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April 2270

Personal Log, James T. Kirk, Stardate 7029.8

We're going home.

Even as I say these words, I find it hard to believe. Our five year mission of exploration is over, and the Enterprise, battered and beaten after our encounter with the Kelvan invasion fleet, but still proud, is slated for an extensive overhaul and uprating. As for myself, well, my feelings are understandably mixed. These past five years have been the most exciting and fulfilling ones of my life. And yet, I am so very, very tired, physically, mentally, emotionally. It will be good to escape from the pressures of command, if only for a while.

It will be good to go home.

He snapped off the record deck recessed into the desk console of his small comfortable cabin.


The very word sounded alien to him. This was his home; this beautiful ship, although scarred and crippled, was where he belonged. She had been his for the past five years. She had been his life, his love, everything he was, from this cabin to the command bridge, to the tranquil openness of the observation deck where the awesome view of the panorama of space filled his being with feelings that might be described as religious.

Kirk wondered if he could leave her without losing the best part of himself.

Everything was so settled. He had no idea how long the Enterprise's refitting would take; Scotty estimated it would last anywhere from eighteen to thirty months. He would have liked to think he'd go back to her when it was all over. Kirk smiled sadly. He knew the odds against that happening were extremely long, but like a man who has known only one true love in his life, he desired nothing else. He really didn't know what he was going to do yet. To take command of another starship was unthinkable, but if that was his only choice...well, what else could he do? Command was all he knew. Without it, he felt certain his life would be empty and meaningless. But then, by the same token, to endure five more years of bone crushing responsibility of leadership could finish him. Better men than himself had collapsed under the strain. Kirk realized that much of the damage he had sustained on their voyage would never be completely repaired, much of the hurt would never heal.

Like his beloved Enterprise, Kirk, too, was something of a cripple.

He glanced around his quarters. Desks, tables, shelves--everything was bare. Packing crates lined the walls, a small, neat stack of boxes containing all his belongings. Everything he had come aboard with, and everything he had accumulated in the past five years, was now neatly tucked away in storage. It was a scene that was repeated in every cabin aboard the sleek starship, for in six standard hours, the Enterprise would limp painfully into a parking orbit around the planet Earth, in plain sight of the great Centroplex dockyards.

Kirk's door buzzer sounded off suddenly, much to his surprise. "Come in," he called.

The doors parted, and Doctor Leonard McCoy strolled in, carrying two glasses and a smoky, green bottle of Saurian brandy. "Thought we might have a nip or two before you go take the conn," the physician rasped.

"I thought you had everything packed, Bones," Kirk said, chuckling.

"Not quite." McCoy's bright eyes twinkled. "I haven't got any place to put this, so I guess we're gonna have to kill it."

They both laughed, and McCoy filled the glasses with the strong, heady liquor. Then the two friends stared in silence at one another for several long moments.

McCoy finally broke the spell. He touched his glass to Kirk's in a toast, and the chime of the ringing crystal echoed in the now-empty cabin. "Well, Jim, we made it. Here's to us."

"To us," Kirk repeated, his expression sobering. "And here's to the ones who didn't make it, Bones--to ninety-four of our shipmates who didn't come back. Somebody should remember." And to you, Talya, he added silently as he took a sip of his brandy.

"Amen to that," McCoy murmured fervently. "There are too many people buried in too many places scattered throughout this blasted galaxy." He stared distractedly down into his glass for a moment. Then he shook himself like a man coming shudderingly awake after a bad dream. "What kind of host are you anyway, Jim? Aren't you at least going to ask me to pull up a crate and stay awhile?"

"Oh, sorry, Bones. By all means, take a load off your feet." Each of them selected a sturdy packing case and sat down. McCoy topped off their drinks.

"Jesus, Bones, slow it down!" Kirk pleaded in mock horror. "At this rate, they'll have to wheel me into Nogura's office when we get to Starfleet. Won't that look great? The captain gets drunk as a skunk on his last day on the job!"

"Don't worry 'bout it. Drink up--I can hit you with a de-tox injection if you really need it," the doctor growled. "By the way, Jim," he added suddenly, "have you given any thought to what you're going to do now?"

Kirk's glass stopped halfway to his lips. He lowered it suddenly. "I can't...I mean, no, I haven't, Bones. I haven't wanted to think about it."

"I think you should," McCoy prodded gently. "Jim, you know you don't have one chance in a hundred of getting the Enterprise back. If she just needed to be overhauled and reconditioned, that'd be one thing. But they're going to totally refit and upgrade her. That could take a couple of years. You know damned well Nogura won't let you sit still for that long."

"You're right," Kirk said quietly. He glanced around his cabin again. "I love this ship, Bones. The thought of losing her was always an impossibility, something that if it was going to happen at all, would take place in the far future. But now..." He shrugged sadly.

"What about another ship?" They were both ignoring painful memories.

Kirk shook his head. "I don't know. I guess it would be something anyway. It wouldn't be the same, though. There's something special about this ship, this crew. Besides, I really don't know if I could handle another five-year command tour right now. I'm totally exhausted. Maybe a year or so off would do me some good. And I've heard this rumor that Admiral Nogura is considering appointing me to the Starfleet Operations staff."

