Part Three:
Distractions
Written by Michael Cloonan


MAIN

THE SHIP

THE CREW

PART ONE
Starfleet's Finest

PART TWO
First Impressions


Now

The hallways of the USS Endurance were bathed in a deep scarlet glow; the ship was currently on Red Alert, although in the interests of allowing greater concentration, the klaxons had been silenced.  Crewmembers moved at a rapid pace throughout, preparing themselves for their first mission aboard the ship.  As zero-hour approached, the crew focussed only on their designated tasks, attempting to keep all other distractions out of their minds.  All but one – the ominous knowledge that was the ship’s current heading: the Cardassian border.  Or as it was otherwise currently known by the varied member races of the United Federation of Planets and its allies: the War Front.  This was not, however, the ship’s ultimate destination.  The Endurance, and the four Klingon Birds of Prey that currently kept pace at Warp Seven behind it, were bound for the planetoid Lazon II, a penal colony some several hundred lightyears within Dominion-occupied Cardassian space.

          Nobody dared to question the orders; they just accepted that it was in the purview of their new responsibilities, governed by a clandestine division of Starfleet Intelligence.  The general belief of the gossip-mongers amidst the lower ranks was that they were on a valiant undertaking on behalf of the War Effort.  They would all come back from this as heroes, given all kinds of the sorts of medals Starfleet liked to hand around these days.

          Commander Lea Austin, seasoned Starfleet veteran and the Endurance’s First Officer, didn’t believe a word of it.  To her, the entire scenario was, right now, nothing more than a damned inconvenience.

 

 

Three Hours Earlier

Commander Austin stepped hesitantly into the Captain’s Ready Room.  The doors swished shut behind her, blocking the background white noise of the bridge.  It took her eyes a moment to adjust to the lowered light levels; she discerned the silhouette of Captain Tybon seated at his desk, fingers steepled below his chin, in front of a large circular viewport that captured the stars streaking away into the distance.  Aside from the desktop computer terminal, and the chair opposite the Captain, the room was very sparsely furnished.  Granted, it was only their second day aboard the Endurance, and not only was it Austin’s first time inside this particular room, she suspected that no one other than the Captain himself had been in here either since he took command of the ship.

          “Commander,” the Captain greeted her flatly.  He nodded his head toward the two guest chairs.  “Please, be seated.”

          She took her seat, the Captain’s intense green eyes remaining fixed upon her.  She began to feel more nervous about being in the Vulcan’s presence now than she had been several hours earlier, when he had announced that, instead of going on a simple test-flight aboard their new vessel, they were to embark immediately on their first mission, straight into enemy territory.  She looked expectantly across the table at her new commanding officer, whose imposing, muscular form seemed to dwarf her even when he was sitting down.

          “How are the crew adapting to their new environment?” the Captain asked.

          “Fine,” Austin replied.  “Those who were among the construction crew are helping those who weren’t, when they need it.  I think everyone has found their feet all right, familiarised themselves with their duties quite well.”

          Tybon nodded slowly, absorbing the information.  “Excellent.”

          “Although,” Austin began hesitantly, “I think many of them are a bit nervous about being thrust into action so soon.  They are a little daunted by the fact they’ve been on this ship for forty-eight hours and understand only a fraction of its function.  I know the Endurance has had a few secret test flights before we came aboard, but nothing of this magnitude.  If we knew more about the nature of the mission – ”

          “Infiltration and retrieval,” the Captain interjected.  “It will not be anything beyond what standard Starfleet field training has provided for, and it will give me a proper measure of the capabilities of this crew in situations of heightened anxiety.”

          “Sounds reasonable,” Austin admitted.

          “It is merely logical.”

          “If I may ask,” Lea continued, “why Lazon II?  What could possibly be there that we might want?”

          “The Admiral will explain fully in due time,” the Captain replied.  “It was his intention to send this ship to Lazon II in due time, only I decided that the mission would make a more appropriate induction scenario than a mere shakedown run.”

