Part One:
Starfleet's Finest
Written by Michael Cloonan


MAIN

THE SHIP

THE CREW

 


Cadet Salk drifted into wakefulness.  Already the clouds around his mind were clearing as his dream-state lost coherency and reality settled in for another day.  He had been dreaming that the Je’lah-ren, beings from Bolian mythology similar to the Sirens of Earth legend, had carried him away on their silvery clouds to their mysterious homeland, never to see his friends or family again.  Their whispery sing-song voices soothed him, assured him he would never be alone while he was in their care, and before long friends old and new would be joining him.  He still felt as though he could breathe in that deep, sweet aroma of the Je’lah-ren as they had pampered him and ran their smooth silvery fingers over his skin.  It had been a rather wonderful dream, he thought as he yawned, stretched and rubbed the sleep from his eyes.  Then he turned to glance at his bedside chronometer, hoping that he still had a couple of hours before his first Starfleet exam preparation session.

           The clock wasn’t there.  This bed wasn’t his.  The room definitely did not correspond with any style he’d seen at Starfleet Academy.

           And the stars drifting by the window told him that he wasn’t even on Earth anymore.

 

 

Commander Alicia Newman could hardly believe that it was nearly all over.

        Or rather, that it was nearly about to begin.

        Despite her excitement, she did find herself a little put out that the Admiral felt it necessary to assign her to the task of ushering the new “recruits” (abductees, she corrected herself wryly) around the Starbase like some sort of tour guide – especially when she could have been performing some last-minute checks on the ship.  But the Admiral had been most insistent that she accompany him here, at his side as always, and help him with this, the most pivotal operation of the whole project.

        Her PADD suddenly bleeped an alert.  It was a sensor alert from one of the visitor cabins: the Bolian was finally awake.  She barely suppressed a small sigh of relief.  She had begun to think the operatives had used just a little too much sleeping gas to get him here.

        She turned on her heel and headed down the corridor toward the guest quarters.

 

 

Salk sat up in bed and stared dumbly around the room for a minute or two.  Apart from the bed, there was only a poky little ablutions cubicle in the corner, and a solitary moulded chair with his cadet uniform neatly folded on it.  The sparse furnishings and drab grey colour scheme suggested the lack of imagination in space-faring vehicle design that only humans could possess.

        Had he been kidnapped?  Was this some prank by his fellow cadets?  Or some kind of secret initiative test set up by Starfleet Academy?  Should he call for help?  Was there anyone else around to hear him?  And if there were – would they be friendly?  Could they be watching his every move?

        He slid out of bed.  As if in response to his movement, the lights in the room brightened.  He quickly slipped into his uniform, and crossed to the door.  It failed to respond to his approach, and the control panel in the wall beside it was dead.  He was locked in.  Resignedly, he crossed to the washbasin in the corner.  As he splashed some water onto his face, he was startled to hear a deep male voice begin talking to him.  He spun around but there was no one in the room: the voice was coming through the comms system.

        “Welcome, Cadet Salk,” it was saying.  “Please forgive the imposition, but your attendance has been specifically requested.  You are here to attend an informal interview regarding your future in Starfleet.  These exceptional circumstances are due to this being a highly exceptional position.  If you do not wish to take part, please say so now and we can have you transported back to Starfleet Academy – bearing in mind that you are to speak of this to no one.”

        There was a slight pause.  Salk opened his mouth to say something, but thought against it.  This seemed to be no more than a computer recording, and any attempt to speak on his part may be interpreted as a protest and he’d be whisked away just as suddenly and mysteriously as he’d been transported here.

        The impetuous curiosity of youth (and, of course, being a Bolian) had overwhelmed him.  Firstly, he had been “personally requested” here, presumably by someone high up in Starfleet; secondly, if these circumstances were so “exceptional” it must be something big indeed; and finally, if he was sworn to secrecy about this then it must be something so big that he would never forgive himself if he didn’t at least find out what it involved!

        The voice eventually continued.  “We look forward to your continued co-operation.  You will shortly be directed to the officers’ lounge.  Please await further instruction.”  The voice cut off.

        Salk stood silent for a moment longer, taking stock.  He had obviously been transported direct from his bed in the Academy colleges to… wherever this was.  Was he the only one?  He peered out of the window for a moment.  Earth wasn’t anywhere in sight.  The stars were motionless, and various protruding arrays he could see at the corners of his vision outside indicated that he was aboard a starbase – one that either had a very powerful transporter or he’d been brought here aboard a starship.  If the latter were the case then it was a lot of effort to go to just for one person.  So where were the others, and how many were there?  He remembered the voice mentioning an officers’ lounge, and wondered when he’d be allowed to see it.