"That's the most ridiculous thing I've ever heard," McCoy growled. "After a month of R & R, you'll be climbing the walls. You'll be champing at the bit to get back out into space. Nogura's got to be crazy! James T. Kirk without a starship--it'd be like watching a fish try to breathe out of water! You're not actually considering it, are you?"

"It hasn't even been offered to me yet, Bones, so don't get your dander up," Kirk chided. "I've got to admit, though--it sounds really attractive right now."

"Then you're as crazy as he is," McCoy grumbled. He took a long pull from his glass of brandy.

Kirk grinned. "Let's change the subject, Bones. What about you? Your tour of duty's over. Are you going to re-up?"

"Might as well," the physician sighed. "I really don't have anything to go home to, so I guess I'll just stay here. I've got three months accumulative leave coming. I think I'll go back to Atlanta for a while and see if I can't make a dent in that pile of cassettes I've got on Fabrini medicine."

"No rest for the wicked, eh?" Kirk needled. "Well, at least some of us will be staying aboard the Enterprise. I know Sulu, Uhura and Chekov will be staying, and of course, Scotty'll be overseeing every phase of the refitting."

"Good old Scotty," McCoy chuckled. "I can just hear his last request--to be buried in one of the engine nacelles!"

They laughed at that, and McCoy filled their glasses once more. "Visiting Starfleet Command again should be quite an experience," Kirk commented. "Things sure have changed in five years. New ship, new uniforms..."

"Yeah, I saw the memo on those uniforms," McCoy groused. "It'll be like a God damned fashion show, a different uniform for each period of the day!"

"Now, Doctor, one mustn't be resistant to change!" Kirk drained his glass and set it atop another crate. "I don't know about you, but I've got to get to the bridge while I can still walk!"

"Going to relieve the Great Stone Face, huh?" McCoy queried. "What's he's going to do, Jim? His tour's up, too, you know."

Kirk's face fell. "I don't have any idea what Spock's plans are, Bones. For the last few weeks he hasn't said a word to anybody on this ship unless it's in the performance of his duty, and then only if he's directly asked something. I can't remember the last time we played chess together. You know, Spock's never had the warmest personality in the world, byt lately he's been downright cold."

"Don't feel bad, Jim," the physician chuckled. "I can't even get a rise out of him with my sarcastic little criticisms! He never used to be able to resist coming back with a pithy little comment of his own. Now, though, he just ignores me and fixes me with that glacial stare of his."

"You think he's sick, Bones?" Kirk asked, concerned. "He's not phasing into pon farr again, or something equally exotic, is he?"

"Not that I can tell," McCoy offered. "I think he's just in one of those phases where he's trying to be as totally, non-emotionally Vulcan as he possibly can. He's been that way since that mind meld with you after Talya's death. It'll probably pass."

Reflecting upon Talya's death and the mind-meld that had saved his life, Kirk murmured, "I hope it does soon." He stood up and headed for the door. Then he halted suddenly. For the umpteenth time, he cast his gaze around the confines of the empty little cabin that had been his home these last five years. "Looks sort of lonely, doesn't it?" the captain asked, his voice a choked whisper.

McCoy threw a startled glance at Kirk and was surprised to see something that looked suspiciously like moisture glistening in his eyes.

"C'mon, Jim," McCoy muttered self-consciously. "If we don't get you up there soon, Spock'll have cats! Let's go." He tugged gently on the captain's arm, and for the last time, Kirk left his cabin for the bridge.


"Whoa there, Leonard," McCoy slurred drunkenly. "Ah keep tryin' to lean against these damn walls--but they keep on a-movin', Jim boy!"

Kirk giggled. Each of them had an arm over the other's shoulder, but it was debatable just who was supporting whom. The 'welcome home' party for the Enterprise crew in Starfleet Headquarters' giant reception hall had been a rousing success. Both of them had gotten, as McCoy had put it, 'extremely well-lit.' But at least they hadn't been alone. By the end of the night, there hadn't been too many people left standing.

Tomorrow was going to be a hellish day!

Kirk and McCoy staggered down the corridors of the guest dormitories, unsuccessfully trying to stifle their frequent bursts of slap-happy, staccato laughter. But then, if anyone had the right to cut loose, they surely did. Kirk and his crew had just brought their Enterprise back mostly intact from a hazardous galaxy-spanning mission of exploration. Now it was time for them to relax and let off a little steam...and woe be to anyone who begrudged them that right!

They had reached McCoy's temporary quarters, and he collapsed against the wall by the door, howling in helpless, inebriated laughter. He pointed an unsteady finger at Kirk. "Jim boy, you look like hell in that monkey suit!"

"So do you, Bones!" Kirk wheezed. "Give 'em a chance, though. You were determined not to like these new uniforms even before you saw 'em."

"Aw, Ah guess Ah'll get used to 'em," McCoy mumbled. "It's just that Ah kinda liked the old ones. When you wear the same duds every day for five years, you sort of get attached to 'em."