          “I see.”  It didn’t counter any of Austin’s apprehensions about the whole situation, but at least she couldn’t flaw his reasoning.  That was always the problem with Vulcans.

          There were a few moments of silence.  Lea scanned the room, trying to avoid the gaze of the Captain’s impenetrable green eyes, but there was nothing else in the room to look at.  No ornaments, nor personal effects, nor pictures on the wall.  Normally the Captain’s Ready Room had some form of motif representing the ship under their command, a symbol of the Captain’s duty, but there was no such detail here.  Perhaps Admiral Miles had considered it unnecessary in the design plans; or an artist to do such work wasn’t part of his big secret network.

          She focussed again on the Captain, and was a little taken aback at how intensely he seemed to be regarding her.  It was like he was trying to burrow into her mind through sight alone, determined to uncover the details of her life, all her smallest secrets.  Daring her to confront or defy him, or challenging her to discover some of his own secrets for herself.

          At last, Tybon broke the silence.  “Perhaps it would be prudent if we got to know each other a little better, Commander Austin, over the course of the coming weeks.  If we could generate a little understanding between ourselves, we might determine how best to command this ship more effectively.”

          Austin couldn’t deny she was intrigued by the request, but a little shocked also.  Of all the gossip, hearsay, or reports she had heard about Captain Tybon, Lea had never heard of him taking any personal interest in members of his crew before.  He didn’t socialize much at all – whether he was on a human ship, or a Vulcan one (which wasn’t often).  “Of course,” she said.  “What would you like to know?”

          He leant back in his chair and steepled his fingertips under his nose.  “Why did you accept this position?”

          “I… er…”  She wasn’t quite sure how to answer that one, short of absolute honesty.  “Well, I was bored, quite frankly.  After a while, serving in Starfleet can become a bit…” she gave a vague wave of her hand.  “Same-y.  Repetitive.”

          “Quite,” Tybon nodded.  He continued, “Your position as First Officer aboard the Sutherland would have resulted in a Captaincy of your own, ostensibly quite soon.”

          Austin shrugged dismissively.  “If there were more Captains than First Officers in Starfleet, nothing would ever get done.”

          Tybon raised a bemused eyebrow.  “Other First Officers would be promoted to take your place.”

          Austin matched his stare.  “Ah, but I’m the best First Officer there is.”

          “So I am informed, not only by Admiral Miles but others as well.  Do you feel you can handle an assignment like the Endurance – under my command – adequately?”

          Austin allowed herself a slight smile.  “I don’t know anyone else game enough to try.”

          “And finally,” said Tybon, his gaze upon her hardening, “do you feel that there are any… extraneous influences that might affect your performance?”

          Unbidden, an image of the face of Lieutenant-Commander Craig Johnson flashed across her mind’s eye.  He was currently serving as the Endurance’s tactical officer, and Austin hadn’t had a chance to speak with him much since they were both first drafted into this whole crazy business.  He was the one element that she couldn’t gauge; she couldn’t yet determine how she felt about his being here.  How did he feel about her being here?  She had tried to open conversation with him on the bridge the day before, but he had been decidedly unresponsive.

          She decided against mentioning it to the Captain – at least until she knew where she stood with Johnson.  Austin still felt guilty about the way she’d treated him the last time they had met.  Her conduct was entirely unprofessional, and she had tried to block it from her mind ever since – she hadn’t even told her El Aurian best friend Ilkya Sommers, who by a strange twist of fate was the ship’s chief medical officer.  No, the best thing was to keep it to herself until she’d had a chance to talk to Craig himself, and make amends.  It was her problem, and she’d deal with it.

          “No, sir,” Austin stated flatly.  “Nothing at all.”

          “Very well,” said Tybon.  He glanced at the chronometer display on his desk terminal and rose from his seat.  “It is almost time for our rendezvous.  Thank you for your time, Commander.”

          “My pleasure, Captain,” Austin responded, also rising.  “But it’s only fair that I ask you – why did you accept this position?”

