The Klingon shuttle adjusted course, and made heading for the farthest of the outlying dry-dock facilities in orbit of Kronos. The craft, a long-range shuttle, had been stolen three days before from a Federation Starbase near the Klingon Neutral Zone, where a Klingon delegation was meeting with Federation representatives.

Its passengers were taking an enormous risk in coming here, with the preponderance of the loyalist Klingon Defense Fleet massed in the system, but if they were successful-if the gamble paid off-it would be well worth the effort, and the risk. If not, it wouldn't much matter, anyway.

At length, the shuttle reached the orbital facility. The pilot maneuvered the craft in closer.

There, docked as it had been for over two weeks, was the K'Tinga-class cruiser, IKV VENGENCE OF KAHLESS; a quick scan told them that it was, at present, completely empty. No crew at all. Perfect. The intelligence had been correct. They tensely discussed how unbelievably easy this had been, so far; only a year ago, or less, such a plan would have been near-inconceivable. With the great turmoil presently afflicting the Empire, however, many things were being overlooked. Their leader prudently warned them against getting too confident. Many things could yet go wrong.

The mission's communication specialist sent a single command, attempting to jumpstart the ship's computers remotely, start life support systems, and open the doors of the shuttle bay.

Nothing.

Their benefactors had anticipated this, however. The mission leader indicated for the shuttle pilot to move in even closer, and hefted a smallish box onto the control console. Opening the cover, he deftly manipulated the device's lighted touchpads, in a coded sequence. The device blinked benignly and issued a silent pulse; instantly, many of the cruiser's interior and running lights came to life.

"Security has been alerted," the Communications specialist calmly advised the small group. "Automated signal."

Taking an involuntary, quick look at the space around them and seeing no other ships yet approaching, they slipped quickly in between the opening shuttle bay doors, just barely clearing the doors, themselves.

In less than ten minutes, and well before a security team could arrive to investigate, the ship was in their hands and on the move, security signal disabled; just another battle cruiser among the thousands patrolling the home system, on its way to some errand out in the presently-afflicted Greater Empire.

Nothing of note went wrong.

Captain James T. Kirk sat stretched out on the sofa in his quarters, legs crossed, a mug of coffee cooling on the end table and a large book, a moderately-thick compilation of the "Complete Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and Other Works", by A.C. Doyle, opened on his lap. His glasses sat perched primly on the end of his nose, and he tilted his head slightly upward, looking down as he read the page.

He'd just acquired the centuries-old hardcover tome, published in September, 1966, from an antiques dealer operating a small storefront at their last stop, Starbase 43, and he was quite surprised at his good fortune.

Actual books were relatively rare after the mass destruction of the last world war (also, many of them had been burnt in the aftermath by survivors, as fuel for warming fires), and most especially in this good a shape and this far out in space. For the first few, heady decades of space travel and colonization, books were usually only brought along as an afterthought, or as cherished possessions. He considered himself lucky to have stumbled upon it. As he reached back to snag up his coffee, the door chime rang.

"Come in;" he said, closing and lowering the book, his finger marking the page. When the door hissed open, Leonard McCoy stepped through.

"Well, good evening, Doctor;" Kirk said with an overly-earnest joviality. "Tell me; just what is it that brings you here?" he asked, removing his glasses and placing them carefully on the coffee table.

McCoy dropped himself into the easy chair and folded his hands across his belly. "I'm hungry; thought you might want to go down and grab a bite to eat with me."

Kirk pursed his lips at the thought and gazed at McCoy, one of his oldest friends and former shipmate. He grinned. "You just don't want to go down and get stared at by the crew, all by yourself." He lifted his cup in McCoy's direction. "Would you like a cup of coffee? It's good; I can vouch for that much."

"Sure, thanks; cream, no sugar." McCoy noted that Kirk's hair, while still for the most part its natural brown, was at last beginning to show deep flecks of gray and white, peppering the darker locks. About damn time, he thought, with mild humor.

Kirk rose and went to the replicator slot. "Coffee, cream;" he said. In seconds, he'd returned with the steaming cup. "It's incredible, really; all you do is say what you want, and the replicator takes over from there. No more data disks. McCoy nodded approvingly, expressed his thanks and took a tentative sip. "Not bad."

"You said you were hungry; how about some cookies to go with the coffee?" Kirk returned to the replicator slot. "Computer;" he said.

"Working," came the natural-sounding reply, a relaxed, youngish male voice.

"What kinds of baked goods—specifically, cookies—are available?"

The computer voice reeled off a list of the types of cookies it had available for consumption. Kirk paused it at oatmeal raisin.

"Oatmeal raisin cookies," he said, a tad mockingly, "…for the healthy choice—doctor…?"

McCoy made a comically disgusted face; "Hell, no; oatmeal's something you eat for breakfast, not in a cookie. And I hate raisins."

Kirk grinned; "What, Bones…you don't want to live to be 110?"

The doctor shook his head; "Why in the hell would anybody wanna live to be that goddamned old? Make it chocolate chip…dark, not milk or white…with nuts. Good old Georgia pecans, not walnuts or those damned macadamias."

Kirk chuckled and placed the order, which was affirmed; in seconds, a plate of six large, warm cookies appeared which he presented, with a flourish, to the skeptical doctor. McCoy took one, broke it in half, made a show of fastidiously dunking it into his coffee, and bit into it. His face registered impressed pleasure. "Pretty good, for a hunk of circuits. But then, compared to the food on our old ship, it could only get better."

A comfortable silence descended between the old friends; no awkward searching for a topic to address. They sipped their coffee and munched their cookies, and simply let the quiet spin out around them.

At length, and with a heavy sigh, McCoy spoke; "This is boring…I don't think I've ever been on a starship where the trip was so boring."

"That's because you're used to being on duty on those starships;" Kirk replied, his tone lightly matter-of-fact. "You're used to holding a post; having a job to do. Here, you're just a passenger."

McCoy shrugged and nodded sluggishly. "I guess," he said, his voice muffled behind the rim of his cup, raised to his lips.

Kirk bit his cookie and smiled again. Silence, once more.

After a few seconds, McCoy sat forward and gazed at Kirk; "So, why're you holed-up in here? There's a whole ship, chock-full of adoring Starfleet personnel awaiting the opportunity to catch a glimpse of the legendary James T. Kirk." He grinned sarcastically, and with a slight flourish of his own, took a short, exaggerated tug at his coffee, then raised his cup, slightly, as if in salute. "My old buddy Jim, muse to a generation of Starfleet cadets."

"That's why I'm holed-up in here," Kirk said mildly and without hesitation and rose, turning to the viewport and the beautifully, colorfully warp-dopplered stars sliding past beyond. He stared out, and sipped from his own cup.

The stars at warp-speed hadn't look like that in years past, he noted, back during their first five-year mission, when he'd worn the command gold. Scotty had explained to him that it had something to do with the changes in engine designs in the 2270s.

After a moment, with a slight smile, Kirk spoke. "I can remember my father telling Sam and me about the year he spent as First Officer of the USS KELVIN, under Captain Richard Robau; how boring it was. 'Nothing exciting ever happened on the KELVIN', he said. Told us it was the longest year he'd ever spent at a posting. As soon as an Executive Officer position came open on the REPUBLIC, he put in, and was transferred."

Kirk took a moment there, at the viewport, to consider how truly beautiful the stars were. He had spent most of his life, now, among these very stars. It was easy to take them for granted.

His mind drifted back to his childhood; one warm, crystal-clear, late-summer evening, and how his father, George Kirk, had taken him and Sam out into the large front yard, where he'd set up a telescope.

The old house in Riverside, Iowa; a solid, clapboard farmhouse built in 1887, had been well near 400 years old at the time. It had survived countless violent storms and tornadoes, and even a nuclear exchange during the Eugenics War, which became the Third World War. The blast had been sufficiently distant that all that had happened was that the windows had been blown out, and the house had shifted a bit on its foundation.

The home had been in his mother, Winona Kirk's, family for generations, built by her several-times great-grandfather, Hilbert Clovis. Clovis had been a farmer and decorated veteran of the American Civil War. Sergeant Clovis had been wounded—having nearly lost a leg, or so family lore told. He had suffered his injury at the battle of Cold Harbor, in Virginia. It was said that he had walked with a pronounced limp, and with a cane on cold or rainy days, until the day he died. He had died of influenza in 1918 at the well-advanced age, for the time, of 78. Old Hilbert was buried on the property along with his wife, Julia, and a daughter, Polly, who had sadly died of some ailment in childhood, as was common in that era.

When Jim Kirk was about five or six, on what was still observed as Memorial Day, George had taken him and Sam out to the grave site, then long-unattended, lonely, overgrown and barely visible on the edge of a smallish, encroaching thicket. George had stood gazing at the decrepit headstones, hands on his hips, and had shaken his head sadly. George Kirk had always had a deeply patriotic heart; a trait he had worked hard to pass on to his sons.

They had pulled weeds and cut back the thicket, so that the stones stood somewhat apart from the wooded patch; they had cut the grass and cleaned the stones. Flowers were planted.

Not long after, George had had a heavy, steel replica of the Grand Army of the Republic medallion made. Having placed it on a long, steel rod, he explained its significance to his sons and, with some reverence, inserted it into the ground beside the ancient, weathered gravestone of Hilbert Clovis.

Every year thereafter, on Memorial Day, the Kirks would make sure that Sergeant Clovis' grave was well-maintained, and a fresh, grave-sized American flag—of the proper era, mind you, George always insisted—was installed beside the GAR medallion, which was itself taken up, properly polished and replaced. It was a beloved family tradition which Jim Kirk himself kept up, at least when home, and passed down to Peter and his sons when he wasn't. In fact, he'd recently received a message from Peter, that it was probably time to get a new GAR medallion. One day, Kirk was sure, old Hilbert and Julia's graves would once more stand unattended, abandoned and forgotten…but not for some time, now…and not just yet.

The huge old farmhouse itself sat on ten acres, and was surrounded on three sides by hundreds of acres of farmland owned by their Amish neighbors, so there was almost no nearby artificial outside lighting. Therefore, the darkness on that long-ago evening had been nearly absolute.

George had pointed out the gossamer cloud of the Milky Way, arching across the clear summer night; he pointed out some of the stars he himself had visited. He then briefly outlined some constellations, relating the ageless legends behind them, and then took the boys over to the telescope.

It was there that James T. Kirk, age 7, had first clearly seen the rings of Saturn. And he was hooked.

He wanted to see them with his own eyes and, looking up from the eyepiece, had asked his father if he thought there was a chance of that. George had smiled and said "of course, if you want it bad enough", and tousled his youngest son's hair.

After that, George Kirk's Starfleet career became much more than an annoyance that kept young Jimmy Kirk's father away for extended periods. Jimmy began asking questions. The rest was, quite literally, history.

Sam, of course, had gone in a different direction; science was his calling, and it had led him to the long-established colony at Deneva where, nearly thirty years later, his younger brother, ENTERPRISE Captain James T. Kirk, had discovered his body. Sam had been a victim of the neural parasites which had invaded the outpost. Only Sam's wife and youngest son, Aurelan and Peter, were found alive, although Aurelan had later died of her parasitic subversion. Peter of course had survived, and was presently a well-regarded mathematics professor at the University of Pittsburgh, in Pennsylvania.

Pensive, Kirk swirled his coffee.

James T. Kirk and Leonard McCoy were honored guests aboard the Starship USS FLAGSTAFF, one of the last of the old MIRANDA-class ships still in service; they were VIPs on an "inspection tour" of five border-region Starbases and colonies. What they were, as McCoy had presciently observed when they'd left a little over a week ago, was "a couple of dancing showgirls on a glorified USO tour".

He was right; it was a cake-walk. They two, late of the storied Starship(s) ENTERPRISE, were the public face of the tour, and would meet and greet with the administrative staff of the Starbases, usually over a fancy dinner; they would glad-hand the local media, and give a pep talk to the base's staff and personnel.

They would be shown around a bit, McCoy would ooh-and-ahh over the medical facilities; they would visit as was possible with the Starship crew or crews deployed in the sector, and they would leave. There were others with them, of course, whose job it was to actually inspect the outposts; he and Bones were simply there for morale-boosting. But, at least they were on a ship, and outward-bound.

Kirk himself had officially returned to Starfleet less than a year before; he'd been welcomed back with open arms but, unfortunately yet understandably, had been unable to secure a command for himself, mainly due to his age, naturally.

He had initially been handed an administrative post, whereupon he took charge of the design team presently working on the new, proposed Aldrin-class scout ship. After an interminable period of less than a month on that posting, however, Starfleet had, thankfully, approached him to join in this trip. He had actually been more than eager to accept, considering his present options.

After only three frustrating weeks of jockeying a team of squabbling engineers and designers, he had been more than happy to say yes, and was replaced with a Federation Marines colonel, whom he'd never met. He wished the man luck.

McCoy, the last one he would have expected, was of course still in Starfleet, and had been (lucky bastard) the head of the Medical section design team for the new, EXCELSIOR-class ENTERPRISE, due to be launched in a little over a year. He had been a little more stubborn about leaving for this little jaunt, naturally, claiming he had a lot of work to do (not really) but Kirk had talked him around. And Starfleet had given him little choice, really.

The new ENTERPRISE's captain had yet to be named, but rumor had it that Johnathan Harriman, an up-and-coming relative unknown, was a favorite in the running. Harriman had lately made a name for himself after smoothly, skillfully assuming command upon the injury of his captain in a recent skirmish against the Tholians, which could have erupted into a shooting border war, if not for certain prudent diplomatic actions taken by Harriman. Kirk had checked him out. His overall record was relatively unremarkable, but not uncommendable. It was a new era; gone, he was afraid, were the giants: the Garths; the Robert Aprils; the Chris Pikes; the Matt Deckers. He sometimes wondered…who would fill their shoes?

"Where's everybody else?" McCoy asked, with his usual gruffness. "Or are we the only suckers they could strong-arm into making this little hop?"

Kirk turned away from the window for a moment and faced McCoy. "We're the only suckers." He then faced the window, again, knocking absently on the barrier. "Spock is away, making a reputation for himself in the diplomatic corps. Uhura is in the middle of teaching an important class at the Academy, and was able to use that to plead out; Sulu is, of course, in command of the EXCELSIOR, and away from Federation space and Chekov recently took command of the GAGARIN, so he's out."

Four months past, Captain Pavel Chekov had taken command of the science vessel USS GAGARIN, so named for the first human in orbit, Soviet Russian Cosmonoaut, Yuri Gagarin.

Kirk had had a very small hand in getting him that posting, in that when he'd discovered that the ship was to be re-deployed and needed a captain, he'd made it a point to "drop by" Chekov's apartment one evening and, over a drink, found him eagerly hoping for the position. Diehard Russian patriot Chekov was champing at the bit, hoping against all hope that Starfleet would see its way to letting him have this particular command. He was, after all, eminently qualified, available, and in the rotation.

He was not overly confident, however; his age, he felt, was one factor perhaps being held against him, amongst others to which he couldn't lay name. He had already missed three such postings for other vessels, one a Starship, and was considering altogether dropping his hopes for a line captaincy, if he'd failed to get this one. He was, in fact, considering retirement to the private sector. "I could at least be a freighter keptin", he'd said with glum cheer.

The next morning, Kirk had visited the Starfleet HQ Personnel Division and spoken with an old friend. He was pleased but unsurprised to find that Chekov's name was already in the top two. It was a toss-up between his former Navigator and a Vulcan captain, who would have been difficult to beat because he was, admittedly, somewhat more qualified in some areas, and not to mention already had command experience.

However, Kirk had been informed that they had more or less already decided to give it to Chekov, as it would be his first real command, and they felt he'd deserved it after having been passed over, previously. Pavel had gotten it on his own merits, but Kirk's appearance on his behalf had helped seal the deal.

"Where's Scotty, though?" Kirk asked, sipping his cup and retaking his seat on the sofa.

