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Linda McInnis


The Anwar Sadat.

The name rang in Uhura's mind. To her, it was much more than a starship, more than her first command, even. It was a symbol. The man behind the name had been a great hero in his time, a man of foresight and vision, and a man from her part of the world. She hoped she could live up to the legacy of the name and the ship.

An escort vessel. Half the size of the Enterprise, two-thirds the weaponry, but speedy. These ships were not fighters, not meant to attack, but to warn other, more aggressive ships away from their charges. They carried the flag of the Federation to all corners of the known galaxy, and they were proud, the crews of these far ranging ships.

Uhura was excited to be a part of it.

It would be a good first command, she was positive. And, done well, this one year assignment might lead to a second year, or an even bigger command, a heavy frigate of the Miranda class or the ultimate goal of heavy cruiser.

"You're a million miles away. Has the Sadat already left?"

Uhura started at Christine Chapel's voice. Then she laughed. "I was gone, wasn't I? Does it show that much?"

"Not too much. Only when you're around anyone. Are you all set? We better beam over."

Uhura and Chapel left the temporary quarters they had shared during the weeks of waiting for the outcome of the Serenidad incident.

Everything was official, and the last of the regular Enterprise crew was now reassigned. Following the Serenidad incident, Admiral Kirk was grounded and had accepted a "promotion" and a position at the Academy, a fate the entire crew of the Enterprise haf seethed about. Spock, McCoy and Scotty had also taken positions at 'fleet Training Command. The rest of the bridge crew had been snapped up by various ships hungry for experienced officers, and Uhura's own orders had come through four days ago. She had spent the last of her time tying up loose ends, contacting long-lost friends on Earth, and getting ready to shoulder her first command. Soon the weight would be hers for real.

They materialized, Christine in mid-sentence "--have some lunch?"

Uhura was about to accept when she saw the stocky figure of Admiral José I. Mendez striding towards her. His expression was intent and serious.

"Better take a rain check, Chris. If I don't see you before I ship out, you will keep in touch, won't you? You have enough seniority for subspace squirts every now and then."

"As long as you let me know where you are, you'll hear from me. Penda, good luck. You'll be a fine captain. After all, you've had the best example in the 'fleet."

Christine hugged her friend, and Uhura felt the doctor's confidence to be a good omen. When she turned to greet Mendez, however, she wondered if she had been premature in thinking so.

"Admiral, I'm honored you came to meet me."

"You may not be when you hear what I have to tell you, Commander."

"I beg your pardon?" Surely his use of her old title had been an oversight.

"You're to report to Admiral Stone's office. There's been a change in your orders."

Uhura took a deep breath to maintain control. She didn't even want to think about what this could mean. Stone was the Chief of Special Services; Mendez served under him as the Director of the Escort Service. "What kind of change?"

"It'll keep 'til we get to Stone's office. Shall we?" He indicated the way.

They didn't speak again until they reached the office complex of the starbase. An aide showed them into Admiral Stone's office. He was behind the desk, and another man, young, blonde, and tall, with sharp facial features and glacier blue eyes, stood beside him at uneasy attention, looking as if he would rather be anywhere else.

"Commander Uhura, it's an honor," said the senior admiral.

Uhura could not hold back any longer. "I'm sorry, sir, but as of four days ago, my title is Captain. What can I do for you?"

Stone handed her a diskette and viewcorder. "For starters, read this. They're your new orders. Effective immediately, you are now first officer of the U.S.S. Anwar Sadat, Commander. Captain Sorensen, here, Jorgen Sorensen, will be your new commanding officer."

Uhura was too stunned to do anything but read the diskette. It confirmed Stone's unbelievable words. She struggled for something, anything, to say, but could only come out with "Why?"

"Your lack of direct command experience, Commander. I feel it's a liability until you've had further hours as an exec. I was off-post until yesterday, or the earlier orders would never have come through in the first place."

"With all due respect, sir, on the Enterprise, I commanded an entire department the size of which was nearly half the complement of the Sadat." Uhura felt her voice rising in anger and strove for some of the Vulcan control she had seen in action so often. "I've also logged well over two hundred star hours in the center seat, and--"

"I'm aware of your background, Mister. Your direct orders are to report to the Sadat as executive officer, second-in-command. Do you question them?"

Hell, yes, she questioned them! She knew it was not lack of command experience that had taken the Sadat away from her. She had heard rumors flying around 'fleet Headquarters about Kirk and the Enterprise and the fate of all of them, but she had never been given to gossip, and so had not paid much attention.

She wished now that she had listened more carefully. Something was wrong here; it stank. She determined in her rioting thoughts that she would find out what--or who--was holding her back and set it--or them--right if she had to take it to the Commanding Admiral herself. But now was not the time to argue. She snapped smartly to attention.

"Orders acknowledged and accepted, Sir." Jim Kirk would have been proud of me, she thought.

"Then report to your ship, Mister. Dismissed." She left.

Sorensen watched her go, then turned to Admiral Stone. "Permission to speak off the record, sir?"

Stone paused. "Granted," he said gruffly.

"Have you even bothered to look at her record, sir? Or is the fact that she served under Admiral Kirk enough for you to disqualify her from a position that you know she should have?"

Stone opened his mouth to retort, then glanced quickly at Mendez, who had come to attention at Sorensen's words.

"You're dismissed, Captain," snapped Stone. "Your ship needs you."

The younger man turned and left without a word.

Mendez shook his head slowly. "You were the one."

"I know how highly you recommended her, José, but her experience is too different for her to go into the center seat on an escort just now."

"That's an excuse. I've always suspected that some of your views went deeper than you ever let on."

"It doesn't matter. The orders are cut, and they leave tomorrow. There's a supply vessel, the S.S. McNaughton, that needs to make it to the Merope colony intact, and they don't care about petty rank disagreements. You'll see I'm right."

"No, Stoney. This time I think you're dead wrong."


Uhura solidified on the Sadat's small transporter platform. She stepped down to the console and presented her new orders to the tech. "Permission to come aboard."

The technician slipped the disk into his viewcorder and did a double take. "But I thought..." He reddened as he broke off his words. "Permission granted, Ma'am."

Uhura felt her back stiffening in spite of her resolve to make the best of this situation. It seemed that the crew of the Sadat were going to be as surprised at the new orders as she had been. "I thought so, too, Lieutenant." She looked around. "Is there anyone available who can show me to my quarters?"

As if by magic, the doors to the transporter room whisked open and a tall, rather chunky woman strode in. The transporter tech explained. "I called someone as soon as I knew you were coming aboard. It's a lot easier to show you than to give you directions."

Uhura smiled in spite of herself. That sounded like Enterprise. She decided her problems could wait until she found her quarters. "That's fine. And you are?" she asked the woman who had come in.

"Chief Engineer Maliszewski, Ma'am. Will you be beaming up the rest of your things?"

"Yes. There are only a couple of cases, and they should be in cargo central by now. Here are the chits." She handed the bits of plastic to the lieutenant.

"Thank you, Lieutenant--?"

"Baker, Ma'am."

Uhura nodded and followed Maliszewski into the corridor. The woman said nothing until they were in the turbolift heading for Deck Eight. "I understand condolences are in order."

"News travels fast." Uhura watched the engineer's face for signs of friendship or animosity.

"Yeah. Bad news fastest of all....For what it's worth, I was looking forward to having you as a boss."

"Thanks. Maybe next time..." Just talking about her lost command made her ache all over. She didn't think she would make it to her cabin without breaking down. How much farther was it?

"You met Sorensen." It was not a question.

"Yes." Uhura had nothing more to say on that subject.

"Don't write him off. He had nothing to do with this--he's a decent man. I served with him three years ago on a science survey ship. I bet he's even more surprised about this than you are."

