Title: Honor Code Author: Syl Francis (Please send any constructive criticism to: efrancis@earthlink.net) Series: TOS Part: Rating: [PG13] Codes: Pre-TOS/Jimmy Kirk/Gary Mitchell

Summary: 15-year-old Cadet James T. Kirk, youngest cadet ever to be admitted into Starfleet Academy, experiences the grueling challenges of leadership training, and becomes snared in a cheating scandal.

Disclaimer: Paramount, Viacom and others own Star Trek. This is an original story that does not intend to infringe on their copyright. I only wrote it because I love Jim Kirk, and I've always wondered what his first year at Starfleet Academy must have been like. *************************************************************

Honor Code By Syl Francis

"If I lose mine honor, I lose myself." Antony and Cleopatra (III, iv)

####

Chapter One

"You're to proceed no further, Cadet!" Commander Kopeck's voice rang through Cadet James T. Kirk's headset. "Do you hear me, Cadet? Abort mission! Abort!"

Kopeck's threatening tone bore future ill for the first year cadet. Kirk realized that failing to follow through on the exercise would once again mark him as a failure in the eyes of his classmates; on the other hand, disobeying the commands of his Simulations/Tactics (Sim/Tac) instructor could result in disciplinary action and possible expulsion from Starfleet Academy.

Kirk aborted.

Disgusted with himself for once again almost destroying the one- man simulator booth (What was it? The fourth time this training quarter?), Kirk removed the holovirtual-headset, ran his fingers through his damp, military buzz-cut, and wiped his sweaty face on his uniform sleeve. He took a quick look around the simulator. The smell of melted transtator circuits assaulted his senses.

"Great," Kirk uttered under his breath. Taking a moment to steady his nerves, Kirk opened the hatch and prepared to face Kopeck's wrath.

Kopeck immediately pounced on him.

"What did you think you were doing, Cadet?" Kopeck lashed out. "The Class-C shuttle you were flying does not have the specs to withstand the G-forces you were applying to it. Do you know what would have happened to you and your passengers if you had attempted such a dangerous stunt in real-time?"

Kopeck's six-foot three frame towered threateningly over his much shorter student. "I'll *tell* you what would've happened, Cadet," Kopeck continued before Kirk could reply. "You and your crew would have been reduced to sub-atomic particles!"

Kopeck leaned down and put his face nose to nose to Kirk's. "You're space dust, Cadet! Do you understand? Your foolish grandstanding just cost you your crew! Maybe you don't care what happens to your worthless hide, but no Starfleet officer endangers the lives under his command in order to showboat!"

Kirk swallowed. "Yes, sir," he managed, clenching his fists. He hadn't been showing off, Kirk denied silently. That maneuver should've worked. Why didn't it? he asked himself, confused.

Kopeck was still bellowing. "You're grounded, Cadet! Until further notice!" Then turning disgustedly on his heels, he threw over shoulder, "I expect a full report on my comm-board by zero seven hundred hours! Dismissed!"

Kirk slumped against the simulation room's bulkhead. Grounded! That was just terrific, he thought disgustedly. Grounding meant that he would not be able to participate in flight training for at least two weeks, the minimum punishment. Kirk uttered a word that could *still* bring him a blistering look from his Mom.

Of course, the Academy didn't officially consider grounding as a punishment--it was called "retraining" in the school officialese--but all Command-track cadets viewed grounding as little less than public humiliation.

"Retraining" meant a Command Cadet couldn't cut it.

"Retraining" meant the difference between Command Gold and Special Services Red.

Well, Cadet Kirk, he berated himself. You always wanted to be just like Dad, didn't you? Being a security officer shouldn't be so bad. Dad's the best in the fleet; if I could ever be *half* as good as he is--well, that wouldn't be anything to be ashamed of, would it?

Kirk could almost hear his Dad's reproach, "Son, failure is *not* an option. How many times do I have to tell you: In space there are no prizes for second best--dumb mistakes will only get you dead!"

Dad was right. Failure *wasn't* an option. As he crossed the Academy grounds back towards student housing, Kirk again went over the scenario in his head . . .

####

Chapter Two

"Steady as she goes, Mr. Kirk."

"Aye, sir," Kirk automatically responded. Brother, the simulation was *so* real. The computer had randomly selected Captain Wesley, commanding officer of the USS Eisenhower, as the senior officer aboard. Two other personnel concluded the passenger manifest: Mr. Robert Fox, a Federation attache, and his aide, Mr. Leslie Dupree.

Kirk knew that while the passengers were holograms, they were simulations of real Starfleet and Federation personnel. Kirk had actually met the real Captain Wesley, following the Tarsus IV emergency; the Eisenhower had arrived with the Enterprise and quickly mopped up Kodos' remaining followers.

Running through the during-flight checklist with the holo-Wesley gave Kirk a weird sense of time-displacement. "Wesley" grinned at Kirk, giving him a thumbs-up. Mentally shaking his head, Kirk concentrated on the task at hand. Remember, he's *real* here, Kirk reminded himself. The hologram program simulated as closely as possible the words and reactions of the real Captain Wesley. The same went for the others.

"May I ask what our ETA is, young man?" The imperious voice behind Kirk belonged to the holo-Fox. Kirk didn't turn his head from his instruments.

"ETA to Sigma Alpha Four is sixteen standard hours," Kirk replied.

"That's unacceptable!" Fox interjected. "I must arrive on Sigma Alpha Four sooner than that. The situation on the planet has reached critical mass. The two factions have made it clear that if the UFP doesn't negotiate a treaty within the next eight to ten hours, then civil war will break out!"

"Yes, it's imperative that Mr. Fox arrives within eight hours," echoed Dupree.

Kirk did some mental calculations while he queried the computer about a new ETA that could have them arrive at their destination within eight hours. Both he and computer arrived at their conclusions almost at the same time: Even at maximum warp, the ETA could only be moved up to thirteen hours.

Kirk broke the news to Fox. "I'm sorry, sir, but this shuttle isn't 'specked' for higher than Warp-three. The best I can do is thirteen hours."

Fox broke in. "Sorry isn't going to cut it! The UFP expects me at Sigma Alpha Four within eight to ten hours. It's *your* job to see that you get me there on time! If you had read your orders *before* we left the Eisenhower, you'd have known to put this bucket on maximum warp from the outset!"

"Yes, *your* responsibility," mimicked Dupree.

Fox continued to rant, but Kirk had already shut him out. Fox was right, of course, Kirk thought. If this were a real scenario he *would* have read his orders prior to leaving the ship, and would therefore have *put* the shuttle on max warp for the trip.

Kirk made some more mental calculations, as an idea began to formulate in his mind. His tactical display showed a K-type Orange giant star about two light years to ship's port side. Kirk could discern four planets in the system. He studied each planet's physical data. There! The third one from the star! Its readings showed a mass of 321.28 . . . a diameter of 11.89 . . . and a density of 1.516!

All right! Kirk thought triumphantly. It's almost exactly like Jupiter! Perfect!

"Sir!" Kirk excitedly addressed Wesley. "That star system to port--it has a planet about the size of Jupiter--a little larger. We can use its gravity field to increase our speed and sling us towards Sigma Alpha Four at a significantly reduced ETA."

Wesley looked thoughtful. "That's an extremely dicey move, Mister Kirk. This vehicle's max stress load may not be able to handle it."

Kirk's mind raced. As the shuttle's pilot, Kirk was technically in command of the vessel; the holo-Wesley could caution against taking a proposed course of action but wouldn't give a direct order against it. It was up to Kirk to use his command judgement.

"Sir, it won't be a comfortable ride," Kirk confirmed, "but I believe that a Class-C shuttle should nevertheless be able to withstand the g-forces to which such a sling-shot maneuver will subject it."

"Very well, Mister Kirk," Wesley replied. "Execute."

"Aye, aye, sir!" Kirk excitedly altered course toward the gas giant. As he rapidly input the new calculations into the onboard computer, Kirk just as quickly made the necessary adjustments in his head.

"Beat the computer" had been a game with Kirk ever since he was small boy. He hated the idea that an inanimate object might be able to best him at anything, so Kirk had made it his life long challenge not to let the computer win.

There! This time Kirk arrived at the right course corrections before the computer. The tactical display immediately delineated the shuttle's planetary approach. Kirk activated the autopilot; he could assume manual control instantaneously if necessary.

Thirty minutes later they were in trouble. The computer's voice provided a gentle reprimand, "Warning: approaching planet's gravity well in thirty seconds. This vehicle cannot reach the necessary escape velocity to break away from the planet's gravity."

"What?!" Fox's voice broke in. "What does it mean by that? What's going on?!"

"Good question," Kirk muttered to himself. It wasn't possible; he'd calculated their approach to the last possible decimal point. The shuttle's warp capability should be more than able to compensate for its small mass. What was wrong?

"Mr. Kirk," Wesley's calm voice broke into Kirk's thoughts, "explain."

"I'm not sure, sir," Kirk replied, his hands moving swiftly across his board. He'd immediately placed the shuttle back on manual at the first sign of trouble. The shuttle began vibrating wildly as it careened towards the gas giant. The computer wrested control from Kirk, attempting to right itself and establish a standard orbit.

"Oh no you don't," Kirk snarled, frustrated. He instantly snatched control back from the computer, his hands flying across the board. He had to break them free from the planet's gravity well!

Working from instinct, Kirk fought the computer's override, refusing to hand over control to a bunch of circuitry. Visualizing the necessary angle of approach to bring about the maximum escape velocity through a slingshot effect, Kirk reprogrammed his command console to execute a procedure that the shuttle's builders hadn't anticipated when it was still in the design phase.

The first of the simulator's overloads occurred at this moment. Kirk was so engrossed in flying by the seat of his pants, he didn't notice that the smoke invading his nostrils was no hologram. When he caught sight of Captain Wesley phasing in and out like a badly adjusted holovid, Kirk realized that he'd done it again.

Commander Kopeck's tirade confirmed it. Kirk had attempted to fly the simulator beyond its programmed safety operating parameters--again . . .

####

Chapter Three

"It should've worked!" Kirk muttered angrily for the tenth time as he slowly made his way to his room. He wasn't in the mood to face his roommate, Cadet Gary Mitchell.

Mitchell was a nice guy, and the two had become friends, but there was something about Gary--Kirk couldn't quite put his finger on it, but sometimes it seemed as if he knew what Kirk was going to say before Kirk said it. It was unnerving.

Besides, Mitchell was a bit of a cut-up, and Kirk, still somewhat unsure of himself, tended to take things a little too seriously. As a result, Kirk felt slightly off-balance whenever he was with his roommate.

In all fairness, though, Mitchell *had* proven to be a loyal friend, backing Kirk during a couple of run-ins with a fourth-year cadet named Finnegan.

Stopping just outside the door to his quarters, Kirk straightened his shoulders, took a deep breath, and walked in.

Mitchell looked up from his computer console, wrinkling his nose. "Phwee-ew! You are one skanky-smelling sorry specimen! What *happened* to you?"

Understanding immediately dawned in Mitchell's eyes.

"No, don't tell me," he said holding up his hands. "What is it now--five times this quarter?"