          Tybon drew level with her as he strode toward the door.  “Why, for much the same reasons as yourself, Commander.”

 

 

Austin was beginning to wonder what the “rendezvous” Tybon had mentioned was in reference to, when Johnson noted their emergence onto the bridge, and announced, “I have four cloaked Klingon Birds of Prey on sensors.”  His one human eye widened in amazement.  “They’re hailing us… they want to speak to the Admiral.”

          At that moment the Admiral also entered from the Conference Room – his sense of timing as impeccable as always, Lea thought as she took her seat next to the Captain.  Miles hovered between them.

          “Drop out of warp,” the Admiral said, with the hint of a sneer on his face.  “And put them on screen.  Let’s get this over with.”

          The starfield on the viewscreen was replaced by the familiar dark and smoky Bird of Prey bridge interior, complete with customary hirsute Klingon glowering at them.  Lea looked up and saw a grin force itself across Miles’ face as the Klingon recognized him.

          “Admiral Miles!” roared the Klingon.  “It is good to see you again, old friend!  I was beginning to wonder whether you’d make it.  Impressive ship you have there - is it new?”

 

 

The Admiral had been all smiles and exceedingly accommodating toward the Klingons, vaingloriously appealing to their lust for battle.  He had invited the commanding officers of the respective vessels aboard the Endurance for a conference; he had managed to convince them to beam into Cargo Bay One, afterwards admitting that he didn’t want to risk the “filthy savages” seeing anything they shouldn’t whilst on the ship – and he certainly wasn’t about to bring himself to set foot aboard one of theirs.

          Tybon, Austin, Johnson and Science Officer Commander Newman accompanied the Admiral through the red-lit corridors of the Endurance.  “Normally,” the Admiral was saying, “I detest Klingons.  Banging on and on all bloody day about being mighty warriors, fighting for honour and going to stovo’kor or whatever.  Quite frankly, they bore the excrement out of me.”  A dark scowl shadowed his features for a moment before he recomposed himself.  “However, in order to increase our odds of success on this mission we are going to need their help.  They can have the glorious death they desire for all I care, so long as we achieve our objective.”

          When the party reached the cargo bay a small security team had set up outside the doors, where they would remain the entire meeting in case the “guests” saw them and got the wrong idea.  Miles took a deep breath and led his small party inside, just as, in quick succession, four red sparkly light streams formed in the centre of the room and four hairy, thick-set, leather clad Klingons materialized.  The one Miles had spoken to in the transmission – whom had been introduced as General Kholarr – strode forward with his arms spread wide to greet the Admiral.  He dwarfed the little bald man, and thumped him quite heartily on the shoulders in greeting.  Miles, too, resumed his welcoming façade as he administered friendly whacks about Kholarr’s massive arms.  Austin couldn’t help but smile inwardly at how uncomfortable the Admiral must be feeling about having to actually interact with Klingons with such a degree of verisimilitude.

          “General Kholarr, welcome aboard the Endurance,” Miles enthused.  “The first of a new breed of Starfleet might.  I really am quite proud of her.”  He gestured very grandly about the expansive grey cargo bay; the Klingons took in the high, drab grey walls and small stacks of crates in the corners with a degree of apathy.  The Admiral continued, “I wish I could give you the grand tour, but we really are pressed for time.”

          “Yes, the battle calls!” boomed Kholarr.  “When you sent word that you wished to go ahead with your plan today I dropped everything!  It did not take long to find warriors willing to join us – these are my associates Colonel Rakk, Commander Brokash and Commander Krudd.”  He gestured to his three colleagues.  The humans in the room did a double-take at the name of the third; dark eyes beneath a heavy brow glared at them, as if daring them to comment.

          “Colonel, I’d like you to meet my new crew.  Captain Tybon...”

          Kolarr thumped his breast.  “Our people have always recognized the benefit of having a Vulcan at our side in war!”

          Miles continued, “Commander Alicia Newman, my personal aide.”