Uhura was about to say she doubted that in the extreme, when she realized they had reached their destination. They headed out into the hallway. She noticed that, while well-lit, the corridors of the Sadat were only about two-thirds as wide as those of the Enterprise. Not claustrophobic, but she definitely had the feeling she was on a ship, something she had lost in her time on the bigger vessel. She liked it.

"Yours is here--Eight-Two-Seven. Sorensen's is at the other end and the rest I'll let you explore on your own. Your cabin's ready; computers up, comlinks functional. Went over it myself. I do computers as well as engines."

Uhura nodded. She decided she liked this no-nonsense woman. "Thanks, Malis-- Malish..."

"Mal-i-shef-ski. Pure polack. I can trace it back about ten centuries." She gave Uhura a glance that seemed to sum her up. "You play poker?"

"It's been a while, but I used to draw a pretty mean hand." She knew that she had passed the initial test. They would give her one game. If she got invited back a second time, the engineering department would be hers. Good. She could use a few friends right now.

"Okay. Once we get all under way and settled down, I'll have you get together with the rest of the gang. Hope you've got some credits saved up to lose."

And with that, Maliszewski gave her a lackadaisical salute and headed back to the lift.

Uhura pressed the door lock with her hand. As promised, it slid open to her touch. The night light was on, giving the room an eerie glow. She put on the ceiling fixture. A cabin is a cabin is a cabin, she thought. She might as well have been on the Enterprise, but she knew that ship and its easy camaraderie were gone. She felt an empty sadness settle over her. How had things gone so wrong so quickly?

Putting her carry case on the floor beside the bed, she keyed her door lock and sat down to gather her thoughts. The Enterprise days are over. You're first officer now, and you don't have time for self-pity.

But I should have been the captain, another part of her mind cried out. Sorensen knew it; she had read it on his face. Maliszewski knew it; hell, even the transporter tech knew it. Who was messing around with her career?

She was here, and she had a job to do. It was not in her to shirk her duty, but she knew she wouldn't rest until she found out why her command had been yanked out from under her. Maybe Sorensen would have a clue. She lay back and waited for her belongings to be delivered. This would be a good time to plan.


The Sadat's first officer was bent deep in thought over her comm screen when her door buzzer sounded, making her jump. Annoyed, she settled back in her chair and called, "Come."

It was Sorensen.

Uhura came to attention, focusing her gaze on the door just above his head. She knew it was childish, but a part of her couldn't help it. "At ease, Commander," Sorensen said.

She did not relax.

He sighed. "You can play it that way if you want to, Commander Uhura, but I'm going to tell you right now that I'm as surprised about this as you are. This situation may last for the entire assignment, or one of the top brass may change their minds again and yank one or the other of us out of here. But as long as things are the way they are now, I think it would be better for us and for the crew in general if we could work together as a team."

His amiability caught her by surprise. "What do you mean?" she asked, coming out of attention despite her resolve.

"This change of orders is a crock. If Stone really believes you're not ready to command, then his sanity should be questioned."

Uhura had to smile. "Maybe nothing that drastic, but you won't find me arguing with the general sentiment. But, due respect, and all that, why the concern? You got the command, after all..."

"Because I think you got a raw deal. Not that I'm not honored to have the job, and I sure don't doubt my own qualifications. But, I'll be honest--if you put our two service records, side by side--well, I know whom I'd"

"That's very flattering, sir, but it doesn't explain your...outrage."

"If it happened to you, it could happen to me. This situation doesn't seem to have anything to do with what you've done, but only who you served under. That's something none of us has much control over. I was very happy as captain of the Curie. I had a good crew; we had gotten used to each other. But the orders came through and I accepted a promotion. I didn't know I was walking over a qualified officer to do it. That's just not me."

"That's what your chief engineer said," Uhura reluctantly admitted.

"You've met Mallie! She's a great chief. You should know right now that as long as she's aboard, short of being blown out of space, there's not much she can't fix with a screwdriver and a pair of tweezers."

"She did seem very efficient," said Uhura, not wiling to admit that anyone could 'outfix' Mister Scott. She realized they were still faced off across her desk. "Have a seat...Captain. We might as well get acquainted."

"Thanks, Commander. I am looking forward to working with you."

Uhura changed the subject. "Why do you think there might be something besides just pig-headedness behind my new orders?"

"I have no hard facts, but I listen to scuttlebutt. Everyone around HQ knows that Jim Kirk was nearly killed in some top-secret skirmish a while back, and he's been promoted to a position at the Academy. Promoted! I can't claim to know the admiral, but I have met him a couple of times. He would not accept that position unless it was the only way he was going to be allowed to stay in Starfleet. I'm thinking that someone may just be out to get the rest of the officers who were close to him."

"I don't know, Captain. Isn't that a little far-fetched?"

"Not really, Commander...Uhura....And I'm Janni--we don't have to be so least not all the time....Being on a heavy cruiser has one big disadvantage: you stay out of touch with politics for too long at a time. In the science/survey vessel, we were always popping in and out of HQ to pick up this scientist or that specialist. The place is a hotbed. Believe me, what I've suggested is really mild compared to some of the other schemes I've caught wind of.

"You see," he continued, leaning over her terminal, "Escort Service is a branch of the Special Services, and that falls under Logistics. The director of Escort Service is Rear Admiral Mendez; the chief of Special Services, Vice Admiral Stone."

"I know that much," said Uhura testily. Starfleet politics always annoyed her.

"Well, Stone answers to Admiral Torvaal. And the upshot is that Torvaal was on the board that made a recommendation for Kirk's 'promotion.' My guess is that Stone is brown-nosing Torvaal--or maybe Stone's got something personal against Jim Kirk. Either way, you lose."

She considered it. "Maybe you're right. But if it's true, then am I supposed to just sit back and take it?"

She held up her right thumb and forefinger. Sorensen could barely see light between them.

"I came this close to resigning my commission. I was that disgusted."

Sorensen looked at her closely. "What stopped you?"

"Hell, fifteen years of service stopped me! Grand gestures are fine when they leave you somewhere to go, but my resignation would have been like stepping out of an airlock with no suit. Besides, if I really decide to do some digging into this, I'll be in a much better position working within the 'fleet than as a disgruntled outsider trying to get back in."

Sorensen nodded, a small smile on his face. "I knew there was a reason you got the reputation you have. Look, the ultimate decision is up to you. I know you want to command, but I'd like to think being my exec won't be so bad. This trip is going to take us way out, and we're all going to have to pull together to get that cargo ship to Merope. You can fight me if you want, or the two of us can run this ship the best way we know how and use whatever contacts we have at HQ to see if we can find a way to prove Stone shafted you. Which will it be?"

Uhura felt a strange sense of relief wash over her. At least it looked like she could work with this man. "Captain...Janni, I appreciate your support. It's good to know you're on my side. I may take you up on your offer to get to the bottom of all this. But right now, we have a ship to get to Merope. That's first on the list. Shall we go over the orders and the duty roster? I have a new crew to learn."

Sorensen scooted his chair around next to hers. He held out his hand. "It'll be a pleasure, Commander."

Uhura took the outstretched hand firmly. She was ready to go to work.


Work she did.

As accustomed as she was to handling the routine of being a department head, Uhura had not been completely prepared for the absolute flood of paperwork and bureaucracy she had to field as an executive officer. Since the captain had, for the most part, to be free to command, the first officer had the unenviable duty of doing everything that made commanding possible. Developing work schedules, handling complaints of all natures from maintenance to personnel, from medical to food service, all of these fell on Uhura's shoulders. She fielded them deftly, but it took its toll; three weeks into the mission, and she had not had an unbroken night's sleep.

