The science vessel, U.S.S. Cooper, swung into Earth orbit with majesty. At the helm, Commander Hikaru Sulu sat, staring at the computer-enhanced starfield on the mainviewer before him. The Cooper was scheduled for a minor refit, and, after a two-week shore leave, he would be re-assigned to Starbase 1 in San Francisco for seven months while the modifications were made. When completed, the crew complement of the vessel would be increased from fifty to eighty. He had heard that nearly half of the thirty crew slots would be filled with Colonial Marines, and that the Cooper would have a four-month mission surveying the probable supernova remnant from Nova 1006 in the Aurigae region.
He smiled at how Doctor Leon Mandala must have felt when he heard the news of the marine presence on a scientific exploration ship. The civilian spokesperson was probably preparing some sort of condemnation of the decision even as the Cooper made its approach to SpaceDock. It was odd, he admitted to himself, that a science survey ship like the Cooper should have a complement of marines stationed aboard her. He noticed a mobile space maintenance dock and the large starship it housed. A hand was placed on his shoulder as the name Enterprise came into view.
"Stirs up quite a few memories, eh, Mister Sulu?" asked Lieutenant Commander Janet Rachelson, the Cooper's security officer. "I remember the first time I saw the Lexington after being posted aboard the Cooper."
Behind them, the turbolift doors opened, and a throat was cleared. Rachelson quickly stepped back to her post. Captain Williams strode forward and took the center seat of the science vessel. "Mister Sulu, we're a bit too close to the mobile space dock. Give her a little more clearance."
Sulu looked at his instruments. They were too close, but not dangerously so. "Yes, sir," he replied. "Sorry, Captain. I wasn't paying attention to what I was doing."
Seemingly out-of-character, Williams spoke softly, "Understandable, Commander. I would point out, though, you can never go home again." Now louder, the captain of the Cooper spoke. "Lieutenant Commander Anex, raise SpaceDock control, please."
"Yes, sir," came the voice of the Edoan communications officer.
"SpaceDock, this is the Cooper," said Williams into the microphone on the arm of his command chair.
"Cooper acknowledged. This is SpaceDock Control. Stand by to release helm and navigation controls."
"Standing by," confirmed Williams.
A few seconds passed, and the bridge was filled with a blue aura. "Control is transferred to SpaceDock Central. We've got you in a holding pattern for some traffic. Just sit back and enjoy the ride," said a pleasant voice over the bridge's speakers.
It was a good half-hour before they were on final approach to the SpaceDock.
"What could be so important that we were delayed for so long?" Sulu asked rhetorically.
As if to answer, a massive vessel came out of the portal to the SpaceDock. The radius of its primary hull was more than the length of the Cooper, and it had engines the length of a starship.
Anex whistled, impressed. "It's immense!"
"Excelsior," answered Williams. "They're taking her out to test her matter induction system."
"Any word yet on who they've decided on as her captain?" asked Sulu.
Williams looked at him. "I gather you've applied for the position, Commander."
The helmsman turned. "Yes, sir," he said honestly.
"I would have appreciated being informed of your decision prior to the transmission of your application."
Sulu looked downcast. "I'm sorry, sir, but I had hoped for your approval."
"You have my approval, Mister Sulu. I merely would have appreciated not having learned of your application from Commodore Kiem," Williams explained wryly.
The Excelsior, free and clear of SpaceDock, maneuvered itself for an orbital departure. The crew of the Cooper watched as the battleship's impulse engines engaged, and it shot out of orbit at one-half light-speed.
"An impressive display," noted Lieutenant Commander Xon, the Vulcan science officer. "It accelerated to point five-zero C in two point six-three nanoseconds. Incredible for a ship of its mass."
"She's equipped with transwarp drive, too," said Sulu.
"Oh?" asked Williams. "That explains the size of her engines. Have you a friend aboard the Excelsior, Commander?"
Sulu shifted a little nervously in his seat. "No, sir. A friend of a friend. I know of the chief engineer, Commander Maliszewski, through a friend, Commander Uhura, of the U.S.S. Anwar Sadat. They served together before the engineer was transferred to the Excelsior project."
Apparently satisfied, Williams turned to Anex. "Commander, remind SpaceDock central we're still out here."
"I have, sir. They report three ships ahead of us. The Anwar Sadat, the Bondarenko and the Concord."
Ensign Benjamin Franklin, the navigator, was puzzled. "I've heard of the Sadat. An escort vessel, isn't it? But I've never heard of the other two."
"The Bondarenko is a science vessel of the Oberth class," answered Sulu. He failed to explain how a certain Russian navigator had once gone into tremendous detail explaining how the cosmonaut had died in a training accident during the early days of space flight. "I don't know what the Concord is."
"The Concord is a new frigate of the Miranda class," answered Xon.