"Yeah," Kirk agreed. "I guess we could have taken 'em off once or twice to wash 'em, huh?"

They broke up completely then, and McCoy doubled over shaking with laughter. "Ah gotta go, Jim. Another outburst like that, and Ah'm gonna wet my pants! G'night, Jim!" He turned around and clumsily attempted to palm the entrance touch plate recessed in the wall panel. Then he hesitated momentarily.

"What's the matter?" Kirk asked.

"Oh, nothin'," McCoy returned. "Ah jest hope like hell this is my room!" He punched the touchplate then and literally fell into his cabin as a chortling Kirk stumbled off down the hallway.

Before too long, he found his way to his own quarters. He staggered inside and gratefully collapsed on his bunk. He lay on his back, staring at the ceiling. The artificial buoyancy imparted by the fumes of alcohol began to dissipate, and, as he sobered, Kirk found himself growing melancholy. It had been a long, tough, emotionally trying day for him. His farewell address to the crew had been especially difficult. Fully half of them were being either reassigned or mustered out, and Kirk had realized as he spoke to them that this would be the last time they would all be together as a single unit.

But the worst came when he finally had to go.

He stuck to the bridge while the rest of the crew beamed over to the great Centroplex, and he had another tough moment when Uhura, who had stayed behind after the other bridge crew personnel had left, came over to him and planted a tearful, wordless kiss on his lips.

Then he was alone.

He sat in the command chair, soaking up the feeling, the ambiance of simply being on the bridge. His eyes roved from station to station, to the now-dark main viewing screen, to the helm/navigation console just before him. He relived the glories, the triumphs and the tragedies of the past five years.

Only when a team of technicians entered the bridge and jolted him from his reverie did Kirk realize that the last Enterprise crewmember had beamed over more than three hours earlier, and that the great starship was already being shut down until the unspecified day when her refitting would begin.

Kirk stood up and took one last look around the bridge. He longingly brushed his fingertips over the back of the command chair. Then he left.

Somehow he maintained his composure on the long, lonely turbolift ride to the transporter room, even though his vision blurred several times as his eyes threatened to mist over.

Kirk shook his head as the alcoholic haze began to clear away. It was over. He still didn't know just what the future held for him. There would be a few weeks of intense debriefing, then a month of well-deserved, overdue furlough time. After that, God only knew. And he still wasn't sure just what Spock would do...


Damn his Vulcan hide! He had tried to see his first officer after they settled in the guest dormitory, trying to persuade him to attend the reception for the crew. Spock had not even allowed Kirk to enter his cabin. They had spoken through the door, and after much cajoling on the captain's part, the Vulcan had agreed to try to see his way clear to make a brief appearance.

He had never shown up.

After materializing in the dorm room's transporter alcove, Kirk strode forcefully to the viewer behind his desk. Spock's cold behavior over the past few weeks since their mind-meld had hurt and confused the captain. Now, however, it was bordering on the downright rude. Kirk's anger was fueled by the liquor in his system. He brutally punched the call signal for Spock's cabin. He had respected his science officer's privacy thus far, but this was getting to be too much. They were going to get this thing out into the open, and, if necessary, have it out.

He received no acknowledgment of his signal; his viewer remained dark. Kirk pressed the touch-sensor button again and again, a frown deepening on his handsome features. It wasn't that late. Either Spock was ignoring his call, or...

Kirk bolted from his cabin and stalked furiously down the corridor. His anger burned hotter and hotter. They were going to settle this once and for all.

But when he reached Spock's quarters, he pulled up short.

The door stood wide open, and it was dark inside. Kirk walked in hesitantly, palming the overhead lighting switch. "Spock?" he called out.

His voice reverberated off the walls. The shelves, closets and even the bureau drawers were empty; the bunk had been turned down. There was no evidence that anyone had occupied the cabin in the recent past.

A puzzled Kirk walked to the 'com panel and contacted the Housing Office. The fine-boned, delicately featured face of a pretty, young brunette ensign shimmered into being on the viewer. She smiled pleasantly as she acknowledged Kirk's call.

"Can I help you?" she queried.

"This is Captain James T. Kirk of the Enterprise," he returned. "Can you tell me if Commander Spock has moved to another dorm room?"

There was a slight hesitation. ", Captain. Didn't you know? Commander Spock mustered out shortly after he arrived this afternoon. He had his personal belongings shipped right to Lunaport, and he beamed up there himself just after the reception began."

"He...what did you say?" Kirk was stunned. He felt the room trying to spin dizzily around him. "He...he went to Lunaport? Where was he going?"

"To Vulcan, sir," the woman replied. "I imagine he's halfway there by now."

"I see," Kirk mumbled, his heart sinking. "Did he...leave any messages for me?"

She paused again, and there was an expression of genuine sympathy on her face. Kirk and Spock's friendship was a Starfleet legend. "No, sir," she said flatly. "I'm sorry."

"Thank you. Kirk out."

He sat down dazedly on the bunk. Spock's gone. Off to Vulcan without so much as a "good-bye" or even a "go to Hell." And not a friendly word had been spoken between us since the mind meld after Talya's death... No quiet chess games, no workouts in the gym.