The crew were becoming familiar to her. When she did have some cabin time, she spent most of it studying the rosters, familiarizing herself with names, holopix and backgrounds. Hard, rote work, but it paid off on her first inspection when she could call two engineering techs by name before they could introduce themselves. She noted Maliszewski's approving look and knew the hours of study had been worth it.

Bridge duty, once the most exciting part of her routine, was now awkward. Where she had had her own tidy, well-organized station aboard the Enterprise, now she stood, like a spectator at a sporting event, waiting to relay the captain's orders as necessary. She didn't think she would ever get used to that.

Of course, she had seen Spock wander the bridge as exec, but in his dual role, he could always go back to his anchor at the library/computer. She did have a seat at the systems monitoring area, should things get rough, but that was not "home" the way her comm console had been. She hoped her uneasiness would pass with time.

Sorensen proved as easy to work for as she had hoped. He respected her knowledge and experience, particularly in light of the fact that she would have been captain, but for an admiral's whim.

Aside from the bridge, Uhura spent most of her time in and around Engineering, getting to know its chief better. Maliszewski was more than competent; she bordered on genius. Uhura had looked through some of her papers and theories on computers and warp engines, and although she maintained a working knowledge of developments in those fields, she had been lost after the first few pages. One day, she hoped Maliszewski and Spock would be able to meet. She thought it might be a match made in Heaven.

Though she had precious little free time, Uhura tried to spend some of it getting to know the other officers on board. Aside from her coming aboard physical, she had seen little of the Sadat's CMO, an Edoan named Arnaud. She had heard from crewmembers who had been on the ship for the last few trips that the doctor was typical of her species, keeping mostly to herself in the sickbay, but that her bedside manner was excellent. Uhura also noticed the doctor's third arm made for one of the quickest physicals she had ever had.

The communications officer was a study in contrasts. Mister G'rraltha was a Tellarite, who had not been blessed with the harsh, gruff voice that most of his race possessed. His words rolled out in a perfect Etonian accent that caught her so much by surprise that she had to choke back a gasp when she was introduced to him. She had checked his record and found it impeccable. Not only did he have the English and Tellarite accents to perfection, he was rated as native-fluent in six other languages, including Vulcan and Rigellian. If she ever had time, she would like to get to know him better.

As she settled in, she saw how well the entire crew worked together. Although none of them had been together for more than a year, she found them to be a very highly motivated group of individuals. Perhaps the variety was what kept things so interesting. It also helped that she and Sorensen set a good example of mutual cooperation, but she had one of those intuitive feelings (one Spock had long since given up trying to understand) that this group of beings was a good one.

And now, after four weeks of non-stop work, the heavy, chunky cargo ship chugging steadily beside them, it looked as though she might be able to get to bed early and sleep the entire night. Since she had gone off-shift, Uhura had been glued to her desk and terminal, readying reports, finalizing schedules and preparing inspection forms. They hit open space tomorrow, and she wanted all miscellaneous work out of the way. Two hundred lightyears from Sol, this was where the real work began, and the escort ship became real protection in the face of danger, instead of a mere honor guard or formality.

Punching off her terminal, she sat back. She was ready. Excitement caused her pulse to increase slightly, even though she knew she should take advantage of this rare free time, Uhura's adrenalin flowed too heavily. Was this what Jim Kirk had felt like before they had gone into an unknown situation? She felt a great sense of responsibility for the ship, its crew, and its captain. She liked Sorensen; she respected him. If only she hadn't come to work for him under such backward circumstances, she might have been content to be exec for a while. But she wanted this ship, wanted it to be hers.

Her door buzzed, interrupting the erratic pacing she had begun.

"Come!" Her voice sounded too loud to her own ears. The door slid aside to reveal the chief engineer. "Mallie, come in! It's good to see you."

Uhura knew the chief's first name from her file, but as yet, she had heard no one use it. She was not surprised; Deneice simply did not fit this tall, broad woman with the hands that could fix anything. Sorensen called her "Mallie", and Uhura had followed his lead, while everyone else called her "Chief" or "Boss."

"What can I do for you?" she asked as Mallie plopped herself down in the extra chair.

"Nothing, I expect. It's what I can do for you."

Uhura grinned; Mallie always got right to the point. "And what's that?"

"I'm no doctor, Uhura, but I bet right now that your little heart is about to beat flat out of that good-sized chest of yours. And you're not so black that I can't see you're flushed with excitement or nerves or whatever. We're all up for tomorrow. Why not come down to The Hole and have a couple of nice, soothing hands of poker?"

Uhura laughed out loud, marveling at how good it felt. "I've heard about your poker games, and I doubt if they would relax me. Bankrupt me is more likely. And I'm not nervous...Hell, yes, I am. But a poker game? I know what you're up to--you just want a few credits off a space-happy officer."

"There is that possibility," Mallie said with mock innocence, "but it's kind of a tradition to spend the last night in known space cutting up. It hones the edge, makes us know we're all in this together. I--that is, we'd all like it if you came."

For an answer, Uhura dashed into her dressing alcove/shower, pressed a few buttons, and before Mallie could blink, she was back dressed in comfortable slacks and a soft tunic with lots of pockets. "For my winnings," she grinned, point at them.

"What are we waiting for?" asked Mallie, and they headed for the lower decks.

The engineering decks of the Sadat were well-named "The Hole." Although the ship was approximately one-half the size of the Enterprise, the builders and designers of the escort class had managed to cram almost the same size engine in a much smaller space. Consequently, there was not much room for amenities.

The poker group filled Maliszewski's tiny office, surrounding her desk. She had packed all her papers, blueprints, graphics boards and tools away in the built-in wall filers, and the players were intent on the game.

Uhura had been in Engineering, both during inspection and while talking with Maliszewski during some of her time off, but this was the first opportunity she had had to spend any length of time there. She was glad claustrophobia was not a problem for her. Low ceilings, cramped corridors, dim lights, all around her space pressed in, giving no hint of the vast space that lay mere meters away outside the primary hull. No space had been 'wasted' on an airy intermix chamber and linear accelerator column; here, all the mixing was done in a chamber of a trititanium lead alloy located in the center of the ship. Various corridors and sections radiated outward from that center, leading to the different nerve cores of the ship--life support, auxiliary control, damage control, sickbay. Each had a separate control area, and so far no one had complained about the redundancy, as this factor had saved the escort class ships from destruction the few times they had been attacked far from any starbase and ready help.

But right now, Uhura was not thinking about the history of the escort class vessel. She was not thinking about moving into open space in the next few hours. She was calculating the odds of completing her inside straight on the next draw, given the number of players and the number of cards in their hands.

It's times like this when having Mister Spock to look over my shoulder could come in real handy, she thought. She decided to go for broke and asked the dealer for two cards. No luck. She had missed the straight by one card. She'd have to bluff if she were to stay in the game at all. She had won a few credits, only to have them disappear quickly back into the pot on the next hand. Maliszewski and her second, a thin, slight man by the name of Krasnyk, had been the heaviest winners so far, and it looked like they were out for blood.

Uhura decided to find out how good they really were. She toyed with a stack of credit chits in front of her. "Raise three hundred."

This time, M'reka and Flannery sat a little straighter, then dropped out.

"Sshe'ss got ssomething extra sspecial, and I'm not rich enough to ssee it," muttered M'reka, one of the Caitian life support techs.

Uhura, Maliszewski and Krasnyk were left, and no one showed signs of giving up. Uhura was aware of the size of the pot in one corner of her mind, but mostly she was determined to win. It was like a stand off before a battle--she felt the adrenalin and strove for the facial and vocal control that years at the communications station had given her. They went around once more and Krasnyk folded. It was up to Maliszewski.

"I'm calling you, First," stated Mallie flatly. "Let's see what's behind that solid face of yours."

