Chapter Forty

A sudden laugh shared amongst friends brought Kopeck back to the present. Captain Arrowsmith was talking.

"You will *not* believe this kid! Talk about chutzpah! *I'm sorry sir, but the Captain has been grossly misinformed*!" Arrowsmith was barely able to sputter the words, he was laughing so hard. "Chris, I thought you were going to blow a gasket!"

"I wasn't too *far* from it, I'll admit. I wonder if the Academy Board of Regents knows about this little Federation law protecting minors?"

"I don't know," Arrowsmith replied, "but *I'm* not going to tell them. I want to see what *else* George's kid has up his sleeve. I'm almost afraid to find out."

"I can't believe ol' straight-laced George Kirk has such a . . . I don't know . . . unorthodox kid," Rickenbach said thoughtfully.

"You don't really know George, Ricky," Chance replied. "Finest security officer in the fleet . . . and that's only because he *turned down* Command School. Said he wasn't interested in glory, just in doing his duty."

"You mean he's only interested in always being there to pull Bob April's butt out of the fire. I swear, April thinks he's indestructible, always leading landing parties the way he does . . . It's a miracle the guy isn't dead yet!"

"Hey! Captain's prerogative," protested Arrowsmith.

"You're just upset 'cause you turned George down for a date once," teased Hume. "Next thing you knew, he'd met someone else and gotten himself married . . . Still carrying a grudge, huh?"

"I don't know what you're talking about," Rickenbach returned coldly.

"Yup, ol' straight-laced George Kirk's just about the most married man I know," Hume said smiling wickedly. "All he talks about are his two boys and his beautiful wife. Kinda gets in your craw doesn't it?"

Rickenbach gave him an "Oh please" look, then turned back to her monitor. She caught sight of Cadet Kirk. His young, studiously serious face reminded her of his father. He had the same intensity and complete focus for the job at hand.

But he didn't look like his father. Rickenbach had met George's wife, Winona, shortly after their marriage. She remembered a beautiful petite woman with laughing hazel eyes and hair the color of wheat spun gold. The same features she saw in front of her now.

Cadet Mitchell said something to Kirk, which caused him to suddenly smile, a smile so bright that it completely transformed his serious features. Rickenbach felt her throat constrict.

Seeing Winona's smile on the boy, Rickenbach experienced a momentary pang of regret flit across her face.

Some women have all the luck, she thought. ####

"Captain Delaney," Nkengi spoke over the loudspeaker, "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."

Delaney acknowledged.

Arrowsmith sat back and allowed his officers to run the simulation. He had good people and believed in allowing them to do their jobs. Besides he wanted to spend as much of his time observing the Aegis crew.

These kids were good--real good.

He glanced over at Kopeck while Nkengi went through the pre-ops drill with the cadets. He looks like he's swallowed something that disagrees with him. I wonder how *I'd* feel knowing that I'd almost sold out the Federation?

Arrowsmith glanced at the simchrono. T-minus ten minutes. All systems at go. Funny how they still fell back to the terminology from the early space program. There was so much tradition represented here in the Academy . . . by the cadets . . . by the officers training future officers. Even by the forms of greeting and farewell one offered a crew about to embark on an extended voyage . . .

" . . . Godspeed, Captain," Nkengi concluded.

Arrowsmith could almost feel the suddenly electrified atmosphere in the simroom. They're almost as excited as the cadets, he thought. Sure brings back memories . . . the sims weren't quite so realistic back then, but they were real enough. Got my butt beat enough times, that's certain.

The warning buzzer went off signaling StartEx.

"Sound battle stations!" Delaney's voice barked over the intercom.

Arrowsmith heard the acknowledgements coming from all of the bridge stations, the red alert siren whooping in the background, the bridge lighting suddenly dimming to a muted red . . . Again, a tradition from those days gone by of an ocean-going fleet. The red light helped the bridge crews' eyes adjust to the dark, critical for men at war who had to step outside at night onto pitch-black decks.

No one "stepped outside" anymore, but the red bridge lights remained.

"Captain!" the communications officer, Wellington, Arrowsmith remembered, was listening intently. "Extreme forward sensors detect bogies on intercept course . . . three . . . no, four . . . NO! SIX! . . . That's a confirmation! Six bogies on intercept vector! Approximately twenty light years out and closing!"

Wellington's usually cool businesslike facade had cracked when he'd realized the extraordinarily high number of enemy vessels approaching.

"First Officer! Identify!" Delaney ordered.

"Class five thrusters . . . impeller star drive . . . approaching near warp eight . . . weight approximate to the Marauder . . . Orions, Captain . . . they are shields up and weapons powered!"

"Well, at least, we can dispense with the niceties," Delaney replied. "Mister Kirk, I believe that the better part of valor is in order . . . one hundred eighty degrees about!"

"Aye, Captain," Kirk immediately acknowledged, executing a 180 degree turn with minimum fuss. "Gary, give me a plot to the nearest star system with gas giants . . . preferably one with lots of natural satellites!"

"You got it!" The young navigator, Mitchell, quickly began to compute a new plot. "Here it is . . . M-type star with thirteen planets . . . the outer five are all gas giants . . . the innermost has twenty . . . no, twenty-one moons!"

"Captain, request permission to alter course to the star grid on your board!"

While Mitchell had been working out the plots, the bogies had closed the distance to within ten light years. Close enough for photon torpedoes. They were splitting into three groups of two each, trying to close in on the Aegis from three different angles.