McCoy grinned softly. "Scotty is…" he said, in a smugly satisfied tone, "…as we speak, aboard his boat, sailing the South Pacific. I heard right from the horse's mouth, that they sent two representatives to find him and ask him to join us. They caught up with him having a liquid dinner at a bar in Fiji. He told them—in so many words, mind you—that he was not giving up his retirement trip to be, and I quote, 'a prancing pup' in their 'stupid dog and pony show'.

Kirk smiled; "In so many words."

"In so many words," McCoy repeated, grinning slyly.

Kirk lifted his cup in casual salute. "Good for Scotty." He set his cup to the table. "You know," he said, donning his maroon uniform coat, "I am getting hungry; let's go get stared at."

Three hours later, Kirk had fallen sleep on the sofa, the book spread open on his chest, only a couple of pages further on; he lay snoring softly in the dimmed light of the overheads, and was still wearing his white turtleneck and uniform slacks.

Suddenly, the ship lurched to starboard; Kirk, rapidly awake and aware, found himself sprawled on the carpeted deck, looking around in confusion and hearing alarm klaxons—not quite drowning-out the sound of distant explosions—upon each of which the ship shuddered. Over the door, the red emergency-alert light flashed.

"We're under attack," he muttered to himself, glancing sharply around. Another heavy impact wracked the ship. His cup of coffee, now long cold, clunked to the floor, staining the carpet.

He put his hand on the coffee table and sofa, and started to push himself up. Another hard lurch, this time to port, and he was once again thrown tumbling to the floor. He heard the sound of running feet and urgently-spoken commands, muffled by the klaxons, in the corridor outside. The overheads came up to full brightness, surged, faded, surged again, and then, with a flash, went out altogether. The dim emergency lighting instantly kicked in.

He ran to the floor-to-ceiling window and, pressing his palms against the transparent aluminum barrier, looked out.

The ship had obviously dropped out of warp; he looked anxiously for the source of the attack, but could see nothing from this vantage point.

The ship shuddered again, which he felt through his stocking feet and, as he looked downward, some decks below, a violent explosion blossomed brightly into space. Another sensation, almost simultaneous, accompanied the impact of the explosion; it was a heavy, "thudding" sensation, which Kirk recognized all too well. The oddly blunt shock, undeniable in its force, transmitted itself forcibly through the ship's hull and superstructure.

Explosive decompression. Hull breach.

Mouth agape, Kirk watched with dread consternation as a heavy mist of precious atmosphere vented sharply into the chill vacuum, bits of hull plating and detritus, large and small, plunging outward into the dark void. As he watched, incredulous, three writhing bodies emerged, blown from the gash and tumbling into infinite space, freezing instantly and forever in their contorted, tortured positions. Another distant explosion, this time from the other side of the ship. They were being attacked, but from where? As he watched, the starry vista before him began to tilt, and it was obvious that attitude control was out; the ship was beginning to list, and drift. An odd, queasy sensation in his belly told him that the artificial gravity was fluctuating, as well. This was bad.

Kirk turned and dashed to the sofa, dropped and donned his boots. He stood, steadying himself against the increasingly sharp angle of the deck, grabbed his uniform jacket and, throwing it on, ran to the door. He bounced off, winced in pain, and remembered that the power was out. Stupid; rookie mistake.

He stepped to his left and opened the manual-access panel. He pulled the lever and the door fell slightly open with a heavy, clumsy-sounding clunk. He placed his palms flat against the smooth surface and shoved to his right. It was difficult, and took several frustrating minutes, in which he could hear and feel more explosions; smaller, though. He would have to speak to someone about making this easier on the next class of ships. Why had no one ever thought of this, before? He made a mental note to have a talk with that Marine Colonel. Maybe make the surface of the doors a little rougher, somehow; textured, so you could get some purchase. Always assuming they got out of this alive, of course.

At length, a gap appeared. Thick, pungent smoke filtered in, and he coughed sharply. He slid his fingers into the narrow breach, stepped to his right, and pulled. The work was suddenly made easier by another set of fingers, emerging from the other side. The door opened, and there stood McCoy. "What the hell's going on?" he asked harshly.

"We're under attack," Kirk said.

"No shit…Sherlock," McCoy replied, snidely referencing Kirk's most recent antique acquisition.

Kirk smiled sardonically. "Other than that, no clue. Let's go find out; we may be able to help. Let's try and get to the Bridge;" and, McCoy in tow, he took off at a fast walk, both men waving futilely at the heavy smoke, squinting against it. Another sharp tremor seized the ship, throwing them against the bulkhead. Crewmembers ran hither and thither, intent on their duties. Kirk knew better than to stop them for questioning. He'd wait until they ran into someone in a command position.

A body, a bloodied young female ensign whose uniform indicated Engineering, was sprawled awkwardly below a Jeffries Tube access portal. Her face, hands and uniform severely burnt, her head and right leg jutted at unnatural angles. McCoy dropped and checked her pulse. He looked grimly at Kirk, and silently shook his head. Kirk stepped forward and gazed up into the shattered, blackened tube. Smoke, bitter with ozone, yet filled the narrow space. It was clear what had happened. They continued on.

Wreckage littered the deck here and there, and they had to make their way around heavy chunks of apparatus which had dropped from the ceiling and move some large pieces of bulkhead, railings and such. As they made their way, the power was at least partially restored; the lighting came back up, flickering and all but adequate, but operational. With the return of current, circuitry now randomly sparked and burned in the bulkheads. At one junction in the corridor, a viper's nest of burnt wiring cascaded from overhead, sparking and snapping, writhing with uncontrolled electrical discharge.

They discovered two more bodies, and at least one live crewman whom McCoy was able to assist, if only sketchily, using the First Aid packets from compartments set, at various intervals, into the bulkheads. The man was ordered to Sickbay.

They at last found a turbolift, but were of course hampered by the fact that the lifts were out, for the moment. Together, they forced the doors and leaned in, looking up and down the shaft. Below, the aperture stretched away to the distant lower decks. Above was the bottom of the turbolift itself, stalled perhaps two levels above, emergency brakes engaged.

"Come on," Kirk said, swinging in and grabbing the rungs of the ladder, just inside to his right. He began ascending, his boots clanging on the metal rungs, the sound echoing softly in the shaft.

McCoy blinked, and hesitated. "What if they get it running while we're in there?" he asked.

"You want to live forever, Doctor?" Kirk said, smiling down at him.

"I'd like the opportunity," McCoy groused, only with great reluctance following his friend.

As they climbed, they could hear voices from inside the lift, calling for help. Kirk called back, assuring them that they would make sure that help was on the way, as soon as possible.

They saw that the lift was positioned in such a way that they would not be able to gain access to the second level above, but they made it to the deck directly above and forced the door, clambering out onto the deck.

Like the level they had left, it was a shambles. Behind them, less than 30 seconds after they had emerged from the shaft, the turbolift's brakes failed and it dropped sharply, in seconds crashing to the bottom. They turned and helplessly watched it fall, hearing the screams from inside. McCoy called down the shaft, but there was no reply, if they'd even heard. The men looked gravely at each other. Nonetheless, McCoy exhaled in a relieved puff. Kirk hoped no one else had been in the shaft itself, trying what they had.

They made their way as best they could, trying to find another turbolift shaft, to continue their effort to gain the Bridge.

At length, Kirk and McCoy were met in the dim corridor by a dark-haired young science officer, a Lieutenant Benjamin Garrin, who was cradling his arm, and clearly in pain; his uniform jacket was torn, and a large spot on the left shoulder had been burnt. He also had a sizable, deep gash on his forehead, still seeping blood; McCoy stepped forward to have a look, but was waved off with a curt, dismissive word of thanks.

Garrin looked firmly at Kirk; "Captain Kirk, your presence is required on the Bridge. Now." he said, bluntly; his tone was formal, yet urgent.

"Where's the captain?" Kirk asked abruptly, alarmed.

"Dead, sir;" Garrin replied stiffly, after a moment. "The Exec, too; in fact, the entire Command Staff has either been incapacitated or killed."

"There's no one in charge?" Kirk asked, aghast, his voice rising.

Garrin sighed sadly, shaking his head. "You…are the ranking officer aboard ship, now, Captain Kirk;" he answered. "I'm sorry."

"So much for the USO tour," McCoy said ruefully, and with characteristic dark humor, he added, "How does this kinda stuff always happen to us?"

Kirk smiled, chuckling wearily. He inhaled deeply, and said "Well Bones, you did say you were bored. Why don't you get on down to Sickbay; they're gonna need a lot of help."

"On my way," McCoy said unenthusiastically, starting off. He stopped then, and turned. "Uh...just where is Sickbay, from here?" he asked Garrin, who grabbed a passing crewmember and assigned her to help McCoy.

Before the doctor left, Garrin said, sincerely, "I just have to say that you gentlemen are taking this situation with remarkable composure."

Kirk and McCoy exchanged a soft, knowing smile.

"Son," McCoy said, laying a firm, reassuring hand on Garrin's shoulder, "…this is very, very old hat, to us." And with a pointed "good luck" to Kirk, he was gone.

Walking away, McCoy asked the crewmember if she'd had any medical training; she replied with "only what I got at the Academy," she said. "…first aid, combat medicine."

"That's gonna have to do," McCoy answered. "Welcome to the medical field…"

Garrin turned to Kirk; "Please come with me, Captain;" Kirk motioned onward, and followed.

"What's your position on the ship?" Kirk asked the young man.

"Sciences Department, sir; Assistant to the Department Head,' Garrin replied. "…I'm not…normally…one of the Bridge crew."

Garrin led him to a turbolift. "I thought the lifts were out," Kirk said.

"Not all," the lieutenant replied. "But the ones that are functioning are running at less than half-power." Kirk, remembering the earlier incident with the turboift, gazed with trepidation at the open door.

Once inside the slow, jerkily-rising turbolift, Kirk stood silently for a few moments, and then asked, "So, did I understand you, correctly? The entire command staff has been taken out?"

"That's correct, sir;" Garrin answered. "Assistant Chief Engineer Seval is now in command of Engineering. If not for your presence on the ship, he would have been next in line of command. I'm particularly glad you're here, though, Captain, because Lieutenant Commander Seval can be…difficult. He would be especially so, given the present circumstances and condition of the ship and its systems."

Kirk smiled softly. "Yes; Chief Engineers can be somewhat…cantankerous, at times." he remarked.

"Lieutenant Commander Seval sometimes has a problem with authority, sir." Garrin added. "The Captain knew it, but put up with it, to a point, because Seval is very good at his job."

"Sounds like a discerning captain," Kirk opined, with a soft, sympathetic smile. Garrin stood, silent. "So…report, Lieutenant;" Kirk ordered with a slight formality. "What's happened?"

Garrin nodded once, gravely. "Nearly three hours ago, we received a distress signal from a nearby Federation outpost colony. They'd been attacked, apparently by pirates, and had suffered several casualties. We naturally changed course and increased speed, to assist. We entered the system almost an hour ago..."

"And then were attacked," Kirk said, completing the thought.

The young man bobbed his head, jerkily. "Almost as soon as we passed into the system and dropped out of warp; they clearly saw us coming, and were laying for us. This is Federation space, so we were running with navigational deflectors, only. When they hit us, it was so hard and fast, we had no time to raise defensive shields."

Garrin paused and drew a shaking breath, ragged with both pain and, Kirk saw, with anger. Kirk feared the anger may be draining into fearful hopelessness, however. He certainly didn't want that; anger he could work with. Hopelessness was an aggressive, and damnably contagious, cancer. Inwardly, Kirk considered that it was a grave error on the part of the ship's captain, to not have raised defensive shields as soon as they'd received the call and changed course, but such Monday-morning quarterbacking was pointless.

"You didn't see them?" Kirk asked.

"No, sir, not then;" Garrin answered firmly.

"Then they probably have a cloak of some kind," Kirk deduced. Lovely.

"The enemy has us bracketed, Captain; three ships," Garrin said, flatly. "Our options are, at present, extremely limited."

"Who is the 'enemy'?" Kirk asked. "Who's attacked us? Is it pirates?"

Garrin started to speak paused, and swallowed heavily. He seemed think better of it. "I think you'd better see that for yourself, sir," came the reply. "This is going to be a little difficult."

After a short fashion, Kirk, followed by Lieutenant Garrin, came onto the smoldering ruin of what remained of the FLAGSTAFF's Bridge.

Burnt conduit and wires hung from the charred, blasted ceiling panels; broken recessed lighting and smashed station consoles sparked and hissed. Bulkheads were blown wide open as the heavy power supply circuitry behind them had overloaded and blown outward. The viewscreen was cracked, but had been made operational.

"Captain on the Bridge," Garrin grimly intoned, his voice firm.

The tattered crew stood, some unsteadily, and awaited orders. Normally, in such a desperate situation, Kirk would have preferred to eschew such protocol, but these people clearly needed a return to structure.

The more severely injured and dead had been removed, and replacements sent up.

Such young faces, Kirk saw, smeared with soot or, in too many cases, with blood. One young officer was obviously in great pain with a serious facial burn, but was still holding things together, and at her post. He would order her to Sickbay at the first opportunity. The plaintive, demoralized eyes around him flickered slightly at his arrival. It was the look of faint hope. He was, after all, Captain James T. Kirk, Starfleet Legend.

It had been a few years, though, he mused with no little unease. He just hoped he had one or two more rabbits left in his hat. And that the hat wasn't too dusty.

Soberly, he surveyed the damage; 'so much for the USO tour', indeed.

Garrin motioned to the Captain's chair.

As every eye on the Bridge watched, Kirk put his hands behind his back; slowly, and-he had to admit-with some apprehension, he walked to the center chair. He noticed that there were spatters of blood on it, and a thick stain on the carpet. He supposed it to be Captain Culler's; it seemed a safe supposition.

"As you were. Resume your posts, please;" Kirk said softly.

He sat and, leaning on the armrest, glanced around the wrecked Bridge. Whoever had done this had done their job well. Too well.

"You are the ranking FLAGSTAFF officer on the Bridge, now, Mr. Garrin?" he asked the lieutenant, who nodded solemnly.

"Then you're my First Officer," Kirk said.

Garrin, alarmed, froze; "Uh…Captain," he stuttered, "...sir, I've never really been…trained…for command duty. I'm just a Science Officer, sir, and…"

Kirk cut him off, purposely adopting a tone of mildly patronizing condescension. He said, firmly and carefully aloof; "—And every officer is a command officer, Lieutenant, if the situation requires. Is that clear?"

Garrin swallowed heavily, but nodded. "Aye, sir," was all he said, a bit meekly.

Kirk nodded, satisfied that his point had been made, and turned. "Communications Officer;" he said crisply, "please record that, as of this time, I am taking emergency command of the USS FLAGSTAFF; Lieutenant Garrin is hereby promoted to the reserve position of Executive Officer, on my authority."

"Aye, Captain," came the Communications Officer's subdued reply. He turned to complete the order.

Kirk looked back to Garrin. "Report, Mr. Garrin. What is our situation?"

Consulting a PADD, Garrin ticked off the points. "We have hull breaches on, or across, five decks. Those decks have been sealed off, however, and we are no longer venting atmosphere. The impulse drive and warp engines are, for the moment, offline. Helm is very sluggish, but answering, though we are venting drive plasma. We have maneuvering thrusters only, at the moment. Life support is down to 42%, and is erratic. Shields are all but gone; phasers are at 14% capacity, which is obviously not enough to penetrate their shields, much less do any real damage. Communications and sensors are both functioning, but barely; short-range only, for both. Subspace communications are, as of now, out. No official word on casualties, as yet."

Kirk, right elbow on the armrest, rubbing his lower lip, was silent as he took all of this in. "Alright," he said softly. "First things first; we may indeed be dealing with pirates, and with shields all but down, we can probably expect to be boarded. Just in case, I want hand phasers and rifles distributed to the crew, as far as they'll go." He turned to the Communications Officer. "Were we able to get off a distress signal?"

"I issued a signal, sir," the Comm Officer said, "but power failed, and I'm not sure how much of it broadcast, or how strong the signal was."

