's Andorian, and no, you don't want to know how they make it."

John checked the helm controls one more time, then set the controls into the computer. "All I want to do Doc is find a beach and smell some nice sea air." John offered.

"Well if that's the case, we should head to Betazed. Wonderful beaches, and the scenery isn't bad either." Cromwell said with a twinkle in his eye.

"You old dog!" John shouted. "Betazed it is." Carter set the shuttle's autopilot then took a seat across from Leon in the cabin. He ran a hand through his hair, then looked at the older man who'd so quickly become a friend. "When do you take the test?"

"What test?"

"You know what test Doc," John said firmly. "Didn't he ask you?"

"Yes," Leon finally said after some consideration, "Captain Marshall did ask me about the command test. Told me it was for the good of the ship and all of that."

"It is."

"I don't care!" Leon shot back. "I took off the uniform for a reason John."

Carter leaned forward, looking Cromwell in the eyes. "You want to tell me what that reason is?"

Leon got a self-satisfied look on his face. "I'm sorry Lieutenant Commander, but I CAN'T."

"Yeah," John responded, "guess there's a lot of that going on. Okay then, but that still doesn't explain why you won't take the test now."

"I'm a civilian, and I like it that way."

"That’s bull," John said with a bit of an edge. "You're hiding. Remember doc, I've played poker with you."

Leon couldn't decide whether to be furious or impressed with the Lieutenant Commander's assessment. Eventually, he decided on the latter. "It just doesn't stop," he finally said. "No matter how many people I put back together, no matter how many I really manage to HELP, the policies don't change, and you just end up doing the same old thing all over again."

John Carter let the words sink in for a moment. "At least in Fleet you can still make a difference." John wasn't entirely happy with the way the words came out.

Leon listened and leaned back to look at his friend again. "I would have said the same thing once. In fact, I think I did when I was your age."

John threw back his head and laughed. "Oh no! No you don't! No way am I letting you get away with this 'Old Man and the Sea' crap. Cut your losses and reel in the sprocking fish Doc!"

"It's not that simple John!" Cromwell protested.

"Yes Doc," Carter said firmly, letting a bit of his 'command voice' slip free, "It is that simple. Do it, or don't, but you have to pick one." Carter let his gaze slip down to the nameplate on his antiquated jacket, looking at the insignia of his first patrol squadron. "C'mon Doc, you talk like an officer, you act like an officer, and I KNOW you think like one. You might as well BE an officer. Just get it over with."

"I'll think about it, ok?"

"That's all I'm asking Doc." John sat back confident that what the Doctor really meant was 'yes, I'll take the sprocking test!'. That thought made him smile.

"Can I change the subject now?" Leon asked, exasperated.

"Feel free."

"What are your intentions towards my chief of staff?"

"Well gee 'Dad', I don't know. I thought about asking her to the prom, but I'm darn busy with the paper route and all."

Cromwell shook his head. "Why do you do that? You never answer a personal question straight. I'm just trying to figure out what I might have to deal with."

"Believe me Doc, when we figure it out, one of us will let you know, but after the whole Marshall/Taylor mess..."

"Right, right, just wanted to make sure you had your head on straight."

"No worries Doc." John said, not sure if he was telling his friend the truth.

 

<location: Starfleet Corps of Engineers Headquarters, Earth>

Victor looked over his Starfleet -Eyes Only- file for the third time.  While not 'entirely' against regs, it was considered poor form to read what the brass had to say about you.  Sipping from his cup of warm k'vass, Vic winced at the foul taste of the thick liquid.

"Computer, Vivaldi's 'Four Seasons' from the top."

The light strains of an ancient Terran orchestra filled the small compartment as Lieutenant Virtus turned his gaze back upon the screen.  His eyes quickly found the gaping holes where his current position and department should have been listed.

The weary lieutenant chuckled.  The recommendations file was what he had been looking for.  But the favor he had called in from Commander Chin back at 'Fleet Command was a one time deal.  Perhaps it was for the best.  Besides, after his brief stint in Sciences again, perhaps his next assignment would be back in his beloved Engineering.

=/\= “Incoming correspondence from Starfleet Command.” =/\=

"Think of the devil..."

=/\= “I do not understand the query.” =/\=

"Never mind."

Victor typed in his password, and waited for the computer to authenticate the informing information.  As the message scrolled down the screen, Vic leaned forward in his chair.  His new orders were short and to the point.  The wiry scientist-turned-engineer slowly lowered his head until his brows rest gently upon the transplast console.

"That's not possible... I've only been away from him for three point six weeks subjective.  How much trouble can he possibly have gotten into in ... 408 hours relative!"

Vic sat down at his desk's console, laced his fingers and cracked them over his head like a concert pianist.

"Computer, begin recording."

The standard warble of the computer dictation program sounded.

"Hello John, please excuse me for both not looking into the camera, and for my lecturing tone of voice."

Vic's fingers danced across the console, bringing up a hologram of the Alpha-7 supercluster.

"Space is big.  Compared to interstellar distances, the relative size of one person is infinitesimal.  Statistically, it should be functionally impossible to find one person in all of space."

Victor turned to look at the camera.

"But by those same statistics, it should be equally impossible to find your socks, an M class planet, or the rebellious daughter of a head of one of the Orion Syndicates."

Victor quirked an eyebrow, and turned back to the console.

"As some of us have found all three of those on the same day, let us assume that either the statistics are wrong, or there are other factors to consider."

Vic cleared his throat.

"I long ago determined that the secrets of the universe were in its mathematical relationships."

The soft tones of rapid keystrokes filled the air for a moment, and the free-floating starscape turned and zoomed in.

"The Republic is ... here."

One star began to glow brighter.

"After a major battle, 'Fleet HQ like to give a month R&R to keep the troops in tip-top shape.  But knowing how volatile things are right now, let's assume you have only two weeks leave.

The starscape zoomed out a ways, and a transparent sphere of dots appeared with Starbase Delphi at its center.

"This is every point you could reach by commercial transport in 3.5 days, spend a week's leave, and take 3.5 days getting back."

Victor glanced over at the camera.

"Knowing the volume of a sphere, I have just narrowed my search down from all of space, to slightly over 9.7 million cubic light-years."

Vic turned back to the camera, and held up an antique, 22nd century solar powered pocket calculator. 

"Had I a cutting-edge starship at my disposal, I could search for and find one man in that volume of space in merely ... 214 Martian years."

Vic swiveled in his seat and began typing on the console again.  A new sphere appeared, almost twice the distance outside the first.

"But one of my initial premises is flawed.  The chance of John Carter taking a commercial transport on vacation is slightly less than that of randomly finding a doorway into the past on an uninhabited moon in the Beta quadrant.  He would no-doubt steal a shuttle before letting someone else pilot him at a crawling warp three point seven."

Vic suddenly put his face within inches of the camera, and raised his voice slightly.

"And Doctor, if you are present, I spent three months in the brig after that little escapade."

The lithe engineer stood, moved behind the hologram and continued.

"So the actual area I now have to search is more than triple the previous area."

Other dots began lighting up red within the second sphere.

"Contained within this area are such places as Starbase 39, Darathius 4, Zegama Beach, Liana 2, Leerma Station, . . . Riza, . . . and the U.S.S. Devonshire."

Victor ambled off camera and the sound of ice cubes rang in a glass, followed by some liquid. 

"You remember the Devonshire don't you John.  You embarrassed the helmsman by out-flying her in a runabout, and then apologized by offering her 9 hours of 'individual instruction'.  I seem to recall you even got a thank you from her captain."

The hologram expanded a slight bit more, and a third sphere appeared around the last, and five more dots turned red.

"But by removing just two of the seven safety interlocks on a standard Starfleet warp-capable shuttle, you could also reach Mars, Sol, Antares 4, Orion Prime . . . and Betazed."

Vic walked back to his chair with a tall glass of something clear and sat, spinning to put his feet on low table in front of the camera relay.

"Now, if I'm here on Sol, and you are in one of over a dozen places, then this message will leave here via subspace, and travel to the subspace relay station on Ceti Antauri Two, and then to the Blackshirt's secret, hidden moon base where the locations of all Starfleet personnel are updated ever six minutes."

Vic rolled his eyes at the camera.

"If the message clears Int. Sec., it will then attempt to find you."

Vic took a sip of his drink, got up, and poured two more.

"And why, you ask, did I go to all the trouble of telling you this?  Because I have been reassigned . . ."

 

<location: Marqah Inn, equatorial region, Betazed>

John set his bag down on the couch in his dayroom, and turned as Doctor Cromwell poked his head in from the suite's living room.

"John, I'm not sure I can afford a place like this on a doctor's salary."

"Doc, you said yourself, the 'Marqah' was the only place that had a room on such short notice.  The planet wide 'Festival of Lights' begins tomorrow and runs for six of our seven days here.  It is a bit pricey, but it's also the best hotel within 200 light-years."

The good doctor moved farther into the cavernous room and leaned against one of the five bars in their penthouse.

"John, the reason it was the only room left on the planet was because no one else in the Alpha quadrant would pay a thousand credits a night for a room!"

"It's not a room Doc, it's a suite.  And I assure you it will be worth it.  If half of the things I hear about the Festival are true, you will have forgotten all about your troubles by the end of the first night."

"Sure, and when we're washing dishes to pay for the 'gahatga' wings you will no doubt insist upon inflicting on me..."

"Don't you have a test you should be studying for," John interrupted.

Leon gave the hotshot a 'Don't give me started' look, which brought his gaze down on the dimly flashing light beside the recessed wall screen.

"John, you've got a message."

John crossed the spacious rooms dazzlingly white carpet to the panel, and touched the glowing button.

"That's odd.  No one knows I'm here.  I'd didn't know I'd be here until we made up our minds in the shuttle."

The screen faded to show a man cracking his knuckles.

"Hello John, please excuse me for both not looking into the camera, and for my lecturing tone of voice."

***

"And why, you ask, did I go to all the trouble of telling you this?  Because I have been reassigned . . ."

The screen went blank as the message ended abruptly.  The sound of the outer door opening caused both men to turn.  A familiar voice called from the entryway.

". . . and it's all YOUR fault!"

The Doctor marveled for a moment as John, the dignified and proud XO of the U.S.S. Republic, gaped like a fish and ran into the living room.

Leon composed himself and walked in behind the stunned Martian to see Victor Virtus carrying three clear drinks and grinning from ear to ear.

"What?!, who, but . . . the message . . . you!?" John struggled out.

Doctor Cromwell moved to intercept the engineer as he came in, and accepted one of the drinks and a handshake.

"Good to see you Lieutenant Commander.  Welcome to Betazed."

"Thank you Doctor.  It's good to be here."

"What are you DOING here!"

John always recovered quickly.

"Reporting to the XO.  It's in the regs.  All crewmen must first report to the XO before commencing their duties aboard a new ship.  You know that John,” Victor admonished.

"New ship?  But you'd just been reassigned back to Earth."

"Indeed I had. But I did some digging, and 'someone' put in a request to 'Fleet Command asking that I be transferred from Sciences back into Engineering.  Someone that had just become the XO of their boat, and wanted to not see a friend's talents going to waste."

"But I put in that request weeks ago!"

"And it got through the red tape 97 hours ago."

"But what are you doing HERE? We got here less than two hours ago.  How did you find us?"

"I told you once.  I explained in the message . . ."

"Which you sent from Earth."

". . . that there were only so many places you could be."

"But you were on EARTH!"

"No, I said 'If I was on Earth...', you assumed I was speaking rhetorically.  I sent that message from a ship in orbit, and then beamed down when you started playing it."

"But how did you beat us here?  I jimmied the interlocks to make it here at warp five!"

Victor handed John his drink.

"Those safety interlocks are there for your protection John."

"Don't change the subject.  What am I drinking?"

"John, you know the rule."

"What rule?"

Victor looked over John's shoulder at Leon, who supplied the rule, "You can't ask what it is, only what it was."

Tasting his drink and finding it palatable, John motioned everyone to sit in the giant chairs around the central table in the living room. 

"That's a really silly rule.  Now spill it.  How'd you beat me here, assuming you mathematically deduced my location, which I don't believe in the slightest."

"The Betazed ambassador to the UFP was in talks until it was too late for him catch a commercial transport home.  Starfleet graciously allowed him the use of the U.S.S. Devonshire to make the Festival of Lights before it started.  We did 27 hours at Warp Eight." 

Victor took a swallow of his drink and leaned back into the chair.

"You remember the Devonshire don't you . . ."

"Yes, I remember the Devonshire."

There was a long pause as the reality of the situation sunk in to the three men.

John raised his glass, “Good to see you Vic. Welcome back."

"Thanks John, good to be back."

***

The sunset, and the threesome prepared for a night on the town.  As John finished primping, the doctor caught Victor alone on the balcony overlooking the sparkling jewel that was the biggest resort city on Betazed.

"How did you really find him?  Without the math techno-babble double talk."

"I didn't," the wily Malthan confided," The movements of Starfleet officers on leave are carefully protected by Internal Security.  But the movements of civilians are monitored by the UFP transportation commission.  When you reserved this suite under your name, the hotel informed the spaceport of your expected arrival, and the spaceport logged it in the UFP transport authority's database."

"But . . . don't you need security clearances to gain access to that?"

"Yes, you would have to be cleared as a level four UFP security analyst, a level six government official, or a Lieutenant Commander in Star Fleet to be able to access that database."

"Then how did you know John would be with me?"

"I called the Marqah from the spaceport and apologized to them for losing your luggage.  I asked how many were in your party, they said two, so I came here, called the spaceport from the lobby and asked if they had found your luggage, and if so, on which shuttle?" 

"Why? . . ."

"Once I had the name of the shuttle, I could query Starfleet Records on where that shuttle left from, when it departed, and when it arrived.  You left Delphi three days ago.  The Pegasus-class shuttle you arrived in can make that trip in that amount of time, but only if you take it above the optimal safe velocity."

"But what if I had been bringing a young lady, and just been in a hurry?"

"Please Doctor.  Occam's Razor."

The two men stared at each other for a long moment.

"Victor, you have a very strange definition of 'the simplest explanation'."

 

<location: captain’s quarters, USS Republic, Delphi Station>

Marshall had met with Ensign Readdy.  He was going to promote her to Chief of Security/Tactical but she refused and asked for a transfer.  Jim granted it because he didn't want any crew serving under him who didn't want to be there.

Seeing to personnel matters, he noticed that Lieutenant Commander Victor Virtus would be the new Chief Engineer.  "Welcome back Vic," he said out loud.  He knew full well that he was probably on his way by now to meet up with Leon and Carter.  Jim had been worn ragged, but luckily he had leave coming. 

He was in his quarters when he got a communiqué from an old friend.

"Rach, it's been too long.”

=/\= “Cut the crap Jim.  I hear you're on leave.  Well, so am I.  Let's go somewhere.” =/\=

“I'll meet you in 15 minutes.  I've already got an idea.  I hear Risa is nice this time of year.”

=/\= “Still the same Jim.  I'll see you at docking bay 29, I've got a runabout . . .” =/\=

Please, no runabouts.  Not after that last ordeal.  I've still got some pull within Starfleet . . . wait, better make this a civilian cruise.  Don't want anyone to know I'm gone just yet.  There are a few people who'll know but not too many.”

=/\= “Gibbs is here.  He says hi and that we can use Shepherd if we want it.  Free of charge even.  He helped me out on the last mission.  We were trying to enforce a blockade of . . . oh never mind.  Docking bay 29.” =/\=

“I'll meet you there.  Marshall out.”

Marshall changed out of his uniform and put on some civilian clothes.  He had ordered all of his personal belongings off the ship and put in storage.  Jim had one last thing to do, but he felt it was the right thing. 

He then had one last call to make.  This one was to Admiral Perry his old CO now working in the personnel office.

=/\= "Jim, you're on leave.  It's about time." =/\=

"I need a favor.”

=/\= “Name it.” =/\=

“Make it look like I'm not coming back from leave.”

=/\= “The only way to do that would be to relieve you of command.” =/\=

“My point exactly.  It's not the pressure, it's just that after what I and my crew has been through it seems highly irregular to me to at least not relieve me for a time.”

=/\= “Fine, you are relieved of command as of right now.  Between you and me, I'll try to hold off naming your successor as long as possible if at all.  Just come back Jim.” =/\=

“I'm not sure I will be but thanks.  Marshall out.”    

The channel was closed.  Grabbing his bag, Jim headed for docking bay 29.

<18 minutes later>

Jim immediately saw Rachel and went over to her.

"You're late," she said.

"I always was.  I had to call in a favor.  Let's get off this base."  They then boarded the Shepherd of the Hills .  Marshall hoped it wouldn't be the last time he set foot on the Republic, but at this point he wasn't sure.

 

<location: Shuttlecraft Slayton, two periods inbound to Delphi sector>

As starlines flew past the viewport of the Pegasus-class shuttle, Carter, Virtus, and Cromwell sat in the compartment with relaxed satisfaction splayed across their faces.  After two weeks on Betazed, each had a slight tan to their skin from time spent on the tropical beaches of the equatorial regions.  Each was in good spirits, and the time spent away from the Republic did well to re-establish positive attitudes.  During the first week, the trio attended Betazed's galaxy-renown festival of lights, and had a grand time cheering, drinking, and dancing with the spectators and entertainers.  The following week, Leon spent his time deep-sea fishing in the shadow of John's para-sailing, while Victor immersed himself in reef diving among Betazed's vast, underwater rainforests.

The evenings were spent at a local tavern near the southern tip of the planet's capital province.  It was called "Dahla'i Jenova," which means "Ocean Delights" roughly translated from Betazed.  Due to its exquisite food and drink, it was a well-known locale favored by the more boisterous and raucous of extra-planetary visitors, and equally visited by Betazed's constabulary force.  Although no serious crimes were ever committed, most visitors observe at least one bar fight before leaving for the night.  In regards to Carter, Virtus, and Cromwell, each night brought a unique set of circumstances unto themselves.  On their last evening, a most colorful altercation occurred resulting in bruised ribs for John, and leaving Leon with a black eye.  Only Virtus survived unscathed as Leon treated the minor injuries during the flight back to Delphi Station.

"We're lucky that we got out of there when we did," remarked Leon, closing his medical kit.  "Otherwise, we might have been a lot later getting back.  Time in detention wouldn't exactly have been my idea of shore leave."

"You wouldn't have had anyone else to blame but yourself," replied Vic straightforwardly.  "If you hadn't had that argument with the Tellarite freighter captain, we might not have had to deal with them coming back each night."

The doctor made no apology.  "He made me spill my drink.  Let alone that it was one of the best bottles of Saurian brandy I've ever tasted, but he didn't even offer to by me another one.  If I had been a Klingon drinking blood wine, the whole thing would have been solved that night."

"Instead," John cut in.  "You chose to remind and insult the Tellarite about it every night he returned.  Forget the fact that each night he came back, it was with a larger contingent of his crew.  Doesn't the concept of being outnumbered mean anything to you?"

Leon looked down to the floor with humility. "I just didn't notice.  It's a good thing your Naussican friend intervened when she did."

"She wasn't my friend," said Carter with a scowl.  He turned his attention to the pilot console in front of him, typing a few commands.  "She was in her estrus cycle and took a liking to me during a group para-sail.  When she threw the Tellarites against the bar, it was because she thought she was protecting a potential mate."

Virtus looked up with a look of sudden comprehension.  "So THAT'S why she always made that odd noise every time we entered the tavern."

The doctor nodded his head.  "Yes, and that's why she kept on trying to figure out what resort we were in.  I'll never forget bumping into her three nights ago outside the bar.  She looked down at me with a most terrifying expression and asked for 'Caaar-teeer?'  It took all of my composure just to keep from running away screaming."

"Yes, well it didn't help any with you inviting those call girls over to our table," Carter accused Virtus.  "All it did was cause the Naussican to pursue me more aggressively."

"You could have just gone through the declination ceremony," reminded the doctor with amusement.  "She would have left you alone after that."

John looked at him tensely.  "I wasn't about to wrestle her into submission on a bed of hot embers!"  Suddenly, the waypoint proximity alarm sounded with a soft warble, and Carter turned his attention to the con.  He dialed a few operations and announced, "looks like were coming up on Delphi Station.  Vacation's over, gentlemen."

The shuttle's warp engines powered down as the impulse thrusters came online, and before long, the enormous pinwheel-shaped starbase loomed in front of them.  Housing over 20,000 personnel, the titanic structure spun slowly in place to reveal the thousands of viewports lining the outside.  The diffuse blue glow of the station's antimatter reactor vents shined steadily from underneath the mushroom-shaped dome which housed the ship-berthing complex.  As Carter maneuvered the craft closer, he activated the subspace comlink.

"Shuttlecraft Slayton to Delphi Control.  Requesting space door access for docking with U.S.S. Republic, NCC-76241."

=/\= "Slayton, this is Delphi Control.  Slow your approach and hold station at 2000 meters.  We have an inbound tow-vessel requiring vector-approach protocols.  Standby momentarily for our next transmission." =/\=

John rolled his eyes and sat back into his seat with a sigh.

"What's wrong?" the doctor asked.

Slightly annoyed, the exec replied "there's some sort of tow-boat about to come out of warp with a payload.  According to Starfleet protocols, they need extra room in case the transition to impulse breaks the tractor beam.  So, they've got to clear a path to the space doors."

"Sound's reasonable to me," Vic stated.  "I wouldn't want to be in the path of a container ship when it decelerates slower than its lead vessel."

"It's probably some Orion freighter with another useless load of Boorite," muttered John.

"Um, that's no cargo crate . . ." interrupted Leon.

Outside the viewport, a small Federation towing vessel came out of warp.  It had the standard saucer-shaped hull with two warp nacelles on either side.  However, it was the tractor beam which drew attention.  The pulsating white stream emerged from the center-aft of the tow-ship, widened towards the middle, and terminated on the huge hull of a Galaxy-Class stardrive section.

"Is that ours?" asked Doctor Cromwell as the trio crowded the cockpit viewport, watching in awe at the slow approach of the two craft.

"Well, we're the only Galaxy-Class assigned to Delphi," answered Carter.

As the stardrive section slid smoothly in front of them, it could be determined immediately that it was not completed yet.  Although most of the pearlescent, metallic-gray hull plating was present, a few sections were missing, exposing the internal superstructure of the vessel.  The warp engines, which appeared to boast a slightly modified design, were deactivated, and void of the standard blue or red ambience associated with an operational warp core.  There were neither hull markings nor registry numbers, and the numerous viewports, which normally shined steadily with a full crew compliment, were dark and vacuous.  Apparently, in the rush to complete a new stardrive section for the Republic, Utopia Planitia left a few unfinished items for the Republic's engineering department.  It was clear that the vessel would need more work before its eventual mating with the saucer section.

"Looks like you've got your work cut out for you, Vic," John remarked as the two vessels made their way to the open space doors of Delphi Station.  He took note of the upgraded aft-firing quantum torpedo tube on the stardrive section.

"Assuming the entire engineering crew has returned from shore leave," stated Vic.  "I estimate approximately three days, five hours, and forty-two minutes of around-the-clock work before we can make the Republic whole again."  He looked down to Carter who watched the vessels enter the station.  "I leave you for a couple a weeks, and the whole ship falls apart."

With a look of incredulity, John turned his head slowly to stare at the chief engineer.  Cromwell chuckled as Carter opened his mouth to speak, but the subspace comlink spoke first.

=/\= "Shuttlecraft Slayton, you're cleared for final approach.  Welcome home." =/\=

The officers took their seats as the shuttle resumed its course towards the station.  Minutes later, the saucer section of the starship Republic, still moored in its repair berth, locked onto the Slayton with a landing beam, and guided it into the main shuttlebay.

 

<location: somewhere on the planet Risa>

Jim Marshall woke early in his rented beach house on Risa that he was sharing with Rachel Blake. They had been there three days and it was starting to seem like an eternity to him. He felt like hell, and was not in the best of moods, but he did manage not wake up Rachel.

He lumbered into the living area and went to the terminal.  "I've been out of contact too long, he said out loud.  He accessed the screen and funneled through the news reports.  Jim found one that mentioned the Republic, and he opened it hoping it was about the last mission, but it wasn't.

'Not Bombay' he thought, 'Sure he's well respected since the Dominion War, and that he's decorated, but it's my ship.  Some Admiral must have got overzealous.'

Checking is private messages Marshall found one from his old friend, Admiral  Bradley "Hawkeye" Perry in the Personnel office:

 

Jim,

I've got some bad news for you.  The point is that you've been replaced as Captain of the Republic.  Admiral Fowler used your leaving to convince Starfleet Command that you were too young for a Galaxy-class starship.  Your replacement is Captain Horatio Bombay, and you and I both know that he's well qualified but lacks a certain quality.  I tried Jim, but no luck.  I told them of your record, and the relationship you have with your crew, but they remain convinced.

You might want to go see Admiral Kostya.  He's at his beach house on Risa.  He's been out of contact so you may have to bring him up to speed.  It's not much but it's a fight to get you back in command.  Don't settle for anything less than the Republic, you've earned her.

Hawkeye

 

Jim thought 'Can't things get any better?'  He then checked his personal messages again to find one from Starfleet Command.

 

Captain Marshall,

Starfleet Command is requesting that you return to Starbase Delphi immediately to turn over command of the U.S.S. Republic NCC-76241 to Captain Horatio Bombay effective Stardate 57442.2.  We will not order you to do it, but as a formality we would like you to be present.

Signed,

Admiral Fowler

Starfleet Command

 

"I'm not going to dignify that with a response.  They expect me to come back after they take my ship from me.  Starfleet Command can choke on that," he said.

"Jim you've got to be kidding," said Rachel.  She obviously had been standing there for a while.

"Bombay's in the center seat now.  If I know Carter, he's about to start looking for me, and that will bring him here," said Jim.

"I'm sorry Jim, about loosing the Republic.  I know you only needed to get away for a while, but that wasn't an excuse to replace you," said Rachel.

"Rach, at this point, I'm thinking of resigning. . ."

"Don't do it. . .what'll you do?"

"Go back to Earth.  Hire myself out as a private Captain.  Go into politics. . . I just don't know."

"Get back Jim.  Get back your command before it's too late."

"Well there is one thing . . ." He got up and headed for the shower.  It was time to go see Admiral Kostya, whom Jim Marshall hoped would be his ace in the hole.

 

<Location: Bridge, U.S.S. Republic NCC-76241>

"He did WHAT?!" John Carter screamed at the unfortunate junior adjutant who was on the other end of the subspace channel.

"Captain Marshall's been relieved of command, Sir."

"Relieved by who?" John asked quickly.

"I'm not at liberty to say, Lieutenant Commander?"

"Uh huh," John stood over the XO station with a hand on his hip. "Let me ask you something Lieutenant, and please," John leaned into the display screen for emphasis, "think carefully before you answer because, so help me, if you get anywhere NEAR the words 'classified' or 'Need to know', I will personally ride this stardrive right down your six!"

The Lieutenant swallowed hard, quite sure that John was serious. "You . . . you'll have to take that up with PERSCOM sir. I'm just relaying a message."

"Then get me Admiral who's its. Right . . . Sprocking . . . NOW!"

Most of Republic's assembled bridge crew had to hide smiles. John Carter had never been considered a by-the-book officer, and at times would let his rather colorful Martian vocabulary slip out, but Carter had also gotten himself something of a reputation as a problem solver, and had already saved his crew from almost certain death more than once. Most of the crew found Carter's occasional (though admittedly now more frequent) use of profanity as endearing. On the other end of the subspace channel, the Starfleet Command Lieutenant didn't seem to appreciate the humor. His tone suddenly turned icy. "I'll put it in the queue, Lieutenant Commander." Then the channel went dark.

"Put it in the . . . PUT IT IN THE QUEUE?!" John slammed his fist against the screen. "Yeah Junior, you do that." Carter pulled at the bottom of his duty tunic and pushed the sleeves up midway on his forearms. He looked at Thomas Sullivan. "Where do we stand, Ops?"

Sullivan checked his status board, then looked back to his XO. "Ship's systems are green, but Lieutenant Commander Virtus isn't happy about the transdator relays in the secondary lateral sensor array."

John felt a familiar smile creep across his face. "Yeah, he does that. What about crew?"

Department Heads are all in, except for the Counselor's position, and our Chief Tac."

Carter shook his head. The Position of Tactical Chief on the U.S.S. Republic had become his own private hell. He'd been promoted out of the job, but since then, no one had stayed at the post longer than five days before the universe threw something insurmountable at the ship's crew. "Don't worry about it Tom," John remarked lightly, "Why worry about Tac when we don't even have a Captain."

"Actually, Commander Carter, you do."

John Carter felt the hairs on the back of his neck stand up as he whirled around to see where the unexpected voice had come from. He saw a man of medium height and build with sandy blonde hair, and the easy stance of a man who had his 'space legs'. He was older than John was by at least five years, dressed in dark, casual civilian clothes, but Carter could tell from the way the stranger stood that he was Starfleet. There were just some things the Academy taught that never went away. John crossed his arms over his chest trying to see what other 'tells' the newcomer might give away. "You'll forgive me, sir," John presumed, "but I don't know who you are."

"Nor should you," the man said crisply. "At least not yet." The older man shifted his weight slightly and extended his hand to the XO. "Captain Horatio Bombay. Pleased to meet you."

Carter blinked and then shook the man's hand. "I wasn't told to expect anyone. In fact, I've been on the horn with 'Fleet all day trying to figure out where the Old Man . . . that is . . . where Captain Marshall is."

"I'm sorry there wasn't time to tell you Carter, but Starfleet Headquarters saw fit to give me command of Republic. As to the how's and why's? Well, right now you don't need to know that."

Tom Sullivan had to work to physically restrain his gasp. Whoever this Captain Bombay was, he was dancing a jig on one of John Carter's less favorite hot buttons, and Sullivan was bracing for the storm.

John Carter felt his fist clench, and spoke in clean, crisp tones. "I hope you'll advise me as soon as it's . . . appropriate, Captain?"

Bombay nodded. "Of course, Carter." Republic's new CO looked around the bridge with an appraising gaze. "Hmmm . . . I was always rather partial to the Nebula Class bridge design myself, but I suppose this will do. Any port in a storm, eh Commander?"

Carter studied his new Captain. 'Too clean cut', he thought to himself. 'This one won't be easy.' Eventually, he decided on a simple "Yes Sir, I suppose so."

Bombay turned back toward the turbolift where he'd entered the bridge, "At any rate Commander, I won't assume command for another 24 hours." He stepped into the lift car and continued. "In the meantime, I'll get settled in. See to it that my things are transferred to Captain's Quarters, and brief the Senior Staff to meet with me at 1530 tomorrow." The lift door closed. Bombay hadn't waited for a reply.

John Carter stood on the bridge surrounded by deafening silence. After a few seconds, he tapped his comm badge. "Bridge to Lieutenant commander Virtus."

=/\= "Engineering standing by, Bridge.” =/\=

"I'm headed your way Vic." Carter explained. "Things up here just got . . . interesting."

=/\= "Chinese interesting? =/\=

"Roger that."

 

<location: Starbase Delphi, berth 12, main gangway corridor>

When Leon first returned to the Republic after being stranded on the Kreltan’s demon-class planet (now officially named “Styx” on Star Fleet charts thanks to his fellow castaways), he was relieved and happy to get a decent meal, hot shower, and sleep in his own bed.  However, the two-week shore leave on Betazed that followed his return served to mollify and pamper his spirit to a point where he loathed returning to duty. Now, as he walked towards the Republic’s berthed saucer section from Delphi’s Star Fleet Academy outreach center, a cloud of gloom returned, recalling that he must continue a tour of duty minus two officers in sickbay.  Regardless of his rested spirit, he could not shake the feeling that the death of Y’lair and Brooke was somehow his fault.

The news of Captain Marshall being relieved of command did not upset the doctor.  He knew that somewhere out there was a child and an attractive Star Fleet commander named Lana that his former skipper yearned to call a family.  Even if Jim didn’t know it, the rest of the crew sensed the chemistry between the two officers, and although that chemistry did not belong on the bridge of a starship, Leon felt that some things were worth pursuing outside the pressure of the captain’s chair.

As Leon walked down the gangway, he turned his attention from the datapad in his hands to the tunnel’s viewport.  The huge metallic ship-berthing facility was buzzing with activity, as the newly constructed stardrive section lay in the next berth.  Doctor Cromwell stopped to look at the vessel, admiring the work Vic and the engineering crew had put into her since their return from shore leave.  Some of the viewports were illuminated, and external light panels aimed a bright beam of luminosity at exposed parts of the stardrive’s hull where space-suited engineers and work drones labored tirelessly to make final preparations for mating the craft to the saucer section.  Recalling his previous thought, Leon whispered under his breath before making the final stroll through the saucer’s gangway hatch.

“Good luck, Jim.”

Passing through the open airlock, the doctor rounded a corner into a busy corridor of the Republic.  Personnel walked casually about, paying Leon no mind as he made his way to sickbay.  Although the departure of Captain Marshall caused no inconvenience to him, it suddenly occurred to Leon that one other person aboard ship would not be taking his unannounced withdrawal from the duty roster as lightly.