"Permission granted! Execute! Warp nine!" Delaney didn't bother studying the star charts that Mitchell had sent to her board. "Engineer, how long can we hold this speed?"

"The repairs from our last encounter had been incomplete, Captain. Our dilithium crystals have just about had it . . . fifteen minutes at the most!"

"Pilot, how long to the star system?" Delaney asked tensely.

"Seventeen minutes, sir!"

"Engineer, you've gotta give us seventeen minutes!"

Zyglowicz looked nonplussed, but nodded her acknowledgement.

"Mister Fletcher, is there some reason that they're giving us a pounding and we're not returning the favor in kind?"

"Sorry, Captain, adjusting the firing computer for maximum spread and random firing order!" Fletcher's voice had a definite near-panic squeak. "Ready to fire, Captain!"

"Fire, Mister Fletcher," Delaney replied dryly. "Before we get waxed."

The Marauder began to send its "in kind" replies to the closely following enemy. Fletcher managed to hit two bogies straight off . . . two down, four to go!

Kirk was piloting a combination of computer-aided, manual flying. Thinking of what Fletcher had said about a random firing order, he quickly called out, "Captain! Is there a pattern to their firing sequence? Maybe we can use it to our advantage?"

Seeing his point immediately, Delaney turned to Wolfe who was already checking his sensors.

"That's it, Captain!" Wolfe confirmed excitedly. "There's a definite pattern!" He continued to read his board intently. "At least twenty bursts to the bow's starboard, then aft port . . . ten shots to the bow portside, then aft starboard."

Wolfe looked at Delaney. "On my mark, the next shots will be to the bow's starboard . . . "

"Mister Kirk . . . stand by . . . ready to cut to port on Mister Wolfe's mark . . . " Delaney quickly ordered.

"Aye, Captain," Kirk acknowledged.

"Mark!" called Wolfe.

Kirk instantly executed a hard turn to port, spinning the Aegis on its forward axis. Fletcher, meanwhile, had the firing computer shoot omni-directionally. The result was that two bogies immediately along the Aegis' x and y axis received crippling hits amidships.

Kirk pulled out of the spin, cut to starboard to avoid being hit by the enemy's targeting computer that like clockwork had started firing at the Aegis' aft portside.

The Sim/Tac officers' admiration was almost palpable.

"How about *that*?" McClanahan said. "I happen to know a couple of active duty pilots who wouldn't have been able to make that call."

"And Delaney," added Rickenbach. "She didn't argue, or become locked in a useless, *I'm the Captain* debate . . . she took his suggestion and acted on it."

"That's a well-oiled team, led by a hell of fine young Captain," Arrowsmith proclaimed.

They nodded their heads in agreement, then went back to watch the fun. Because fun it was . . . these kids were making up some seat of the pants moves that were leaving the experienced officers breathless with anticipation.

Watching Cadet Kirk abruptly drop out of warp and fly the Aegis into the protection of the gas giant's satellite orbits, Arrowsmith winced. Yikes! This kid's a flying menace!

Two bogies were still in hot pursuit of the Aegis.

Kirk deliberately flew seemingly straight into the gas giant's largest moon at full impulse. The Sim/Tac crew could actually feel their stomachs turn as Kirk suddenly pulled up at the last second, and started flying a nap of the earth pattern.

The two bogies were still on his tail. The red warning light indicating that they were being successfully targeted went off.

"Mister Kirk . . . " Delaney began.

Kirk was flying a traditional ziz-zag pattern, avoiding the worst of the enemy's phasers, but still taking a beating.

"That pattern's too regular . . . he's gonna get them . . ."

Unexpectedly, Kirk cut his aft thrusters, and simultaneously reversed his forward momentum. The result was that the two bogies literally overshot the Aegis.

The bogey to their starboard suddenly veered up along its z-axis, narrowly missing a mountain that loomed out of nowhere. The second bogie wasn't quite so lucky. It slammed into the mountainous terrain, instantly going up in a warp core breach.

Without missing a beat, Kirk brought the Aegis up and behind the sole remaining bogey.

Excitedly, Delaney ordered, "Fire phasers!"

The remaining bogey disappeared in a fiery plume.

The cheers inside the Aegis' bridge were echoed in the Sim/Tac. The senior Marauder officers were giving each other high fives.

####

Chapter Forty-one

"That's what *I* call flying!" Hume shouted.

"Quiet!" called Nkengi. "I can't hear what the Captain's saying."

Chastised the Sim/Tac officers quieted down.

"Mister Kirk, that was a fair piece of flying," Delaney congratulated her young pilot. "Mister Mitchell, good job on finding this star system so quickly."

Pilot and navigator beamed at each other then continued with the job at hand.

"First Officer, damage report." Wolfe nodded acknowledgement, then turned and pointed at Wellington and Zyglowicz. Wellington immediately turned to his console and began his damage report drill.

"All stations, damage report . . . " Wellington's calm, quiet voice could be heard over the ship's intercom.

Zyglowicz, meanwhile, was in an intense conference over her direct line to engineering.

"Not *good* enough! We'll need warp ten on this mission . . . less than that will make us sitting ducks. Well, for crying out loud, haven't you tried diverting the . . . "

Zyglowicz' annoyed voice could be heard over the Sim/Tac's loudspeakers. Suddenly, she uttered a string of expletives that caused McClanahan, an experienced engineer with a few ships under his belt, to nearly spill the hot coffee he was about to drink.

"Sweet mother of . . . where did she pick up *that* kind of language? Never in my all my years working engineering have I heard anything like it!"