Uhura took a breath. She had no hand--only a pair of jacks. She had hoped to draw a seven on odds to complete her straight, but had gotten the second face card instead. It was something, but she doubted if it would be enough.

"All right, Engineer," she said, and laid her cards lightly on the table.

A little ripple went through the surrounding spectators. Uhura could tell that no one had thought she was bluffing. She kept her face steady as her opponent place her cards on the table. Five red cards stared up at her. So Mallie had had a flush! No wonder she had been so sure of herself. Uhura started to lean back and slide over her chips when Mallie's hand caught her eye again.

There was the seven of hearts, the queen, the ten and the six--but that three, that was no heart! The diamond gleamed up at her. She had won. On a damn pair of jacks she had forced out all the hands but one, and she'd beaten it.

Maliszewski slowly shook her head. "Been a while since I've been bluffed that good, right, Kras?"

The man had a whimsical look on his face. "I coulda won. I had a better hand than either of you, but you had me going. Wild."

The little group began to break up as Uhura began to fill several of her pockets with credit chips. "I told you this shirt would come in handy," she laughed to Maliszewski.

"You can play the game, that's for sure. Next time, we won't be so careless."

"Consider me warned," Uhura agreed.

The office was empty now except for the three of them. Maliszewski got up and closed the door. "What do you think, Kras? Should we tell her?"

"Tell me what?" asked Uhura, her mind still on the game.

"You know, First, poker is really a game of judgment, of playing people, rather than cards. You could call it situation management."

"I suppose so. Is there a point to all this?"

"Yeah, I think you can tell her," ventured Krasnyk.

"Tell me what, for God's sake?" She was becoming a bit annoyed at the elliptical conversation.

"First..." Uhura realized that Mallie was going to call her "First" from now on and resigned herself to get used to it.

"First, Kras and I, we do a lot of tinkering down here. Not just your regular maintenance, but some--experimenting. We like to stay on the leading edge of technology."

"That's commendable, I'm sure, but what does that have to do with poker?" She had yet to meet an engineer who didn't tinker and experiment. Hell, she had rewired her own station more times than she could remember. What was with these two?

"Nothing, except we've given this ship an ace in the hole, if it ever needs one." Mallie paused, as if she were still reluctant to tell Uhura her secret. Then she made her decision. "This ship has trans-warp capacity."

"But it can't!" gasped Uhura. "At least from what I've read--the warp field generator isn't big enough, the matter intake scoops not capable--" She had heard of plans to construct several starships with trans-warp drive, but it had proven impractical. The starship would have to be the three times the size of Space Dock just to house the generator.

"Krasnyk and I, we discovered that size is really not a factor. It comes in the matter-intake and warp-field generating processes. We've discovered a way of increasing the flow into the matter scoop by directing more energy than normal to the scoop field, which pulls in the matter at a faster rate, which allows for faster conversion, which provides more energy to the modified warp field generator, which allows for trans-warp capacity."

"Think of it like revving an aircar in neutral very high before throwing it in gear," supplemented Krasnyk.

"But how did you build the modified warp field generator?"

"That's classified. Just us two know," said Mallie firmly.

Krasnyk only nodded. Uhura noticed her never seemed to say much in his boss' presence.

"But why tell me at all?" asked Uhura, still trying to comprehend what the ship might be able to do with trans-warp capacity. "Why not just tell the captain?"

"Oh, Janni," sighed the chief engineer. "He's a good man, but he has a streak of idealism just a bit too wide. If he got wind of this, he'd want me 'n Kras to head for the Vulcan Science Academy to give papers and talks and all that bullshit. We've still got work to do, and this is just the place to do it: in open space, away from too many prying eyes. You know what would happen if the top brass got hold of me. They'd make me a prisoner--have me building these little generators for all their dirty, little spy ships."

"Again, why tell me?"

"I know your rep. You're no scatterbrain."

"Nor a gossip, either," put in Krasnyk softly.

"Right. And that's important. This is an incredible capacity. We want you to know because in open space, you never know what you'll run into--or have to run away from. When--or if--the time comes, you'll know what to say to the captain."

Uhura didn't say anything for a while. She sat looking at the two engineers, geniuses, if her opinion counted for anything. Her hands toyed with a stack of chips still on the table. "Mallie, why did you join Starfleet?"

The big woman grinned at her. "Because they have the best toys."

Uhura couldn't hold back her own smile. She pocketed the chips and stood as if to leave. "Your secret's safe with me--until or unless we have to use your 'ace in the hole.' What happens then is anybody's guess."

"Can't ask for a better deal than that," said Maliszewski, holding out her hand.

Uhura took it without hesitation, knowing she had made a good ally in her chief engineer. She was ready to tackle open space.


"Commander Uhura to the briefing room. Uhura to the briefing room." The message came over the bridge speaker where Uhura had the conn. The summons was a surprise, as the captain had said their usual staff meeting would not be held until the following day.

Uhura punched the comm button on the chair's arm. "Lieutenant LaGrange to the bridge. Lieutenant LaGrange, please report to the bridge." She flicked off the switch. "Mister G'rraltha, you have the conn."

She stood aside to let the strapping Tellarite ease into the seat. The door to the bridge opened and LaGrange stepped out. "Lieutenant, you have Communications. Maintain constant audio communication with the McNaughton. Helm, navigation, maintain course and speed. Sciences, sensors on maximum." Her duty discharged, Uhura took the lift to the main briefing room.

The captain was already in the briefing room, along with the chief engineer, the CMO, and the head of Security, a slender Caitian named Kr'see. "First Officer reporting, as ordered, sir," said Uhura, finding a chair.

Sorensen nodded. "Good. I know this is an unexpected meeting, but I've receive an invitation, and I wanted to ask your advice."

"An invitasshun?" hissed Kr'see. Her ears had gone back against her head, a sign of suspicion.

"Yes. Captain Yarto of the McNaughton has invited me to inspect his ship, and have dinner with him on board tomorrow. Opinions?"

"Thiss iss very bad bussinessss," Kr'see muttered. "Why wait until we're thiss far out from known sspacce?" Her ears had not come back up.

"Isn't this against the rules?" asked Maliszewski.

"Do we have any reason to be so suspicious? The regulation states that the captain must remain in contact with the ship at all times during star flight. We might have an open transmitter or even a specified time limit with automatic beam-back. Mallie?"

"That's a piece of cake, Captain, but why the interest in going over there?"

"Call it diplomatic relations, if you will, Engineer. I didn't have the chance to meet with Yarto before we left Federation territory. We've been side by side for six weeks now and will be for six more before we get to Merope. In the interests of cooperation in the face of any potential emergency, I think a face-to-face meeting would be helpful. What's our status?"

"Fully functional, sir," reported Uhura. "We're already maintaining 'round the clock audio contact, and we've got computer interface, should it be necessary to take over their helm and engines for any reason. Science station is on maximum sensors, and, so far, they've picked up nothing."

"Same here, sir," said Mallie. "Engines are in top shape; transporter's at one hundred percent. But I don't think we should be lulled into a false sense of security. This is open space, and if something should happen, well, it's just an extra risk that we'd have to deal with."

Sorensen sat for a moment, contemplating an area of the wall over their heads. He stood. "I appreciate your concern and advice. However, given the calm situation of the past six weeks, and the precautions we are taking to see that everything stays that way, I see no reason that a small side trip would in any way endanger the Sadat. Commander Uhura, I'm sure the center seat will be safe in your capable hands. I'll carry the open transmitter, Mallie. Have it ready for beamover by 1700 tomorrow. Any questions?"

"I don't trusst thiss ssituation!" spat Kr'see. "Requesst permissssion to esscort the captain." The Caitian's tail twitched with emotion.

Sorensen sighed. "Very well. Be in dress uniform. And Kr'see, try to keep your ears up. Dismissed."