Williams leaned back in his chair. He was a little annoyed by the chatter on the bridge, but he had learned it served a vital role in maintaining morale. It was rare he participated, but as this was the last time he would see many of the crew, he felt he could...no, should join in the discussion.
"The Concord has just finished a patrol of the Klingon Treaty Zone," he said. "I was speaking with Captain Jawalahara of the Yorktown last week at Space Station F-3. The scuttlebutt has it that the Klingons have expanded past their treaty borders. The Concord saw some action."
The starship came into view and confirmed some of what Williams had said. Its weapons module, the arch across the back of the primary hull, was gone. There were severe scorch marks and phaser burns all along the primary hull. Both of its warp engines were missing, apparently ejected for safety reasons.
"That's going to take some bucks to repair," noted Rachelson as she stepped from her station to stand at the captain's side. As the Cooper was on a final approach to SpaceDock, there was little for the security officer to do, so Williams tolerated her presence on the lower bridge deck.
"Cooper, stand by for tractor beam," came the pleasant voice from the bridge's loud speaker.
"Standing by," responded Williams.
The Cooper was gently tugged through the portal of the expansive SpaceDock. It took its place in the Number 6 berth, alongside the Anwar Sadat.
"Docking rings attaching," reported Sulu, surveying his instruments. "We're docked, Captain."
Williams hit the intercom button with his thumb. "Attention, all hands. This is the captain speaking. The Cooper is docked. Those of you not planning on remaining with this vessel need to vacate your quarters in one hour. Those who plan to stay should meet me in Observation Lounge Two on the SpaceDock in four hours. While there, you will receive your temporary assignments."
Sulu turned. "Sir?"
Williams hit the 'hold' button. "Yes, Commander?"
"Shouldn't you...well...say goodbye?"
Williams frowned. "Commander Sulu, your sentimentality can be overwhelming at times."
The captain stood and left the bridge and a perplexed Sulu.
There was a buzz at the door.
"Come," ordered Doctor Casey Johnson from behind her desk. Only ten minutes earlier, she had sat down to review some reports.
The Cooper's executive officer stepped inside, timidly. "Hey, babe. What're you doing?" Sulu asked.
"As a matter of fact, bucko," snapped Johnson. "I'm busy. Now, if you'll be so kind as to leave me to read in peace."
"Casey," began Sulu.
Johnson snapped her head up suddenly, almost angrily. "Yes, Sulu?"
"Something's bothering you...what is it?"
"It's more than a little presumptuous of you to ask, isn't it, Commander?"
"In the years I've known you, I've never seen you this angry at me."
"Is there some point to this?"
"I think there is," defended Sulu. "You're upset by the number of the crew leaving the Cooper. Casey, they're going for opportunities elsewhere, because, well, it's time to move on."
"Commander, your naiveté has managed to amaze me for seven years. I see it hasn't changed." She looked at the helm officer and motioned for Sulu to sit in one of the comfortable plush chairs. Johnson walked over to the front of her office and paused before one section of her library. She pulled a volume down and handed it to Sulu, then she went to the liquor cabinet. From the oaken bar, she removed two brandy snifters and a fine Aldebaran brandy, and poured some into each of the glasses. She presented Sulu with one of the snifters, and stepped back to her seat.
"Casey..." began Sulu.
Johnson raised a hand to silence him. "The book you now hold is one of the oldest in my whole damn collection. It's The Riverside Shakespeare, arguably the fuckin' best of any collections of Shakespeare's works. I want you to have it, perhaps as a start to a new friggin' collection for you."
"You're leaving us soon. I've decided to stay with the Cooper after the refit is completed. But I wanted to talk with you before officially submitting my assignment request to the captain."
"I figured as much. And Rachelson?"
"Janet's given me no indication of her intentions. However," she paused.
"However, I think she intends to base her screwy decision on yours."
Sulu started. "I can't believe it. She's risking her career."
"For the jackass she loves," added Johnson. "For you, Hikaru."
"Casey, I had no idea--"
"No idea that she's in love with you?"
"No idea that she'd follow you anywhere in the whole fuckin' galaxy?"
"No, it never occurred to me that she was so involved with me."
The doctor studied him carefully. "I have never understood the ability of men to remain blind to the feelings of those around them. Perhaps you should start reading King Lear. It's on page twelve-fifty-five."
"Damn it, Casey! You're not being fair to me!" The helmsman snapped.
"Are you being fair to her?" Her words stung like Captain Williams' words often did.
"Fuck you," spat Sulu, and spun on his heel toward the door.
"You have, and more times than I can count." The sentence was a whisper, but it carried the stopping power of a tractor beam on full.
"What do you want from me?" Sulu couldn't turn to meet the doctor's eyes, the sapphires of laser light.