“Damn, damn, damn, damn” came a vexed muttering from further down the hallway.  Recognizing the voice and confirming his suspicion, Doctor Cromwell looked up from his datapad to see Lieutenant Commander Carter marching towards him in exasperation. Before Leon could say anything, John walked up to him and vented his frustration.

“Couldn’t he have at least waited until we got back?” he said loudly and sparing no restraint in his voice.  “Where does he get the idea to just leave without so much as a sprocking note?”

“Look on the bright side,” Leon reminded him.  “We can’t leave port without a commanding officer.  This gives us more time to prep the ship before our new CO checks in.”

“Headed to sickbay?” John asked as a side-subject.  Leon nodded his head and the executive officer motioned that he would follow.  As the two walked through the corridor, Carter continued.  “Well, that’s already happened.  I had a run in with him on the bridge, and we have a staff meeting tomorrow at 1900.”

“Run in?  What happened?”

Scowling, John replied “I don’t want to talk about the details, but I get the impression he’s not the best leader.  Consider yourself notified of his arrival.”  Leon didn’t challenge the subject, and continued to read his datapad as they walked along.  “What are you so involved with there, doc?”

Leon pursed his lips.  “I just came from the academy outreach center, and this is my long-distance course schedule for the next few months.”

“You mean for the bridge command test?”

Nodding reluctantly, the doctor confirmed the answer to Carter’s question.  “Yep.  It looks like I’ll be spending four hours after my duty shift each day in the holodeck.  I can’t believe what certifications they want me to have: Basic Starship Operations, Basic Starship Strategy and Tactics, Basic Astrogation/Navigation, Basic Sensor and Astrometric Operations, Basic Warp Theory, and Federation Law and History.  I haven’t had a schedule like this since the University of Tycho.”

“Well,” Carter said.  “The academy tailors its outreach courses to the individual needs of the student.  They’re only giving you what you need for the bridge test.  Those sound like those are the basics for any command grade bridge officer.”

Leon still couldn’t believe he was doing this.  Over a month ago, he never would have considered going back to Star Fleet.  Now, with headquarters activating his reserve civilian contract, he was forced into serving aboard a Star Fleet vessel for an indeterminate amount of time.  Reluctantly, it was final prodding from Carter that had him actually pursuing the bridge officer’s test.  The doctor still wasn’t sure if he was ready to wear the uniform again.

“So all this stuff is covered on the bridge test?” he said finally.

“In one form or another,” the exec answered.  “Like I said, it’s tailored fit to your psychological and personality profile.  It’s going to be challenging no matter how much you study.  It’ll reveal whether you have what it takes to command a starship.”

The knot in the pit of the doctor’s stomach stirred when Carter mentioned the words ‘command a starship.’  “What if I don’t pass?”

Carter shrugged his shoulders.  “Well, I guess that means you can keep wearing that,” referring to Doctor Cromwell’s civilian attire of an ivory turtleneck sweater.  “Tell you what,” John offered.  “I’ve got a program on the holodeck that helped me through my bridge certification.  It’s called the ‘Kobyashi Maru’, and it’s an old training program that hasn’t been used by Star Fleet in over fifty years.  It’s outdated, but it has some great lessons to be learned about commanding a starship.  What do you say I meet you in holodeck three after we come off duty?  I think you’ll benefit from it.”

Leon nodded his head.  “Okay, you’re on,” he replied as they arrived at the sickbay doors.

“I’ll see you then.”  Carter tipped his head with a slight smile and continued down the corridor as the doctor entered the medical complex.

 

<location: USS Republic, saucer section, sickbay, CMO’s office>

It had been several weeks since Leon gathered the sickbay’s senior officers for a staff meeting.  He had not been looking forward to this, knowing full well that there would be a vacant place where Y’lair should have been.  Even as the six officers filed into his office, and took their usual seating positions in front of Leon’s desk, he struggled to keep his eyes away from the empty corner where the Vulcan doctor would always stand with his arms crossed.  As the others quietly prepared their personal datapads for notes, Doctor Cromwell cleared his throat to start the meeting.

“Welcome back, everyone,” he started dryly.  “I know it’s been awhile since we’ve all been together, but I hope everyone enjoyed their shore leave.  As you know, we’ve got several issues to cover, but first, let’s hear everyone’s report.  Doctor Yezbeck?”

The balding, black-bearded lieutenant sat back in his chair and read aloud an updated list of personnel and equipment for those assigned to the main ward, triage one.  It took less than a minute, and without Leon having to say anything, the gray haired female Doctor Fernmoore chimed in when Yezbeck finished his report.  Like Yezbeck, she read a similar checklist for the second medical ward, triage two.  However, there was an eerie silence when she finished a minute later, which was due to the fact the Doctor Y’lair normally read his report for the third medical ward, triage three.  Leon’s heart sank, and everyone looked slightly uncomfortable, hoping that he would find the emotional energy to break the silence.  Sure enough, after a lengthy five-second interval, he cleared his throat.

“I know we’ve had a few losses recently, but we’re going to have to get through it.  This ship depends on us doing our best, and we can’t let the losses of the past month deter us from doing that.  So, let’s skip the triage three report and go to Doctor Hudson.  Shannon, what have you got for us?”

The scarlet-haired lieutenant was at a loss momentarily, but regained her composure quickly.  Like Leon, she cleared her throat before speaking.  “I’m happy to report that we’ve had no changes to our overall sickbay roster, and the life-sciences training exchange program has worked out over the past several weeks.  With the Republic in port, those who did not take shore leave had a light duty schedule, and this allowed us to double our training time.  We have twenty-two enlisted life-science technicians who were with us over the duty-break, and eighteen passed the basic medical corpsman’s course on the holodeck two days ago.  Likewise, sickbay sent twenty-four enlisted personnel to life sciences, and all gained new sensor and data-collection skills in agronomy, exobiology, biochemistry, and microbiology.”

“Sounds good,” Leon replied in a more upbeat tone.  “Let’s keep the program going, and hopefully we can look forward to having a certified back-up medical staff if we ever end up needing one.”

Looking at his computer console, Doctor Cromwell dialed a few buttons, then folded his hands before returning his attention to his staff.  “Now, here comes a bit of bad news.  Unfortunately, we do not have any new officers to fill our vacant positions.  That means for this next cruise, we’re going to be slightly understaffed.”

A few sighs and grumblings rippled between the six officers.  “I don’t like it any more than you do,” continued Leon.  “But as you know, there’s already a medical personnel shortage throughout Star Fleet, and with the ongoing Kreltan conflict, we’re going to have to buckle down and make a few changes.”

Leon turned to the bald-headed Deltan, Doctor Ryda.  “Doctor, I’m promoting you to the head of Triage Three.  Please coordinate with Doctors Yezbeck and Fernmoore to establish your operational protocols.  Since you’ve been working under Yezbeck the past month, this shouldn’t be too problematic.  Unfortunately, this will leave the ward supervisor positions open in all three triage wards.  I will temporarily promote nurses Norris, Ellis, and Carmichael to ward supervisors in triage one, two, and three, respectively.”

Cromwell threw a glance to the humanoid female Doctor Hudson, hoping to casually slip in the change in her position that he and the captain discussed two weeks ago.  “Hudson, I need you to fill the head nurse position until further notice.”

The chief medical officer then turned to the young female Andorian, Doctor Favuuk.  “Favuuk, I need you to take over the Family Medical Services office from Doctor Harris so the crew’s family and non-Star Fleet personnel can still have their medical needs fulfilled.”

Shannon Harris dropped her jaw slightly with consternation.  She wasn’t expecting to be ousted from her position, and was very concerned on what Leon had in store for her.  “Um, Doctor?  Why must you do that?  The family members need a full-time pediatrician on staff, and as far as I know, I’m the only one qualified to fill that.”

“Yes, Shannon, I know,” consoled Leon.  “However, before Captain Marshall left, he gave me the task of finding a temporary ship counselor if we have to leave port without one.”

At this, Doctor Harris’ eyes bulged slightly, and she opened her mouth to protest.  However, before she uttered a word, Leon held up a hand, and closed his eyes in anticipation of her remonstration.

“I know what you’re going to say, but we’re in a bind here.  You’ve got the most psychiatric training out of all of us, so you’ve got the duty, Shannon.  I’m sorry it has to be you, but just remember that it’s only temporary until we get a new counselor.”

“But, doctor, I have no diplomatic or cultural training.  How am I supposed to advise the captain on these issues?”

Leon thought for a moment before responding.  “You’ll have to report to Lieutenant Commander Carter for that one.  If he’s unable to back you up in those areas, he can put you in touch with someone who can.  Okay?”

Shannon went silent and crossed her arms in annoyance.

“Okay?” asked Leon again with emphasis.

Doctor Harris finally nodded her head, though reluctantly.  “Yes, doctor.”

Suddenly, a new voice sounded from the open office door.

“Why is a civilian giving orders to Starfleet personnel?”

Everyone in the office looked towards the door to see a middle-aged, medium-built man with a head of blonde hair.  He wore dark civilian clothes and stared across the room at Doctor Cromwell.  For his part, Leon was confused, and blinked a few times before responding.  "Excuse me, but I’m trying to have a staff meeting here."

The man looked indignant, and repeated his question with a slightly elevated accusatory tone.

“I said, why is a civilian giving orders to Star Fleet personnel?”

Everyone looked at one another, hoping to find a sign of who the newcomer might be.  As the level of confusion rose, so did Leon’s temper.

“Look, I’m the chief medical officer, this is my office, and I’m the one who asks questions around here.  Now I suggest you leave before I call security.”

The gentleman at the door had no intention of leaving, and gave Leon a condescending glance before walking into the office.

“My good man, do you have any idea who I am?” he scoffed.

Leon’s temper was swelling in his chest.  He was not used to strangers strolling into the middle of a departmental meeting and asking rude and utterly pointless questions.  The man’s identity was furthest from his mind as Leon’s only goal was to make it clear to the newcomer that he was not welcome, nor carried any authority within the walls of sickbay.  Standing up, Doctor Cromwell placed his hands on the desk and beamed a cold, penetrating gaze at the outsider.

“I don’t really give a drop of spit who you are.  You’re intruding on my meeting, intruding in my sickbay, and asking stupid questions which you have no business asking.  Now, you either move those waddling little duck feet of yours out of my office, or I’ll personally wipe that stupid little smile off your rosy little cheeks.  Got it?”

The stranger let out a soft chuckle, which was the last thing Leon had expected to come forth from a man who had just endured the doctor’s poisonous wrath.

“Perhaps I haven’t made it clear to you,” he stated gingerly.  “My name is Captain Horatio Bombay, your new commanding officer.  That tone of yours is insubordinate, and I will not have any officer serving under me wielding such an attitude.  Especially not a civilian officer, if there is such a thing.  Consider yourself on report, Doctor Cromwell.  There is a senior staff meeting tomorrow at 1900 hours, and I expect you to be there in a full duty uniform like the rest of us.”

Leon’s jaw hung open in disbelief.  A moment passed where Doctor Cromwell and Captain Bombay stared at each other rancorously.  Without warning, Leon said, “meeting adjourned.  If you all will leave the captain and myself alone, I’d appreciate it.”

The doctors quickly and quietly shuffled out of the office looking at one another with uncertainty.  As the door closed behind them, Leon slipped out from behind the desk, and continued his cold stare at the captain.

“Sir,” he said professionally, hoping to hide the spite in his voice.  “My Star Fleet contract indicates my position as a civilian contractor, and my pay grade as CG-13, not a duty rank.  I am not an active duty officer, therefore I feel a duty uniform is inappropriate to my position.”

Bombay, equally professionally, and not willing to back down his cold glance replied to the doctor, “on the contrary.  You are under a reserve activation order.  Star Fleet Regulation 670-1 specifically states that any civilian contractor called to duty under the reserve activation clause is required to report to duty in a standard issue Star Fleet uniform.”

Leon was impressed with the captain’s knowledge of the regulations, but he too had done his homework.  “Actually captain, the regulation does not say ‘required.’  The regulation you are interpreting, that being page 136, paragraph three, actually reads ‘entitled.’  This clearly makes wearing a standard duty uniform optional in my case.”

To Doctor Cromwell’s delight, the captain was taken aback by the disparage, shown by the red hue beginning to burn into the captain’s face.  Whether this indicated anger, embarrassment, or both, Leon did not know.  What was known, however, that the doctor’s life had just became more complicated.

“Nevertheless, doctor,” Bombay spoke through gritted teeth.  “I am not used to having a civilian serve on my staff.  I will clear this up with the executive officer before the meeting tomorrow, but rest assured that if you plan on spending very long under my command, you will either become an active duty officer, or find yourself serving as a medical intern aboard a Klingon garbage scow.”  With that the captain spun around and quickly exited the office.

Leon stood alone for the moment, trying make out what had just occurred.  He stared at the door for a long while before muttering quite clearly, “what a fantastic jerk.”

 

<location: main engineering, USS Republic>

Lieutenant Commander Virtus looked down from the third level warp core service gantry as two-thirds of his engineering staff looked back at him.  A brief smile almost crossed his lips as he considered the absurdity of his position.  He was standing behind a podium-shaped console, five meters above his gamma and alpha shifts, and all conversation had just stopped.  For just a moment he felt what it must have been like to be a Roman Emperor.

"Third shift, thank you for staying.  This will not take long.  For those of you whom I have not met, I am Lieutenant Commander Victor Virtus, and I am your new department head.  I realize that one month ago I was this ship's Chief Science Officer, and I cannot tell you how happy I am to be back where I belong."

The joke went over not at all.  Vic sighed internally.  Scuttlebutt had already told them what he was about to say.

"There is quite a bit of work to be done before we are space worthy, and so I will be asking the XO to extend your duty shifts by four hours.  You will still report at the same time, and I realize that means there will be crowding in key areas, but I want everything to be working in the ninety-ninth percentile before Captain Bombay assumes command."

There was a gasp from the back of the first level.  Apparently scuttlebutt had missed one of the ensigns.  Vic marveled again at the ability of bad news to travel faster than subspace communications.

"That will be all."

Gamma shift began slowly filing out as Alpha shift went back to their posts.  Many would resent the extra four hours, but a few had done their research, and knew that the Victor Virtus of old would have just sent out a memo saying everyone was working double shifts until further notice.  Vic had mellowed in the last six years.  As it was, asking the XO to extend the shift resulted in the computer recording that extra time spent on duty, which meant more leave time accrued, and marginally greater retirement benefits.  Working on someone else's shift usually got logged as "emergency" time-on-the-clock, and did not provide any such rewards.

"Lieutenant Commander, may I have a moment of your time," asked a voice from behind him.  Victor performed a parade-ground about-face having guessed who the speaker was by tone and accent.

"Certainly Captain.  If you will please follow me."

Before the older man could stop him, the spry engineer walked briskly down engineering corridor 46 and started to remove the access panel from a Jefferies tube.  Captain Bombay caught up a few seconds later, and spoke with a slight edge.

"Lieutenant Commander, could we speak in your office?"

"Yes Captain, we could.  But at this time we will not.  As a courtesy to your rank I will observe the formality of relocating to my office if you press the issue, but if you want this ship ready to go at 1800, you will not press said issue.  I have prepared a file detailing the answers to the 25 questions you are most likely to ask me right now, and it is awaiting your leisure in the computer under 'captain bombay eff aie cue'.  Now if you will excuse me Captain."

Victor met the Captain's eyes without a hint of defiance, only the slight impatience of a subordinate that wants to get a job done without interruption.  (A look Vic had been cultivating and practicing since the Academy.)

"Very well Mister Virtus, carry on."

Vic ducked into the tube and listened to the footsteps diminish down the corridor.  The previous occupant of the tube stared at his superior in horror and awe.

"Sir?"

"Yes Ensign Wolcott?"

"How can you get away with that?"

"Practice Judy.  Years of practice."

"But how'd you know what he was going to ask?"

"I polled his last twelve Chief Engineers at 1500 yesterday via subspace communication.  I asked them what Captain Bombay was like, and what little tests he gave a new crew, on the record.  Eight of them got back to me, and said he was very professional, and liked to ask a few difficult questions about obscure procedures on the first day.  They gave a few examples, and I extrapolated from there.  He's a product of Command Branch through and through; he wants efficiency.  I can give him that in spades."

"Spades, Sir?"

"Slang I picked up from the XO.  Look it up and I'll let you sit in for me at the next game.  Now back to work.  I'll take over here.  I need you to test transponders 215 through 227 in tube 57."

"Aye-aye Sir," the ensign smiled, knowing that she had just scored brownies points with her boss' boss' boss.  Once she was out of sight, Victor shook his head and dug in to the exposed components Ensign Wolcott had been checking.  For the third time that week, Victor found himself muttering to thin air.

"I keep getting older, and the ensigns all stay the same."

 

<Location: Main Engineering, U.S.S. Valiant, NCC-2814>

Captain John Carter rubbed the back of his neck as he craned to look up the intermix chamber. Lights danced inside the cylinder, and there was an odd sort of hum filling the room on a vibrational level.  Carter shaded his eyes, but still couldn't see what Commander Virtus was talking about. "Vic, I know you know your stuff," he offered, "and you know I trust you..."

"You'd better John, after what happened on the Republic."

Carter felt his expression change as he remembered his posting on the ill-fated Galaxy class starship Republic. He shook his head to brush the unpleasant memories aside. "My point is," he paused, taking one last look at the latest Virtus model M/AMIR, "I don't see what all the fuss is about. It's a warp core, and it makes my ship work. That's good enough for me."

Commander Victor Virtus smiled at his friend for .0035 seconds. 'Same old John,' he thought, though looking at his friend across the room now, he could barely recognize the officer he'd first onboard the U.S.S. Discovery. Back then, John Carter was just an eager, opinionated Lieutenant on the fast track to command. Now, Victor considered, as he looked at Carter's weathered features and graying goatee, Carter seemed much less eager.

Virtus looked down at the PADD in his hands and affixed his digital signature. "Well, Captain, I think you'll be pleased with the new core's performance. As far as Hephaestus Station is concerned, Valiant is up to specs and ready to go." Virtus walked over to the Valiant's CO and offered him the PADD. "Where are you taking my baby here?"

John smiled as he took the PADD. "Uh-uh Vic," he answered, "she's my baby now. 'Fleet Command is shipping us to the Kreltan Control Zone. They want me to attend the adoption of the new constitution."

"You're going to a diplomatic ceremony in a Defiant class destroyer?"

Carter rested a hand on his hip and cocked his head with a smile. "Actually, I thought it rather fitting, considering the time I we spent bringing down the 'morpher' regime. What is it about shape shifters and empires anyway?"

Carter brushed his left hand across the patch that, for nearly five years, covered where his left eye had been. Victor looked followed his friend as the two made their way through the Valiant's tight corridors. "The eye giving you trouble?"

"There is no eye anymore."

"You know what I mean John," Victor chided his friend. "I don't understand why you don't re-gen it, or at least get a prosthetic. I'm sure Leon could fix you up."

The two officers walked into Valiant's transporter room and nodded to the fresh-faced Ensign who was manning the transporter console.

Carter rolled his eye as he and Commander Virtus stepped onto the transporter pad. "Griffe, Vic! You're starting to sound like my wife. Besides, my body doesn't take re-gen." John looked at the transporter officer. "Two to beam to Hephaestus Station, Ensign." The Ensign nodded and Carter heard the familiar whine of the transporter's Heisenberg compensators.

Next to Carter, Victor turned to address his friend. "Ex-wife John," He corrected.

"She's your ex-wife.”

Carter felt his trademark smirk creep across his face. "Give a man a chance, Vic," he said, and the two officers vanished from the U.S.S. Valiant.

 

<Location: Corridor 8-c-3, U.S.S. Republic, NCC-76241>

John Carter felt the deck stop spinning as he steadied himself against the bulkhead. He had a splitting headache, and felt flushed. In the pain and heat, he was barely aware of his beeping combadge.

=/\= "Doctor Harris to XO." =/\=

John managed to tap the badge and spoke to Shannon Harris. "Carter here Doctor," he said weakly. "Sorry for the delay. Where are you?"

=/\= "I'm in sickbay, Doctor Cromwell just dropped a bombshell . . . You sound out of it Lieutenant Commander. Are you ok?" =/\=

"Fine Shannon," Carter lied. "Is the Doc still there?"

=/\= "I think so, but I really need to . . ." =/\=

"Stay put Doctor," Carter said, perhaps a bit too forcefully. "I'll come to you. Vic'll just have to wait."

 

<location: U.S.S. Republic, saucer section, sickbay, exam room 1>

A soft blue-white light shone onto a huge, glistening brown disk.  Centered on the disk was a small ebony spot that projected straight, gray lines towards the edge of the round mahogany circle.  The lines extended themselves in a radial pattern set apart in regular intervals to form the appearance of a black spider in the center of its web.  Suddenly, the center dark spot grew in diameter, filling almost half of the brown disk in which it was inlaid, before a flesh-colored eyelid collapsed over both.

“Well . . .” sounded the focused, analytical voice of Doctor Cromwell.  “I don’t see any sign of degradation of the optic nerve.  Your brain’s optical cortex is functioning normally, and there’s no sign of tissue trauma to the retina.  I’d give your peeper a gold-star for this exam.”

Leon turned off his hand-held examination device which was the source the sapphire reflection off Lieutenant Commander Carter’s eyeball.  John looked up to him quizzically, as the word “peeper” meant something different in his Martian dialect of the English language, although “gold-star” was readily decipherable.

“What about my fainting spell?” he asked, dismissing the doctor’s vernacular.  John remained sitting on the exam table as Leon leaned up against an adjacent table, placing the scanning device into the right-hand pocket of his blue physician’s jacket.

“It could have been any number of things,” the doctor admitted, crossing his arms.  “Too much sun on Betazed, the stress of a new commander, or even the refit crew adjusting the grav-plating.  Any of those could have caused a temporary disruption of the inner ear.  Either way, you’re fine now, and nothing looks out of the ordinary.  I can run a full micro-diagnostic if you want, and compare it to the scan we took three weeks ago.”

John pursed his lips while shaking his head, knowing full well he hadn’t time at that moment for a physical exam.  “Nah, that’s alright, doc.  If it happens again, I’ll call you.”

“Why should I bother expecting you to call?” came the sarcastic reply from Leon.  The doctor walked over to a nearby computer console, and began typing commands.  “Consider yourself under medical observation,” he said turning back to face the executive officer.  “I’m going to have the ship’s computer monitor your combadge in case you take another fall.  If it finds you hitting the deck again, it’ll alert me, and whoever’s on duty in sickbay.  You won’t have time to stand back up before a medic is at your side.”

“Thanks, doc.”  John was wary at being under scrutiny by the medical monitoring systems, but since Leon hadn’t restricted his duty schedule, he felt it was a fair compromise.  “What about that strange dream I had?” he added as an afterthought, and more for conversational material than for diagnosis purposes.

Leon gave a chuckle.  “Don’t look to me for dream-interpretation!  Ask the ship’s counselor!”

Carter grinned, wondering when the subject would change to that of Harris.  “You know, she’s not too happy about that.  It was the first thing I heard about when I walked into sickbay a minute ago.  Apparently, she likes it here in sickbay.”

“It’ll do her some good to get out here for a little while,” retorted the doctor.  “Especially after the B’Rell incident.”

“Actually, she performed rather well during all that.  It was her that helped to expose the Kreltan spy.”  Unlike the rest of the crew, John refused to attach Lieutenant Regesh’s name to that of the unknown infiltrator.  The deceased Andorian tactical officer deserved better than to have his namesake associated with an enemy agent.

“That’s why I made her temporary counselor,” he said, referring to Lieutenant Shannon Harris, the scarlet-haired medical doctor.  “Someone from down here needs to keep an eye on all of you on the bridge.  Besides,” Leon added with a smile.  “She gets to sit next to you!”

With a look of ‘you’re treading on thin ice’, John shot a careful glance at Leon.  “Actually, she gets to sit ACROSS from me.  ‘Across’ meaning on the other side of the captain.  I don’t think you know what position you’ve put her in.”

“Yes I do,” Leon responded immediately.  “I’ve given her something good to put on her duty record, and extra line item for her next promotion board, and a fully qualified medical doctor on the bridge.”

“Since when do you have the right to dictate someone else’s career?” John shot back.

“Oh no, Johnny-boy!” Leon barked, maintaining his smile.  “No!  Don’t you pull THAT one on me!  You and Marshall both have been giving ME career objectives this past month, so why can’t I do the same for one of my subordinates?”

Carter could not counter that one.  It was true that Captain Marshall and himself had actively urged the doctor to take the bridge command test, despite his ambiguities about it.  Still, the executive officer was both taken aback yet mildly amused by the “Johnny-boy” comment.  Since none of the crew was present to hear, he dismissed it – this time.  Sliding off the table, John stood up and adjusted his uniform.

“Speaking of which, don’t forget our little appointment in the holodeck this evening.”

“I’ll be there.”

=/\= “Virtus to Carter.  The captain wants the ship in one piece by 1800 tomorrow.  The longer I wait for your inspection of the stardrive section, the longer we wait to dock with the saucer.” =/\=

“On my way,” John said, tapping his combadge.  “Duty calls, doc.”

"Say hi to Vic for me," added the doctor as Carter exited the exam room.

"Will do."

John Carter pushed his sleeves midway up on his forearm and adjusted the collar of his uniform as he made his way through the sickbay's main ward. He waited for a few seconds as the doors to Sickbay slid open, but as he stepped into the main corridor of Deck Twelve, a voice called him back.

"Doctor Cromwell says you're cleared for duty," Shannon Harris said simply. "You sure you're okay?"

John motioned for Harris to join him in the corridor and the two officers walked as John answered her question. "Fine," John said with a headshake. "Why wouldn't I be?"

Shannon gave her XO a skewed look and kept walking. "Two reasons really."

"Oh?"

"One, even if you weren't feeling well, I doubt you'd admit it."

"Go on," Carter seemed to agree.

"And two," Shannon stopped walking and put her hand on Carter's shoulder as they stood in front of a turbo lift hatch, "The only reason you came in at all was because I happened to call in the first place." Carter didn't argue. Instead, he politely waited for Shannon to enter the lift car first, then followed as the doors closed behind them. "I'm not always going to be around to catch you, Carter."

'Ex-wife...she's you're ex-wife John.' He heard the words as clear as if Victor Virtus had said them himself, except that Carter knew that conversation hadn't really happened. He wasn't a Captain, Shannon Harris had never been his wife, and thankfully, he still had two good eyes. Carter tried to brush the thought aside, but couldn't manage to shake the thought that he'd somehow screwed something up. "I know that Doctor Harris," he managed to say rather vacantly.

"You don't sound like you believe it."

"Uh-huh."

"Deck eight." Shannon said. Then she looked at Carter. "That where you're headed?"

"Uh-huh."

"Right . . ." Shannon said with a smile as the lift car began to move. "You know, I was thinking . . ."

"Hmmm?" Carter was making all the right noises, but not paying attention in the least.

"After my shift, I'm going to The Hill," Shannon wondered how far she could go before John HAD to pay attention.

"Ummm."

"And I'm going to reenact the veil dance of Tychus III. In fact, I'm commando as we speak."

"That's nice," John said blankly.

Shannon was used to patients avoiding her. It was very rare that anyone, especially a person in Starfleet's Command Branch, actually admitted they could even be sick, but Carter's evasion seemed much more personal. Shannon didn't like it at all. "John," she finally said tilting her head sideways so that her fiery red hair spilled off her shoulder, "I'm on fire."

"What?!" John's attention was snapped back to the present, and he looked at Shannon with wide eyes. "What was that about commandos?"

Shannon chuckled slightly. "Well at least you were paying attention to something," she offered. "What was that all about?"

"Sorry," Carter apologized. "Just going over the Engineering checklist in my head." Carter gave Harris an easy smile. "Guess I was a little distracted."

"Guess so," Harris answered. "How are things down there?"

"Vic requested that I extend the duty shifts until we get the Stardrive re-attached." Carter leaned against the bulkhead. "Other than that, it's just a quick inspection. I don't want to get ahead of myself, but I think we may actually get a decent shake-down this time out."

"That would be a nice change."

Carter's smile got bigger. "You're telling me." John took a hard look at Doctor Harris, and noticed that she  was wearing an extra, open collar pip. As First Officer, he'd had to sign off on the promotion, but he was glad to see it all the same. "Speaking of changes..." he finally acknowledged the elephant in the lift. "Are you set for the left chair?"

"I think so," Harris answered as her brow furrowed. "I've accessed the Federation Cultural Database, and I'm boning up on my psychology a bit more, but I'm not that good at reading people."

"Well," John offered, "There's an easy way to fix that."

"Oh?" Shannon felt her eyebrow rise. "Is this where you offer me 'personal instruction'? 'Cause I heard about the Lieutenant on the USS Devonshire. You remember the Devonshire, don't you John?"

Carter laughed out loud. "Your boss has a big mouth!" he said with a grin. The lift car stopped, and John waited as the lift doors opened. "Actually," Carter paused as Harris stepped to the doorway. "I was talking about poker. Friday night, 1900, my quarters."

"Thanks," Shannon said, "That might be helpful."

"Unless you'd rather stay home and work on your Veil Dance . . . I wouldn't mind that at all!"

The lift doors closed before Carter could see the blush on the acting counselor's face, but he knew it was there. "Main Engineering." he said to the ship's computer, and the lift car quickly moved in response.

 

<U.S.S. Republic NCC-76241, Main Engineering>

The light neon blue of a Mark V Warp Core pulsed slowly in the background as a tall Martian and a wiry Malthan leaned over an engineering console.

"I'm not thrilled with the new Tesla coils in the port nacelle.  It offends my sense of order in the universe to use an asymmetric helix to stabilize warp fields beyond warp seven."

"Ummm," John replied thoughtfully, nodding his head.

"But we are seventeen minutes ahead of schedule on the coupling locks, and the backup-computer upgrade from Stardock Research is impressive.  Two orders of magnitude faster at data upload and retrieval."

John made a satisfied, "Hmm," sound and followed Victor's finger as the Engineering Chief pointed a bell curve on the console screen.

"And I'm am quite pleased with our output efficiency as we approach full power on the matter/anti-matter reaction.  The refinement of the intermix ratios, which came from this years Academy Advanced Warp Research class I might add, increased output by point two five percent, and reaction efficiency by point six seven percent."

Victor turned to face his executive officer, "That's an extra 2.8 mega joules for you to play with on the bridge."

John nodded sagely and continued to stare at the screen.

Under Vic's outstretched finger, the words, "The Commander is on fire," scrolled slowly and deliberately from right to left beneath the bell curve.

Vic blinked twice, stood, and performed a brief visual inspection of his friend. 

"Everything looks good Vic."

"Thank you sir," Victor returned before turning to the Ensign on duty at the secondary warp field status station, “Ensign Gregor, please double check all the information that his been displayed on this screen in the last ten minutes.  Look for anomalous data and track down where it came from."

The ensign looked startled for a moment, and then came to attention, stated, "Aye-aye Sir", a bit too loudly, and busied himself in his new task.

John chuckled at the anachronism which seemed to follow him everywhere.  Moving into an adjacent corridor on the way to the turbolift, John began to lightly tease his subordinate, "You know where they get it from don't you?"

"Yes sir, I am well aware of my predisposition toward archaic and antiquated forms of naval military address and respect.  Are you feeling all right John?"

John half-rolled his eyes and stepped into the turbolift, “I'm fine.  Just got a clean bill of health from the Doctor."

Victor raised a skeptical eyebrow as the lift doors started to cut them off.

"I'm fine!"

Victor shook is head and headed back to check on Gregor.  Victor Virtus had hated pranks since his Academy days, and doubly so since his rise to Department Head.  It was amazing that John had not caught the scrolling print.  He must have had something very weighty on his mind.

"Virtus to bridge."

=/\= “Ops here.” =/\=

"How do we look for saucer re-link?"

=/\= “Having trouble with the starboard mag clamps Lieutenant Commander.  The new interconnecting dorsal is rated for a minimum of eighteen hundred farads, and the saucer's clamps are rated for a maximum of seventeen fifty.” =/\=

Victor winced.  It was little things like mismatched super-inductors that kept his job interesting.

"On my way. Virtus out."

 

<location: somewhere on the planet Risa>

Marshall had been scanning Risa for the past 10 days trying to find Admiral Kostya. He had no luck, and was getting rather impatient.

"It's no use," he told Rachel, "I ain't ever going to be able to find him."

She told him, "He may not even be on Risa."

"He's here," said Jim, "Some guy at the bar told me. I've left him several messages already."

"Don't lose faith Jimmy Marshall," she said.

"I'm not giving up, and don't call me Jimmy."

Finally, through a well-placed stroke of good luck and a tip from the local police force, Marshall found out where Kostya's beach house was and headed for it.  Upon his arrival he noticed that in fact no one was home, but the cleaning lady told him that Kostya liked to read on the beach.

Marshall wandered the beach for at least an hour before finding the man who he had served with five years ago as junior adjunct.  "Admiral? I'm Captain James Marshall," he said. "Do you remember me?"