The officers left the briefing room for their respective stations, but Uhura lingered behind. "Captain, I don't know about this."

"Not you, too, Uhura. Why is everyone seeing ghosts everywhere?"

"Because Mallie's right. Things have been too calm. We've had no radio contact from anyone, no sensor blips, nothing. I don't like it."

"Commander, if you were to check the log entries of all the escort trips flown in the last five years, you'd see that ninety-nine percent of them were just like this one: totally uneventful. Maybe you're too used to looking for trouble."

"I don't want trouble. But McNaughton herself is a tempting prize. Even empty, she's a state-of-the-art cargo carrier. Not to mention her cargo. I've checked the inventory list. This is the third wave of supplies to Merope. Not seed and simple tools--lots of technological supplies, medicines, things anyone who claims this space might very much want to get their hands on."

"No one claims this space--it's open."

"That's what we thought when we went into Tholian space. And Captain Kirk almost died on an off-ship mission."

"I've read recent history, Commander. That was a derelict ship--going into a warp in the very fabric of space itself. If McNaughton is as valuable as you believe, then I'll actually be safer there than here, won't I?" He relented at her look. "Don't make me be hard-nosed about this. It's three, maybe four hours at the most. If there's the slightest hint of trouble, I'll beam back so fast, no one will know I'm gone."

"Captain--Janni. I won't log a formal protest, but it's my duty to give you my opinion. I don't really think anything will happen either. I just don't think we need the extra risk."

Sorensen nodded. "Opinion duly noted. Report back to your duty station." He smiled. "And thanks for your concern."

They left the briefing room together.


It was two hours into what Uhura had chosen privately to call 'the dinner party,' and nothing had happened. The tension was telling on the bridge crew. People were starting to jump at the common noises that they all heard everyday, and Uhura knew she had to defuse the situation, or someone would fire the phasers simply to release tension.

She punched a button on the center seat's console. "First Officer to Mess Officer, send up some coffee and sandwiches to the bridge. This crew will pull a double shift."

There were muffled groans. That had gotten their attention away from McNaughton, right enough.

The crew that had been on the bridge several hours before Sorensen had gone over to the other ship, and they were scheduled to be relieved before he came back, but Uhura did not want the distraction of shift change to interfere in any way with monitoring McNaughton. She glanced around the bridge and saw several people doing some isometric exercises good for relaxation. She nodded in approval. They were a good crew, even for the short time they had been together.

"Mister G'rraltha, increase the volume on Captain Sorensen's transmitter. Let's hear what's going on over there."

They tuned in in mid-sentence. "--have the finest in navigation equipment. As you can see from this station, there's virtually no way we could get lost once course is locked into the computer. Of course, we carry almost no weapons, except for the engine-mounted defensive phaser banks. That's why we rely so heavily on the Starfleet Escort Service."

"We're happy to be of help, Captain Yarto," came Sorensen's voice. "Are you a colonist on Merope yourself?"

The captain of the McNaughton gave a rich chuckle. "Oh, no! I'm an old space dog. Wandering the galaxy, carrying supplies and such to those stuck planetside is a good enough life for me. I try not to even think about retirement. Now, if you'll come to this station, I'll show you--"

Yarto's words were drowned out by the Sadat's helmsman, Luka. "Sensors showing a trace of antimatter residue, Commander. No object visible, but there seem to be objects in orbit above a brown dwarf directly in front of us...sensor traces, bearing mark two and...ships approaching, top speed--six of 'em, sir!"

Sure enough, as Uhura watched, astounded, six oddly shaped ships warped out from behind the massive protostar before them. Immediately thinking of Orions, whose territory they were nearest, she demanded a configuration scan.

"No recorded configuration, Commander. They seem to be traveling on ion power, and they have warp capacity. Their technology seems to be equivalent with our own."

"Deflectors up, maximum strength," Uhura ordered. She punched her comm button. "Engineer, we have a situation up here. Can you see it?"

"Clear as glass, First," came Mallie's voice. "What's the word?"

"That 'ace in the hole'--have you tested it?"

"Third shift is very quiet, and its denizens are loyal to their engineer. It's a go, Uhura."

"Very well. Stand-by."

"You got it. Maliszewski out."

"Status report, helm," Uhura ordered.

"No change. They're just--there."

"G'rraltha, contact the captain immediately. Have the transporter room lock on coordinates--" Before she could finish her sentence, Uhura watched horrified as a brilliant circle of light shot from one of the six ships directly to the McNaughton's bridge. The bubble atop the primary hull of the cargo vessel exploded in a burst of flame and sparks.

"G'rraltha, the transmitter--can you lock on it?"

"I have it, Ma'am. All other communications are either out, or being blocked. Here it is."

Through the whistles and hisses of static, the bridge crew could make out shouts and groans from the other ship.

Uhura didn't stop to think. "Luka, lock on phasers, arm photon torpedoes. Go for the ship that fired. Helm, stand by with evasive maneuvers. G'rraltha, open hailing frequencies."

"Ready, Commander."

Uhura took a breath. "This is Commander Penda Nyota Uhura, First Officer of the United Starship Anwar Sadat. The ship you have fired upon is under the protection of the United Federation of Planets. We are on a peaceful mission. Please allow us to pass, and we will not fire on you. Is that understood?" She paused. "Send it in all known languages and codes."

Before G'rraltha's hoof could lift to punch the buttons, all six of the strange, crescent-shaped ships turned in unison to face the Sadat. Uhura knew; she felt the massive attack readying to annihilate them.

"Helm, release ship control to engineering! Mallie!" she yelled into her intercom. "Now! I need it now!"

Suddenly, and with no sense of movement, the Sadat was outside the ring of attacking ships, and directly behind the leader.

"Lock phasers on main engine banks. Back up with torpedoes. Fire, now!"

The flood of destructive energy caught the crescent-shaped vessel completely by surprise. It did not totally disintegrate, but large chunks shot off into space, and they could see the atmosphere rushing out to form a faint cloud that soon disappeared into the emptiness of space.

"Again, Mallie!" called Uhura. "Next ship!"

Three more times, the Sadat performed its miraculous space jumps. Uhura marveled that there was no sensation of inertia. They were one place one instant, and--blip--over there the next. Even six to one, the other ships were outmatched. How can you fight an opponent who only stays in place long enough to destroy you?

Three of the ships were totally destroyed, and the Sadat was aiming for the fourth, when the remainder pulled together in a close formation.

"Steady," Uhura said to no one in particular and to everyone. She didn't know exactly what to expect, but intuition told her that the ships out there would not severely harm the McNaughton--what she had said to Sorensen about its value was perfectly true. Other than the first shot to cripple its bridge, the alien vessels had left the cargo ship alone.

"Phasers, photon torpedoes, maintain ready status. Mallie, stand by."

It was over.

Apparently discouraged by the 'ace in the hole,' the unknown craft linked together and headed off away from the Sadat and McNaughton. Uhura had a fleeting thought of sending a parting salvo after them, but before she could gel her thoughts into actions, the ships dropped into subspace and warped out.

"Helm, can we trace them with a sensor probe?"

"Unable to determine. Although, from the energy curve used, I doubt our probe could maintain contact with the vessels."

"I'll accept that," said Uhura. "G'rraltha, find out what the hell's going on over there on the McNaughton."

"I've raised Kr'see, Commander." The Tellarite's normal smooth voice had turned raspy. Uhura didn't like to think about what that might mean.

"Put her on audio....Lieutenant, what's the status over there?"

"Ss'bad. Hsssss! The bridge iss desstroyed. It wass a sstrategic hit. The captain--both captainss-are dead."

Silence descended over the Sadat's bridge. Sorensen dead? But it can't be, thought Uhura in a detached way. I didn't even know him.

"Lieutenant Kr'see, what's your status?"