"Four," Kirk replied sourly.

He caught sight of his reflection.

Criminy! Kirk thought disgustedly. I look as bad as the simulator.

Kirk's normally crisp uniform blouse was filthily disheveled; while a dark, sooty smudge across his forehead and down his right cheek sharply contrasted with his usually fresh-faced, apple-cheeked complexion.

"So what happened?" Mitchell asked. "Last go-round you tried to get the simulator to execute a nap of the earth flight path through some pretty rough mountainous terrain. If I recall correctly, Commander Kopeck said that you zigged when you should've zagged. Or was it bobbed when you should've weaved?"

"Yeah, well, at least I managed to get the bogie tailing me to *bob* into that mountain right alongside me," Kirk shot back, entering the shower.

"Sure," replied Mitchell dryly, "and my Mom always says that we should set lofty goals for ourselves." Then raising his voice over the running water, he added, "Your goal seems to be to end up a dead hero!"

Kirk stepped out of the shower, a towel wrapped around his small waist, his compact, muscular build glistening from the hot shower. Briskly running a second towel through his wet hair, Kirk, his back and shoulders proudly straight, walked over to their quarters' single, large window.

Kirk leaned his forearm against the window frame in a deceptively casual manner. The Academy's green, well-manicured lawns and cadets hurrying to-and-fro were lost on him. At fifteen, Kirk was the youngest cadet in the Academy, and the youngest to have ever been accepted. It had taken a special age waiver--signed by his parents (over his mother's vehement protests)-- and a petition written and signed by several senior Starfleet officers (his godfather, Captain Robert April, being among them) to even get Kirk in.

Kirk's Mom had felt that her boy was still too young and immature to tackle the challenges and pressures he'd face at the Academy. She and his Dad had argued long into the night before she'd finally signed the age waiver.

Gazing out the window, Kirk recalled the resounding *bang* of the back door being slammed at dawn. It had punctuated his Mom's keen displeasure, and had startled him awake. He'd fallen asleep on the second floor landing where he'd been listening to his parents' nightlong "discussion."

The Kirk men didn't see Mom for the rest of the day. When she did return, Kirk saw telltale signs of crying.

But the subject was closed. Mom had given her permission.

Maybe it *had* all been a mistake, Kirk thought sighing. Maybe Mom was right. Maybe I'm not ready and should've waited.

"Hey, I can *feel* the negative vibes all the way over here, kid," Mitchell said half-jokingly, interrupting Kirk's feelings of self-doubt.

Then seriously, Mitchell added, "Despite what you're obviously thinking, you *do* belong here, Jimmy--" He paused as if to gauge the effect his words were having, then added grinning, "--snot-nosed, squirrelly little farm-boy that you are."

Mitchell ducked quickly, Kirk's wet towel narrowly missing him. Chortling, Mitchell scrambled to the door before Kirk, also chuckling, could rearm.

As the door closed behind him, Mitchell called back, "Hey, hurry up and get dressed, willya? So's we can get something to eat before that fathead Nasta has a chance to get it all! I'll meetcha downstairs!"

####

Later that evening, Kirk sat back reflectively. So *that's* why it didn't work. I can't believe it; they programmed a graviton anomaly into the planet's physical make-up--it looks like Jupiter, it rotates like Jupiter, it even has the same number of moons as Jupiter, but, Cadet Dunsel, it ain't Jupiter! No wonder he was caught off guard--he hadn't paid attention to the readings the computer had been giving him. The computer said "graviton anomaly"; Kirk read "shortcut to Sigma Alpha Four."

Brother, what an *idiot*! I'll be lucky if Kopeck ever let's me *near* the simulator booth again.

Okay, Cadet, dumb mistakes will only get you dead! And no matter *what* Gary thinks, I have no *intention* of going out in a "fiery plume," as Dad would say. No sirree, George and Winona's little boy is gonna die of a ripe old age--in bed, surrounded by crying grandchildren.

Dad always says that there're an infinite number ways of getting killed in space--a leader's job is to find an infinite number of ways to *avoid* it, though.

"Trust your instincts, son," Dad had advised him when Kirk received his Academy acceptance notice, "but know your limitations-- both physically and mentally. Remember: the best pilot in the universe is only as good as his training; while the finest starship is only as good as its crew.

"Don't forget that Starfleet is all about teamwork--trust your crew to know their jobs, trust your equipment to do what it was designed to do--and then some," Dad added, smiling, "--but check everything--and then check again. Leave *nothing* to chance.

"*Any* organization can do a lot of things well; but only those things which the boss checks will ever get done *exceptionally* well. The loose screw in your warp core may be the difference between bringing your crew home or going out in a fiery plume."

Kirk smiled warmly at the remembrance, carefully holding the holocube of his parents, his only desk ornament, between his fingertips.

"Thanks, Dad," he whispered. "Next time--if there *is* a next time--things are gonna be different." Kirk intently studied his father's image. "No more taking chances with the equipment or the lives of the crew. From here on, the standard is to accomplish the mission *and* to bring the ship and crew home."

The next morning, unknown to Kirk at the time, his chance came.

####

Chapter Four

"I hear that Kopeck caught Merrick red-handed," Mitchell whispered, leaning forward conspiratorially.

For once the breakfast table conversation didn't revolve around Cadet Michael ("Nasty") Nasta's latest romantic high jinks. Instead, the four first year cadets were discussing the first cheating scandal in the Academy's history.

It was as if the famous San Andreas Fault which ran underneath the Academy complex had suddenly become active and commenced sending seismic waves across Starfleet, rocking its very foundation.

Just about everybody in the Federation must've heard about it by now, Kirk thought bleakly.

Senior Cadet R. M. Merrick, ranked in the bottom quarter of his class, had been caught hacking into the Academy's Master Duotronics Unit. Merrick had been downloading the Starfleet Academy War Fighter Simulation Tactics Exercise.

War Fighter was the final tactics exam all fourth year Command Track cadets had to pass in order to qualify for the Academy training cruise: literally a maker or breaker of fledging careers.

The Commandant's Honor Panel had convened within the week, and soon thereafter six other cadets, all seniors, had also been brought in for questioning.

"I don't get it," said Nasta. "Don't you need some kinda super- high computer rating to be able to bust the MDU code? I mean--and excuse me for saying this--but Merrick's hardly a computer whiz!"

Nasta emphasized his point by waving his glass of milk, spilling most of its contents all over Mitchell's eggs. Grinning sheepishly at Mitchell, he apologized, "Sorry."

Mitchell sighed and tried to salvage what he could of his ruined breakfast.

"Besides," Nasta continued, "I thought the Academy's system had double and triple shielding to *prevent* hacking. Not to mention requiring a retinal scan, handprint . . . a blood sample."

Their third companion, Cadet Eric ("Zinc") Macudzinksi snorted at this last. "Honestly, Nasty, you *do* kill me sometimes. 'Course, in *your* case, they'd probably require a sperm sample--which shouldn't prove too difficult!"

"It's not that hard," Kirk said dismissively.

The others turned to him, startled; Nasta with feigned outrage. Kirk rarely joined in on his friends' cruder discussions.

"Out of the mouth of babes--!" Nasta sputtered.

"--I *meant* breaking the code," Kirk interrupted, shaking his head disgustedly at his table companions. "Don't you three losers *ever* think of anything besides sex?"

"No," Nasta replied, shrugging his shoulders.

"Of course, we do, Jimmy-boy," Macudzinksi broke in, smacking Nasta upside the head. "But there just ain't nothing else on this here God's green Earth that's quite as important as procreation. Why we are merely following His own commandment to go forth and multiply."

Mitchell and Nasta solemnly nodded their heads in pious agreement. Kirk rolled his eyes upward.

Grinning at his roommate's long-suffering look, Mitchell asked seriously, "Jimmy, you were going to tell us about breaking computer codes?"

Kirk had a T-4 computer rating, one of the highest in his class. The others respected his expertise and listened with varying degrees of attentiveness.

Nasta's eyes, of course, kept wandering around the First Year Cadet Mess checking out the female cadets. Kirk could almost hear Nasta's mental calculations: I want *that* one, and *that* one . . ."

Kirk shrugged, "We broke into the Tarsus Four government's MDU in about three seconds. Of course, that cheesy system didn't have as many safeguards as the Academy's MDU, but really, all it takes is a little know-how and a lot of determination."

Pausing, Kirk looked thoughtful.

"But, and I know I'm gonna hate myself for admitting this," he said pointing his chin in Nasta's direction, "Nasta's right. Merrick *doesn't* have the know-how to break into the MDU. Someone, with a much higher rating than any of us, had to help him."

The others looked lost in their ruminations as they let this information sink in.

"Anyway, like I said, if you're desperate enough, like we were on Tarsus Four, you're bound to do just about anything--even crazy stuff like attack a superior well-armed, well-trained force, break into high security areas, hack into a government's secure computer systems."

"Yeah, but, Jimmy-boy, that was just plain different," broke in Macudzinksi, his prominent west Texas drawl causing Kirk to smile inwardly. "Ya'll had to do that in order to survive. I can't even begin to imagine what Tarsus Four must've been like. But *this*? Boy- howdy, I mean we all took an oath now, didn't we?"

The four heads all nodded in acquiescence. During the Academy's official swearing-in ceremony, each cadet took an oath to "Neither lie, cheat, nor steal; nor tolerate those who do." It was the bedrock foundation of the Academy's Honor Code.

A cadet who was found guilty of violating the Code was automatically expelled. Therefore, the student body was shocked by the scandal and abuzz with rumors.

To complicate matters, Cadet Merrick, terrified of going down alone, had immediately started naming names. Those brought in for questioning were all facing possible expulsion and disgrace.

The cheating ring was expanding like ripples in a pond--more were expected to be snared in its undertow.

Any cadet who'd had so much as an *inkling* of wrongdoing, but had failed to report it, was considered just as guilty as those who had actually been involved.

"Personally," Mitchell said, grimacing as he chewed his soggy toast, "if those brought in for questioning *are* guilty--" he swallowed, and looking pointedly at Nasta, disgustedly tossed the remainder of his ruined toast on his tray, "--then I think they deserve expulsion."

The others nodded in agreement.

Still, Kirk wondered privately, what pressures must those students have all been under to feel the need to resort to violating their oath?

Certainly Cadet Merrick must have been desperate. Ranked at the near bottom of his class, Merrick at best had been faced with the probability of being recycled through the last four training quarters- -the toughest in the Academy. At worst, he had faced the grim possibility of failing and being dropped--four years of study and struggle wasted.

Now, Merrick faced expulsion and disgrace. "Cadet Kirk!"

Kirk quickly looked up from his reminisces. A fourth-year cadet-- second only to God as far as the first year students were concerned-- was addressing him. Kirk immediately jumped up, ramrod-straight.

"Yes, Sir!" Was that a *squeak* in his voice? Oh, please, tell me that wasn't a squeak, Kirk silently pleaded. When was his voice going to finally settle down?

Kirk glimpsed a fleeting look of amused pity, instantly dampened, in Mitchell's eyes. Kirk's table companions all lay their forks down at once and stared straight ahead. Their fear was mixed with an almost palpable relief in not being the subject addressed. "So, *you're* the infamous simulator demon," the senior cadet said curiously.