"I want you to talk to her, not just make love with her."
Sulu could no longer resist. He turned and cocked his head. "We do talk."
"About what? About the stars, the glory of creation? These things that lovers often discuss?"
"Those are important to me. And to her. And to you, too."
"As well they should be. But have you discussed your careers, your goals?"
It was a minute or two before Sulu admitted, "No."
"Get the hell out of here, Sulu," Johnson said pointedly as she returned to her work.
Sulu glared at his friend and lover, but left the cabin without saying anything else.
The turbolift deposited him on the bridge again. Rachelson sat there, her eyes glued to him. Sulu could see it in her eyes. She was in love with him. How could I have been so blind to it? He strode toward her station when the boatswain's whistle sounded. "Commander Sulu, report to my quarters immediately," came Captain Williams' voice over the intercom.
"Aye, sir. On my way."
He looked her direction, wishing he could make time and speak with her right here and now. But his duty called. He spun on his heel, and left the bridge at a brisk pace.
The turbolift ride was interminable, but the doors soon opened on the deck which housed the crew quarters. He took the few steps to Williams' quarters and pressed the door buzzer.
"Come," he heard Williams say.
He stepped inside and was again impressed by the view. Aboard the Enterprise, there were only a few places where such a breathtaking starscape could be seen and they were very popular amongst the crew. The captain of the Cooper had taken a captain's privilege (and a substantial sum of a captain's salary) to modify his quarters into a wonderful replica of those belonging to the lord of a Spanish galleon.
"Sit down, Commander," Williams ordered tersely.
Immediately, Sulu sensed there was something amiss with the Cooper's commanding officer. "Captain...Daniel? What's wrong?
Williams' head jerked up, and the glowing green eyes met Sulu's.
The helmsman had never called him anything but 'Captain' or 'Sir' in the past seven years. They had spent a great deal of time together in those seven years. He reflected on the first few months Sulu had served aboard the Cooper. There had been ups and downs in the young officer's performance as he 'learned the ropes' of being second-in-command. Soon, though, the ship's complement had jelled into a well-respected scientific investigation team. Sulu had developed those skills needed by an executive or commanding officer to near-perfection during their first three-year mission together. During the four-year mission that immediately followed, Sulu had logged more star hours in the center seat than even the captain had. But the helmsman had never, in all those years, called him by his first name.
"You've been assigned to temporary duty with an old friend of yours."
"Uhura?" Sulu asked, surprised. The Anwar Sadat was anchored in the SpaceDock along side of the Cooper.
"No," answered Williams. "With Admiral Kirk aboard the U.S.S. Enterprise."
"The Enterprise," Sulu echoed in a whisper. "I had heard Scotty had begun repairs on her three years ago. She's supposed to be a training vessel these days."
Williams nodded. "That's what they tell me. Anyway, when you finish a three-week training cruise with the cadets, you'll then be given a choice. You're being considered for the executive officer of the Excelsior. I, of course, want you here."
Sulu pensively stared at the model of the Mercury Redstone that sat on the shelf behind his captain. "Who got the captaincy of Excelsior?"
"A man I've never met before. Captain Styles."
Sulu snorted. "I've heard of him. A real prima donna and ass-kisser. I wonder who he brown-nosed to get the position."
Williams said nothing for a few minutes. "I can't deny that I hope this makes you decide to stay with us."
Sulu made a decision immediately. "I will, Daniel. Even though a position as executive officer of the newest ship in the fleet is a tremendous opportunity, and one that may not come around again, I simply could not serve under a man like Captain Styles."
"Opportunity seldom knocks twice," warned Williams. "I'm giving you six weeks to consider it. Let me know after your little training cruise."
Sulu nodded, and was pensive for a moment before speaking again. "Sir?"
"A few minutes ago, it was 'Daniel,'" noted Williams wryly.
"So it was," Sulu admitted with a inscrutable look on his face. "Have you spoken with Doctor Johnson or Commander Rachelson?"
"Several times. But on what subject?"
"Their next assignments."
"That's a confidential matter, Commander. Dismissed."
Sulu felt as though the breath had been knocked out of him. "Yes, sir."
The helm officer turned, and he heard Williams' voice. "Sit down, Hikaru." And he heard the captain sigh.
Sulu slowly turned, and sat down in the chair opposite Williams' desk. "Sir?"
"I have received Doctor Johnson's assignment request. She wants to remain on the Cooper." Williams' eyes gauged Sulu's response.
The captain could tell his exec had already heard of that decision. "But I haven't heard from Commander Rachelson."
Sulu looked at an incredibly interesting spot on the floor.
"Hikaru," prompted Williams.
Sulu's eyes met his captain's. "Yes, sir. I know," he said, trying to avoid a lecture. It was to no avail.