        As if in answer, the door suddenly swooshed open, revealing a rather attractive human female.  She was wearing a standard Starfleet uniform, but Salk noticed that there was a subtle difference to the comm-badge: horizontal bars instead of the usual squared-off oval, and the familiar Starfleet arrowhead insignia was split down the centre.  She can’t have been that much older than Salk, but she wore the three rank pips of a commander, and she stood for a moment, holding a PADD rather officiously in her hand, smiling at him disarmingly.

        “Cadet Salk,” she said, “I’m Commander Alicia Newman.  Welcome to Starbase X31-Alpha.  Please, come with me.”

 

 

The young lieutenant sat in the darkened room, the only source of illumination being the spotlight shining down on him from directly overhead.  He’d been here for almost an hour now, and beads of frustration welled on his forehead.

        The deep male voice that had spoken to him all this time had paused for a moment, awaiting an answer.

        “Can I take time to think about it?” the lieutenant said at last.

        “No,” came the stern reply.  “It is imperative that this mission commence right away.  Either you decide right now or you sign the disclaimer denying all you have seen and heard here and you return to your duty at the Training Facility on Io.”

        The lieutenant shook his head.  He had been in Starfleet for enough years now to know for a fact that this was not how things operated, even for Starfleet Intelligence.  The voice had promised a mission of adventure and excitement never dreamt of before in Federation history, but wasn’t prepared to give away any actual details.  It was like a sales pitch, forceful without being demanding, deliberately designed to distract you from what was colloquially called the “small print”: the underlying disclaimer about there being any actual legality involved in the transaction.

        The young lieutenant was not moved.  In fact, he’d experienced similar pseudo-grovelly requests for application consideration from a few Starfleet commanding officers desperate for a pilot of his apparent qualifications to serve aboard their various vessels.  The voice had even mentioned how impressed it had been with his academic and service credentials, making it clear how much a man of his talents would be rewarded for partaking in a “bold new adventure for the cause”.

        Bollocks.

        The whole thing just… stank.  Any operation that involved this amount of secrecy wasn’t something he’d want to blindly stumble into.

        “I’ve worked hard to get where I am,” the lieutenant said.  “I’ve heard that I may be given a senior position aboard the Darwin in a few months.  I can’t jeopardize that.  I'm sorry, but I feel that I must decline.”

        “It is regrettable you feel that way,” the voice sighed, with genuine remorse.  “It is not merely the fundamental skills of those I have selected that are integral to this mission, but their potential to contribute on a variety of other individual bases as well.  Everyone who eventually elects to involve themselves becomes a living, thinking component of the Project as a whole.”

        “Well I don’t mean to put you out…” the lieutenant stammered.

        “Fortunately,” the voice interrupted him crisply, “we anticipated that not all our short-listed candidates would accept, and there are others we can ask to take your place.  This briefing is ended.”

        The spotlight blinked out, and the lieutenant was left sitting in pitch darkness.

 

 

Salk tried to question Commander Newman as she led him along the corridor.

        The girl was very unforthcoming about… well, pretty much everything, really.  She wouldn’t tell him where he was because the location of Starbase X31-Alpha (about which he had previously heard nothing) was “highly classified”.  She couldn’t tell him how they’d brought him here because the procedures involved were “a closely guarded Starfleet Intelligence secret”.  She couldn’t tell him why he was selected to be here because “you’ll know soon enough”.

        “So…” he tried, changing tack after a long, uncomfortable silence, “what can you tell me?”

        “I can tell you that you are about to be made an offer no sane person would ever refuse,” she stated.  “The kind of thing that comes along once in a Vulcan lifetime.  The exact sort of opportunity that an eager and talented young cadet like you ought not to pass up or you’ll be lying on your deathbed still regretting it.”

        “Oh,” was all Salk could say.  The girl’s PADD bleeped and she consulted it.

        “The Admiral has summoned me, I need to go,” she said.  “The officer’s lounge is at the end of this corridor, just go through there and make yourself comfortable until it’s your turn.”  She smiled.  “I hope to see you on the other side.”

        Her long legs took her striding back down the corridor.  Salk headed for the doors she had pointed to.  Already he could hear the faint sounds of people talking from within.

 

 

Nearly a minute passed before the young lieutenant rose from his seat, ready to feel his way out of the chamber in the darkness, when the heavy doors slid open and the same girl that had escorted him into this room stood framed in a hexagon of dim light.

        Blinking, he made his way to her.  She held her PADD out to him.

        “Please put your imprint here,” Commander Newman said, rather formally.  “It’s the secrecy disclaimer confirming that you will never speak of anything you have seen or heard here today.”  She wasn’t as openly chatty as she had been earlier.  Perhaps she thought less of him now that he had refused the offer her superiors had made him.

        “That’s just it,” he said as he examined the PADD.  “I’ve seen and heard nothing of any earth-shattering importance.”  The document on the screen was a stock-standard United Federation of Planets (Security and Intelligence Division) Secrecy Bill, promising the harshest of penalties if the signatory dishonoured the agreement.  Newman was glaring at him expectantly.  He pressed his thumb to the panel and the PADD bleeped in satisfaction.