Kirk immediately recognized her as Senior Cadet Commander V. C. Delaney. She and another senior cadet were currently neck and neck for Honor Graduate. Scuttlebutt had it that she'd probably be the first female starship captain.

Delaney walked around Kirk inspecting him as if studying a particularly gruesome specimen. "So what is it now, Cadet Kirk? Five times this training quarter?"

Kirk wanted to turn invisible. Did *every*body know? He heard a noise that sounded like a snort coming from Mitchell's direction. Unclenching his teeth, Kirk corrected her succinctly, "Four."

"I see." Kirk sneaked a peek at her and realized that she was giving Mitchell an almost sleepy look of boredom, a snake sizing its prey. Uh-oh.

Delaney finally came to a rest in front of Kirk, her hands held easily behind her back. She fixed him with her signature icy blue stare, a look that had been sending shivers down the spines of the first year cadets since their initial arrival on campus. "At ease, Cadet, I'm not gonna bite you."

Relaxing a bit, Kirk became aware that Delaney stood almost eye to eye with him. He enjoyed a moment's illogical delight in discovering that he held the height advantage, though not by much.

Kirk also noticed a light smattering of freckles across the bridge of Delaney's slightly upturned nose. He found himself transfixed by the fascinating manner in which her raven black hair reflected the ceiling lights when she moved her head just so, how it framed her lovely heart-shaped face.

However, Delaney's next words quickly dispelled the moment, infusing Kirk with a sick feeling in the pit of his stomach.

"You're wanted in the Office of the Commandant--ASAP!"

The senior cadet paused for Kirk's reaction, cocking her head to one side, obviously relishing her role as arbiter of bad news.

"Well? What are you waiting for? Snap-to! The Commandant isn't in the habit of being kept waiting!"

####

Chapter Five

Kirk took off, dodging around classmates and narrowly missing at least one command grade officer. Looking back for a split second, Kirk saw that Mitchell had now become Delaney's latest object of interest.

No running, Cadet, Kirk kept repeating in his head; that's automatically ten demerits. Yeah, well, tell that to my feet, he replied. What a stupid rule, Kirk lamented again. No running--as if no one in Starfleet ever runs during an emergency.

The rule was designed to force cadets to utilize their time wisely. This way they always had to allot themselves the necessary amount of time needed to walk to and from classes. Cadets caught running were assumed to be derelict in their time budgeting and were given suitable punishment (or, rather, "extra-training" as it was called).

Lately, Kirk found himself leaving his quarters earlier and earlier each morning, then forcing himself to begin his return trip sooner in order to arrive before the 2330-hour curfew. Returning to his quarters on time was all the more difficult because it meant Kirk had to discipline himself to accomplish all of his remedial simulator training within the small window of "free time" that he had.

What could the Commandant possibly want with him, Kirk wondered? Could it be the simulator booth? His recent grounding? Both? I'm really in for it now.

Kirk had a sudden shocking thought. She doesn't think *I'm* part of this scandal, does she? Oh, boy, Kirk thought, slowing down to a stop. If the Commandant was calling him in for questioning . . . but he didn't *know* anything . . . firsters, i.e., first year cadets, were considered little better than pond scum by the upper classmen. They didn't exactly hang out in the same social circles.

What am I thinking? Kirk berated himself. The Commandant herself wouldn't be seeing him if this were about the cheating scandal. The Honor Committee would've had two members of the faculty bring him in; furthermore, the committee would've handled the summons privately. The days of public humiliation, or branding, were long gone.

So, what could Cat-Lore possibly want to see *me* for, Kirk wondered again.

Kirk stopped outside the door to the Academy's main administrative building. The panorama that spread out before him never ceased to take his breath away. Located in the old Presidio of San Francisco, Starfleet Academy boasted one of Earth's most awe-inspiring views: the Golden Gate Bridge.

This amazing feat of twentieth-century engineering still impressed the first-time visitor, including at least one farm boy from Iowa, Kirk thought. And, the Commandant's headquarters were located within the shadow of the bridge.

RHIP, Kirk thought philosophically. Rank has its privileges.

Taking a moment to straighten his tunic, Kirk walked up to the headquarters' threshold and awaited identification.

"Step forward for retinal scan," the pleasant computer voice requested. Kirk did so.

"Identification confirmed. Cadet Kirk, James T., currently enrolled in first year fourth training quarter. Please enter."

"Thanks," Kirk muttered, stepping through the outer pneumatic doors.

The building architects had also had the spectacular vista of San Francisco Bay in mind when they designed the first floor lobby of transparent aluminum, allowing visitors to be swept away by the spectacular beauty that lay in such close proximity.

Kirk forced himself not to gape. Instead he reported in a brisk military manner to the lieutenant manning the front desk.

"Excuse me, sir," Kirk stated, in as no nonsense a tone as he could muster, "I'm supposed to report to the Commandant's office."

"Name?" the young lieutenant gave Kirk a friendly smile.

"Cadet James T. Kirk."

"Ah, yes. Cadet Kirk," she looked at her appointment schedule and nodded her head. Looking up she said frowning, "You're five minutes late, Cadet Kirk. You were supposed to report at zero seven-ten hundred hours. It is now zero seven-fifteen. I hope for your sake you have a good explanation."

Holding her hand up to forestall any excuses, she continued, "Not to me, Cadet Kirk . . . to the Commandant. Wait one, please." The young officer turned momentarily to signal her comm-unit. Five seconds later, a female yeoman materialized.

"Yeoman Lake, please escort Cadet Kirk to the Commandant's office."

"Yes, sir. This way please." Lake quickly led Kirk through the first floor lobby towards the lifts. When they entered, she crisply commanded, "Commandant's Office," and the lift immediately rose.

Neither Kirk nor the yeoman looked at each other for the duration of the fifteen-second trip. Instead, Kirk found himself concentrating on the numbers as the floors whizzed by. He could just discern the faintest scent from Lake's perfume.

Jasmine, Kirk identified. It reminded him of the warm late spring breezes back home gently carrying the fragrance of the flowering Star Jasmine bush, which grew right outside the front windows, its vines spreading up the front porch trellis, the hum of bees in soft accompaniment.

Before Tarsus IV, Kirk had never been interested in girls. While there, he met an older girl, Amavia, and fell in love for the first time. She died tragically in his arms, another victim of Kodos' Enlightened Proclamations.

The year following his terrifying experience on Tarsus IV, Kirk couldn't bring himself to even think of another girl. Lately, though, Amavia's memory wasn't quite as painful as before, and despite his teasing jibes at his friends' obsession with the opposite sex, Kirk had indeed started to take notice of some of the female cadets.

Unfortunately, being the youngest cadet on campus had a distinct disadvantage: namely none of his female classmates would be caught dead with him. Something about "robbing the cradle," Mitchell had explained. It didn't matter, though, since so far none of them had interested Kirk. In other words, none of them was Amavia.

Still, Kirk caught himself noticing subtle details about the "fairer sex" that he'd never bothered with before, such as the subtle fragrance of a girl's perfume, the toss of her head, her smile . . . freckles across the bridge of a slightly upturned nose.

Unfortunately, these details seemed to hit him at the most inopportune times, such as now, on a lift, on his way to the Commandant's office. Down boy, Kirk cautioned; crew women are strictly off limits.

. . . Or while standing at attention and being dressed down by the Senior Cadet Commander . . .

####

Chapter Six

"You're late, Cadet."

Kirk stopped in mid-stride, then slowly made a ninety-degree turn. It couldn't be . . . impossible! But there she was--Senior Cadet Commander V. C. Delaney striding purposefully towards him from an adjacent corridor. How did she *do* that? Kirk wondered, open-mouthed.

Delaney momentarily dropped her mask and gave the younger cadet a fleeting look of amusement, then quickly squelched it. It was there and gone so suddenly that Kirk blinked, unsure if he'd actually seen a smile.

Snapping to attention, Kirk sounded off, "No excuse, Sir!" even though Delaney hadn't given him an actual time for reporting to the Commandant.

"Let's go. We're expected," Delaney answered instead. Kirk fell in step with her, wondering if he'd ever look and feel as coolly confident as she appeared. How did she beat me here? Kirk asked himself again.

Reaching the end of the corridor, Delaney led Kirk into a large comfortable reception area, the Commandant's outer office. Delaney briskly approached the Aide-de-camp and reported for the both of them.

"Cadets Delaney and Kirk reporting to the Commandant as ordered, sir."

"Very good, Cadet Delaney . . . Cadet Kirk," the aide murmured. A nameplate on his desk identified him as Commander Hightower. "Please wait one." He turned to his comm-unit, then looked up. "The Commandant is ready for you. Please go right in."

"Yes, sir!" The two cadets replied simultaneously.

####

Both cadets strode crisply into the Commandant's office, with Delaney leading the way. They stopped exactly three feet in front of Commodore Katherine Lorraine's desk, standing rigidly at attention. Again, Delaney reported for the both of them.

"Sir, Cadets Delaney and Kirk reporting to the Commandant as ordered!"

"At ease, Cadets," responded Lorraine pleasantly. Then standing in a smooth, almost cat-like motion, Lorraine walked around her desk and shook both cadets' hands in turn.

Indicating a conference table with padded seats, Lorraine invited them to sit. Delaney appeared coolly businesslike; Kirk awe-struck.

As Commodore Lorraine spoke, Kirk studied her with an intensity that he only reserved for those topics that were of particular interest to him.

Commodore Katherine Lorraine (called "Cat-Lore," a nickname she picked up while a student at the Academy) was a highly decorated officer, a veteran of the Orion Belt campaigns.

Kirk's Dad used to hold his younger son spell-bound with bedtime stories about Cat-Lore Lorraine, the beautiful heroine who'd fought alongside Fleet Captain Garth of Izar, as his senior helmsman and Third Officer aboard the USS Armstrong.

Indeed, Lorraine's exploits, as well as those of Captain Garth, were required reading at the very Academy where she now served as its first female Commandant.

Lorraine's personal heroism and bravery under fire had saved the Armstrong and her crew when both the Captain and First Officer were incapacitated during a particularly brutal battle against Orion pirates.

Kirk couldn't understand why Starfleet never gave Commodore Lorraine her own command. If it hadn't been for her actions, her bravery under fire and cool leadership, the Armstrong might not have survived that fateful battle with the Orion raiders.

Lorraine's grim determination to halt the Orion advance had galvanized the Armstrong's stunning counteroffensive against six-to- one odds.

When the figurative dust finally settled, as Kirk recalled, the Armstrong had successfully destroyed the last of the Orion pirate- strongholds, delivering a crippling blow to the slave-traders from which the Orion ruling dynasty never quite recovered.

The Federation still had problems with Orion renegades, but now at least, most of the star systems in the Orion constellation were members of the Federation, and their current rulers wanted law and order to finally settle in their region of space--or so they claimed.

Kirk wasn't so sure. It just seemed to him that the Orion Belt governments were protesting too much. Sounded fishy.