"We've been a good team, Sulu. It's a tremendous advantage to me to have three or four senior officers of the caliber you, Rachelson, Johnson and Xon possess, and I hate to see that advantage slip between my fingers because my security chief is madly in love with my executive officer."
Sulu did a triple-take. "Sir?"
"Are you blind, Hikaru? Or just plain ignorant? She may sacrifice her career for you, and if you allow that to happen, I don't want you on my ship."
"How am I supposed to make her understand?"
Williams' voice, dripping with sarcasm, was little more than a whisper. "Perhaps it is not she who needs to understand. Why don't you try talking with her?" Then louder, "Dismissed."
Sulu went to the quarters he shared with Doctor Johnson, and called the bridge, looking for Rachelson. She had left five minutes earlier, so he called her quarters, but there was no response. He knew where she would be.
Donning his shorts and tank top, he jogged down the deck to the ship's gymnasium. She was there, working out against Xon, the Vulcan science officer. They were engaged in the Vulcan martial art known as sof'el'itju, the "dance of combat." Unlike other Vulcan artforms, which were interactive, neither of the "combatants" came within a meter of the other. In more primitive times, it was purportedly a courting ritual of a sort, but during the Vulcan Reform, it had simply become another form of art.
After half an hour, the two "combatants" bowed at each other. Rachelson came over and sat by Sulu on the padded deck floor. "Whew!" she said. "I could use a shower. Care to accompany me?"
"I'd rather just go somewhere and talk if you don't mind."
She brightened at that idea. "There's no one in the sauna. We could go there."
Rachelson quickly got to her feet, and helped him up easily. She nodded goodbye at Xon who, per his usual custom, had begun meditating in a corner of the gym. Sulu casually gave the Vulcan salute, and the lovers left the Vulcan, and made their way to the sauna.
On a ship with only fifty people, it was rare that the thirty-some-odd people "off duty" showed up any one place at any given time. At least half of them were sleeping, and the rest had a choice of the Tri-D theater, the sauna, the gymnasium, the library, the game room, the cafeteria, or some other recreational activities requiring a modicum of privacy and another person. The sauna was generally empty (if desired, anyone could dial up the sauna setting on their sonic showers), and some of the crew came there for private conversations. Today, the sauna was indeed empty, and Sulu and Rachelson quickly took their seats in the steamy room, stripping their clothes first.
Rachelson giggled. "Want to risk getting caught?"
"Like last time in the shower with Xon?" He smiled at the memory. They had shown the Vulcan a thing or two that day...but now was a different story and a different problem. "Janet, we need to talk about our relationship."
"I was hoping we would."
"You may know that I applied for the captaincy of the Excelsior."
"I didn't get it."
She beamed at that. "I can't say I'm disappointed. Then you'll be staying here with the Cooper?"
She suddenly looked downcast. "Why not 'definitely'?"
"I've been offered the position executive officer aboard the Excelsior."
She almost pouted. "I guess if you take the position, I'll be requesting to transfer there with you. I'm not sure I'll get security chief, though. Or even assistant security chief. We haven't seen a lot of combat situations aboard the Cooper, have we?"
He thought about it. There had been the Kzinti during his first year aboard the U.S.S. Cooper. The Orion raiders the following year. An encounter with the Tholians here and there. A Gorn-Federation cooperative mission against the Barrier Alliance. The occasional first contact. But nothing that would stand out enough to get her a high position in the security staff of the Excelsior.
"No, we haven't. Janet...I'm not sure following me would be such a great idea for your career."
"I don't care about that."
"You should. I care about mine. What if, say, after two months over there as executive officer, Starfleet offers me a captaincy of a light cruiser? I decide to transfer, and you're stuck."
"I could follow you there," she suggested.
"Maybe, and maybe not, Janet," he grabbed her shoulders and held her firmly. "Listen. We've been together for seven years now. I care for you deeply, but I think you care for me in a different way...a stronger way. I can't reciprocate what I don't feel. I love you, Janet, as a friend and a lover...but not as the love of my life. Maybe given some more time together that could change, but as it stands now, I don't think it will."
Sulu had been in Starfleet for nearly two decades, but he'd never seen even a Vulcan with a mask of non-emotion as stony as the one now worn by Rachelson.
"Well," she said. "Thank you...Commander. Good day."
She stood to leave. He caught her hand, and gently pulled her down beside him. "Janet," he murmured and hugged her.
At first she resisted, but she soon melted into his arms, tears flowing freely from both their eyes.
They held each other for a few minutes more before returning to her cabin...
Sulu reported, "Leaving Section Fourteen for Section Fifteen."
Saavik swung around in the center seat. "Stand by. Project parabolic course to avoid entering Neutral Zone."
"Aye, Captain," Sulu responded. "Course change projected."