Kostya Looked up to the man who was standing over him.  He put down his Mai Tai and stood up. "Of course, Jim! I was the one who recommended you for command of the Republic. How's my old ship treating you?"

"Sir, I have a situation, and I need your help," Marshall said out of desperation.

"Of course. What can I help you with?"

"Well, I've been on leave since the Republic returned from dealing with the Kreltans. Problem is that Admiral Fowler used the Kreltans to replace me as Captain of the Republic. He named Horatio Bombay as my replacement."

"Bombay?" Kostya Replied, "Is he still in the service?"

Marshall responded, "I'm afraid so. I just wanted some rest after dealing with the Kreltans, not to be replaced."

"Ok, and what do you need me for?"

"I want my ship back. Anything else is a waste of my time."

Kostya slowly walked toward the beach house he was in front of "Jim, if you would follow me, I will see what we can do"

"I appreciate that Admiral. All of my favors at Command right now have been exhausted." Marshall followed him inside and waited.

Kostya sat at the desk in the office, "Jim, the updates I have been getting on the war have been rather incomplete. I was wondering while I work if you could give me your version of the conflict."

"The first time the Republic dealt with the Kreltans we fought a General named Jondav. We had a few upgrades done but they were knocked out by their ship.  The best way to put it was that their ships are like Reman Warbirds. Only some quick thinking by my XO, Lieutenant Commander Carter, saved us from being destroyed."

"Interesting,"

"I met with Admiral Maverick after we had returned to Starbase Delphi. We found out that yes they are shape shifters, but have been genetically manipulated somehow. I hated it when I found out we were going out again.  Especially to a Demon-class planet. I took some comfort in the fact that the Firestorm would be nearby."

"On that planet there was one of their bases. I had ordered my new security chief with an away team down to destroy it. They didn't make it."

"That wasn't what I’ve been reading" Kostya handed Marshall a report from the front.

Marshall took the PADD and read it. 'What a load of bull' he thought.  He kept telling the Admiral what had happened as he read.

"Some Kreltan troops invaded the Republic and we had to separate the ship and I had to evacuate and self-destruct the star drive section. We managed to take out that base and get off that planet.  We made it back to Starbase Delphi and then went on leave."

"My reports,” the admiral replied.  “Are saying that we are not in any major conflict, and that the Kreltan problem is being resolved diplomatically," said the Admiral.  Marshall set the PADD and countered, "Your reports are wrong Admiral. I can vouch for that.  Somebody is feeding you some bad information, and if I had to bet on it, it's the same people who took my ship from me."

Kostya stood and said, "Alright Jim, as of now, you are my personal assistant again. We are going to meet the Republic, and I will transfer my flag on to your ship."

Marshall responded, "Well, it gets me back on board.   Just have to wait for the old man to slip up."

"One step at a time, but for now, we need to get to your ship," said the Admiral.

"I think I can swing that Admiral," said Jim as he pulled his communicator from his pocket.

“Marshall to Emerson, two to beam up.”

The beam dissolved and deposited them on board the U.S.S. Emerson.

The beam faded as Marshall and Kostya stepped off of the platform.  "Rach, we need a ride," said Jim.

"Lucky for you," she said.  "We just happen to be going your way."  She saw Admiral Kostya standing there.  "I can't promise you deluxe accommodations Admiral."

"Well as long as I have enough space for my staff, paperwork, and my dog.  We should be just fine," he said.

"I think we can swing that.  It's a small ship but we manage."  She led them down the corridor to a small bunkroom.  Kostya stopped as the doors opened, "Well if this is the best you can do it isn't good enough."

"It'll have to be Admiral, it's a small ship.  We leave in one hour," said Captain Blake as she left.  Marshall wandered down the corridor to find his own room, "Small, but it's only for a few hours."

 

<location: U.S.S. Republic, saucer section, corridor segment 8-C>

With the exception of combat, one of the most hectic situations for a starship crew is the transfer of command from one captain to the other.  However, preparing a ship for launch comes in as a close second.  Coupling these situations with the recent loss of about three-dozen personnel to hostile forces, the nearly catastrophic infiltration of a Kreltan spy to the command chair, and the departmental upheaval due to the poor leadership of the now incarcerated Counselor B’Rell did not help the crew’s stress level.  Topping off this stress with the mysterious and unannounced transfer of Captain Marshall away from the Republic was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back.  Despite two weeks shore leave for everyone, the entire crew did not look forward to returning to duty.

Doctor Cromwell was no exception.  He was feeling a tremendous amount of pressure at the reduction of his sickbay staff, as well as a touch of guilt at placing one of his top doctors, Lieutenant Commander Shannon Harris, into the uncomfortable position of temporary ship’s counselor.  With the anxiety level of the crew at an all-time high, not to mention a new captain who seems oblivious to common courtesy, the new counselor had her work cut out for her.  If it were not for her promotion, Leon was sure that she would have stopped talking to him.

As he exited the sickbay after a long, arduous duty shift, the chief medical officer sighed heavily as he made his way to Ten Forward, welcoming the thought of a nightcap before retiring for the evening.  However, as he strode through the corridor, a familiar senior officer dressed in operations gold approached from the opposite direction.  Recognizing the stoic facial features and fu-manchu moustache, Doctor Cromwell adjusted his course and strode alongside the chief engineer.

“What are you doing here, Vic?  I thought you were on the stardrive section,” Leon asked.

“I was, but the docking clamps needed calibration, so I came over here to check on that, among other things.”

“I’m coming off duty, you want to have a drink at the Hill with me?”

“I wish I could, Leon, but there’s some final work to do in preparation for saucer reconnect.  We have two major interconnect operations, five subsystem coupling procedures, and eight workstation reconfigurations to complete in approximately eleven hours and twenty-one minutes.”

The doctor was about to apologize when the comsystem activated.

=/\= “Ensign Harrington to Commander Virtus.” =/\=

The engineer coolly pressed his combadge.  “This is Virtus, go ahead.”

=/\= “I just checked how the stardrive hull-stenciling was coming along, and we seem to be having trouble with Delphi’s registry crew.  Their team leader is Arcturian and can’t spell very well.  According to him, we’re the Starship Repubic.  Could you talk to him, sir?  I’d rather not tell my folks I’m aboard a vessel named after an erogenous zone.” =/\=

Vic rubbed his eyes in frustration.  Emitting a sigh of exasperation, he replied, “I’m on my way, ensign.”  Turning back towards Doctor Cromwell he added, “I’ll take a rain check on the drink.  Besides, shouldn’t you be somewhere at 1900 hours?”

Leon looked at him questioningly for a split moment before a realization dawned on him.  Tapping his own combadge, he asked, “Computer, location of Lieutenant Commander Carter?”

=/\= “Lieutenant Commander Carter is in Holodeck Three.” =/\=

“Off you go,” said Virtus.  “And good luck.”  The engineer disappeared around the corner before Leon could reply.

***

Leon walked up to the doors of Holodeck Three, and checked the wall mounted control panel.  The display indicated that a program was running, and the doctor paused wondering whether he should enter.  As the thought slipped through his mind, the mechanical grinding of the door servos slid the massive doors aside.  Obviously, someone was waiting on him.

“Welcome to the Enterprise, doc.”

Carter’s voice rang out in the cramped quarters of what appeared to be a small command bridge.  The doctor walked slowly into the room as the holodeck doors shut behind him.  As the whisper of the hologrid melding the doors into the program matrix subsided, Leon slowly scanned the area.  The circular chamber walls were off-white, and affixed with black-colored control stations replete with blinking indicators, active monitors, and rows of old-fashioned manual switches.  Two turbolift doors were recessed into the rear of the room, one slightly to the portside, and another to the starboard.  Towards the center, the floor took a step down into the familiar command pit where a single command chair stood on a raised platform with a two-seat helm and navigation terminal a few meters to the front.  John was at the far side of the room near the viewscreen, and leaning against a handrail which circled the perimeter of the command pit. 

“A little antiquated to be Sovereign Class, isn’t it?” Leon said finally.

“Ah, you forgot how far back this simulation was in use,” returned the executive officer who began walking towards the doctor from the front of the bridge.  “This is the Enterprise of yesteryear, doc.  Hull registry of NCC-1701.”

“You’re toying with me, John.  I’ve seen a Constitution Class at the fleet museum, and this looks nothing like it.  I remember a lot more red coloring in the bridge stations, not to mention just one turbolift.”

“I see you need a history lesson, doc.  This is the Starship Enterprise, a Constitution Class REFIT.  After returning from her five-year mission under Captain Kirk, it was the first vessel of the Constitution line to be completely renovated and overhauled with the latest modern technology.”  John chuckled with a half-grin.  “Well . . . back then it was considered modern,” he added as an afterthought.  “This is what she looked like at about stardate 8100 when she was transferred to Starfleet Academy and used as a training vessel.”

“The infamous Enterprise was a training vessel?  That’s hard to believe.”

“Well, by then she was a rather old ship.  Almost twenty years to be precise.  In fact, she was slated for decommissioning before her destruction.”

“So Starfleet cadets did combat training in beaten-up Constitution refits?”

“Not exactly.  Although they performed drills during their training cruises, most combat training took place at the academy simulator.”

“I see.  So which is this?”

“This is actually a holographic reproduction of the real thing.  I used simulation records from the academy archives to reconstruct how the Kobyashi Maru scenario was conducted, but used the original refit schematics to produce this program.  In truth, there’s more available here than there was in the actual simulator room a hundred years ago.  I’m rather proud of it.”

“So you’re going to teach me the finer points of commanding a starship on an archaic vessel and using an out-of-date combat scenario?”

“Don’t be such a prude, doc.  There’s a lot to be learned here when you don’t have computers running everything for you.  Besides, I’m not going to be doing the teaching.  You are.  Part of this scenario is learning by doing.”  John walked over to the commander chair and stood behind it.  “Come on now,” he beckoned.  “Have a seat.  It’s nice and comfortable.”

Leon looked at him with annoyance due to a combination of trepidation and John’s unsubtle recognition of it.  Warily, the doctor strode into the command pit, took a step up, and seated himself in the captain’s chair.

For his part, Carter retreated to the portside turbolift alcove, and spoke to the holodeck.  “Computer, begin program.”

Instantly, the multiple whispers of materializing holograms sounded throughout the bridge, and each station found itself manned with a Star Fleet officer.  Each wore a maroon wrap-around duty uniform used extensively for decades prior to the short-lived skin-tight jumpsuits issued twenty years ago.  The quaint uniforms boasted a military-style black belt adorned with a shiny gold buckle in the shape of the Star Fleet delta insignia.  Over the right shoulder, a strap with antiquated rank insignias was clasped to the front breast flap, maintaining a crisp, clean appearance.  The collar of each officer flaunted an undershirt with a ribbed turtleneck not unlike the doctor’s own ivory sweater.

As the doctor stared at the crew around him, vaguely recognizing some of the faces.  At the helm station in front of him, there was a black-haired, clean-shaven man of Asian descent, and a young female Vulcan with long hair tied up in a regulation bun.  Neither he could derive names from, nor the dark-skinned, curly-haired female communications officer to his left flank.  The young faces of other crewmen, whom he assumed to be cadets in training, were even less recognizable.  However, just off to his right flank at the science console, there were two faces whose identity were absolutely unmistakable: Ambassador Spock and Admiral Leonard McCoy of Star Fleet Medical.

Doctor Cromwell was taken aback at how young the two seemed in this simulation, especially the admiral.  He had the chance to see McCoy in person at a seminar many years ago before his death.  Cromwell thought of him as a gruff, cantankerous old man with the disposition of a bear who was awaken in the middle of its hibernation cycle.  However, here he seemed much more alive and alert as he stood next to the seated Spock, looking onward towards the viewscreen.  The ambassador, on the other hand, had apparently aged very well, as most disciplined Vulcans do.  There was no hint of gray in his hair, and it seemed to the doctor that the ambassador was just as fit now as he was back then.  As he sat in the command chair, Leon could not conceive himself as the commander of these two legendary figures, even if it was only a fictional situation.

“Well?” asked John, rousing Leon from his thoughts.  “Are you just going to sit there?”

“What exactly am I supposed to be doing?” he replied with annoyance.

“The simulation won’t start until you place a log entry.”

With a frustrated furrow in his brow, the doctor looked down at the armrests of his command chair.  They were of thin, flimsy design, with hinged interlocks that made them double as acceleration restraints.  He flipped one over, found the log entry switch, and activated it.  Immediately, the holograms around him came to life, working their control stations amid the hum of the bridge machinery.

Leon took one last look at the people around him before speaking.  “Captain’s log,” he started with emphasis, looking at John as if to placate him.  “Stardate . . . um . . .”  He looked around for a display console to find the correct date, and located it on a small, unmanned control station to the right of the viewscreen. “8130.3.”  He looked confused for a moment, and looked to John who stood silently next to the communications station.  With a sly expression creeping across his face, the doctor continued.  “This is Doctor Cromwell in command of the Starship Enterprise.  Under the ridicule and subjugation of my superior officers, I have reluctantly accepted governance of this vessel in the hope to rid myself of their continual bickering regarding my career disposition.”  Leon looked up to find Carter quietly chuckling to himself.  “Due to lack of background material regarding this training mission, I have no idea where this ship is, or what we are doing.  Inclinations at this point are to divert course to Betazed and disembark for another two weeks of shore leave.”

“Can you please be serious?” suggested John.

Satisfied he had finally perturbed Carter to the point of acknowledging the jocular log entry, Leon sat back in the command chair with a content smile, pressing the button which closed the logbook.

“Leaving section fourteen for section fifteen,” the oriental helmsman reported.

“Sir, I suggest we project a parabolic course to avoid entering the Neutral Zone,” came the female voice of the young Vulcan seated next to the helmsman.

Leon waved a hand in acknowledgement.  “Sure.  Sounds good to me.  Make it so.”

“Aye captain,” the helmsman affirmed.  “Course change projected.”

“Captain,” the communications officer next to Carter spoke up, taking no notice of the attending executive officer.  “I’m getting something on the distress channel.”

Shrugging his shoulders, Leon said “well, let’s see it.”

“See what?” responded the African accented officer in a professional demeanor.

“The message.  Put it on the screen.”

“It’s audio-only, sir.”

“Then put it on speakers!” barked Leon with frustration.  Carter was again smiling, enjoying the plight he had put his friend in.

Amongst the crackle and static of a weak transmission, a stressed British voice could be heard.  “This is the Kobayashi Maru.  Nineteen periods out of Altair Six.  We have struck a gravitic mine, and have lost all power.  Our hull is penetrated and we have sustained many casualties.”

Leon, recognizing all too well the seriousness of mass casualties in deep space, tightened his jaw at the report of people in need of immediate medical attention.  He was now drawn in and focused on the predicament.

“This is the Starship Enterprise,” the communications officer interjected.  “Your message is breaking up.  Can you give us your coordinates?  Repeat: this is the Starship . . .”

“Enterprise,” the voice came again.  “Our position is Gamma Hydra, section ten.  Hull penetrated.  Life support systems failing.  Can you assist us, Enterprise?  Can you assist us?”

The urgency in the voice of the Kobayashi Maru’s commander suggested they were in dire peril.  Leon now knew that this scenario must be a test to see if he could carry out a rescue mission.  Since he had just been through one during the past month in the rescue of the Starship Zurich, the doctor was quite confident as to what to do.

“Change course immediately to intercept the vessel,” Leon ordered.

The oriental helm officer swiveled his chair to look soberly at the doctor.  “May I remind the captain, that if a starship enters the zone, it can be interpreted as an act of war?”

Leon really had no idea what the man was talking about, since the only zone he knew about was near the Romulan border with Federation space.  ‘Even then,’ the doctor reasoned, ‘the Romulans would be willing to permit a rescue mission.’

“We’ve got a lot of people on that ship,” Leon retorted.  “The longer we wait, the more of them will die.  Please carry out my order.”

The helmsman rolled his eyes with a dissatisfied grimace, not happy that his warning was ignored.  He pressed a few buttons on the helm console, and the viewscreen showed a wire-frame computer model of a Constitution Class cruiser, and a projected course path to an orange area that Leon assumed was the zone of which the helmsman warned.  “Estimating two minutes to intercept,” he said.

As the computer rendering of the orange zone loomed closer on the viewscreen, the doctor wondered why a region of space would be rendered in such a foreboding way on a starchart.  Suddenly, he got an uneasy feeling that maybe he should consider what the helmsman was trying to tell him.  However, before he had the chance to ask any questions, the pace of the scenario sped up.

“Now entering the Neutral Zone,” the helmsman reported.  Leon relaxed briefly, feeling his hunch was correct that it indeed was the Romulan Neutral Zone.  He was about to ask Ambassador Spock at the science station to keep a lookout for cloaked ships when the computer alarm sounded and was accompanied by an unsettling monotone voice that repeated a melancholy omen.

=/\= “Warning: we have entered Neutral Zone.  Warning . . .” =/\=

At the science console, it was Spock who spoke next, as he swiveled his chair to face Leon and announced over the incessant computer voice, “we are now in violation of treaty, captain.”

The doctor, who just received an admonition from one of the most prominent figures in Federation history, had the dismal feeling that he was committing a taboo action.  He cleared his throat and was about to give another order when a shocked voice came forth from the communications officer.

“Captain!  I’ve lost their signal!”

Without warning, the repeating computer voice changed dialog and was now saying, “Alert.  Sensors indicate three Klingon cruisers bearing three point six mark four.  Closing fast.”

Leon raised his eyebrows slightly, and wondered what Klingons would be doing in the Romulan Neutral Zone.  Nevertheless, he was happy to hear that he might actually have help on this rescue mission.  With a look of confidence returning to his face, the doctor straightened his ivory turtleneck sweater and said, “open a channel.  I’d like to talk to the Klingon captain.”

“They’re jamming all the frequencies, captain!”  The communications officer sounded even more anxious.

“Captain,” the young female Vulcan at the navigation console beckoned him.  “I suggest we go to battlestations.”

Before Leon could ask why, the monotone computer voice changed its dialog yet again, repeating an announcement that the doctor found rather confusing.

=/\= “Klingons on attack course, set closing.  Klingons on attack course, set closing.” =/\=

“Who are they attacking?” asked Leon with a furrow developing in his eyebrows.  “A cloaked ship?”

Carter could no longer hold back his counsel.  Stepping forward, he leaned on the command pit railing closest to Leon.  “Um, doc?  They’re attacking YOU.  This is the Klingon side of the Neutral Zone, and at this moment in history, they’re not very happy with a Federation starship crossing into their territory.”

Exasperated, Leon swiveled the command chair around to face John.  “What?!” he exclaimed, not noticing the three blinking orange dots on the viewscreen looming dangerously close to the ship.  Suddenly, the computer voice changed its dialog yet a fourth time.

=/\= “Alert.  Klingon torpedoes activated.  Alert.  Klingon torpedoes activated.” =/\=

Leon swiveled back to face the screen with pinpointed pupils as John stepped away from the railing, closing his eyes.  As the bridge exploded into flames, the doctor screamed obscenities as bodies went flying in all directions.  For his part, the executive officer stood still, waiting for the chaos to subside.  As it did so, the black and yellow-lined grid of the holodeck lay empty, save that of the two officers.  Leon was still sitting in the lone command chair, covering his eyes and struggling to catch his breath.  Slowly, he lowered his arms, and surveyed his surroundings.  John walked up from behind as the doctor realized that he had just brought the Starship Enterprise, as well as her celebrated and prestigious crew, to an early grave.

“You could have at least raised the shields . . .” John offered, although it was in no way an accusatory tone.  Regardless, Leon sprang from the chair and turned on his friend with indignation.

“And YOU could have at least warned me!” the doctor bellowed with a sense of hurt pride.

“Relax, doc,” the XO offered in a conciliatory tone.  “It’s all part of the learning process.  This was your first step.  In time, you’ll take another one.  My suggestion to you is run this program every now and then when you have the time.  Believe me, you’ll get better.”

Leon looked as though he was about to have another outburst, but as the moment passed in silence, it became clear he was bringing his temper under control.  John had seen this before many times – the look of defeat.  It was never easy to deal with, especially when lives were in the balance.  Fortunately, this was a simulation, and he the doctor both knew it.

“Come on,” Carter soothed.  “I’ll buy you a drink at the Hill.”

Leon nodded in agreement, hoping that the embarrassment of this evening would not leave these walls.

 

<location: U.S.S. Republic, saucer section, deck ten-forward>

Shannon sat at the bar, nursing her drink.  A plethora of thoughts went through her head, many of which weighed down her spirit.  Although it was nice to be recognized for her past actions with a promotion to Lieutenant Commander, the rank seemed to be bringing her more headaches rather than responsibility.  She didn’t blame Doctor Cromwell for making her the ship’s counselor, but she would have liked more warning.  A lot more warning.  It’s true that the ship needs a trained counselor, especially now, but the same words kept flashing through Harris’ mind:  ‘Why me?’

Then there was John.  She assumed that as soon as she was promoted, the executive officer would have seen her as an equal.  If that was so, why was he ignoring her suggestions to spend time together?  Something about a relationship between them seemed to bother Carter, and it made her uneasy.  ‘Was it something I said?’  Fortunately, time was on her side, and now that she would be spending more time with the XO, she could finally ferret some answers.

Unknown to Harris, a man in the corner of the room was watching her for the past ten minutes, hoping to make eye contact.  A medium-built man in his forties, and boasting a head full of sandy blond hair, the individual arose from his seat in the far side of the room and walked towards the bar.  He wore dark civilian clothes, and had a smile on his face while keeping an eye on Doctor Harris.  Approaching the counter, he took a seat that was one place away from Shannon, hoping she would notice him.  The bartender took his order and returned promptly with a glass of amber liquid.  Still, the scarlet-haired lieutenant commander remained lost among her thoughts.  Finally, the man could no longer bear to be without her company.  Sliding into the seat next to Harris, he opened up a conversation with a pleasing smile still attached to his face.

“Hi there.  Who might you be?”

Shannon suddenly broke from her day-trance to find a stranger sitting next to her.  Her mind was so distant from the current situation that she failed to recognize the man who interrupted Leon’s meeting the previous day.  She blinked twice before saying, “excuse me?”

“I said, what’s your name?”

“Oh,” she started, slightly confused.  “I’m Shannon.  Shannon Harris.  Who are you?”

“My name’s Horatio Bombay,” the stranger said with restrained enthusiasm.  “But you can call me Horace.”

“Are you new here?” Shannon asked, not recalling the name.

“You might say that,” he said mysteriously.  “What about you?  What do you do around here?”

“Me?” the doctor replied.  “Well, I’m the new ship’s counselor.”

“Really?” Horace said with a widening smile.  He looked Shannon over with approving eyes that suggested more than just interest in her occupation aboard the ship.  “I think I’m going to enjoy this next cruise,” he said slyly while taking a sip from his drink.  “Really enjoy it.”

 

<Location: Battle Bridge, U.S.S. Valiant, NCC-2814>

The ship rocked as another torpedo impacted the dorsal shields.  Captain Carter looked at the remnants of his crew and winced as a tear escaped his remaining eye.  The reports came in faster than John could respond.

"Captain, we've lost aft shields!  Port shields at eighteen percent!"

"Casualty reports from decks five and six!"

"Hull breach on deck nine!"

"Sickbay is full!"

". . . and we can't get in there without plasma cutters!"

"Doctor Ingersol is still unconscious!"

"Have security start moving overflow to . . .”

Thirty-six hours of playing hide and seek in the Crab Nebula.  Five hundred seventy-two dead.  Out of torpedoes.  Two phaser banks destroyed, one damaged.  Four of five department heads injured or dead.

"I've got something coming through the interference Captain.  It's a Federation channel!"

No sleep for anyone in over two days.  Ran out of synthetic adrenaline and other stimulants when the graviton beam erased the main computer.

"Put it on screen."

Red snow played across what was left of the bridge display.

=/\= “This - ptain  - ell - the medi - frigate Mercy.  Valiant what - your . . .” =/\=

Running a starship without a computer was like flying a Sopwith Camel without ropes.

"Nigel, clean that up."

"Aye, sir!"

There shouldn't be anyone left.  The rest of the task force was taken in the ambush.  Four other ships each with crews of over eight hundred.  Eleven of sixteen enemy vessels destroyed in the last twenty-four hours.

"We are being fired upon!"

"Evasive action.  Brace for impact."

The crew was well beyond panic at this point.  Only the will of the Captain held them together.  If anyone lived through this, it would be a miracle.  Vic's new warp core still held.

"Impact in three . . . two . . . one . . ."

The ship lurched.  Panels exploded.  More people died. Lights flicker and go out.

=/\= “I say again!  This . . . Captain Cromw . . . Medical Frigate Mercy . . . Valiant ... is your status? =/\=

Only the faintest whisper emerged through the fire-lit smoke.

"Leon?  No.  Get out of here.  It was a trap."

 

<Location: Hephaestus Station, Starbase 67>

Glasses clinked together.  It was 0145 by the ship's internal time, but for the two men in dress uniform it was still early.

"Congratulations again John.  It was a beautiful ceremony.  Where are you going for the honeymoon?"

"Home.  Mars.  Shannon's never been there, and I haven't been back in over four years."

"When do you leave?"

"Sixteen hours, fourteen minutes, twenty seconds from . . . Mark."

"Very funny.  You've still got a little cake frosting on your collar."

"Figures.  I still wish Mirr, Clovis, and Leon could have been here."

"As do I, but they're busy with duties.  I'll send them the holo."

Both men turned as the bride swept up in her simple white gown.

"And congratulations to you as well Doctor.  He's a bit over boastful at times, and not the galaxies most patient being, but he's still the best man I know."

"Thank you Commander."

"What'll you do now Vic?"

"I've got the first prototype Ultrawarp core from Stardock sitting in my living room.  I thought I'd take it apart and see if I could reengineer it a bit."

"Didn't they try to put that engine in the first Galaxy-class?"

"Yep.  She's small, tough, powerful and totally unstable.  My kind of girl."

"Sounds like quite the challenge."

Shannon cleared her throat, as it was obvious the boys would be at this all night if she did not do something.

"Yes dear?"

"Honey, it's getting late, and this *is* our wedding night."

Victor chuckled, as the hints were beginning to get a bit thick.

"And thus, I shall bid you both good night.  Captain Carter.  Doctor Carter."

"'Night Vic."

"Good night Victor.  Thanks for getting him here on time."

"My pleasure.  He told me my only job as best man was to keep the warp coils hot in case we had to make a fast getaway."

As the doors closed behind him, Victor heard the start of a monumental tirade cut off by a kiss.

 

<Location: The Hill, U.S.S. Republic>

"John, wake up.  We've got a 'Transfer of Command' ceremony to attend in four hours, thirty-seven minutes."

John groaned and surveyed the empty bar as Victor yawned.

"How long have I been out?"

"Acoupla minutes.  I lost you between 'the maglocks are working again' and 'the Re-Pubic is ready to sail.'  I don't blame you for resting your eyes, but your snoring was disturbing my concentration."

"I don't snore!"

"I know you don't John.  That radial-saw-going-through-durasteel sound you make is actually a highly refined Martian mating call.  And speaking of durasteel, hello counselor."

John wheeled in his chair to face Doctor Harris.

"Hello Mr. Virtus, Commander Carter.  I'm sorry to interrupt you, but I was wondering if I could have a moment of your time when you are free Commander."

"Certainly.  Are we done here Vic?"

Victor stifled a yawn before getting out, "Everything else can wait until after the ceremony.  Get some sleep John, you look wretched."

Shannon sat down as Victor walk out.

"So, what . . .", John stopped himself just short of saying, 'What do you need, hon,' and started again, "So what can I do for you counselor?"

 

<location: Shuttlecraft Sonora, inbound to USS Republic>

Marshall and Kostya had disembarked from the Brown and were on the way over to the Republic.  Jim hated the idea of being on board without being in command, but he had to play the hand he was dealt.  Marshall looked out the window of the shuttle and noticed the new stardrive section off in the distance.  'She'll look good when she's whole again' he thought.  Upon arriving in the shuttlebay, they were approached by an ensign that Marshall didn't recognize.

"No one signaled a flag officer coming on board sir," said Ensign Handratty.

"Ensign," said Marshall, "Admiral Kostya has some urgent business on board the Republic.  The classification is on a higher level than you would be able to access.  Now, I believe some VIP quarters are in order."

"If you'll follow me sir . . ."

"I know the way Ensign.  I've been on a Galaxy-class ship before," said Marshall as he and Kostya exited the shuttlebay.  They were headed for deck eight.  Jim hadn't shaved the entire time he had been away, and was hoping to sneak back on board without much of the crew noticing.

Upon their arrival in quarters which met Kostya's approval, Jim decided to check out the computer systems.  The transfer of command would not take place for four more hours so technically he was still the Republic's Captain.  He arrived in his own assigned quarters and realized that they were just as nice as the Captain's Quarters, but something didn't feel right to him. 'I don't belong here.  I'd rather be out there doing what I do best than pushing paper for some Admiral,' he thought.

Marshall headed for the desk terminal.  He had blocked certain things to his voiceprint only due to the fact that he didn't want Bombay to get his hands on it.  He then called up the personnel manifest.  He spoke out loud to no one in particular, "John Childs, assistant Chief Engineer, don't know him.  Harris is the new counselor, glad to see that went through.  Vic's back, and looks like he's been busy.  Leon's commission is being activated, and he's taking the bridge officer's exam.  John's a tough grader. . ."  He stopped when he saw Carter's recent activity, "Son of a . . . the promotion is being held up."  Before he had left Marshall had recommended that Carter be promoted to full commander, but something was holding it up.  It didn't take long for Jim to figure out who it was.

=/\= “Bridge to Captain Marshall.” =/\=

Marshall hoped that it was Admiral Fowler saying that this was all a joke and that he was not having to transfer command.

“Go ahead.”

=/\= “Sir, Captain Bombay would like to speak with you in the Ready Room in 15 minutes.” =/\=

"Tell him I'll be there in 20, and that if he has a problem with it he can take it up with Admiral Kostya who is on board.  Marshall out."

Marshall then set to work sending messages to some of the crew.  He made sure it went to John, Leon, and Vic:

Hola Comprades,

I am back, but not in the CS.  Fowler behind it, don't know why.  Kostya making R his FS.  Transfer take place as scheduled.  Working as K's adjunct.  Figure some might not like that idea.  You'll know how to find me.

He looked at the chronometer and realized that he had better go see what Bombay wanted.

 

<location: captain’s quarters, USS Republic>

Shortly after Marshall arrived at Bombay’s quarters, the elder Captain snapped, "When I say I want to see you in 15 minutes you better be here in 12 minutes."

Marshall countered, "Let me remind you that I don't take orders from you and for the next three and a half hours I am still in command, and while we're on the subject Captain, Admiral Kostya is on board and at the transfer he will be making the Republic his personal flagship.  He will be meeting with you just before the transfer, and will be issuing you your orders for the mission."

Bombay sat back down, "Kostya? He's been out of the loop for so long that it would take 13 engineers, 6 scientists, and the Academy all over again to get that guy up to speed."

"He's up to speed. I saw to that.  I'm staying on as his adjunct," said Marshall.

"You have to be kidding me," snapped Bombay.

"The crew can tell you I rarely joke, especially about Starfleet, and I wasn't joking about promoting a certain officer," said Marshall.

Bombay replied, "If you're referring to Carter, I'm taking it under advisement.  If he performs well I'll allow it.  Until he's proven to me that he deserves it, I just can't allow it."

Jim resigned and said, "Fine, do what you must, but don't blame me if he doesn't perform for you.  John Carter is one of the most dedicated officers in the fleet.  His record is exemplary."

Bombay then spoke, "Noted.  You know you've put the entire ship in a compromising position.  You return to your command long enough to turn it over to the new Captain, and yet you're staying aboard.  I have a feeling that some of the crew would still be loyal to you, and won't want to take orders from me."

Marshall said, "They'll do their job Captain, just treat them with respect.  They know their jobs and will do them regardless of who's in the center seat."

"I suggest you get cleaned up before the transfer of command," said Bombay.

"I intend to.  Soon as I take care of a little business," said Marshall.

"Dismissed"

Marshall left and then Bombay said, "Stupid kid."

In the turbolift Marshall said, "Crusty old man."

Bombay then tapped his communicator

“Bombay to Carter, see to it that Admiral Kostya has everything he needs.  You might have to go through his adjunct to accomplish it.  Bombay out.”

He then tapped the combadge again.

“Bombay to Virtus.  The transfer of command will be in three and a half hours.  I'd like to see the stardrive section reconnect by then.  What's the story on it?”

=/\= "Just getting started Captain, should be complete in eighty-four minutes, sixteen sec . . ." =/\=

“Get it done Virtus, otherwise your assistant is next in line for your job.  Bombay out.”

Bombay considered calling down to sickbay to check on the progress of Cromwell.  He decided not to because he wanted to see how things were going to play out.  He settled back into his chair and began to think about his encounter with Shannon Harris.