        “Thank you, lieutenant,” she said, taking the device back from him.  “This way, please.  I’ll escort you to the shuttle bay.”  She indicated that he follow her along the corridor, and he fell in step behind her.  The sooner he was away from this place the better.

        “A shuttle has been prepared to return you to your squadron on Io,” Newman said as the heavy shuttlebay bulkheads slid open.  “A cover story explaining your absence has been passed to your superiors, and suitable logs placed in the shuttle’s databanks.  I suggest you read them on your journey.  Both communications and navigation have been disabled on a timer, until you are safely far enough away from here, at which point control will be restored to you.”  She stood by the ramp to one of the two shuttles in the chamber, and looked him straight in the eyes as he made to enter the shuttle.  “The shuttle’s computers have also been fixed to prevent you or anyone else from discovering the location of this base.  Please don’t tamper with the consoles and you’ll get home fine.”

        The young lieutenant nodded his acknowledgement, and ascended the ramp into the shuttle.

 

 

Newman slapped her comm-badge as she entered the shuttlebay control room, sectioned off from the main hangar by a transparent wall.  “Newman to Admiral Miles.  He signed the document, and has boarded the shuttle.  I think we can trust him.”

        “Yes, I suppose so…”  The Admiral sounded thoughtful, pondering his options.

        “It’s a shame he didn’t accept,” she said wistfully, as she started programming the launch sequence into the console.  “He’s an exceptional officer, Starfleet have a very high opinion of him.”

        “And that is precisely what could make him dangerous,” the Admiral replied.  “Who do we have on our list of possible replacement helm officers?”

        Newman checked the relevant data on her PADD.  “Junior Lieutenant Lanit Joras – a Bajoran.”  She gasped when she saw the Service History page.  “Court martialled by Starfleet a few years ago for…”

        “Suspected affiliations with the Maquis,” the Admiral’s voice interrupted.  “Nothing could be proven against him and he was acquitted, but his classmate Tom Paris went down.  I remember reading his profile – he had the qualifications I required but I overlooked him originally because his previous C.O. references all deride him for impetuousness.  But, if needs must…   Where is Lanit now?”

        “Assigned as a routine freighter pilot on Starbase 425.  Our agents can have him here in three hours, he’s running an empty carrier to the Delphon system and won’t be missed for the time being.”

        “Very well.  Arrange to have him brought here.  Is our outbound passenger ready to depart?”

        Newman checked the console.  “Powered up and ready to go.  Opening shuttlebay doors now.”  She tapped the control, and the alarm sounded as the exterior doors ground slowly open, revealing the stars slowly rotating on the other side of the protective forcefield.  The lieutenant’s shuttle lifted from the floor and hovered smoothly out of the hangar.  It accelerated as it cleared the station and finally disappeared in a streak of light.

        Newman watched it leave, then closed the exterior doors.  “I’m certain he won’t cause trouble, Admiral.  He won’t want to jeopardize his career.”

        There was a pause before the Admiral replied.  Newman could tell already that any further pleas on her behalf for the young lieutenant would be wasted.  “He may not tell anyone directly but he is ambitious and resourceful enough to investigate for himself.  He may discover something of his own accord.”

        Alicia bit her lip anxiously.  “Whatever you think is best.  Newman out.”  She left the shuttlebay, and went to fetch the Admiral’s next interview candidate.

 

 

Salk was surprised at the blend of individuals he encountered when he entered the officers’ lounge.  All of them were Starfleet officers of various rank.  A Vulcan, tall and imposing, stood by the window, hands clasped behind his back and staring out at the stars.  A dark-skinned human woman, seated in one of the comfortable chairs, sipping a mug of coffee as she chatted with another blonde female, in medical uniform, seated beside her.  They at least appeared to know each other but looked just as dazed and bewildered about their circumstances as Salk.  A Trill male was standing beside one of those frivolous human game tables looking eager for someone to pick up one of the paddles and challenge him.  In the corner stood a slightly older human male, a stern expression on his chiselled face.  Salk quickly avoided his gaze: one of the guy’s eyes was covered by a cybernetic prosthesis that glowed with a disconcerting inner light – no doubt the result of an injury in battle.

        The dark-skinned woman noticed him and stood to greet him.  “Hello there, Cadet…?”

        “Salk,” he replied, shaking her proffered hand.

        “I’m Commander Lea Austin,” she said, “First Officer of the Sutherland, and I’ve been kidnapped too.”

        Salk smiled weakly back.  She was in the same situation as he was, but she was trained to deal with it, and to help others cope.  She was very good at her job, he decided, when he realized that already her presence had eased away the nervous twitch developing in his knees.  “Does anyone know why we are here?” he asked.