Uhura spun to face the young woman. "Captain, I'm getting something on the distress channel."
Over the bridge speaker came a static-filled transmission. "...imperative. This is the Kobayashi Maru, nineteen periods out of Altair Six. We have struck a gravitic mine, and have lost all power. Our hull is penetrated, and we have sustained many casualties." Sulu frowned and wondered, After all these years, couldn't they at least have written a new program?
Uhura answered the call. "This is the starship Enterprise. Your message is breaking up. Can you give us your coordinates? Repeat: this is the starship--"
"Enterprise, our position is Gamma Hydrae, Section Ten."
"In the Neutral Zone," Saavik whispered to herself.
"Hull penetrated, life support systems failing. Can you assist us, Enterprise? Can you assist us?!" the voice frantically called.
Saavik thought quickly and spoke into the computer tie-in. "Data on Kobayashi Maru?"
The metallic voice immediately responded. "Subject vessel is third-class neutronic fuel carrier, crew of eighty-one, three hundred passengers."
"Damn," Saavik whispered as she surveyed the data on the screen. She made a snap decision. "Mister Sulu, plot an intercept course."
"May I remind the captain that if a starship enters the Zone--"
"I'm aware of my responsibilities, Mister."
Sure you are. He shook his head and sighed. "Estimating two minutes to intercept," he reported. "Now entering the Neutral Zone."
The computer tie-in immediately announced, "Warning: we have entered Neutral Zone," and began repeating itself as though no one had heard.
Sulu thought of his own abortive attempt at deriving a solution to the Kobayashi Maru. His idea had a certain appeal; he had ordered a quick fly-by course at Warp Eight. The only problem with his plan was that just as the ship had picked up the three Klingon vessels, there was a failure in the warp drive system, and the end result was the same: total destruction. Uhura had tried to broadcast universal peace and hello messages to the Klingons, informing them the ship was on a rescue mission, when she had taken the test. He recalled her test clearly as they had been part of the same graduating class, taking the course in the same quarter. Uhura had gone in, running with shields down and phasers off, ready to surrender if need be. The Klingons destroyed her ship with the first salvo. That must've been over a decade ago...hell, maybe two, he thought.
Spock called to Saavik from his station. "We're now in violation of treaty, Captain."
That's right, Spock. Tell her what she already knows, thought Sulu. Tell her what we all know.
Saavik punched the comm button on the center seat. "Stand by, Transporter Room. Ready to beam survivors aboard."
Uhura gasped melodramatically. "Captain, I've lost their signal."
The computer didn't miss a beat. "Alert: sensors indicate three Klingon cruisers bearing 316 mark 4, closing fast."
"Visual," ordered Saavik quickly. "Battlestations. Activate shields."
Sulu glanced over at the weapons station. The cadet there nodded. "Shields activated," the helmsman reported. It won't be long now...
Saavik quickly issued an order to Uhura. "Inform the Klingons we are on a rescue mission."
"They're jamming all the frequencies, Captain," responded the communications officer apologetically.
"Klingons on attack course and closing," reminded the computer tie-in.
"We're over our heads," whispered Saavik. "Mister Sulu, get us out of here."
"I'll try, Captain."
"Alert: Klingon torpedoes activated..."
"Evasive action!" snapped Saavik.
Woomphff! went Sulu's station, and he lunged backwards in a dramatic fashion. He lay on the floor with his eyes closed, but he heard someone land on the deck near him. Startled, he glanced at McCoy, who started to dash toward the turbolift. Where's he going? Sulu wondered.
Woomphff! And the turbolift exploded. Nowhere, decided Sulu as McCoy landed on the deck and lay his head down against his leg. Wonder how much longer this will take? I'm hungry.
His question was soon answered as station after station exploded, and Saavik dutifully issued the final order. "All hands abandon ship."
The door to the simulator swung open, and in strolled Admiral James T. Kirk. "Lights," he ordered. "Captain?"
Spock stood from where he had 'fallen,' and ordered, "Trainees to the briefing room."
Saavik didn't move. "Any suggestions, Admiral?"
She has guts, thought Sulu in amazement as he pulled himself from the deck. McCoy decided to lie there a while longer.
"Prayer, Mister Saavik. The Klingons don't take prisoners."
How sadly true these days, noted Sulu. Ironically enough, it was the Romulans who now took prisoners, while the crazed Kh'myr Klingons simply used crippled vessels as target drones until there wasn't even a plasma field left of them.
Kirk walked over to the reclined McCoy. "Physician, heal thyself."
"Is that all you gotta say? What about my performance?"
"I'm not a drama critic," the admiral answered with a hint of annoyance. He noticed Saavik had not yet left the bridge. "Well, Mister Saavik, are you going to stay with the sinking ship?"