          “I bet she is!” Kolarr roared with a knowing wink at Miles.  The other Klingons howled with laughter.  Newman nodded a curt greeting but otherwise did not appear to acknowledge the slight against her.

          “First Officer Lea Austin.”

          “Ah, a dusky warrior tigress,” Kholarr purred appreciatively.  He took a firm grasp of her hand, and pressed her knuckles to his lips.  “A pleasure, madam.”  Austin felt herself blushing slightly.

          “And our Chief of Security, Lieutenant-Commander Craig Johnson.”

          “You have the aspect of a warrior, Commander.  I take it your implanted eye is a result of a battle well won.”

          Johnson grinned snidely.  “It will be soon, don’t you worry,” he muttered gruffly.

          “Now,” Miles said, clapping his hands together.  “Let’s discuss tactics.  Computer, dim the lights and activate holoprogram ‘Blockade Run’.”  The computer bleeped in response and the ambient illumination dropped several notches.  A dark blue holographic globe appeared in the centre of the room.  The Klingons stared at it in surprise.

          “Every deck is equipped with holo-emitters,” Commander Newman explained.  “Comes in handy in situations like this, and it also means the EMH isn’t confined to sickbay.  They operate on a different system to the holodecks, so any interference…”

          “Thank you, Commander, we get the idea,” Miles interceded.  He turned to the holo-image.  Planets and stars appeared on it, then small blue and yellow dots marked with corresponding text labels.  A red wave swept horizontally across the centre of the image, dividing the globe into hemispheres.  It was a map, denoting Dominion and Federation territories and outposts.  A little Endurance icon appeared at the bottom, and with it four smaller Bird of Prey figures.  The ships advanced upward through the globe, toward the red frontier of Cardassian space.

          “We will break through the outermost Dominion blockades in force here,” Miles said, as the icons moved through an area of space sparsely populated by the yellow dots.  “Lazon II isn’t in a closely guarded area of Cardassian space, but reinforcements are only two hours away.  Three of the Klingon ships are going to make an attack run on the Cardassian weapons factory on the Kodal moon here.”  Three of the Bird of Prey icons split from the group, heading to the right of the map as the Endurance and its remaining Klingon escort continued upwards.  “This way, the Dominion will concentrate their forces on the major party, who I’m sure can look after themselves, and leave our two ships virtually alone.  If they do enter battle with us, they won’t be expecting the firepower the Endurance will deliver…  Not to mention the glorious resistance put up by our Klingon allies, of course,” he added hastily.  The Klingons roared in assent.  Miles’ nose wrinkled in distaste at the reek of their breath.

          The map zoomed in closer to the Endurance and the Klingon images, still progressing toward one of the planets, which loomed larger within the globe.  A vague line-art map appeared on the rock-textured surface, depicting the labour camp.  It covered quite a large area – most of it an open rock quarry, but in one corner was a collection of long, squat buildings.  Guard turrets were marked out, concentrating on the encampment, but also scattered throughout the quarry area.

          Miles continued, “There is, of course, and transporter barrier and phaser shield surrounding the encampment.  Fortunately, we have a new type of torpedo that can penetrate the shield, knock out the ground defences, and disable the power generators so we can transport a team down.”  Simulated explosions bloomed in various points across the map.  “We will land our forces within the camp here.”  Miles pointed to an area within the quarry, not far from the camp but out of sight of most of the towers.  “General Kholarr’s group will help distract the Cardassian guards whilst our away team infiltrates the main facility and frees the prisoner…s.”  (Lea idly wondered if anyone else noticed him add the “s” after the slightest of pauses, almost as if it was a last-second correction, or whether it was just her.)

          “The Endurance will remain in orbit, with Kholarr’s ship,” the Admiral said.  “We will knock out the defence satellites, and fend off any enemy ships for as long as we can.  As soon as the objective is achieved, at a pre-arranged signal, the entire party will be transported back to the ship to ferry our cargo back into Federation space.”  The Admiral paused and surveyed the room.  “Are there any questions?”