        “No,” the Commander shook her head.  “There were a few more of us here at first, but one by one they’ve been called away and we haven’t seen any of them since.  The last guy went in over an hour ago, this is the longest we’ve waited yet.”

        Salk glanced around the room again.  The Vulcan, he noted, was a Captain.  The Trill was a lieutenant in the colours of engineering.  The guy with the eye – a lieutenant-commander – just looked like the kind of person who’d be right at home at a tactical console; his hand was hovering around his waist where a phaser would normally be, and the grim look on his face showed that he was displeased with himself to have been captured like this.

        “Between all of us we have the full compliment of a starship command crew,” Salk commented.  He half-remembered the words the computer spoke in his sleepy haze earlier.  “Do you think we’ve been selected for a special mission – to go into the front lines against the Dominion?”

        Austin considered for a moment.  “It’s possible.  But it seems like an awful lot of trouble for someone to go to just for a recruitment drive.”  She nodded in the direction of the Vulcan.  “That’s Captain Tybon, an extremely competent commanding officer provided his crew doesn’t object too much.  Doctor Sommers over there is an El-Aurian, a couple of hundred years old and as a result has the accumulated medical knowledge of literally hundreds of different species.”  Her gaze lingered for a moment on the stern-looking officer with the cybernetic eye.  “Lieutenant-Commander Craig Johnson is one of the finest security officers and tacticians I know.  He lost his eye in a single-handed battle to reclaim Federation territory from the Cardassians a few months back.”  She lowered her voice to whisper in Salk’s ear.  “And my service record is something I’m very proud of also.”  She looked Salk up and down.  “And what about you?  What’s your special talent?”

        “Ops and Navigation,” he said.  “Starfleet have practically guaranteed me any posting I like once I’ve graduated.  I was rather hoping to get aboard the new Enterprise, now that I hear she may have an opening coming up…”

        “Looks like someone else was eager to get to you first,” Austin mused.

        A flash outside the observation window attracted Salk’s attention.  A shuttle could be seen soaring away from them out into space, before its nacelles flared and a flash indicated that it entered warp.

        “That’s the first one to leave,” Austin said.  “Perhaps they had a better offer elsewhere.  The last guy to be called in was the chief instructor from the Flight Training Facility on Io – an exceptionally gifted pilot.  He could probably steer a Galaxy-class ship through a Parisses Squares match and not hit anything.”

        Austin returned to her chair and motioned for Salk to sit with them.  He introduced himself to her friend, Dr Sommers, who smiled and started idly chatting as though she wasn’t at all put out by this peculiar imposition.  The Trill introduced himself as Aarus Billich, an engineer from the USS Hawthorne, and sat to talk with them.  They spoke briefly about their careers, and about how they also had woken to find themselves on this unfamiliar starbase.  Billich seemed grateful for the break in the monotony of routine, commenting on how he hadn’t had any surprises like this for several lives (which indicated to Salk that Billich was a joined Trill, the first he had ever met).  Commander Austin was worried about how her ship would react to her absence.  Dr Sommers remarked that it was a rather exciting adventure no matter how long they had been sitting around in this glorified waiting room.  And Lieutenant Johnson, ensconced in his corner, swore about the duplicitous nature of the whole affair, convinced that there were forces at work within Starfleet that had no regard for protocol.  Salk got the impression that that in itself was not what upset Johnson so much; it was the fact that he wasn’t in on it already.

        The doors slid open again, and Commander Newman strode into the room.  “Cadet, please come through,” she said.  Salk felt his knees turn to jelly again, and he rose carefully from his seat.

        “Hey!” Billich exclaimed.  Newman turned back.  “We’ve been waiting here for longer, when is it our turn?”

        Alicia smiled disarmingly at him.  “We are processing the junior officers first.  You are next, as a matter of fact.”  She placed a hand reassuringly on Salk’s shoulder.  “I really don’t think you’ll take too long at all.”  She led him out of the room.

        Salk could feel the others’ eyes on his back as the doors closed behind him.  It was all he could do to keep from wetting himself with nervousness.  The last thing he wanted was the back of his uniform all soaked.

 

 

The young lieutenant sat back and watched the stars streak past the viewscreen.  It was about all he could do – all but one of the computer consoles was blacked out, each one reflecting his own bewildered face looking back at him.  The only operational console was the shuttle logs, which showed a course plotting that he could tell just by looking was nowhere near where he really was, and a few falsified entries to show he’d been out on some standard Starfleet manoeuvres somewhere.  He read it not because Commander Newman told him to, but simply because there didn’t seem to be anything else to do.  He didn’t know how long his journey would be – having woken up on the station, he was completely unaware of the circumstances or time involved in getting there in the first place.