As the Commodore began the meeting, Kirk watched her closely. There were few women to whom Kirk looked up--his Mom, of course, but then she'd probably haul off and pound him with a two by four if he so much as talked back to her--and this woman sitting across the conference table from him.

Kirk's eyes turned surreptitiously towards Delaney who was sitting next to him. If truth were told, Kirk also thought that Delaney represented the Academy's best leadership qualities, and he had consciously tried to model his behavior on her example.

So far, Kirk admitted to himself, he'd fallen short of the mark; however, he'd forced himself to turn each mistake into a learning experience, and of course, had tried not to repeat any.

Then there was the simulator! Kirk groaned inwardly. Had there ever been any other cadet in the history of the Academy who'd crashed the system as often he had?

Will I ever make it *through* Sim/Tac, Kirk wondered, and actually get to see the inside of a *real* shuttle?

Mentally shaking his head, Kirk concentrated on what Commodore Lorraine was saying. Had he heard correctly? Kirk blinked his eyes. The Commodore and Delaney were looking at him expectantly. Kirk struggled to get words out.

"Uh, what . . . I--I'm not sure I understand, sir," Kirk finally managed. He caught Delaney's fleeting looking of mild distaste. She must have heard the same thing I did, Kirk thought.

"What don't you understand, Cadet Kirk?" Commodore Lorraine asked patiently. Was that a twinkle in her eye? Kirk wasn't sure.

"I'm assigning Cadet Delaney to act as your senior cadet mentor. This isn't a new thing. A fourth year cadet mentoring junior cadets was an established tradition at the academy when I went through. I, myself, was mentored my first year by a senior cadet.

"Our motto back then had been 'Cooperate and Graduate.' Mentoring helped me through some tough times while I was an underclassman. Then when *I* became a mentor, the added responsibility bolstered me to encourage my charges to succeed when *they* were going through hard times and felt like giving up.

"Unfortunately, mentoring has largely fallen into disuse over the years," Lorraine said regretfully. "Oh, the older cadets still help the younger ones--when it suits them. But the spirit of mentoring-- that of an experienced leader acting as a role model for a junior--has been lost for the most part.

"The atmosphere in the Academy has also changed since my cadet days. There is a deliberate separation of the classes--you even eat in segregated mess halls." Lorraine sighed.

"I know . . . some of these policies occurred over a period of time in order to *protect* the lower forms from the upper classmen. There was even a dark period some years ago of hazing--one first year cadet even died as a result.

"I'm afraid Starfleet's solution basically amounted to what my grandmother used to describe as 'throwing the baby out with the bath water.'

"In other words," Lorraine explained, "the solution was as bad as the problem.

"This scandal is a prime example of why cadets *need*, not only role models from within their own ranks, but also to socialize between the various classes.

"Furthermore, the artificial atmosphere of non-fraternization between higher and lower classes--even to the point of disallowing platonic friendships--is much too extreme. It may even have exacerbated the situation. Besides, you cadets aren't being prepared for the reality of close-quarters living onboard ship."

Lorraine looked at her two fascinated charges and smiled apologetically.

"We feel that the current scandal is an unnecessary black mark on the Academy's record. It might have been circumvented if these young men and women had had someone to whom they could've gone for proper guidance.

"Or, if those involved had been role models for others, then, perhaps the responsibility of having others look up to them might have prevented them from violating their oath.

"Their oath," Lorraine repeated shaking her head sadly. "There is nothing more important than an officer's oath. Each decision made onboard ship can result in injury or loss of life. No Starship Captain wants an officer whom he can't trust on his ship. As soon as this scandal broke, we began receiving urgent sub-space messages from all quadrants.

"In light of the urgency, the senior faculty and staff all agree that it's high time we brought mentoring back." Lorraine paused and smiled. "In fact, you two are not the only pairings--just the first. I called you both in because you'll be the model for the others. For one week you'll be on display, so to speak--a sort of simulation."

Kirk grimaced at the word.

Grinning sympathetically at her youngest cadet's obvious discomfort, Lorraine encouraged, "Don't worry about your performance, so far, Cadet Kirk. I assure you--in case you've been wondering--you *don't* hold the record for the most wipeouts in a training cycle."

No? Kirk wondered. Then who? Lorraine smiled enigmatically at the obvious question in his eyes.

"That's all, Cadets," Lorraine said standing; Kirk and Delaney immediately rose, snapping to attention. "I expect you two to spend as much of your free time together as possible for the next seven solar days.

"I'm depending on you two to help us topple some of the Academy's unspoken taboos--you know, eat in the same mess hall, socialize after duty hours."

She added smiling, "I'm sure Starfleet will survive the ensuing shock waves.

"Cadet Delaney, I want to speak to you for a minute longer. Cadet Kirk, you're dismissed."

As Kirk walked out the door, he heard Lorraine address Delaney: "Velvet, I know this takes you by surprise . . . "

*Velvet*? Kirk wondered. As in "V"--for Velvet--"C" Delaney? Hmm- mm.

Kirk found himself humming a song his Mom used to sing while doing housework as he sauntered unconcernedly to his first hour Federation History and Constitutional Law class.

"I'm always chasing rainbows . . ."

He didn't notice the pointed winces his off-key singing elicited from annoyed passers-by.

####

Chapter Seven

Dreams . . . relentlessly cruel invade his defenseless sleep. Amavia's memory, fading by day, returns in unbearable poignancy.

A cold night. Amavia's sea-green eyes flashing defiantly--again.

"Amy, how could you just *leave* your post without permission?" Kirk's angry tones echo across the chasm of time and space. "Everyone has to pull his weight if we're all to survive. You *said* so yourself!"

"I *am* pulling my weight," Amavia replies. Then, raising her chin, her green eyes calmly holding his, she adds reasonably, "I'm *part* of this team. I didn't abandon my post; I returned to it."

Amavia looks so beautiful this night, ethereal as moonlight. Kirk can't remain angry; she's just too exquisite. He feels his breath catch in his throat.

On sudden impulse, Kirk tentatively steps closer to Amavia, places his hands on her waist, then rising slightly on his tiptoes, kisses her gently, hesitantly--shyly tasting her mouth with his tongue.

The butterflies Kirk experiences in the pit of his stomach are secondary to the weakness in the back of his knees. When Amavia suddenly breaks away in confusion, he's only too grateful. He's uncertain how much longer he'd have been able to stand without assistance.

Is this love? Kirk wonders wistfully.

Fast-forward less than twenty-four hours later. A fateful rooftop on a backwater colony planet. Amavia lies dying in his arms.

No, Kirk weakly protests. He can't go through it again . . . but the cruel memories continue to ruthlessly hound his restless dreams.

"My Jimmy," Amavia whispers. She closes her eyes momentarily, her body obviously swept by pain. Swallowing, determinedly she attempts to speak again. "Jimmy," she whispers dryly, painfully, "promise me . . . promise me--" she takes his hand in hers.

"No!" Kirk calls out, tossing in his sleep, a powerless witness to a drama as it unfolds toward its inevitable tragic conclusion. Unable to stop it once more, he stands helplessly by as the heartbroken boy, who lost his innocence on that rooftop seemingly a lifetime ago, brings her hand tenderly up to his lips, and again, watches as Amavia's sea-green eyes assume a far away look.

By now the images of that terrible day are too blurred to replay with any accuracy. Vague memories of Amavia's voice suddenly resound, drawing him back; however, her words chill him to the core of his being, "--that you won't . . . mourn for me."

She stops suddenly, swept by severe pain. After a few moments, Amavia speaks again, smiling tenderly, an inner glow radiating from her eyes. "Promise me. I'm the lucky one . . . I was your first love. No other girl will ever be able to say that."

Kirk nods, and choking, whispers, "I promise," believing it a promise he'll never be able to keep. Amavia gives him one final smile, then gently, peacefully leaves him all alone.

"NOO-OOOO!"

####

A hand was shaking his shoulder accompanied by a concerned voice, "Hey, buddy . . . wake up!" Then exasperatedly, "Come on, Jimmy! You're having a bad dream!"

Kirk's eyes snapped open. A blurred figure floated over him-- Mitchell, dark brown eyes looking worried. Kirk shakily reached his hand up to his eyes, and sat up slowly. His hand came away wet. His sleep shirt was completely drenched through.

"You okay, kid?" Kirk could almost *feel* Mitchell's concern across the few inches that separated them. He nodded his head numbly.

"Amavia again?" Mitchell asked gently.

Kirk nodded his confirmation; he felt too exhausted to speak.

Gratefully, Mitchell didn't attempt to soothe Kirk with meaningless platitudes. Instead, Mitchell jerked his head towards his desk chronometer and said pragmatically, "Well, it's just about time for reveille, anyway. Might as well get ready for PT--I hear that the Mighty Delaney is going to lead us poor, skuzzy firsters on a hundred- mile run or something."

Kirk grinned weakly. Mitchell always seemed to know the appropriate thing to say when it really counted. He was right again; there was little point in trying to go back to sleep.

PT, or physical training, came awfully early in the Academy. The cadets only half-jokingly called their morning reveille, Oh-Dark- Thirty, an irreverent reference to the fact that Sol hadn't quite risen over the horizon yet.

Mitchell's jibe about Delaney reminded Kirk that his newly assigned mentor was known for her love of running. Unfortunately, Delaney also loved to force her enthusiasm on the lower classes. This training quarter, it was the first-year cadets' turn to be brought into the fold.

Kirk had learned one thing: his athletic abilities did not include a zest for long-distance running. This past week he'd finally broken the seemingly insurmountable ten-kilometer milestone. He'd finally been able to run the full 10k distance without humiliating himself in front of his fellow cadets and falling out of the group formation.

Kirk had celebrated his moral victory by collapsing on his bunk upon returning to his quarters and almost being late for class.

Of course, when Kirk *had* fallen out of the group formation in the past, he'd been in good company with almost thirty percent of the first year class, Mitchell included; however, Kirk hated to fail at anything, and he'd, therefore, spent much of his spare time running laps around the Academy track.

This morning, Kirk vowed, he'd show Cadet Delaney that she hadn't been assigned a born loser! What *must* she think, he wondered, having observed him fall out of the morning PT runs and hearing about his flaming out in Sim/Tac?

Kirk followed Mitchell's lead and hurriedly dressed, waking memories of Amavia thankfully receding into a small, safe corner of his mind. The two friends were the first on the PT field.

####

Chapter Eight

The athletic field was eerily covered in the early morning mist rolling in from San Francisco Bay. A single, low-energy light source cast a strange, yellowish glow onto the field. The weak light was finding it difficult to penetrate the morning fog to provide sufficient illumination.

Kirk could just barely discern Mitchell's shadowy outline although they stood not two feet apart.

While they waited for the rest of the cadets to assemble for PT, Kirk and Mitchell started their warm-ups.

First, Kirk led Mitchell through the Academy standard stretching exercises. Next, Mitchell demonstrated a few he'd learned while growing up on Mars Colony.

Although an accomplished gymnast, Kirk couldn't quite believe the contortions Mitchell was showing him were even possible for Humans.

"You've gotta be kidding!" Kirk protested. "Whaddaya think I *am*? If God had intended for me to bend at *that* angle, he'd've made me an elastic band--or a pretzel--or something just as ridiculously impossible."