          “Who will be in the away team?” Austin ventured, perhaps unnecessarily: part of her could already feel what the answer would be.

          “Yourself, of course,” the Admiral stated, “and Lieutenant-Commander Johnson.  I’ll leave it between yourselves to determine who to take with you.”

          It was exactly what Lea had expected: naturally, she’d lead the team as the First Officer, as was standard – and equally naturally, the Security Officer would be involved in a ground mission of this magnitude also.  She nodded to acknowledge her acceptance of the orders, and stole a quick glance at Johnson, who, she noted, seemed to make an effort of not making eye contact with her at all.

          The last few minutes of the meeting passed in a blur as Austin tried to quell the conflict of emotion and sense of duty within her.  The Admiral ushered the Klingons on their way, amidst many shouts and cheers of well-wishing and slurs against the enemy’s heritage.  The smile vanished from Miles’ face as soon as the last transporter beam sparkled out of existence.  Then he turned to the rest of the group and said, “Now for the real story…”

 

 

Now

Austin and Johnson worked in silence for a while as they inspected the Armoury.  Occasionally Lea would hear approving murmurs or astounded gasps from Craig as he encountered new weaponry he hadn’t seen before.  She watched him out of the corner of her eye as he made his way through the cabinets along one wall, while she inspected the lockers opposite.  A bench ran the length of the space between them, where they had both lain items for possible inclusion in the away team inventory.  Craig’s side of the bench was getting far more cluttered than hers.  Lea knew from experience that moments like this provided the greatest thrill for him: the way he opened one locker after another was reminiscent of a kid tearing through his presents on a Christmas morning.

          At no time did he make any effort to speak to her unless it was absolutely necessary.  She felt fairly comfortable with it at first; after all, they had a mission to focus on, but Lea was also grateful for a chance to be able to think about what exactly she wanted to say to him.  Since their tempestuous relationship had ended, she had spent a considerable amount of the intervening years running through in her mind exactly what she would say to him should they ever cross paths again.  But that had all deserted her now: she hadn’t actually bargained on the fact that they would ever meet again, not after what had happened last time, and certainly not in circumstances like these.

          Johnson interrupted her reverie.  “Commander, I recommend we use these.”  He had a huge phaser rifle cradled in his arm, the strap slung over his shoulder.  “Mark Eight Phaser Disruptor with extra long-life supercharger.”  He activated the weapon and it whined so loudly as it powered up that Lea flinched.  “This’ll get us into the camp no problem.”  His one human eye sparkled enthusiastically.

          “Well…” she said, “firstly, you don’t have to call me ‘commander’ – Lea is fine.”  Johnson’s eyes flickered away.  “And although I understand you’re only taking a gun that big to take out some personal issues on the Cardassians, I concur with your recommendation.”

          A very small flicker of a smile crossed his face.  “You still know me far too well,” he said gruffly.  For a moment Johnson’s optical implant fixed her with its unblinking, unnerving stare.  Lea suddenly felt very conscious of herself: Johnson could be observing her with any number of the spectrum-spanning receptors in his implant, and would be acutely aware of her slightly accelerated heartbeat, fidgety nervousness, and heightened pheromones.  He held the advantage in that he could read her like an annotated schematic, but to her he was closed and unrelenting.

          Then the moment was gone: he shifted his attention to the rifle in his arms, and deactivated it.  It powered down and he heaved it onto the bench, turning his back to her to face the weapons rack again.  “There are eight of these units, I suggest we use all of them, and take at least that many officers again armed with standard field phaser rifles for support.  We don’t need tricorders, I can find the way.”

          “Oh really?”  Lea stared at the eye implant for a moment.  It unblinkingly stared back at her.  It was more than just this permanent fixture of technology that made Craig Johnson a different man to the one she knew; his attitude was different, his viewpoint against the world much altered.  He wore the eyepiece like a symbol of power, a medallion well-earned.  Now that he had the advantage of its abilities, he would use them as best he could to not get caught out again.

