"You are hereby requested and required to repair to Starbase 16, thereby to board the U.S.S. Enterprise and take command of her. Komack, Admiral, Starfleet Command"
"Whooee, Jim, you got her!" Mitchell shouted. "You got it!"
"That's enough, Commander," I said automatically, while the rest of my crew chimed in with more subdued congratulations. I spent the rest of my shift alternating between thrill and terror.
Starship Command. The pinnacle of a Starfleet career. At 31. I almost couldn't believe it myself.
But then I began to receive them. And it made it real as nothing else ever could. The congratulations. Not just from the fellow officers I'd worked with over the years. Colleagues, old mentors, that sort of thing. Those were pleasant. Some were even from high ranking officers, Admirals, Commodores. But all of them paled next to the formal congratulations. The formal notice, never received before, not in quite this way. From The Club.
Everyone said it that way. As if it were in capitals. The Club. Officially it didn't exist. Officially it would have been tacitly frowned upon. An officer is an officer. A captain, a captain. An admiral ranks all.
But Starship Command is different. There are only a dozen starships. Out of the otherwise huge Starfleet only a dozen of Constellation class, the ultimate ship. And only a dozen men to command them, the real explorers, the ground-breakers. There are more admirals than starship captains. Most admirals it is said, and rightly so, are unequal to starship command. They know it too. One reason they tend to treat Starship Captains with a measure of surliness.
One by one these special messages came. Not all at once in a cluster, which made them all the more special as they trickled in. Those from starships exploring the far reaching corners of the galaxy took days, even weeks to arrive, and their headers bore the mute testimony of being held up and shuttled from Starbase to Starbase, ship to ship, punching through subspace however they could.
No one looks at message headers. But I savored these, evidence of how far and from where these good wishes came. Starship by starship. Starship captains all. Everyone chiming in, however they could get through. Acknowledging the newly joined ranking Captain to the ultimate inner circle.
The members of The Club.
Some were merely formal notices, from Captains I had never met, Captains a generation older than me, who didn't know me. Or at least, knew me only by reputation. Starship Captains make it a point to know their own. If they weren't all that familiar with me before, they'd be vetting my service record now. Others were more personal, and offered advice on how to handle the change to Starship Command. The wider scope. The larger responsibility. The greater autonomy. The difficulty of managing a higher, more competent class of officers. The loneliness of the long five year missions on the far reaches of the Federation.
Whether they spoke of it or not, they all knew of that unique drawback to Starship Command. Being one in a billion had disadvantages as well as laurels. And this special recognition from every other Starship Captain was a reminder to those few who shared the position. That you might sit in solitary state on your ship, you might not see another Starship Captain face to face for the whole of your five year mission. But you weren't in it alone. Your colleagues were few, but they were there, and they acknowledged you.
The ultimate salute from one's newly joined peers. The confirmation that you had made it. And would never be the same again.
The Club is most exclusive. It is for standing Starship Captains only. If you become a Fleet Captain with a fleet on active duty, and the starship is your flagship command, you're still in it. Ditto for the even rarer Fleet Commodore, though he technically has a Captain under him. But if you become a land-based Commodore, an Admiral, a desk bound electron pusher, you're no longer in The Club. It's for those who face the peculiar issues of command every day. Real time. "Has beens" not included. Those pushed upstairs are an object of pity, not renown.
When a member of the club is in port, he subtly ranks everyone, even those of greater ostensive rank. Not officially, of course, but in prestige. It rankles those at flag level: Commodores, Admirals, anyone who doesn't have a starship to command. When a Starship Captain enters an office, a bar, a room, people stand back just a bit. Take notice.
When any two or more members of The Club are in the same port, even if briefly, they arrange to meet. It's a rare occurrence, and a required ritual. No opportunity is ever missed. We drink the health and glory of the others, saying the names of our distant brothers, one by one. A honorary muster. And the names of our ships as well, rolling off our lips like a litany, a battle cry, a prayer: Constellation, Constitution, Excalibur, Exeter, Hood, Lexington, Potemkin, Kongo…
And Enterprise. My Enterprise now. And she'll always be mine, for having had her now.
We don't speak of those gone. That's for another time, another ceremony. What we celebrate are the living, the current. Those still on the mission. Unspoken is that they need all the help they can get.
It's hard to get in The Club. Glorious when one does. But it is harder to get out. Usually by way of a particularly messy death. But there are other, and some whisper worse, ways. Being kicked upstairs, for example. A true fate worse than death.
After Starship Command, no one wants to be a "has been". A duncel. Even one with fancy braid. We are not always kind, nor always fair. One doesn't reach this height without a certain sense of the jugular and the willingness to use it. There are no woman captains, no non-humans, not yet. That day is coming, but for now we are something of a type. Type A. Macho. Male humans. Good or bad though that may be.
Regardless of how one leaves, the fact is only one in billions ever gets in the Club. And one never stays in it long. There's a cruel survival of the fittest, here at the top of Starfleet's food chain. You can go up in rank, but after Starship Command, it is all down hill.
But for now? It's all glory. There would never be another time like this. My fellow captains knew it and let me know. Though I knew it as well. We were the heads of the new Roman Legions, the new Alexanders, Caesars reborn, the modern equivalent of those ancient sailing ship Captains searching for the edge of the world, the ultimate expedition commanders who once risked life and limb to reach the poles, or the depths of the ocean, or the boundaries of the solar system. Now the galaxy. We were the chosen few sent to push back the envelope, the ones deemed worthy of taking the ultimate risk on behalf of the human race. All the power, authority that could be mustered in one ship, sent out as witness, as warning, to what the human race could achieve. Here we are. And we grabbed for it and rode it for all it was worth. It was why we were chosen. Because we could.
One by one I sent the formal acknowledgements back. The officers, the crew on the bridge eavesdropped surreptitiously and shamelessly while I dictated them. They knew what they were, who they were to, what this meant. Each name a legend. They knew this was part of Fleet history in the making.
I could see they looked at me differently. As if I had been transformed. Mythic.
I had crossed a line. A milestone few would ever reach. I was not quite mortal.
I was a Starship Captain. A member of The Club.