This is what our long and legendary friendship has come to--exactly nothing.

Kirk sagged wearily against the wall. This long, sad, lonely day was finally catching up to him. He hadn't broken down when he had left his cabin with Bones, nor had he cracked when Uhura kissed him as she left the bridge.

He hadn't even cried when he'd finally beamed off the Enterprise.

But now the best friend he had ever had, a man who was closer to him than even a brother, had simply turned his back on him. It was the final indignity, the last straw.

James T. Kirk wept and cried like a baby in the empty cabin, his muscular shoulders shaking with great, racking sobs.

May 2270

The air tram shuttle banked gracefully in the warm southern California sunshine and eased smoothly down onto the landing track at Starfleet Headquarters Telegraph Hill entry port. The vehicle coasted gently to a stop, then its hatch doors hissed open, discharging its passengers out onto the tarmac.

Captain James T. Kirk, late of the starship Enterprise, strode briskly toward the pneumo-escalators that would transport him to the upper office level. He was curious, and not a little excited; Admiral Heihachiro Nogura had recalled him from leave half a week early, cause unknown. But he had his suspicions.

After two grueling weeks of debriefing and reviewing the ship's logs, Nogura had taken Kirk aside and spoken very earnestly to him about the future course of his career. He was a galactic hero now, Nogura had argued, a living symbol of the greatness of Starfleet. He was too valuable at home to help silence the critics who were working to see that Starfleet's activities were curtailed, and to act as an ombudsman to build goodwill between Starfleet and the public. Besides, Nogura had said, he felt certain that Kirk would have become a "burnout" statistic if he had stayed out in space even a few more weeks.

Despite the nagging doubt in the back of his mind, Kirk could feel himself being swayed by the persuasive admiral's skillfully constructed arguments. Nogura had said that he was needed here, and Kirk's sense of duty and loyalty were preternaturally strong. And he was, he had to admit, very, very tired, even after three and a half weeks of leave.

He would later come to realize he was so tired that he had never even seen how Nogura had played him like a fish on a line.

Kirk stepped into the anteroom of Nogura's office. Before he could announce his presence, however, the receptionist smiled cheerfully and waved him on. "Go right in, Captain," she said. "He's been expecting you."

Heihachiro Nogura came to his feet, a kindly smile on his ageless Oriental face. "Jim!" he exclaimed. "Good to see you. Sorry I had to call you back from leave early, but I've got some good news for you. Please sit down."

Kirk sat in a lounge chair facing the admiral's desk. He watched Nogura and waited.

With his shock of white hair and paternal smile, Nogura looked more like someone's grandfather than the Commanding Admiral of Starfleet. But the compact, powerful build of his slight frame served notice to one and all that here was a man to be reckoned with. At this moment, however, he was positively beaming at James Kirk.

"You remember what we discussed about Starfleet Operations, Jim?" the admiral asked.

Kirk eyed him speculatively. "You mean I've been appointed to the staff?"


"No?" Kirk was startled.

"No. I mean you are now Chief of Starfleet Operations. Congratulations, Admiral Kirk!"

Kirk was stunned into speechlessness. When he finally found his voice, he stammered, "A-admiral? I never dreamed...I mean, thank you, Heihachiro!"

They shook hands warmly, and a grinning Nogura pressed a small cellophane envelope into Kirk's palm. He glanced down at the packet.

Inside were two gleaming, gold-leaf stars--Admiral's stars.

Kirk's head swam. It was a great honor, almost as great an honor as that day a little over five years ago when he had first stepped onto the bridge of the Enterprise as her captain.

Almost, but not quite.

"The commission's effective immediately, but I want you to catch the last few days of your vacation. You've earned them, and you need them. Admiral Cady, the present Chief of Operations, will be retiring next month. He'll break you in and help you through the rough spots."

Kirk smiled self-consciously. "I don't know what to say, Heihachiro. I'll do my best to justify your confidence in me."

They were suddenly interrupted as something that resembled a small ion storm burst into the office with Nogura's receptionist frantically in tow.

"I tried to stop him, Admiral, but he--"

"That's all right, Betty; he can stay," Nogura intoned. "Hello, Leonard."

Leonard McCoy's face was livid with rage under a thickening growth of beard. His blue eyes blazed furiously, darting back and forth from Nogura to Kirk as the receptionist made a hasty, grateful retreat. With his facial hair and unkempt civilian attire, McCoy looked singularly out of place in this room with its two impeccably-uniformed officers. He glared at Nogura. "Well, you went and did it anyway, didn't you?" he ranted. "Despite all my warnings and objections, you grounded him!"

The physician wheeled on Kirk. He pointed to the stars in his friend's hands. "And you, you addle-brained jackass, you let him talk you into it! You accepted! You ought to be taken out and shot!! Don't you know what losing your command is gonna do to you?"

"Bones..." Kirk began.

"Commander McCoy," Nogura snapped. "I have decided that Jim will be most effective to us here. And I would like to know just how it is you even learned of this promotion in the first place!"