          Eventually, Lea nodded.  “All right… I’ll allow it.”  With a sigh, she turned back to the lockers and began unloading phaser rifles, feeling rather foolish.  Johnson was not going to give her an inch, provide any opportunity to for either of them to atone for anything that had occurred between them in the past.  So that’s the way you want to play the game, is it? she thought to herself.  Well, I can pretend to be over you, too.

          Except she knew it was a lie: if anything she loved him just as much now as the day she had met him, seven years ago…

 

 

Seven Years Earlier

Wolf 359 was still a disturbingly fresh memory in the minds of those high up in Starfleet Command, even though it had been all of six whole months ago.  Indeed, the whole of Earth was still reeling from the shock of the whole nightmare: from watching the first images of mass destruction live from the battlefield, to hearing endless survivor stories and expert analyst opinions about the raw power, the relentlessness, the invincibility, and the sheer scale of the menace that was the Borg.  And not all of it was hyperbole, either.

           The Borg advance on Earth had been stopped only by pure chance.  By their very nature of survival and proliferation, the Borg would adapt to overcome any invulnerabilities, and the flaws in their systems that the crew of the Enterprise had exploited to stop them on this last occasion would no doubt be eliminated by the time they came to attack again.  Starfleet had been caught unaware by this attack: it had come months earlier than they had anticipated, and any estimates as to how long it would be before they came again would only be wild assumptions.  Plus, it would take time to rebuild the significant portion of the fleet that was wiped out.

          The threat to the Federation, and indeed the stability of the entire Alpha Quadrant, was obvious.  The President of the United Federation of Planets appealed to all its allies, all the non-member worlds, and all other neighbouring territorial domains to make a stand together against the Borg, should they turn their attention to this Quadrant again.  A conference was convened, on Earth, in which preliminary steps toward defending the Alpha Quadrant from the Borg would be made, and it was implicit from the outset that it would be in the best interests of all major powers to attend.

          It was the first time Lieutenant-Commander Lea Austin had been asked to speak at any major public function, let alone one that was attended by delegates from every race she had ever heard of, and then some.  Aside from the nausea, and the slight trembling in her hands and knees, and the need to stay within easy running distance of a sink or bucket or other convenient receptacle in the hours leading up to her time in the spotlight, she was really quite looking forward to it.

          Lea emerged from the bathrooms and collided into a figure making its way along the gleaming white corridor.  Her mind elsewhere, on hopes that her speech was adequate and prayers against cataclysmic failure, she recoiled a moment in shock before turning to see who or what she had run into.  Standing before her, apparently in an equal state of bewilderment, was a human male, maybe mid-20’s, but with a developing physique that really bulked out his Starfleet uniform in a manner that had Austin staring for a second longer than she intended.  His uniform was tan-coloured: he was in Security, but he didn’t have that hardened, always-on-edge look that most Security personnel who survived to make lieutenant always seemed to have.

          Austin felt rather over-dressed: she was in dress uniform, with all the elaborate braids and belts and buckles it boasted, and apart from being uncomfortable to wear it made Lea feel more important than she really felt she was – it highlighted the fact that today she was supposed to be a showcase specimen of Starfleet dignity and decorum.  One who had just been leaning over a toilet, vomiting copiously.

          “I’m sorry, sir,” said the man – a lieutenant.  “I… uh…  was looking for the head.  I can never tell which one is for Humans.”  He laughed nervously.  He had a pleasant, toothy smile that was complimented by a friendly glint in his eyes.

          “It’s this one, lieutenant,” Austin indicated the door she just emerged from.  Lowering her voice, she added, “I’d avoid the last cubicle if I were you.  Some of the gagh I had at the luncheon may still be crawling around in there.”

          The lieutenant laughed again.  “Bad reaction?  Or was it Commander Shelby’s presentation?  I couldn’t handle it myself – that’s why I took the opportunity to slip out for a moment.”