"Well, it's enough to hang some hope on, at least; thank you. Get me Engineering," he ordered.

In seconds, the Assistant Chief Engineer, Seval, answered. His tone was formal, stiff. "Seval here, Captain."

Kirk spoke with Seval, and watched as Garrin, at the Bridge weapons locker, opened the hatch. Withdrawing enough phasers for the Bridge crew, he distributed them accordingly. Kirk silently nodded his acknowledgement as he took one for himself; he held up a finger.

Garrin stood, waiting. "One moment, Mr. Seval;" Kirk turned to Garrin. "Auxiliary Control is on the Engineering deck on this ship, correct, Mr. Garrin?" he asked. Garrin said that it was. "Tell Security I want a full detail there, on the double. Fully armed. I want another sent to Engineering, itself. I want all available Security on the Engineering deck. Enlist whoever else they may need, and is available."

Garrin stepped to Communications to carry out the commands, then returned seconds later, for further instructions.

"Engineer," Kirk said, "in five minutes from my mark, I want you to cut power to all non-essential and ancillary systems. Garrin, you are to order the evacuation of all decks between the Bridge and Sickbay, and Sickbay and Engineering; send the surviving crew to those two decks. Chief Seval," Kirk said, "in six minutes from my mark, you are to cut all power to all other decks. Is that clear? Power to those three decks, only."

Seval indicated that it was indeed clear.

"That'll free up some resources for us, at least," Kirk said grimly. "You will then reroute that power to shore up Defensive and Engineering systems and life support. We'll work on everything else, as we go….Mark."

He cocked a thumb at Garrin to get moving, and signed off with Engineering. In seconds, Garrin's voice echoed through the ship, ordering the immediate evacuation of those decks, and for phasers to be issued.

"Now," Kirk said firmly, "who is 'the enemy'? Try the screen; let's see if we can get a visual on them."

The viewscreen crackled and faded on; the image scrambled, hissed; snow filled it for a moment, then it steadied enough for visual perception. Kirk's mouth dropped open.

"Klingons?" he said, disbelievingly. Yet, there, on the screen, were three Klingon battlecruisers, one a modern, state-of-the-art K'Tinga-Class. The others were two outdated D-7 cruisers, probably 40-50 years old at least. They were probably rescued from some scrapheap, perhaps, or pulled from deployment in some backwater sector and drafted back into line service. Were things that desperate in the Empire? That they were using elderly, decommissioned ships in raids?

This didn't smell right, though, he considered. The Klingons were still embroiled in a bitter power struggle after the Praxis moon explosion and the death of Chancellor Gorkon, just two years earlier, at the hands of traitorous forces. They were teetering on the verge of an outright civil war, and had enough internal problems of their own. They wouldn't want to start trouble with the Federation, which was giving them aid in various ways—not the least of which was in helping keep the Romulans out of Klingon internal affairs, while things were sorted out. Gorkon's daughter and protégé, Azetbur, had been declared Chancellor, and was working hard to hold the Empire together and mend the broken fences. But then, he reflected, they were Klingons. Who could know what they would do? Also, there were numerous factions in the mix, of varying ideologies and loyalties.

"They're hailing us, Captain," the Comm officer said, his voice tense.

"Onscreen, such as it is…" Kirk said, mildly raising a hand to the viewer.

The image switched, revealing a single figure; but it definitely wasn't a Klingon. The features were unfamiliar to Kirk; thick, heavy bone structure; a wide nose with apparently one nostril, and a large mouth full of thick, powerful-looking teeth. What appeared to be four small tentacles protruded from its face, purpose unknown. What appeared to be its eyes, both black as night, no sclera, sat well above the nose. A dark brown uniform tunic of some sort was visible, but again, it offered no clues.

"This is Captain James T. Kirk, acting commander of the USS FLAGSTAFF. To whom am I speaking, and why have you attacked us?" he demanded.

The sound that issued from the speaker was a stilted, somewhat choppy noise, filled with oddly-placed hums and clicks, which were almost instantly translated by the Universal Translator as…

"My sincere apologies, Captain; I am Eliar Markaj, commander of this motley group of vessels."

'Eliar Markaj' was not directly translated, indicating that 'Eliar' was likely his title, 'Markaj' being his name; or perhaps vice-versa, depending upon how the language was configured.

"It is genuinely an honor to meet you, Captain Kirk; your reputation is known, even among my people." He appeared to grimace, in a less-than-admirable affectation of a friendly smile.

Kirk furrowed his brow, licked his lips and glanced, once, up at Garrin, who shrugged subtly.

"Uh…thank you, I suppose;" Kirk answered, truly puzzled at this friendly, even light-hearted greeting in the wake of what had just happened, less than an hour before.

"Why have you attacked us, Eliar Markaj? And who are your…people?" he asked. "And why are you using Klingon vessels?"

Eliar Markaj's features softened perceptibly. He sighed. "We are Amaliks, Captain; of Adir."

And that said it all.

Given the internal turmoil which was presently afflicting the Klingon Empire, in anticipation of incipient civil war, fleets of ships and occupation forces were being redeployed to the center of the Empire, to Kronos; this obviously had the effect of weakening their hold on the outer systems. Worlds which had been firmly under the unforgiving, iron hand of Kronos just a year or two before, were now only held by token forces which were otherwise concerned, or not held at all.

Some of these worlds were starting to agitate for their freedom. Adir, a world rich in resources and one of the Empire's oldest holdings, had been one of the first. The Klingons, however, at present desperately in need of said resources, were not all that willing to simply give up and walk away from that particular world. In response, its people, a race called the Amalik, had actually formed what was, for all intents and purposes, a liberation army. They were fighting what was essentially a guerrilla war against Klingon occupation. Somehow, these Amalik had managed to commandeer at least three battle cruisers, and were using them thusly. They had, however, in their zeal for freedom, apparently adopted the ruthless methods and philosophy of their oppressors.

"Why are you attacking into Federation space?" Kirk asked.

Markaj's face grew solemn. "I do apologize for our incursion, Captain; you and your people have fallen victim, collateral damage, to our war of liberation. We must seek what we need to wage our battle, where we can find it."

"So you resort to piracy?" Kirk stated, his tone sharp, by way of question.

Eliar Markaj was calm. "One being's 'piracy', Captain, is…another's act of necessity, born of desperation. I am hereby informing you that we are intending to board your ship, and will take what we need."

He clearly knew the shape the FLAGSTAFF was in, Kirk reflected, and so would not be bluffed or easily dissuaded.

Garrin stepped forward. "If I may, Captain?" Kirk looked from the young officer to the being on the viewscreen, and back, and nodded cautiously. He wondered where this was going.

Garrin swallowed thickly, and spoke, addressing Eliar Markaj. "Sir," he began, standing at respectful attention, "…there is a saying among my people, attributed to a man named Benjamin Franklin; 'the price of freedom is eternal vigilance'. This means that a free people must always remain on guard against those ambitious persons or groups who, from within or without, might strive to take those freedoms away. They must also, however, guard against becoming like those from whom they may seek their freedom. You seek freedom from Klingon oppression and brutality, do you not?"

Markaj said nothing, only inclining his head.

"Then you have already broken that rule," Garrin stated, firmly yet quietly.

Eliar Markaj sat quietly for a moment, and then spoke. "High-minded talk, and truly admirable ideals; however, would you like me to tell you what my people have learned, young human?" He didn't give Garrin a chance to reply, but simply continued "…over the nine generations since the coming of the Klingons, the Amalik have learned that, in order to defeat what you hate…it is—sometimes—necessary to become what you hate. What lessons have you learned, in your captivity?"

He looked then from the slightly mortified Garrin, standing beside the Captain's chair, to Kirk.

"Are you in the habit of letting your subordinates speak for you, Captain Kirk?" Markaj asked sharply.

Kirk pursed his lips. Though the thrust was adroitly parried, Garrin's argument was pertinent and, given this response, clearly well made.

"Only when their point is a strong one, Eliar Markaj," he replied. He looked to Garrin, smiled softly and cocked his head sideways. It was a good try.

Garrin, feeling somewhat chastened, took his cue and returned to the Science station.

For his part, Kirk perfectly well understood the Amalik's position, and even sympathized, but felt constrained to point out, "You do realize that by moving your efforts into Federation territory, you've already brought Starfleet into matters. You've killed an unknown number of Federation citizens at that colony, a Starfleet Captain and many of his crew. This will not be overlooked. Now…it is a big galaxy, granted; one or two attacks may be seen, and possibly even excused, as an aberration…as a handful of your so-called 'desperate acts'. If you make this a policy, however, and they become regular occurrences, well….that would be another matter, altogether. You'd be picking a running fight not just with the Klingon Defense Forces, but with the Federation-with Starfleet, and Starfleet wouldn't be as distracted as the Klingons. They'll send a fleet of Starships out here specifically looking for you, and I'd be willing to bet, in this case and times being what they are, that the Klingons wouldn't flinch at letting us into their space."

Markaj smiled. "A fleet of starships would be nice, Captain," he began, quietly, "We can always use another ship; and especially a Starship or two, heavily battle-damaged or no. But one—even one so badly-damaged—will do, for the moment."

Suddenly, it occurred to Kirk why the attack was so suddenly halted, and the horror of it dawned on him.

"I will not let you have this ship," he said firmly. "I'll destroy it, first."

"You may, Captain, but not if we can take it, beforehand. We are quite capable, once we set our minds to something."

Kirk scowled. 'Never underestimate the abilities of a determined individual…or group'; it was advice his father had given him decades ago, when he'd received his commission. It echoed back to him, now. "What will happen to the crew?" Kirk asked quickly.

The smile fled Markaj's face; he adopted a truly apologetic tone. "Sadly, Captain Kirk, we are not equipped to take prisoners."

"You kill your prisoners, then," Kirk said sullenly.

"We must, Captain; there is no other way, at the moment. We can barely feed ourselves, much less maintain prisoners."

"Then whatever your excuses, you're no better than the Klingons," Kirk replied glumly.

"Things are what they are, Captain Kirk," Markaj replied sadly.

Kirk paused, ran a hand across his brow and took a breath, letting it out in a quick sigh. Time to take another approach.

"You know," he began, "…you're wasting a lot of good will; you realize that, don't you? Assuming you win your war…and your freedom, you'll eventually have to interact with others. With 'others' who, while they may indeed have been initially sympathetic to your plight, they may not be so very forgiving of your actual methods in accomplishing your goals. The Federation would be more than happy to help you, I'm sure, but not if you continue on, in this…particular course of action."

Markaj's face hardened. "For generations," he began, "we have sought assistance in obtaining our freedom; the Federation was one of those to which we appealed; our pleas went unanswered, then. Why should we ask them for help, now?"

"Because things have changed, Markaj; the Empire is in disarray, now. Circumstances are in your favor, but you're…'blowing it', as we say. You're wasting an opportunity. Starfleet will come after you for this, Eliar Markaj;" Kirk said. "You will not live to see your world's freedom, should that happen."

"We are willing to take that chance, Captain," Markaj said. "Prepare to be boarded," he said dismissively. And the channel was closed.

Kirk turned; "Mr. Garrin, inform Security of our situation, and to be prepared. They will not take this ship; not without a fight."

"Security teams have already been on alert, and deployed throughout the ship, sir," Garrin said. "I saw to that earlier, when I realized that our shield capacity is not sufficient to keep out intruders."

"Well done," Kirk said, nodding, impressed with his all-too-young First Officer's foresight. He then asked, "Is the self-destruct sequence operational? Can we enable it, if necessary?"

"Unknown, sir," Garrin answered flatly; "…and really, I hope we don't have to find out."

Kirk smiled dolefully. "Agreed, lieutenant."

Suddenly, alarm klaxons blared once more. Garrin moved swiftly to the Engineering station. "Twenty-five lifeforms have appeared on the Engineering deck;" he turned to Kirk; the fear in his eyes was cold, and apparent. "They're here. Punched right through our shields."

"Did the Security team get to Auxiliary Control?" Kirk demanded. He sincerely hoped they had. He also hoped the crew had been evacuated, because power was about to be cut to most of the ship. He also realized that, by doing so, he had placed many of the crew's survivors in harm's way. Of course, if they all had weapons, he'd also increased the chances of success in defending that level against incursion. Time would tell.

After he had closed the channel, Eliar Markaj sat silently.

He sighed, as the weight of command rested heavily. His next move, whatever it was to be, was imperative; if he ordered the starship to be boarded, he knew, he was quite likely committing his people to war with the United Federation of Planets. The raid on the colony had been bad enough, despite its success and the wealth of supplies it had indeed garnered them.

And he also knew that Kirk was right; they were severely testing the limits of goodwill. The Federation could possibly forgive the one raid, and even attacking a Starship. But a boarding? Direct, face-to-face combat? That was something else, altogether. That was personal.

Still, he had once heard a quote, passed down from his elders, learned from some humans they had somehow encountered long ago: "Extremism in the cause of liberty is no vice; moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue".

But what was justice, in this case? These people had nothing to do with the Amalik and their war of liberation. Was he in the right, in committing his forces here? Was it the correct thing to do, to engage these…these innocents…in such a way? Such things still had to matter, it seemed to him, if they were to retain even a semblance of the integrity of their cause and, for that matter, even of their race. They were rebelling against the oppression and brutality of the Klingon Empire, after all. Were they, in this action, any better? Yet, if they could just take the ship…but then again, while they might indeed take the ship and all of its stores and supplies, they were under the orders of the Congress of Elders, and of necessity itself, not to take prisoners. Was that justice? Was justice indeed-and necessarily-so relative, so subjective, an idea? Could it be? He considered that the young officer on the starship was quite wise, in his way.

He spent several more seconds, mulling it over. He sighed again, and nodded at his second. Necessity over integrity; when it came down to it, sometimes, something had to give. They needed weapons and they needed supplies, and having another ship at their disposal would be nice. "Go", was all he said, and wearily. Before I lose courage, he thought, and change my mind.

Kirk paused, listening intently; the telltale, janglng hum of a Klingon transporter became audible. "Phasers!" he yelled, rising and taking aim as five transporter beams coalesced at the front of the Bridge.

Lieutenant Commander Jack Feeny checked his phaser rifle for the third time, and looked around at his team, to make sure everyone was ready. If they were to be boarded, he thought, fine, but no one was taking this ship with him in charge, and Auxiliary Control was likely to be a primary target, at some point. The lights suddenly brightened perceptibly. Darkened control consoles came sputtering to life. "Well, that's a good sign, I guess," Ensign McCandless said.

"We'll see," Feeny said. "Stay sharp."

Suddenly, a low hum filled the room; it rose in pitch until it was a jangling whine. A group of figures unfamiliar to Feeny emerged from the transporter's shimmer. They were holding Klingon disruptors, naturally, and began firing at the Security team as soon as they solidified. The Security men dodged, and returned fire.

Energy beams crisscrossed crazily in the room; bulkheads were marred by the beams, with small, burnt points, and a control console exploded wildly. 'I hope that wasn't anything too important', Feeny thought to himself as he dropped to the floor, rolled behind a standalone console, and returned fire. A scream to his right, as a crewman was hit, quickly disappearing in a flash of heat and light, an ashy dust sifting to the floor. The bastards had their disruptors set to full goddamned power! Outraged, Feeny paused, scowled and looked at his own weapon; 'the hell with this,' he thought, and switched his own weapon from 'heavy stun' to full power. He drew a bead, and caught an Amalik invader just as he dodged behind a panel. He dropped to the deck, dead. The shootout raged for several minutes, until the intruders retreated to the corridor outside. The team had managed to hold Auxiliary Control, and Feeny hoped another team was waiting for the bad guys, out there in the corridor.

On the Bridge, a melee had erupted as soon as the invaders had materialized. Someone took out one of the pirates, rendering them impotent and sprawling to the deck, as soon as they materialized. An Amalik fired at a nearby crewman who had reacted a bit too slowly; the young man disappeared, screaming, as his physical matter turned to fine ash, consumed in the powerful disruptor's energy.