"Pretty disgusting, huh?" asked Rickenbach.

"Hell no! Did you listen to what she *said*?" McClanahan replied. "She didn't repeat a single word. I've never heard anyone express themselves so . . . singularly."

"Is *that* what you call it?" Rickenbach retorted, wincing at his bad pun.

"Hush! You two!" called Nkengi. "We can't hear what the cadets are saying . . . "

" . . . orders," finished Delaney.

"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 six. Acknowledge."

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

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

"Working. Access complete."

The Sim/Tac crew watched and listened intently as the image of Commodore Lorraine appeared and congratulated the crew for successfully evading the six-to-one odds.

" . . . Time is running out for any hope of finding the crew of the USS Argus alive. The vessel and all hands disappeared over four solar days ago. Any chance of rescue and recovery grows exponentially smaller with each passing hour. Again Aegis, your mission . . . "

Lorraine repeated the original mission.

Arrowsmith spun his chair to face Kopeck. "You've done a fair job with them, Commander."

Arrowsmith unconsciously echoed Delaney's earlier praise of Kirk and Mitchell. Kopeck nodded mutely.

"Your Sim/Tac class has the reputation of being the toughest course in the Academy. If a Command Track cadet wants to see the inside of a real ship's bridge, he or she has to pass your exacting standards. Those kids in there have learned to anticipate . . . to trust each other *and* their equipment. More importantly, they've learned not to settle for less than success."

Arrowsmith gazed intently at the fallen officer. "You should be proud of yourself."

Again Kopeck nodded, not meeting his eyes.

"So, Commander, having said all that, why don't you tell me about War Fighter? You know that there isn't any chance you'll ever get away with it. You've a left a trail of breadcrumbs leading straight to you."

Arrowsmith had his right elbow on the arm of his chair, his cheek resting on his fist. He was slouched low on the seat, his feet tucked in behind the chair's swivel base. Using the toes of his boots, he was absentmindedly swinging his seat back and forth. From this angle he was looking up at Kopeck.

Arrowsmith was the picture of perfect relaxation.

"We've traced the jasmine perfume to a certain little exclusive shop in Ghirardelli Square . . . the saleslady was most cooperative . . . Funny, I almost bought a girl some Ghirardelli *chocolate* once, but changed my mind . . . thought it was too expensive."

He shook his head.

"Is that perfume *really* three hundred credits for just a three ounce bottle?"

Kopeck nodded. Arrowsmith looked at Kopeck genuinely amazed.

He turned his attention momentarily to the Aegis' bridge. Delaney was holding a staff conference with her senior officers. Cadets Kirk and Mitchell were going through practice maneuvers, planning their angles of approach to the Orion Pirate base.

"The concierge at the Fairmont Hotel recognized two-D holos of both yourself and Lake . . . Oh, rest assured, he was most uncooperative at first . . . something about protecting the identity of the Fairmont's elite clientele . . . Of course, when we threatened to charge him and the entire staff with being accomplices after the fact to treason and attempted murder, he suddenly saw the light."

Arrowsmith shrugged. Kopeck looked at him, his shame working across his facial features.

"Your finances are in a state of flux . . . apparently you're living on credit, and several of your creditors are getting close to starting legal procedures . . . that is, the legitimate ones . . . the others are undoubtedly planning something a little more painful. So tell me . . . did you have time to pass a copy of War Fighter to the Orions?"

At Kopeck's startled look, Arrowsmith smiled, raising a single eyebrow.

"Oh yes. We know about the Orions . . . SOI has been closely investigating a sudden influx of activity from our pirate friends. We weren't sure at first why there was such an increase of sub-space communications from their *secret* transmission stations. Then War Fighter disappeared . . . and mysteriously reappeared . . . we were able to put two and two together."

He gave Kopeck a wide-eyed, disingenuous glance.

"So, like I asked . . . did you have time to pass it to the Orions?"

Kopeck shook his head resignedly.

"We didn't think so."

At Kopeck's startled look, Arrowsmith shrugged.

"Our covert operatives report that the Orions' are mighty unhappy about the whole affair . . . The UFP has implemented an old-fashioned gunboat diplomacy around known, as well as, heretofore supposedly *un*known, pirate strongholds . . . nothing goes in . . . nothing comes out . . . It's basically brought the Orions' clandestine livelihood to a grinding halt . . . We didn't *think* you'd had the time to pass on the War Fighter . . . your finances certainly haven't shown a sudden inflow of new wealth, but we had to make sure."

Arrowsmith stopped, suddenly interested in the Aegis' stealth approach to the star grids where the known pirate activity had been recorded. He was impressed by how the cadets were using astronomical bodies to camouflage their advance.

"And if that isn't enough evidence to suit you, we traced the unauthorized use of the HQ transporter to your pass codes. Furthermore, we put a trace on all outgoing transmissions from Yeoman Lake in the past twenty-four hours. On both occasions that she sat in on confidential meetings regarding the cadets, she relayed the information to you. So we have you, and you know it."

While he spoke, Arrowsmith continued to follow the cadets' approach intently.

"The question is, what are we going to do about Lake? We need your help to prosecute her as well. Unfortunately, we are bound by law not to make any deals with felons indicted for murder or attempted murder--"

"--Forget it!" Kopeck immediately snapped. "I *won't* turn state's witness. God help me, I've done so much that I'm ashamed of in the past few months . . . but I won't betray her! Do you understand me? I won't!"