"I have my contacts!" McCoy replied guardedly. He was not about to reveal that Uhura, who had taken temporary duty as communications instructor at Starfleet Academy while waiting for the Enterprise's refitting to begin, had raised him at his Atlanta home as soon as the news of Kirk's promotion came through. "I think this is the biggest mistake that both of you ever made!" he finished.

"I'll not bandy words with you, Commander!" Nogura flared. His face suffused with red, and Kirk stood back in awe. Two of the most volatile tempers he had ever seen had just reached critical mass. Nogura was one of those who maintained an even keel most of the time; he kept his anger and frustrations bottled up and when he finally did explode, the result was terrible to behold. The irascible McCoy, on the other hand, had a reputation for having a volcanic temper that was known throughout Starfleet. But even Kirk had never seen him this aroused.

"And I'm through bandying words with you, 'Chiro!" McCoy spat. "We've both known each other a long time, just as we've both known Jim a long time! But I've known him longer and better! You've heard my arguments--how can you justify keeping him out of space?"

"It's for the good of Starfleet--"

"Don't give me any of that crap about the 'good of Starfleet'!" McCoy exploded. "What about the good of James T. Kirk? If you do this to him, at the very least you'll destroy his career; at the worse, you'll destroy him!!"

"That's quite enough, Commander!" Nogura roared. "Consider yourself up on charges of insubordination!!"

"Stick it up your ass," McCoy said quietly, a cold smile on his face. He tossed a cassette onto the Commanding Admiral's desk. "Before I came to your office, I stopped off at 'fleet Personnel and resigned my commission in protest over this magnificent blunder of judgment. So you see, Nogura, you can't file charges against a civilian. In fact, my friend, you can't do anything!"

Even Nogura looked shocked. His fury drained away immediately. " can't! We need you!"

"But I don't need you!" McCoy shot back.

"Bones." Kirk was stunned; he could hardly speak, but he felt as though he must. "Bones, don't do this to me. Don't..." He paused. He had almost said, 'Don't walk out on me, too, like Spock did.' Instead, he finished, "Don't throw away your career like this!"

"I've got nothing more to say to either of you gentlemen. Good day, Nogura." McCoy turned to Kirk with an icy stare. "Good day, Admiral!" He spat the word as though it were a foul, venomous obscenity. Then he stalked furiously out of Nogura's office.

Kirk stared after him.

"Let him go, Jim," Nogura said wearily. He sat down at his desk, looking somewhat stricken and guilty. He had not expected McCoy's reaction, and like it or not, he was responsible for Starfleet losing the best ship's surgeon it had ever had.

"Heihachiro," Kirk pleaded. "Let me go after him. Maybe I can talk some sense into him. Please!"

Nogura hesitated momentarily, then nodded in assent.

Kirk burst from the office and stormed down the corridor after McCoy. He caught a glimpse of his former C.M.O. as he prepared to board a turbolift for the plaza level. "Bones, wait!" he shouted. "Let me talk to you!"

McCoy either did not hear him, or pretended not to. He got into the car, and the doors hissed shut behind him.

Then he, too, was gone.

Just like Spock.

Just like the Enterprise.

Kirk stopped running. He stared in disbelief at the closed turbolift doors. He had not felt this lonely, this alone, since Sedola. He'd lost Talya, he'd lost Spock, and now he was losing McCoy.

Kirk opened his hand and gazed dejectedly down at the gold stars he still held in his palm. Suddenly, a grim, angry determination born of rejection and loneliness flooded through his being. To Hell with Spock! To Hell with McCoy! He'd show the both of them. He'd become the best Chief of Operations Starfleet ever had!

It was time for James T. Kirk to start building a new life for himself, one where he wasn't dependent on a Vulcan computer and a short-fused country doctor.

He turned and strode purposefully back to Nogura's office.

March 2271

"I've never seen the stars look so beautiful!" she whispered. "Look at them, Jim! The air's so steady they're hardly even twinkling!"

James Kirk smiled down at the lovely young woman who lay next to him, and kissed her gently. Vice-Admiral Lori Ciani was in her late forties, but she looked as though she had barely passed her twentieth year. She was probably the only good thing that had happened to him in that miserable year and a half since he had accepted his promotion to Admiral. His smile almost faded for a second. No, damn it! he thought. He was not going to brood about his aimless career situation now and spoil it for them! They had lived together a year before making it official. Now, three months after their wedding, they had, finally, managed to slip away for this two-week honeymoon in the secluded hills north of 'Frisco. Even now, Kirk thought ruefully, even now, Starfleet's only a few minutes away in case something should come up and we're needed.

Ciani noticed the tension lines suddenly tighten on his face. "What's the matter, babe?" she asked.

"Nothing at all," he returned quickly, flashing his best seductive smile. "I was just thinking. How long has it been since I told you how much I love you, Lori?"

"Oh, about two minutes," she replied. They laughed and kissed each other with more than a little heat.