"Permission to speak candidly, sir?"
"I don't believe this was a fair test of my command abilities."
"And why not?"
"Because, there was no way to win."
"A no-win situation is a possibility every commander may face. Has that never occurred to you?"
"No, sir. It has not," she answered firmly.
"How we deal with death is at least as important as how we deal with life, wouldn't you say?"
"As I indicated, Admiral, that thought had not occurred to me."
"Well now you have something new to think about. Carry on."
"Aye, sir," she mumbled and left the simulator.
"Admiral," said McCoy as he stood flanked by Uhura and Sulu, "wouldn't it be easier to just put an experienced crew back on the ship?"
"Galloping around the cosmos is a game for the young, Doctor," countered Kirk as he strolled from the simulator.
"Now what is that supposed to mean?" asked Uhura.
"I don't know," responded McCoy. "But I sure'n'hell intend to find out. See y'all later."
"Want some lunch, Uhura?" asked Sulu.
She offered her arm. "If you're buying," she said and laughed.
"So when did you get in, Sulu?" asked Uhura as she sucked on the straw in her chocolate milkshake.
He swallowed a bite of his cheeseburger while glancing at the chrono on the wall near the counter. "A few minutes before the simulation started." He took a sip of his Coke. "I stepped off the transporter pad, and the Admiral comes up, shakes my hand, says 'Welcome back, Sulu,' and shoves me into the training simulator."
"No briefing, eh?"
"None at all. Who are all these kids? Who's this Lieutenant Saavik?"
"You remember that girl Spock rescued from Hellguard twelve years or so ago?"
"Well, no wonder! I was sitting there listening to this Vulcan talk to herself, and thinking, this is no Vulcan."
"Only half, remember?"
"Yeah." He finished off his fries before she could finish them off for him. "You sure you're not hungry, Uhura? Care to have something besides the shake?"
"Nah," she said. "I'll just have a bite or two of yours."
He chuckled. "Go get your own." He grabbed his cheeseburger from her reaching hands. "This is some welcome home. First I get tossed into the simulator in the middle of the Kobayashi Maru scenario, and then I have my lunch stolen by an old friend who swears she's not hungry."
She punched up a menu, made a few selections, and helped herself to her own cheeseburger, fries and Kaferian apple pie. "Well, aren't you the nagging sort since you've gotten to be an exec?"
"And are you the demanding sort since you've gotten your own command?" he countered good-naturedly.
She smiled bittersweetly. "I'm not going back to the Sadat," she told him.
"No advancement." She took a bite of her burger. "Sulu, I've commanded that escort ship for nearly nine years. Has the 'fleet offered me anything better?"
"I guess not," he said. "They've offered me another stint as exec, but this time on the Excelsior."
"You gonna take it?"
"No," he answered.
"Good. 'Cause I might." She laughed at the look of surprise on his face.
"But you said they hadn't offered you anything better!"
"No, you said that. Not me." She looked him dead in the eye. "I'm a little annoyed Starfleet Command didn't offer me command of a light cruiser or even a destroyer. But when I heard about the opening for the exec's position on the Excelsior, I applied for the posting. I was told a few days ago that I was on the final list with two other people."
"Well, if I'm one and you're the other, who's the third?"
"It's either Chekov or Justine Smythe."
"You know that for a fact?"
"I still have my sources inside the communications division, Sulu."
"Well, you've got seniority over Pavel."
"But not over Smythe. If she wants it, she'll get it."
"From what I've heard, she's pretty happy being exec of the Grissom."
"From what I've heard, she achieved her rank through horizontal promotion."
Sulu chuckled. "Well, I've been told that Styles is gay. This'll be one promotion she can't sleep her way into."
"Getting back to Smythe, I think the prestige of being the executive of a newly commissioned, super-advanced ship like the Excelsior might just be the thing to make her decide to take the posting."
"Maybe," he agreed. "It was tempting, even for me."
"Why didn't you take it, Sulu? You've got seniority over Smythe."
She laughed delightedly, and then it hit her. "You're serious? You'd jeopardize your career over love? You must love somebody an awful lot! Who's the lucky person?"
"Well, actually, it's two people. The chief security officer and the chief medical officer of the Cooper."
"Sulu, you never struck me as being that type. I mean, you're so old-fashioned and so much like a swashbuckler. I'd've never thought that you like men." She shoved the last of her fries into her mouth and finished off her milkshake with a flourish.
Sulu's eyes widened, and he almost choked on his Coke. "Uhura, you sexist pig. They're both women."
"You're a fine one to be talking; I'm not the one with a space-faring harem." She kicked him playfully under the table. "Just teasing, Hikaru. Your comm officer is an old friend of mine. Just never let Anex play you at anything requiring good hand-eye coordination. He's beaten my pants off a few times."