"I see," Arrowsmith looked at Kopeck with varying degrees of sadness, pity, and contempt. "You know we can't hold her after Monday. Without state's evidence she walks. Is that what you want? To go to prison for something we're all fairly sure she concocted?"

"Who says she concocted it? Or that any of it was *her* fault? *I* planned it! *I* lured Cadet Merrick into that gym. *I* hid it in Sim/Tac Five!"

"The last item I'm certain of," Arrowsmith replied. "As for the previous ones . . . come on, give me break! Kopeck, we searched your quarters. For crying out loud, you still roll your socks, like 'sif you were still a cadet waiting for an unannounced inspection . . . You're incapable of such deviousness . . . or at least of planning a heist that would violate your oath and betray everything you've ever believed in . . . No, you're guilty all right, but not of the actual planning."

"I tell you I won't betray her! I *love* her! Can't you understand? I'd do anything for her . . . *any*thing . . . !

"You are one pathetic mother's son, you know that?" Arrowsmith asked disgustedly. "Look at those kids in there! They're going to make some fine young officers one day. You're partially responsible for that! Do you *really* want your legacy . . . what you're remembered for . . . to be that of a traitor to everything you've ever held important?"

Kopeck stood looking defiantly, refusing to acknowledge Arrowsmith. The other officers in the Sim/Tac pointedly ignored the conversation between them.

Arrowsmith sighed.

"Chris, the tricorder, please." Hume tossed it to Arrowsmith who caught it one-handed. Arrowsmith activated it, and adjusted its settings.

"Okay, let's see . . . Yeoman Estee Lake . . . AKA Esther Laikind . . . AKA Estelle Lakin . . . AKA Star La Kier . . . yep, our cool and efficient yeoman has a rap sheet longer than my arm. Not bad for someone not quite thirty, huh?"

Arrowsmith gave Kopeck a wry look.

"Apparently when Cadet Laikind resigned from the Academy she dropped out of sight for a few months, then reappeared on Wrigley's Pleasure Planet as the very popular and highly in demand *hostess*, Star La Kier . . . That is, until a *customer* filed a complaint that she'd had him rolled . . . lured him into a sleazy hotel room where a male accomplice overcame him and basically robbed him."

He paused.

"Not very original, I'm afraid. She was brought in for questioning, and released on bail pending a hearing. She skipped the planet along with the highly irate customer's credit codes. She wiped him out before he was able to change them . . . As for the male accomplice, he was found in a back alley a couple of days later . . . His throat had been cut." Arrowsmith winced. "Crude but effective, I suppose."

The sudden sounds of battle caught his attention.

####

Chapter Forty-two

The Aegis had engaged a trio of pirate vessels that were busily attacking a Federation cargo carrier.

Two other pirates were running a hit and run delaying action against the transport's escort vessel. The escort was too preoccupied holding off its own attackers and was therefore unable to provide covering fire for the cargo carrier.

Delaney leaned forward over the navigation console. While studying the tactical display before her, she almost absentmindedly input data onto Mitchell's board.

"Mister Kirk . . . on my mark execute the program on Mister Mitchell's board."

"Aye, Captain," Kirk acknowledged without looking up. He was concentrating on giving Fletcher the best firing advantage without opening the Aegis to deadly counterfire.

Seeing an opening in the Orions' attack sequence, he brought the Aegis up and over the UFP cargo ship, looped below it, and came up and behind two of the pirates. Fletcher fired a full salvo of torpedoes and phasers, destroying one pirate, and seriously crippling the second.

Their action suddenly brought them to the attention of all the pirates, including those who'd been playing tag with the escort vessel. The pirates suddenly came about and veered a beeline towards the Aegis.

They were about to get caught in the deadly pincers of a four-to- one attack.

"Helm," Delaney called out. "Stand by . . . steady . . . Mark!" Kirk immediately executed Delaney's program.

The Aegis dropped thirty thousand kilometers on the z-axis, pirouetted gracefully in a corkscrew pattern, came up and about, and immediately centered herself between three of the pirates.

"Fire phasers!" Delaney ordered. "Torpedoes, three hundred sixty degree full spread!"

"Multiple targets engaged! Phasers fired! Torpedoes away!" called Fletcher.

Kirk's eye finally deciphered the Aegis' positioning on the tactical display. They were executing a Knight's fork, just like in chess. Each of the Orions was well within the Aegis' deadly killing zone, much like chess pieces caught in the classic trap.

"Captain, two of the Orions have sustained hits . . . the first to his starboard nacelle, the other amidships. The first is spewing an anaphasic plasma stream . . . he's lost his impeller star drive . . . the second's outer shields are weakening," Wolfe reported.

"Concentrate your fires on the second, Mister Fletcher!"

"Aye, Captain!" The Aegis' lethal weaponry suddenly focused on the pirate's weakened shields. In less than an eye-blink, the shields collapsed, and the Aegis sliced through his hull. He went up in a lovely display of awesome, raw pyrotechnics, releasing the power of a small sun.

"A direct hit to the warp core!" Wolfe excitedly reported.

The Orions, caught off guard, recovered remarkably quickly and instantly began to return fire. However, Delaney's program was successfully anticipating their attack sequence, which was similar to that of the Orions they'd fought against earlier.

Realizing their fatal mistake, the sole remaining healthy ship began to fire a furious barrage of deadly torpedoes and phaser-like weapons. To Kirk's amazement, the pirate was actually trying to help his allies escape.