Kirk noted that two of the pirate's weapons were of an outdated Arcturan design; those weapons, he knew, had no power setting lower than full. He took a nanosecond to wonder where and how they had acquired such obscure armaments, but quickly dismissed the notion as irrelevant for the moment.

The ensign at the Engineering station let out a fierce cry, leapt up and threw himself at one of the large Amalik. They struggled. The bigger, clearly more imposing pirate threw him aside, and with a heavy thud, he went sprawling against the bulkhead, dazed. As soon as the intruder was open, however, Garrin dropped him to the deck, stunning him.

Kirk barely dodged a beam aimed at him and, dropping behind the command chair, he returned fire, missing his target by a hair; the phaser beam disappeared, sparking ineffectually against the bulkhead.

Another beam came at him, and seared into the chair's padding, inches from his head. He again rose from his crouched position, and reached around the chair, phaser at the ready; another bolt issued from the Amalik's disruptor and hit the chair. Instantly, Kirk cringed as he felt a searing pain in his left side and looked down; the disruptor beam had burnt cleanly through the upright back of the chair-which had, fortunately for him, absorbed most of the deadly energy-slicing through his uniform jacket and burning its way across his flesh, grazing him. His jacket smoldered where the beam had impacted.

Hissing in pain and holding his injured side, he fired again, and the Amalik attacker, enveloped by the bluish heavy stun field, grunted as if punched, stiffened, and fell forward over the Helm controls, his disruptor clattering to the floor.

Ensign Larkin, Helm Officer, exchanged blows with one of the attackers, skillfully keeping him busy with some form of martial arts Kirk did not recognize. She delivered a deft blow to his forehead, but due to the heavy nature of the Amalik skull structure, it was all but ineffective.

The Engineering officer recovered, rose unsteadily and dashed across the deck to her aid. Drawing the distracted Amalik's ornate ceremonial dagger, he plunged it to the hilt into the aggressor's neck, and drew back. The cruelly-barbed point exited the front at a slight angle; the pirate wavered on his feet and clutched feebly at his throat, thick, yellowish blood seeping from his mouth. He peered, shocked, at the gout of gore which covered his hands. He thumped to his knees and tottered sideways, dead.

The two remaining attackers, seemingly somewhat younger than their counterparts, stopped, immobilized, shocked at the violence. Kirk, clutching his side, stepped out from behind the chair, phaser raised in their direction. He said, somewhat pleadingly, "Give it up". He doubted they understood his words, but they seemed to grasp their situation; the two were surrounded by eight, and all phasers were trained on them. They looked at each other, dropped their weapons and showed their open hands. Two of the Bridge crew stepped in and took them prisoner. Security was called up, along with a medical team.

The communications panel on Kirk's command chair beeped. He thumbed the toggle; "Kirk here," he said.

"Engineer Seval here, Captain; we have managed, if only temporarily, to hold this section against the invaders. They are pinned down in a side corridor, but they are heavily-armed. We have also managed to stem the venting of drive plasma, restored marginal power to impulse and the warp engines, and attitude control is back online. It is not much, and it is delicate, but it is functioning. Shield levels are somewhat increased, and should be able to repel further invaders, but they may not hold, and would not survive another barrage."

Kirk smiled; that meant they were okay for the moment, and could safely navigate. But go where?

"Navigator," he said, and the pretty, auburn-haired young woman turned. She couldn't have been much more than Chekov's age, when he joined the Enterprise crew. He watched her swallow, nervously. "Ensign…?" he asked.

"Kilmer," she answered, as firmly as possible, after the last few minutes' activities. "Kilmer…sir."

Kirk nodded. "Ensign Kilmer; we need to get out of here ten minutes ago; we need a place to go. Now. Find me something nearby."

"Aye, sir;" she said, and set immediately to work.

Kirk turned back to the comm panel. "Mr. Seval," he said, "how much warp power have you managed to restore?"

"Not much;" Seval replied, over the intraship channel. "We can perhaps make warp 1.5, but not for long. We will obviously not be able to outrun them."

"Captain," Kilmer said after just a few seconds, "…there's a gas giant in this system, not far from here. Less than three million miles, in fact. At warp 2 we could be there in well under thirty seconds. We could put the planet between us and them."

Kirk smiled and nodded. "Thank you, ensign;" he turned to Garrin,

"Mr. Garrin-" he said.

"On it," Garrin instantly replied, and leapt to the Sciences station, laying his phaser aside.

"I have it," he said. "Gas giant, alright; she's big…much bigger than Jupiter. I'm picking up twenty-three moons. The sensors still aren't functioning properly, but from what I'm getting here, its magnetic field could easily mask us from their sensors; and the gravimetric interference wouldn't hurt our chances, either."

Kirk chewed his lip; "There are three of them, all with intact sensors, so it wouldn't do any good to try to keep the planet between us," he said, and glanced at Kilmer, rubbing his chin; "…but, if we dropped into the upper atmosphere, they wouldn't be able to get a visual fix on us, either…assuming the shields—and the hull—could stand the stresses." He peered at the three ships on the screen. "That would buy us some time."

Garrin nodded in silent agreement. What did they have to lose?

Kirk turned to Bridge forward. "Mr. Kilmer, lay in a course."

Kilmer replied, after a moment, "Course laid in, sir!"

"Engineering," Kirk said, "I want maximum warp power…now!"

"You have it, sir; whatever we have," Seval responded, over the comm.

Kirk looked at the Helm officer. "Go!"

The FLAGSTAFF shot away, slipping into limping warp, and rounding the three surprised Amalik vessels, which fired up their engines, swiftly came hard about, and gave pursuit.

In a few seconds, the gas giant hove into view, tiny in the center of the broken screen, but growing steadily with each passing instant.

"We're being hailed, Captain," the Communications officer said.

"Onscreen," Kirk said, reluctantly. Eliar Markaj appeared, his visage clearly drawn into a deep scowl.

"Captain, why will you not just give up? You cannot escape us, and you cannot win. We have the better of you. Can you not see that?" It seemed to Kirk that he was actually near pleading.

Kirk glared at the image on the screen. "And what exactly do we have to lose, besides everything?" he asked harshly, in reply. "Next time you attack a ship, try not telling them you don't take prisoners. It diminishes the incentive to surrender." Kirk motioned sharply across his throat, indicating for the channel to be closed unceremoniously.

"They're gaining on us," Garrin said tensely.

"I'm betting on their inexperience," Kirk said calmly, hoping it wasn't a bad bet. He winced at the pain in his side, still sore, though it was now bandaged and cared for.

"The lead two; they're firing disruptors, sir," Garrin replied, a smile in his voice. Some of the crew turned at his words, peering apprehensively in his direction.

Kirk smiled, too. Inexperience, it is; he looked reassuringly to the alarmed crewmembers. "Phasers and disruptors won't work at warp-level speeds", he explained, "…hampered by the fact that their energy travels at light-speed."

A ship will actually be damaged by doing this, as they instantly overtake their own energy beams, really, before they even leave the weapons arrays.

Only torpedoes could be used effectively at warp speeds, as they're moving at the same speed as the ship. "Physics is a hard bitch", as Scotty was often fond of saying.

"Explosions on two of the Amalik's ships, Captain!" Garrin reported, excitedly. "They're slowing; their shields are reduced. The third ship, one of the D-7 class, however, is increasing speed."

"Bingo," Kirk said, thumping the armrest with his fist. "Helm, give it all of whatever we've got." He stood and moved to the Helm. "Do we have aft torpedoes operational?" he asked.

"A few;" came the reply.

"Arm aft torpedoes," Kirk said. "Full a spread, as possible. Target the K'Tinga class ship. Let's do our best to keep her out of commission."

"Three torpedoes armed, sir; targeted."

"Fire," he smiled. "Let's try making a bad situation worse." The torpedoes shot from their tubes and made a beeline for the largest Klingon ship. The impact was amidships, and explosions flowered at point of impact. The D-7 class cruiser was closing rapidly.

"Only one torpedo made serious impact, sir," Garrin said. The others impacted on the shields.

Kirk nodded, "But that's enough. They know we have some of our teeth back. They'll be a little more careful, from now on."

Just as he spoke, the comm unit on the armrest chirped. "Kirk here," he said, toggling the switch, instinctively knowing who it would be.

"Seval here, sir; the engines will not take it, Captain. Much more of this, and they are likely to blow apart."

Kirk smiled; familiar words, even in the flat, detached intonation of a Vulcan. He nodded to himself; "Sit on them, Mr. Seval;", he replied. "Stroke them and kiss them; we're almost there." Silence from the other end; he was certain Seval had little clue to what he'd meant. "Bridge out."

Security then reported that the remaining members of the Amalik boarding party had either been captured or killed. Things were back in their control. The ship dropped out of warp, the planet now huge on the viewer.

"Entering the outer moons' orbits, Captain," the Helm Officer intoned.

"Steady as she goes, helm; assume a standard orbit until we can get our bearings, but take us under the upper atmospheric clouds as soon as possible."

The ship passed near a large moon, and the planet was now almost filling the edges of the screen; its atmosphere was a madly roiling mass of unknown gasses—deep yellows, light browns, dark greens and bluish in color, all flowing around each other, yet never, it seemed, mixing—and storms. Lots of storms. Lightning streaked and flashed in the lower atmospheric levels.

"Atmospheric pressures are incredible, Captain; wind speeds exceeding 3000 mph," Garrin reported. "That's as specific as I can get, at the moment."

"Is all of that in the upper atmosphere, Mr. Garrin?" Kirk asked.

"No, sir; it's much worse in the lower atmosphere. We are within the planet's magnetic field; we are likely invisible to their sensors, at least for the moment; they may be able to recalibrate, however, and account for it."

Kirk nodded. He'd take that chance. "Helm, shields at maximum; please take us just under the cloud cover."

The FLAGSTAFF disappeared into the thick, rolling clouds.

The ship groaned, as the atmospheric pressures and the high-velocity winds came to bear.

"Shields holding, sir;" Garrin said.

"We may still be visible…drop us a little further down" Kirk ordered. The hull creaked painfully, but held.

"We're half a kilometer into the atmosphere," the Helm Officer reported. "The Amalik ship probably saw where we entered the atmosphere, sir, we should change position, at least somewhat."

"Please do so, at your discretion," Kirk replied. "Mr. Garrin, please call a staff meeting in ten minutes. All attending, no exceptions."

"Aye, sir;" Garrin said.

Some sectors away, aboard the USS PATRICK HENRY, the Communications Officer's brow furrowed as she cycled, one more time, through what appeared to be, if she read it correctly, a brief snatch of a distress signal from the USS FLAGSTAFF. She turned.

"Captain, I've received what appears to be an automated distress beacon. If I'm interpreting this correctly, it's coming from the FLAGSTAFF."

Captain Thomas Daffin rose from his seat and strode to the Communications console. "Let's hear it, Lieutenant," he said. The beeping sound was incomplete, and faint at best, but was definitely a distress beacon. He scratched his bearded chin, distractedly. "Maybe we should check it out, just in case. Coordinates?" he asked.

She reeled off the set of numbers, and Daffin ordered her to transfer them to the Helm station. In seconds, course adjusted, the PATRICK HENRY was underway, on a rescue mission.

Kirk took a moment and looked around the conference table. His eyes fell on McCoy. "What're you doing here? Where's Doctor Collier?" he asked.

"Well, right now, Captain," McCoy said, "he's elbow-deep in an ensign from Engineering—"

"Ensign Penn," Seval cut in sharply. "She fell ten meters, from a catwalk. Her injuries were severe. How is she?"

McCoy paused, mildly taken aback and ruffled at Seval's overt impertinence, out of place even for a Vulcan. He decided to overlook it, however, chalking it up as concern for a comrade.

"Yes;" he said smoothly, "Ensign Penn. She's holding up; Doctor Collier is doing his best." He looked back at Kirk, "He's working on her now, with three more, prepped and waiting. He asked me to come in his place." McCoy waved his hand casually, and sat back, folding his arms. "I can tell you just about anything you need to know."

Kirk nodded. "Before we get started, it's been a while since anyone has eaten; therefore, this is going to be a lunch meeting. Everyone please go get yourselves something to eat," he said, indicating the food slots in the wall across the way. No one moved, not wanting to be the first. "That's an order," he said. And so they did, albeit reluctantly.

Some minutes later, when all had reseated, steaming plates and beverages before them, he spoke. "Well, ladies and gentlemen," he began, "what is our present situation? Let's just start with you, Bones," he said.

McCoy nodded and, around a mouthful of fried chicken, detailed the high numbers of killed and injured, stating that most of the wounded which could be treated had been treated and were presently resting, either in Sickbay or, when possible, in their own quarters. Surprisingly few, overall, were out of commission completely, and those who could be returned to immediate duty already had been. Both he and Collier were optimistic that much of the remaining injured staff would be back on full duty status, within the next few hours. "Things are quieting down," he said, in closing, "…even after the fighting, when they came aboard. Everybody's patched up who needed it, and could be."

"Thank you, Doctor," Kirk said, and turned, to continue the debriefings.

Seval spoke up, sharply, and again, out of turn. "How is Chief Engineer Ral? I have several issues I need to discuss with him."

The other FLAGSTAFF crew members at the table suppressed awkward smiles, concentrating abashedly on their plates of food, or found other places to rest their gazes.

McCoy pursed his lips at the Vulcan's second interruption of order, and replied, a bit sharply, himself, "Yes, and I'm sure there are several things he wants to discuss with you, too, but it'll have to wait a while longer. He's doing well; he's a Tellarite…you can't kill a Tellarite without their permission." This drew a mild chuckle from the assembled. "He has severe burns, but should be okay in a day or two. Give it a couple more hours, and then you can see him. Is that alright with you?"

Seval nodded once, curtly.

An uncomfortable silence briefly descended.

Next, and at Kirk's prodding, Security Chief Dosh, a largish Andorian, related that all was well in hand for the moment, and that, after a tense half hour or so of fighting in the corridors and across departments of the Engineering section the Bridge, the brig now contained eleven sullen Amalik pirates, out of the twenty-five which had managed to beam in.

He smiled grimly when he related that, despite being well-armed and prepared, they apparently hadn't counted on beaming onto a deck that was, thanks to the weapons issue and evacuation procedures, literally filled with nothing but armed Security and crew. They were overwhelmed rather quickly. Their own losses had not been inconsiderable, however, with fourteen crewmembers lost in the fighting; nine wounded, five killed.

Kirk then looked at Seval, cocked his head and smiled indulgently. "Mr. Seval; you may now take your turn."

With typical Vulcan unflappability, and seemingly unaware—or unconcerned—about his previous breaches of etiquette, Engineer Seval assured Kirk that, while strides were being made in restoring the ship to at least basic operational status, more time was still required.

His attitude was oddly recalcitrant, Kirk thought, even-hell, especially—for a Vulcan. Vulcans had an odd way of being rebellious, yet decorous, at the same time. He saw where Garrin was coming from, in his earlier assessment.

This Vulcan, however, seemed altogether unconcerned with decorum. Kirk had no issue with a problem with authority, as long it didn't directly interfere with procedure or duties. The Vulcan could be as blatantly ill-disposed as he wanted, as long as he satisfactorily did his job.

He also noted that Seval, his hair an iron gray and his face moderately seamed with creases, seemed more than a little on in years, for his relatively low rank and secondary position. Curious. But then, perhaps this had something to do with the afore-mentioned problems with authority.

"You'll have what time we can give you, Mr. Seval," Kirk, plain-spoken, assured him, "…no more than that. And no less."

Kirk wrapped the up the meeting a few minutes later, and excused the staff members to return to their duties. All but McCoy, whom he'd motioned to stay put, and Seval, whom Kirk stopped from leaving the room. He asked him to please seat himself, once more.

Seval gruffly protested that he had much work to do.

Kirk motioned to the viewport, beyond which was the roiling maelstrom of the planet's atmosphere in which they were hidden, and stated the opinion that they were safe for the moment, and had a few minutes to spare.