"Don't be silly," Mitchell insisted from his upside-down position, "I could do this drill in kindergarten. It's simple--" Mitchell saw Kirk's obvious disbelief, "--no, really . . . This *is* simple! Look; let me demonstrate it again. This time by the numbers."

"By the numbers" was the Academy method of demonstrating new techniques to the cadets. Complex procedures were simplified into easy to follow steps that were essentially idiot proof; somewhat doubtfully, Kirk agreed to attempt what Mitchell had called the simplest of the exercises.

*Simple*? Kirk wondered. Well, here goes nothing, he added resignedly.

First, Kirk lay down on his stomach like Mitchell had shown him. Instantly, he felt the cold of the early morning dew-covered grass slowly begin to creep up through his warm-up suit. Ignoring his discomfort, Kirk next extended backwards, grabbed his left ankle with his right hand, and gently pulled it towards the back of his head.

*This* flexible I'm not, Kirk worried. But, while Kirk tentatively tried the tricky maneuver, Mitchell assisted--a bit too eagerly in Kirk's opinion--by gently applying pressure slightly above Kirk's knee and pushing upward.

To his amazement, Kirk actually managed to touch his head with the toe of his athletic shoe. But he had never imagined that this kind of pain could be good for you! Mitchell started counting--

"One thousand--!"

"ONE!" Kirk replied automatically. Then through gritted teeth, Kirk protested, "This is *killing* me."

"One thousand--!"

"TWO!" Kirk interspersed, "I *don't* believe--"

"One thousand--!"

"THREE!--that Mars colonists--"

"One thousand--!"

"FOUR!--put their kids--"

"One thousand--!"

"FIVE!--through this torture!" Kirk managed to gasp out.

"Now see what you made me do," Mitchell teased. "You made me lose count . . . ONE-one thousand--!"

"You son of a--SIX-ONE THOUSAND!" Kirk cried out, laughing in protest. "Ouch! Hey, watch it!"

"What was that?" Mitchell asked in jest. "I couldn't hear you."

"SEVEN-one thousand--" Kirk sputtered, "--and just *wait*--" Kirk gasped, vainly struggling to reach Mitchell's hands behind him, "--till I get my *hands* on you!"

"Oh, was that TWO-one thousand?"

"EIGHT-onethousandNINE-TEN-onethousand!" Kirk finished through hurriedly. "Let go of me, you--!

They were suddenly interrupted by a quiet, disembodied voice out of the early morning fog.

"I must say, this *will* make an interesting story to tell around the bridge one day."

Kirk and Mitchell immediately got themselves caught in a tangle of arms of legs. Mitchell recovered first and quickly scrambled to his feet, snapping to attention.

Kirk was still trying to figure out which were his arms and which were his legs, when he felt Mitchell's powerful grip practically lift him to his feet. When they were both at attention, the owner of the voice stepped forward in order to be identified.

As if we didn't know who she was, Kirk thought nervously. Had they done something wrong by being the first on the field?

"Why are you Cadets out of your quarters before reveille?" Delaney asked them quietly.

"Sir!" Kirk responded, "We woke up early and saw little point and going back to sleep. Therefore, we decided that we could make the best use of our time by reporting early for PT and warming up."

"I see," Delaney replied quietly. "Did you Cadets then forget that the company doesn't form for PT on the sixth Friday of the training cycle? Or did you fail to read your training bulletin--posted at Oh-One Hundred hours daily and therefore available to you when you first woke up?"

Kirk suddenly had that cold sinking feeling he used to get when his Mom would catch him doing something fun that he wasn't supposed to do. Like doing handstands while riding his horse at breakneck speed; or Kirk's favorite "I thought I *taught* you better than that" escapade: trying to do an alpine ski jump off the snow-covered barn roof in the middle of the coldest winter on record. (It would've worked, too, Kirk still thought.)

The "Look" Mom gave him when he finally climbed down, all safe and sound, still sent shivers down his spine that had had nothing to do with the sub-zero temperature. Unfortunately, Mom was not one of those parents who believed in sparing the rod. And, if "sparing the rod" meant "spoiling the child," then, he and Sam were two of the most *un*-spoiled boys Kirk knew.

The visceral reaction Kirk normally experienced when he violated Mom's edicts and received one her famous "wait till I get you home" Looks was being generated by a similar Look from Delaney. This was accompanied by her quiet recitation of his and Mitchell's rules violations.

Rule One: Never leave your quarters without reading the day's standing training bulletin!

Rule Two: Never leave your quarters before reveille, unless you're reporting to an authorized unit assembly. (PT, for example.)

Great! First, I flame out; next, I'm grounded; now this! What *else* can go wrong?

Delaney continued. "Since you two cadets are so eager for PT, then you can join me in my morning workout."

I had to ask, Kirk grimaced silently.

"Follow me, gentlemen. Today is my usual multi-g workout day."

Lovely.

As they walked briskly in step towards the gravity gym, Delaney kept a running commentary.

"Cadet Kirk, by order of the Commandant, I'm personally responsible for your leadership training."

Kirk could almost *feel* Mitchell's sudden spark of interest at this news.

"Therefore, any failing on your part comes as a direct result of a leadership failing on mine." Delaney paused. "I shall correct that failing."

This last sent another shiver down Kirk's spine.

Jeez, Kirk lamented. I thought *Mom* was scary.

"Cadet Mitchell," Delaney continued, turning to face him, "you're part of the equation since you're Kirk's roommate. The Commandant specifically gave me carte blanche to *adopt* any other lost puppies I deemed as needing extra-guidance." She paused dramatically. "Consider yourself adopted."

At Mitchell's obvious confusion, Delaney cocked her head questioningly. "Oh? Didn't Cadet Kirk explain the present circumstances to you?"

At Mitchell's slight headshake, Delaney shrugged and succinctly explained.

"So you see. I'm your official den mother. Wherever you are, whatever you do, I'm going to be nearby watching your every move, evaluating your every decision. I'm going to become your worst nightmare."

Despite her threat, Delaney looked quite fetching in the ghostly light to Kirk. Feeling slightly off-balance, he wasn't sure whether he wanted to run in fear of her, or work up his courage and kiss her.

Common sense won out, and Kirk did neither, although cutting out and running was touch and go for a split second.

####

Chapter Nine

When the trio entered the massive fitness center complex through one of its many side entrances, Mitchell's step suddenly faltered. He looked to Kirk as if about to faint. Mitchell stopped and leaned weakly against the bulkhead; his coloring had turned a sickly pale green.

"Hey, buddy," Kirk turned to him concerned. "What's the matter? You look like a little green man from Mars."

Mitchell grinned weakly at the old joke about Mars Colonists, but appeared on the verge of collapse. Kirk immediately grabbed him and eased him to a sitting position.

Mitchell started hyperventilating. His skin had turned clammy, beads of sweat breaking out on his forehead.

Delaney, squatting next to Mitchell, looked at Kirk askance. "He do this often?"

Kirk gave her a brusque headshake in response. What was *wrong* with Mitchell? He'd been perfectly fine just a second ago.

Mitchell was moaning. "Jimmy," he whispered, "in the gym . . . He's hurt . . . help him." He clutched his stomach, gritting his teeth against an obvious spasm of pain. When it passed, he turned intensely dark, pain-filled eyes on Kirk.

Mitchell reached out and grabbed Kirk determinedly by the T- shirt. Then, exerting what remaining strength he could muster, Mitchell pulled Kirk to him.

"Hurry . . . not much time." Mitchell passed out.

"Stay with him!" Kirk said, jumping up and sprinting down the side corridor toward the gravity gym.

Reaching the g-room's security doors, Kirk noted the red warning light signaling that the g-room was currently in use. The doors wouldn't open until the gravity inside returned to Earth-normal.

In desperation, Kirk looked around for the override.

"Where *is* it?" he muttered, the urgency of the moment making him careless.

Taking a deep, calming breath, Kirk began a quiet litany as he searched.

"Easy, Jimmy-boy, stay calm . . . Someone's life may depend on you . . . find the schematic . . . it should be posted . . . right *here*!"

The schematic was posted exactly where the student manual said it was located.

"Override . . . override . . . there! . . . Under *O*, of course. Starfleet thinks of everything!"

Quickly finding the safety override, Kirk began shutting down the artificial gravity system. This took several tense seconds, however, due to the system's safeguards. This prevented anyone inside from experiencing sudden changes in gravity that could result in serious-- even fatal--injuries.

When the security doors finally hissed open, Kirk ran in and immediately saw the lone body lying in a crumpled heap in the middle of the gym floor.

Moving quickly to where the injured man lay unmoving, Kirk carefully checked for vital signs: pulse--weak; breathing--shallow; skin--clammy.

Careful not to touch the injured cadet for fear of further injury, Kirk ran to the wall comm-unit and called for immediate assistance.

"Medical emergency! Grav-gym one! Repeat . . . Medical emergency! Grav-gym one!"

"Acknowledged, Grav-gym one! What is the nature of the emergency?"

"Male. Unconscious . . . pulse weak . . . breathing shallow . . . skin cold and clammy."

"Acknowledged. Med-team on the way. Your name and the name of the injured."

"Cadet James T. Kirk. The victim's name is . . . Cadet R. M. Merrick." Kirk had immediately recognized the disgraced cadet.

"Acknowledged, Cadet Kirk. Find something to cover the injured immediately. He may be going into shock."

"Acknowledged. Kirk out."

Kirk quickly searched for and found some heavy towels in the trainer's office. There wasn't much else he could do before the med- team arrived, so he sat down next to Merrick and waited.

A hint of a scent that evoked memories of home and . . . Cadet Delaney (?) . . . teased him for an instant, then was gone.

Why had Merrick been here by himself, Kirk wondered. It was one of the first safety rules pounded into the cadets' brains: Never utilize the g-room alone.

"How is he?" Delaney asked from behind Kirk. Kirk looked up startled.

"Not good. I'm afraid to touch him for fear of risking further injury. Med-team should be here soon--" Kirk was interrupted by the timely arrival of the med-team. A still shaken Mitchell followed them.

Kirk and Delaney moved out of the way to allow the med-team to do its job. Kirk sidled up to Mitchell.

"You okay, buddy?" Mitchell nodded his head. Kirk was unconvinced, though. Mitchell didn't *look* okay.

Starfleet Academy Security (SAS) arrived shortly thereafter.

"Who found Cadet Merrick?" the SAS officer, a lieutenant asked.

"I did, sir," Kirk replied. "Cadet James T. Kirk."

"Tell me what happened, Cadet Kirk."

Kirk recited as well as he could the events of the past few minutes. Had it really only been a few minutes, he wondered? It seemed like hours.

The SAS officer was looking at Mitchell suspiciously.

"You say Cadet Mitchell informed you that there was an injured man in here *before* you arrived at the gym?" Kirk nodded.

"Well, excuse me for not understanding how you knew about the injured man, Cadet Mitchell. So, please explain, just how *did* you know that there was someone injured here?"

Mitchell appeared momentarily disconcerted. "I--I'm not sure *how*--? I mean . . . sometimes I just *know* things . . . I don't really understand how, sir . . . but I've always been able to do it."