 

<location: main engineering, USS Republic>

Victor froze, and the new Ensign tried to pretend he had been engrossed in the interlink polarity reading.  Glancing up at his Department Head, Mike saw the most blatant display of active restraint any human had ever witnessed of the wiry Malthan.

"Carry on Ensign."

"Yes sir."

Victor checked his projections one last time, and tapped his com.

"Virtus to Bridge"

=/\= “Go ahead Lieutenant Commander.” =/\=

"Confirm docking clamp charge."

=/\= “Magnetic induction at full sir.” =/\=

"Republic, we are 20 meters ahead and 10 meters above you. Come to bearing one one six, ahead at point two meters per second."

The nacelled ship began a slow and graceful assent to meet the giant dish.

"Conn, pitch up point oh oh four degrees and maintain relative. Reduce velocity to point one meters per second.

Warning lights began to flash, and the computer continued plotting the course.

"Reduce speed to point zero one meters per second.  Yaw point oh oh one seven five degrees starboard."

Four docking clamps mated with the respective indentations on the underside of the massive saucer.

"Republic, prepare for saucer re-link on my mark.  Reduce speed seventy-five percent."

Two hundred eleven crewmembers held their breath.

"Three. Two. One. Mark."

Powerful inductors producing potentially space-distorting magnetic fields kissed clamps that could withstand multiple direct hits from proton torpedoes. 

=/\= “Bridge to Engineering.  Saucer re-link complete.” =/\=

The remaining crew never even felt the bump.

Satisfied that the last task he performed before going off duty was completed to perfection, the engineer transferred the duty shift over to his assistant, Lieutenant Childs, and retreated to his quarters, fully intending to catch a well deserved nap before the ceremony.  However, as he strode into his cabin, the 'message-waiting' light flashed balefully on his desk.

Hola Comprades,

I am back, but not in the CS.  Fowler behind it, don't know why.  Kostya making R his FS.  Transfer take place as scheduled.  Working as K's adjunct.  Figure some might not like that idea.  You'll know how to find me.

Victor blinked, and read it again, just to make sure.

It still didn't make much sense.

He tried again, out loud, filling in the missing words.

"Hoe-laa Comp-raids.  I am back, but not in the [Captain's seat].  [Admiral] Fowler is behind it, but I do not know why.  [Admiral] Kostya is making [Republic] his [flagship].  [Command] Transfer to take place as scheduled.  I am working as [Admiral] Kostya's adjunctant.  I figure some [captains] might not like that idea.  You will know how to find me, [as I leave dead bodies everywhere I go.]"

An improvement, but not everything he needed to know.  Better tell John to check his messages though.

 

<Location: U.S.S. Republic, deck 7, enroute to VIP Quarters>

John Carter waited anxiously for a reply as he buzzed the door to Admiral Kostya's quarters. This was the last thing he needed. He already had a ship to shake down, a change of command ceremony to attend, and a new Captain to break in. Babysitting some nosey flag officer was the last thing he wanted to be doing right now. While John waited, his combadge beeped.

=/\= "Virtus to Carter." =/\=

"Go ahead Vic."

=/\= "Have you checked your message queue lately?" =/\=

Carter rolled his eyes. "Vic," he said, letting a little too much frustration come through his voice, "I really don't have time for this."

=/\= "Remember who you're talking to John. I know exactly how much time you have. Just check it." =/\=

"Is my ship in one piece?"

=/\= “Just polarizing the interlocks now, Lieutenant Commander." =/\=

"Okay then, you've got a deal. Carter out."

John took a few steps to the wall mounted computer terminal. 'Something must be wrong,' Carter thought. 'Vic never refers to me by rank.' John didn't bother to use the computer's voice interface. Instead, he did what he had always done, took a hands on approach. A few chirps and beeps later, and there it was; in simple block interlac seriph script:

Hola Comprades,

I am back, but not in the CS.  Fowler behind it, don't know why.  Kostya making R his FS.  Transfer take place as scheduled.  Working as K's adjunct.  Figure some might not like that idea.  You'll know how to find me.

"Hola, Compadres?" Carter blurted out loud. "What the Sprock does that mean!"

Behind him, the door to Admiral Kostya's quarters opened with a soft swish. "It's Spanish, an old Earth dialect." Jim Marshall said. "I haven't kept you from anything important I hope."

Carter shot his former Captain a look that could have melted duranium. He felt his pulse jump, his heart race, and had to work hard to keep from laying a right cross on Jim Marshall's jaw.

"Always happy to make time for ex-crewmates, Captain," John said, careful to hold his temper. "What can I do for you?"

Marshall looked at his XO for a few long seconds, not sure what might have gotten the Martian officer's nose out of joint. "Nothing I suppose. The crew's done a fine job of finding the Admiral's things," he said easily. "Mine too, in fact." Marshall stepped into the spacious quarters, waiting for John to follow. "Have a second?"

"Not really," John remarked. "Where's the Admiral?" He followed Marshall into his Admiral's quarters.

"Kostya's taking a tour of the ship. Ensign Wolcott was quite eager to show him around."

"Wonderful," John hissed. "Vic LOVES unexpected visits from flag officers."

"Speaking of unexpected," Marshall said, taking the obvious cue. "I'm sorry if the last few days have been..." Marshall dropped his head slightly, "difficult for you."

"No you're not," Carter said, before he could stop himself.

"Excuse me?"

"You're not sorry," Carter said plainly. "In fact, right now, I'm not sure exactly WHAT to make of you."

Marshall was a bit surprised. Giving up Republic was the hardest thing he'd had to do, and Marshall desperately wanted to make up for that mistake. He had hoped Carter would understand that. Apparently he'd been wrong.

"What's on your mind, Carter?"

John steadied his stance. Jim Marshall used to know that if he asked Carter that question, he was going to get the XO's unvarnished, brutally honest opinion. For Carter, that hadn't changed.

Carter cleared his throat. "Who the Hell do you think you are!?"

"I think I'm a Captain in Starfleet."

"Are you sure? Because you're not acting like it!"

Marshall took two steps back. "What did you say?"

"You ditched your ship. In the middle of a major refit, after we lost 47 people. You left."

"I was re-assigned. It happens."

"Bull!" John shouted. "I checked with Fleet Personnel. You asked Admiral Perry to re-assign you, because you wanted some extra time off!"

Marshall felt his jaw drop. Someone in Admiral Perry’s office must have let something slip, and scuttlebutt was more reliable than subspace. Marshall looked his former XO in the eye. "Watch your tone, Carter." Marshall felt himself getting defensive, "I may not be your Captain, but I'm still your superior officer."

"No sir, you're not," Carter shot back. "You just outrank me." Carter spun and walked toward the door. "My Captain ordered me here to make sure the Admiral's things were in order. You've confirmed that they are." The doors opened at Carter's approach. He looked back at Marshall. "Change of Command on the bridge in 30. Hope you enjoy your stay on Republic, Sir."

With that, Carter was gone, leaving Marshall alone in the spacious room, stunned. "Welcome home, Jim. Hope you survive the experience," he said out loud.

 

<location: Port Nacelle catwalk, looking up at the warp coil housing, USS Republic >

"I'm very surprised we did not find Lieutenant Commander Virtus here Admiral.  His schedule shows him overseeing the installation of the new number three coil at this time, and he *never* deviates from his schedule."

"I see.  Let us make use of some of the resources available to us, shall we ensign?  I seem to recall a trick or two from my days aboard Starfleet vessels."

Ensign Wolcott stared at the Admiral incomprehensibly.

"Computer.  Where is Lieutenant Commander Virtus?"

=/\= “Lieutenant Commander Virtus is in his quarters.” =/\=

"Let us not disturb him then.  Do carry on ensign.  I've not kept up with any of the most recent developments in starship design philosophy.  You were saying that this ship is modeled after the fifth Enterprise, and they've already built a sixth."

"Yuh-yes sir."

 

<location:  CMO’s office, main sickbay, USS Republic>

"You could have just told him to get lost."  Leon was sitting back in his chair behind the desk with his arms stretched back behind his head.  His desk contained a plethora of datapads, along with file IC's and a cup of coffee about two-thirds full.  Although the desktop suggested a busy duty shift, Doctor Cromwell offered no hint of such.  Instead, he appeared relaxed, and was conversing with the new temporary ship's counselor, Doctor Harris.

"Look, I didn't realize who he was until after he invited me to dinner.  Honest."  Harris, in contrast to Leon, was visibly irritated and perturbed, and paced the length of the office.

"C'mon, Shannon.  How can you miss a name like Horatio Bombay?"

"It just didn't ring any bells right away," she said with exasperation.  "I can't believe he asked me to call him 'Horace'!"

"What were you thinking about that kept you from recognizing him right away?" Cromwell asked.  "The guy broke into our staff meeting yesterday and had a showdown with me!"

Harris didn't answer.  Although she tried to hide the fact her thoughts that evening were about Carter, the display of recognition across Leon's face betrayed her.

"Did you tell him about it?" he asked.

"I tried last night at the Hill," she admitted.  "He and Virtus were having a late-night conference, and I had a talk with him shortly afterwards."

"But?" Leon edged on.

"But he was tired and borderline incoherent," her voice contained a suggestion of regret.  "I couldn't get myself to tell him."

"So I assume you're going to inform our new captain of the bad news?"

"What bad news?" she asked defensively.

"That you won't be going to his quarters for dinner tonight."

"And what makes you think I'm going to do that?" Harris shot back.

Leon's sat forward with a sober and dreadfully serious look on his face, folding his hands on top of the desk.  "Because you know John would object."

Harris threw a dagger-filled glance at the doctor.  Deep down inside, she knew he was right, but she also didn't like the idea that her medical supervisor was meddling in her personal affairs.  It was quite enough that he practically forced the ship's counselor position down her throat.  Bringing up her feelings about the Republic's executive officer was stepping over the line, in her opinion.

"And," added Leon. "Because it's a gross violation of protocol.  You know full well that it's inappropriate for a ship captain to be privately socializing with a subordinate."

The proverbial straw finally broke the camel's back.

"Who do you think you are?" Harris exploded at Doctor Cromwell.  "It was just an innocent dinner invitation!  Where do you get the idea that he's 'privately socializing' with me?"  She stormed to the office door, but stopped short.  Turning around with spite, she looked back at Leon and said, "besides.  For your information, there's no written regulation that I can't have dinner with our new captain.  As ship's counselor, it's my duty to evaluate the emotional status of the crew, especially the senior officers.  I see no reason that I can't do that on my off-duty hours."

"What about John's emotional status?" Leon continued to press.  "What do you think will happen to that when he eventually finds out?"

Inflamed, Harris only responded with a look of incredulity.  Her anger was so great, that she could no longer continue with the conversation.  Spinning around with fuming rage bellowing from her eyes, the doctor-turned-counselor abruptly left the office.

"I guess I won't be seeing her for a while," Leon muttered to himself with a hint of regret, but confident that she'll return to apologize if given enough time.  He stared at the wall for at least a minute before standing up with intensions to leave the office when he noticed a blinking light on his computer console.  There was a note in his messaging queue.  Sitting back down, Leon read the missive:

Hola Comprades,

I am back, but not in the CS.  Fowler behind it, don't know why.  Kostya making R his FS.  Transfer take place as scheduled.  Working as K's adjunct.  Figure some might not like that idea.  You'll know how to find me.

Doctor Cromwell frowned with confusion.  "What on earth is this?" he mumbled, instinctively pressing the Universal Translator button several times.  Unfortunately, his hopes of decoding the mysterious text were futile, as the unaltered message was redisplayed after being filtered through the UT.  Leon was about to contact the shuttle deck officer to say he received a misdirected message about how the Runabout Fowler was blocking a Cargo Shuttle (which the doctor assumed the initials ‘CS’ were for).

However, before he had the chance to transmit the message, the door to his office opened.  A tall, young Starfleet captain dressed in a class-A uniform stood in the foyer, and although the beard and moustache were an obvious addition, the face behind them was easily recognized.  The doctor, with his jaw hanging open, slowly stood up from his desk.

"Jim?"

"Glad to see you still remember me, Leon," replied James Marshall, the Republic's former captain.

"But what are you doing back?  I thought you were relieved of command while we were on shore leave."

"Well, I was," admitted Marshall.  "It was supposed to be temporary.  However, someone within Starfleet is working to make it permanent."

"I don't understand," Leon shook his head.  "Why would they reassign you if you were supposed to be coming back?  The Republic was taken off active duty as it was.  We weren't in need of a captain until we were space worthy again."

"Let's just say it was an embarrassing mistake on may part," Jim said sheepishly.  "And I'm having a hard time finding redemption."

"Jim, what are you talking about?"

"Let's just say that Carter wasn't too pleased about seeing me again."

"You can't blame him," Leon said bluntly.  "You left us so abruptly; no one had time to adjust.  Especially him.  He was your first officer, you know.  You could have at least told him that you were leaving."

"I don't suppose you know of anyway I can make it up to him?"

"Well," Leon said thoughtfully.  "You could try apologizing.  To both him and the crew.  Leaving them in their greatest time of need wasn't exactly the most responsible thing to do as their commanding officer."  He looked at Captain Marshall with scrutinizing eyes.  "You didn't come back here to just to ask me that, did you?"

There was no avoiding it.  Marshall was going to have to explain himself to the good doctor.  Taking a seat, Jim sat forward with his elbows resting on his knees.  "I requested the transfer, doc."

"You what?" Leon gasped with exasperation, collapsing back into his seat.

"I said, I originally requested the transfer," Jim was becoming slightly embarrassed at the reiteration of his situation.  "I left the ship to get some time to myself, hoping that I would come back and take command again.  While I was on my way to Risa, someone in Starfleet's high brass made the transfer permanent."

"Jim . . ." Leon was at a loss for words.  "Why would you do that?"

Shaking his head, Marshall decided to put all his cards on the table.  Swallowing his pride, he replied "Leon, I don't know if I was meant to command a starship.  On more than half of the missions I've commanded since we left the Sol system, I've lost people.  And not just a few.  A lot.  The total number is over a hundred now, and I'm getting the reputation as 'the grim reaper' at Starfleet Headquarters.  It's humiliating!"

Realizing that this was going to be another therapeutic session requiring his non-medical skills, Leon stood up and retrieved a pair of whiskey glasses from a nearby shelf.  Opening a lower desk drawer, he produced a bottle of sparkling yellow liquid and filled the two drinking vessels, offering one to Marshall.

"Jim," said the doctor soothingly.  "We're at war.  We're bound to lose people."

"Not at this rate," remarked the captain, still shaking his head between sips of his drink.  "It's no wonder Admiral Fowler found an excuse to replace me.  My track record is scaring the pants off many people at fleet headquarters."

"How many times do I have to tell you the deaths aren't your fault?  I'm tortured over the casualty rate too, but I have to keep telling myself that they're casualties of war.  You think I'm not suffering over the loss of Doctor Y'lair and Ensign Brooke?"

Jim did not reply, choosing to remain silent and staring blankly at his drink.

"So what are you doing back?" Leon finally asked after a moment of silence.

"I'm adjunct to Admiral Kostya.  He's onboard and transferring his flag to this ship."

Looking confused at the news, Doctor Cromwell remarked, "there's an admiral on board?"

Nodding, Marshall continued, "yes.  And he's going to try and get me back into the command seat."

Leon was now totally confused.  He looked at his glass wondering if someone had slipped a hallucinogen into his only bottle of Rigellian Cordial.

"Jim, you just said that you gave up command because you weren't sure if you were cut out to be captain, then complained about how many deaths occurred under your command, and now you're telling me you're trying to get back command of the Republic?  Have you gone Space-Happy?"

"I wish I could tell you exactly why I'm doing it," he admitted finally.  "On one hand, I really want to make it up to the crew with everything they've lost.  On the other, I want to prove to myself that I'm not what Starfleet and Fowler have made me out to be.  But most of all . . ."  Jim leaned a little closer to Leon, lowering his voice.  "Something's happening in Starfleet.  A power struggle.  Why?  I don't know.  But the Republic's caught in the middle.  Koysta's on one side, and Fowler on the other.  Bombay isn't on Kostya's side, which means he's on Fowler's.  One thing's for sure: There's a lot going on here, Leon.  A lot more than either of us know, I'm afraid.  The main reason I'm trying to take the Republic back is because Kostya wants me to.  He wants ME here instead of Bombay, and that's one order I plan on following."

Marshall finished his drink, and placed the empty glass down on the desk.  Standing up, he looked Leon in the eye.  "Keep this under your hat for now.  I don't want Bombay to know we're onto him.  Okay?"

Cromwell slowly nodded his head.

"I'm off to the change-of-command ceremony," Jim switched subjects, with his voice returning to normal volume.  "Are you coming?"

"I'll be along shortly," Leon said carefully, still reviewing what Marshall had just told him.

Jim gave a friendly smile and replied, "thanks for the drink.  I'll see you soon."  With that, he left the office.

Leon watched the door close, unsure of what to make of the whole situation.  He stared thoughtfully at the closed door, regarding Marshall with both concern and suspicion.  If the captain was right, and there was a high-brass power struggle taking place in Starfleet, it could explain his own top-secret reserve activation order.  There was only one person that Leon knew of how could get to the bottom of it.

"Computer," Leon said, pressing a button on his desk.  "Location of Lieutenant Commander Carter?"

 

<Location: VIP Quarters, USS Republic>

Kostya Sat at his desk in the VIP quarters assigned to him.

"Hummm…" He said working in to his chair, "Better then that science ship."

He got up and walked over to the replicator, and ordered "Coffee, two sugars." He watched as the drink materialized, and walked back to his desk to finish reading the real reports from the war zone.

"How did I not know?" He sunk his head in to his hands, "So many people, so many ships, and where was I?" He continued, answering his own question, "On Risa, on the beach, drinking a Mai-Tai."

He heard the door chirp, cleared his throat, and stood adjusting his uniform, a calm came over his face. "Come."

Kostya looked on as Captain Bombay walked in to the room, "Admiral, long time no see."

Kostya looked at him and replied, "Yes it has, I thought you were no longer in the service."

Bombay surveyed the admiral, "You would have liked that wouldn't you?  After all of the things we have been through you wanted me to drop off the face of the universe.  Well you may be a superior officer but I think you are the worst thing to ever have worn an admiral's pips.  Chris, where were you?  Why didn't you come to lead us in our time of need?  Instead you were on Risa, no doubt drinking away your life."

Kostya calmly looked on and replied, "The times have been tough, I didn't know it, I was on extended leave, and getting regular reports, they were not accurate.  I am bringing myself up to date on the latest, but so much has happened.  I will allow you to attack my character, and my past, but Captain, if you ever attack this uniform again, I will personally throw you out of an airlock.  I earned this uniform on the battlefields of the Cardassian War, the Dominion War, I have given my life to the service, I gave my wife and children to the service, and all I have left is this uniform." Continued the Admiral, "You were there for most of it, and you were one of the best first officers I have ever had, until that fateful day you chose to leave me for dead on that planet.  The landing team had 45 women and children with us, and when we reached the transport location, you were gone.  The Cardassians took me prisoner and slaughtered the rest, including my wife and children, and you let it happen.  So Captain, I respectfully request that you NEVER, question my uniform again."

By this point the two officers were but inches apart, Bombay broke the silence, "Admiral, I left because I though you were dead, had I known, I would have stayed."

"Well, be that as it may, what do you want?" replied Kostya.

"Sir, I would like you to officiate at the transfer of command ceremony, and I would like to know, why you are transferring your flag to MY ship?"

Kostya smiled, "It is not your ship, you are but a guardian.  I will be at the ceremony, and I will oversee it personally.  As for why I am transferring my flag to this ship, well I am within my rights to do so.  I am a ship captain at heart and I will not let this ship go in to battle with you in command.  So, unless there is something else."  Kostya turned and walked back to his desk, "Oh and it only took a good captain, and a few reports to get me up to speed. Dismissed."

Without another word, Captain Bombay left the room.

The admiral sat down at his desk to finish some reports.  He looked across the room and saw a map of the current conflict, "Computer, who ordered the Republic in to hostile territory?" he asked.

=/\= "That is classified information, Security Clearance 9 and above." =/\=

Kostya taped in his command codes, and read the orders, "Who was sending these?" He read further, "I don't remember sending these orders, but there is my signature, and command codes."  He looked up from the PADD, and tapped the communication panel on his desk, "Admiral Kostya to Bridge, patch me through to the Captains of the USS Antietam, and USS Bataan on a secure non-federation frequency."

=/\= "No can do sir" =/\=

Obviously agitated the admiral replied, "Excuse me?"

=/\= "No can do sir, Captain Bombay has restricted all communication to those ships." =/\=

He cleared his throat and spoke as calm as he could, "I am sure you can make an exception for me, I am an Admiral.”  Continuing slowly, he added "I would like you to put me through to the Antietam and the Bataan, now."

=/\= "No can do, I was ordered not to allow anyone to communicate with certain ships in the fleet, and since I follow orders, I am not going to allow someone posing as an Admiral to order me around, good day. Bridge Out." =/\=

Adjusting his uniform, the admiral muttered, "Damn kids."  He walked over to the mirror, and inspected his dress uniform.  "Something isn't right, not right at all, and I am going to find out what it is."

Kostya tugged on his uniform, and walked out of his quarters.

 

<location: corridor, deck eight, USS Republic>

Jim had just left sickbay after meeting Leon, but there was one thing he had to do before heading to the bridge for the transfer of command.  He would have preferred that it be in The Hill, but he wasn't the one who planned it.  Before heading to the ceremony, he decided to see Admiral Kostya.  Finding him in the corridor outside the VIP quarters, Jim joined the admiral as they both headed for a turbolift.

"Admiral, I need a favor," said Marshall.

"Yes" Kostya replied.

"Sir, I've been trying to get Lieutenant Commander Carter promoted to full commander. The problem is that it's being held up.  I'm wondering if it's possible for you to lift that hold," said Jim.

 "Carter? Your XO?" questioned Kostya.

"Yes," said Marshall, "If it wasn't for his quick thinking I may not be alive today. His record is exemplary, and he's one of the best officers in the fleet.  Frankly sir he deserves it."

"Well in that case . . . sure, I can lift the ban." Kostya Continued, "Who put a hold on it anyway?"

Marshall replied, "I did some investigating.  Bombay said that Carter needed to prove to him that he deserved it, but I also found that Admiral Fowler has been taking care of getting new personnel for Bombay.  I think he's involved, but I don't know for sure."

"Fowler . . . Fowler . . . I remember him.  Tall thin man, dark hair, dark eyes?  I thought he was out administrating in the fringes, how did he get back here?"

"That's him," said Marshall, "I don't know how he got here, but he's here.  He's been friends with Bombay for a long time.

“I have one requirement in order to lift the hold on Carter’s promotion,” the admiral added. “I want you to promote him at the transfer ceremony."

“I'll go along with that.  It might help mend the fence.  Carter's not too happy with me right now."  As they entered the turbolift, Marshall said, "Bridge."

Kostya turned to Marshall, "What is going on at SF Command?  Who ordered you to the war zone?"

"I wish I knew.  My connections at Command have been exhausted.  The order was relayed to me through Admiral Maverick," said Marshall.

"Did they have my signature on them?" asked Kostya.

Marshall replied, "I don't believe so.  I'd have to look at them again.  I want to say no, but now anything's possible."

"Ok," Kostya said, and continued, "Do people know I am board?  I had a bad run in with a bridge officer a few minutes ago."

"From what I've heard they know you're on board, but the crew doesn't know why you are.  Don't worry about that run in with the bridge officer.  They don't know you," said Marshall.

The turbolift doors open and deposited them onto the bridge.  Marshall was surprised to see Captain Bombay had not arrived yet.  He walked down the ramp to the command seats, and saw Carter occupying the center seat.  "Captain," he said.

"Lieutenant Commander," replied Marshall as Carter rose taking his usual seat.  Marshall sat in his chair for what would be the last time.  Marshall turned to Carter and said, "I owe you an apology.  I know I messed up, and I'm not perfect.  I'm only human, but I went for three years without shore leave and this time I wanted to make sure I got it.  I know the ship is in an uncomfortable spot right now.  It was supposed to be temporary I didn't make out the orders, but we have to play the hand we're dealt.  I hope you can forgive me."  Marshall heard the doors open and he turned to see Captain Bombay walking down the ramp.

"Captain Marshall, Admiral Kostya, let's get this show on the road," said Bombay.

Kostya turned to Bombay, "Yes, let's"

"Lieutenant Sullivan open a channel to all decks," said Marshall.  He was about to do the hardest thing he had ever done, and he hoped that things would turn out all right for the crew because of it.

"Channel open," replied Sullivan.

Kostya said, "We are here today to formally transfer command of the USS Republic from Captain Marshall, to Captain Bombay.  But first Captain Marshall I believe you want to do something," Kostya paused and looked at him. 

Marshall stepped forward and said, "Brave crew of the U.S.S. Republic. As Admiral Kostya said I will no longer be serving as Captain of the Republic.  I know I have made some mistakes lately and I apologize.  I hope you can find it in your hearts to forgive me.  During our time together we've been through a lot.  We've stuck together and survived because of it.  You are the finest crew I've ever had the pleasure of serving with, and to show that I have one last thing to do before I transfer command to your new Captain.  Lieutenant Commander John T. Carter, please step forward."

Carter rose from his seat, and approached Captain Marshall.  Marshall spoke, "John Carter, you have served with honor and dignity.  Your guidance has been unmatched and your service is exemplary.  I have come to trust your advice and I hope you will continue that with Captain Bombay.  Most seriously, you have earned the respect and admiration of the entire crew."  Marshall reached for Carter's collar and added one pip.  He then said,  "It is at this time that I promote you to the rank of commander, with all the rights and privileges that go with it.  Congratulations, commander."

Carter replied, "Thank you sir," and went back to his seat.  At that time Bombay stepped forward.

"Computer," said Marshall, "Transfer command to Captain Horatio Bombay. Authorization Marshall three seven omega gamma."

=/\= “Transfer complete.  U.S.S. Republic is now under the command of Captain Horatio Bombay.” =/\=

"I relieve you captain," said Bombay.

"I stand relieved," replied Marshall.

"Admiral Kostya," said Bombay, "I believe you have a presentation of your own to make."

Kostya cleared his throat, "I have new orders for the Republic, I am now formally transferring my flag to this ship.  We are to proceed to he Lojurus system to broker peace between the Kreltans and the Federation."  I am to go along and make sure it all goes as planned, this war has last far too long and we will end it."

"Well, that's that," said Bombay, "To the crew of the Republic. I look forward to working with you.  I expect that you will follow my orders as you did Captain Marshall's.  We will work together to ensure peace for the Federation.  That'll be all."  The channel closed as Bombay turned to Marshall and said, "Get off my bridge . . . commodore.  I want to see you in my ready room once we're en route to Lojurus."

As odd as it seemed, Bombay was making use of an ancient, seldom-used regulation in Starfleet which required that the rank of a visiting captain aboard a starship be augmented to the flag rank of commodore to discriminate them from the actual commander of the ship.  Although this regulation was moot for other permanent senior officers with the rank of captain who serve under the current skipper, by calling Marshall by the quaint rank, it was his own way of saying ‘this is my ship, and you’re just along for the ride’.

Kostya turned to Bombay, "Congrats captain, I would like to be in contact with the Anteitam and the Bataan in ten minutes, plus I would like a strategy room set up and staffed, I am taking control of the war, on the combat and diplomatic fronts. Now."

"Lieutenant Sullivan, see to it that the Admiral is set up with the Antietam and the Bataan," said Bombay.  He then hit the communications button on the command chair. 

 “Bridge to engineering.  Mister Virtus, how is the ship holding up?”

=/\= “Good so far Captain.  I'll have these engines whipped into shape in no time.” =/\=

Since it won't take you anytime on the engines I need your team to set up a strategy room where ever there's space.

=/\= “We'll get on it just as soon as we can Captain.” =/\=

“Have it done in four hours.  Bridge out.”

Bombay then turned to Carter, "Commander Carter, see to it that the strategy room has the appropriate staffing requirements that the Admiral would like."

"Yes sir," said Carter.

Marshall stood there watching the crew, the one he had chosen, and come to respect, take orders from another captain.  Kostya then left with Marshall in the turbolift.

Bombay ordered, "Helm, lay in a course to Lojurus and engage at warp 7.  Ops, inform Commodore Marshall that I want to see him in 2 hours.  I'll come to him."

 

<location: Tail-Spin Saloon, Starbase 129>

Not for the first (or last) time in his life, Nathan Hawk stood face-to-face with the gravest of odds.  The situation was grim, and he would need a good bit of luck to get out of this particular pickle.  But in his twenty-seven years, he'd been in worse jams and come out on top.  Silently, he sized up his options.  They where considerably limited.  But then again, that was how his enemy wanted them.  Taking aim, Nat took one last look at his implacable foe and offered a cocky grin.

"Nine-Ball, Corn'a Pocket." He called.  An instant later, on a wing and a prayer, he let fly the cue in his hand.  The impact on the scuff-marked cue-ball was perfect, but would it be what he needed to succeed?

As if stuck in a temporal anomaly, Nat saw everything in slow motion, as the cue-ball darted across the table, bounced off the far bumper and ricocheted at a high rate of speed into the nine-ball.  The nine ball then became his focus as it zigzagged across the table, moving around the other balls obstructing its path in perfect form.  It had two narrow misses, and then - success.

"Ha!" Nat shouted uncontrollably as the assembled crowd let loose with a round of appreciative applause.  He then looked up to Lieutenant Strom; A Vulcan, Starbase 129's resident Chief Science Officer, and a Class-1A pain-in-his-ass.

"Emotional Outbursts are hardly conductive to an appropriate or effective playing atmosphere, Lieutenant." Strom said, his tone cool as ice to the untrained ear.  Nat knew better though; he was getting to the Vulcan - deep down - and that made him continue to grin.

"What's with this guy?" Nat asked of the assembled crowd, his thick southern draw apparent.  "I just made the hardest shot in the secta!" Nat protested, only half-jovially.  He'd made harder shots before, not only in pool, but in many different situations over the years.  It simply gave him joy to put the Vulcan in his place.  Or, to at least attempt too.

"Anyone with even the most basic understanding of simple geometry and physics could have made that particular shot, Lieutenant." Strom protested.  It took Nat a second or two to realize that the argument was also a shrouded insult at his intelligence.

"Bull." Nat retorted simply.  "That was skill, my pointy-eared friend.  Pure an simple.  Geometry didn't have jack ta do with it."

"Are you always this . . . emotional?" Strom queried, his eyebrow pitched a smidge.

"Sometimes more-so." Nat joked, a devil-may-care grin taking shape, as often was the case.  The crowd chuckled as they enjoyed the apparently playful banter.  And Nat fed off those good vibes, knowing they probably irritated the hell out of Strom.

"It is still your turn, Lieutenant." Strom said after a moment, as if he had to remind him.

"So it is, so it is..." Nat said, sizing up the situation on the table with a keen eye.

=/\= "Ops to Lieutenant Hawk.” =/\=

A dis-enchanted voice came over the comm-line.  Nat sighed openly and rolled his eyes as the crowd moaned in displeasure.

=/\= "Report to Airlock Twelve, the Redford is ready to depart." =/\=

"Looks like that's all folks." Nat said, leaning his cue against the table.  With a nod to Strom he began to depart, the crowd dispersing.

"Then you forfeit." Strom said matter-of-factly.  Unlike a Human or any other emotionally inclined species, it wasn't meant as a challenge.

Nat stopped dead in his tracks though.  After a moment, he spun on his heels.  "Ta hell I do." He said.  This brought the assemblage of patrons in the Saloon to pleased cheers as Nat resumed his place at the table.

"I did not mean my comment to elicit an emotional response, Lieutenant.  You do have duties to attend to."  Strom said.

"They'll wait." Nat said with a slice of attitude to his voice as he picked up his cue.

"Your illogical over-confidence aside, how can you be so sure?" Strom asked, curiously, as his left eyebrow arched upward fully now.

"Cause," Nat replied, as he lined up his next shot.  "I'm the pilot." he finished, as he followed-through with his shot.

The night was young, and the Vulcan still arrogant.  Starfleet could wait its damn turn.

 

<location: Shuttlecraft Redford, Starbase 129>

"Finally," muttered an irritated looking Junior Lieutenant in the aft cabin of the Class-9 shuttle as Nat stepped aboard.  He didn't pay the kid much attention though, most likely because the kid was a he and not a she.  He instead simply stowed his duffle bag -- now a few kilos heavier thanks to tonight's winnings -- then made his way to the Pilots chair at the front of the Cabin.  In the co-pilots seat was a Bolian Ensign who looked more worried than anything else.  He was glad they'd assigned him a Speedboat - that's what pilots called these sleek and maneuverable class nines.  Aerodynamic to an extreme and built for upper-atmospheric flight, they where faster at impulse than anything yet developed.  

"We're going to be late, sir!" said the Bolian anxiously as Nat fell back into the Pilot's Chair.  He didn't reply to the Bolian as he wasn't really listening to him.  Instead he simply savored the moment, taking a deep breath and getting comfortable in the chair.  He hadn't been behind the controls of a ship in nearly two months, and this moment was like the first sip of whiskey after a long away mission.