Honor among thieves, he thought wryly. Kirk's hands were itching to resume control of the helm. He fought the impulse to wrest control from the computer, however. Finally, Delaney gave the command he'd been waiting for.

"Mister Kirk, resume manual control."

Kirk immediately punched the manual override. The pirates had broken off the attack and were beating a hasty retreat. The pirate that hadn't sustained any perceptible damage was covering their withdrawal.

"Mister Fletcher stand by. Mister Kirk, show him your stuff."

"Aye, aye, Captain!"

Without looking at each other or even bothering to verbalize their requests, Kirk and Mitchell went to work. Mitchell fed him plots, then quickly fine-tuned them.

Kirk took each plot and adjusted his helm accordingly. The healthy pirate was obviously fighting a delaying action, engaging the Aegis then hightailing it out of range, a hit and run procedure. He was becoming irksome.

Kirk and Mitchell looked at each other. They'd had just about enough. How do you surround the enemy when all you've got is one vessel? You try to sucker him.

Kirk called out to Zyglowicz. "Ruth! What do you have for playing possum? Something that'll make us look like we've been hit hard?"

"Not much, just some flotsam and jetsam."

"Huh?" Kirk clearly didn't understand.

"Sorry, poor joke . . . One handy-dandy, radioactive possum ready and waiting. It emits a highly charged radioactive isotope similar to the ones the warp drive generates as a waste product."

"Captain, request permission to try something," Kirk asked.

"What exactly are you going to try?" Delaney demanded.

"The next time he fires, I'm going to bring the Aegis just within his phaser range. As soon as he fires, I'll shut down the warp drive, drop out of warp, and release the possum. Then, we'll see . . . "

"I don't like it . . . too risky," Delaney replied.

"Captain, I know I can fly her to within a hair's breadth of their range. She'll sustain minor scratches and bruises, but I promise I won't let the bad guys lay a hand on her."

Delaney looked at Kirk steadily. Finally, her countenance broke into a ruthless grin.

"Do it!"

Kirk nodded acknowledgement. He and Mitchell waited patiently for their opportunity, following just out of range of the Orions' torpedoes, firing in return.

"He's charging his phasers," Wolfe called. Call it Zen, telepathy, or just plain dumb luck, but Kirk and Mitchell immediately sent the Aegis into the Orions' phaser fire. Kirk kept the Aegis just out of maximum range; however, she still sustained minor damage. "Number two shield at eighty-five percent!" Zyglowicz called.

As soon as he'd felt the Aegis take the hit, Kirk shut the warp drive and dropped her back to normal space.

"Release the possum!" he called. Zyglowicz immediately complied. Kirk and Mitchell began a fair job of making the Aegis look not quite dead in the water, a crippled hunter who'd suddenly become the hunted. They turned her 180 degrees about, and started limping back to the relative safety of the nearest star system.

The possum, meanwhile, was generating a high concentration of radioactive pulses, letting the Orions know that a Marauder Class Federation vessel was ripe for the taking.

Come on, come on, Kirk thought intensely. Take the bait . . . We're so scared . . . and helpless . . . We know what Orions do to Federation prisoners.

The Orion bit . . . hook, line and sinker as Kirk's grandfather used to say!

"He's turning about!" Wolfe called excitedly. "He's dropping out of warp . . . approaching on standard impulse . . . intercept in fifteen light seconds!"

Wait for it . . . steady . . . now! Kirk punched the warp drive, bringing the engines, shields, and weapons back online. Too late, the Orion realized that he'd been tricked. Fletcher had already fired a full salvo of photon torpedoes. The Orion disappeared in a sudden nova-like explosion.

Mitchell slapped Kirk on the back in congratulations. The more senior cadets smiled indulgently.

"Let's follow them home, Mister Kirk!" Delaney said smiling, satisfied.

"Aye, Captain!"

####

Chapter Forty-three

The Sim/Tac echoed with the sounds of cheers. The senior officers inside were acting more like cadets than the cadets were.

"This calls for a drink!" suggested McClanahan. "There's a bar I know on Fisherman's Wharf that serves real Kentucky bourbon . . . none of this replicator stuff . . . *and* the best Dungeness crab in the area . . . Whaddaya say we all adjourn there afterwards?"

The others met his suggestion with resounding cheers.

"Food and drink on Chance!"

"All right! Can't miss that!"

"Chance McClanahan's going to part with his credits? *This* I've gotta see!"

"Hey! Who says I'm buying?" McClanahan protested. "I never said . . . " His protests were met with a sudden barrage of wadded paper and good-natured boos.

Their camaraderie dug deeply into Kopeck's guilt. He'd never been a part of a group. He'd always felt like an outsider, never able to make friends easily. He'd hidden his hurt and disappointment by withdrawing and avoiding social contacts, never accepting invitations to dinner or after work drinks. Maybe if he hadn't been such a loner, been so desperate for companionship, he wouldn't have fallen under Lake's spell.

Arrowsmith had been watching Kopeck closely throughout his team's sophomoric antics.

"So, Commander, where were we?" he asked. "Ah, yes, Yeoman Lake . . . as I said, her male accomplice was found quite dead, his throat slashed, almost to the vertebrae . . . well, our intrepid young lady made a few other appearances throughout the Federation's slightly less than reputable colony worlds . . . let's see Estelle Lakin and a John Doe male accomplice are wanted by Federation civil authorities for suspicion in the death of an eighty-year old gentlemen . . . I guess age doesn't necessarily equate to wisdom . . . she apparently married him and he died suddenly, of a heart attack, I believe."