        One of the fabricated log entries was an executive order signature-stamped by a Starfleet officer – Captain Chandra DuMont of the USS Broadsword.  The young lieutenant had heard of her, and for her name to appear on this official yet falsified document then she would have to be in on this whole conspiracy if the cover story of the lieutenant’s absence ever had to be verified.  Furthermore, and the young lieutenant gave a wry smile as he thought about this, her name being there provided him with a new avenue of investigation: he would have to research the histories of both Captain DuMont and the girl at the starbase, Commander Alicia Newman, to try and find some clue or link between them that would help unravel this mystery.

        Part of him still felt a pang of remorse.  He felt like he’d just taken the wrong option in a plot-your-own-holonovel, and wished there was some way he could rewind and revise his decision just to find out what the hell it was all about.

        Indeed, if he had been able to do that, he would most certainly have avoided what happened next.  At that moment, somewhere deep inside the shuttle engines, there was a slight mis-phasing in the anti-matter injectors.  The shuttle’s computer conveniently failed to notify the lieutenant of the fault due to the fact that it had been physically disconnected from any external interface.  The computer would not at any time have come online again for the lieutenant to access even if he had lived through the next seventeen seconds.

        Admiral Miles had made the decision from the beginning of this whole recruitment process to eliminate anybody outside his sphere of influence who had the potential to expose his Project before he was ready.  It was far easier to devise a method of making a shuttle’s engines trigger a fatal warp core particle collision and still make it look like an accident, than to be on the constant alert for breaches of security by wagging tongues.

        The first the young lieutenant knew of there being anything wrong was when the flooring beneath him heaved and split apart as the delicate network of forces within the ship’s warp engines became more and more unbalanced.  Each and every energy conduit aboard, normally kept in delicate alignment during warp, was thrown wildly out of sync with another, and another, until finally the miasma of disseminate matter fused and reacted with components of itself until the violent chain-reaction fusion cascade was inevitable.  Each and every conductive pathway in the shuttle’s infrastructure overloaded, and the disintegrating shuttle was rapidly consumed in a maelstrom of fire and light, as silent as the lieutenant’s own screams in the vacuum of space.

 

 

Commander Newman was even less talkative this time.  Except this time she was distracted, as though she had something troubling her mind, something that Salk didn’t feel he should be enquiring about.  It didn’t take long before they stopped at a set of large double doors and she stood by waiting for him to enter.  He did.

        The room beyond was dark, and it seemed huge, but was probably made to look that way by the single column of light illuminating a single padded chair.  It could be a holosuite, he pondered.  The doors hummed shut behind him, leaving him standing in the darkness outside the pool of light.

        “Please, Cadet Salk, be seated,” said the same deep male voice that had spoken to him when he first awoke.  “I will try not to keep you detained too long.”  The voice was coming from everywhere, obviously channelled into the room via a communicator.  Was it the mysterious “Admiral” that Newman had mentioned earlier?

        Salk lowered himself into the chair, which was surprisingly rather comfortable.  “Can I ask…?”

        “There will be time for questions later,” the voice interrupted.  “For now, it is my turn to speak.”

        Salk closed his mouth and waited.  A small part of him, a very deep subconscious and probably primal part of him, was enjoying this.  It was exactly what he had joined Starfleet for, the lure of adventure and excitement.

        The voice continued, rather chattily.  “Your navigational and strategic operations abilities have impressed many of your sponsors and tutors at the Academy.  Hence, it attracted my attention as well, and as it turns out your very special talents are the exact sort of thing I’m looking for.”

        “I uh… sort of gathered that already from the folks I met in the lounge,” Salk stammered.  “But I’m grateful to you for saying so.”

           The voice chuckled.  “Indeed I see that you are very astute.  Good.  Then I’ll get to the point.”  He paused, for effect.  “I am in command of a Project being developed by a very special division of Starfleet Intelligence.  The sort of project that needs a compliment of the finest officers I can find, of which I would like you to be one.  Are you with me so far?

          “Y-yes…  Is this some sort of top-secret mission for the war effort?  Surely there are others more prepared than I am for that sort of thing.  I have my final exams in two months, I really don’t think I’m ready for…”  He tailed off, realizing he was just babbling.  He hadn’t given the voice a chance to explain the whole thing yet, and he was getting ahead of himself, his brain on worst-case-scenario mode.  For all he knew, they were about to offer him a cushy desk job that could keep him well out of the way of any trifling war the Federation was currently fighting.

           “This has nothing to do with the war,” the voice said.  “This does not in any way involve any of the petty concerns of Starfleet or the Federation as a whole.  What it does entail is the culmination of countless years of research and experimentation of technologies far beyond anything seen before.  A starship, to be precise, the most powerful and advanced starship ever built by humans.”

           Salk exhaled in awe.  “And you want me…?”

           “To serve as my operations officer, yes,” the voice concluded.  “The Project is subject to the highest classification so your contact with outside parties will be very limited.”