Seval opted to stand, rather than sit, in clear protest of the intrusion. Kirk inhaled and furrowed his brow, gazing at the Vulcan, and then exhaled sharply. Very well.

"Mr. Seval," Kirk began; "…it's none of my business of course, but I'm curious. If I may ask…why, in your…well, your…advanced years, are you still only a Lieutenant Commander, and an Assistant Chief Engineer? I'm told that you're exceptionally good at your job."

Seval was silent, standing at rigid attention. His jaw worked stiffly.

"Forgive me, Captain;" he said at last, barely above a whisper, "…but I grow weary, and there is much work yet, to do. I feel that I must…get on with my duties..."

Kirk folded his hands on the table, and shrugged one shoulder, mildly. "Well, you don't have to answer, but I was just…."

"As you wish," Seval-knowing instinctively that this one would not let it go-said softly, interrupting. He exhaled noisily. His eyes closed; his shoulders and back stiffened. He sighed again, in resignation.

A brief pause, then, "It has to do with a…a mark…on my record," he said, his voice just above a whisper. "Something which happened long ago."

"Which was?" Kirk prodded.

Pausing, Seval sighed, again; "Do you know of the 'CALLAHAN Incident', Captain?" he asked stiffly, his voice growing a bitter edge.

McCoy could see the shocked astonishment on Kirk's face, but did not understand it.

"You…you served aboard the…CALLAHAN?" Kirk asked, utterly thrown.

"I did," Seval confirmed. He frowned.

"What's 'the CALLAHAN'?" McCoy asked, mystified.

Kirk licked his lips and glanced for just a second at McCoy, then back to Seval. "It was a ship; an old DAEDALUS-class Starship. The 'CALLAHAN Incident' was, essentially, a mutiny. The crew took over the ship. I read a book on it by John Gill, when I was an instructor at the Academy. But that happened…" he shook his head in disbelief, "…that was…:" he did a quick mental computation; "…over 140 years ago..."

He looked to Seval for confirmation on his calculations. The Vulcan nodded, once.

"I thought there'd never been an actual mutiny in Starfleet," McCoy said, nonchalantly.

"Well," Kirk replied with an ironic, cockeyed smile, "…things aren't always as they seem, and as with many things, it all depends on what you want to believe. This was very soon after the founding of the Federation, and the JAG officers felt that to have such a black mark on the record, so soon, would be a little embarrassing. So, in the official record, they very carefully never actually referred to it as a 'mutiny'. Instead, they simply called it an 'incident'; six of one, half a dozen, etc. It's considered by many historians to be one of the greatest miscarriages of justice in the history of the Federation. Gill was among them, in fact."

At this, Seval spoke up. "I would not disagree with that opinion."

His bitterness over the matter was plainly obvious, which, like so much about him, was very unusual for a Vulcan.

Kirk, sympathetic, chuckled softly; "I'll bet you wouldn't."

To McCoy, he said, "It was decided that, while no actual terms of imprisonment would be meted out, they, the mutineers, were invited to leave Starfleet; all rank, benefits, awards and citations were revoked. The few who stayed, it was decided, would be starting over, and would never be allowed to advance beyond the rank of," he motioned to Seval, "…Lieutenant Commander; no matter how long they stayed in, they would never get any higher. A lot of people felt this was unfair; that the crew was sacrificed on the altar of politics."

Seval said nothing, though was clearly in complete agreement with this assessment.

"In fact," Kirk continued pointedly, "Admiral Johnathan Archer, himself, tried to intervene on the crew's behalf."

McCoy nodded slowly, himself, impressed at this.

"To no avail," Seval grumbled.

"In the end, most of them left. Seval," Kirk said, "how old are you?"

"I am 221 of your solar years," the Vulcan replied, without batting an eye.

McCoy grunted and casually sat back, folding his arms. "221 years old? No wonder you're tired."

"How long have you been in Starfleet?" Kirk asked, incredulous.

"The Federation Starfleet? 143 years," came the answer. I was among the first handful of Vulcans to be so assigned."

"So, you've been in Starfleet since its inception," Kirk said, his voice an awed sigh. "That's incredible."

"Well," McCoy interjected, his tone matter-of-fact, "when you're part of a race that, on average, lives to be nearly 400 years old, you can do that. You're pretty much just past what would be considered middle age for a Vulcan, correct?"

"I am," Seval said, in confirmation.

"So, what happened?" McCoy asked them both. "How did this…'incident'…come about?"

Kirk folded his arms and gazed levelly at Seval, and said, "The Captain's name was Paul Morton. Should never even have been a line officer, much less a Starship captain. Graduated near the bottom of his class. His classmates reportedly called him 'Paul Moron'".

Seval glowered; it was quite a sight, from a Vulcan. "He was a weak captain;" he said. "He was indecisive, narcissistic, entitled, ineffectual. To make up for his own personal shortcomings, he was petty, mean-spirited, condescending and vindictive; a glory-seeker who was constantly frustrated by his own lack of competence. He would not hesitate to blame, or to steal credit from, others. He also employed members of the security team as his own personal bodyguard, and henchmen."

Kirk nodded silently, acknowledging agreement with these facts.

McCoy's brow rose in mild amusement. "Don't hold back, Seval, let us know what you really thought of him," he smiled.

The Vulcan ignored him. "We had just, three months before, taken part in the foundational ceremonies of the Federation. We were given our orders for deployment, one of the first ships in a wave of exploration undertaken by the new alliance.

We had taken sensor readings that indicated the Romulans were assembling a fleet on their side of the Neutral Zone. It was well within their space, and obviously just a war game; maneuvers…that much was clear. 'Captain' Morton, however, saw his opportunity for glory, and insisted that they were amassing an invasion force. He ordered the ship to move into the Neutral Zone, with no further investigation, nor communications with or instructions from, Starfleet Command. He didn't even send word to Command; even in his agitated state, he knew what they would say. It would have meant war; especially then, when the Romulan War was still fresh in living memory. Tensions were still running relatively high."

The Romulan War had, indeed, been one of the reasons for the Federation's founding.

"The crew, already distrusting of his mental and emotional condition, balked, naturally; we questioned the necessity, even the good sense, of such an action.

He lost control; he began raving; screaming; ordering the Helmsman to take the ship into Romulan space, so he could meet the 'threat' head on. He even threatened to use his bodyguards to force us to comply with his orders, but even they were hesitating, leery of his emotional state.

He was going to go down in his long-sought 'flames of glory' and take all of us with him, and quite possibly the infant Federation, as well. Too much was at stake. We resisted, as one, throwing him and his few remaining loyal henchmen into the brig." Seval sighed, then, as if he'd said too much. But he continued, nonetheless. "This is how history has repaid us for our stand," he said with dark irony, and indicated his Lieutenant Commander's braid.

McCoy shook his head. "That's quite a story," he said. He looked from the Vulcan to Kirk; "But my god, how did a man like that ever get a command posting?"

Kirk shrugged; "It was a different era; psych profiles weren't quite so comprehensive, and…"

"His family was wealthy and influential;" Seval stated flatly, cutting him off.

McCoy tilted his head upward in understanding. "Ah…'money talks, bullshit walks'. That happens."

Seval, after so many years in the company of humans, plainly understood the context. "That is correct," he said, coldly.

"Yes," Kirk acknowledged, "according to Gill's book, it seems Morton's lineage had always had someone in celebrated uniformed military service, and that tradition was to continue, no matter what. He just…" Kirk paused, searching for polite wording, "…wasn't the right material to carry on the line."

"That is an understatement," Seval grumbled, flatly.

Was that dark humor? McCoy wondered. "How could this…injustice…have gone uncorrected for so long?" he asked, growing mildly outraged.

Kirk cocked his head, resignedly; "The Federation is a big machine, and Starfleet itself, very nearly so. Things and people get lost in the gears; overlooked. It happens…it's always happened; awards and citations—even important ones—go unrecognized for years, even decades. Did any of your other captains ever try to help?" he asked, looking to Seval.

Seval replied, "Morton's family held influence, and a grudge, for many years…and made sure the verdict held. Long ago, one of my captains appealed to the Chief of Staff's office, but it was a difficult time; the Klingons and Tholians were in talks at the time, and were agitating, growing active along their respective borders; Starfleet had…other concerns. Nothing ever came of it. Others offered to help now and again, in later years. Again, nothing. Most of the crew had left the service right after the trial, at any rate; a handful of us remained, but not for long. The others left decades ago. I am the last, of which I know; the only one."

"And after a while, you just gave in and lived with it," McCoy said gently, sympathetically.

Seval said nothing. Silence gave its affirmation.

"Whatever happened to this Morgan fellow?" McCoy asked.

Kirk spoke up; "Morton;" he corrected. "After the trial, and despite the verdict which had exonerated him, Starfleet never dared to let him have another Starship command. They…" he bobbed his head; "…knew the score. Instead, for several years, they just shunted him around to various, relatively menial postings where he always managed to piss off the staff, and in fairly short order. He was still in Starfleet, but not really furthering his career; he was purposely being kept on the fringes, where he couldn't do any real harm. Eventually, he got assigned to a remote outpost in a sector that was under the command of an admiral who knew, and didn't appreciate, the situation. He made life very difficult for Morton, and eventually, he got the message; he simply resigned his commission and left Starfleet, altogether. He bought an ore hauler and worked hard, and made a fairly successful living operating what became a small fleet of cargo freighters and ore haulers, ferrying varied goods and services to the miners, and hauling raw dilithium and neutronium ore. He was apparently a much better businessman than a Starship captain."

"He could not have been much worse;" Seval said. "Anything would have been better."

Kirk looked at Seval. "If we get out of this, Mr. Seval, I give you my word that I will do anything I can, to help you restore your record."

The skepticism was clear in Seval's eyes. "Pardon me Captain, but I have heard words similar to those many times before, over the years. I will…reserve judgment."

Kirk smiled. "Understood. Excused."

Seval curtly bowed his head, and was gone.

"What do you think of that?" McCoy asked, clasping his fingers behind his head.

Gazing pensively at the closed door through which Seval had just left, Kirk pursed his lips in thought. "I think he's been screwed by the system, Bones, and for long enough," he said. "I also think he's a living, breathing, historical treasure; he's seen so much. I don't think even Sarek was at the Founding Ceremony. I'm going to do something about it. I'm going to help him; or at least try."

McCoy grinned; "If anyone can…."

The ship rocked; plates of half-eaten dinners slid crashing to the carpeted deck; alarms klaxons blared, anew. "Now, what?" Kirk asked, and jumped from the table.

The USS PATRICK HENRY dropped out of warp, just before reaching the coordinates from where the distress signal had been issued.

"Helm, ahead one-quarter impulse; steady as she goes…" Captain Daffin said. "Do a full sensor sweep of the area, please."

Seconds passed, as Vael'rd, the female Kaeloran Science Officer carried out the order. "I have a plasma trail, sir;" she said in the oddly-flowing, almost sing-song accent of the Kaelor. "It appears they are venting drive plasma, or were. I am also getting indications of other ships in the area; there is far too much residual ionization for one ship. I am getting readings of a lot of debris, too, sir, but of insufficient mass to be a Starship." She grunted, then, solemnly, and turned to face the captain. "Bodies, sir, floating in space, amid the debris."

"Hull breach, then, at least;" Daffin said, and ordered the Transporter Room to beam the bodies aboard, as they could. "But where's the ship?" He asked, willing the star-speckled viewscreen to reveal its secrets. He chewed his lip. "Open a channel, Lieutenant," he ordered, scratching his forehead.

The Comm officer opened the channel.

Daffin waited a moment, and then spoke.

"This is Captain Thomas Daffin, of the Federation Starship, PATRICK HENRY. Can anyone hear my voice? Respond, please, in any way possible."

Nothing. He repeated the message. Again, nothing. "Helm, ahead; increase to half-impulse." He glanced to the Science station. "Widen your scans, Lieutenant."

After several minutes, the Science Officer spoke up, excitedly; "More debris, sir, but definitely not from a Starship. Whoever attacked, it looks like the FLAGSTAFF took a bite out of them. Probably a running battle," she said.

"Coordinates?" Daffin asked, and nodded to the helm as the numbers were recited. The ship changed course, accordingly. "But where did they go?" Daffin, sitting back, questioned meditatively.

"They're just taking potshots, Captain," Garrin said. They know where we went into the atmosphere, and are simply firing around that general area."

"Nonetheless," Kirk said, "…they've come pretty close; close enough to rock the ship. We need to put some more distance between our position and theirs. Helmsman?"

"I'm trying to keep us moving, sir," Larkin said, "but it's hard, with the conditions outside, and ship in such bad shape."

"Understood;" Kirk replied. "Just…do what you can." Another disruptor bolt came nearby the ship, then another from the opposite direction, and buffeted the shields, rocking the FLAGSTAFF with a little more force than which Kirk was comfortable. "Looks like the others caught up with their sister ship. After several minutes, however, the fire had seemingly stopped. "Take us a little higher;" Kirk ordered. "Maybe we can get a fix on their positions," he said.

"Aye, sir;" The Helmsman said reluctantly, not a little fearful of engaging the enemy at such diminished strength, yet relieved to be taking some of the stress off the ship, and grateful for an end to compensating for the stressful atmospheric conditions. One was little worse than the other, really.

Some little time later, as The FLAGSTAFF drew sluggishly out of the churning atmosphere, they saw that the other ships had moved off, and with some rapidity.

"That was quick; but why?" Kirk said, stoking his chin. "Take us completely out of the planet's field of influence," he ordered.

The FLAGSTAFF moved out of the atmosphere, and as quickly as was possible, put some distance between itself and the planet. It wasn't long before they heard the choppy, staticky hails of another Starship, the PATRICK HENRY, requesting a response.

The Comm officer moved quickly to reply, but found that their Amalik foes were jamming their signal. They could receive, albeit poorly, but not broadcast. And what they heard chilled Kirk to the bone.

"…can anyone hear my voice?" Captain Daffin asked regretfully, no longer expecting a response. Yet it made no sense, because all scans indicated no wreckage drifting in space, and if they'd crashed, somehow, somewhere in the system…..well, either way, a matter-anti-matter explosion would leave evidence. There would be hard radiation and significant ionization, both of which would show up clearly, on sensors. "Can anyone hear me?" he asked, one last time. He turned to the Comm station and raised his hand to order the closing of the channel, when a voice came, quite clearly, over the speaker.

"We hear you quite well, Captain. Quite well, indeed."

And all hell broke loose.

The Bridge crew of the all-too-slowly-approaching FLAGSTAFF could plainly see the PATRICK HENRY, taking hit after hit from the Amalik pirates, which had decloaked to fore, port and starboard. They could see that the other ship had managed to raise shields, however, and was faring somewhat better than their own had.

It was an arrogant blunder on the part of Markaj, Kirk considered, his cryptic message having alerted the PATRICK HENRY to their presence. Nonetheless, three to one were poor odds, indeed, and the Starship was shuddering under the heavy, constant fire from the Klingon ships.

"Oddly ironic," Kirk said, "that they should be attacking that particular ship."

"Why is that, sir?" Garrin asked.

Kirk looked askance, and said, with mild emphasis, "Patrick Henry."

Garrin gazed blankly. Kirk continued, "American revolutionary; 'give me liberty, or give me death'…?" Garrin shrugged, at a loss.

Kirk cocked his head; "what're they teaching you kids at the Academy, nowadays?"

On the screen, the PATRICK HENRY continued to take its pounding.

"We have to help them," Kilmer said, stating the extremely obvious.

"What can we do?" Garrin asked, gazing at the damaged viewer; "…the engines are not even half up to power. Shields are still barely holding."

"Phasers are working, correct?" Kirk asked. The Helmsman checked.

"Yes, Captain; phasers are at 63%, at present. Rising—if slowly, sir."

"How many operational photon torpedoes do we have?"

A moment passed. "We have 14 operational torps, sir…but only one operating fore tube," came the reply.