Arrowsmith shook his head at human foibles.

"The gentleman's family reported his death as suspicious, since he'd just had a new heart put in less than two years before . . . his doctor had reported him in perfect health . . . She'd already cashed the insurance claim, as well as, transferred the bulk of his liquid assets to several untraceable accounts . . . As for her accomplice, authorities were able to find trace amounts of DNA residue in a hotel room where he'd been reported as staying. Forensics report states that the residue indicated signs of military grade phaser fire. Apparently, the poor sucker had been disintegrated."

Arrowsmith looked at Kopeck, not quite amused.

"Are you beginning to see a pattern here? Lake's male accomplices have a definitely reduced lifespan . . . oh, and, let's not forget Cadet Merrick . . . and, please, don't try to tell me that *you* did it, Kopeck. Merrick showed definite signs of having just had sexual intercourse . . . with a female . . . his medical examination found traces of fluids on him . . . definitely recent."

Kopeck thought back to how she'd practically thrown herself at him, in a fit of heat so soon after trapping Merrick in the gym. His relief that she'd been successful, that the threat to their happiness had been neutralized caused him to respond to her needs almost immediately.

If only she hadn't taunted him relentlessly with veiled suggestions about having wanted Merrick in the gym. He would've been tender; he wouldn't have hurt her the way he had. Now Arrowsmith was telling him that she'd had sex with Merrick prior to trying to kill him? No . . . that wasn't true . . . she loved *him* . . . she wouldn't have betrayed him like that!

Arrowsmith smiled with rueful admiration.

"Gotta hand it to the lady. When she sets her mind to something, she pursues it with a single-minded determination. Which brings me to how she wound up here at the Academy . . .

"SOI reports that a certain mysterious woman appeared then quickly disappeared on Aurora, a minor colony world that's known to have an Orion base. Covert operatives reported a human woman making quiet inquiries in several less than reputable bars. SOI put a tail on her, but lost her . . . apparently she was grabbed off the street by persons unknown onto a waiting anti-grav flyer.

"They figured she was shark bait, until recently when Starfleet and Federation Intelligence combined their investigation. And guess what? Yeoman Estee Lake was identified as the mysterious woman on Aurora."

Kopeck swallowed painfully. He knew he wasn't going to like the rest of the story.

"So why did Esther Laikind suddenly enlist in Starfleet and manage to wrangle an assignment here at SFA? Because *you* were here . . . you were part of the equation from the start."

Kopeck was shaking his head in denial.

"SOI theorizes that Lake felt confident that she could turn you and enlist your help in stealing War Fighter, then sell it to the Orions. But you see, she never intended to *sell* it . . . it was already sold . . . all she had to do now was deliver it . . . and you were the mailman."

Kopeck sat down suddenly. His legs looked like they couldn't support his weight anymore.

"She's used you from the start . . . just like she's used every other man she's ever worked with . . . just like she to tried use you six years ago when she was a cadet . . . and what do you bet that you were also slated to meet with a similar fate as her other accomplices?"

Kopeck hung his head in shame. "No," he whispered shaking his head. "She loves me . . . she told me . . . God help me, I believed her."

The tears were falling unchecked by now, the picture of a completely broken man. He'd betrayed his oath, his government, himself. Lake had called him a nothing once. She was right. He had nothing left.

"It was ridiculously easy," he began, as if in the middle of a conversation. "SAS should look into just how easy it actually was . . . several of the offices don't follow protocol in changing the computer codes every twenty-four hours . . . also, the clerks use foolish passwords that a child could break in about five seconds . . . their own names, names of their family members . . . that kind of thing.

"After Merrick was released, we knew that things were too hot to try to pass War Fighter to the buyers, so I downloaded it into Sim/Tac Five. I thought it was a brilliant move . . . none of the cadet crews had ever beaten the meteorite scenario the first time, and none of the crews scheduled had been pitted against it yet."

He shrugged, then smiled almost proudly.

"I'm afraid I hadn't anticipated Cadet Kirk. His own brilliance in the one-man simbooth kept getting him waxed. He kept trying to make his equipment do stuff it wasn't designed to do. Of course, you and I both know that the equipment is capable of doing more than its designers ever expected, but we like to keep the firsters honest."

Kopeck smiled, a genuinely fond smile.

"He and Delaney are probably the two best who have ever come through my class, and Kirk is already surpassing Delaney. Anyway, I hadn't anticipated his becoming part of her crew . . . That's something I had nothing to do with, by the way. The Commandant apparently decided to start her mentoring program, and in order to jump-start it, she ordered several crews reshuffled."

Kopeck suddenly laughed.

"There were some mighty upset senior cadets, let me tell you . . . Here they were, less than ten weeks from graduation, and we were changing the crew complements . . . ostensibly because of the scandal . . . but it was actually to start integrating junior cadets as part of all the crews."

He paused, remembering being accosted by several angry team Captains. It had been all he could do to allay their fears . . . he'd basically told them to handle it, or resign from their positions.

"When I heard that Delaney's crew had beaten the meteor shower the first time, I almost went into a panic. I immediately told the Sim/Tac duty officer that I'd take the debrief the next day. My Sim/Tac crew had not seen the real War Fighter scenario. We don't normally review the protocols until a week before the final exams."

He gave a short laugh.

"This is to ensure its secrecy. Therefore, they didn't realize that the scenario being played out that day was the real thing, and not one of many training scenarios that they hadn't had a chance to view before . . . I guess not reporting the discrepancy immediately to you or SAS probably sent out a red alert?"