           “I can live with that.”

           “And though the ship will have its own Captain, the mission itself will be under my jurisdiction, not subject to the standard Starfleet chain of command.”

           “I would expect as much.”

           “And I can tell you no more unless you are willing to sign on.”

           “What about my training?” Salk enquired.

           “For one as brilliant as yourself the examinations will be a mere formality.  It can be arranged that you will graduate on time whilst still serving aboard my ship.  I am already prepared to assign you a field rank of Ensign right away.”

           “Won’t we be missed?  I mean you can’t just have Starfleet’s finest disappear overnight…”

           “With the help of people in the right places, Cadet Salk, I can do just about anything.”

           That statement made Salk a little hesitant to ask his next question.  “And if I refuse I’ll just be shuttled home to never speak of this again, like that last guy?”

           There was a slight, yet noticeable pause.  “You would sign a security disclaimer, yes.”

           “And that’s it?”

           There was no answer.  Salk chewed on his lip thoughtfully.

           After a short time, the voice interrupted his reverie.  “My time is precious, Cadet.”

           Salk looked up into the light.  “That’s Ensign,” he said, with a grin.

 

 

A short time later, Commander Newman came for him again and escorted him to another lounge, one more finely furnished than the first, and one with a bar in the corner where she invited him to help himself to some of the synthaholic champagne being served.  There was already a small contingent of junior officers, the “lower decks” staff that performed the more mundane tasks involved with running a starship from day-to-day.  They told him that because he was the first of the primary operations crew to make it through meant that their wait was almost over.

           After a short time, more of the officers Salk had met in the first lounge were filtering through – Lieutenant Billich, then Lieutenant-Commander Johnson about half an hour later.  Billich still had a dazed, lost expression in his eyes.  Johnson didn’t seem to be quite as grumpy.

           It was some time before the next arrival – a face that Salk didn’t see earlier, but one that was familiar to him.

           “Joras!” he called.  The young Bajoran lieutenant (junior grade) smiled equally widely when he saw his friend, and they embraced for a moment.

           “Salk!  Am I glad to see you!” Lanit Joras grinned, grasping his friend’s ear affectionately.  The two of them had met when Joras was assigned to a refresher course in Starfleet Academy following his court martial.  They had become good friends; Salk found it thrilling to have a friend who was considered something of an “outlaw”, and Joras was glad to find someone who didn’t go out of their way to avoid him.  They had been on many training missions together until Joras’ course finished and he was assigned a mundane job on a remote starbase.  “One minute I’m sinking blood wine with a Klingon merchant and the next I’m escorted away by some dodgy-looking Starfleet guards.  How about you?”

           “Abducted in my sleep,” Salk replied.  “So, it looks like we’re in for a big adventure.”

           Lanit glared at him, as he sidled onto a neighbouring barstool.  “That’s just the sort of idiot thing a character from some B-grade holonovel would say before looking for the first opportunity to get killed.”  He took a deep breath.  “Still, from my point of view, anything is better than hauling Tarcassian razor beast fertilizer from one quadrant to the next.  Who am I to refuse?”

           “One person’s already refused and was put on the first shuttle out of here.”

           “Yes, they did mention something about my being a last-minute replacement,” Lanit said wryly.  “Talk about making a person feel needed.”  He sipped at the drink that had been placed on the bar in front of him.  “Packed off home in a shuttle, eh?  Not the kind of top-secret intelligence debriefing you’d normally expect.  I’d be watching my back if I was that guy.”

           Five minutes later, Doctor Sommers entered, smiled when she saw the bar and headed straight for it.  She perched herself next to Salk, and was already motioning to the barman to fetch her another drink as she downed the first.

           “You can’t have been in there long!” Salk exclaimed.

           “I walked straight into that room and said ‘Whatever it is, I’ll do it!’,” Sommers giggled.  “As much as I love it at Starfleet Medical, eighty years is an awfully long time to be stuck in one place, and I’m dying to do something different.”

           Commander Austin was the next through the doors, looking about as relaxed as she had been earlier.  By the time she arrived, the atmosphere in the room was quite cheery as the new shipmates got to know each other.  Doctor Sommers was challenging her new nurse to a synthahol drinking game.  Johnson was meeting with his new security staff, and Salk and Lanit joined Billich as he introduced himself to some of the other engineering crew.  They began to theorize about the kind of technology they would find aboard their new posting.

           “I bet,” Salk said at one point, “that it can transform into a giant robot, and merges with six other ships to form… The Federator!!”  When Billich didn’t seem to join in the raucous laughter that followed, Salk leant across to him.  “What’s up?”

           Billich was staring disconsolately into his drink.  “Well… I’ve always wanted a promotion to Chief Engineer,” he admitted.  “But I had expected it to be aboard your average starship.  I know my way around anything from a Constellation to a Sovereign Class vessel – but now I find that I’m responsible for some kind of freaky war machine.”