"Prepare for departure," he said, as all business as he could manage.

"We're going to miss our rendezvous, sir!" cried the Bolian.

"What'd you just call me?" Nat asked, tearing his eyes from the console and planting them firmly on the Bolian's own, his face brandishing a look of disgust and contempt.

"Uhm.. Sir, sir?  Is something wrong?" he asked.

Nat sighed.  Bolian's may be blue, but this one was as 'green' at they come.

"Don't call me sir." he said, sounding a might irritated.

"Sorry Sir-..uhm, er, Lieutenant." the Bolian replied.

"That'll do, just don't use the S-word in reference ta me." Nat replied.

"With all due respect, Lieutenant," the Junior Lieutenant in the back said, using Nat's rank with about as much respect as Nat used the word Sir.  "Starfleet Regulations specifically state subordinates are to address their superiors by proper terms of respect, and while rank is one of the accepted forms of that, I don't think it's regulation for you to tell subordinates not to refer to you as sir, sir." he said.

"You say one more word an I'm kickin' ya off this boat," Nat threatened, directing his comment to the Junior Lieutenant.

"With all due respect sir, I don't think you have the authority to do that." replied the Junior Lieutenant.

"That's more'an one," Nat said.  "Get off." he said.

The dumb-founded Junior Lieutenant gave Nat a look like he'd just told him to jump into a warp-core breech.

"Lemme explain somethin' to ya, kid," Nat said, turning in his chair.  "See this?" he said, pointing to his second gold pip.  He didn't wait for a response.  "This lil thing says you've gotta do what I say.  An I say, get off the damn boat." he said.

The Junior Lieutenant opened his mouth to protest, but Nat just pointed at his pip again.  After a moment, the Junior Lieutenant stood up and stepped out of the shuttle and into the airlock.  Nat turned in his chair and sealed the door and the airlock a moment later.

"Much bett'r," he said to himself as he detached umbilical and activated the thrusters.  Moments later, they where lifting off of the docking pad.

"Lieutenant?" the Bolian asked with trepidation.

"Yeah?" Nat asked, keeping his eyes on the stars.

"Are we just going to leave him there?" he asked.

"You decide." Nat responded.

"Me?" he asked.

"Less there's somebody else in here with us," Nat responded.

"I . . . think . . . w-we should, uh, beam him . . . aboard?" the Bolian said, hesitantly.  He then kept quiet, as if waiting for Nat to do or say something.

"Well?  You do know howda work the transporter, don't ya?" Nat asked, keeping his eyes on the console.

"Oh, yeah," he said, a bit surprised.  A few moments later, the Junior Lieutenant was back aboard, infuriated.  He'd probably been en-route to the station Commander's office when the proverbially Green Bolian had beamed him back aboard.  Nat knew without looking he was about to say something and cut him off before he had the chance.

"Now si'down and shuddup." Nat said simply.

The Junior Lieutenant no longer protested, and simply did as he was told to.  Nat in turn entered their course and speed into the console before him.  In six hours, they would rendezvous with the Starship Searfoss, a Nova-Class science ship demoted to ferry duty.  From there, it would take the Searfoss a total of three days to cross the great expanse of space between here and their rendezvous with the Republic.  Three long, boring, pointless days to reach his next assignment which would launch in nine.  Then again, it was also three full days of nothing better to do than chase the local female population...

"Well," Nat said after a few moments of silence, as a grin washed over his mouth, "maybe this ride won't be so bad after all . . ."

 

<Location: U.S.S. Republic, Deck 5 conference room>

John Carter looked on with approval as Ensign Wolcott and Lieutenant Junior Grade Pakita dropped the last MSSD panel in place. The work the engineering detail had done was exquisite. Fast and precise, but then, John expected nothing less from a crew trained by Victor Virtus. John braced himself against the conference room's new illuminated table and looked around the room.

Galaxy class starships certainly didn't lack for space, and their appointments were generally considered bright, soft and friendly, but this room now told anyone who walked in one thing: 'This room is the center of the universe.' John chuckled as he realized just how true that might be. Maria Pakita looked in Carter's direction. "Something wrong XO?" she asked.

"Not at all," John reflected, "I just can't believe you managed to miniaturize the immersive display from Stellar Cartography to do . . . " John waved his hand in front of him, "whatever it does."

Pakita straightened up, slipping a fusion router into one of the pockets of her loose fitting utility vest. "It's really simple actually," she explained. "We adapted the holo-projector arrays from the holo-deck and cross-referenced the database with the folks down in Cart. Can't really tell you why we didn't think of it before."

"Show me again?"

Pakita stepped closer to the polished steel table in the center of the room. "Computer," she called out, "engage strategic display of the Lojourus system."

After a soft beep, the lighting in the room darkened, and recessed holo-projectors hummed to life, showing every detail of the system Republic was racing toward in full, three-dimensional glory.

Truly impressed by the technology of the display, Carter reached out to brush his hand past a nearby star. "Damn but that's sprocking cool," he whispered.

"Careful John," the voice of Shannon Harris cautioned, "you don't want to go changing the gravitational constant of the universe . . . again. I don't think Vic would forgive you twice.” Confused by Shannon's voice, Carter spun on a heel to see where it had come from. "That fourth pip looks good on your collar J.T."

The scene was wrong, and Carter knew it was. He wasn't a Captain, he was XO on the Republic, and nobody but nobody called him J.T. despite this, a part of John's psyche knew that he'd lived through this moment before, and would again. Surprisingly, John didn't feel confusion at this at all, and only briefly wondered why he didn't. "Careful with that Shannon," he said with a smile. "No one calls me J.T."

The scarlet-haired Doctor stepped toward her paramour with an easy grace. "What are you gonna do about it . . . J.T."

John felt a not-so-innocent smirk cross his face as Shannon crept closer. "Oh, I don't know," he said, quirking his head to the side, "I might have to put you on report."

"Ooo...discipline," Shannon cooed. "Promise?"

John reached for the Doctor's hand. "How about we head to Ten-Forward for dinner first, then we'll see."

"Will there be anything else, XO?" Pakita asked.

For the moment John couldn't speak. Something had happened again, but unlike the episode a few days ago, there was no pain, no fever, only minor annoyance. "What was that?"

"It's close to 1700. We're done here. Headed to the Hill for some chow."

John tapped his comm. badge. "Carter to Commodore Marshall."

=/\= "Marshall here, go ahead Commander." =/\=

Apparently, Bombay wasn’t the only officer aboard who knew about the regulation that was a descendant of one of the oldest naval traditions. Carter too believed that a ship should have only one captain, and that to eliminate confusion, any officers on board a vessel who hold the rank of captain but were not the commanding officer of the ship, should be granted the brevet rank of commodore as a courtesy not only to the guest officers, but to the ship's CO as well.

"The detail's done spectacular work on the War Room sir. Inform Admiral Kostya that we're on schedule for his strategy briefing."

=/\= "My compliments to Commander Virtus. Thank you commander, Marshall out. =/\=

"Man, do I need a drink. Chow sounds perfect," John agreed, as he followed the engineering team out.

 

<location: deck ten, forward, USS Republic>

Leon Cromwell looked nervously as Shannon Harris nursed a drink at a table in Republic's crew lounge, affectionately known as 'The Hill'.  Leon looked into the remainder of his Aldeberan whiskey and reflected that he might have over-stepped his bounds with regard to Harris' relationship to Carter, or Captain Bombay. Leon heard the doors to The Hill chime open as Horatio Bombay entered the lounge. "Uh oh," Cromwell whispered. He watched as Bombay made a beeline for Republic's acting Counselor. Leon rolled his eyes, softly repeating: "None of my business. None of my business." After a few moments he was feeling better, despite how friendly the Captain seemed toward Doctor Harris.

The Hill doors chimed again as Commander John Carter entered the lounge along with two engineers. "Oh Hell," Leon hissed, downing the rest of his whiskey. His eyes immediately went to where Harris and Bombay were sitting, silently noting that his Captain had chosen a very bad time to pat the Counselor on the shoulder.

Moving close to warp speed, John Carter raced to Horatio Bombay's side and took hold of the Captain's wrist.

Bombay's eyes went wide with shock as he turned, sensing someone's approach. He suppressed a yelp as Carter interposed himself. "What the Hell do you think you're doing Carter?"

Carter's fury had a life of it's own, and he heard himself screaming while not being sure of his words. "Listen to me, you washed up dunsel!" Carter thundered. "I don't know how you found your way back in uniform, and I damn sure don't know you got on my ship . . ."

The room fell silent as the assembled crewmen took in the scene. In his now too-quiet corner, Leon Cromwell rose to his feet.  

"But get your sprocking hands off my wife!"

The standoff between Bombay and Carter lasted for what seemed to be an eternity while the eerie reticence permeated the room.  Confusion was shared by not only the captain, but also the entire compliment within The Hill.  Scuttlebutt, over the past month, had revealed to the crew that chemistry was brewing between Harris and the XO, but it did not prepare them for what they just heard.  Captain Bombay was the most confused, and that bewilderment was compounded by John’s tight grip of his hand.  The Republic’s commander moved his head in quick twitches, glancing speechlessly between the inflamed executive officer, and the temporary counselor, Doctor Harris.  For her part, Shannon stared at Carter in befuddled astonishment, unsure if the wife comment was a joke, although his tone suggested otherwise.

Doctor Cromwell, after a full draught of Aldebaran whiskey, nervously watched the drama unfold from the bar.  He was about to intervene, but apprehension was holding him back.  Sliding his eyes sideways, he saw an opportunity to push aside the last of his trepidation by absconding with a glass of syntheholic rice wine, abandoned by a crewman who left the bar to join the gawking crowd around the counselor’s table.  After briskly gulping the second drink, Leon quickly returned the empty glass to the counter, took a deep breath of air, and quietly walked up behind Commander Carter.

“I don’t know what you two are up to,” reprimanded Captain Bombay spitefully to Carter and Harris.  “But I won’t stand by while my senior staff play games with me.”

Apparently, the perplexed skipper had come to the conclusion that he was being made a fool of, despite whether marriage between the two officers actually existed.  He forcefully wrenched his hand from Carter’s grasp before continuing.

“You are on report,” he ridiculed the executive officer. “And I will make damned sure that a letter of reprimand makes it into your permanent record for assaulting a superior officer.”

It was clear his pride was crushed, but whether the threat of punitive action by the captain would actually occur seemed dependant upon whether his next order would be adhered to.  He scanned the gathered crowd, with embarrassment and anger welling within his throat.

“As for the rest of you,” he bellowed to the assemblage of crew.  “All officers and enlisted personnel are hereby ordered to their duty stations for round-the-clock battle drills until such time I deem fit for you to stand down.”

Gasps of surprise overrode the previous spectacle of Carter’s odd behavior as Bombay gave one last dagger-filled glance towards the XO before leaving the room.

With Harris still staring at him, Carter did not move.  “John, she’s your ex-wife,” the words repeated within his head.  He was tensely becoming aware that what he said to the captain, no matter how right it seemed to him, had brought unwanted attention to his temporal displacement condition.  From behind, Doctor Cromwell offered a quiet suggestion.

“John, why don’t we go to my office?”

***

“Captain, he’s coming around.”

An aching pain shot through Carter’s head as the bright lights of sickbay filled his mind.  Slowly, he opened his one functioning eye, shielding it from the luminous backdrop with his hand.  A blond ensign in her twenties loomed over him with a diagnostic wand and a relieved smile.  John opened his mouth to speak, but a familiar voice spoke first.

“Thank you, nurse.  Please check on First Officer Virtus.”

The young woman was replaced by the aged face of Leon Cromwell.  As happy as John was to see him, time was not kind to the doctor as his clean-shaven face was replete with wrinkles that lined his cheeks and eyes, and an almost totally bald head offered only a hint of silvery gray hair around the back of the head.  He looked at the ailing commander of the Valiant with a broad, fatherly grin.  His maroon and gray captain’s uniform bore a communications badge of the fleet delta overlain by a caduceus, indicating a member of the Star Fleet Medical Corps.

“How do you feel, John?”

“Like a Tribble that’s been mauled by a Targ.  What the heck are you doing in this neck of the woods, Leon?”

“Long range sensor buoys picked up your distress call.  The Mercy just completed a relief mission to the Ficus sector, and we were the first to receive the relayed transmission.”

Carter struggled to move to a sitting position, but Cromwell intervened.

“Oh no you don’t, captain.  You and your ship have just been through one hell of a fight.  My chief physician said to keep you here for at least twenty-four hours.”

“Bull,” Carter said sourly, rubbing his eye patch.  “You’ve always been over-protective of your patients.”  Wincing with pain, John obliged with Leon’s wishes and laid back down.  “Couldn’t you keep this ship of yours from spinning?”

Leon smiled wryly.  “Couldn’t have been any worse than on the Devonshire.  You remember the Devonshire, don’t you John?”

Captain Carter was about to respond when he suddenly remembered the recent battle involving his own vessel. “How’s my ship?”

“I’m afraid the Valiant’s only a derelict now, John,” said Leon soberly.  “You took quite a beating.”

“Derelicts can be refitted,” John replied in an upbeat mood.  “Just bring her into a tractor beam, and have Vic look her over.”

With a sigh, Cromwell pulled a nearby stool over to the bed.  “It’s a bit more complicated than that, John.  We were only permitted to beam personnel from the Valiant.  I can’t send away teams.”

Confused, John’s forehead creased downward.  “What are you talking about?  Permitted by whom?”

In a lower volume, Captain Cromwell moved closer to Carter for a more private conversation.  “We’re not in Federation space, John.  I had to negotiate to get the Mercy here to rescue your crew.  No other Star Fleet vessels were allowed to come this far into enemy territory.”

“Negotiate?”  John said with an incredulous, perplexed whisper.  “What did you negotiate?”

“Let’s just say that I’m not treating only Federation casualties.”

John let out a heavy sigh, and leaned back into his biobed shaking his head.  “No.  I don’t believe it, Leon.  How could you give treatment to the enemy?  How can you live with that?  They could very well be the ones coming back to kill more Federation citizens!”

“I made a judgment call, John.  It was either this or letting you die in deep space.  I couldn’t let that happen.”

But John kept shaking his head.  “Leon, what are you doing?  What the HELL are you doing?”

***

“What the sprock are you doing?” John screamed, pushing away Leon’s arm.  The doctor was taken aback, and turned off the diagnostic wand.  He slowly put the device into the right hand pocket of his blue physician’s jacket.

“Look, John, I’m just trying to get to the bottom of this.”  Doctor Cromwell was looking concerned, and stared at Carter with questioning eyes.  “What happened?  Did you have another episode?”

Carter sat still for the moment, analyzing his surroundings.  He was on the Republic, and in a sickbay exam room.  Doctor Cromwell was a civilian contractor, and had a head full of hair.  As if by instinct, John raised his arm to touch his eyes, half expecting to find only one.  Lowering his arm, he resigned to the obvious.

“Yes.”

Leon frowned in confusion.  “I just don’t get it!  Everything checks out on the medical scans.  Your brain chemistry is functioning within norms, and the only physical change is a slight elevation in adrenaline.”  He walked over to a wall-mounted monitoring station, and continued to shake his head.  “Everything checks out . . .”

=/\= “Doctor Cromwell, could you come out here, please?” =/\=

It was Harris’ voice, and John turned his head to face Leon with anxiety.

“I’ll be right there, doctor,” said Leon, tapping the combadge underneath the physician’s jacket.  “I haven’t said anything to the captain, yet,” he turned to John.  “But I can’t hold it back much longer, especially since it’s starting to affect your duties.  Let’s see what the scans from life sciences come up with before we take it to the next step.”

Leon walked out of the exam room and turned into the main ward.  Doctor Shannon Harris stood next to a young, black-haired lieutenant junior-grade in science blues.  They were looking at a computer screen at the nurse’s station, where several molecular and atomic animations were running.

“I think Lieutenant Butenhoff has found something here,” Harris beckoned Doctor Cromwell.

As the three crowded around the console, the doors to the main sickbay parted, and Lieutenant Commander Victor Virtus strolled in.  He noticed the officers by the nurse’s station and joined the trio watching the medical monitor.

“He found a quantum resonance in his neurocellular membranes,” continued Harris.

“Neurocellular membranes?” questioned Doctor Cromwell.  “Why is the radiation so specific?”

“I’m not sure,” the German-accented Lieutenant Butenhoff admitted.  “But it is a radiation signature I’ve never seen in organic tissue.”

With a look of extreme interest turning to ominous recognition, Virtus chimed in, startling the three officers.  “I’ve seen that before.  It’s chroniton radiation.”

 

<Location: VIP Quarters, Deck 8, USS Republic>

Kostya walked back to his quarters to talk to the Captains he had requested contacted.

He walked to his desk, and tapped the panel.  "Bridge, This is Admiral Kostya, patch the Antietam and the Bataan, through to here."

=/\=  "Bridge Here, acknowledged Admiral." =/\=

Kostya watched as his screen blinked on, split down the middle, Captain Shea of the Anteitam on the right and Captain Kebric of the Bataan on the right.  Kostya began, "Alisa, Tim, I have been hearing some very interesting, things coming from command, what do you guys know about this war, and further, What have you heard about me?"

Alisa Kebric spoke first, "Admiral, It is good to see you.  I was told you were in the process of retiring, and were spending the rest of your life on Risa."  She continued, ""We didn't expect to see you again, sir."

Tim Shea nodded and continued, "Admiral, I was told that you were compromised, and were not to be trusted.  Also I heard that there was to be a replacement for you in the works.  They are trying to remove you Chris, It looks like coup to me."

Kostya looked at them both, "So you both heard something different, I guess it was to confuse the fleet.  I assure you I am not done yet, what are you two doing right now, anything important?"

Kebric spoke, "I am now along the front, I can be there in three hours, two if you really need me."

Shea looked at a PADD, "Admiral, I am about four hours away at maximum warp, but I have to tell you we took a beating last week and are under 75% capacity in the form on engines and weapons."  He continued, "But as always if you need me I will be there, come hell or high water, or both."

Kostya smiled, "Well you know me, it will probably be both.  What I need is for the both of you, contact the old crew, get as many of them as possible, meet me in the Lojurus system in two days, I am going to need every ship I can find, and every good captain we have left. Keep me posted, Kostya Out."

The two captains nodded and the screen went blank.

Kostya got up and walked to the replicator.  "Coffee, Two sugars."  Picking up his drink, he walked out the door on his way to check the progress of the War Room.

 

<location: guest quarters, deck 8, USS Republic>

Marshall was wondering when he was going to get dressed down by Bombay.  He knew it was coming, and he'd rather go ahead and get it over with.  He had been pouring through all the Intelligence the Federation had gathered on the Kreltans and the Lojurus system.  Turns out that the Lojurus system only had 2 M-class planets, a K-class planet and a small moon. 

Jim then focused his attention on the War Room.  He had been notified that it was complete, and informed Admiral Kostya.  He had no doubt that the Admiral already knew about it.

=/\= “Bridge to Marshall.” =/\=

“Go ahead.”

=/\= “Priority one communiqué for you sir.  It's Admiral Stewart.” =/\=

“Put it through down here.” Marshall ordered the computer to suspend recording this conversation and encoded it to his voiceprint only as the image on the viewscreen changed, and it was Admiral Gordon Stewart of Starfleet Intelligence,  “Admiral.”

=/\= “Catch you at a bad time?” =/\=

“Not really.”

=/\= “Good.  Since your last mission was a success we've managed to locate 20 more Kreltan imposters.” =/\=

“That's good to hear.”

=/\= “There's more.  Admiral Yves Fowler was found dead this morning in his apartment by his cleaning lady.  Yet, he managed to show up for work today, and now we suspect he was imposter as well.” =/\=

“Admiral, I think I know what you're about to tell me.”

=/\= “Everything on Horatio Bombay checks out so far.  I've contacted the Federation Embassy on Alpha Centauri, they're going to send a team to search his house there.  Also, what I am about to order you to do is highly classified.  Bring in anyone you need only, but mum's the word is that clear?” =/\=

“Yes sir.”

=/\= “In examining the recent imposters we've found that they're nearly identical to humans, but there's something a miss.  Their cerebral cortex is over stimulated, and there was almost no bowel movement at all.  Also, we've detected some DNA engineering.” =/\=

“Wait a minute, are you saying the Kreltans know how to make clones?”

=/\= “Not clones per se Captain, but they have figured out how to almost appear human to the naked scanner.  What we've detected was done on a level 4 bioscan. Now I know Fowler and Bombay have been friends for so long, but just to put minds at ease in Intelligence I need you to get Bombay into the Republic's sickbay for a physical.  Inform the CMO, a Doctor Cromwell I believe, that it is to be as detailed as it gets.  If you have to tell him why, then tell him, but keep the minds that know about this to a minimum.  Admiral Kostya is not to be made aware of this  for the moment.”  =/\=

“Understood Admiral.  I will let you know the findings.”

=/\= “See that you do, Stewart out.” =/\=

Marshall sat back in his chair.  Should he inform Bombay about Fowler?  He made his decision, “Marshall to Cromwell, Doctor could you stop by my quarters?  I need to speak with you.”

=/\= “On my way.” =/\=

 

<Location: some where aboard a Federation Starship.>

The room was dark, except for the viewscreen showing an image of a humanoid with grayish colored skin and large dark eyes, one could see the evil just by looking at the picture.

=/\= “Report.” =/\=

"All is going to plan," a human male responded.  The man still situated himself in the dark, so that his face could not be seen.

=/\= “Our Kreltan forces are doing well because of you.  We have reports that three large fleets are moving toward the Firestorm's position.  Romulan, Klingon, and Federation ships detected.  It seems that the major powers are joining forces again, we'll have to move quickly.” =/\=

The human moved into the light slowly, a Starfleet Uniform showed, Admiral Pips and the Starfleet Insignia Belt, "I'll make sure you're well informed.  When will be the earliest for my extraction?"

=/\= “One week, if all goes as planned.” =/\=

The human walked out into the light showing his face.  Admiral James Maverick straitened his uniform, "I have the fleet confused as to Kostya and the rest of the High Command.  Most captains are receiving their orders from me.  I'll make sure that the fleets are scattered and won't be able to respond.  My extraction will be tricky, and it won't take this crew long before they realize I'm not Maverick.  We'll meet with you on in sector 22356 in seven days. End Communication."

The screen went blank, and the imposter smiled.  No one so far had a clue that he had been there for a three months and that Maverick was one of the first abducted.

 

<location: sector 22359, Zalarian Homeworld.>

A bloodied James Maverick laid strapped down to a table, several wires ran from his head and body to a machine not two meters away.  His eyes were hazy and one could tell that he was heavily drugged.

A tall alien with grayish skin and large eyes approached, "All right, Admiral.  Let's try this again.  I need the Command Communication Transponder Frequencies to the Federation Fleet, all information."

James opened his cracked and dried lips and slowly spoke, "Transponder . . . disable ships . . . code: . . .”

"The code, Admiral!"

"Code: . . .” James' eyes rolled in the back of his head as he lost consciousness again.

"Take him to his cell with the other humans, we'll try again later," The alien stated.

Two Kreltans untied and picked Maverick up to his feet, almost constantly dragging him to the cell in another wing of the facility.  After almost fifteen minutes of walking, they arrived at an over-cramped cell filled with almost seventy Starfleet officers.

One of the Kreltans let go of Maverick and released the force field, as if someone plugged him into a wall socket, James sprung to life.

His elbow flew fast and hard hitting the Kreltan holding him in the throat, bringing him to his knees.  The other was too slow from being in shock, Maverick had already grabbed the phaser rifle from the fallen Kreltan and held it to this ones' head.

"Let them out, or we'll see how empty that cloned head of yours really is," Maverick snarled.

"Hrmph!" was all the Kreltan said.

James shrugged, "Your choice, big boy." 

With that he fired, vaporizing the Kreltan.  He tapped the controls to the force field and the seventy or so officers piled out.

"Listen up, in about ten minutes this corridor is going to be swarming," he picked up the second rifle and handed it to a Lieutenant Commander in a gold uniform.  "First priority is to contact Starfleet, let them know how to beat these guys and that they're walking into a trap.  Second is to get the hell out of here.  There are several scout ships in the docking bay where they brought us in."

He pointed to a group of around fifty people, "Get aboard one and hold it for us, if we're not there in one hour, take off and head to Federation Space.  The rest come with me, we're going to send a message and blow this place to hell."

He waited for everyone to acknowledge, "Alright, let's move out!"

 

<location: guest quarters, deck 8, USS Republic>

Marshall was busy at his desk downloading the information to a PADD, as he heard the door chime.

"Enter"

"Commodore, what's this about?  You look fine," said Doctor Cromwell.

"I feel fine," said Marshall, "and this isn't a social call."

"Then what is it?"

Marshall raised his hand signaling the Doctor to be quiet as he said to the computer, “Computer, cease all recording in these quarters Authorization Marshall 25 Gamma Charlie.”

=/\= “Unable to comply.  Authorization invalid.” =/\=

'Command codes don't work anymore.' thought Marshall.

“Encode recording from this moment to my voiceprint only.  Authorization Marshall 68 Beta Delta.”

=/\= “Acknowledged.” =/\=

Marshall breathed a sigh of relief.  Jim turned to Leon and said, "I need a favor."

Leon replied, "Remember the last time you said that?"

"I do, but this one is for the good of the Republic," said Marshall.  He handed Leon a PADD and said, "you'll need this."

Leon took the PADD, and scanned it quickly.  He couldn't believe what he was reading, "You want me to give Captain Bombay a physical to declare him unfit for command so that you can take over.  Thanks, but no thanks."

"You read it wrong, and there's more.  This morning the body of Admiral Yves Fowler turned up on Fisherman's Warf in San Francisco, yet Admiral Fowler managed to show up for work today.  That Fowler disappeared after lunch, he hasn't come back.  Intelligence believe he was a Kreltan," said Marshall.

Cromwell asked, "Wasn't Bombay friends with Fowler?"

"That's right, but if Fowler is a Kreltan there's a strong possibility that Bombay is too," said Jim.

Cromwell said, "Captain Bombay has passed all medical scans thus far Jim."

Trying not to reveal too much information Marshall said, "I know.  Intelligence maybe onto something. You're looking for a defect in the parietal lobe

similar to what would trigger Irumodic Syndrome.  It would only show up on a level four scan."

"Keep talking."

Jim said, "What looks like a defect to us may very well be the trigger for the Kreltans shape shifting.  I need a physical done, and I need it as soon as possible."

Cromwell replied, "I'll try Jim, but I make no promises.  I don't know what you're motives are, but for the good of the ship I'll try."

"That's all I can ask for.  I've got to give Admiral Kostya a briefing on who he'll be dealing with.  Keep this on the Q.T. only let those you need in on this in on it.  Trust me Leon, it's more the safety of the Republic, but the Federation's too."

 

<Location: captain's quarters, U.S.S. Republic>

"So, let me get this straight," Horatio Bombay leaned back as he mulled over what Shannon Harris had just told him. "You're telling me that Commander Carter is 'wandering' through time?"

Shannon nodded. "That's what Chief Virtus thinks, yes sir."

"And Doctor Cromwell, has he examined my XO?"

"Yes sir," Shannon answered, unsure of where Bombay's probing might lead. "Doctor Cromwell performed the examination himself."

"Then, why did he send you?"

"Well," Shannon paused for a moment. "Doctor Cromwell's in conference with Cap..." The Doctor cleared her throat, "Commodore Marshall, and in any case, I DID used to be Cromwell's Chief of Staff. I'm familiar with Carter's record, so . . .”

"Of course you are," Bombay said with a leer. Republic's Captain got up from where he was seated, and walked to the wall-mounted replicator. "Would you care for anything, Doctor?" Harris shook her head 'no'. "Milk, warm," Bombay said to the replicator. After a soft beep, and a quiet whir of meticulously assembled atoms, Bombay took the glass of warm milk from the replicator niche.

Bombay took a sip, then stepped back toward the center of the room.  "Shannon," he asked, "may I call you Shannon?"

"Well, actually Captain, I'd prefer that you . . ."

"Good. Thank you." Bombay continued as if Doctor Harris hadn't said a word. "You're the ship's Counselor now, so I'm going to need to . . . rely on you for quite a bit."

"Yes, Captain." Shannon felt her skin crawl as Bombay gave her a predatory stare. She pushed it aside, waiting for the other shoe to drop.

"What's your assessment of Commander Carter?"

"Well," Shannon was hesitant, knowing that she had to tread carefully. She may have had Carter's future in her hands. "He's good sir," she decided. "Really good. I've never seen any other CO turn a bad tactical situation around so fast." Bombay seemed intent, and leaned back, as if expecting Shannon to comment further. "He's good under pressure. Keeps his head. He's a good soldier."

"That's a fascinating accent," Bombay interjected.

"Excuse me?"

"Your accent," Horatio repeated, "it's quite charming. Irish?"

"No sir, Australian. About Commander Carter, sir. He's . . .”

Bombay's mood seemed to turn sour when Shannon tried to get him back on track. "I'll tell you about Commander Carter, Doctor," Bombay shot back. "He's a hot shot cowboy, and I don't care how good he is, how much everyone likes him . . . I wouldn't care if he was the reincarnation of Jim Kirk himself."

"Captain, just hear me out . . ."

"No Doctor," Bombay answered. "From what you've told me, and Mister Virtus agrees by the way, Commander Carter is no longer in command of his faculties."

"No sir, that's not exactly . . ."

"The fact is, Doctor, that I can't have someone on the bridge that I can't count on." Bombay leaned forward, as if to emphasize his point. "Is there a pattern to Carter's delusions?"

"He's not delusional sir, he's . . ."

"Is there a pattern? Yes or no?"

"No sir, but . . ."

"Can we predict when Carter might have another 'time slip'? If that's what's happening at all."

"No Captain, we can't." Shannon seemed resigned to where the conversation was going.

"Then, effective immediately, Commander John Carter is relieved of duty."

Shannon felt her mood crash, knowing how badly John would take the news. She straightened her shoulders, and got ready for the hard part of her day.

“All right Captain, I'll let him know."

"There's no need for that Doctor," Bombay said with a slimy smile. "He's already been told."

 

<location: XO's Quarters, U.S.S. Republic>

John Carter sat alone in the dark of his quarters. The message from Bombay was waiting for him after his duty shift. It was only reasonable, John had to admit. There was no telling when more of the 'flash forwards' he'd experienced over the last few days would come, or how he would react to them. It only made sense that he'd be relieved, but with the Republic headed to battle with the Kreltans, and no Tactical Officer to speak of, John also had to admit that the timing was amazingly lousy.

Republic's XO tried to relax. He took off his duty jacket and lay still on his bunk in the dark. The room was still, and all he could hear was the hum of Vic's expertly tuned warm engines. 'Perfect' he thought.

Then the door chimed.

"Oh, sprock me!" John cursed out loud. The door chimed again as he got up from his rack. "lights."

The door chimed again.

"Go away," John shouted through the audio pick up at the door. "I'm off duty."

"It's me John," came a soft alto voice from the other side of the door. "Let me in, please?"

Carter sighed and opened the door to look Doctor Shannon Harris in the face. Despite his sour mood, John felt better looking at the bright green eyes and scarlet hair he'd come to associate with his favorite Doctor on Republic. "Is this a professional visit?" he asked with an easy smirk.

Shannon smiled, and stepped past Carter to enter his quarters. "Does it need to be?"

"Well, you're the Counselor," he remarked, sitting in a chair in the middle of the room. "Come to see how crazy I am?"

Shannon stepped in, taking notice of some of Carter's effects on the wall. Then she took a seat across from the Martian officer. "You know better than that John," she offered. "I just thought you might want to talk."

"Will it make a difference?"

"You mean will it get you back on duty? No. I'm pretty sure Bombay would space you at this point if he thought he could get away with it." Harris leaned forward, looking John in the eyes. "What were you thinking John? Like him or not, he IS your Captain."

"Yeah," John quipped, "there are a lot of those on board." John chuckled to himself, then decided to answer Shannon's question. "You want to know what I was thinking?"

"Please."

"All right then." John eased back in his chair and explained. "Earlier today, on the Hill, I can tell you that I knew for a fact that Horatio Bombay resigned from 'Fleet in disgrace, six months after we got back from settling the Kreltan War. He's not only a loud-mouthed weasel," John said, his voice dripping with venom, "he's a coward! And, the worst tactician I've ever seen in the center seat. He almost got us killed! It was ludicrous!"

"John," Shannon said in easy tones, trying to calm her patient. "None of that's happened."

"Yes it has Shannon! To me, that's all history." Carter got up and began t pace across his quarters. "You know the worst part," he asked, "I knew it had happened already, and at the same time, I knew that it WOULD. It's like I'm in two places at once. Do you know how weird that is?"

"Honestly, no. I'm sorry." Shannon got up and headed back toward the door. "I didn't mean to upset you John.  I think I should come back later." The door opened at Shannon's approach. "Don't worry," she added calmly. "We all know that you're not delusional. Doctor Cromwell has seen the scans, and the Chief is working on the chroniton problem. Believe me," she said tenderly, "you're in good hands."