Arrowsmith nodded. "We *did* wonder if it were possible for the Sim/Tac OIC not to have reviewed it yet. We decided to give you the benefit of the doubt for a few days. If you'd made an honest mistake, okay, if you were hiding something, then . . . "

" . . . then you were giving me enough rope to hang myself." Kopeck shrugged his shoulders, then stood and assumed a ramrod straight position. "What else do you need to know, sir?"

Arrowsmith stood also.

"Commander Hume, please." Hume pressed a switch on his console. The Sim/Tac door opened; Griffin and Okazaki entered. "Lieutenants, please escort Commander Kopeck to the offices of the Federation Justice Department. The Attorney General wishes to speak to him."

Griffin and Okazaki nodded. "Commander Kopeck, if you'll please come with us?" Griffin asked politely.

Kopeck nodded. Without another word, he walked out of the Sim/Tac, a room where he'd spent the better part of the last ten years.

####

Chapter Forty-four

"This is the USS Aegis, confirm sighting of the Orion base. The USS Argus is intact and in standard orbit around the planet. Coordinates follow . . ."

Delaney nodded at Wellington, who immediately transmitted a subspace burst with the necessary information.

As soon as the message was sent, the warning buzzer sounding EndEx went off. The bridge muted lighting instantly returned to Earth day normal. The cadets blinked in shock, mutely looking at each other.

EndEx? But they'd just gotten here!

"Welcome, back Aegis," Nkengi's voice said over the ship's intercom. "That was a hell of a fine piece of flying. Oh, and Captain Delaney, I have it on good authority that the drinks are on Commander McClanahan."

"Yes, sir, thank you, sir," Delaney replied slightly off- balanced. Drinks?

Nkengi's amused voice came back. "It's now zero six hundred hours. Captain Arrowsmith recommends that we all break for breakfast at the Escape Velocity. Commander McClanahan says that the milk's on him."

The Aegis crew finally began to smile in turn. Slowly their remarkable achievement began to sink in. They'd won! They'd found the pirate base and the USS Argus. They'd radioed Starfleet for immediate assistance . . . there was nothing else to do . . . the scenario was over!

Delaney gave Wolfe a thumbs up. He returned it, a silent salute to his Captain. Soon the entire crew was standing; each crewmember had his or her arm fully extended. They were each giving Delaney, who was standing in the center, a thumbs up as a tribute to her leadership.

####

Their arrival caused an immediate stir. Kirk never did figure out how the information arrived before they did, but news of their vindication, as well as their victory, had already reached the occupants of the Escape Velocity.

Classmates offering their congratulations approached Delaney and crew. They were interrupted by a voice both Kirk and Mitchell recognized.

"Jimmy! Mitch! Hey wait up! Excuse me, sir," Macudzinksi said politely, trying to sidestep around Finnegan, "but we happen to be on very close terms with Captain Delaney."

"That's absolutely correct, sir," Nasta chimed in. "In fact--"

"--In fact, they're the two newest members of my crew." Delaney smiled dangerously at Finnegan. "Do you have any problems with that, Finnegan?"

Finnegan was about to reply, when he noticed five senior officers observing their by-play. One officer, Finnegan saw that he was a Captain with a Marauder Squadron Commander's chest insignia, said something to another. The second officer nodded and approached Finnegan and Delaney.

"Excuse me, Cadet Delaney, Cadet . . . Finnegan is it?"

Finnegan nodded. Commander Hume smiled and took out his tricorder. He activated it and began scanning. Finnegan blanched. He looked like he was ready to bolt, but was instantly held in place by Wolfe and Wellington.

"Hmm-mm, very interesting, Cadet Finnegan . . . a metal object in your left trousers pocket looks like a . . . " he paused, his voice dropping dangerously, "I don't want to have to ask, Cadet."

Finnegan immediately pulled out a set of brass knuckles. Hume took them from him, and passed them on to Arrowsmith.

Mitchell, recalling what Finnegan had done to Kirk, was outraged. "Why you, low-down--" Kirk stopped him before he did anything.

Hume continued scanning, eventually concentrating on Finnegan's boots.

"Well, I'll be a dirty name . . . steel-toed reinforced . . . my, my, my . . . highly illegal, wouldn't you agree, Captain Arrowsmith?"

"I would indeed, Commander Hume. Cadet Finnegan, as Chairman of the Commandant's Honor Board, I hereby charge you with carrying illegally concealed weapons on the Academy campus. I believe the Commandant's next Captain's Mast meets Tuesday. I still have a few loose ends to tie up planetside, before I return to my ship, Cadet. I'll see you there. Dismissed."

Finnegan left quickly.

"I hate bullies," Arrowsmith murmured.

"We heard, Jimmy-boy! Mitch!" Macudzinksi's Texas drawl could be heard across the room. "The entire first year class is abuzz with it! Ya'll beat the real McCoy! Not some itty-bitty token trainer, but the real thing!"

He and Nasta each grabbed Kirk and Mitchell in bear hugs. Suddenly realizing what Delaney had said earlier, Macudzinksi stopped.

"Hey, Nasty, did you hear what Cadet Delaney said?"

"What was that, Zinc?"

"Cadet Delaney, sir, did you mean what you said to Cadet Finnegan? Or were you just joshing?"

Delaney smiled. "I never josh, Cadet Macudzinksi. I'm not even sure what it means."

"You mean, Nasty and me--?"