          Lea gasped, her eyes widening.  “Shelby’s on now?  How long has she been talking?”

          “About an hour, she… is something wrong?”

          Lea had begun backing away down the corridor.  “Shit!  I’m due to speak next!”  She waved at the young lieutenant.  “Thanks!  Nice to meet you!”

          The lieutenant waved back.  “So you’re Lieutenant-Commander Lea Austin?” he shouted after her.  “It was your speech I came to hear!  Don’t start without me!”

          His words echoing down the long, empty corridor behind her, Austin sprinted for the backstage entrance, panting for breath by the time she made an inglorious entrance through the doors.  There was a panic of people, assistants rushing around, control personnel manning stations, ushers herding guests and conference speakers about, and security personnel milling in out-of-the-way areas, watching everything.  In the middle of it all a rotund man in loose, flamboyant silks fluttered about complimenting people on their hair.  The Director.  He looked over and spotted Lea, and rushed toward her with his arms spread wide, and a smile of relief on his face.  “Daaah-ling!  There you are!  I was about to alarm one of those security chappies – and let him know you’d gone AWOL as well!”  He chuckled at his own joke as he made flapping gestures with his hands to get a make-up assistant to start dabbing at Lea’s face.  “You look fabulous in that dress uniform, sweetie, the blue really does highlight the colour of your skin.”

          Lea noticed one of the monitors above the control boards displaying the stage, which was just beyond a heavy royal blue velvet curtain on the far side of the room.  On the monitor, Commander Shelby was very vigorously making her final summation, thumping her fist on the podium.  The polite applause she received after she’d finished was obviously not what she’d been expecting: she glared accusingly at the audience and made a prompt exit, stage left.

          “Right, you’re on, darling!” the Director grabbed Austin’s arm and guided her toward the curtain.  “Your notes are already loaded into the podium memory, and the display screen controls are labelled.  In six languages, mind, so the writing’s very small.  Just do your best, my dear.  Don’t let the Tholians in Box Eight distract you too much!”  He propelled her through the curtain and then proceeded to fuss about Shelby, telling her how great she looked under the lights, and congratulating her for a wondrous speech, even though Austin knew he hadn’t paid attention to a single word of it.

          Lea strode with a casualness she didn’t feel toward the podium, entirely conscious of the impassive glare of the multitude of lights, holocameras, and audience members.  The chamber was huge, segmented between the various visiting delegates.  The most important Ambassadors and dignitaries were situated in the box seats tiered around the outside walls.  Seated in rows on the main floor was an array of Starfleet personnel and public onlookers.  Lea surveyed the audience as she reached the podium.  She recognized quite a few people there – her Captain, her friend Dr Sommers, other members of her crew – giving her looks and nods of support.  Then she saw him again: the young lieutenant from the corridor.  He was just sneaking back into the room.  Remembering his request of her, Lea waited until he took his seat before she calmly, purposefully began to speak.

          It wasn’t long before Lea’s trepidation gave way as she warmed to her subject.  She had been there, at Wolf 359, one of the very few to get out of that fateful battlefield with their lives.  She had examined, up close, the tactics and strategies employed by the Borg.  She had watched and learnt their manoeuvres, noted their strengths, theorized their weaknesses, knew how they ticked.  Since then, with the benefit of hindsight and pools of other information gathered from various sources, from starship logs to historical knowledge (thanks to her El-Aurian friend Ilkya Sommers), to the deep and disturbing personal report of Captain Jean-Luc Picard.  Lea had compiled an impressive tactical profile of the Borg, and felt confident that she would be ready for them when next they attacked – and they would, it was only a matter of time.