Mitchell looked bewildered.

"But, I've only been able to do this with members of my family before; or--" Mitchell glanced at Kirk, slightly embarrassed, "--with people I've grown close to . . . but I don't even *know* Merrick!"

"I'm sorry, Cadet Mitchell, you'll have to come with me until I can check out your story."

Mitchell nodded mutely, and looking at Kirk somewhat apologetically, Mitchell left with the young officer.

"Well, well, well," Delaney said. "Curiouser and curiouser." She looked at Kirk, her head cocked interestedly. "Mitchell prone to these spells often?"

Kirk shook his head. "No, never. But you know . . . it *does* explain a few things." Kirk and Delaney headed out of the gym, their morning workout forgotten.

####

Chapter Ten

In their quarters later, the two young men carefully avoided looking at each other.

Mitchell's high extra sensory perception (ESP) rating was a matter of record in his student files. However, like all humans who exhibited esper traits, the tendency was largely instinctive and untrainable.

Mitchell could no more control his abilities than he could walk on water.

Furthermore, Mitchell couldn't explain how he knew that Cadet Merrick had been injured.

All Mitchell could relate to SAS was that when they'd entered the building, he'd been assailed by the sense of immediate physical danger--a danger so imminent that it literally rendered him ill.

In addition, Mitchell sensed that someone had been injured recently by that lurking danger. He told the SAS officer that he couldn't recall anything else.

The SAS officer had had no choice but to release the frightened and confused first year cadet.

Mitchell explained all of this to Kirk as soon as he'd returned to their quarters.

"Look, Jimmy, I'm sorry I didn't come clean before and tell you about my--uh--gift. At least, that's what Grandma calls it . . . She told me that *her* Grandfather had also been able to sense things like I do . . . I'd begun to think I was some kinda freak at the time, and I guess she was trying to make me feel better.

"But you've *gotta* believe me, Jimmy. There's nothing I can *do* to control this thing . . . What I sense comes and goes, almost of its own free will . . . There was even a point for almost two years that I went without getting *any* strange feelings . . . I thought . . . I *hoped* that maybe I'd lost it for good."

Mitchell faced Kirk sadly, then turned away and standing with his arms crossed, stared out the window.

"I mean look at your reaction," Mitchell continued, his back to Kirk. "People always assume that I'm sitting there reading their minds or something . . . But I *can't*! I'm *not* a true telepath--I *can't* read minds at will."

Mitchell laughed bitterly.

"Believe me, I've tried! Once in high school physics, when I hadn't studied for an exam . . . I kept willing Mr. Jackson to mentally provide me with the solutions . . . Know just how successful I was? I had to repeat the class in the summer.

"Gift?! More like a curse. It comes and goes when it darn well feels like it, and ignores me on the few instances that I might've needed it for something!"

Mitchell turned suddenly, his eyes pleading for understanding.

"Jimmy, I *swear* that if by some passing chance I *do* get a-- uh--call it a whiff, I guess, of what you're thinking or feeling, it's because you were feeling it so strongly.

"When this happens, if it's something really private, something I know you wouldn't me to know, I try to leave you alone . . . *honest*!"

"I believe you," Kirk replied quietly, "but what you told the SAS officer, that you've only been able to feel this kind of stuff with family members before . . . So why me? I mean, we're friends, *close* friends, I guess, but we're not related."

Mitchell shrugged embarrassed.

"I guess because we *have* become close. I can't explain it, Jimmy, but it's as if you *are* a member of my family. I don't know why--it just *is*!"

That had been almost two hours ago, and since then, the two friends had fallen into an uneasy silence.

Kirk knew that he had felt unusually close to Mitchell almost from the start, but he hadn't understood why. It was as if they'd always known each other--like long-lost brothers, but he hadn't been able to articulate it at the time.

Now, Kirk realized that that's exactly why he'd felt so at ease whenever he spent any time in Mitchell's company. And, conversely, why he'd been thrown off-balance.

When Kirk was with his roommate it somehow reminded him of summer afternoons spent lazily on the backyard swing with his brother Sam.

Comfortable . . . warm . . . family.

However, instead of embracing these emotions, Kirk had been embarrassed by the instant familiarity he'd experienced. Afraid of being derided, he had tried to keep his friend at arm's length.

But what must it have been like for Gary, Kirk wondered feeling suddenly guilty. An esper with a heightened sense of awareness, to be experiencing these intense emotions, acutely in need of being close, but always being shoved away, Gary must have been devastated.

Well, Kirk thought, I always wanted another brother. The more men in the family to better stand up against Mom!

Kirk broke into one his nova-bright smiles and instantly *felt* Mitchell's response; looking up, Kirk saw Mitchell mirroring his smile. Best friends.

No, better than friends--brothers.

####

Chapter Eleven

Crimm-mmi-nee! Kirk gasped, pumping his fatigued legs faster. She's sprinting! Kirk felt a momentary panic as Delaney suddenly began to pull away.

This was the sixth morning that he and Mitchell had been training with Delaney, and during the past three mornings she had constantly surprised them by starting her sprint at a different point.

This time, the finish line was still over a kilometer away.

Oh no you don't, Kirk angrily denied.

Lungs burning, Kirk pushed on relentlessly. He could hear Mitchell's panting breaths a step behind him.

A grim determination began taking shape in the pit of Kirk's stomach. Delaney was deliberately trying to psych them out. Again.

On their maiden 10k run, Kirk and Mitchell had barely managed to limp across the finish line, arriving fully thirteen minutes behind Delaney. They hadn't done much better in the mornings that followed.

Poor Mitchell was beginning to fear morning reveille. Especially since Delaney had received a special dispensation to personally lead her two charges through PT.

As he studied the now familiar sight of Delaney's graceful back inching effortlessly ahead, Kirk refused to quit.

He would *not* quit.

He--would--*NOT*!

A quitter never wins, Kirk sing-songed. A winner never quits . . . A quitter never wins . . . a winner never quits . . . Anything V. C. Delaney can do . . . Jim Kirk can do.

All of a sudden, Kirk "felt" that Mitchell was beginning to fade out. He quickly turned and grabbed his roommate by the sleeve pulling him, urging him to continue.

Not realizing that he was vocalizing his private litany, Kirk was at first surprised to hear Mitchell reciting it along with him; then giving his roommate a wicked, "to hell with it" grin, Kirk echoed Mitchell in a loud rejoinder:

"A quitter never WINS; a winner never QUITS!"

By the time they reached the finish line, they were both yelling it out at the tops of their lungs, each syllable in time with their pace.

Both first year cadets crossed the finish line two full steps behind the Senior Cadet Commander.

Mitchell collapsed on all fours, gasping lungfuls of air. Kirk managed to remain on his feet, but bent down at the waist, his hands just above his knees, his ragged breathing loud in his ears. When he became assured that he would indeed continue to live, Kirk edged over to Mitchell to see how he was doing.

"You okay, buddy?" he gasped. Mitchell nodded, still unable to speak, his breathing stabilizing somewhat.

Delaney spoke calmly. She wasn't even breathing hard, Kirk thought amazed. What's she *made* of anyway?

"Okay, you two. On your feet. Keep moving or you'll start to cramp." She walked over to where Mitchell was still hunched over on the damp grass.

"Kirk, give me a hand." Kirk immediately assisted her in helping Mitchell to his feet. "Help me walk him around some . . . That's it, Mitchell . . . one foot in front of the other . . . That's it . . . you've got it."

Delaney and Kirk held onto Mitchell until he was finally able to walk unaided. Only then did Delaney release her hold on him. When both first year cadets seemed sufficiently recovered from their morning ordeal, Delaney led them through a short series of easy, cool down stretches.

Finally, Delaney called a halt. The sun had finally decided to join them and was just beginning to break in the east. The morning mist started dissipating with each degree the sun moved up on the horizon.

"You two cadets did all right. A ten-K distance may *appear* to be overwhelming right now, but pretty soon it'll seem like a cake walk."

Delaney paused, dramatically crossing her arms in front of her, cocking her head to the side--a pose Kirk was beginning to find familiar.

"By the time I'm done with you two, you'll be running in the Bay to Breakers."

Delaney was referring to a traditional San Francisco race that only the hardiest runners attempted. While an ordinary person might have mentioned the race only metaphorically, Delaney had never given the two young men reason to believe that she ever spoke figuratively.

What Delaney said; Delaney meant. However, as she spoke, Delaney rewarded them with a rare smile, the first real smile Kirk had seen from her.

Delaney's loose, wind-blown black hair was hanging in damp, sweat-soaked streaks down her neck. Beads of perspiration on her forehead and upper lip caught the morning sunlight.

All of this was lost on Kirk, however, when he looked into her Nordic blue eyes. Her smile was reflected in those eyes, warming them, genuinely happy, and Kirk felt himself dazedly responding.

God, she looked gorgeous!

Chastising himself silently, Kirk reined in his jumbled emotions.

Red Alert, Cadet Kirk! That's the Senior Cadet Commander you're ogling! Delaney barely knows you're alive, except as a leadership experiment. If she knew how you were feeling right now, she'd laugh herself silly. Besides, she's *gotta* be at *least* six years older!

Kirk had to concentrate to make out what Delaney was saying. She checked her wrist chronometer. "It's now zero-five-forty-five. Get yourselves cleaned up, eat breakfast, and report to Sim/Tac Five at zero-seven-hundred. We have a little get-acquainted SimEx to do." Delaney nodded to them both, "Dismissed!"

A get-acquainted simulation exercise. Kirk didn't like the sound of that. Turning to Mitchell, Kirk saw the same look of dread mirrored in his eyes.

####

Chapter Twelve

"So . . . what's she *like*, guys?" Kirk glanced up from his hot cereal breakfast. Macudzinksi's eyes were leering back at him.

"What's *who* like?" Kirk asked, feigning ignorance.

"Come *on*, you two," Nasta chimed in grinning, waving his fork at Kirk and Mitchell. "Fess up! What's it like--having the . . . oh, so *Very Cute* Delaney as your personal trainer? Hmm-mm?"

Nasta punctuated his question by waggling his thick eyebrows in an exaggerated manner, his dark eyes dancing.

Kirk rolled his eyes upward--Oh brother!--and, choosing to ignore his two over-sexed companions, turned back to his breakfast.

Kirk was starving this morning and was not about to miss the only meal he might get to eat today. Sessions with Delaney tended to skip over such inconvenient interruptions like lunch and dinner.

Yesterday, Kirk had made the gross error of missing his usual breakfast in order to report early to Delaney. He'd never make *that* mistake again. Just before lights-out, Kirk had finally managed to wolf down a supper of stale gingersnaps his Mom had sent him over a week ago.

Chagrinned, Kirk could still hear Mom's admonishment: "Jimmy, you just sit right down at that table, young man. Breakfast is the most important meal of the day, and I'm not about to let you go gallivanting off to who knows where unprepared!"

Nasta, who could be such a pain sometimes, was still needling Kirk for information. His classmates didn't nickname him, "Nasty," just because of his last name.