           “I take it that you’ve had quite a bit of experience in your field?” one of the officers asked.

           Billich nodded.  “My symbiont has always had a flair for technical know-how,” he said, patting his stomach, which reminded Salk that sitting inside was a large, leech-like lifeform that was reliant on its living, thinking host body for nutrients and mobility.  “And before I was joined,” Billich continued with a slight smile, “I managed a warp-propulsion workshop on Trill, specializing in racing-flyer components.”

           There were whistles of admiration from those at the table, but further conversation all around the room was curtailed by the voice of Commander Newman.

           “Captain on deck!”

           Tybon loomed behind her at the doorway, his cool eyes sweeping across the room.  He gave a curt nod and strode in past her, stopping in the centre of the room, and turning his head around to survey the various groups now standing to attention around him.  He was silent for a few moments, quietly assessing what he saw, while the others stood rigidly, not daring move or speak out of turn.

           Salk had heard a lot of bar-room talk about Tybon in his time with Starfleet, even at the Academy.  He had built quite a reputation, as one of the only Vulcans willing to command a mainly-human crewed Starfleet vessel; many of their command-rank officers preferred to serve aboard ships populated with their own people, accustomed to the logic-driven clockwork of Vulcan routine.  Tybon had remained an enigma to all those who served under him, who were accustomed to Captains who would socialize with them on a “human” level, but this man was known (and respected) as an extremely capable CO, always keeping his ship and crew relatively intact through the rigours of years’ worth Starfleet experience.

           “At ease,” the Captain said at last.  There was a collective release of tension as many people released their breaths for the first time since he walked in.  Tybon continued, in a cool, measured, cultured voice.  “I know about as much as most of you do about what happens next, but if we all assembled here are the best in their field that Starfleet can offer, and have been individually selected by one of Starfleet’s most decorated officers, then I as your new Captain can expect no less than exceptional performances from all of you.”

           Most of the senior officers were smiling wryly, appreciating the humour in the Vulcan’s statement.  But Salk, and others closer to his rank, held their faces frozen in bewilderment, only now beginning to wonder if they weren’t in it way above their necks.

           “For now, I will allow Admiral Miles himself to explain more to you.”  Tybon gestured back toward the door, and they were all surprised to see that a new arrival was standing next to Commander Newman, slightly behind her, practically dwarfed by her.  In full Starfleet Admiral’s regalia stood a short, balding man in his late middle ages, but his eyes burned with the intense intelligence and anger of a younger, highly ambitious man.

           “Welcome, friends,” the Admiral smiled, sounding far more informal and passive face-to-face than he had sounded earlier in the conditions of the interview room.  “I am Admiral Edward Miles, and I trust you are now familiar with my assistant, Commander Alicia Newman.  I thank you all for your patience, and I congratulate you on your courage to join us on this very special occasion.”

           He clasped his hands behind his back and began to wander across the room as he spoke, toward the wide window.  “As you would all be aware by now, a Project that I have personally overseen for the last three years has finally reached a crucial phase.  Construction of an experimental new starship has reached completion and all it awaits now is a crew.”  He stopped, turned, framed by the stars, his arms spread to acknowledge the group, and smiled.  “That is you.”

           He nodded to Newman, who tapped at her PADD.

           “And now,” Miles continued, “if you would please make ready for transport, the vessel to convey us to our new posting awaits.”

           As the assembled crew began to gather toward the centre of the room, they were surprised when a faint glowing movement on the other side of the observation window, behind Miles, distracted them.  The sleek rounded shape of the USS Defiant rippled into existence, its nose deflector almost nudging at the window.  Before they had time to react, the room was swathed in a sky-blue glow, accompanied by an electronic whine as they all beamed off the station.

           When the glow faded, Salk found himself positioned much as he had been before: Lanit beside him, both facing Admiral Miles and the observation window behind him.  Except now the view was of the station they had just been on: an enormous wheel, with a bulbous centre structure about as tall as the station was wide.  There were no identifying marks or insignia, just plain smooth grey hull plating.  The station suddenly swept away from view as the Defiant turned, and then the stars blurred and shifted as the ship re-cloaked and went to warp.

           “Using the Defiant is necessary to avoid being detected,” Miles explained, “as it is currently the only ship in Starfleet with a functioning cloaking device.  There is only a skeleton crew aboard, of officers in my employ.  I had to wait for an opportune moment for the ship to be free to avoid any questions.  I’m sure Captain Sisko won’t mind the ship making a slight detour, shall we say, on its way back from the garage.”  He paused to allow a slight chuckle to ripple around the room.  “The journey won’t take long, so please relax, and soon you’ll be assigned your new quarters.”  He turned back toward the window, motioning for Newman and Tybon to join him.