"Shields?" Kirk prodded. If he had to take them into battle, he would need a miracle. Where was Scotty when he needed him?

"Shields are at 78% and slowly increasing, but still jittery, sir."

"Understood," Kirk thumbed the comm unit on the arm of the chair. A moment later, "Engineering, Lieutenant Ghent here," came a weary young voice.

"Lieutenant, this is the Captain; please inform your Chief that, in about three minutes, we are going to need as much power to forward defensive shields and phasers as you can give us. Do whatever you have to do, to make that happen. Kirk out." He glanced at the Helm officer, and nodded once.

The FLAGSTAFF moved ahead at whatever passed at present for full impulse. Her emergency Captain ordered the arming of torpedoes and phaser banks. Maybe together, Kirk thought, the two ships could fight them off.

The PATRICK HENRY rocked miserably under the fire from the Klingon ships. They couldn't take much more of this.

"Captain!" the Science Officer blurted, "there's another ship coming in! It's a Starship, sir; it's the FLAGSTAFF!" His tone, while stressed, nonetheless showed signs of relief. Another blast shook the ship, and a console on the Engineering station erupted in sparks and flames. The crewman manning that station fell to the deck, unconscious. Other crew members ran to assist him.

"She's hailing us, sir; I can barely make it out; …they say they're heavily damaged, but will offer whatever assistance they can."

"Tell Ed Culler I'll be happy for the help," Daffin said, and gripped his chair, grimacing as yet another explosion rocked the ship.

"Shields are at 43%, sir," the Helmsman said, fingering the phaser firing controls. Twin bolts of energy burst from their arrays in the underside of the saucer section. The K'Tinga class cruiser took the hit and rocked slightly but, suffering no appreciable damage, fired back.

The FLAGSTAFF limped toward the battle; its reduced-power phasers might barely make an impact, Kirk knew, but its few remaining torpedoes were as sound as ever.

"Fire one torpedo, choose a target;" Kirk ordered. His eyes followed the first torp as it arced outward and sensed its target. It impacted seconds later, crashing against the shields of the nearest D-7 cruiser attacking the PATRICK HENRY'S starboard side. The ship rocked, and stopped firing. "Again," Kirk said.

Another torpedo. Another impact, this time amidships, as the cruiser turned to engage this new adversary, unexpectedly returned from the grave.

"That was a good hit, Captain," Garrin reported. "Their shields have dropped by 23%."

The ship fired its forward disruptors at a sharp angle, and the FLAGSTAFF rocked.

"Fire phasers," Kirk said. The double blue bolts hit the cruiser's shields in a scramble of energy and sparkling feedback, and Garrin reported another drop. Another shot to their shields came from the PATRICK HENRY, which had been slugging it out, nearly point-blank, with the K'Tinga-class ship.

"Their shields are down another 17%, Captain;" Garrin turned to face Kirk, "… they're starting to move off!"

Kirk subtly pumped a fist. "Hit them with two more torpedoes, Helmsman. Rapid succession."

The order was carried out. The other ship's shields fell. Kirk ordered a phaser barrage, and the weaker beams nonetheless worked well enough, impacting directly on the surface of the ship's hull. Explosions blossomed across the aft section as it put distance between itself and the fight, moving away to lick its wounds. Kirk ordered one more torpedo to be fired, for good measure, and it was. It was also their last functioning torpedo in the fore section. Any others would have to be moved through the ship, or fired from the aft section.

"Captain," Seval said, his voice choppy over the channel.

"Kirk here; go ahead, Engineer."

"Sir, I have an idea; the warp engines are heavily damaged, and useless now, without the proper drydock facilities. The warp core, however, is still intact. If we could maneuver closely enough, I could eject the core into space. It would go hyper-critical within seventeen seconds, the magnetic barrier would collapse, and the matter and anti-matter would come together and explode. An anti-matter explosion within a few hundred meters of the lead ship would probably not overwhelm their shields, which are still very powerful, but it could conceivably 'shake them up', as the saying goes, quite a bit."

Kirk sat quietly for a moment, considering this novel option. "Mr. Seval," he said at last, "are you suggesting that we weaponize the warp core?"

An uncertain pause, then, "I am, sir, yes…it is the logical thing to do, in this case."

Kirk smiled. "Brilliant idea, Mr. Seval. See to it. Helm, begin maneuvering us closer, forward shields to maximum. Full impulse and aft maneuvering thrusters; squeeze out as much speed as you can."

"Captain," Garrin said, coming up beside the chair, "is that…ethical? Using a warp core as a weapon…that's…" he shook his head, darkly.

"Desperate times, Mr. Garrin," Kirk interrupted him, "do often require desperate measures." Garrin's face registered deep concern, however. "Taking the high ground," Kirk went on, "while always preferable, sometimes only makes you a better target."

"But sir," Garrin said firmly, I just feel that using such overwhelming power against such a small force is…well, wrong, somehow." He was clearly troubled at the thought.

"And you're certainly free to have those sentiments, Mr. Garrin;" Kirk said with finality, indicating that discussion on the matter was now closed, "and they are noted. However, if the effort is a successful one, you'll still be alive to have them. Think about that." Kirk sighed, and smiled sympathetically; "That's what matters. Besides, the shape we're in, we're in more danger here than the Amaliks. You heard Seval; he doesn't believe it'll overwhelm their shields, just…'knock them for a loop'…and maybe that's all we'll need. We're not in that good a shape."

As they debated, Markaj and his massive K'Tinga-class cruiser lumbered back into the fray.

Aboard the quivering PATRICK HENRY, which was beginning to come apart under the merciless pounding, the Communications Officer shouted, "Captain! Encrypted message coming in from the FLAGSTAFF! Text only!"

"Well, what is it?" Daffin demanded.

"'Back away. Now.' That's all, sir."

"What?" Daffin said. Suddenly, the FLAGSTAFF shot past on the forward viewer, raking the big Klingon ship's forward shields with such a burst of phasers as they could muster, and unleashed the last of their torpedoes. The battlecruiser returned fire with all-too-admirable speed, accuracy and power.

The PATRICK HENRY's Science Officer yelled, clearly incredulous, over the cacophony, "They've dumped their warp core!"

Thomas Daffin inhaled sharply as the horror of the thought struck him like a brick dropped from a great height. Uncontrolled matter-anti-matter convergence.

"Full reverse! Now!" he yelled. The starship began to draw away from the battle.

"What are they doing?" Markaj wondered aloud, as he saw the ship backing away. "Fire torpedoes; do not let them withdraw so easily. Ahead, half-speed."

Then, suddenly, the dark universe became unimaginably bright.

Aboard the FLAGSTAFF, Kirk steeled himself as he awaited the elemental force of the oncoming shockwave. Inexorably, it came.

"Steady as she goes, Helmsman," he ordered, as calmly as he could. They weren't going fast enough, he knew. This was going to badly scorch their tail feathers, if not worse. Suddenly, the ship shuddered under the impact of the shockwave, and was pushed roughly along with it. The shaking became more violent as the wave fully engulfed them. The starship felt as though it were coming apart which, Kirk considered grimly, might not have been too far off the mark. The Helmsman was appropriately skillful, though, and rode the wave, weaving along with it, keeping them aright. Things can change in an instant, however. They shuddered again, more violently; Kirk and some others were thrown to the deck. Kirk grunted at the shuddering impact, bumping his head. Garrin saw this, and quickly moved to assist him. The ship began to drift, as the Helm Officer blinked anxiously and shook her head to clear it.

Garrin turned in her direction; "Ensign Larkin! Damn it! Adjust course, you idiot!" He jumped in and unceremoniously shoved her over, adjusting the controls, himself. He scowled at her, deeply.

"Sorry, sir;" she mumbled, eyes downcast. She retook the controls.

Kirk, rubbing his head, observed this exchange presciently and, pulling himself up on the arm of his chair, cursed his advancing age. This wouldn't have hurt near as bad twenty, even ten, years ago.

Garrin returned and assisted him, then quickly returned to his station.

"Hull temperature increasing rapidly, sir," Garrin reported.

Energy discharge which looked not unlike fire, orange and red, crowded in from the edges of the forward viewer, quickly diminishing the star-flecked blackness of open space to a shrinking, roughly oval-shaped point in the center of the screen. The ship, they knew, was being swallowed by an enormous, and expanding, fireball, and in their present condition, the only thing keeping them in one piece was their slack forward motion. Hang on, Kirk thought pleadingly to the ship; hang in there, old girl! Then, at last, the fireball began to dissipate. The black oval grew, and they emerged from the fiery cloud.

"Hard about, helm; take us back. Let's see what's left," Kirk said.

The first thing they saw were two Klingon ships, drifting awkwardly and dark, and apparently powerless. The third, one of the old D-7s, had moved off, probably—hopefully—heavily damaged. It was nowhere to be seen, at the moment.

"Scan for the PATRICK HENRY," Kirk ordered. They found her.

Aboard the PATRICK HENRY, the crew was busy picking itself up and righting the ship's attitude.

The Communications Officer spoke up; "The FLAGSTAFF's Captain is hailing, sir." Her voice was suddenly far away-sounding "...it's…not Captain Culler."

"What?" Daffin asked; "well, who the hell is it?"

"It…it's James Kirk, sir," she replied.

"Kirk?" he asked, intrigued. "Put him through."

Kirk's image appeared on the viewer, distorted by a haze of static. Daffin grinned.

"Well, if it isn't Captain James T. Kirk," he said mildly. "You know, when you came back to Starfleet, they said you'd do anything to get a command." He smiled. "I didn't think you'd go this far."

Kirk smiled back. "I suppose not," was all he said on the matter. "Are you alright?"

"We're a little beat up, for sure;" Daffin said. "But we're in intact. That's what's important. We're waiting on casualty reports. Thanks for the help, Captain. Where is Captain Culler?"

Kirk shook his head, solemnly. "That's why I'm sitting here," he replied.

Daffin nodded gravely. "It's good that you are. He was good man, Captain. A capable officer. Whose idea was it to dump the core?"

"My Chief Engineer; he's a bit of a free-thinker."

The third Klingon cruiser hobbled back into range, but took no action, for some reason maintaining a prudent distance.

As Kirk and Daffin bantered, the PATRICK HENRY'S Science Officer's brow furrowed as she looked at her station's readout. "Captain, I'm picking up some very strong ionization of the surrounding space. Unexplained, sir."

"Hold on, Kirk;" he turned to the Science Officer; "ionization? Is it a storm, maybe?" Daffin asked, moving to her station. "Perhaps a residual effect of the warp core discharge?"

"Negative, sir," she said. "I don't know where it's coming from. It's just kind of…there." She pointed to the console's readout screen, where an uneven blob, displayed in purplish-pink, was visible, forming a rough semi-circle around the blinking dots which symbolized the two starships and the Klingon ships. Another chirruping beep at the station console. Her attention turned to another screen, and she leaned slightly closer, to take a better look. She quickly manipulated the controls, refining her scan.

"Captain, the life signs on the Klingon ships are dwindling," she said urgently. "All three of them."

"You mean they're dying?" he asked, alarmed. Sometimes radical groups would perform ritual suicide in cases like this. The Klingons, themselves, had such a tradition.

"No, sir; their numbers. I'm picking up multiple transporter signals, but scrambled. They're being beamed out. They're not beaming themselves into space, though, that much I know. They're going somewhere, but I don't know where, sir."

As if on cue, four ships appeared, one by one, wavering into view.

"Captain," the Helmsman breathed, touching his console surface; "on the screen."

Daffin turned, and his eyes goggled. There, on the viewer, were four vessels; sleek, predatory, menacing. And large. Very, very large. Each ship bore the symbol of the Romulan Empire; a large raptor, wings outstretched, holding a planet in each of its claws, Romulus and Remus.

"Well, that's something you don't see every day," Daffin muttered.

"Computer reads them as Romulan…Warbirds?" the Kaelorian Science Officer intoned, turning, her voice rising at the end, in question. "No class registry available. No detailed information."

This was because the Warbird was a relatively new concept in Romulan ship design, Daffin knew, only having entered service in the last couple of years or so. Not much was known about it. These few were of the first generation, S'Sh'a'n Class.

But none of them knew that. This was the first anyone outside Romulan space had seen them.

On the bridge of the FLAGSTAFF, Kirk rose slowly from his seat, as he beheld this new wrinkle in the already-complicated situation. His own crew had divulged the same information as Daffin's.

He'd of course heard of the Warbird, but had never seen one. It was an impressive sight, to be sure. The massive ship's hulls, painted a dark hunter green, were eerily illuminated by green and bluish accent and running lights.

He clenched his fists, gritting his teeth, outraged. Romulans. This far into Federation space; hundreds of light years from their own borders; from the Neutral Zone.

"Shields up, arm phasers," he said tensely, the outrage rising in his chest.

"Belay that;" Garrin said sharply. Kirk spun around to face him.

"What…?" was all he could marshal.

Manning his Science station, Garrin stood from his sensor controls, turned to face Kirk and said firmly, reasonably, "Their defensive shields are not up; navigational deflectors only. There's no power going to their weapons arrays. They're making no overtly hostile moves. There's no reason to provoke them, sir."

Kirk glowered; "They're deep inside Federation space!" he insisted forcefully. "This is an act of war!"

Garrin forced himself, his tone, to remain calm, and reasonable. He was, after all, arguing a finer point with a venerated, even legendary, starship captain with vastly more experience than himself, and who had a strong, perfectly good rationale.

"Yes, sir…", he admitted, "…but right now, neither of us, the FLAGSTAFF, nor the PATRICK HENRY-not even together-could muster enough fight to challenge even one of them, let alone four," Garrin reasoned. "It would be suicide…sir."

Kirk glared indignantly at his First Officer for a long moment, clearly fighting a protracted war within himself. He then exhaled, grunting quietly in frustration. He blinked a few times and turned to the screen; he looked for a moment at the huge Romulan ships, hanging inscrutably against the inky stellar background. His back arched as he inhaled deeply of the still-acrid air; he held the position for just a second or two, and released the breath, his shoulders sagging in resignation.

Then, properly chastened, he turned back to Garrin. Thumping the headrest of his chair with the heel of his hand, he smiled softly and said, "Good point, Lieutenant." He paused and, with a smile, added, "…You're not part Vulcan, are you?"

Garrin grinned sheepishly, and not a little gratefully; "Not that I'm aware of, sir, no."

Kirk nodded. "Very well, then; we make no overt signs of aggression, unless they do. But what about the PATRICK HENRY? We'd better signal them."

An encrypted message was immediately sent over to the other starship; Captain Daffin's response was to agree, however reluctantly. They were in no position to fight.

Kirk retook his seat. "Try hailing them, lieutenant," he said to the Comm officer. "All available frequencies."

After a few seconds, the Communications Officer reported, "Our hails are simply being reflected back, sir. No response."

The FLAGSTAFF's Helm Officer had little to do at the moment; he sat watching the Warbirds. They were just…sitting there. What were they waiting for? "What are they doing?" he asked aloud.

"Checking on their investment," Kirk said casually.

"What do you mean?" Garrin asked.

Kirk pursed his lips, and explained. "The Romulans are trying to take advantage of the Klingon Empire's present predicament; they want to destabilize the Klingon sphere of influence. Adding fuel to the Klingon's fire by helping a dedicated separatist group arm itself is a good way to do it, without engaging the Klingons, or us, directly. A little of the chaos spilling over into Federation territory is just a bonus." He indicated the screen. "I can almost guarantee that operatives aboard those ships helped train and supply the Amaliks, and helped them gain access to the ships they used. It wouldn't surprise me, but that they've probably been following them all along at a safe distance, unbeknownst to the Amaliks, themselves. Or by us, for that matter."

As they watched, stunned, powerful tractor beams issued from the enormous Warbirds, enveloping the three Klingon ships. The entire flotilla moved off, and disappeared as they engaged cloaks, powerful cloaks which, extended, covering the Klingon vessels as well, and presumably headed out for either the Romulan or Klingon frontiers.