Nasta's idea of breakfast conversation usually involved regaling his tablemates with tall tales of himself and his latest sexual conquest.

Having observed the amused looks of disdain with which most of their female classmates regarded Nasta, Kirk was inclined to believe that the majority of Nasta's stories of personal prowess were just that--stories.

"You tell *us*, Nasty," rejoined Mitchell unperturbed. "What do *you* think having Senior Cadet Commander V. C. Delaney as our *personal* trainer's like?"

"You're *kidding* right, Mitch?" chimed in Macudzinksi. "I mean-- " he suddenly dropped his voice and leaned over the table conspiratorially, "--what a *dish*! I can just *imagine* what it must like, seeing those lissome legs in front of *me* every morning!"

Nasta agreed excitedly. "And--WOW!--when she gets down into the front leaning rest position--" he paused and closed his eyes dreamily, "--you can see--"

Nasta's fantasizing was suddenly interrupted by a sharp retort from Kirk.

"Shut up!"

The table went instantly still.

Kirk looked across at Nasta, both hands on the table, ready to rise. His morning-fresh apple cheeks were flaming; his hazel eyes a dangerous green.

Nasta was so surprised that the younger cadet, usually so soft spoken and tolerant of his older classmates' antics, had said anything in protest, that he was unable to react in anger.

"What--?"

"I said, 'Shut up'!" Kirk repeated, standing up.

Mitchell immediately jumped up next to Kirk, and placed his arm across Kirk's chest, his hand on his roommate's shoulder. Unlike the others, Mitchell knew what Kirk was capable of when pushed.

Mitchell placed his mouth up to Kirk's ear, "Hey, take it easy, buddy," he said quietly, calmly. "Let's go; we have to report to Sim/Tac Five in less than fifteen minutes."

Kirk was too incensed to listen. He knew that Mitchell was afraid that he might do something stupid like punch Nasta's lights out.

And Mitchell was right--that's *exactly* what he intended. Why did that *idiot*, Nasty, always have such a dirty, one-track mind?

Nasta wouldn't let it go, however. Kirk saw Nasta's eyes light up tauntingly.

"What's the matter, kid? Sounds to me like you've got the *hots* for her!"

That did it. Kirk started to lunge at Nasta, but was determinedly held back by Mitchell.

Macudzinksi, meanwhile, had quickly placed a firm grip on Nasta's arm, effectively pinning him down.

Suddenly, an icy voice behind them caused everyone to freeze in mid-tableau.

"Good morning, gentlemen." Delaney!

Kirk squeezed his eyes shut and took a deep breath. Busted!

The four cadets immediately whirled to face the senior cadet and snapped to attention.

"Cadet Kirk," Delaney said evenly, "consider yourself on report. Starfleet officers do not fight among themselves, nor do they make threatening gestures to strike fellow officers."

"Yes, SIR!" Kirk responded.

"SIR!" Nasta. "Request permission to speak!"

"Permission granted, Cadet."

"Sir, I started it. Cadet Kirk was only--"

"--Defending my honor," Delaney interrupted. "Yes, I heard. But I assure you, Cadet Nasta, I'm more than capable of defending myself. Should I hear you casting aspersions on myself or any other cadet-- male or female--you'll have *me* to answer to--on the mat!"

"Yes, sir," Nasta responded weakly.

Delaney's reputation on the hand-to-hand competition mat was legendary. She had been the unarmed combat champion at the Academy four years running.

"Kirk, Mitchell, you have about ten minutes to report to Sim/Tac Five. I suggest you use those minutes wisely." With that, Delaney turned and strode out of the First Year Cadet Mess.

Nasta looked at Kirk shamefacedly.

"Jimmy, Mitch," Nasta began, his eyes downcast, "I was out of line. I apologize."

"Yeah, me too, ya'll," Macudzinksi added.

Both Kirk and Mitchell nodded; then gathering their trays, they dumped everything into the recycling units--breakfast dishes, trays and all.

####

Chapter Thirteen

Sim/Tac Five!

This was where the Command officers were separated from the Red Shirts.

Well, Kirk amended, it was the *almost* final cut--commissioned officers who'd had their first deep space assignment under their belts, and who had been recommended for Command School, still had the infamous Kobayashi Maru SimEx to look forward to. However, even for senior cadets, that was still years away.

Kirk's nerves were on fire. He couldn't believe Delaney was going to include them in a SimEx. Sim/Tac Five was reserved for the exclusive use of fourth year cadets.

"I can't believe we're here," Mitchell whispered slightly reverent. First year cadets *never* set foot inside this particular simroom.

"I know what you mean," Kirk replied a little apprehensively. His fidgeting while they waited outside Sim/Tac Five mirrored Mitchell's.

Mitchell pointed to his wrist chronometer: 0700 hours. Time to report.

Kirk shrugged his shoulders. Now or never, his green-flecked hazel eyes silently communicated to Mitchell. Kirk straightened his tunic and walked in; Mitchell followed.

Delaney waited for them. Four other senior cadets already manned different stations doing pre-flight checks.

"Okay, you two. Helm and navigation's yours. I hear that separately you've had some spectacular flameouts, but when teamed at helm/nav you're suddenly capable of some pretty exceptional flying." Delaney paused and looked at them, her head slightly cocked. "Any truth to this rumor?"

Kirk who'd been eagerly studying the helm station as soon as Delaney had told them they were to take helm/nav answered distractedly.

"What rumor?"

Mitchell, too, was thoroughly engrossed with his scrutiny of navigation. "Rumor? I'm sorry, sir, you were saying--?" he looked up perplexed.

"Never mind, Cadets," Delaney replied, smiling indulgently. "Run through your pre-flights. We're at T-minus thirty minutes and counting."

"Aye, sir," Mitchell and Kirk responded automatically, both re- engrossed by their stations.

Kirk and Mitchell worked together almost instinctively. Kirk was familiar with the helm layout from computer simulations in Sim/Tac. He'd also spent hours pouring over engineering designs of this particular model.

They were on the bridge of a Marauder Class scout ship, the eyes and ears of Starfleet. This sleek baby was Starfleet's primary scout vessel heavily armed with the latest in phaser technology and loaded with a full complement of photon torpedoes normally found in a much heavier class of ship.

The Marauder's warp engines were almost ultra-dimensional-- capable of achieving Warp Ten in an emergency. Nothing in the fleet could catch it!

These capabilities, when combined with its enhanced passive/active sensor array and its dull, non-reflective black outer hull (instead of the Federation's usual "Shoot Me" white) rendered the Marauder almost invisible--a deadly specter harassing the opposing forces' (OPFOR) tracking and listening posts.

Marauder squadrons were deployed throughout the outer reaches of Federation space, the forward line of defense along such disputed regions as the Romulan Neutral Zone, the Orion Belt, and the Klingon Neutral Zone.

Kirk's excitement ratcheted to fever pitch. He dreamed of commanding one of these beauties some day. He didn't believe the ship existed that could possibly capture his imagination like the Marauder Class Scout.

Let his Dad and Uncle Bob extol the virtues of the USS Enterprise and the rest of the Constitution Class starships currently under construction--with *this* baby, he'd fly rings around their warp nacelles!

A chilling thought hit Kirk. He stopped abruptly in the middle of his pre-flight check. The Marauder was the same weight and class as the War Fighter sim vessel.

"Cadet Delaney," Kirk began tentatively.

"Yes, Cadet Kirk," Delaney replied coolly from the Captain's seat. She was studying the status reports in her Captain's console.

"Sir, are we training for War Fighter?" Kirk asked.

"You betcha!" Delaney replied grinning. The other senior cadets were also grinning wolfishly. "Welcome to the big-time, kids. You're gonna get to play with the big boys and girls today."

Mitchell smiled nervously. "I don't understand, sir. War Fighter's only a few weeks away. Shouldn't your helm/nav stations be manned by people who'll be participating with you?"

"Absolutely correct, Cadet Mitchell!" Delaney looked around at the other senior cadets, smiling sardonically. "See! Told ya they were sharp!" She turned back to Mitchell. "Those stations *are* being manned by people who'll be participating in War Fighter with us. You two!"

Delaney stood up purposefully and walked around helm/nav station. Facing the two newest members of her crew, she held their the eyes steadily.

"Cadet Mitchell, Cadet Kirk, you two have been drafted to fill in as acting helmsman and navigator." At their looks of utter astonishment, she added, "And don't worry, it's all been cleared and okayed by the PTBs--the powers that be."

Kirk and Mitchell stared at each other, open-mouthed. Then, as one, they turned to face her.

"But--" Kirk began.

"--Why?" finished Delaney. "Because, Cadet Kirk, our team suddenly finds itself sans qualified people at helm/nav. Senior Cadet Rania Oman, our helmsman, and Senior Cadet Lou Davila, our navigator, were both pulled when this cheating scandal sort of exploded. They've been transferred on an emergency basis to fill slots in two other teams."

"But why *us*?" Kirk asked. "There's gotta be a whole lotta people more qualified than we are . . . I mean, we're just firsters!"

One of the other cadets stepped forward.

"Yeah, kid, that's what *I* said."

Kirk felt a sudden perverse resentment at the senior cadet for agreeing with him.

"At ease, Wolfman," Delaney sharply interrupted. "I've been working with these two for the past six days. Believe me . . . we're lucky to get them. They're a little green, but by the time we're done with them, they'll have us flying circles around the OPFOR."

Delaney smiled at her two charges. "Don't worry, mentorees; you'll do fine. Trust me." Her blue eyes lit in a genuine smile, warming Kirk suddenly. "Why don't I introduce you to your new crewmates?

"Senior Cadet David J.--Wolfman--Wolfe, you've already met." Cadet Wolfe nodded curtly at the two first year cadets, then turned back to the science station.

Friendly, Kirk thought.

"Senior Cadet Laurence J. Wellington, our communications officer . . . called, *Duke* by us, who love and understand him . . . *Beef* by those jealous-types, who would toss calumny at his character."

Kirk and Mitchell exchanged mutual looks of guilt.

Kirk recognized Wellington as a cadet who was extremely popular with the ladies. Called "Beef" Wellington behind his back--by Nasta for one--Wellington's dark good looks were rumored to have broken several hearts throughout his four years at the Academy.

Cadet Wellington smiled and waved from his station. Kirk liked him instantly.

Maybe I should introduce him to Nasta, Kirk thought wryly, have him give the poor slob a couple of pointers in the romance department. Lord knows Nasta could *use* the help.

"Senior Cadet Ruth Zyglowicz . . . Zee for short . . . since we usually mangle her last name . . . Chief of Engineering."

Cadet Zyglowicz was a petite, slim, pretty blonde with what Kirk's Mom called cornflower blue eyes. Not much bigger than Winona Kirk, Zyglowicz would prove an explosive bundle in a small package if crossed.

"Manning the weapons station is Senior Cadet James J. Fletcher. Known as Jayjay, or Fletch, or--"

"--Loser," interrupted Wellington, derisively.

"Hey, Beef," Fletcher tossed back, good-naturedly, "some of us actually reached the top through hard work and effort. Not by *being* on top!"

The other senior cadets laughed easily.