           Salk felt the atmosphere ease once more, but could still fell the nervous excitement coursing through his system.  “I think,” Salk muttered in Lanit’s ear, “that I am about to throw up.”

           Lanit threw a sidelong glance at the Bolian.  “That would leave a horrible stain on the carpet, and I’m talking about the one the Admiral would probably leave after finding one of his officers is having second thoughts.”

           “I’m not worried about the Admiral,” Salk stated.  He nodded in the direction of the enormous Vulcan.  “Have you even heard of Captain Tybon?”

           Lanit’s eyes widened innocently.  “Captain Tybon?  No!  Surely not the Captain Tybon, saviour of the Plythrian Cluster, famed mutineer of the Galadriel, instigator of the incursion into Romulan…”

           “Yes yes yes,” Salk hissed, before Lanit’s voice could carry too much, risking them being overheard.  That Captain Tybon.  Our new CO!”

           “And how would he be any worse than any other Captain?” Lanit asked, laying a reassuring hand on Salk’s shoulder.  “Look, when it all comes down to it, there’s only one major rule in Starfleet, and it’s your job to stick to it no matter who you get your orders from, or what they are.”

           “And what’s that?”

           “Don’t fuck up.”

 

 

Austin felt a little left out as her new Captain and the Admiral became acquainted, but didn’t want to risk interrupting them without invitation, so she stepped over to join Dr Sommers.  “You look like you’re having fun.”

           “And why not?” Sommers grinned.  “Don’t tell me you’re not excited too – I know you too well.”

           Austin smiled, never being able to hide anything from her friend – not just because Sommers was an El Aurian, but because they had known each other for almost twenty years, maintaining regular contact.  It had been a pleasant surprise to find Sommers on the space station at the start of all this, and right now she was glad of a familiar face to share her reservations with.  “It’s all too surreal,” she admitted.  “The sort of thing that happens once a lifetime and we can’t tell anyone about it!”

           Sommers leaned in closer and lowered her voice conspiratorially.  “At least not yet,” she said.  “If this is as big a deal as the Admiral over there makes out, it won’t stay secret for long.”  She straightened up again and spoke in a louder voice, “…so then I told him, ‘Jean-Luc’, I said, ‘you’ve just got to try the Earl Grey!’.”

           Picking up Sommers’ signal, Austin turned to find the Admiral approaching them, with Tybon looming behind him.

           “Commander Austin,” he said, “have you met Captain Tybon?”

           “No, sir,” she replied.  She gave a slight respectful bow to Tybon, and offered her hand.  The Vulcan took it, his grip cool and firm, and he nodded his head slightly.  “Although I have heard many officers speak highly of you, Captain.  It’s a privilege to meet you at last, and to be serving with you.”

           “Thank you, Commander,” Tybon said.  “I understand your own record is exemplary.  I am certain your expertise will allow the crew a smooth transition to their new environment.”

           Austin smiled politely.  “Thank you.  Though I really must say I have no idea what to expect.”

           “Indeed,” Miles said, gesturing to the window once more, where the stars were slowing their movement, “you’re about to find out.”

 

 

“I hope the helmsman is as good as me at navigating this sort of thing,” Lanit whispered into Salk’s ear.

           Salk looked out the window and was shocked to see a floating wall of rock drifting toward them.  Or rather, they were drifting into it.  The sight of the dark, pitted fragments sailing by was almost hypnotic, and the room fell into silence.

           Lanit watched the window intently.  “That’s odd,” he remarked.

           Salk looked over at him.  “What is?”

           “This ship is hardly having to navigate around the asteroids at all,” he said.  “We’re following a pre-cleared pathway, large enough to steer a ship three times the size of this one through, but not big enough to attract attention to itself.”

           “I guess they need clear access to their base – look!” Salk pointed to one particular asteroid.  As they circled around it, they could see that it had been hollowed out and an enormous complex erected within it.  There was a scaffolding array reminiscent of a starship construction yard.  Illuminated windows and control booths were inset into the rock itself, and space-suited figures drifted all around.

           “Ladies and gentlemen,” Admiral Miles announced, “welcome to your new home.”

           Nestled within the confines of the structure was an enormous, gleaming starship.  It was of a class that none of them had seen before, very powerful and foreboding.  A flat-ish spearhead saucer section, the engineering hull and compact nacelles mounted directly beneath it.  Sweeping up from the back like a graceful fin was a primary command section, tapered to match the sweeping lines of the ship.  There was a long, cylindrical phaser cannon mounted onto the front of the saucer.  Other torpedo and phaser banks could just be discernible within the structure.  The hull itself was a gleaming, untarnished silver, which dazzled the eyes.

           The Defiant swooped around to bring them in closer, giving them a bird’s-eye view of the top of the saucer section, which was emblazoned with the legend:

USS ENDURANCE
NX-23427

Part Two: FIRST IMPRESSIONS
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