"Thank you Doc . . . thanks, Shannon. I appreciate that."

"You'd better mister," she said playfully. "After all, if you're right, I'm going to be around for a long time." Shannon gave Carter a wink, then left the room.

Stunned for a moment, Carter spoke. "Lights, low." The computer complied by darkening Carter's cabin. John sat back down on his bed, and tried to get some rest. 'Chronitons', he kept thinking. 'How the hell did I get exposed to sprocking chronitons?'

Carter drifted off to sleep. In a haze of dream and fatigue he saw images of his time on Styx . . . images that he knew were wrong.  No fusion plant explosion. No last-second escape, only a series of faces that John half-recognized. One was his own, older, more seasoned, but still his. The other was a balding man wearing a primitive pre-Federation uniform.

Then the pain came. Raw, mind-splitting pain, as if John's brain were about to burst free from his skull.

Carter sat bolt-upright and scrambled for his combadge, holding his head as it throbbed. Finding the object, Carter tapped the badge at last.

"Carter to sickbay . . ." The first officer winced as the pain increased.

=/\= “Sickbay. Doctor Hudson here.” =/\=

But the channel had gone quiet.

 

<location: main sickbay, deck 12, USS Republic>

With an urgent, almost panicked stride, Doctor Cromwell stormed through the main doors of sickbay.  He immediately pulled off his ivory turtleneck sweater with one swift pullover motion, and threw it into a corner of the room as he made his way to the huddle of people surrounding the main diagnostic table.  On the way, Leon grabbed a blue physician's jacket hanging in a recessed wall rack by the corridor to the surgical suites.  Slipping into the new attire, he transfixed his attention to the patient lying on the table while pushing people aside.

"Break it up, everyone!  Make some room!"

With a fretful, frightened look in her eyes, Doctor Shannon Harris stood at the head of the bed, hoping in vain that the patient, Commander Carter, would snap out of his malady.  His face was flushed and sweaty, and subtle convulsions, which were the remnant of earlier, more violent ones, continued to ripple through his body causing excruciating pain for the XO.  Harris had tried multiple cocktails of pain suppressors, but nothing seemed to ease Carter's searing migraines.

"50cc's of Requapine!" shouted Doctor Cromwell.

"I did that already," interposed Harris.

"She tried Silcaquine too, doctor," added the black-bearded Doctor Yezbeck, who was part of the crowd of personnel around the table.  "None of it seemed to have any affect."

"Support module!" Leon ordered, and medical technicians immediately brought a tetrahedral encapsulation chamber to the table.  The gray-haired female Doctor Fernmoore and the bald male Deltan, Doctor Ryda, immediately removed Commander Carter's uniform.  Before long, the executive officer was lying on the table with his torso contained within the medical support module, and his legs and head extruding out from either end.

Working the computer controls on the module's surface, Leon frantically configured the array for diagnostic mode, and began scanning every inch of Carter's nervous system.

"His entire synaptic pathway is saturated with chroniton radiation!" said Doctor Cromwell.  "I'm getting sporadic delta-wave emissions everywhere, as if his whole nervous system is in a state of temporal flux!"

"What do we do?" asked Doctor Phoebe Hudson, who stood nearby nervously.

"I don't know," admitted Leon.  "Medical databases say nothing about physio-temporal disorders . . ."

The doors to sickbay parted yet again, with Lieutenant Commander Virtus, Lieutenant Junior Grade Butenhoff, and Captain Bombay marching intently into the room.  They gathered quietly around the table as the entire senior staff of sickbay worked frantically to aid Commander Carter.

"Every time part of his neural receptors phase in and out, it shuts down the organelle or muscular system they control," explained Leon while wiping is forehead of sweat.  "No wonder he's in such pain!"

“There’s got to be something we can do!” blurted out Doctor Harris.  “We just can’t leave him in this condition!”

“I’m injecting an electrolyte inhibitor,” announced Leon who prepped a hypospray.  “It should stop the trauma to his nervous system, but we’ll have to activate the life-support matrix to keep the vital organs functioning.”

Seconds after the doctor injected the medicine into Carter’s neck, his body went limp.  Yellow computer readouts on the support module flickered with an ominous red signature, with some staying a steady crimson color.  Alarms emanated from the device, causing a ripple of panic to flow through everyone surrounding the table. 

“His acetylcholine levels are dropping!” said Doctor Favuuk, the Andorian female medic.  She stood nearby at the main diagnostic array console situated at the foot of the table.

“Acknowledged,” Leon responded.  “His entire body is now on full life support.  What’s his alpha-wave output?” he asked, glancing towards Doctor Ryda on the other side on the table from Doctor Cromwell.

“It’s decreasing rapidly,” the Deltan neurosurgeon reported.  “I estimate fifteen seconds to critical!”

“Chroniton radiation levels rising on a neuro-cellular level!” yelled Doctor Yezbeck, who stood next to Fernmoore by the adjoining monitoring station by the wall.

Without a word further, Leon engaged in reconfiguring the life-support matrix of the support module to send minor nerve impulses through Carter’s various neuro-receptors, attempting to head-off a cerebral shutdown.  His fingers danced across the module’s interface console as fast as he could work them, reviving synaptic pathways with controlled electronic pulses as they randomly faded in and out.  Unfortunately, the longer the doctor worked, the more rapid the neural degradation.  Before long, every reading was in the red, flashing with a critical level alarm.

“Cordical stimulators!” shouted Leon.  He moved quickly to the head of the table, exchanging places with Doctor Harris.  The young Doctor Hudson arrived at Leon’s side with two electronic wafers that he attached to Carter’s forehead.  “Set for 500 micro-farads!  Clear!”

With an electrostatic wisp, energy flowed into Carter’s frontal lobes, sending controlled shots of electricity directly through his brain.  The XO’s body twitched slightly, but there were no changes in the steady red bio-readouts.

“Raise to 800 micro-farads!  Clear!”

Once more, a shot of energy jolted through John Carter’s head, offering only a slight twitch of the neck in response to the jolt.  Still, the monitors were all in the red.

“Again!” ordered Leon.

This time, there was no bodily response to the static zap of the cordical stimulators.  It was clear that Commander Carter’s nervous system was unresponsive to the treatment.  Nevertheless, Leon wasn’t ready to give up.  After at least three more tries, it took Doctor Yezbeck to stop the futile revival procedure with a tender grasp of the shoulder.

“Leon, it’s done.”

With tears streaming down her face, the bright green eyes of the scarlet-haired Doctor Harris were ablaze with panic and disbelief.  She could not believe that the man she had been admiring since the first day she stepped foot on the Republic was now lying dead in front of her.  With a quivering jaw, she slid next to Leon at the head of the table, and touched Carter gently on the cheek.  As she did so, the entire staff at the table jumped as the XO’s eyes opened abruptly, and a spasm shot through his body accompanied by a deep sucking of air into the lungs.

Harris yelped with astonishment as Carter’s pinpointed pupils searched their immediate surroundings.  They landed on Leon who, in complete disbelief, steadied the XO’s head with his hands, and shouted.  “John!  John, can you hear me?”

As the breath left the body, Carter’s eyes were transfixed on Doctor Cromwell, and whispered words that could barely be heard.

“Leon . . . I need to go . . .   But . . . I’ll be back . . .”

“John!  Don’t do this to me!” a panic-stricken Doctor Cromwell gasped.  “Don’t give up!”

“No . . .” came the raspy whisper again.  “Don’t you give up . . . Don’t give up on me . . . I’ll be back . . .”

As suddenly as the brief glimmer of life came, it vanished.  Again, Carter’s body lay limp within the medical support module as all bio-readouts maintained a steady red glow.  Everyone around the table stared at the body with amazement and awe, unsure of the next step.  After about half a minute of silence, Leon finally gave an order.

“Keep the life support matrix online,” he sputtered through a dry throat.  “Move him to surgical suite five and restrict access to authorized medical personnel only.”

“What?” asked an emotional-distraught Harris.  “What are you doing?”

“I’m not giving up on him,” Leon replied flatly.  Before she could inquire further, the doctor turned to the chief engineer, Lieutenant Commander Virtus.  “Vic, I’ve done all I can.  It’s up to you and Butenhoff now.  The chroniton radiation and the temporal phasing out of his nervous system are somehow linked, and I don’t know where to go from here.”

“Excuse me,” interrupted Captain Bombay a few feet away.  “Why are you keeping Commander Carter’s body on life support when there’s no trace of brain activity?”

Leon closed his eyes with a mix of exhaustion, and barely controlled anger.  Bombay’s annoying voice was, in itself, enough to raise the doctor’s hackles, but the fact that the captain was questioning his medical decisions inside the doors of sickbay was all but intolerable.  Slowly, Leon turned away from Vic and squarely faced the impudent starship commander.

“His lack of brain activity,” started Leon.  “Is not a sign that he’s dead.  At least not in this case.”

“Oh really?” replied Bombay.  “And how, might I ask, would you define physical death?”

Again, Leon closed his eyes, using every ounce of his will to keep from introducing the captain to a swift right hook.  “I agree that medically, Commander Carter appears to be deceased.  However, due to the manifestation of chroniton radiation in his neurocellular membranes, and the random, inexplicable dissipation of his synaptic pathways, I cannot dismiss the possibility that he may still be alive.  His nerve patterns may yet still be active, but perhaps in another time or quantum reality.”

Bombay displayed an incredulous smile.  “So you’re telling me that despite your medical experience to the contrary, that Carter is still alive, but in the form of nerve pulses lost somewhere in the fabric of time-space?”

“Yes.”

“Doctor, my patience is wearing thin.  I’ve put up with a lot already aboard this ship, but I won’t tolerate a chief medical officer who shows no respect for the deceased because he cannot emotionally let go of a colleague.  Commander Carter is dead, and as much as we’re all upset about it, there’s no use keeping his body on life support solely for the purpose of chasing a thin, quasi-scientific theory that his nerve patterns may somehow still be lingering out there.  I am ordering you to remove his body from life support and perform a proper autopsy and funerary arrangements.”

Normally, Leon would have let go his restraint and shown Captain Bombay how intimate he could become with the deck plates inside sickbay.  However, he was too emotionally exhausted, and no longer took the new skipper seriously.  If he really was that resistant to the ideas and suggestions of his senior officers, then Leon saw no reason to follow his orders.

“No,” he retorted to Bombay, crossing his arms in firm resistance.  “I won’t.  Not until Commander Virtus and Lieutenant Butenhoff have had a chance to resolve all other options.”

“Very well,” the captain came back.  “Then you leave me no choice.  Doctor Cromwell, you are relieved of duty.”  Turning to the rest of the sickbay staff, Captain Bombay said, “Doctor Yezbeck, remove Commander Carter from life support.”

Calmly, the balding, black-bearded Saal Yezbeck looked at Doctor Cromwell briefly, as if reading his mind.  He then looked to the captain and replied.  “No captain, I won’t either.  Every possibility must be explored before pronouncing a patient dead.”

Bombay was now becoming irritated.  “Fine.  Doctor Yezbeck, You are relieved of duty as well.  Doctor Fernmoore, you do it.”

The gray haired lady looked at the captain through squinted eyes, and shook her head.  “Captain, I’m three months from retirement, and I’ve seen a lot in my time with Starfleet.  I have to agree with Yezbeck.  No, it’s not time to take him off life support.”

A shade of anger red began to creep into the captain’s facial hues.  His jaw went firm and he looked at the gathering of medical doctors around Commander Carter’s body.  “Anyone else want to be relieved of duty?”

One by one, Doctors Harris, Ryda, and Favuuk walked over and joined Cromwell, Yezbeck, and Fernmoore on the near side of the examination table, indicating their refusal to take the commander off life support.  Only Lieutenant Hudson, the young alien humanoid hybrid stood by Carter’s body.  Captain Bombay looked at her and said, “Doctor Hudson, will you please remove the commander from the life-support matrix?”

Nervously, she looked at the body, and then to the captain, unsure of what to do.  Glancing to the six other doctors of sickbay, she reflected upon her past behavior during the incident with Counselor B’Rell and the Kreltan spy.  Swallowing tensely, she remembered that she had done the crew a disservice by naively accepting the rhetoric of a poor leader, and allowing B’Rell to influence her actions.  She resolved not to make that mistake again.  To Bombay’s dismay, Hudson gave one last apprehensive glance to the captain, then joined the rest of the doctors standing with Doctor Cromwell.

“Well captain?” chided Leon.  “You’ve managed to relieve all qualified medical doctors onboard of duty.  If you try to remove Carter from life support now, without the approval of an MD, you’d be committing murder.”

“Don’t think you can get away with this, Doctor!  I’m your commanding officer, and this is an act of insubordination!”

“And I,” replied Leon, “am you’re chief medical officer.  And to that end, I am now addressing the situation of command fitness.  You’re lack of responsiveness to the input of your senior officers brings into question your state of mind as captain of this ship.  However, it would put my concerns at ease if you were to undergo a level four physical exam before returning to the bridge . . .”

It was all Bombay could do to maintain his dignity in the face of his chief physician who had just turned the tables on him.

Victor came to grips.  Now was not the time to fall apart.  But before the stunned engineer could react to Doctor Cromwell's reversal, the Captain took matters into his own hands.

"That's outrageous!", said the Captain, “You fail to save Carter's life, so now you want *me* on your operating table?  You've already been relieved Doctor.  You are in no position to make such a recommendation."

Captain Bombay tapped his comm.

"Bombay to Security.  Please confine Doctors Cromwell, Yezbeck, Harris, Ryda, and Favuuk to their quarters until they have had adequate time to grieve.  Please escort Lieutenant Hudson to the brig."

And with that pronouncement, Horatio Bombay crossed his arms, and waited.  A flurry of protests washed over him from all named, except for the Lieutenant, whom had expected nothing less, and from Leon Cromwell, who had something else on his mind.

Just over the Captain's shoulder, out of Bombay's line of sight, Lieutenant Commander Virtus had raised both of his eyebrows, held up a hand, made four distinct gestures, put his hand down, and returned to his usual passive expression. Moments later, eight security personnel trooped in and silently followed their captain's orders. 

 

<location: Corridor 9, Deck 8, USS Republic>

Halfway to their respective quarters on Deck Eight, Shannon finally regained enough control to plow through denial and straight on into anger.

"Leon!  You're not going to stand for this are you?"

"No.  But I'm not going to panic while John's life is on the line either.  Get a hold of yourself Doctor.  I don't know exactly what is going on, but I suggest we be ready for anything."

 

<location: Counselor's Quarters, Deck 8, USS Republic>

Shannon railed quietly (but physically) against the universe and all of its injustices.  Two fine glass vases and a hand-carved wooden jewelry case felt her wrath before she could stop crying long enough to think about what Leon had said.  Everything had happened too fast.  Something about being ready for anything.

Shannon could almost feel John's presence.  Her promotion to Ship's Counselor had moved her up into 'Officer Country', and consequently, closer to his quarters.  She could still remember the first time she'd seen him in the turbolift, and warned him about Deck Four.  He'd grinned, and spared her the proverbial 'second glace'.  And now that he was dead, she would never know what might have been.

 

<location: Chief Medical Officer's Quarters, Deck 8, USS Republic>

Leon dug deeper into his medical files, searching for some obscure, half-remembered footnote in a two hundred year old database, concerning a deleterious medical condition that had been abolished in all civilized species for centuries.

Cromwell's eyes lit up as he found what he was looking for.  A brief search told him everything he wanted to know.  He took a moment to jot down a note in his log.

"Chief Medical Officer's personal log, supplemental.  When things have settled with Captain Bombay, I must remember to ask Vic why he bothered to learn 21st Century Terran Sign Language.  End log."

Leon glanced back at the screen.  Under the four pictures of human hands were the words: I.  Have.  A.  Plan.

With the press of a button, Leon cleared the screen. Not to be caught unprepared, he got to work on his own plans.

 

<location: main sickbay, USS Republic>

Captain Bombay turned to his Chief Engineer as the security detail filed out with their charges.

"Now then Mr. Virtus, I suppose you will also wish to allow grief to interfere with your duties?

Victor looked the Captain in the eyes.

"Not at all Captain.  The Commander and I were not close.  I regret the loss of a Star Fleet Officer, but we are at war, and death is inevitable."

Bombay seemed to take this in stride, "Very well then.  If you would be so kind as to see that Carter's ... remains ... are taken care of, we can get on with the war."

"Aye sir.  By the book, the CMO's last orders before being relieved were to have the body moved to Suite Five until all possibilities have been exhausted.  I believe I can exhaust all possibilities within 24 hours, and have his personal effects packed for transportation to his next of kin by 0800.  Will that be sufficient sir?"

The Captain nodded, and carefully suppressed a grin.  "Yes yes, we must have everything by the book.  Carry on Lieutenant Commander."

 

<location: surgical suite five, main sickbay, USS Republic>

Victor cut off the Lieutenant before he could begin.

"I am fully aware of what I said.  I know things seem a bit hectic, but please try to remain focused on the task at hand."

Lieutenant Butenhoff stuttered out a feeble, "But..."

"Lieutenant, you and I are the ranking, see em oh authorized medical personnel in this room with our literally-brain dead ex oh.  We have twenty-four hours to solve a simple, as-of-yet unresearched problem of chroniton radiation sickness causing temporal memory slips and cortical deterioration."

"But, what you said about the commander..."

"Was a lie.  I played a hunch," Victor interjected as he moved John's living-yet-lifeless frame under the most state-of-the-art medical equipment the United Federation of Planets could afford, "and was rewarded for my dishonesty with a slim window of hope.  My father would be very disappointed.  Veritas, from which my family name is derived, is Old Terran for Truth."

"But you said you'd..."

"Clean out his room, which I suspect I will have to do anyway, as I hope there will be something that can help us in his quarters.  And preparing his things for departure to Mars will give the Captain no reason to look over my shoulder as I ransack John's room."

Vic let the slightly younger officer wrap neurons around that one as he began a molecule-by-molecule count of his best friend's synapses.  While not a religious man, Victor took 1.4 seconds to thank God for Heisenberg compensators.

Butenhoff's voice dropped to a whisper, “What about the recorders in this room?  Won't the Captain be on to you if he replays what you just said?"

"In preparation for the Captain's 'round-the-clock, all-stations battle drill, many systems are undergoing a Level Two diagnostic.  The tricorders are running, but I believe the primary and secondary data storage units for Sickbay are currently being tested for parsing flaws."

"Parsing flaws?"

"Very rare logical errors that result in two files being stored on top of one another.  If not caught early, the inconsistencies will propagate back and forth between the main computer and the battle section's backup until all of the non-hard-wired information is corrupted."

The low thrum of an electrical field filled the room.

"I . . . I don't understand.  How did you know to disable the data storage?  Level Two diagnostics require Command-level authorization, and the XO is . . . here."

"Indeed he is.  But Captain Bombay signed off on the computer diagnostics yesterday, right after the transfer of command ceremony.  If he thinks to check up on us, he'll first suspect foul play on my part, but later discover that it is merely coincidence that the computer's memory is offline for the next sixteen hours.  It states clearly in my report that I will be conducting tests on the memory circuits as soon as Engineering has completed the inner hull inspection, and finished up in the war room."

"Then, when you were on the way here, and you told Renwold and Venks they were done in the War Room . . . "

"The next thing on my official engineering check-list was a suitably vague test of the memory circuits."

"Chief, do you think of . . . "

"Everything?  No.  I just try to keep one step ahead, and consider all of the most likely possibilities.  Like the possibility that someone has been, intentionally or not, 'broadcasting' future events to John, and causing 'feedback' that had resulted in his current condition." 

Victor began a slowly modulating sensor sweep of the room, looking, not for chronitons, but for the gravitonic disturbance of their passage.

"Chief, please stop finishing by sentences."

"Sorry, old habit.  Lieutenant, please go down to Storage Bay Six and collect a plasma torch, a fusion router, and two of the square iridium/yttrium alloy panels in the crate labeled 'Toys'."

"Aye sir."

The underofficer turned to depart, but stopped before the door opened.

"Why trust me with all this information sir?  What if 'I' went to the Captain?"

Victor Virtus glanced up from his readouts, and looked right through the suddenly ashamed lieutenant.

"Given what you have learned in the last five minutes, you may assume that I have a contingency for such an eventuality.  Carry on."

"Aye sir."

The door opened and closed.

Victor let his poker face drop.

He'd been playing it by ear since John's 'death'.

If Butenhoff went to Bombay, this effort was doomed.

A hastily drawn virtual blueprint of a theoretical substance flashed and danced under rapid keystrokes.

Vic wiped a tear off the console and kept typing.

"Work with me here John.  You're the one that likes pressure."

His luck might hold, but his fear of all things temporal was threatening to turn him into a screaming, gibbering wreck.  His obsession with time relied upon, depended upon, time flowing in a certain manner, without flaw or deviation.  His gut told him something was wrong, apart from his best friend dying, and while clinically dead, taking the time to tell Leon not to give up.  More was at stake.  The irid/ytt panels would be the first attempt at creating a chroniton-proof material.  Theoretically possible, but he only had sixteen hours to prove the theory a practicality.  And the key had better be in John's quarters.  The PADD that Sawyer had 'found' contained information on future technology, and that data was stored electronically in a way that protected it from changes caused by it's own existence in the past.  Somehow it shielded itself from any temporal paradox it might cause.  And the last person Vic had seen with the PADD was John, going over weapon specs.

Victor took a deep breath and got to work.

 

<location: crew cabin, deck 4, USS Searfoss>

Slowly, Nat ran his hands down across the damp towel that clung to the lithe form of Junior Lieutenant Jezia Olmn.  He knew what they both wanted as he looked into her sapphire eyes.  Gingerly, he put his hand on her face, caressing it for a moment as she closed her exotic eyes.  He then moved his head in slowly, closing his own eyes as he did. Their lips met in that moment as their bodies pressed against each other.

Nat felt her hands on his sides, right above his hips, as they continued to lock-lips.  It was gentle, and slow. Not the furious and rushed kiss of passion.  It was more than that, better than that.  After a moment, or maybe more, he withdrew his lips from hers and kissed her, slowly and softly, from her ear down to her neck and onto her shoulder.  He wasn't sure exactly how much further to go.  He knew what they both wanted, but wasn't sure if Jezia would give in to her own desires.

"Yer the most beautiful thing I've eva'r, or will eva'r see, in ma entire life." Nathan told her.  Part of him wondered if it was just a line, or if it was an honest statement as he felt the drops of moisture from her towel invade his own clothing.

"Bridge to Lieutenant Hawk," said an unfamiliar voice from the comm-system.  Nat gritted his teeth and had to fight the urge to scream to high hell at the god-awful timing.  It'd taken three days of flirting and fooling around to get to this point with Jezia Olmn, who was to her own credit one of the most attractive woman in the entire Alpha Quadrant.  She was also as unobtainable as an omega particle.

"Lieutenant Hawk?  Respond, please." said the voice once more as Nat realized he'd simply been fuming since the initial interruption.  The thought that this was another Intelligence check-in crossed his mind and he decided quickly that if it was he'd have to give them a little scare and disappear for a few days as pay back.

"Ya," Nat replied as he stepped back from Jezia Olmn, the front of his civvies now damp from her towel.  "What's up?" he asked the voice over the comm as he looked into Jezia's eyes.  He read instantly what they where saying: you leave, your not coming back.

"Sorry to disturb you, Lieutenant," said the voice.  'You have no friggin' idea . . . ' Nat thought in silent reply.  'but you've got a priority-one personal message." explained the voice.

"Can ya route it . . . " Nat said, hoping to take care of this here.  As the words left his mouth though, he caught a glance from Jezia that told him if he did that he'd surely be leaving soon after.  ". . . Who the frinx is it?" Nat asked, determined not to pass up this opportunity.

"It's marked confidential, sir.  I'm sorry." replied the voice.

"Not as sorry as I am . . ." Nat muttered in reply.

"Excuse me, sir?  I didn't catch that." replied the voice as Nat let out a sigh.  He knew whomever was calling him had to have a dammed good reason, because he didn't know more than two people in the entire quadrant who'd send him anything priority-one personal, let alone encode it confidential.

"Route it ta my quarters," he said, leaning over to kiss Jezia.  Before he could she placed her hands on his chest to keep him distance, and then turned and walked back into the bedroom.

"Yes sir.  Bridge out." replied the voice.

Scratching his chin, Nat looked at the closed doors leading to Jezia's bedroom and decided that whoever the hell had loused up his evening was going to get an earful . . .

 

<location: guest cabin, USS Searfoss>

"Sven?  What the frinx!  I'm gonna friggin' kick yer sorry-" Nat blurted at the sight of Lieutenant Sven Buttenhoff on the view screen.

"Nat!  Stop!  This is important!" replied the German-born Engineer, cutting Nat off.

"It goddamn better be or so help me I'll stuff your sauerkraut-" Nat retorted.

"It is.  I assure you.  Now please shut up?" Cut in Sven, obviously not even having the time to deal with Nat's long-winded threats and insults.  "Thank you." he added when Nat didn't reply.  "I had heard last week that you where back in Starfleet and coming to the Republic, is this still true?" asked Sven.

"Ya, what's it to ya?" Nat answered.

"When will you arrive?" queried the Engineer, not answering Nat's question.

"We're 'bout six hours from the rendezvous, why?  What's wrong?" he asked, realizing his old friend was in trouble.  Sven Buttenhoff had been a friend of Nat's for years.  The two had gone to the Academy together, Nat making sure Sven lived a little while Sven made sure Nat passed his Engineering and Operation courses.  They'd served together at Starbase 310 just after graduation, too, for nearly a year.

"Good, good." replied Sven, slightly calmer.

"What's goin' on?  You look worse than after your first bender." Nat said, smiling as he recalled how little it had taken to get the then-Cadet drunk off his ass.

"There's a situation aboard.  Is the line secure on your end?" Sven asked.

Putting the communiqué on hold, Nat entered an encryption sequence he'd learned from the Syndicate and then resumed.  "Is now.  You?"

"Of course.  Listen . . . we got a new Captain not too long ago.  He's a real . . . stickler." Sven said

"Oh?  How much?  More or less than Verik?" Nat asked, speaking of an Academy Professor they'd both had, and hated.

"About the same, only more emotional." Sven replied.

"Oh, joy.  Maybe I should stick 'round here." Nat said.

"Our First Officer is dead.  I think.  He might not be.  I don't know how else to explain.  Whatever's going on with him is something to do with chroniton radiation and maybe time travel.  The Doctor's aren't sure what's going on, but the Captain insists he's dead.  I don't know what's wrong with him.  The medical staff all refused to take Commander Carter off life support, so he relieved them all and confined them to quarters!  It's insane!" Sven shouted before calming himself.

"So what da ya need?" Nat asked, already formulating ideas.

Sven smiled.  "I knew I could count on you.  I'm not sure what we can do yet.  My boss, Lieutenant Commander Virtus is working on something.  He's fooled Captain Bombay into thinking he's complying with his orders, but we only have about a day or so before he begins to suspect him, too, and me by association."

"I can be there within an hour." Nat told him.

"An hour?  I thought you said six?" Sven queried.

"That's the rendezvous time, but I've got . . . methods, of getting us there faster.  Just tell me what you need me to do." Nat explained.

"I don't know.  Just get here.  Commander Virtus will know how best to use you, but I know we need more help here.  Besides, you don't have a career to worry about." Sven said with a smile.

"Heh, never did." Nat retorted.

"My point exactly." Sven said.

"I'm on my way.  Ya just hold tight an watch yer flank." Nat told his friend.

"I will.  Thanks, Nat.  Buttenhoff out." he said, closing the channel.

Leaning back in his chair, Nat scratched his chin and pondered what he'd just learned from his old friend.  'What in hell am I gettin' into?' Nat asked himself.  The answer was simple, though.  He didn't care.  A friend was in trouble and he'd be damned if he'd sit back and do nothing.  Turning to his console, Nat tapped the comm system controls.

"Hawk to Richards," he said.  "We need ta talk.  Been a . . . change'a plans . . ." he added.

***

"I don't like this, Mr. Hawk, not one damn bit." said Captain Kyle Richards, commander of the Starship Searfoss.  He was pacing the length of his modest ready room as he repeated the statement for the fifth time.

"Sorry, Cap'n.  Nothin' I can do 'bout it.  Don't shoot the messenger an all." Nat replied.

"I just don't like having my mission changed on the whim of some undercover Intelligence operative." Richards said.  "No offense to you or your department, of course, Commander." Richards said.  Nat had to bite the insides of his cheek to keep from smiling or laughing.  The one good thing about having to spend so much time around Intelligence drones - er, officers - was that the watchful and clever person could pick up certain things.  Like authorization and identification codes.

"This situation 'board the Republics critical, Cap'n.  Nothin' I can do 'bout it." he replied.  Richards simply nodded and pursed his lips, then let out a long sigh.

"Richards to Bridge," he said, "increase to warp eight and change course to intercept the Republic." he ordered.

"Sir?" questioned the (presumably) First Officer.

"Do it, Jov, I'll explain later."

"Aye, sir." replied Jov.

"Thank ya, Cap'n," Nat said, standing and moving to the door.

"Just a moment, Commander," Richards said.  For a moment Nat's heart skipped, wondering if Richard's had somehow caught on.  "Why didn't you inform me of your status earlier?" Richards queried, a curious look in his eyes.

"Ya know the old sayin' - need ta know." Nat replied, smiling.

"Of course." Richards said, shaking his head in understanding.  "Well, you can join me on the Bridge if you'd like, or I can alert you when we're in range?"

"I'll head on down ta the transporter, get maself ready ta go." Hawk replied.

"What if Captain Bombay is suspicious?" Richards asked, doubting the cover story Hawk had given him - that the Searfoss had been given a priority assignment and had to rendezvous sooner to meet the deadline of that assignment.

"If he gives ya any grief, give 'em the same code I gave you.  It'll clear things up nice." Nat replied with a wink.

As he moved to the lift and entered it, he couldn't help but wonder if the code would still work when and if Richards gave it to Bombay.  Intelligence codes where funny that way, working one moment than not the next.  It was a risk he'd have to take though.  Even if the code didn't work, he'd still be able to get beamed over somehow.  Though being 'on the lamb' for using false credentials wouldn't help Virtus and Buttenhoff as much, even if it would take the heat off of them.

Either way, the plan was already too far along to derail now.  He just hoped whatever the hell was wrong on the Republic would be settled with him, Buttenhoff, and anyone else involved on the right side of Starfleet Command.

 

<location: guest quarters, deck 8, USS Republic>

James Marshall had been watching what was going on in sickbay from his desk monitor.  He was not pleased, in fact he was furious.  He watched at John Carter laid there lifeless and Captain Bombay not giving Doctor Cromwell a chance to save him.  He saw Yezbeck refusing to take Carter off of life support, and part of Marshall wanted to jump for joy.  Jim then became proud of the sickbay staff as Doctors Harris, Ryda, and Favuuk joined Leon, Yezbeck, and Fernmoore. Jim really thought Hudson was going to pull the plug as she then joined the group.  Marshall waited to see if Bombay was going to comply with the request for a level four physical when the signal cut out.  "Doggone diagnostics," said Marshall out loud.

Jim didn't panic as he thought about his next move.  He left a message for Admiral Kostya that he needed to see him ASAP.  He had also wondered why Bombay hadn't come to see him yet.  He was sure that would be answered in due time. 

Marshall decided to head to The Hill to catch up on the ship's gossip when he couldn't open the door.  It turned out that Bombay ordered him confined to quarters without telling him.  Marshall had an idea.  He removed his communicator, and set it on his desk before accessing a Jeffries tube.  He climbed down in it, and made his way towards sickbay.  He then ran his tricorder to make sure he was heading in the right direction, and it turned out that he was.  The realization then hit him that he wouldn't be able to get into sickbay directly from the Jeffries tube.  For John Carter's sake he had to get in there.  He thought about using the transporter but dismissed the thought when he deemed it too showy because it would blow his cover.  Reluctantly James Marshall headed back towards his quarters when he saw a message on his desk terminal.  It was from Leon, and it was the results of the exam.  Marshall sat down to read it.

 

<location: transporter room, deck 2, USS Searfoss>

'What the frinx am I doin'?' Nat asked himself silently as he stood on the Transporter pad aboard the Searfoss.  In his head played a song from ancient Earth that he and the rest of the 85th used to listen too together before they went into battle.  In the hundreds of times he'd heard it, he'd never been able to make out more than a few of the lyrics.  It really didn't matter though, as the beat and main chorus of the song where what really mattered.  They got him and the rest of the 85th psyched up, energized, ready for what lay beyond.  That's why he had it going around his head right now, because he needed that psych up, that energy, that preparation.

Nat was never the nervous type.  Not that he could remember.  Hell, he not only lived on the edge most of the time, he usually danced on it.  Right now though, there was much more at stake then his neck.  He hadn't cared about what happened to him in the longest time, but when it came to a friend - of which he had few - something inside him cared.  Other people had lives, things to live for, things they cared about.  Nat didn't.  It's why he'd become a Fighter Pilot straight out of the Academy while most other pilots took assignments in the Terran system or aboard some mother of a starship like the one he was about to go aboard.