As he gazed after the vanishing ships, Kirk scowled, and chafed at the knowledge that there was nothing that could be done.

Later, after things aboard the FLAGSTAFF had stabilized well enough, Kirk-under direct orders from the ship's Chief Medical Officer, Doctor Collier, who was concerned with his incipient exhaustion—and with McCoy concurring, naturally—returned, under protest, to his quarters. Which were now in a shambles.

The antique book, he saw, lay face down, open, on the floor. To his dismay, its brittle spine was broken, and several of the yellowed pages had come loose. He picked it up carefully; he would have it rebound, of course, but it would not be the same. His glasses, he saw, were thankfully undamaged.

They would soon be rendezvousing with two other Starships, which would tow them back to the Sol system, for repairs and refit. Looked like the USO tour was off, for the moment.

Going into the suite's bedroom, Kirk dropped heavily onto the bed and winced, inhaling sharply at the sudden, highly-unpleasant reminder that he'd been shot with an Arcturan disruptor. He looked around at the mess and sighed, his mind replaying the events of these last tense hours. He swung his legs up onto the bed and lay back; in minutes, he was deeply asleep. Dr. Collier had been right.

The stubby Fleet tugs met them at the plane of Neptune's orbit, and took over towing them in. Their shifting, orange tractor beams glowed brightly against the backdrop of space and Kirk, along with the others, just sat back and enjoyed the ride.

They would not be going to the Fleet yards in Earth orbit; instead, they would be docking at the new Utopia Planitia facility at Mars. It had only opened in the last five years; Kirk had never been there. Short-range shuttles would then take them on to Earth.

Leonard McCoy stood, one last time, at Kirk's elbow on the Bridge of a Starship. In his private thoughts, he recalled the many times he had stood in this manner, beside his friend and captain; he smiled softly, remembering the gently-mocking exchanges between himself and Spock, with a grinning Kirk often moderating. He remembered the tense moments, as well, when Kirk might ask his opinion, or seek his counsel. They were good times, regardless, and he had missed them. He would miss them.

However, he didn't think he would miss them anywhere near as much as Kirk. If there was ever anyone born to anything, Jim Kirk was born to sit in the Captain's chair. The Bridge was his friend's natural environment, and he was as comfortable there, as most people were in their own living rooms.

Age was a cruel tormentor, it was true, McCoy reflected, but it was also the Great Equalizer. It brought everyone, the mighty and the meek, to the exact same place. That didn't make it any less of a shame, though, to see its effects on someone like James T. Kirk. Some people were special; you could see that they were born to do great things; important, affirmative things…and you wished they could go on doing them forever. But, alas, time and age have their say. That's just how it is.

As for Kirk's thoughts, he was only concerned, at the moment, with getting this crew and their ship back to safety. With returning the dead to their families. Thanks to the intervention of Captain Daffin and crew, all KIAs were now accounted for, and none were left behind.

Though he had not really, professionally, known any of the crew who had been killed, Kirk would write each letter of condolence himself, as a good commanding officer should. It was not a task he enjoyed, of course; no one ever does. The letters would be cold comfort for the families, he knew; but it was his duty, just as it had been the duty of C.O.s for centuries. He feared that more may come of this, than just this singular incident; that more C.O.s might be writing more letters of condolence, before it played itself out. He hoped he was wrong.

At length, he smiled softly, his eyes misting. There, on the viewer, in all their wondrous majesty, he beheld the Rings of Saturn, and he thought again of a long-ago summer evening in Iowa.

"Y'alright, Jim?" McCoy asked. "You look a little sad."

Kirk, mildly embarrassed, shook his head, smiled and wiped gently at his eyes. "No; thanks Bones…just…remembering when I first saw the rings of Saturn. Through my father's telescope…I was 7," he chuckled.

McCoy smiled, too, at this, and the two old friends just enjoyed the moment, the sounds of the Bridge drifting placidly around them.

Kirk pondered, wistfully, that it may just be time to leave his apartment in San Francisco, and open the old house, once again. A nice Christmas at the old homestead with Peter and his family may be just the thing. There certainly was room for everyone.

James T. Kirk could not know, of course, that this was the last time he would see Saturn's rings.

The two Starships were drawn into a standard orbit above Mars, in geosynchronous orbit of the Utopia Planitia facility, just as the orbital San Francisco yards circled above their namesake city.

Kirk rose from the chair, and turned to Communications. "Put me on intraship, please," he said. He cleared his throat; the crew paused in their activities, and turned to face him. Kirk looked around, from face-to-all-too-young-face.

"This is the captain;" his voice echoed through ship. "I want you all to know," he began, "how impressed I am with your conduct in the…former situation. You are all, in my opinion, among the very best that Starfleet has to offer, and I'm proud to have had the honor to serve with all of you, if only for this short period of time. If you are any indication of the caliber of ability and professionalism presently at work, the Federation Starfleet is in good hands for many years to come. Thank you all." He smiled as he switched off the channel.

With that, he and McCoy moved toward the turbolift. Kirk turned, however, and looked to his First Officer. McCoy held his place, and watched patiently.

"Mr. Garrin;" Kirk smiled ruefully, crossing the short distance and extending his hand, "…I wish I could say it's been a pleasure, but I'm sure you understand."

Garrin himself smiled, and took Kirk's proffered hand. "Of course, sir." He stiffened; "Please allow me to say, though, that it's been a personal honor serving with you, sir."

He stopped then, as if carefully considering his next choice of words; he nodded almost imperceptibly, to himself, as if in at that moment having reached a definite decision.

"I…have decided…to switch to a command track, sir. I'm applying to Command School as soon as we get to Earth." He was clearly nervous as he said these words, but he looked Kirk square in the eye. He swallowed roughly, and plunged onward; "I can…only hope, Captain, that if and when I get a command of my own, I can be even half as good a captain as you've been in your career." The words sounded unremarkable, inadequate, to his ears. Hollow, even.

Kirk nodded self-deprecatingly, and said, ignoring the embarrassing compliment: "I think that is a wise course for you, Mr. Garrin. Good luck, to you."

Kirk considered the young officer, for a moment, and then took a step closer, his arms behind his back. The young man stood an inch or two taller. "Lieutenant," he said softly, his tone mildly confidential, "I'm going to let you in on a little secret; something they don't teach you, in Command School."

Yes, sir?" Garrin replied, eager for any information he could glean from the legendary officer.

"There's no such thing as a 'good captain', Garrin."

"Sir?" the young officer replied, confused.

"There are only good crews." Kirk looked away to one side for a moment, gathering his thoughts, then went on. "Command training will teach you critical thinking, and how to properly assess and prioritize information, in order to make decisions…but the asset—the commodity—which is known as a 'good captain', is nothing more than a person who knows—or has learned, through trial and error—how to properly inspire and motivate their crew. And he rarely dismisses their advice, because they're the one doing the job."

Kirk's gaze met the young officer's, firmly.

"The 'good captain' respects their crew, Mr. Garrin, and treats them with consideration and proper restraint…only pushing when absolutely necessary. And even then, again, with a measure of restraint. They, in their turn, will be encouraged do their jobs well, and will then make their captain look good." He smiled slightly. "It's a circle, Lieutenant; always remember that. Do your job, Garrin…and they'll do theirs."

"Yes, sir," Garrin said after a moment, humbled.

He was shamed, remembering his belittling of Lieutenant Larkin, and even though Kirk had not mentioned the incident, he understood.

Kirk and McCoy left the Bridge, just as Starfleet technicians were coming on, to begin affecting repairs. Kirk heard one of them whistle softly as he beheld the damage.

Four days later, promptly at 8:50 AM, Lt. Commander Seval arrived at Fleet HQ Tower One; ten minutes before his meeting. He had no idea why he was being summoned; there had been a personal message waiting when he'd arrived home, last evening. He was to be here, at Tower One, at 9:00am the next day…today. He was to take the lift all the way to the top floor, Suite 21A. Someone would greet him there. If the truth were to be known even as a Vulcan, he was mildly alarmed at the summons…this was the office of the Starfleet Chief of Staff.

The lift took exactly nineteen seconds to reach the top floor; the glistening, polished doors slid open, and he took a deep breath, and exited.

To his right, across the wide waiting area, was an attractive, red-haired young woman in Starfleet garb, her rank insignia that of a lieutenant. She rose from her place behind a large, ornate, antique desk of a dark, stained wood. He stepped with quick caution, to stand before the desk.

Lending to a maritime flavor, the carpeting was a lush and thick sea blue, on either side of a roughish, sand-colored ceramic tile pathway, leading from the lift to the desk. There it widened, and passed beyond, ending at a set of large, wooden double doors he assumed to be the office of the Chief of Staff.

Heavy, comfortable furniture sat here and there, and adding to the seagoing theme, prints of various artists and styles, mostly of old oceanic vessels, were elegantly-framed and tastefully-placed. Paper magazines of several different types were laid out on tables, for display or for reading; which, he could not tell. For all his years in Starfleet and contact with them, human idiosyncrasies still were often beyond him.

Sunlight, mildly subdued, streamed in through the slightly-tinted, floor-to-ceiling windows which made up the three visible walls, dust motes twinkling indolently through the shafting rays. The view it commanded of San Francisco and the Bay was…impressive, he considered, with typical Vulcan understatement.

The hushed sound of popular music came from a small device on the lieutenant's desk.

"Lt. Commander Seval?" the receptionist asked as she rose, smiling disarmingly.

"Yes," he replied, still bewildered. She seemed friendly enough, he mused. She offered no clues, however, to his reason for being there. So, he asked. "Do you know why I have been asked here?"

She thinned her lips and shook her head; "I'm afraid not, sir. I was just told to expect you at 9am. And here you are; even a little early," she added, smiling. He did not return the smile, and she nodded uncomfortably. It was clear that her experience with Vulcans was lacking.

She stepped out from behind the desk, and motioned for Seval to follow. "Please come with me; the Chief of Staff is waiting for you," she said, pleasantly.

The Chief of Staff? Waiting? For him? Seval's mind raced as he felt his age-old dislike and distrust of authority rise, unbidden. Had he done something, committed some offense, of which he was unaware? He resolutely crushed the train of thought, took a breath and calmed himself, and embraced the unruffled composure of the logic for which Vulcans were so renowned. He would clearly know in a moment, regardless.

The lieutenant stepped to the heavy wooden double doors, and knocked.

"Come in;" came a woman's voice, muffled, from the other side of the door. The lieutenant turned the knob, and the heavy door swung inward, revealing the large office within.

The thick blue carpet extended to inside the office, which could best be described as "stately".

The walls in here were wood-paneled, with two large bookshelves off to one side, filled neatly with heavy, leather-bound tomes. Unnecessarily so, Seval considered, as all information was available, and much more quickly, by computer access. Many humans seemed to enjoy and appreciate books, but it seemed to him an illogical attachment in the modern era, when electronic data storage had been rendered as safe as hard-copy print. There were also many of what humans referred to as "knick-knacks"...mostly maritime in nature, it seemed to Seval's cursory glance. More of the same type of heavy, comfortable furniture; two large, wing-backed leather chairs sat before the desk, between which squatted a low, marble-topped stand. A sofa squatted against one wall, amid a set of coffee and end tables.

Weaver had her own heavy, ornate desk, of course, perhaps half again the size of her receptionist's. It was, he knew, centuries old, fashioned from the timbers of some ancient, sea-going vessel like the ones in the pictures in the waiting area. Behind it, on opposite sides and upright in brightly-polished wood-and-brass bases, were displayed the formal flag of the Federation, light blue and star-bedecked, and the Starfleet ensign.

Between the flags, suspended from the wall, a large portrait was hung behind the desk. It was of an older human male in a dark, 20th-century Earth Naval uniform, which Seval recognized from old pictures. "Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, USN", a large brass plaque affixed to the bottom of the frame announced. Another portrait, on the wall to the right of the desk, was of a stout, pugnacious-looking human, also in a dark naval uniform, with an impressive array of medals and ribbons visible. Its plaque said "Admiral William F. 'Bull' Halsey, USN". Other uniformed humans in garb of several eras, occupied other frames around the huge room.

Among these was, naturally, Admiral Johnathan Archer.

There, just a few paces away, stood Admiral Rebecca Weaver, Starfleet Chief of Staff.

Neatly-coiffed hair of iron gray, peppered here and there with the vestiges of her natural brown, she carrried herself with the strength and elegance for which she was known. Her features were sharp, and her quick intellect shone in her eyes.

Weaver had been the Captain of the USS SARATOGA, the first Starship to encounter the ancient Probe which had, some years before, returned to Earth looking for humpback whales. It had caused chaos across its path, and a planet-wide near-disaster in the effort. Weaver was not one "to be messed with", as the human colloquialism went. She saw Seval, and smiled.

Standing with her, he recognized, was Fleet Admiral Norlos Shar, an Andorian, who was Starfleet's Chief of Operations. In the tight little group were several faces Seval did not recognize, but all had stripes, pips and braids on their uniforms, which indicated rank far above that of a lowly Lt. Commander. His well-earned propensity for curmudgeonly distrust of authority reared itself again. He swallowed it, admittedly not a little nervous and uncomfortable in this company, and sought again for the logic, and the calm it afforded.

"Lt. Commander Seval;", Weaver said, extending her arm in Seval's direction, "I'm glad you could make it. Please, come in. That will be all, Lisa; thank you," she said to the Lieutenant.

The receptionist nodded with a slight smile and exited, closing the door behind her.

Seval stepped forward; "Thank you, Admiral;" he said, raising his hand in the Vulcan salute, which Weaver returned effortlessly, something with which humans often had trouble. "…but I have to admit that I am at something of a loss, as to the reason for my being summoned here, today."

Weaver sobered; Seval, like most Vulcans, was a no-nonsense type. Weaver respected that trait, and so got right to the point. Her voice was firm, but gently apologetic.

"You are here, Lt. Commander Seval, so that we may rectify a mistake. A mistake that happened a long time ago, and which should have been long taken care of, already."

"A 'mistake'?" Seval repeated. He now understood, he thought, but was still unsure of his standing.

"Yes, Seval, a mistake;" the voice came from behind him, to his right. He turned and saw Captain Kirk, crossing the floor towards him, accompanied by Doctor McCoy and…

"Ambassador Spock," Seval said formally, raising his hand again in greeting. Spock, dressed in charcoal gray, formal diplomatic robes embroidered in gold Vulcan script, returned the gesture.

Falling in beside Spock was an elderly Vulcan female in light grey robes, her white hair trimmed in a somewhat softer, shaggier version of the severe Vulcan style, and all but veiled by a hood. Her face was lined with delicate wrinkles. She was mildly-stooped with age, supported by an ornately-carved staff of sturdy Vulcan esita wood, but she still carried herself with certain authority and grace. Beside her was a pleasantly-smiling, elderly male Denobulan.

Seval again lifted his hand in greeting, "Ambassador T'Pol," he said. "It is most agreeable, to see you both," he said to Spock and T'Pol.

The elderly Vulcan female nodded once, but said nothing. "...and you are...?" Seval asked the Denobulan.

"Seval," Spock said, "...I would like you to meet Doctor Phlox. He and T'Pol served togeher, a...a number of years ago."

Phlox nodded, chuckled slightly, and said, "...'A number of years', indeed. It is a great pleasure to meet you, Lieutenant Commander."

"Lt. Commander Seval," Spock, folding his hands, said then, "I will dispense with further pleasantries, as there is much to discuss, here, and little time."

"Always the charmer;" McCoy said, half under his breath. "Nice to know some things never change."

Spock shot McCoy a tight-lipped glance. Phlox chuckled again, good-naturedly.

"Bones," Kirk said chidingly, his tone saying 'don't ruin the moment'. McCoy smirked good-naturedly.

From a satchel resting on a nearby table top, Spock produced a file folder, withdrawing a document which he presented to Seval, who took it gently.

"What is this?" Seval asked, looking at the heavy, light-yellow parchment paper in his hand. It was stamnped at the bottom, with both the official Starfleet and Federation insignia. He noticed Kirk and McCoy smiling softly.