"Not literally, surely!"
She laughed wickedly. "I'll never tell. So tell me, how's Jana Haines..."
Sulu leaned back in the lounger in Uhura's condominium. "Penda, what if you don't get the exec posting. Then what?"
"I'll cry," she said, winking at him from her lounger as they sat looking at the fire.
"Seriously," he prompted.
"Seriously? I don't know. I don't intend to think about it until it happens, one way or the other."
He drank from his cup of rice wine and glanced over at her. She was so beautiful in her diaphanous robe. "Well, we've talked about my romantic triangle."
"I still can't believe that you've gotten yourself into such a tangled web."
"And you haven't?"
"No," she said softly.
"No one makes your heart beat faster?"
"I didn't say that. It's just that it's no one that's available."
"You know, Penda. I really can't say I've seen you seriously involved with anyone since Gary Mitchell was resurrected. And that was ten years ago."
"That's the way it should be."
"Meaning have some more of your rice wine, Hikaru."
"Meaning shut up, Sulu."
She glanced down, embarrassed for a second. "No. Not really." She looked at him. "I'm sorry, Hikaru. It's just that I'm tired of people asking me, 'Why haven't you married?'" She stood up, stretching, her translucent robe reflecting the red and amber flames. "Shit, they might as well ask why I haven't dropped out of the service. You want to know the answer? Because I'm as married to Starfleet and to my career as Jim Kirk is married to the Enterprise and to his career. And while people can accept that from him, they can't accept it from me. Now, things may change, but I'm not sure that I'll ever have the wander-lust out of my system. I'm a starfarer. My middle name, Nyota, even means 'star.'"
"And your first name, Penda, means 'love.' Haven't you--"
"Yes. I've fallen in love a few times. But that's always been my business. And I've always kept my head straight about it. I've broken off more than a few relationships just because I wouldn't give up my career.
They basked in the glow from the flames in silence for several more minutes, watching the glowing embers ebb ever so slightly.
He yawned sleepily. "Sorry. I'd best be going."
"Why don't you stay here for the night?" She winked.
"What, and add to my woes? Yet another fair maiden added to my 'space-faring harem'?" he teased her.
"Only in your dreams, Hikaru. I've got an extra bedroom. Now, how about it?"
"I really should get back to the Cooper, but thanks for the offer." He looked at her as she stood before the fire, the light from the flames providing an arousing outline of her figure through the very sheer robe she wore. After all these years, she's still as sexy as the first day I saw her...
She noticed his gaze and the flickering of a faint expression on his face. It was out of the question, she knew. Of course, he knew it, too. She smiled and sat back down in her lounger, ever so slightly self-conscious.
He looked at the embers glowing, and his eyes fluttered slightly. He yawned again. "I really need to be going."
They sat in silence a few minutes more. She glanced over at him. His face was nearly angelic in the peace that only an untroubled sleep can bring. She went to her closet, and brought out a quilt her sister had stitched for her. "Goodnight, Hikaru," she said, taking his cup of rice wine, and covering him with the hand-made quilt. She kissed him gently on the lips.
She sat by the fire for a while, watching the embers die down further, and soon fell asleep.
"Rise and shine, sailor!" Uhura called from the galley-style kitchen.
Sulu's eyes snapped open. "Where--" He quickly surveyed his surroundings. "Oh," he finished meekly.
"Admiral Kirk called. We've got a briefing at oh-seven hundred before we take out the Enterprise," she announced as the clanging of pans rang out from the kitchen.
He yawned, and stood up, slowly, his back sore. "You should've sent me on back to the Cooper," he said as he strolled into the breakfast room. The bay windows showed the not-so-panoramic view of fog.
"Want some breakfast?" she asked.
"Love some. Let me get a shower and fresh uniform first."
She smiled as she spun the eggs around in the skillet. "I hope you brought a size card with you if you want to order a uniform from the recycler."
"I never leave home without it," he called to her as he made his way down the hall to the lavatory. He inserted the size card into the proper slot, punched a few buttons, and stepped into the sonic shower. His uniform was missing in a few minutes, and he felt invigorated as the sonics and water brought some relief to his back. The molecular scan dryer did its job, and a new uniform materialized around him.
He stepped out of the shower, combed his hair, and walked back into the breakfast room where Uhura was serving up scrambled eggs, bacon and hot tea. "Well, that was fast," she remarked. "Just in time for breakfast. You want any toast with that?" she asked as she sat down to eat.
"Yes, please," he replied as he took a sip of the hot tea.
"Then how's about making me some, too?" she suggested.
He smiled. Same ol' Uhura, he thought. "Yes, Captain."
She raised her fork at him. "I'm not a captain. Never held the rank. I'm just a commander."
"But you were a starship captain, and you held the position and the title if not the rank," he argued.