As he waited for the signal from Richards, he glanced around the room impatiently.  To his right the doors slid open and Nat half expected armed Security guards to file in and take him to the Brig.  Instead his 'Green' Bolian from the shuttle ride here stumbled in amidst a dozen carry-on bags.  Nat managed not to laugh, though the Noncom at the console opposite him didn't.  He wondered how someone so nervous and, obviously, clumsy, had made it through the Academy.

"Sorry, sir-err . . . I mean, Lieutenant." the Bolian muttered to Hawk.

"No problem, kid." Nat replied, grinning.  Despite the fact he was only a little more than a half-dozen years the kids senior, his experiences made him feel much older than his chronological age of twenty-eight.

"You sure got here early, Lieutenant." said 'Green' as he climbed onto the transporter, barely juggling his belongings.

"No pool table 'board," Nat replied with a grin.  'Green' simply chuckled.  No doubt the kid had never heard of the game.  He looked and felt like the bookish type, so that wasn't too surprising.  Plus the game had only been coming back into popularity outside of certain circles since the War.

"This is so exciting," 'Green' said after a moment.

"Hrmph," Nat snorted.

"You don't think so?" returned 'Green'.

"Not when ya've done it s'muchs I 'ave." Nat shot back.

"How long have you been in Starfleet, Lieutenant?" asked 'Green'.

"Long 'nough." Nat answered.  As he did, the transporter room doors parted again and two Noncom Crewmen filed onto the pad behind them.

"Where you in the war?" replied 'Green' as he lowered his voice, as if it was taboo to ask such a question.

"Most folks where," Nat answered. 

"I wasn't." he replied, as if embarrassed.

"Really?" Nat asked, mockingly.

"I was too young," 'Green' replied, not picking up on Nat's tone.  "Have you seen a lot of combat?"

"Yeahhh . . ." Nat replied, turning finally to look at the kid.  The look on the kids face was pleading for information.  "I was a fighter pilot with the 85th for the entire war." Nat offered, hoping that'd satisfy him.

"Wow!" exclaimed the Bolian, "The 85th?  They where one of the best!  They had this one crazy guy who kept crashing his fighter, did it like a half dozen times.  One of the only Squadrons to survive the entire war without a total wipe-out." the Bolian explained.  "Er, but, I guess you knew that, huh?  Hehe." he amended.

"Yeah, I knew that." replied Nat, unable to keeping from chuckling at the kids raw exuberance and enthusiasm.  "Oh, an I only crashed four times.  Not half-a-dozen.  Always on purpose, too."

"Oh wow!  Your uh, uhm, what was his call sign . . . er, your call sign, uhm, Wild Card?" asked 'Green'.

"Wild Card, then Death Wish on account a'them crashes." Nat replied.  Inwardly, he both laughed and sighed.  'Christ, I've got a fan . . .'

"Richards to Hawk," came the voice of the Searfoss's Commanding Officer.  For a moment, his harsh tone made Nat wonder if the jig wasn't up, but then he remembered what Sven had told him about their Cap'n Bombay being a bit of a prig.

"Go 'head, Cap'n." replied Nat, as a fifth crewmen, an Ensign, dashed into the room and onto the pad.

"I've informed the Republic of our . . . change in orders," said Richards, who Nat knew would make about as fine a poker player as a Klingon Targ would make a good Doctor.  "He's not too keen on change, but has acknowledged our need to expedite your travel plans.  We'll be transporting you in about a minute.  Good luck."

"Thank ya kindly, Cap'n." Hawk replied.  He liked Richards - or rather, he didn't dislike Richards.  Most Starfleet Captain had the Starfleet Rule Book crammed so far up their asses they couldn't sit down without quoting a regulation.  Kyle Richards though seemed to run a loose and semi-casual ship.  If not had the luxury of choosing his own assignment, he might have considered staying on the Searfoss.

"Hey, Lieutenant, do you-" began 'Green'.

"Hey, kid, stop salutin' will ya?  Ma names Nat.  Nat Hawk.  Or ya know both ma call signs.  So drop the formalities, okey dokey?" Nat replied, getting sick of hearing his own rank.

"Oh, yeah, sorry.  Hehe.  I'm not used to casual superior officers.  Anyway, I was wondering, do you know why we suddenly moved up the transfer, Nat?" asked 'Green', trying out his name.

"S'far as I know, the Cap'n got new orders." Nat replied, omitting that he'd forged and delivered those orders.

"That's odd." replied 'Green'.

"How's that?" Nat queried.

"Hmm?  Oh, well, it's just that, this is a Nova-Class starship, and the closest stellar body of study is a few sectors off and with the ship's warp speed limitations, it's just odd that Starfleet would re-assign her and not some closer ship." mused 'Green'.

"You a science officer or logistics?" Nat replied.

"Both, kind of.  Basic interstellar science was my major, but logistical analysis was my minor." replied 'Green'. 

"Energizing . . ." said the Noncom at the Transporter console.  In the next moment, they ceased to exist, and the moment after that they where whole again, this time in the Transporter room of the U.S.S. Republic, a Galaxy-Class starship.

"Welcome Aboard," said a petite Junior Lieutenant of Hispanic decent from before them.  "The Captain and First Officer are both occupied at the moment and couldn't be here themselves to welcome you.  I'm Junior Lieutenant Perez, one of the ship's Security Officers.  If you'll all follow me, I can show you to your Quarters." 

As she gestured to the doors, the alert klaxons sounded without warning.

"What in hell?" Nat muttered.

"Everything's alright, we're running battle drills.  Constantly." she added with a hint of irritation. 

"Where's Commander Virtus?" Nat asked, stepping off the pad.

"Uhm, I don't know off the top of my head.  But I have orders too-" Perez continued.

"No offense, but I don't give a damn 'bout yer orders.  I've got my own." Nat said.  Tossing his bag to 'Green' he headed for the door, then stopped and turned.  "Hey, I never got yer name." he said to the Ensign.

"Oh, it's Gren, sir-er, Nat." he replied.

"Gren?  G-R-E-N?" Nat questioned, smirking.

"Yes sir." he replied.

"Figures." Nat said.

"What?" Gren questioned.

"Nothin, nothin.  Just drop ma bag off in my cabin, will ya, gren?  Thanks." he said, departing as Perez protested behind him.  "Computer, locate Commander Virtus," Nat said as he maneuvered towards a turbolift.

"Commander Virtus is in Surgical Suite 5." responded the Computer as Nat entered a lift. 

"Take me there." he ordered, the lift dropping down as his order was processed and complied with.  After a few seconds, the lift slowed and stopped and Nat exited into an identical corridor, following the door labels until he found Surgical Suite 5.

Entering, he found two men - well, three, actually, though one looked dead as a doornail - working with equipment.  One he recognized as Sven Buttenhoff.  The dead man, he presumed, was Commander Carter.  The third, with Lieutenant Commander pips, was logically Virtus.  Caught by surprise, Virtus spun around with a plasma torch burning hot in his hand, almost singing Nat.

"Whoa!  I'm on yer side!" Nat shouted.

"Nat!  Thank god," said Sven as he put down a fusion router and stepped put his hand on Virtus' shoulder.  "It's alright, Chief, this is the friend I told you about." he said. 

Turning off the plasma torch, Virtus removed the safety goggles.  "Sorry about that.  It's been a bit tense around here." Virtus offered.

"I gathered." Nat replied.  "So, who do ya want me to kill?" Nat joked.

Victor looked at the newcomer with a well-trained department head's eye, and came to the wrong conclusions almost immediately.

"No one yet.  Welcome to the Republic.  This is Commander John Carter, the ship's XO.  He is currently brain dead and being kept alive by the life support systems in the biobed.  In twenty-two hours his body will be shipped out.  The cause of his death is currently unknown, but the recently removed CMO and his staff believe John's condition is reversible.  Do you know which end of this plasma torch is up?"

Nat took the fast-paced diatribe in stride and drawled out a, "Yep."

"Good, finish heating this plate to eight hundred seventy-five degree Kelvin, pour the liquid metal into that container.  The resulting alloy should have a melting point below that of the walls.  Spray down the walls with a thin coat of why tee tee alloy.  Move John to a corner, coat the ceiling and floor, allow thirty-seven seconds to cool, move John to the other corner and finish the room.  Hit the doorframe every time it is opened and closed.  I have to search the Commander's room for a paradox.  Got it?"

Victor watched the new guy absorb the situation.

"Gaat it."

"Good."

 

<location: XO's Quarters, Deck 8, U.S.S. Republic>

Time was off the essence.  How ironic.  Victor systematically turned everything in John's room upside-down and inside-out.  In desperation, Victor began talking to himself.

"Come on Vic.  If you were John, where would you hide a quadrant-shakingly important data padd in your room?"

Vic tried under the bed again, behind the picture of Olympus Mons, and in the panel beneath the replicator.

"Now is no time to panic.  Take a deep breath, close your eyes, and think.  Where did you put it John?"

‘It's in the last place you would look.’

Victor opened his eyes.  There was no one in the room but him.

"Computer, is there anyone in the room with me?"

=/\= “Negative.” =/\=

Victor hated to take anything on faith, but now was no time to split hairs.  He looked around the devastated room, and found John's homemade clock.  It currently read 14:23 Martian standard time.  Demos was waxing gibbous, Phobos was waning crescent.  Mars was in it's seventh of ten months.

"Sorry John."

Victor brought the black obsidian clock down on the end table as hard as he could.  It shattered into hundreds of fragments.  Inside was a very high-tech looking PADD.

 

<Location: Somewhere beyond. Stardate: Unknown.>

One of the things that John Carter wasn’t likely to admit to anyone was how beautiful he thought space was. He could remember his first cruise as a Lieutenant on the U.S.S. Farragut. Walking through the crew lounge, he just stopped as the streaks of stars at super-relative velocities shot by.

Now, somehow, he thought again that space was chillingly beautiful, but as he became more and more aware of his surroundings, he thought about the clarity of the night and the stark rocky surroundings that he was immersed in. 'Where's Leon?' he thought. 'Where's Shannon?' John surveyed the scene again, seeing rocky peaks, but no sign of civilization anywhere near him. The light in the night sky was intense. 'Too intense' John thought, as his Starfleet training took over and he started trying to identify the stars he could see. But the sky was too crowded, and the night was too bright.

John continued to look up, finding it hard to count the number of stars he could see. Finally, he admitted to himself, 'I don't know where the hell I am. Must be somewhere near the Galactic core though. Either that,' John thought, 'or I'm somewhere else entirely.' That thought didn't please John at all.

For long moments, Republic's XO looked at the alien sky he was under. He thought about the whirlwind events of the last few days. His supposed trips through time, future events that seemed like memories, and past events that he had no memory of. Eventually, curiosity gave way to exhaustion, and exhaustion gave way to sleep.

Some time later, John woke up. The scene was still dark, yet bright at the same time, but John didn't think about that. At the moment, he was concentrating on the person walking toward him.

The figure was tall and slim. Humanoid from what Carter could see. Not wearing any sort of uniform, exactly, but the stride of someone with Academy training was unmistakable.

"Commander?" the stranger asked, "is that you?"

John got up from the ground where he had fallen asleep and jogged toward his visitor. "Do I know you?" he asked.

The stranger brought his hand up to shade his eyes, as if trying to get a better look at Carter. Finally, the visitor stopped, and shouted. "Commander Riker?"

John jogged forward with a slight smile on his face. 'Figures' he thought, 'I'm stranded at the ass-end of the galaxy, and the one person I see thinks I'm Will sprocking Riker!' "Sorry to disappoint you son," John shot back, now able to get a better look at the stranger. "Carter. John, T. Xo, well former XO I guess, of the U.S.S. Republic."

The human stranger stepped closer and extended a hand to Carter. "Figures," the young human said, "There's always a T. there." The stranger smiled broadly as if seeing an old friend after a long absence. "Pleased to meet you Commander Carter. I'm Wes. Wes Crusher."

 

<location: guest quarters, deck 8, USS Republic>

The results were in, and Bombay had the defect.  He had hoped Cromwell had managed to bluff his way through it.  Marshall considered his next move.  He opened a channel to Admiral Stewart at Intelligence and informed him of it.  He was advised to proceed with caution.  Marshall knew the door to his quarters had been locked, so he grabbed a tool kit, and got to work on the manual release.

Fifteen minutes later he had the door open, and he downloaded the information to a PADD.  He headed to meet with Admiral Kostya who was in the War Room.

"Admiral, I need to speak with you," said Marshall.

"What about?" asked the Admiral.

"I've been informed that there are 20 more Kreltan imposters have been found, and one of those was Admiral Yves Fowler.  These Kreltans had a defect in them that is similar to Irumodic syndrome, but Bombay has this defect too."

Marshall handed him the PADD, and the Admiral took it. He read the results and said, "Well Commodore, you're about to be in the center seat again.  The Fleet is on its way, and we should be in Lojurus in an hour.  This imposter will be our bargaining chip."

"Admiral, you'll have to do it.  I can't waltz back onto the bridge. . ."

“Computer, location of Captain Bombay?”

=/\= “Captain Bombay is in his ready room.” =/\=

They headed for the turbolift, and headed for deck one. Upon their arrival, they went into the ready room.  Admiral Kostya rung the chime and didn't wait for Bombay to say anything before entering.  Kostya removed his phaser and shot Bombay stunning him. 

"Take him to the brig," ordered the Admiral, "He's an imposter."

The Admiral then turned to Marshall and said, "Now we make it official."

“Computer, transfer command to Captain James Marshall Authorization Kostya 61 Beta Zebra.”

=/\= “Transfer Complete. U.S.S. Republic is now under the command of Captain James Marshall.” =/\=

Marshall walked onto the bridge and took the center seat.  It was good to be back.

"Captain," called Lieutenant Mitchell, "there a priority one communiqué for you from Admiral Belzer."

"I'll take it in my ready room," said Marshall.  He made his way there, and saw that the belongings were still Bombay's. 'I'll deal with it later" he thought.

He sat at the desk and touched the pad.  The face of Admiral David Belzer appeared.

=/\= "Captain Marshall, I have some information for you." =/\=

"Admiral, I am anxious to hear it."

=/\= "Admiral Maverick and 70 of his crew on the Firestorm have escaped capture by the Zelarians on the Kreltan warship that was captured." =/\=

"Admiral, who are the Zelarians?" asked Marshall.

=/\= "A race of humanoids, with grayish colored skin, large dark eyes, and stand around 2 meters tall, but their weight averages 70 kilos.  The Zalarians have greatly advanced technology, allowing them to clone 'changeling' like beings.  They send these Kreltan clones out to defend their boarders and seek new territories, this way the Zalarians never have to leave their inner territories.  This race of beings are hostile and aggressive, it's suggested to avoid contact with them." =/\=

"It's all making sense now. I knew the Kreltans had to be working for somebody.  Am I to guess that you were about to tell me that these negotiations are a ruse?"

=/\= "There are no negotiations taking place.  Let me explain.  The Kreltans are creations of the Zalarians.  The Zalarians are a race of humanoids, with grayish colored skin, large dark eyes, and stand around 7 feet tall, but their weight averages 145lbs.  They have greatly advanced technology, allowing them to clone 'changeling' like beings, and send the Kreltans out to do their bidding such as defending their borders and acquiring new territories.  They are hostile and aggressive, and it is advised to avoid contact with them." =/\=

"I could have told you that Admiral.  I am guessing there's more."

=/\= "You are correct.  When Admiral Maverick and the others escaped the Zalarian homeworld, they inadvertently destroyed the planet by overloading the reactor core of the facility where the officers were being held.  The Zalarians have called off the Kreltans, and that means an end to the war." =/\=

Suddenly, the ship’s intercom came to life.

=/\= “Captain, this is Lieutenant Blanchette in the Brig.  The Kreltan appearing as Bombay has up and disappeared.  It's as if he's spontaneously combusted.” =/\=

"Excuse me Admiral."  Marshall turned to the new com signal from the brig. “If I had to guess, I'd say it's a defense system the Kreltans have to keep us from analyzing them further.  Good work Blanchette.”  Turning back to the viewscreen, Marshall asked, "did you hear that Admiral?"

=/\= "Yes I did.  There have been reports coming in from all over the Federation of Kreltans dissolving like that.  Pity we won't get to put them on trial for anything." =/\=

"Thank you for the update sir," replied Marshall.

=/\= "See you soon, captain. Belzer out." =/\=

The screen blackened as Marshall said, "I fight my butt off for them and I didn’t even get to finish my shore leave. C'est la vie."

 

<location: unknown>

The cell was small, dark, and musty.  With gray walls that barely reflected the pale, ambient light from underneath the door, the only amenities within the room was a one by two-meter unpadded “shelf” that passed as a bed, and a small hole in the floor, being the Jem H’dar’s version of a commode.  Food was delivered once a day via a transporter beam, and consisted of a small bowl of bland, cold material that somewhat resembled soupy porridge.  Although a full bowl of the mush sat in the center of the cell, the current resident, Leon Cromwell, sat alone in the corner devoid of any appetite.

It had been over a month since the doctor had been taken prisoner, his last vision of a living person being the shocking execution of his head nurse and friend, Sarah Higgins.  There was no way Leon could tell when a 24-hour period went by, so he could only assume that the dreadful image passed through his mind at least once a day.  Personal grooming fell to the wayside as a short reddish beard had grown over his pale face, and the blank, droopy eyes showed a hint of hopelessness and regret.  No one had interrogated him, nor had his captors communicated in any way.  Since he woke from being beaten into unconsciousness, this cell was all he had seen.

On this day, it would all change.  For the first time in what seemed to be an eternity, Leon heard footsteps growing closer and closer to his cell.  He looked towards the door with both fear and curiosity, and before he knew it, the door slid open, and a bright light streamed inside shattering the quiet, solemn atmosphere.  The doctor tried to shield his eyes from the light, but both his arms were grabbed by Jem H’dar soldiers, and Leon was subsequently dragged from the cell.

For the next three days he was tortured in indescribable ways that resulted in several broken ribs, as well a third-degree plasma burn in his lower torso from something that resembled a Klingon pain-stick.  When he was thrown back into his cramped abode, the doctor crawled painfully on his hands and knees to the center of the room.  Dumping out the three-day old bowl of food, he rubbed clean the shiny metal underside of the dish to reveal a face full of burning welts, open and bleeding sores, and a scruffy singed beard.  Although he held back any sign of weakness in the presence of his oppressors, Leon now found himself alone and staring at a reflection he no longer recognized.  Out of both anguish and relief that the torture session had ceased, the doctor began to cry.

 

<location:  CMO's quarters, deck 8, U.S.S. Republic>

After washing his face at the vanity sink in his quarters, Leon was engrossed in his own thoughts as he stared blankly at his reflection in the mirror for several minutes.  It had been a very long time since the doctor was confined to quarters by anyone with any sort of sovereignty over him.  Although his own quarters aboard the Republic were quite comfortable, it did not rid him of the same feelings of oppression and helplessness that accompanied the situation.

Following the altercation in sickbay with Captain Bombay, the doctor attempted to access his own medical logs regarding Carter’s condition, but with the yoke of restriction that followed in the wake of being relieved of duty, Leon found himself unable to access any information whatsoever.  For that matter, the only files he could bring up on his computer console were those marked as public data, and anything else was accessible only to authorized personnel.  The only thing he could do was wait for Vic to implement whatever plan he had up his sleeve.  Although Leon had confidence in the chief engineer, the hopeful words he communicated to the doctor by ancient sign-language seemed to hold less and less optimism for Leon as the hours went by.

Finally, as the doctor settled into his sofa with a hardcover book, his door buzzer chimed.  With eyebrows furrowed, Leon said “come in” with a look of confusion on his face.  Exacerbating his perplexity, the door slid open to reveal the scarlet-haired temporary counselor, Doctor Harris.  Leon’s jaw dropped open as Shannon walked in.  “I . . . I thought you were confined to quarters?”

“I was,” she said with a smirk.  “And so were you, until Commodore Marshall got your physical report on Bombay.  He’s been relieved of duty by Admiral Kostya and sent to the brig.  The commodore has now been re-instated as our captain.”

Leon’s perplexity increased by a factor of ten.  He stared at the counselor from the sofa for several seconds.  Astonished, he replied “I didn’t DO a physical on Bombay . . .”

 

<location: surgical suite five, main sickbay, USS Republic>

Hose down the walls with liquid metal, wait for it to cool.  Move the stiff to a corner, spray down half the ceiling and floor, wait for it to cool.  Move the stiff to the antipodal corner, spray the other half of the ceiling and floor, wait for it to cool.  Get the doorframe quadruple time.  Sweat buckets courtesy of the extreme heat involved in liquefying metal.  Be thankful for a really good environmental system that compensates just enough so it's only as hot as a Vulcan summer instead of a Y-Class winter.

Shirtless and sweat-soaked, Nat slumped to the floor, bracing himself against the mobile bio-bed for support.  He had the urge to rip Sven Buttenhoff a new one.  He'd forged orders using stolen intelligence codes to get himself here faster to give his pal a hand and what had he gotten for his troubles?  A half-hour of inhospitable work detail while the Chief Engineer ran off to who-knows-where to find who-knew-what.  Tossing the sprayer he'd used to coat the room, Nat reached with his booted-foot for his uniform jacket.

On the inside of the jacket was a small sewn in pocket which contained an antique flask.  Unscrewing the cap, Nat hesitated for a moment, then raised the flask towards the stiff that was his new Executive Officer and said, "Here's ta ya, bucko," before putting the flask to his lips and swigging back a sip of it's warm whiskey contents.  Intellectually he knew it wasn't exactly smart to be drinking while warm and dehydrated, but he also knew he didn't give a rats ass about what was smart at the moment.

Picking his communicator off the front of his jacket, he held it between his thumb and index finger and pressed it, producing the familiar chirp.

"Hawk ta Virtus," he said, taking a breath - and another swig - as he waited for a reply.

"Virtus here, go ahead." replied the dry wit engineer's voice.

"It's all dun.  One freshly minted giant metal box a la surgical suite, at yer disposal." he said.

"Acknowledged.  I'm on my way now.  Virtus out." replied the Chief.

Contemplating another swig, Nat looked up as the doors parted for Sven Buttenhoff, who stumbled back at the wall of heat that slammed into him.  Tugging at his collar he stepped into the room and closed the doors behind it. 

"It's hot as a Vulcan summer in here," Sven observed.

"Thanks for yer observation, Cap'n Obvious." Hawk replied.

"You really shouldn't be drinking in this heat," Sven remarked as he offered his hand to Nat to help him up.

"Christ, don't gimme any lip, boy," Nat replied as he took Sven's hand and stood up, "I'm 'bout ready ta toss ya out the nearest airlock.  God damn call me up, blow ma evenin' of hot passionate sex with the Jezia Olmn, just so I can paint a surgical suite metallic silver and then you got the nerve to harp on me for drinkin' in the heat?" Nat ranted. 

"Jezia Olmn?  The Trill Scientist?  The former Ms. Alpha Quadrant?" Sven replied.

"That's her.  I was this close," Nat said, holding his thumb and index finger about a millimeter apart, "right when you called."

"Oops." Sven replied with a snort of laughter.

"Oh, yeah, laugh it up now.  I'll get ya back, you just wait, bucko." Nat shot back as the doors opened.  Nat had expected Virtus but instead found a thirty-something blond fella in medical garb.  He was about to prattle off some sort of excuse for having turned the room into a giant lunch box when Virtus stepped through as well.

"Like what I've dun with the place?" Nat asked, using his foot to pick up his uniform tunic and jacket.  He heard the gent with sandy blond hair mumble something at Virtus that sounded like a threat or an insult and then watched as Virtus whipped out some funky looking PADD and stepped towards Commander Corpse.

"Doctor Cromwell, how did you-?" Sven began to ask.

"The Captain's regained command and our dear friend Bombay is in the brig.  We don't have time to explain, you both can stay if you want, but please keep out of the way." Cromwell replied, his tone somehow friendly despite the fact he'd basically just told them to sit down and shut up or leave.

"Well howdy ta you too," Nat replied sarcastically as he moved towards the corner, donning his long-sleeved red tunic as Sven joined him.  Leaning up against the now-cool wall, Nat sat back and watched as Virtus went to work.

 

<location: unknown>

"THE Wesley crusher?" John Carter took a long look at the fresh-faced young man who stood across from him. The Martian officer shook his head and rubbed the back of his neck quickly, then looked back at 'Wes'. "No, no . . ." John said, wagging his finger at the former Fleet member, "I know this one. You can't be Wes Crusher because HE's the Chief Engineer on the Titan."

"That's true." Wes said flatly, as if it were the most obvious thing in the world. Carter stared at Wes and blinked. "That's IT?! You're not even going to come up with an explanation?"

"I don't have to," Wes commented, "You're right."

John rubbed his temples. "You're giving me a headache. I feel like I'm arguing causalities with Vic!" John stepped away from the young human and crossed his arms. "Bottom line this for me 'Junior'." Carter asked. "Where am I?"

"You're on Corianus VI. 12 Parsecs coreward of the Thardinian Rift." Wes waited patiently as Carter made sense of the younger man's words.

"Thardinian . . . So we are near the core."

Wes smiled as he saw the glimmer of understanding in Carter's eyes. "That's right, commander. At one point, this was one of the most important places in the galaxy. The Preservers used this world as a staging area for . . ."

"Whoa, whoa, WOAH!" John yelled, holding up a hand. "Preservers?"

"That's what I said."

"How do you know that? For that matter, how did you get here?"

"Well," Wes answered with an easy smile, "I know about the Preservers because of some . . . independent research I did after leaving Starfleet."

"Uh-huh, independent." John answered skeptically.

"As for how I got here, I walked."

Frustrated beyond words, Carter felt his temper rise. He looked up at the bright alien night and let fly at the Universe. "All right! All RIGHT! I'm dead, and I'm in hell! Thanks a LOT!" John looked at Wes again, a bit put out by Wes's amusement at the situation. "No offense, kid."

"None taken, Commander." Wes answered. "But don't call me kid please. And I do have to correct you, sir. You're not dead."

"Oh, I'm not?" John shot Wes an icy glare. "You want to explain how I can breath, let alone EXIST on a planet with no atmosphere and no heat?"

"The breathing is just muscle memory, because you're mind doesn't know any better. And you're not dead, Commander. Well, not totally at least."

"So, what? I'm 'mostly dead'?" John turned and began to walk away. "Thanks for the torment, Lucifer."

Wes watched as Carter stormed away. The young man cleared his throat, then yelled after the confused officer. "Tell me about your future, captain."

Carter spun on a heel. "Shut up!"

"I think I know why you're here, John, but you're almost out of time."

John walked back to stand toe to toe with Crusher again. "That's been my problem for a while now Junior! I'm OUT of time."

"My name is Wes, Commander. And stop whining. It doesn't become you."

"Doesn't . . . What are you now? My counselor."

"Of course not." Wes tried to think how he could present the truth in a way that John Carter might accept. "It's just that Starfleet commanders are pretty much the same no matter where or when they are." Wes gave John a long look and continued. "I'll bet the only thing on your mind is how to get back to your ship, because you've got 'work to do', right?"

John nodded.

"I think I can help you do that, but you're going to have to trust that I am who I say I am. Can you do that?"

"Sure," John said with an uneasy smirk, "what have I got to lose?"

"Good." Wes turned to walk back the way he'd come and motioned for Carter to follow him.

"Ok, let's assume I buy all of this. That I'm not just dead or crazy."

"Fine."

"How can you be here? How can I . . . exist here."

"Well," Wes contemplated as the two walked. "Time is just an illusion. It's a frame of reference that our consciousness gives us to keep things straight. But sometimes, we can . . . see the bigger picture."

"You mean my visions?"

"They weren't visions John. You were there."

"No, no . . ." John corrected. "I was on the Republic."

"And in the future, and in the past." Wesley added. "Existence is existence, Commander. When is up to you. And you're body? Well, that's just a peripheral."

John stopped as he felt a glimmer of understanding. "You mean I'm what? Everywhere at the same time?"

"That's about it. The only reason for time is so that everything doesn't happen at once."

For the first time since his arrival on this strange, alien planet, John Carter felt something akin to hope. He looked at Wes and smiled. "You know," he quipped, "Vic'd hate you. This time stuff drives him crazy."

 

<location: surgical suite five, main sickbay, USS Republic>

Five people crowded into the small confines of a surgical suite was quite enough to make tempers flare, but everyone knew that a job needed to get done here, and that John Carter’s life hung in the balance.  As Hawk and Butenhoff stood in the corner, Virtus and Cromwell loomed over the body of Carter encapsulated in the table-mounted medical support module.

“Okay, Vic,” said the doctor.  “Let’s go over this again.  You’re using Daniel’s PADD to open up a hole in time.  Is that right?”

“Actually,” responded Virtus, who maintained his focus on the PADD.  “I’m opening a so-called ‘hole’ in SPACE-time.  You see, if I only attempt a temporal subspace flux as you suggest, the chronitons that are currently adhering to John’s neural energy patterns would have to be in this exact dimensional locale in order to be re-integrated with his physical synaptic network.  Therefore, I need to create an actual rift in the fabric of space-time.  Although this will theoretically cause a flow of anti-time into this surgical suite, the vortex will act like a magnet for any patterned conglomeration of chronitons with the wrong quantum signature.”

Virtus looked up briefly to see three dumbfounded faces staring back at him.  Doctor Cromwell, although used to his friend’s techo-babble, was not fully prepared for the onslaught of terminology in temporal physics.

“O . . . Okay,” intervened Leon.  “So, what’s going to happen in here if we’ve got anti-time flowing all around us?”

“I don’t know,” said Vic flatly.  “That’s why I had Lieutenant Hawk coat the entire room with Y-T-T alloy.  If there are any adverse physical effects to the flow of anti-time, they will be limited to the confines of the surgical suite.”

“Maybe stay’n wasn’t such ah great idea afta all,” said Nat who began to walk towards the door.  However, Virtus shot him an expressionless yet sober glance.

“Do not leave the room, lieutenant.  You and Lieutenant Butenhoff chose to stay, now stay.  If you open that door, you’ll break the sealant-effect of the alloy, and I’ve already started the quantum incision sequence.”

Nat slowly retracted his hand from the wall-mounted door panel.  Unsure of what the chief engineer just said, but not wanting to see the results of going against his word, the helmsman walked slowly back to where Sven was standing.

“This is another fine mess you’ve gotten us into,” whispered the German-accented head of life-sciences.

Nat looked back to Sven and retorted, “yer the one who dragged ME in ta this!”

“Quiet!  Both of you!” insisted Doctor Cromwell.  He turned back to Vic and asked.  “Okay, so you’re opening a corridor through time-space in hopes that John’s neural energy will make it back to his body.  So what can I do?”

“Make sure that John’s nervous system is re-integrated.”

“Right,” said the doctor, turning his attention to the medical support module.  “What happens if his neural patterns don’t make it back to his body?”

“I don’t know,” stated the chief engineer.  “Quantum incision is complete,” he announced while dialing a few commands on the futuristic PADD.  “Proceeding to open the rift.”

With a pulsating hum, the entire room was bathed in luminescent glow, and every object and person in the room was outlined with a soft white aura.  The officers in the suite felt a strange tingling sensation, as well as a queasy stomach.  There was the sensation that they were flying in circles at indescribable speed, yet nothing in the room appeared to be moving at all.  As the hum slowly increased in intensity to a loud roar, everyone felt as though their bodies were churning in different directions at the same time.  Although difficult, Leon held onto the diagnostic table and strained to yell over the deafening sound.

“How much power is that thing kicking out?” he said, referring to the Daniel’s PADD.

Hanging onto a wall-mounted countertop, Vic replied through gritted teeth.  “I don’t know!  It’s off the scale!”

For their part, Nat and Sven leaned up against the wall, and slowly slid down to a sitting position.  They held their hands in front of their faces, trying to fend off the strange sensation on their bodies, but having no success.

On the table in front of him, Leon watched the support module’s indicators for some sign of neural activity in Commander Carter’s body.  Although he saw none, the doctor suddenly realized that his patient was fading in and out of existence.  John’s head and legs, which were the only parts of his body extruding from the support module, were pulsating on and off in distinct horizontal bands, as if his body was subdivided into strips that were phasing to and from reality.

“Something’s happening!” shouted Leon.  “I’m losing him!”

Before he could do anything else, the body of Commander Carter had disappeared entirely.

 

<location: somewhere on Corianus VI, near the Thardinian Rift>

The young man thought for a moment, smiled, and nodded his head.  "Mister Virtus will get over his dislike of me eventually, but it's funny you should bring him up Captain."

"Commander!"

"Whatever."

"How do you know Vic?" the angry Martian demanded.

"Lieutenant Commander Virtus will make a number of . . . 'waves’, if you'll pardon the pun . . . in the galactic scientific community in his life time.  This is not revealing anything you don't already know, as he has already made a few logical advancements in Warp Field Theory."

"Now you're going to tell me the future?!"