          As she progressed with her presentation, she found her enthusiasm for the subject outweighing her nervousness.  Figuring out the display screen controls had not been a problem, and she flicked through each slide and video document of her presentation with ease.  She had the audience engrossed: she was presenting them with real, solid facts about what the Borg could do, and what could be done against them.  Weapons that were effective against the Borg did exist – but the Federation was bound by protocols of anti-antagonism, forbidden to utilize such firepower.  Defences that would protect Earth, and indeed most of the Alpha Quadrant, could be in place – except none of the delegates here today could claim that they trusted their stellar neighbours enough to allow them to have such measures implemented.  With inter-species co-operation, new technologies could be developed to target specific concerns: anti-assimilation protection, dampening fields to block a vessel’s contact with the Collective, weapons that the Borg would not find very easy to adapt to.

          Of all the faces in the audience Lea found herself looking toward the most, it was the young lieutenant’s.  He was leaning forward in his chair, listening intently.  His eyes were focussed solely on Lea.  Occasionally he frowned in concentration, or nodded with understanding, or smiled for encouragement.  To Lea, only his reactions seemed to matter.  Whether or not she could contribute anything useful to The Powers That Be, to encourage the assembled delegates to agree to any form of union against a common nemesis, was not of any concern to Lea Austin on the stage that day.  All she wanted to do was make it worthwhile for that handsome young lieutenant to have come all this way just to hear her speak.  And then, perhaps, she might get to see him again, and he could tell her how good an orator she was, and she could tell him…

          Before she knew it, it was all over.  The audience applauded wildly, and many of the alien dignitaries began chatting animatedly amongst themselves.  The young lieutenant was the first on his feet to give Austin an ovation, many other Starfleet officers (and not just her own shipmates, either) following suit.  There was a moment of disorientation as Austin’s body and consciousness once again connected, and she wondered for a moment whether it had all been a dream, that she was still asleep and had yet to awaken and face the anxiety of doing this all for real…

          Austin smiled and gave a small bow to the audience.  Specifically, at the young lieutenant, who gave that wondrous smile again and even waved and wolf-whistled as she made her way off the stage.

 

 

Some hours later, Lea found herself amongst a crowd of other Starfleet personnel at the Techno-Babylon bar, the conference over for the day and the drinking beginning for the night.  Absolved of her responsibilities here on Earth, Lea planned to get poleaxed before she had to catch the shuttle back to her ship at Spacedock in the morning.  All the other officers in the room were intent on the same: after all, it wasn’t as if you could freely get real alcohol aboard a starship.  It was difficult to hear anything above the Denobulan dance music raving in the background, and the drone of voices as everyone in the bar had to shout to be heard talking to the person right next to them.  Already one side of the room had broken into a drunken chorus of The Laughing Vulcan and His God that spanned several off-key octaves.

          Just as she was about to down another slammer, Austin noticed two figures, still in Starfleet uniform, enter through the double doors.  Her heart jumped.  The first figure was her Captain.  The second was the young lieutenant.  She sat up sharply, swept all the empty shot glasses off the table onto the floor between her two drinking buddies, who were by now well out of it, and then jumped to her feet.  She tripped, on her own feet, and ended up on her knees, supporting herself against the edge of the table.  She raised a hand to emulate an old-style military salute; it was the best she could manage as the Captain and the dishy lieutenant approached her table.  Both had their heads tilted at an odd angle, to look down at her rather curiously.

          “Good evening, Lieutenant-Commander,” Captain Stockard said, with a hint of a smile.  “Don’t get up.”

          “Eeerrrr,” Austin commented.  “Bwwwaafffle.”

          “I’m sorry I couldn’t join you,” Stockard continued, “though I rather wish I had, this looks to be much more fun than personnel reassignment meetings.”  He turned to indicate the dreamy lieutenant standing beside him.  “I would like you to meet our new deputy tactical adviser, Lieutenant Craig Johnson.  He’ll be coming aboard with us in the morning.  I was hoping you’d take him under your wing for a few days.  Show him the ropes, that sort of thing.”

          “Cor,” Lea drawled.  She tried to stand, but her arm slipped on the table; she pitched forward, straight into the dashing lieutenant’s arms.

          “Mmmmm yeaaaaaaaahhh,” she said, and passed out.

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