"Minor bruises. I was thrown into the turbolift when the shot hit."

"Who's in command?"

"First Mate Nyeer was below decks when the attack began. She is now in Auxiliary Control; it received no damage."

"Fine. Once command is transferred, I want you back over here to put together an investigative team. Have the first mate contact me as soon as things have calmed down. Have the McNaughton again make for Merope at Warp Factor Two. And Kr'see, have Captain Sorensen...beamed back to us. Uhura out."

Uhura punched another comm button. "Doctor Arnaud, prepare a med-team for beam-over to McNaughton. Have them meet me in the transporter room A.S.A.P. and send a body bag and stretcher down for the captain. Out."

Uhura looked around the bridge. Faces were glazed with disbelief, especially those of the few who had served with Sorensen on the Curie. Uhura knew she had to do something, say something, but she could think of nothing. She was captain, now, like it or not, and it was her duty to pull the crew together. Be careful what you wish for... The old phrase her grandfather had repeated time after time haunted her.

She hit the comm button. "All hands, this is the first officer. I regret--Oh, Hell! People, Captain Sorensen is dead. He was killed in the first and only shot to the McNaughton's bridge. Security Chief Kr'see is bringing him back to us. We will have a ceremony at the beginning of first shift tomorrow. But, for now, the captain would have wanted us to continue with our duty. Second shift, report to the bridge to relieve your crewmates. First Officer out."

Uhura saw that all the bridge regulars were looking at her. Somehow, she found the words. "I know that most of you were closer to the captain that I was, but I had come to know the kind of man he was. I wish I had had the chance to get to know the man himself....I think that, once our relief gets here, that we should go to the transporter room and bring him home."

The tears started to flow then with some of the crew members, and the looks of gratitude from others helped Uhura maintain her composure. She did not want to cry; she wanted to shout to the empty space surrounding her how unfair it was. What she did was follow the rest of the bridge crew to the transporter room.

Maliszewski was waiting by the transporter console. Baker was at his post, and Uhura had an odd sense of déja vu from when she first boarded the ship.

"You kept your head." Mallie did not look as though she had shed any tears, but she looked about ten years older than she had earlier in the morning.

"That's what I was trained to do." She hoped Kr'see would hurry up.

"What you're trained to do and what you actually do are often vastly different things. Janni--would have approved."

Uhura only nodded as the transporter began to shine. In a moment, Kr'see and her charge materialized on the platform.

Uhura motioned the Edoan doctor forward. "Take him to sickbay, Arnaud. Do whatever's necessary."

Before the Edoan took the body, Kr'see dipped a paw into the captain's blood, and touched it to her forehead. Then the two loaded the body into the bag and onto the antigrav stretcher. Uhura didn't look as the doctor and an assistant rolled Sorensen's body out of the room; in silence, the other medics beamed over to McNaughton.

Kr'see stood at attention before Uhura. "I offer mysself for dissiplinary action, Commander." The Caitian's tail dropped and her ears hung dejectedly to the sides of her head.

"Not necessary, Lieutenant. You did your duty. You never left the captain's side until you were forced away by the explosion. Simply because you didn't die with him does not mean you require disciplining. Now, what's the status on McNaughton?"

"Their firsst mate iss in command. They are controlling the sship from Auxiliary Control. The sship iss on coursse for Merope colony at Warp Two, per your orderss." The security officer paused as though she were weighing her next words carefully, trying to decide if she wanted to say them at all.

"Is there something else, Lieutenant?"

"Possssibly. When we were at dinner, I sscented...treachery. And not all of thosse at the meal died on the bridge."

"Then you think the attack was not an accident?"

Kr'see nodded emphatically, her tail whipping back into normal position for the first time since she had beamed back to the Sadat.

"Was it the first mate?"

"No. Sshe ssmelled right enough. It wass another, lower in rank, but I did not get closse enough to sscent exactly who...only the treachery itsself."

"Kr'see, get a security team ready. I may want to visit that ship myself." Uhura addressed the Tellarite communications officer. "G'rraltha, I'm on my way up to the bridge. Come with me."

They left the transporter room as the rest of the bridge crew went back to their quarters. Uhura and G'rraltha entered the turbolift. "I want you to get the first mate of the McNaughton on visual for me. Tell her it's confidential," said Uhura after the lift had started to the bridge.

"Yes, Commander."

They arrived, and Uhura quickly surveyed the second shift bridge crew, with whom she had worked very little. Her memory recalled the names, but she did not recognize a few of them.

"Mister Nyeer, Commander," said G'rraltha, by way of introduction as the big mainviewer faded in. The first mate of the McNaughton looked anguished.

"First Mate Nyeer," began Uhura, "I am deeply sorry for your loss. I want you to know that in no way do I hold you responsible. However, if we are to arrive at Merope on schedule, I have a number of questions. Is your chain of command intact so that you would be able to beam over and confer with me?"

Nyeer shook her head. "I regret, Sadat," she said in a low, heavily accented voice. "Our bridge crew was decimated. The few other crew we have are concerned only with the handling of our cargo. I would gladly welcome you here, if you can be spared."

Uhura sat for a moment, contemplating her options. She could not leave the ship now, that was sure, but neither could she take the only qualified officer and leave the McNaughton on automatic. That was as good as inviting another attack.

"Nyeer, would you consent to a bridge team from Sadat beaming over to man your auxiliary control station while you are here? I doubt this meeting would take even half a shift."

"That is quite acceptable. I also request a repair crew for our bridge, if at all possible; if we can, I would like to restore ship's control there."

"I'll speak with my engineering staff. There'll be a team ready in fifteen minutes."

"Thank you, Sadat. I will be ready at your earliest convenience. Nyeer out."


Nyeer was even smaller in person than on the mainviewer.

That was Uhura's first impression of the McNaughton's first mate. Once they had concluded their short conversation, Uhura had dispatched the third shift bridge crew to duty aboard the McNaughton. Maliszewski's engineers were making repairs to the cargo ship's bridge, and it was expected that its bridge would be repaired in several hours time. Uhura had given Nyeer an hour before calling her over for the conference.

Nyeer now sat opposite Uhura and Kr'see who had explained the situation. "--so you can see why it was imperative for us to confer in private. From what my security chief tells me, someone aboard your vessel may have invited the attack, and that person may well still be alive."

Uhura was aware she had slipped into a commanding mode of speech, as if she had been the captain of the Sadat all along. Part of her cried out in guilt that Sorensen was hardly cold yet, but the other part, her stronger half, fought back, saying she was only doing what she must do.

"Then you will want the names of those who were at dinner with our captains. It is not difficult. Other than myself and your Kr'see, there were only two. M'fala, our second mate, will probably not regain consciousness for several days. The other guest was our ship's purser, Quinan." Nyeer sighed. "I don't like to bias you before you speak to either of them, but if anyone aboard the McNaughton aided our attackers, my bet would be on Quinan. I've never seen a greedier bitch."

Uhura started at the venom in the mild-mannered Nyeer's voice. It was the first time since coming aboard the woman had shown any real emotion. "And that bothers you?"

"Not in itself, no. But when the greed outweighs any care for safety...Captain Yarto was a good man and a fine captain. I've never served with anyone who knew these routes better. Quinan was constantly at him to go faster, take shortcuts, all to save a couple of days on the arrival she could sell the company's precious cargo faster..."

"Or..." injected Kr'see.

"Yes!" The light had dawned on Nyeer's face. "To make sure we would be at the appointed place at the appointed time. But what was in it for her?"

"Once we find that out, we'll have our traitor," said Uhura.

"Then you're convinced there is a traitor?" asked Nyeer.

"Yes. The odds of a ship intercepting another vessel without prior knowledge of that vessel's course and velocity are simply so astronomical against a chance meeting that the treachery Kr'see scented seems likely that it would be related." She paused. "Let's go pay Purser Quinan a visit."