They lay naked in each other's arms under the stars on a grassy hillside that overlooked their small, neat honeymoon cottage, basking in the afterglow of yet another torrid session of lovemaking. For Lori Ciani, it was a dream come true. Finally, she had a chance to get him away from the drudgery of his desk-bound existence at Starfleet, and hopefully away from the haunting memories of the fast-paced, exciting life he had once had as a starship captain. 'Not one in a million,' the saying went, and more than anything else in the world, Lori Ciani loved this proud, lonely, hurting, one-in-a-million.

She had felt guilty about it at first. Nogura had arranged for them to meet. He was well aware of Kirk's weakness for a beautiful woman, and the green-eyed, auburn-haired, lithe-limbed Lori Ciani was a lovely vision, indeed. But as she came to know him, she also grew to love him. She did her best to ease the deep emotional wounds he still carried from those harrowing five years, and she did her best to heal the more recent scars of losing Talya, losing the ship and losing his two best friends. She was there to comfort him when he awoke in an icy sweat in the middle of the night, clawing his way up from the depths of a nightmare as he relived the deaths of one or the other of his crew, his friends, his family.

Sometimes, even she couldn't help him, when she found him staring longingly into a clothes closet at the gold command tunic he wore on the Enterprise, or when he stood out on their patio, gazing up at a bright "star" which always hung in the sky in a synchronous orbit above San Francisco, a "star" called Centroplex, where his beloved starship was being refitted.

And those terrible times when he would moan in his sleep in a broken tone that tore at her heart, mumbling over and over that one word.


She gazed up at her man again, and saw the storm clouds gathering behind those fine, clear, hazel eyes. She would not let the pain claim him now, not while they had this special time together. In her supple, sensuous body, Lori Ciani had the power to make him forget the anguish, if only for a while. She would use her body to help him, and though some might consider her a whore for what she did, she knew she acted out of love. She knew what he liked and how to reach him; she knew how to release all the pain and tension knotted up inside him.

Ciani stretched out languorously next to Kirk. She let her long, slender fingers drift down to her abdomen, then even lower. Her fingertips brushed a spattering of pearlescent, creamy droplets of his semen, his essence, and she gently massaged them into the thick, wet, tangle of silken hair between her parted thighs. She looked angelic in the full, brilliant moonlight, and Kirk became more aroused with each passing second as he watched her.

She turned on her side to face Kirk, smiling sensously at him. Then she kissed him savagely, her tongue probing his mouth like a living thing as he pulled her to him in a crushing embrace.

They made love, and, as always, Kirk marveled at the fierce, wild, molten passion of this incredible woman. When they finished, Ciani lay sobbing quietly, grateful tears of joy streaming down her smooth cheeks.

"I love you, Jim," she whispered. "I love you more than any man I've ever met, more than you'll ever know."

"I love you, too, Lori. I don't know what I'd do without you just now." Kirk kissed her and held her close until she finally drifted off to sleep.

But James T. Kirk could not sleep.

He gently disengaged himself from her embrace. Ciani moaned softly and reached for him, but did not wake up. He stood up stiffly, and checked the small forcefield screen they'd set up to keep away insects and other small creatures. Ciani had begged to sleep out under the stars. If only she knew how homesick that made him feel--for he had come to realize, too late, that the stars were his home. He had never told her because she thought it made him feel better to get outside, and he didn't want to hurt her feelings.

Kirk gazed up into the black, cloudless night sky. To him, the stars were not just impossibly distant points of light. They were places, many of which he had visited. Almost overhead, brilliant Vega burned like a beacon, a blazing sun whose sixth planet was a deadly world much like prehistoric Earth. Red giant Arcturus with its desert planets. Deneb, Altair--all of them brought back memories flooding back. The stars were like old friends to him, and he felt a dull ache in his chest when he realized he would probably never visit them again.

He searched the skies for another object, momentarily puzzled when he couldn't readily find it. Then a smile of understanding lit his features. They were a good distance north of 'Frisco, and he'd have to get above the surrounding undergrowth. His dark-adapted eyes discerned a jagged rock outcropping jutting up from the surface a few hundred meters away. Kirk checked Ciani once more, grinning fondly at his sleeping beauty. He bent to kiss her soft cheek.

Then he set off across the meadow.

A warm, sultry summer breeze brushed Ciani's hair, and she stirred into a groggy semi-wakefulness. She sensed his absence almost immediately. "Jim?" she whispered.

She glanced over her left shoulder, catching a gleam of white as the bright moonlight reflected off his naked body. He was climbing up the side of the low cliff face nearby. Ciani pushed herself up on one elbow, then sat up, a puzzled frown on her face. She was about to call out to him until she realized what he was doing.


He was looking for his "star."

Lori Ciani sighed disconsolately. He was tormenting himself with the "good old days." If only he could give it up! She bit her lip, futiley fighting back tears. She gave him all of herself; she held back nothing, no reservation.

But was it enough?

She rose from the mattress, stretching her superb, naked form. The dew on the long, lush grass felt cool and cleansing to her bare feet as she followed his path to the rock formation.

It was an easy climb. Ciani nimbly scrambled up the pinnacle of the outcropping, careful not to scrape her exposed skin on the rocks. Kirk was so intent on watching that bright light near the horizon that he had not heard her ascent.