Spock once more folded his hands. "That, Seval, is a formal pardon and apology, signed by the Federation President, the leaders of the Federation Council, and by Admirals Weaver and Norlos Shar."

Seval's brow knitted, as he looked over the formal-looking print.

"Your record is being expunged, Seval," Kirk explained, his voice soft. "Yours, and those of your CALLAHAN shipmates, may they rest in peace. All mention of the…'incident'…is being formally removed from your Starfleet record. Any previous awards and citations which may have been removed or withdrawn from your-and their-records will be formally reinstated. Any pensions and retirement benefits will be retroactively compensated to next-of-kin...in this case, likely great-and great-great grandchildren." Kirk smiled ruefully.

"I...do not understand;" Seval said, truly bewildered. "My record is being...restored...?"

"It is;" Weaver assured him firmly, "...by my authority. Now," she smiled gently, then, absently scratching one palm, as was a habit. "…what to do with you?" She clasped her hands.

"We have several options open, and available to us. We could make you an admiral, and give you a posting here at Fleet HQ, where you could oversee engine designs and implementation; you could perhaps teach Engineering at the Academy. Or, we could just follow standard procedure, bump you up to full Commander, and find a spot for you in the Fleet."

Seval, his features softening, did not hesitate; "With all gratitude and respect, Admiral, I think I should like to remain in the Fleet."

He saw the humans smile. Spock folded his hands, his face softening agreeably, as did T'Pol's.

"We were hoping you'd say that...Commander Seval," Weaver said. The new rank, after so long at his former rank, sounded odd to his ears.

"The new ENTERPRISE, the ENTERPRISE-B, is set to begin construction, in just over three months. There has been no Chief Engineer appointed, as yet. As a full Commander, you would be eligible, and you're definitely qualified. Would you like the position?"

"Is that not a...'captain's prerogative' decision?" Seval asked. "Would I not have to apply for the posting?"

A voice came from the small knot of officers standing beside Weaver's desk.
"I've already reviewed your service record, Commander;" the youthful Captain John Harriman, newly-appointed Captain of the ENTERRISE-B, stepped forward and smiled self-consciously, feeling nearly as out of place among these high-ups, as Seval. "I'd be lucky to have you. Where else would I find a Chief Engineer with 150 years of practical line experience? You're more qualified, than I am. And, personally...I'd be honored as hell to have you, Commander Seval."

After a moment's consideration, "And I you, as my Captain," Seval replied.

Kirk wondered if, in those seconds of hesitation, he wasn't weighing the youngish Harriman against his memories of Paul Morton, who had been of a similar age.

"Done;" Harriman said gratefully, and turned to the Admiral. "Admiral Weaver, Commander Seval and I have some things to discuss. If you'll excuse us, I'm going to take my newly-minted Chief Engineer to look over some blueprints. We have a lot of work to do, and time is wasting."

"By all means, Captain, Commander;" Weaver said. "…congratulations, Commander Seval."

The Vulcan nodded solemnly. He then turned, himself, to Kirk and McCoy, his face was soft, relaxed...as close to a wide grin, they knew, as one would get from a Vulcan.

"Thank you, gentlemen;" he said. "This means…much…to me."

"Our pleasure," McCoy grinned, though it was Kirk who had done all the heavy-lifting, here.

Kirk smiled and nodded.

"Ambassador Spock, Ambassador T'Pol," Seval said, raising his hand in the splay-fingered salute, "Live long, and prosper."

Both Vulcans returned the gesture. "Peace...and long life, Commander Seval," T'Pol said.

And Seval and Harriman were gone.

Kirk turned to Spock, T'Pol and Phlox. "I'm glad you all could make it for this;" he said, sincerely. "Especially you, T'Pol, Doctor Phlox. It's an honor to meet you both."

T'Pol cocked and bowed her head in that Vulcan fashion. "And you, Captain Kirk," she said, her voice somewhat wispy. "…I thank you for including us. Johnathan...would have wanted to be here."

Phlox nodded in agreement. "Indeed he would," he said softly. "He fought very hard, for the CALLAHAN crew."

James T. Kirk marveled for a moment, at the thought being in the same room with someone who referred to the legendary Johnathan Archer as, simply, "Johnathan".

"Jim," Weaver said, interrupting, her tone becoming serious. "I need to talk to you about the Amalik." Kirk stepped toward Weaver; T'Pol, Phlox, McCoy, and Spock moved off, toward the buffet table.

Phlox lent his arm to gently support T'Pol.

The things they had experienced together, he silently ruminated. The crises; the things that had seemed so crucial, so life-and-death important, at the time...all, now, just another moment in history. Growing further and further in the past, with each passing instant.

The pair lingered, just for a moment or two, before the portrait of Archer; Phlox smiled wistfully. They then joined the others.

"They have…given us their solemn assurances," Weaver began, her tone somewhat confidential, "...that Markaj and his people were renegades. That nothing like that was ever an official policy of the 'Amalik Resistance Militia', as it's being called. They've issued a formal apology to the Federation, to Starfleet, to you, Captain Daffin, and to the crew of the FLAGSTAFF, the PATRCIK HENRY and the families of the KIAs, and they assure us that Markaj and his people, when caught, will be dealt with accordingly."

Kirk smiled ironically; "Do you believe them?" he asked softly.

"Not for a minute," Weaver responded drily, shaking her head, her voice firm. "You don't lay hands on a K'Tinga-class cruiser and do nothing with it but fight skirmishes; you do something big. Like attack other people's colonies, trying to misdirect blame onto your enemies; the old "false flag" tactic." She crossed her arms.

"We don't doubt that Markaj was following orders; and he was trying to increase the size of their fleet, too, at our expense. You and Daffin outmaneuvered him. The Klingons are of course outraged, and understandably so...but this sort of thing is not entirely unexpected. There's nothing they can do at the moment, anyway. We aso don't doubt that as soon as the Klingons are back on their feet, the Amalik adventuring will be over."

She lifted the mug of coffee on the small stand next to her, took a sip, and cupped it in her hand. "We've increased routine patrols in that region, though; we've added four starships and a heavily-armed, AUGUST-class Dreadnought, the PERRY. Also, the Starships COURAGEOUS, the GETTYSBURG, and the CHURCHILL will be en route after they finish their present missions, all added to the three already assigned to the area, for a total of eleven ships, across three sectors."

"Sounds like you've got it covered," Kirk said.

"For the moment," Weaver nodded. "We'll see how it goes. As for the Romulans, we're certain they were behind the whole thing. We're sure you were right in your assumption that the Romulans helped and trained them. The VENGENCE OF KAHLESS was reported stolen nearly three months ago from a drydock facility orbiting Kronos; there was a Klingon shuttle stolen from Starbase 46 a week before that, and we think it was probably somehow related. As for the Romulan ships you saw, well," she chuckled snidely; "Romulus is of course denying anything and everything that has to do with anything dealing with the matter. We don't believe them, either," she said. Weaver cocked her head in thought; "But the Romulans may just have overplayed their hand; if Chancellor Azetbur plays it right, and with enough diplomatic skill, this singular incident could be used to reunite the Empire. Give all the political factions and traditional houses a common enemy."

"Forgive me, Admiral," Spock said, stepping closer to Kirk and Weaver, McCoy lagging behind him, chewing on a thickly cream-cheesed bagel. "…but it is entirely possible that the Romulan government actually knows nothing about the incident."

"How do you mean, Ambassador?" she asked.

Spock folded his hands and cocked his head to one side; "As you may know, Romulan special intelligence, officially called the 'Tal Shiar', is essentially an all-but autonomous organization, and frequently operates without the direct knowledge of the Romulan government. Instructions are often verbal, so there is no record. Intelligence agencies often operate in this manner, within the concept of 'plausible deniability'. If anything…embarrassing…should come of a given operation, or if it should fail disastrously, the government could then reasonably deny any knowledge."

"Shameful," she said, making a show of vast disapproval. "I'm glad we don't operate like that."

The three old friends and former shipmates, used to purposeful bureaucratic...convolutions, simply stood silently, Kirk and McCoy with soft, indulgent smiles, Spock with the patented Vulcan impassivity. It was plain to see that none of them believed her.

"Yes, well...we don't," she nonetheless insisted, slightly deflated. She nodded, as if to herself. "At any rate, the Romulans created an enormous breach of the treaty. They committed an act of war, simply by entering, let alone actually crossing, the Neutral Zone. Our current president is not one to take such things lightly. He met with the Romulan ambassador as soon as word reached us, what had happened. Smarmy bastard; that's when the denials started. "

"What's he gonna do?" McCoy asked, suddenly concerned. "Take us to war?" Weaver opened her mouth to speak, but was cut off.

Spock crossed his arms, and spoke instead. "Strictly by the terms of the Treaty of Peace negotiated after the Battle of Cheron, we are technically already at war…and they started it. Since this is not an open invasion, however, he has some little latitude in declaring war; he is going to put it to the Federation Council, for discussion. He is to go before the Council tomorrow, and present it to them. They can debate and vote on it. I doubt it will go through."

"Thank you, Ambassador;" Weaver said, a little too earnestly. She was clearly put off by the interruption.

Kirk smiled to himself.

"He's passing the buck," McCoy gruffed, sardonically.

Weaver smiled, if somewhat patronizingly. "Essentially, yes; but he's not eager for a war. He's ex-Starfleet, so he's no 'chickenhawk'. He understands what's at stake. He wants to drastically increase the number of ships and patrols all along the Neutral Zone, and he's proposing trade sanctions, although we don't really trade much, if at all, with the Romulans. He's considering indirect sanctions, on people who trade with the Romulans, then with us. Put pressure on, that way." Weaver said. "And you know," she added, glancing to Kirk, "...we did try to help the Amalik, when they asked."

"Is that so?" Kirk asked, truly curious.

Weaver nodded. "I spent over an hour three days ago, discussing the facts of the matter with Admiral Nogura, having lunch in his garden."

"How is the old man?" Kirk asked lightly.

Weaver smiled ironically. "Retired, officially; but he still has his fingers in a lot of Starfleet pies. According to him, back in 2268, when the Klingons and Romulans were enjoying their brief romance, the Amalik had somehow sent representatives to the Federation, to request assistance in breaking free from the Empire. Then-Commodore Nogura, himself, OK'd a secret operation, sending weapons and a Special Operations team to Adir, disguised as merchants. 'Anything to give the Klingons a headache', he said. They brought with them hundreds of Arcturan disruptor rifles and pistols, cases of Orion-made plasma grenades, and they spent over a week-as long as they could dare, without arousing suspicion-training the locals in tactics and how to use the weapons. The team, knowing they were coming under observation, had to move on to about eight or ten other ports within the Empire, selling more legitimate wares, until the Klingons stopped watching them. They didn't return for nearly four months. The rebels apparently trained themselves for some time after, and when they thought they were adept enough," she sighed, "…they attacked the main Imperial Klingon Garrison on Adir. Thing is, the Amalik were only trained for insurgency tactics; hit and run, sabotage, that sort of thing…not direct combat. Needless to say, it did not end well. They tried to go toe-to-toe with the Klingons. Their rebellion was crushed outright, and the Empire killed thousands in retribution. But, Nogura was proud of the operation itself; of its efficiency, if not its overall success. He said that the Klingons probably wonder to this day, where the Amalik's weapons came from." She smiled.

Kirk grinned softly and shook his head in a non-committal manner, but he was actually mildly annoyed.

He very briefly considered pointing out the irony of the fact that this kind of "black-bag" thing was exactly the sort of chicanery in which she'd just, not five minutes before, sworn that the Federation did not engage. And after all, several of the Amalik pirates which had boarded the FLAGSTAFF had indeed used old Arcturan rifles.

It was a well-known, historically-established fact that such backdoor military assistance offered by larger powers to lesser allies-of-the-moment, does often come back to bite those larger powers in the ass, when situations and political climates change…as it had, in this case, just a few days ago.

He reflected to himself the fact that the diminished, post-World War One German Army had secretly trained the nucleus of their officer corps and what would, all-too-quickly, become the German Nazis' Wehrmacht, on Soviet Russian soil, and with the full blessing and assistance of the Soviets. Less than twenty years later, in 1941, that assistance indeed came back to bite the Soviets in the ass, when Adolf Hitler invaded Russia. Political climates had seriously changed.

Another, later example had been the American government's assistance to certain Middle Eastern government allies, which came back with regretful circumstances, and in various ways. Also, American support of Afghan rebels fighting the Soviet invaders in the 1980s turned sour, as well. Though successful in eventually repelling the Russians, vicious Islamic terrorist forces which opposed the United States eventually arose from the ranks of those trained and armed by US operatives. Some of these elements had, later, even been absorbed by combatants in the Eugenics Wars.

Kirk thought it extremely likely that the Romulans might find this out for themselves, sometime in the future. After all, 'the road to Hell is paved with good intentions', as the old Benjamin Franklin adage went...but there was, of course, no way to know that, while you were paving it.

Kirk held his tongue on the matter, however, saying only "Looks like the Romulans picked up where we left off."

Weaver nodded ruefully. "But that's not all I needed to talk to you about, Jim." McCoy and Spock once again took their cue, and moved off.

"Yes?" Kirk asked. He sipped his orange juice.

She folded her hands, and took a step closer. "This Lt. Garrin; Jim, what did you think of him?"

Kirk paused for a moment, and shrugged. "I thought he was a little rough around the edges, but that he acquitted himself well, in a very difficult situation. Why?"

"Would you consider him real First Officer material?" Weaver asked.

"Absolutely," Kirk shrugged slightly, and nodded. "He did very well under stress, especially for not actually having been trained for the post. He has a natural command ability. In my opinion, he was being wasted, working simply as a Science Officer."

Weaver nodded; "He's been promoted to Lt. Commander, following this little misadventure," she related, "…and has applied to Command School. He's on track to making full Commander, well within the next year or so. As a full Commander, he'd be eligible for Executive Officer aboard the ENTERPRISE-B. If he continues to perform, he should make the grade just in time for consideration. We're thinking of putting his file at the top of the stack, for review by Captain Harriman. What do you think?"

Kirk nodded firmly. "I think Harriman would be damned lucky to have him as an Exec. I know I was."

Weaver nodded, as well. "Very well, then; that settles it. And with your recommendation in his file," she smiled slyly, "...and having been the last Exec to serve under James T. Kirk, he'll be able to write his own ticket for the next ten years. Now, there's one more thing."

Kirk, listening, poured himself a cup of coffee and stood patiently.

Weaver grinned broadly. "When the new ENTERPRISE leaves Spacedock, Jim, we'd…well, we'd like to do a little something…kind of special."

Inwardly, Kirk rolled his eyes, thinking that he knew where this was going.

"Jim…you, your crew, your ship and its missions, have become…well, let's be honest, they've become something of a legend in Starfleet. Hell, in the Federation. We're of course going to have a press junket at the launch, and we'd like you and whomever of your old crew we can have there to, well, to 'pass the torch', if you will."

Yes; that was exactly where he thought it was going. He sighed to himself.

Weaver went on; "Mr. Scott has already expressed his willingness to attend-I'm sure he just wants a look at the new ship-and we'll make sure that Captain Chekov's GAGARIN, and Captain Sulu's EXCELSIOR, will also be scheduled to be home, assuming all is well in the galaxy, by that time. Weaver motioned to McCoy, conversing quietly with Spock by the muffins, bagels and toppings. "Doctor McCoy will of course be asked, as well, and Ambassador Spock, and Captain Uhura; you will all be invited to attend."

"We'll be...'invited'?" Kirk grinned. He chuckled knowingly and sipped his coffee. "Or will this be one of 'those' kinds of 'invitations'?"

Weaver smiled, perhaps a trifle hard, hands behind her back…and remained silent.

"Got it;" Kirk said mildly, resigned to his fate. "I can't speak for Bones, of course, nor for any of the others…but I'll be there," he assured her. "If it kills me…I'll be there."

…And for all anyone knew for almost 100 years…it did just that.

- THE END -