"Although," Zyglowicz added looking up from her engineering station, "for our resident Lothario here, staying on top may *require* a lot of hard work and effort."

Wellington flashed her a wink with a heart-stopping smile. Flustered, Zyglowicz quickly ducked her head back to her engineering status boards.

"I'll say," Fletcher added. "Did you *see* the Amazon he was *with* last night? She wasn't so much built, as she was upholstered!" Fletcher demonstrated with lewd gestures suggesting huge breasts. "I bet she wrestled him for--"

"Okay, cut the chatter!" Wolfe interrupted, adding sarcastically, "Remember, we have *minors* here."

Kirk and Mitchell exchanged mildly annoyed glances. It was going to be a long exercise.

Movement at Engineering caught Kirk's eyes. Zyglowicz was coolly running her equipment checks, her quiet competent manner at odds with the perky blue ribbon tied around her bobbing ponytail. She appeared no older than Kirk.

Cute, Kirk thought smiling.

About to turn away, Kirk noticed Zyglowicz take a yearning, sidelong glance in Wellington's direction. Embarrassed for observing something private, Kirk quickly looked away.

"That's it for personnel," Delaney said good-naturedly. "We're still two men short, however. Lifesigns and sensors. I haven't had time to go over academic and simulation records to find qualified people. It's not *really* critical . . . We *can* use holo-sims to cover the stations . . . but I'd rather have a *real* person there, if you get my drift."

Kirk nodded. He knew exactly what Delaney meant. Kirk *hated* the holo-sims; they were so unnervingly real, he invariably felt a red alert going off in the back of his neck whenever he worked with one.

Kirk sincerely hoped that science would someday stop experimenting with artificial constructs that too-closely resembled living beings.

"Sir," Kirk offered tentatively, "I know that our two breakfast buddies, Nasta and Macudzinksi, sometimes act like morons . . . "

Kirk paused, did a double take, and nodded his head in placating agreement.

"Okay . . . they *are* morons . . . but they're really capable. I'm not sure how they are in the academics department, but they've been whizzing the Sims . . . haven't flamed-out this entire quarter!"

Kirk gave Delaney a circuit-blowing grin.

"Besides, they *said* they'd like the opportunity to work with you."

Delaney grinned wickedly in turn.

"Yes, they *sure* did, didn't they? Well," she said musingly, rubbing her chin, "why not take 'em out for a spin . . . sort of kick their tires and lube their lugnuts?"

"They'd like *that*," muttered Mitchell from his station.

"What was that, Cadet Mitchell?" Delaney inquired.

"I said, that they sure would like the chance to be included, sir." Mitchell answered smoothly.

"That's what I thought you said," Delaney returned.

"Hey, V. C.," Wellington called out. "Since the kids are now part of the team, why don't we drop the formalities with them? I mean, I hate to continually call them Cadet This and Cadet That."

Wellington turned to Mitchell. "So, Cadet This, what do you go by?"

Mitchell smiled. "Mitch."

"Okay, Mitch, welcome aboard." Turning to Kirk, he asked the inevitable question, "And you, Cadet That? What moniker do *you* go by?"

"Jimmy. Jim. Kirk. Whatever."

"Well, now, Jimmy-Jim Kirk-whatever, that's quite a mouthful, son," Wellington rejoined teasingly. "Let me rephrase the question: What would *you* like us to call you?"

Kirk looked at Mitchell, then the others, and embarrassed that he was taking entirely too long to answer a simple question, mumbled, "Jim."

Wellington winked at him. "Now see. That wasn't so hard, was it?" He turned to the rest of the crew. "Ladies and gentlemen, I'd like to officially welcome aboard Mitch and Jim. Let's give them both a round of applause!"

The others booed and jeered good-naturedly. Kirk and Mitchell both grinned broadly, giving themselves a high-five. Feeling a part of the crew now, they both turned back to complete their pre-flight checks.

"Hey, Jimmy," Mitchell whispered sotto voce, "you can still call me Gary."

"And you can still call me Jimmy," Kirk whispered in return.

The rest of the pre-flight went without incident, and soon they received the warning signal from the Simulation/Tactics Officer in Charge, one of Commander Kopeck's junior assistants, that the War Fighter Trainer simulation was about to start.

####

Chapter Fourteen

"Captain Delaney," the disembodied voice addressed them matter- of-factly. "You are in command of the NCC zero zero nine seven USS Aegis . . . Marauder Class . . . crew complement of fifty. Prepare to accept download of sim/data."

"Science station ready to accept download, Captain," Wolfe reported. Delaney nodded.

"Operations ready, Captain," Kirk reported.

The rest of the command stations reported ready.

"Very well," Delaney acknowledged her crew, then addressed the Sim/Tac OIC, "Aegis ready to accept download, sir." "Acknowledged. Download commencing."

"Download commencing, aye."

She sure is one cool customer, Kirk thought, admiringly.

"Download complete," the OIC reported.

"Got it," Wolfe acknowledged for all stations.

"Download received," Delaney reported.

"Acknowledged, Aegis," the OIC replied. "War Fighter Trainer commences sixty seconds from my mark . . . Mark . . . Godspeed, Captain."

"Thank you, sir. Aegis, out." Delaney looked around at her command crew. They all watched intensely as the bridge chronometer excruciatingly slowly counted down the sixty seconds.

The Red Alert sirens signaled StartEx.

"Sound battle stations!" Delaney ordered. "Screens up! Evasive action!"

Wellington immediately turned to his communications console. "Battle stations! All personnel to battle stations! This is not a drill, repeat--this is not a drill! All departments report!"

The bridge became electrified.

Mitchell at navigation fed nonstop data to the helm faster than Kirk's eyes could follow. Kirk, thoroughly enraptured by Aegis' smooth handling, accepted the data and nimbly compensated the helm to each new adjustment.

The two acted as one--anticipating each other's moves.

"Science Officer! Status!" Delaney said. "What's happening?"

"We are in an anomalous meteor shower, Captain," Wolfe replied calmly, not looking up from his monitor. "Probably deflected from its normal orbit by an unknown spatial disturbance."

"Tactical," Delaney ordered.

The forward viewing screen immediately changed into a three- dimensional schematic of their current predicament: They were indeed in the middle of an "anomalous" meteor shower . . . and they were about to face the worst of it!

"Mr. Kirk!" Delaney said calmly, "Get us out of here!"

"Aye, Captain!" Kirk swiftly responded, hands flying across the helm. In the back of his mind, Kirk formed a three-D image of the quickest, safest route to escape imminent destruction.

Solution?

Down!

Kirk evaded a small moonlet that was about to turn them into space dust, spun the Aegis 90 degrees to port to avoid the next deathtrap, and without warning, dropped the ship one million kilometers on the Z-axis, zig-zagging wildly through the lethal asteroid belt.

Kirk dared not think about the near misses. "Bullet burns," Dad called them.

The inertial dampers took a split second to compensate, and unprepared for the sudden maneuver, several of the command crew took a spill.

"What the--!" Zyglowicz cried out, falling head over heels, landing abruptly hard, spewing a string of expletives. One in particular made Kirk wince in shock.

She didn't say *that*, he thought.

It was over in an instant. One nano-second they were facing imminent destruction, the next, they were sailing "calm seas."

From the Captain's seat, Delaney spoke slowly, enunciating each word carefully. "What kind of maneuver do you call *that*, Mr. Kirk?"

Kirk spun slowly in his chair and looked at Delaney, sheepishly boyish. "The cross my heart and hope not to die today maneuver, Captain?"

"I see." Delaney's mouth quirked. The rest of the crew broke out in broad relieved grins.

"Back to work," Delaney interrupted. "Damage control! Mr. Wellington, I want to know how much that meteor shower cost us!"

"Aye, sir!"

"Zee, you gonna live?" Delaney asked.

Zyglowicz, receiving a hand up from Fletcher, looked slightly disheveled. Her blue ribbon had come undone and was hanging limply down over her right eye. Zyglowicz exasperatedly blew the ribbon out of the way, nodded at Delaney, and glared photon torpedoes at Kirk.

Uh-oh, Kirk thought, quickly turning back to his console.

"First Officer." Delaney turned her Captain's chair to face Wolfe.

"Aye, Captain."

"Break out the OPORDER. Let's see what Starfleet has planned for us."

"Aye, Captain. Computer, this is the First Officer, break out War Fighter Trainer sealed Operations Order Number zero zero one four nine six point two five. Acknowledge."

"Working. Sealed Operations Order Number zero zero one four nine six point two five requires voice activated code."

"Computer, this is the Captain," Delaney stepped in. "Voice activated code Delta Alpha zero three zero slash two execute."

"Working. Access complete."

Wolfe began sending each station their War Fighter telemetry. He dispatched the visual/voice instruction to the viewscreen.

The handsome figure of Commodore Lorraine appeared. She smiled at the bridge crew.

"Captain Delaney . . . crew of the Aegis . . . if you're listening to this recorded transmission, then you've found a way to escape the meteor shower. Congratulations--you're the first crew this training quarter to do so!"

Mitchell pounded Kirk on the back. Kirk grinned self-consciously; apple cheeks flushed a bright crimson.

"As you know, the Orion Belt has been experiencing a series of new, harassing raids by latter-day pirates. The Federation is responding to the local civilian governments' call for immediate aid.

"These unknown brigantines have been attacking shipping lanes within the Orion Belt. So far they've disabled two civilian transports, killing twenty non-combatants--men, women, and children-- leaving the survivors with just enough life-support to sustain them until help arrived.

"They've also pirated a cargo carrier that was transporting raw dilithium crystals to Centaurus Prime for processing." Lorraine's countenance grew grim as the gravity of the situation sunk in.

"However, as serious as these specifics are, the tactical scenario is worse. At Stardate One Four Six point Zero Three, the Orion raiders surprised and overcame the crew of an armed Starfleet vessel--the USS Argus, one of your sister Marauder Class Scout ships.

"The Argus' last transmission warned that they were under attack. Since then there has been no word. The Argus and crew are presumed lost or captured.

"Your mission, Captain Delaney, is to find these Raiders and stop them by whatever means necessary.

"Starfleet out." Commodore Lorraine's image was replaced with the UFP Standard.

Delaney rose smoothly and moved next to the viewing screen.

"Duke, split screen. Tactical on left; real-time on right." Wellington immediately made the necessary adjustments on his communications console.

"Mitch, plot three possible routes through the known pirates' zone of attack to the star grids on your board. When I ask for them I want you to put them on the screen . . . labeled Red for most hazardous . . . Blue for medium . . . Green for greatest probability of success."

Mitchell nodded in acknowledgement.

"Jim, study Mitch's plots and start anticipating methods and means of piloting the craft with maximum stealth and speed. I want you to compute a minimum of five possible scenarios with each of the plots."

"Aye, sir," Kirk immediately responded. He and Mitchell began planning their approach through OPFOR territory--offensively and defensively.

"Duke, maintain listening silence; maximum passive sensor range. I don't want any surprises while we're in the planning stage."

Wellington nodded. He was already listening intently, holding his subspace receiver unit to his ear.

"Wolfman, Zee, Jayjay--with me."

The members of the command crew carried out their orders with quiet efficiency.

####