"She's a lot lower in the sky up here, isn't she?"

He flinched, startled by her sudden appearance. He looked up guiltily at her. She sat down next to him, throwing her arms around his neck. "I'm sorry," he murmured.

"Don't be," Ciani returned. "I understand, honey--I really do. It just tears me up to watch you torture yourself like this." She took a deep breath, trying to keep the catch out of her voice and the tears out of her beautiful sea-green eyes. "Jim, you've got to face facts. You were undoubtedly the finest line commander in Starfleet history, but that's over now. No officer who has taken a permanent ground assignment has ever returned to single vessel command. Please, baby-- can't you let it go? I can't bear to see you so unhappy."

"Bones, was right," Kirk sighed wearily. "I never should have accepted the admiral's stars. I belong out there, Lori. Nothing I've ever done in my entire life has meant as much to me as commanding a starship. And I doubt that anything else will ever mean as much." He managed a smile for her. "I guess you're right, though, hon. I'll have to get used to it. It's just taking me quite a while to adjust."

He stood up and pulled Ciani to her feet. "I'm sorry if I made you feel bad. We're supposed to be on our honeymoon, so I'm going to shove everything else from my mind and concentrating on devising new and exotic ways to corrupt that sweet young body of yours."

Ciani smiled. "That's more like it, Mister Kirk. We came up here so you could get some first-class nookie, if you remember, and not to sit on a rock and moon about your 'lost love.'" She pressed herself next to him and met his mouth in a long, lingering kiss, and was not at all surprised to feel him stirring against her.

Ciani glanced down between them and giggled. "Oho! As always, James T. Kirk rises to the occasion!"

Kirk chuckled. "I guess you just bring out the beast in me."

"Why do you think I'm called a vice admiral?" Her smile was impish. "What do you say about climbing back down to our little mattress and seeing if we can't do something about your, uh, 'condition'? Maybe you don't mind getting your cute little ass all bitten up with mosquitoes up here, but this is one girl who wants to keep her cute little ass unblemished. Besides, it is very unladylike when you have to scratch!"

"Okay, you win!" Kirk chortled. "Let's go." He started back down over the side of the outcropping.

But Ciani hung back momentarily, her eyes locked on the blazing point of light whose drydock cradled Kirk's beloved Enterprise. "Let him go," she whispered. "Please let him go. He'll never really be mine until you do."

Then she turned away and followed her husband down the cliff face.

December 2272

The call came through his office vidicom unit, but Kirk transferred the charges to his private home number. He scrambled the transmission, then activated the viewscreen. The rugged, angular face of Don Bales, Director of Starspanner Shipping Lines, swam into focus.

"Hello, Don," Kirk said. "Glad you called back so quickly."

"Jim! Good to see you!" Bales' expression was quizzical, but his eyes twinkled with good humor. "I got your message when I got back this afternoon. Level with me now--this is some kind of joke, some kind of put-on, isn't it?"

"It's no joke," Kirk's tone was level. "I was just curious. I'm seriously contemplating a change of scenery, and I wondered if you had any openings."

"But--a freighter captain?" Bales was flabbergasted, his voice incredulous. "Talk about a diamond in the rough. Jim, you're a living legend. Most people consider you the greatest starship captain in history, even greater than Garth of Izar! Why would you want to haul cargo on a tramp freighter?"

"Because I'm dying down here!" Even Kirk himself was surprised at the ragged edge of desperation in his voice. "Don, I've got to get back into space somehow. I know it'll never be the same again. Nothing could ever match commanding the Enterprise, but sitting here in Starfleet every day just serves to remind me of what I've lost. I see the ships' captains when they pass through here for debriefing. I see them in the lounge, getting together to talk about what it's like out there." He paused, brooding. "I envy them, Don. I envy them their freedom, their happiness. Do you know that when I was a line commander, more than anything else, I loathed desk-bound paper-pushing bureaucrats?" He laughed bitterly. "Look at me now. That's exactly what I am!"

"I'm sorry, Jim," Bales said. "I didn't know it was that bad. If you really want to pilot one of our tugs, I'm sure I can work something out. But do me a favor first...think it over very carefully. That's a hell of a decision to make. Don't do something you'll regret."

"I've been doing a lot of things I've regretted these last two and a half years," Kirk murmured. "Don't worry, Don. I'll hash it out. I've got an extended vacation leave coming next week. I'm going to the Mediterranean, and I'll have lots of time to think. If I get up the courage, I might even discuss this with Lori before I go."

"I hope you do. She's good for you, Jim. I'm sorry you didn't renew your contract for another year."

"We might later on," Kirk commented. "We haven't ruled it out, anyway."

"Well, at any rate, I hope you can reach some kind of decision about this." Bales smiled sympathetically. "Have a good time on your leave, Jim, and give me a buzz when you get back. Say hello to Lori for me."

"I will, Don. Thanks again."

Kirk closed the connection and leaned back in his swivel chair.