Uhura quickly called Maliszewski and had her relieve G'rraltha at the conn. With the engineer in the center seat, Uhura felt less guilty about leaving the ship, if only for as long as it took to get Quinan in the brig. The more she thought about it, the more she felt sure that the attack on the McNaughton was more financially than militarily motivated.

The three of them materialized on the McNaughton's small transporter platform, and Uhura motioned to Nyeer. "Lead on. Let's make this a surprise attack of our own."

Nyeer nodded. "This time of day, she should be in her cabin. This way."

It was a short walk. Uhura motioned for the others to be quiet as she reached to buzz the purser. At first there was no answer, then an unpleasant voice called out. "Whaddya want?"

"Terribly accommodating, isn't she?" murmured Uhura.

Nyeer stepped forward. "First Mate Nyeer, Quinan. I have a few questions. May I come in?"

"Why? I got nothing to say. Go back to whatever it is you do on this ship."

Uhura felt her temper rising, and she had not even met the woman. Nyeer held up her hand to forestall Uhura's ordering the door open.

"I think you'll see this is important if you'll let me in. It regards to cargo."

That did the trick. The door hissed open to reveal a nondescript woman. She was not particularly ugly, but she could hardly have even been called attractive. She was simply there.

"Who the hell are you?" The question was directed to Uhura, and Kr'see behind her. The woman's voice put her on the ugly side of her description. It was nasal, high-pitched, harsh. There was no effort to even appear polite. "I thought you said you wanted to talk about the cargo. Who are these weirdos?"

Uhura decided it was time to take over. "I'm Commander Uhura of the escort vessel Sadat. We're here to ask you some questions about the attack on your ship."

"I have nothing to do with commanding this ship. I was in my quarters at the time of--"

"Kr'see?" Uhura indicated the purser with a nod of her head.

The Caitian sidled forward and sniffed the air lightly. Almost instantly, her ears flattened against her head and her lips drew back in a snarl. Fur rippled on the parts of her body that were not covered by her uniform.

Quinan, though still maintaining her aggressive pose, drew back slightly. Uhura made a decision; she realized that reasoning and patience would get nowhere with this woman, so it was time for something else. Stepping across the threshold of Quinan's quarters, Uhura grabbed her by the shoulders and shoved her back until her legs were against her desk chair.

Quinan tried to release her arms from Uhura's grasp. "What the hell--" she began.

"Shut-up!" shouted Uhura. "My captain is dead and so is yours. This entire ship is in serious trouble, and there's a whole planet waiting for what you have on board. You see her?" Uhura nodded at Kr'see, whose teeth were still showing. "She's a Caitian, and she has a very advanced sense of smell. When you had dinner with Captains Sorensen and Yarto, she smelled treachery. Now she smells it again. On you." She paused for a brief second. "Now, I want some answers, and I want them now, or I'm going to turn you over to her. She's hungry, and since you're not a Caitian, she wouldn't consider it an act of cannibalism. Now what'll it be?" She stepped up her pressure on the woman's arms, forcing her to sit.

The purser's frightened eyes flicked from Uhura to Kr'see, to Nyeer, who stood impassively by the door. The McNaughton's first mate was not going to help her. Quinan made one furious motion and shook off Uhura's binding hands. Her head slumped down.

"I don't know who they were; I dealt with an Orion who was representing them."

"That figures," said Uhura. "You're both about the same level of slime. So you have no idea who it was who attacked the ship?"

"They weren't Orion. Even they hadn't seen them. They have warp drive, a pretty high technology. But they only communicate by voice. No visual. They claim this space as theirs."

"We've been routing supply ships through her for years. Why have they decided to attack just now?"

"They're not from this area; they just claimed it. I don't know why! God damn it, I'm not a sociologist. I don't know..." Abruptly, Quinan shut her mouth.

"You don't know what?" asked Uhura softly.

"I only know they were willing to pay me three times what we would have gotten for the cargo on Merope."

"Money. With your kind, it always comes down to money." Nyeer spoke up for the first time. "Did they pay you anything yet?"

Quinan did not want to answer; it was evident by the hard set of her mouth. But she knew she was no match for the three officers in her quarters.

"Half. I was to get the rest in a rendezvous on the way back to Federation space."

"Fine," said Nyeer. "I'll take that half and use it to help any of the bridge crew's next of kin. Let's have it."

Quinan looked as though she wanted to kill them all, and she probably did, thought Uhura. But it was a fitting way to use the money. Seeing the purser's reluctance to move, Uhura dragged her to her feet and shoved her towards Kr'see. "Get the money, or you're lunch."

Quinan scuttled to her cabin safe, fiddled with the controls for a moment, then pulled out a tightly wrapped package. "They paid in credits. I insisted." She dropped the bundle at Nyeer's feet.

Nyeer picked it up easily. "Well, isn't that convenient? Commander, what do you want to do with--this?" she asked, indicating Quinan.

Uhura regarded the purser thoughtfully. "We'll take her over to Sadat. She'll have to stay in the brig. Kr'see, make sure you get her there safe and sound and that she stays that way. I think 'fleet HQ will be very interested in hearing what this charming lady has to say."

Uhura motioned Quinan towards the security chief. The two left for the transporter room without further comment.

Uhura and Nyeer regarded each other for a moment. "Thanks for your cooperation. I meant what I said. If this space is claimed by another species with high-level technology, and if they've managed to hide from us, then Starfleet HQ will want her to stay with them for a long time."

"It was my pleasure to help you. Captain Yarto was...a good friend. Now I must run this ship as he would see fit. I'll walk you back to the transporter."

They covered the short distance back to the transporter room in silence. As Uhura was about to step up on the platform, she turned. "You handled yourself very well back there, Nyeer. Ever give any thoughts to joining Starfleet?"

The small woman shook her head with a smile. "This ship has been my home far too long. Besides, what happens to my position is up to the freight company. They may see fit to promote me. If so, I'll do my best to follow Yarto's example. I could do worse."

"I understand," said Uhura softly. "Good luck."

The world dissolved into a myriad of brilliant sparks and reformed as the deck of the Sadat. She stepped off the platform and spoke to Baker. "Status?"

"The prisoner is secure, Commander. Lieutenant Kr'see initiated a thorough search, and took the prisoner to Sickbay for a complete physical, per regulations, sir."

"Excellent. Send Kr'see to the bridge once the prisoner is secure in the brig."

The situation was, at last, smooth again. Except there was no Captain Sorensen. Uhura thought again of his boyish face and easy manner. Perhaps he had not been a man to inspire devotion the way James Kirk did, but he had stood up for her, had allowed her more freedom than she probably would have had with any other captain because he honestly believed she could do the job that Admiral Stone had so arbitrarily taken away from her. Well, the job was hers now. I'll try to do it well, Janni, she said softly under her breath as she slid into the center seat.

"Mallie, you're relieved of duty for the rest of the shift, until after the--service--tomorrow, if you like."

The engineer shook her head. "Nope. Can't afford to take the time off. If you recall, that 'ace in the hole' worked pretty damn good. Got a lot of data to go over."

"Whatever you want to do, Mallie."

The engineer sighed, suddenly looking haggard. "I don't really want to do it, but I need to do it."

"I understand. I think I need to sit here for the rest of the night."

Maliszewski put a big hand on Uhura's shoulder for a moment, then left through the turbolift doors.


Uhura sat in Admiral Stone's waiting room and waited. She had made her report on the attack and Sorensen's weeks-ago death as soon as she had gotten everything under control. But Starfleet's answer had not reached her until the Sadat had delivered the McNaughton and her cargo safely, without further incident. Sadat had escorted McNaughton back into Federation space, where she had been picked up by another ship of the line. After that, the Sadat was alone on the trip home. Uhura's message was simply to report to Stone upon docking at Starfleet Headquarters. Whatever the time.