"I could, but I won't."

"Because you are not allowed to by some ancient power that prevents interference in the space-time continuum . . ."

"No, because you'll enjoy it more if you don't know," Wes interrupted.

"What about paradox?  Won't telling me . . ."

"No."

"But . . ."

"No."

"Stop it!  Don't answer my questions before I finish them!  It's like talking to Victor."

Wesley burst out laughing, and slowly recovered wiping a tear from one eye, "That's even funnier!"

John slowly began to smolder as he paced a few steps back and forth, looking at the dense skyscape," I think our conversation is almost at an end."

"Very true, Commander.  You are about to be killed, or rescued, depending on your perspective.  But to finish your previous thought, paradox is impossible.  Everything travels in time the way it is meant to, like a boat on a river.  Sometimes upstream, sometimes down, sometimes tied to a dock, sometimes paddling with or against, and rarely, portaging around rough spots.  You should see what La'a

Victor son of Bradley does when he gets his hands on a Q."

"La'a Victor . . ."

A dim glow began to suffuse Mister Crusher.

"Wait for it.  It's been a pleasure meeting you Captain."

"Commander."

The glow grew to a blinding coruscation of pale colors as John tried to shield his eyes through hands and eyelids that had suddenly gone transparent.

"Aye sir."

 

<location: surgical suite one, main sickbay, HMS Republic>

After a moment, John Carter recalled where he was. The question now was... WHEN was he. John sat up, ignoring the pounding in his head. He scanned the room, wondering at the dull metal coating that marked Leon Cromwell's usually sparkling clean sickbay. There was Leon, looking in shock at Victor, who was fiddling with some sort of PADD. John could also see a few other medical personnel and Shannon. His gaze fell onto Doctor Harris for a long moment. She took one step forward, then looked back at Leon. "Well," Leon said with a shrug, go ahead, damn it."

Shannon bolted to the table where John was sitting up, crashing into him with an enthusiastic *ooff*.

"Doc . . . Shannon? What the?"

Shannon wrapped her arms around Republic's XO, then tilted her head up. Then, her face broke into an easy smile. "John," she pressed a finger to John's mouth, "shut up."

For a moment, John truthfully didn't know for how long, he sat on the bio-bed, trying hard to relax, despite the tensions that were on his mind. Leon and Victor tried their best to look busy. Finally, a young Lieutenant wearing command red blurted out. "Well, don' THAT jess beat all."

"Maybe we should give you a second?" Leon offered.

"No," John lightly pulled away from Shannon and hopped to the floor. Then he looked squarely at Victor. "We don't have that kind of time." John stepped forward, regarding the officer he didn't know. "Pleased to meet you, Lieutenant . . . ?"

"Hawk, sir. Nat Hawk. I s'pose you could say Ah'm yer new driver."

"Well, I hope we'll give you a chance test out your skills Mister Hawk." John turned his head to look at Victor. "Found it huh?"

"Indeed I did John. Quite a handy little gadget you've got here."

"Glad to hear it." John stepped toward the computer terminal on the surgical suite wall. "Let's get down to business." John turned to tap commands into the interface. "Computer," the familiar chirp sounded in response, "What is the location of Admiral Kostya, Commodore Marshall, Captain Bombay, and the U.S.S. Firestorm." Behind him the assembled crew exchanged worried looks.

Leon stepped forward with a medical scanner in hand. "John, I think maybe I should run some more tests."

"What's going on here Doc? Where's Commodore Marshall?"

"You've obviously had a shock John, let me just . . ."

"Damn it Leon, just answer my Sprocking question!"

Leon looked at his patient with the concerned look of a grandfather, or kindly uncle. "Okay John. CAPTAIN Marshall is on the bridge.  Lieutenant Commander Bombay is in the brig. I don't know how the  Kreltans managed to replace our Tactical Chief, but . . ."

"Tactical Chief? Why can't anyone keep that job?"

Cromwell let that thought go, pleased that his friend seemed to be back where he belonged. "I've never heard of Admiral Kostya, and the HMS Firestorm was destroyed during our first engagement with the Kreltans."

"Oh," John shook his head, not at all pleased with the feeling coming over him. "Sprock me! He missed! He Sprocking missed!"

 

<Location: Point Zero, Temporal Investigations Division, 31st century>

Several crewman were huddled around bright display screens each of the humans and aliens wore a dark uniform with a stylized Starfleet "Delta" on the left breast.

A young technician scanned his display. "Oh hell," he cursed softly. He looked back over his shoulder where the senior officer was looking over his charges. "Sir! We've got an unauthorized incursion!"

Immediately, the senior officer stepped to look over the young man's shoulder. "Another Constructionist assault?"

The young officer looked again at his display. "Negative sir, it's a Virtus wave. One of ours."

"Where is the timeslip coming from?"

"Not sure, but it's somewhere in the Alpha Quadrant, early 26th century, I think."

"Keep an eye on it. I'll inform Captain Daniels, see what he wants to do."

 

<Location: Main shuttle bay, HMS Republic>

Victor and Leon chased after John Carter as he and Shannon Harris hurried onto the flight deck. "John, slow down!" the Doctor pleaded. "You're not making any sense!"

John looked back with a simple smirk as he looked over Republic's small craft fleet. 'It looks like a Danube class runabout.' John thought to himself. 'Hope it handles like one.' John dashed trough the hatchway to run pre-flight on the runabout Ellison. He looked through the viewport where he could see Shannon Harris working at the bay's controls. John keyed on the runabout's external speakers.

"Shannon, you don't have to do this."

"Just shut up and get moving you old pirate. Besides, you just swiped a bunch of Leon's files, and someone's gotta watch your six. After all, it's a cute one."

Red lights bathed the shuttle bay and sirens warned that the bay doors were rising.

Behind the runabout, Victor stopped Leon, then looked quickly at a nearby status board. "It's ok...the atmosphere shield's still in place."

Shannon briefly made eye contact with Victor Virtus and shrugged her shoulders. From her point of view there was nothing she could do. Few things in the universe were more persuasive than John Carter when he'd made up his mind.

In the middle of the bay, the runabout's anti-grav-field hummed to life, and the tiny craft shot quickly out of the bay. In the runabout's command cabin, Carter stopped looked over his instruments and accessed the library computer. "Computer," came the chirp, "access restricted files. Give me all information pertaining to U.S.S. Strike that . . . HMS Enterprise, and the Guardian of Forever."

By his calculations, John Carter had been a fugitive from the HMS Republic for roughly six minutes before the huge Galaxy class starship swung gracefully to port and settled easily onto Carter's vector. John glanced over the runabout's library display unit. It seemed to be churning through John's request. `What could be so hard?' John mused to himself, `I only asked for information on the single most dangerous artifact in the galaxy, probably classified deeper than Jim Kirk's little black book.' John's contemplation was broken as the comm. system chirped to life.

=/\= "Carter! What the hell are you doing? We're in the middle of a war damn it!" =/\=

John noted with a certain sense of satisfaction that THIS Captain Marshall seemed a bit put out. "Nice to know some things haven't changed."  Carter muttered to himself. He hit a key to reply to Republic. "Sorry about my lousy timing Captain, but I'm pretty sure I'm dead. Tell Leon not to take it personally."

The silence lasted a bit too long, before Marshall finally answered back.

=/\= "Look John, Leon tells me you've had a shock. I'm sure the Kreltans put you through some nasty business, but you're stealing Fleet property. If you don't head back now, I'll have Nat bring you down." =/\=

`He can try', John thought, `but I can run rings around Republic at impulse speeds, and by the time I'm done with THIS little surprise . . .'

John tilted his head to port as a lance of orange phaser energy shot past the armor-plast view port. The comm. came to life again.

=/\= "John, please, he's serious. Just come home." =/\=

The voice belonged to Shannon Harris, and John couldn't help but wonder what sort of life he might be leaving behind. In the glimpses of his future, as well as this `HMS Reality' Carter's relationship with the doctor, now counselor (at least in the reality that John called home), had seemed to move much faster than anything he was expecting in his present life, though part of him had to admit that the idea of `home' and Shannon appealed to him.

Another phaser blast shot past the view port. John felt the runabout shudder as the blast impacted on the aft shield. `Grozit!' he cursed silently, 'that's about 20 percent power. I'd better hurry this up!'  Carter cleared his throat, and checked the library display again.

Still churning data.

"Shannon, I'm sorry," he said simply, "I'm not your John. Believe me, I wish I were. I really do."

John pulled the runabout into a tight spiral to throw off Republic's tactical systems.  He figured the re-calculation of the firing solution would by him a few seconds. John couldn't help a little smirk as he dialed the inertial dampeners back, allowing the small craft to have a much more `real' feel. The tight spiral maneuver put John's runabout on an oblique course, relative to HMS Republic, meaning that the larger ship would have to cross his path. "Sorry about this Shannon. You'd better hold onto something."

John's fingers flew across the control panel as he accessed the runabout's drive systems. He continued to tap commands, ignoring the warning klaxons, as the runabout's computer warned that what he was telling it to do was extremely unwise.

 

<location: main bridge, HMS Republic>

Jim Marshall leaned forward in his command chair, fighting the urge to look over his right shoulder, where he knew his First Officer wasn't. "Tactical, I want a firing solution on that ship. Target warp drive only. He's still one of ours."

From behind the Captain, a smooth alto voice gave a quick "Aye, Sir", and Marshall could here the beeps and chirps of the ship's tactical systems hunting for their target. At the Conn position, Nat Hawk kept a keen eye and a steady hand on Republic's flight controls, but something was gnawing at him. "Hold onta somethin'? Now, what'n the sam hill ya think he meant bah that?"

Seconds later, Nat Hawk got his answer. A cloud of super heated drive plasma vented from the small runabout's engines. At warp speeds, it would be the same for HMS Republic as hitting a wall of hardened duranium.

Collision warnings and proximity alerts sounded on Republic's bridge as the crew hurried to react. "Hard port!" Marshall yelled. "Emergency stop!"

"Son ova-bitch!" was Nat Hawk's reply, as he entered commands to wheel Republic over to her left.

The strain of super-relative speeds on super-enhanced duranium hull became an audible groan as Republic heaved to avoid the wall of super-heated gas that John Carter had thrown in the starship's path. Crewmen were thrown from positions across the ship as the vessel dropped from several hundred times the speed of light to near zero in the space of a few nanoseconds.

As HMS Republic strained to stop, James Marshall took advantage of the brief silence to make sure that he himself was well, even as damage reports streamed in from the rest of the ship. "Sullivan," Marshall ordered calmly, "get me Mister Virtus please, I want to know how badly we're hurt."

"Aye Sir," Sullivan answered. The comm. system chirped, and Tom Sullivan looked back at his Captain. "I've got him, Sir."

=/\= "It was drive plasma, wasn't it Captain?"=/\=

"How in the world did you know that?"

=/\= "One of John's favorite small ship tactics. Claims he learned it from Ro Laren. I apologize for not warning you sir, but the odds of John using that particular maneuver were . . .” =/\=

"Later Mister Virtus. How soon can we pick up the chase?"

=/\= "Six hours 23 minutes, 17 seconds…mark. Sir."=/\=

"Damn that man," Marshall cursed. "I'll leave you to it Mister Virtus, but a miracle or two wouldn't hurt any." Marshall stepped from the command chair to stand just over Nat Hawk's shoulder.

"Ah don git it sir," the helmsman drawled. "Computer overrides shouldda made that trick impossible, least ways on a Danube class. Sorry I was asleep at the switch Cap'n."

"Don't worry mister Hawk, I think you'll find that the XO has a way of doing the impossible on a regular basis." Marshall gave the young lieutenant an encouraging pat on the shoulder. "Mister Sullivan," Marshall barked out, "get me the HMS Yorktown. We've got a loose cannon on our hands."

 

<location: main engineering, HMS Republic>

Victor leaned over the gantry railing and yelled down to one of his subordinates.

"Ric, can we de-ionize the hull with a one quarter percent, wide-spread phaser corona, bounced off the 'inside' of the shields, if we set the shields and the phasers to same amplitude but opposing frequencies?"

A calm baritone called up from inside a Jefferies tube,  "Sure, gimme a few minutes to decrypt what you just said, and I'll have it ready in a jif."

"Thanks.  Pakita, run a simulation on the effects of an ultra-low intensity, full-array phaser blast on the hull."

"Aye Sir."

The true difficulty with being an engineering genius in the Queen's Navy was not the long hours, low pay, or minimal vacation.  The true difficulty lay in being required to be a genius all the time, even when under intense pressure to save your friend and commander whom you and the ship's doctor had recently disintegrated, and was now inexplicably fleeing the ship in a stolen shuttle.

 

<Location: Runabout Ellison, 1 hour and 14 minutes after leaving HMS Republic>

John Carter sat nervously in the pilot's couch of his stolen runabout planning his next move. The small craft's computer had finally managed to sift through Starfleet records and collate references to Carter's target: The Guardian of Forever. Carter squinted to read the text rather than have the computer repeat the data to him:

Originally discovered during the second five year voyage of the HMS Enterprise under the command Captain Christopher Pike, the Guardian was a was used by Doctor Phillip Boyce, Pike's CMO and long-time friend, to travel back to Earth's distant past. Pike's  mission log further revealed that the Captain and his first officer also used the Guardian to follow Boyce to the past.

Carter scoffed as he read on. The exact details of the mission remained classified, beyond the reach of Carter's security clearance, but the ship's log did list Doctor Boyce as killed in the line of duty on December 16th, 2266. John also glanced over the technical data regarding the Guardian as compiled by Science Officer Spock during the mission. As Carter had remembered, the Guardian was a sentient machine that acted as a portal to the past on several worlds. Spock's report stipulated that one could use the Guardian to go back on time to any planet, and to observe alternate time lines, as Spock had done following Boyce's departure from the Guardian Planet's surface.

Spock's report stopped short of naming the builders of the Guardian, but given John Carter's recent encounter with Wes Crusher (if that is truly who it was) and the mention of the enigmatic race known as the Preservers, John was beginning to have his own ideas. However, the more Carter thought about it, the more he figured that using the Guardian of Forever to put himself in the right time line would be easy, compared to actually getting to the planet where the Guardian was.

As long as he stayed at warp speeds, John and his runabout could go on nearly forever, but as soon as he dropped to sub-light, the ship would be dead in the water. `But of course,' John thought to himself, `that's what happens when you eject your drive plasma to evade a Galaxy Class starship. No drive plasma meant that, while the impulse drive still functioned, without the drive plasma, it was nothing more than a large fusion reactor the fed life-support and the runabout's other functions.

"Come on John", Carter chided himself while rubbing his eyes with the heel of his palms. "Think, damn it! Think!" Carter pushed back from the runabout's console and walked to the small lounge in the back of the ship. He stopped at the replicator unit recessed in the wall and spoke.

"Jovian sunspot . . . chilled."

A second later, the replicator whirred to life, and after a swirl of light and noise, a tall slender glass, filled with sparkling blue liquid took its place. John picked up the glass and dipped his finger in, swirling the sparkling particles suspended in the drink with his finger. He threw his head back and laughed out loud. "Ha-ha-ha-Ha! Thank you Vic! Math is my friend!"

 

<location: main bridge, HMS Yorktown>

=/\= ". . . and that's about the size of things, Captain. Are you clear?"=/\=

"Absolutely Captain Marshall, We'll bring Carter in."

=/\= "I knew I could count on you Mike. Republic out." =/\=

The subspace channel went black, replaced by the stylized symbol of Her Majesty's Starfleet, emblazoned with the crest of the HMS Yorktown. Captain Michael MacCrae sat back in his chair and turned behind his ready room desk. He tapped a control on his desktop and waited for the comm. channel to beep.

"MacCrae to bridge."

=/\= "Holding at ready stations Captain. What can I do for you?" =/\=

"We're going after a pirate of sorts Mister Bush. Tell me," MacCrae stroked his graying goatee, "Do we have anyone onboard who served with John Carter?"

=/\= "I'll look into it, Skip. Am I looking for anything special?" =/\=

"I'll trust you're judgment, Number One. In the meantime, clear for action and set course for the Draco III."

=/\= “Draco III . . . isn't that . . ." =/\=

"It certainly is, Number One. Things are about to get interesting."

 

<location: Runabout Ellison>

John looked intently at the display screen as his right thumb quickly brushed his fingertips. With his left hand, John continued to manipulate variables and turn his head quickly to the left, glancing at a PADD that displayed the engineering data for his Danube class runabout. "That's twice," he finally said out loud. "The numbers add up. No doubt about it . . . I think."

Carter pushed away from the desk in the back of the runabout where he'd been bent to his task. Despite the seriousness of his situation, he couldn't help but feel his attention float back to Starfleet Academy, where the only thing that was keeping Cadet John Carter from taking his rightful place in Fleet history was the fact that he couldn't pass basic navigation. Even now, John could feel the frustration rising in his blood as he recalled sleepless nights, and hours of study that didn't seem to do any good.

John shook his head as he moved forward and settled back into the pilot's couch. "Well John," he commented aloud, "if you can't do math now, you're a dead man." Carter checked the small ship's readouts again, and waited as he raced closer and closer to the Draco system.

 

<location: main bridge, HMS Yorktown>

"You know the Commander well do you?" MacCrae asked as an attractive lieutenant commander in operations gold held attention in front of him.

"Yes sir," Casey Tanaka replied with all the discipline she could muster. "I met Joh . . ." She cleared her throat and continued. "I met Commander Carter when I was the Conn Officer on the HMS Devonshire.  Didn't serve under him for too long though sir." Tanaka's eyes held the barest hint of a smile as she addressed her Captain. Behind her, Casey heard the Yorkshire's XO inhale sharply. It wasn't quite common knowledge that Tanaka had received `personal instruction' from Carter during her time on the Devonshire, but it wasn't exactly an Imperial secret either.

Casey was sure enough of her own abilities that she didn't bother to deny anything, and judging from the fact that the story of her liaison made it back to her in amazingly short order actually confirmed two things. First, scuttlebutt traveled faster than light, and second, she'd managed to make at least as much of an impression on John Carter as the Martian officer had made on her.

"Quite." MacCrae said simply, clearly not amused by the romantic details of his Conn. Officer's past with Starfleet's latest fugitive. "I've read Carter's file Mister Tanaka, but what can you tell me about the man?"

Casey Tanaka cocked her head slightly. "Well sir, John doesn't exactly do anything quietly," she commented with a wry grin. "Whatever he's going to do, it's bound to be flashy. He'll make sure we know he's in the quadrant."

"You're certain he'll make a bold move then?"

"Absolutely sir," Casey answered with all certainty. "I don't think he knows how to avoid attention."

MacCrae sat back in the command chair on Yorktown's bridge, and let a rush of confidence flow through him. "Well, we know where he has to go," MacCrae reflected, turning his attention to his First Officer. "Mister Bush?"

"Aye Sir."

"Red Alert please. Set us up to picket the Guardian when we arrive. We should beat him to the system by at least 2 hours. We'll let Carter come to us."

"Very good Sir."

 

<location: Runabout Ellison>

John inhaled sharply as his sensors indicated the presence of the HMS Yorktown, following a standard patrol route between Draco III and the grav belt where John's runabout would have to drop out of warp. Have to that is, if he hadn't done it all ready. "Sprock me!" he cursed. "It couldn't be simple could it!"

Carter looked at the steady red icon that was the Yorktown on his helm display. Whoever was on that ship had done their homework. They knew where John was most likely to arrive, because of the physics of the area if nothing else. He'd already worked hard to figure out how to get to the Guardian of Forever without impulse drive. `I'll be damned,' he spat silently, `if I'm going to let something as small as an Excelsior Class cruiser stop me.' "Computer", he called aloud. "Standby Reaction Control Thrusters. Flight pattern Yamamoto."

=/\= "Flight plan standing by." =/\=

"Deactivate sensor and transponder systems," Carter added. "Override Barsoom, two."

The computer beeped obediently.

"Engage."

 

<location: main bridge, HMS Yorktown>

Casey Tanaka was visibly upset on HMS Yorktown's bridge. "I don't understand!" she blurted out. "He should have been here by now. Guns blazing!" She glanced nervously at Captain MacCrae, as the Captain in turn looked at his first officer.

"Any sign of the runabout Mister Bush?"

The tall, lanky XO looked to Yorktown's Tactical Officer, who shook his head silently. "Not a whisper, Captain." Bush remarked.

MacCrae looked back at Tanaka. "Patience Lieutenant Commander. Carter would have to be invisible to get by us now."

 

<location: Runabout Ellison>

John Carter held his breath as his powered-down runabout, now less than space junk sailed silently, effortlessly on the momentum of the now spent reactor control thrusters. Cruising through the system on a ballistic course as he was made him nearly impossible to spot, unless someone on Yorktown got very, very lucky. Of course, the down side, John knew, was that he truly was a sitting duck if he did get spotted.

He'd used up every bit of thrust he could force from the CO2 tanks (a handy by-product from the runabout's environmental systems, but it would take hours for those tanks to replenish, and by then, assuming John had done the math right; Carter looked up and muttered a silent prayer to whatever Math-Gods Vic Prayed to; he wouldn't have that long until the runabout hit Draco III's atmosphere, and Carter had a whole new set of problems.

John reminded himself to breath as Yorktown continued her patrol.  Heading steadily away from John's rendezvous with Forever.

 

<location: main bridge, HMS Yorktown>

Michael MacCrae pinched his eyes shut at the bridge of his nose, equally upset with himself and Casey Tanaka, to say nothing of John Carter's near super-human knack for finding new and interesting rules to break. MacCrae looked again at his XO.

Commander William Bush simply shook his head again.

"Carter doesn't understand subtlety, eh Lieutenant Commander Tanaka?"

"It appears he's learned something new Captain."

"Quite."

 

<location: Runabout Ellison>

John Carter had read about the early Terran space program. How brilliant and brave volunteers would wrap themselves in metal coffins that were too thin and hurl themselves into the unknown on what amounted to unexploded missiles, only to land back home using comparatively simple technology. Now, as the runabout Ellison was buffeted by the atmosphere of Draco III, John cursed as he tried to re-initialize the craft's anti-gravity drive. The only prayer he had of moving in atmosphere.

"They were nuts!" Carter said aloud. "They were all sprocking loony! How the hell did we ever get off the sprocking planet?" John's musing at the universe was quickly pushed aside as he felt the runabout respond to his frantic commands. "It's about damn time!" he shouted, letting years of fighter training take over as he guided his craft to a clearing, not far from his destination.

***

Wind whipped through John Carter's hair as he stepped into a rough clearing of rock and loose dirt. Ahead of him, he could see the object of his long twisting chase through death and back. A roughly hewn arch of what looked like rock, but at the same time, seemed to glow with an energy of its own.

Carter stood before the legendary Guardian of Forever, now unsure of what to do. He consulted the PADD and tricorder he'd brought from the runabout and resisted the urge to slap his forehead. Ambassador Spock's report from HMS Enterprise didn't include instructions on how to make the artifact work. After a long moment, he finally crossed his arms and barked out. "Hello?"

In response, the arch flashed, as John's head was filled with a booming, disembodied voice. "I am as I have always been, and will always be, John Carter."

`Great,' Carter thought as he stepped forward, `it knows my name.' "Well THAT'S good news." he spoke up. "Then you know why I'm here?"

"To get back to the end that was the beginning."

John rolled his eyes. "Oh boy . . ."

"All will unfold in the fullness of time, John Carter."

Smoke flowed through the center of the Guardian, blowing clear to reveal the sickbay of U.S.S. Republic. At least, John hoped it was this time.

"Go . . . NOW!"

Carter took a leap of faith, into the sea of time.

***

John's head felt like it would split open as his senses were assaulted by too much light and noise. He rubbed his temple with one hand, clutching at the hard-won PADD with the other. "Geez! What'd I drink?"

"Whatever'd was," Nat replied, his head - or maybe the room - spinning, "I think've had 'nough," finished the Helmsman as everything began to steady and calm.  He had no clue what in the high hell had just gone on here, but he knew it was enough to make him consider sobriety.  Taking the polished silver flask from the hidden pocket sewn into his uniform jacket, he unscrewed the cap and took a long swig.  Afterwards, he caught the few odd looks, but shrugged them off.  "I said I'd had 'nough a that.  No such thing s'too much a this," he said, offering the container to the man on the bio-bed.  "Never drank with'a dead man b'fore."

Without a word, John reached out and grabbed the flask, not paying attention to his attending physician who was attempting to interpose his will with a scowl and raised finger.  The doctor opened his mouth to speak, but as he watched John empty the canister of alcohol in uninterrupted gulps, he instead pursed his lips and shrugged his shoulders, giving in to the inevitability of John’s refusal to listen to medical orders.  Turning to Virtus, Leon addressed the chief engineer.

“Vic, I wonder if you can give me some sort of explanation of what just occurred?  Somehow, I’ve got to write a report on all this, and I have no idea on where to begin.”

“I’m not altogether sure I can provide you with an answer, doctor” admitted Virtus.  “I suppose John’s sudden return to consciousness can go under the heading of ‘theoretical temporal phenomena,’ and leave it at that.  However, you might have Temporal Investigations talking with you about that one.”

“Correction, Vic,” added Doctor Cromwell.  “They’d want with talk with YOU.  Whatever I end up writing about this in the medical logs, I’m going to mention your name prominently when it comes to what occurred in this surgical suite.”

As the newly-resurrected John Carter took a gasp of air following his extended swig from Lieutenant Hawk’s flask, he coughed twice and handed the vessel back to the helmsman.  Nat, unbelieving that a man could drink that much alcohol in one breath, stared at his drinking flagon with a dropped jaw, turning it over to confirm that it was actually empty.

“I’ve never seen anyone drink 200-proof that fast since Altair Four,” remarked the German-accented Sven Butenhoff.  “Are you alright, commander?”

Looking at his surroundings with wary eyes and a flushed face, Carter pushed aside the surgical support module, and pivoted his body to a full sitting position on the biobed.  The fact alone that he was conscious surprised everyone in the room, but the realization that he was in full uniform again was even more confusing.

“That depends,” responded John with a raspy voice, the result of his recent deluge of Nat’s drink.  “What ship am I on?”

“You’re on the Republic, of course,” the doctor answered.  “Where else would you be?”

“WHICH Republic?” John emphasized.

“NCC-76241.  Are you okay?”

“Damn it, Leon!  Just answer the question!  Which Republic?  Is this the U.S.S. Republic?”

Virtus and Cromwell looked at one another with concern before looking back towards John.

“Yes . . .” Leon replied suspiciously.

“And Captain Bombay is in command?”

“Well, he WAS.  But he’s in the brig now.  Apparently, I did a physical on him while I was confined to quarters, and he turned out to be a Kreltan spy.  Commodore Marshall is captain again and took over command of the ship.  John, why don’t we just run a few more tests to see if . . .”

To everyone’s surprise, John held up a PADD that they had failed to notice was in his hand.

“Odd . . .” said John.  Looking at the PADD in confusion.  “I downloaded some files from your medical database in another timeline to help figure out that Bombay was Kreltan.  But . . .” he looked back to Leon.  “Did you say you had already done a physical on Bombay?”

“I did,” the doctor said, crossing his arms.  “But I didn’t.”

Nat and Sven looked at one another, wondering if they were the only ones left in the surgical suite who had not been mentally affected by the strange energy flux that permeated the room a few minutes ago.

“What?” replied John.

“Well, he had confined me to quarters following my orders to keep your body on life-support, but Shannon came in saying that Kostya and Marshall read my physical report on him and that he had been relieved of command.  Now either I had a memory lapse, or someone has changed the medical records.”

Wincing in perplexity, Carter said.  “But that’s not possible . . . How could this information already be in the ship’s computer if I haven’t given it to you yet?”

“Look, John, let’s just do a few more tests.  It’s only a short walk to exam room one so we can . . .”

The opening of the surgical suite door interrupted the doctor.  However, instead of the surgical ward hallway appearing outside, a strange blue light radiated into the room from beyond.  Two individuals stepped through the doorway, one was a tall gray-haired gentleman wearing a standard Starfleet commander’s uniform, and the other was the tall balding figure of Daniels; the temporal agent from the future.

“You!”  shouted John Carter, who dropped the PADD in his hand and immediately launched himself towards Daniels.  John cocked his arm backwards and then thrust it forward into a powerful haymaker punch that landed on Daniel’s jaw.  The time traveler slumped to the floor in pain as the gray-haired commander interposed himself between Carter and Daniels.

“Whoa there, Commander!” the newcomer said.  “Don’t blame him for your trip through time!  If there’s anyone to blame, it’s yourself.”

“Me?” shouted Carter with incredulity and spite.  “He’s the one who first brought the whole time-traveling crap aboard this ship during our contacts with the Kreltans!  How do you figure it’s my fault, and just who the hell are you?”

Daniels stood up, nursing a bruised jaw and bleeding lip as the gray-haired commander introduced himself.  “Commander Murdock, Temporal Investigations.”  He turned to Daniels and asked, “Are you alright, sir?”

“I’m fine, commander,” the balding man replied.  “I probably deserved that.”

“You’re damn right you did!” Carter interjected.

With a firm voice, Murdock looked back at John.  “If it were not for Daniels, you and your ship wouldn’t be here right now.  I can’t go into specifics, but all I can say is that during your life, you were exposed to chroniton radiation that affected you in this particular time period.  It was the main cause for your recent expedition along the fabric of reality, and as for the Kreltans, you no longer need to worry about them.”

“What do you mean?” replied Victor Virtus, who watched the sudden appearance of the newcomers with subdued interest.

“It means,” Daniels replied, walking further into the room while Murdock made sure Carter did not succeed in a second attempt to bulldoze him.  “That I would like my PADD back.”  He walked up to the chief engineer and held out his hand.  Virtus, with a look of annoyance and regret, dutifully handed the futuristic device back to the owner.  In addition, the time traveler also turned around and picked up the other PADD that Carter had dropped when attacking him.  Although the perturbed commander cast a sharp eye at Daniels, the balding, brown-haired man only returned a calm, friendly smile.

“I suppose that this means you’re going to do some kind of memory-wiping procedure on all of us?” Virtus asked, taking note of the speechless and dumbfounded looks emanating from Hawk and Butenhoff.

“Actually, no.  He has no need to.”  Commander Murdock replied.  “By order of Starfleet Command, none of you are to talk about what has occurred in this surgical suite today.  Altering your memories now would only further disrupt the timeline,” he explained throwing a glance towards Virtus.  “Therefore, I can only order you to stay quiet.  Mind you, if we discover that you’ve disobeyed this directive, it will be a court-martial offense.  If you have any questions about this order feel free to look me up at Starfleet Command headquarters.” Looking towards the doctor, Murdock added, “Oh, and Doctor Cromwell?  You did indeed do a thorough physical exam on Captain Bombay, and the results indicated that he was a Kreltan spy.”

“I won’t falsify medical records!” shouted an angry Leon Cromwell.

“You don’t have to,” added Daniels.  “It’s already been done for you.”  He held up the PADD that Carter had dropped and smiled.

“So YOU were the one who planted Bombay’s physical report in the computer,” Carter concluded. 

“It was easier that way, John,” Daniel’s said.  “There would have been a lot more problems with the timeline if you had attempted it yourself.”

“Nevertheless,” Commander Murdock added.  “I’m ordering your cooperation in this matter.  Again, I must emphasize that you are all to forget about this incident.  You would be jeopardizing your careers if you were to violate this directive.”  The commander then turned around and walked back into the blue room beyond.  Daniels was about to follow when Victor Virtus chimed in.

“I’m hoping that we won’t have to run into one another again.”

“Of course we will, Vic,” Daniels added with a smile.  “After all, it’s only a matter of time.”  With that, the enigmatic time traveler exited the surgical suite, and the door slid closed behind him.

***

When the five officers finally emerged from surgical suite five, they were greeted with gasps of awe at the living form of Commander Carter.  A tearful Doctor Shannon Harris even went so far as to hug him before she regained her composure and professional demeanor.  The spectacle caused every member of the on-duty sickbay staff to watch as Doctor Cromwell escorted John to the exam room for a full physical.  By the end of the day, Carter was cleared of medical deficiencies and returned to duty, and the only angry soul in sickbay was Leon, who hovered over Lieutenant Nathan Hawk as he was forced to return surgical suite five to it’s original condition.

For the next several days, the Republic, as the flagship of the Kreltan war effort, made a last patrol of the former war zone, confirming that there was no longer any sign of Kreltan occupancy.  The spontaneous combustion of all captive Kreltans seemed to fluster everyone, wondering how such an occurrence could have been carried out.  Although many in Starfleet Medical attributed the action to be a genetically-induced form of mass-suicide, Doctor Cromwell had his own theories which included intervention by the Q-Continuum.  His reasoning was that the RNA sequences required for the form of cellular disintegration observed in all the captive Kreltans could not travel faster than subspace, which is what would be needed given the vast stellar distances between the interment areas where the prisoners were kept.  Given that he had already observed quasi-omnipotent intervention in surgical suite five, he could not shake the feeling that there was a lot more to the sudden disappearance of the Kreltans than anyone knew.

     
 

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