Lori Ciani. He should tell her what he was planning to do, but it would devastate her if she knew he wanted to leave Starfleet. Even though their marriage term had expired, they still lived together on a semi-regular basis. It gave each of them a little breathing room, and, if anything, this had improved their already strong relationship. He loved her dearly. It had been Kirk's decision not to officially renew their contract. He knew what his brooding unhappiness did to their relationship, and how much it cost Ciani. She always put up a brave, cheerful front, not letting him know how much it hurt her to see him so miserable. But he had lost track of the number of times he had stumbled upon her quietly weeping for him. He would carefully withdraw, and soon she would come to him as if nothing was wrong, and she was the happiest woman on Earth.

Kirk smiled fondly, deeply touched as he reflected on Ciani's love for him. She would never complain about or mention how it bothered her, but he could not bear to see her burdened so. She needed a space that was hers alone, and he had given that back to her when their contract expired.

Kirk rose from his desk and strode over to the large floor-to-ceiling window. He gazed out over the expanse of Starfleet Headquarters, lost in thought. The Enterprise's refitting was almost complete. Funny, he no longer thought of her as his ship. At least he had gotten that much out of his system, even though he still couldn't purge the ineffable sense of loss that smothered him whenever he thought of her.

Besides, the Enterprise belonged to Will Decker now, had belonged to him for several months. Kirk had personally recommended the late Commodore Matt Decker's brilliant young son for the center seat. He would make a good captain once he got launched in another twenty-three days. Will had urged him to be at Centroplex for the event, but that was one appointment James T. Kirk would not keep. It would be tantamount to watching another man make love to one's wife--and being powerless to stop it.

No, he had deliberately arranged to take his vacation leave then, and he would make damned sure he was far away from any holovid screens on the day of the big send-off.

Dusk gathered in the west, and Kirk involuntarily found himself searching the darkening skies, his eyes drawn as if by a magnet to the glimmering torch of Centroplex.

He couldn't bear to be reminded once more. With a savage oath, he whirled back to his desk. He punched a button on his console, and metallic mesh draperies slid in front of the window. Then he sat down heavily in the lounger again.

He could no longer go on like this, yet somehow, he couldn't visualize himself outside of Starfleet. As a youth, he had worked diligently to earn the right to wear this uniform. He could not easily give it up.

But then, he had never dreamed he'd been permanently grounded before he was forty, either.

Kirk rubbed his eyes wearily. He'd had enough for one day. It was time to go. He found himself desperately needing to see Ciani, wanting her, longing just to hear her voice. He would call her, and, as always, she would be there.

Kirk smiled again as he thought of that lovely, loving woman who had been his wife. Then he activated his vidicom unit and dialed her number.

January 2273

"I don't know, Jim. I just don't know. You've been away from the center seat for almost three years."

Heihachiro Nogura sighed heavily. It was a hard decision for him to make. The alien cloud thing was on a direct heading for Earth, bristling with a destructive power they couldn't even begin to imagine. Only the Enterprise had a ghost of a chance of intercepting the intruder in time--and that was only if Scott worked his crews around the clock to finish the refitting.

But what could he do about Kirk?

His chief of operations had come storming back from his North African vacation leave after receiving the senceiver alert depicting the annihilation of the three Klingon K't'inga class cruisers by the cloud. Kirk had all but demanded that Nogura reinstate him as captain of the Enterprise, based on his experiences during his five-year mission. And though he had not come right out and said, the Commanding Admiral knew Kirk was challenging the way he had been manipulated into accepting ground duty.

Nogura began to pace. When he had promoted Kirk to Admiral, he had thought he was doing what was best for the organization, but, Lord, what it had done to Kirk! He had sunk into a depression, becoming a bitter, broken shadow of the galactic hero who had returned triumphant from the five-year mission. Now, however, the man who stood silently before him radiated an aura of determination and strength that Nogura had never seen in the grounded Kirk. Perhaps he owed this man a second chance.

But could he gamble the safety of the Earth on that?

Starfleet's Commanding Admiral came to his decision. He stared piercingly at his visitor for several long moments. Kirk's gaze never wavered.

"All right, Jim," Nogura said. "I'll have Central cut your transfer of command orders, effective immediately."

"Thank you, sir," Kirk returned crisply. "I'll leave at once."

He turned to go, but Nogura brought him up short. "One second, Captain." His voice rang with intensity, and his eyes blazed. "If you are convinced that you are the right man, Jim, then go! If you are not, then for God's sake, don't!"

Kirk locked eyes with his mentor and nodded curtly. They shook hands; then the once-again captain of the starship Enterprise briskly strode from the office.

The impossible had happened--the Enterprise was his again! Kirk hurried to the main orbital transporter. Despite the gravity of this emergency situation, he could not suppress the happiness, the buoyancy he now felt. All the frustrations of the past two and a half years were quickly vanishing. He was going back out into space, commanding a starship...his starship, doing what he knew best.

Kirk identified himself and hastened to the transporter platform. He did not want to waste any time getting back.

"Navy yards," he snapped. "Centroplex, area seven. Energize."

The technician smoothly worked the console, and the familiar sensation of transport gripped Captain James T. Kirk. A broad smile lit his face as he faded from view.

It would be good to go home.

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