Looking at the 'meter on the aide's desk, she realized that she'd been sitting there almost two hours. She was tired and felt drained, but the adrenalin flowed through her body, readying her for another confrontation with the admiral. What would he say this time? That she should have been the one to go and have dinner with Yarto and die in Sorensen's place? Well, that might have solved all their problems. One of Jim Kirk's line officers out of the way, and Jorgen Sorensen would still be alive.

"C'mon, you've got to think more positive than that. All he wants is a debriefing. That's all it is."

Stone's aide came out of the inner sanctum. "You can go in now, Commander."

Stone was by himself. He stood when she entered. "Commander," he indicated a chair, "at ease."

She sat, uncomfortable at this deviation from protocol.

The admiral looked just as uneasy. "Commander, I've read your report, and those of the other officers on the Sadat. You handled yourself admirably. Perhaps I was wrong about your needing some hours as an exec."

"I'm sure that's a compliment, sir, but I'd willingly spend the next five years of my life as an exec if it would bring Captain Sorensen back." How could this man have gotten to be an admiral?

"Of course, Commander, of course. You realize you also made an important discovery. If there is an advanced civilization claiming that sector, we've got to increase security in that area. And that means more escort vessels. The orders won't be cut 'til day after tomorrow, but I'm telling you now. You're back in the captain's seat--and this time it'll stick."

Uhura couldn't stand to look at the self-satisfied expression on the man's face. "With all due respect, sir, do you think it's safe to let one of the Enterprise's officers loose with a ship of her own?"

"You've been talking to Mendez!" It was an accusation and solidified all of Uhura's suspicions. No need to look any further.

She shook her head. "I've been talking to no one. I'm not stupid! My command yanked out from under me at the last minute, Kirk busted to a teaching position, all of the senior officers separated--did you think we'd try to form a conspiracy or something?"

"That's enough, Commander! Or do you want to be a lieutenant again so badly?"

"You're right, sir. It is enough. It's enough that you know I know. I haven't spoken one word to Mendez since I docked. But now I know I have an ally if I ever need one. Jorgen Sorensen was a good man, a decent man, who would have commanded Sadat for the next five or ten years. But he's dead now, because you thought you couldn't risk having me in the center seat."

"You think you would have done better? Gone to McNaughton and returned alive?"

"I don't know, sir. It's something I'll never know. That's what I have to live with from now on. That and knowing that I'm alive because Jorgen's dead."

Stone's face had gone back to its usual non-expressive mask. "I'll overlook that outburst, Commander. And I'll also admit that I might have made a mistake. But you and Mendez are wrong. I have no vendetta against Jim Kirk or any of his former officers. I'm simply trying to do what I think is best for Starfleet. I don't expect you to believe it, but there it is. Now, will you accept the captaincy of an escort vessel, or would you prefer to resign your commission?"

It was not much of a choice. "I accept the captaincy, Admiral, but only on one condition."

Stone shook his head. "Even if I'd never looked at your record, I'd know you served under Kirk. He was always best at pushing his luck when he had no legs to stand on. Name your condition."

"I'd like to stay with Sadat, sir, keeping the same crew as much as possible."

Stone looked thoughtful. "I think that might be arranged, allowing for transfers and commissions being up. As I said, the official orders don't go out for two days. Tell your crew to have some R & R. Your next assignment may not be so easy."

Uhura hoped the man was joking, but decided it would not be in her best interests to stay around to find out. Snapping to attention, she left Stone's office and hurried back to the main transporter.

Once she was back on board the Sadat, she relayed Stone's advice to the crew, giving them strict orders to be back and ready for duty in forty-eight hours. Then she sat and looked around her quarters. She supposed she would keep these--the thought of moving into Sorensen's old digs chilled her.

She would be captain after all. But somehow, this time, the feeling was completely different than the ones she'd had just a few short weeks ago. She felt older, more cautious. The responsibility of keeping her ship running weighed heavily on her, and she knew that Sorensen's presence would stay with her a long time, too. She wondered if Jim Kirk had felt like this whenever he had lost a crew member, and if he had, how had he ever gotten used to it? Maybe he hadn't, maybe that's what made him what he was. She hoped she would be good enough to live up to the two fine examples she'd had.

Uhura's door buzzed loud and long, and she realized she had been so lost in thought that she'd ignored the first ring. "Come! Come in!" The door opened to reveal Maliszewski. "Mallie! Just the person I needed to see."

The engineer came in and sat heavily in Uhura's other chair. "I've got some news, too, but I don't know how good it is. Why don't you go first?"

"Remember when you said you were looking forward to having me as a boss? Well, now you will. It'll be official in two days."

"Well, hell, it only makes sense to give you the job you've already been doing for the last ten weeks! I'm glad you got it. It might help renew my faith in Starfleet."

"You sound down, Mallie. What is it? It can't be that bad. I've even managed to keep the crew together if they want to stay."

"Oh, I'm pretty sure most of 'em'll stay. You made a good impression. And you know what you're doing. That always helps people have confidence." She was quiet for a moment, and Uhura didn't want to disturb her. Then she spoke again. "Remember our 'ace in the hole'?"

"How could I forget?"

"You reported it?"

"Mallie, I had to. You reported it, too. I read yours before we sent them out."

"Yeah, yeah. I just wish we'd had more time."

"Maliszewski, what are you talking about?"

"I won't be going back with you, First. It's like I told you. Ol' Starfleet has decided they'd really like to play with my toy, and since I'm the only one who knows how to make it work, I've got to build the playground. Before we even got back, the Federation appropriated billions of credits to build the first trans-warp vessel." She smirked. "They've even given it a name and construction number: Excelsior, NX-2000. My guess is that it'll take ten years."

"Oh, no!" Uhura felt an incredible sense of loss at Mallie's words. She hadn't realized until that moment just how much she had begun to count on the big engineer. "What about Krasnyk?"

"Kras is an excellent technician, but he could never have put together the concept. They want me and my little gadget. Guess I won't be out in open space for a while to come, if ever again."

"Damn!" It was hardly original, but it was the only thing Uhura could think of to say. Mallie got up. Uhura wanted to stop her, but realized they really had no common history--no old times to reminisce over--only the knowledge that if they could have stayed together they would have had tales to tell for years. The Sadat's new captain blinked back tears.

Maliszewski looked uncomfortable. "Krasnyk's coming with me, but I'll make sure you get two good replacements. I've got contacts. Don't worry."

Uhura had recovered herself. "I'll trust you. Don't let them get you down. If you ever need some R & R, just come and visit us on the Sadat."

Mallie laughed out loud. "R & R on an escort vessel in the middle of open space with hostile aliens attacking on every side. I like it! Watch it, or I might just take you up on it. Well. Good luck and all that. I don't say this to everyone, but stay in touch, okay? If they ever let me go, and if you ever need an engineer, you call."

"It's a deal. Now, get outta here."

With Mallie gone, the cabin seemed twice as quiet. Uhura felt that if she stayed here five more minutes, she would scream. She would turn the ship over to Base Security and take her own R & R. Now, where to go? As she stood thinking, she realized that her message light was blinking. For how long? She punched up the note on her comm terminal.

Heard you were here and and had stories to tell. Will be at Oyama Palace. Plenty of spring rolls and sake. If you're not there by 9:00pm SF time, will stuff myself and have a major hangover. Hurry!

- Sulu                                      

Sulu! Here! She looked at her chrono. Eight fifteen. If she changed into her civvies and left in ten minutes, she'd just be in time. She stood still for a moment, looking around the generic, yet familiar cabin.

"I'll be back," she whispered to no one. "I'll be back."

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