"You betcha, kid." She looked at Kirk and Mitchell, "You're right, they're none too bright. I'll expect you two to bring them up to speed."

"Yes, sir!" Kirk and Mitchell said together.

"Tomorrow morning, zero four thirty on the PT field," Delaney continued. "Be there. It's a date!"

Wellington spoke up.

"Hey V. C. since the two kids are gonna part of the team we can't keep on calling them, Cadet This and Cadet That." He looked at Macudzinksi. "Tell me, Cadet This, how do you want to be called?"

Kirk looked on hiding a smile, remembering his and Mitchell's welcome. Wellington really was a nice guy. He just didn't have very good eyesight when it came to certain ponytailed engineers.

Kirk looked over at Zyglowicz. She was watching Wellington, smiling tolerantly. Kirk sighed. Love is blind, I guess.

"Zinc, sir."

"Well, Zinc, welcome aboard. By the way, I'm Duke, this here's Wolfman, that's Jayjay over there, and this lovely little bundle of radioactive fallout is Zee, prettiest engineering cadet on campus."

Wellington gave her his trademark wink and smile. Zyglowicz blushed furiously. Kirk finally surrendered to the inevitable. He'd *never* have that kind of effect on women, he thought. Some guys just have all the luck.

"V. C. Delaney is Cadet Delaney to you, I'm afraid, but she'll grow on you." Wellington then turned to Nasta. "And you, Cadet That, what do you go by?"

Nasta paused embarrassed. He looked at Macudzinksi, Mitchell and Kirk in turn. Realizing he was taking too long, he shrugged, "Whatever. Doesn't really matter, I guess."

"Well now, Cadet Whatever Doesn't Really Matter I Guess, would get kind of hard to say in an emergency, don't you agree Cadet Delaney? You think you'd be able to issue an order, to Cadet Whatever, etcetera?"

Delaney's eyes smiled, as she shook her head no.

"Now, see, our crew Captain, says she'll never be able to get her orders out on time. The ship could be destroyed by the time she gets to *I Guess*, so come on, give the Captain a break, how about an easy name we can all say when things get hot."

"Come on, Nasty," Macudzinksi urged, "it ain't a very difficult question. Tell 'em what you'd like to be called."

"Okay, okay," Nasta said hastily. "I just don't want to be called Nasty anymore, all right? My name's Mike . . . I've wanted to tell you this for a while now, but . . . "

"Oh, forever more, Nas--I mean Mike. Why didn't you say something? I mean, I thought I was your best friend?"

"Really? You mean that?" Nasta seemed genuinely surprised that Macudzinksi would admit that out loud.

"Well, of course, you knucklehead! Why else would I put up with those whoppers you're always feeding us about girls!"

"What's a whopper?"

Macudzinksi just shook head in exasperation. Kirk and Mitchell smiled broadly.

Captain Arrowsmith interrupted them. "Hey how about some breakfast? I seem to remember the food here wasn't too bad. Eggs were a little dry, though."

Kirk looked at Nasta. "Don't worry, sir . . . " he began.

"With Cadet Nasta present . . . " Mitchell continued.

"No body's meal ever remains dry for long," finished Delaney.

####

Epilogue

Her gold hair glistened in the moonlight. She had arranged it differently tonight, elegantly upswept with golden ringlets softly cascading down her neck. Made her appear sophisticated, even stunning. He preferred the ponytail.

A shear black and white sheath over a one-piece body suit sensuously silhouetted her petite figure.

Kirk took a few seconds to stand quietly admiring her. He wanted to remember her like this, intangible as the starlit night. On impulse, he bent down and picked one of the hundreds of fragrant gladiolas that grew in the Academy's botanical gardens.

Ten demerits, cadet, he thought, walking up behind her. Might as well get this over with.

"May I join you?" he asked, a smile in voice. Zyglowicz whirled, startled.

"Jimmy! You scared me half to death!" Zyglowicz half-laughed half-cried out in annoyance. Kirk stood looking down at her, storing her image for posterity's sake, a bittersweet memory for his later years. He handed her the flower.

"Well, here I am," Kirk said unnecessarily. "You said you had to talk to me. It's a beautiful night . . . let's walk along the gardens and talk."

He took her arm, and they began to stroll in slow, unhurried steps. Kirk finally broke the silence that had settled between them.

"You're going back to him, aren't you?"

"Yes. I'm sorry, Jimmy. I don't want to hurt you, but I can't help how I feel. I'm in love with him. Duke and I talked last night, and he admitted he has feelings for me, but believes we're still too young to make permanent commitments. We have a training cruise, our first deep space assignments, our whole future before us. What we have may not last, but it's enough for now."

"And you have the end of term Senior Cadet Dance tonight."

"Yes. Duke's meeting me here in another few minutes. I told him I had to talk to you first . . . that it wouldn't be fair to just stop seeing you without explanation. He understood."

"Yeah, he would . . . why did he have to be such a nice guy anyway? If he'd been a creep, I would've done everything possible to make you forget him. How can a ordinary guy like me fight against someone who looks like that and also happens to be a great guy?"

"You just keep on being you, Jimmy. As for looks . . . somehow I don't think you'll have any problems in that department."

They had stopped walking and stood looking at each other. There was nothing left to say.

Kirk leaned down and kissed her tenderly one last time. He caressed her cheek gently, then turned and walked away.

As he walked, he suddenly remembered what day it was. Smiling ruefully, he said aloud, "Happy Birthday, Jim."

The End ####