"Hmmpf!" she said. "All that meant was twice as much paper work and half the respect from Starfleet Command. I'll tell you this, Sulu. I wanted that command, and then they took it from me. Fate interceded at the cost of a man's life, and I got command anyway. But other than that one combat situation, we didn't do a damned thing. I've always hated milk-runs; you know that."
"Uh-huh," he agreed as he offered her some of the toast he'd made while she talked.
"Well, that's all my ship got after I got command."
"Uhura, it's not like escort vessels would be attacked anyway," he countered. "Think about it. Other than the attack on your ship which got your captain killed, there've been no attacks on an escort vessel in over thirty years. And thank God for that, too! Those ships aren't meant for combat."
"And yours is? I've seen your reports, Sulu. Just as you've seen mine. Your scout ship has seen combat five times. Her defensive capability is far less than an escort's."
"What are you saying?" he asked, puzzled.
"I'm saying that Starfleet is assigning the wrong vessels to the wrong tasks."
"So what else is new? Remember how many times aboard the Enterprise we got the call to do something that a science ship, or an escort ship, or even a transport should have done? There are just too few ships in the 'fleet, and too many jobs that require attention. It's a wonder that Logistics can handle it at all."
"That's my point. Logistics. Have you ever met Admiral Torvaal?"
"No, I can't say I've had the pleasure."
"I have. I've challenged him a few times on the usage of the Sadat to ferry cargo for him and his friends to various planets in my patrol route. An escort ship is supposed to escort unarmed freighters, tankers, and passenger liners through unsecured sectors of space, not run errands for Admiral Torvaal and his friends."
His eyes narrowed. "Uhura, have you brought this up with anyone else?"
"Just Admiral Kirk. And he told me he'd look into it." She looked at her now- empty plate. "He hasn't gotten back to me on it."
"He will. But as your friend, let me point something out."
"Don't mention it to anyone else. Not until Admiral Kirk's looked into it. You might mention it to the wrong person, who might be a friend of Torvaal's, someone who's gotten a favor or two from him. And if Torvaal's been doing a lot of favors, then a lot of people owe him. And that could spell the end of your career. All he has to do is say to someone in Personnel, 'I don't want to see Uhura promoted,' and you'd never be promoted."
She sat there and stared at him. "I've never played the game very well, Sulu."
"Neither have I, and look at us. We've got little or no chance of getting any further advancement. Why do you think Chekov's doing so well? He went from ensign to commander in record time. Why? Because he's a 'team player,' as they call it. He never questions orders publicly, and he's never challenged the brass. Remember, when those kids on Triacus controlled him, they just put it in his mind that Starfleet Command had ordered Captain Kirk's arrest. They knew he was a team player, and they were using it against the captain." He shoveled some egg and bacon into his mouth. "Face it, Penda, we're not team players."
"Wrong, Hikaru. We're team players; we're just playing for the wrong team."
"What do you mean?"
"We're playing for the old team...the Enterprise team."
"Wait a minute, now. I've gotten away from my illustrious roots."
"Bullshit. Sulu, you were grabbed up by Captain Williams in a feeding frenzy. All the senior officers were. Chekov had already been snagged by Terrell. Kyle and Palamas soon followed him. Arex and M'ress went to Captain Jawalahara. But the point is, Hikaru, that you didn't make a decision. Someone made it for you. We've talked a little bit about your romantic triangle, and it's one of those situations again where you're not making a decision. You're allowing your lovers to make it for you. And by not making a choice, you're taking the weakest option available to you."
"Now wait a minute," he argued. "I just made a decision the other day that I would be staying with the Cooper after this training cruise is finished."
"Oh?" she asked, chewing her toast. "What prompted you to make this decision?"
"I didn't get the captaincy of the Excelsior, and I didn't want to serve as exec under Captain Styles."
"But, 'Karu my love, you've just proven my point. You've allowed the circumstances to dictate your actions. You didn't really decide. You simply have exhausted all possibilities before making the only decision left to you."
The realization that he had not been making decisions came crashing in around him like the phaser volley the Tholians had launched against the Cooper only two years earlier. Not making a choice was, in fact, a choice. And not a very good one. "Okay," he conceded. "Now tell me why."
"Because there is only one place at which we're at home...the Enterprise. We are both married to our careers. It's the Enterprise which is our career."
"So what do we do?"
"We adjust. It's unlikely circumstances would ever allow us to go home again, other than for this brief visit that Admiral Kirk had to pull a lot of strings for."
"So we go on, living our lives, hoping to one day return to the Enterprise?"
"Yep. Or make our other assignments as exciting as the time we had there." She looked at his bacon, and helped herself to a piece. "That's why I want to command a heavy cruiser some day, Sulu. I've stayed in the 'fleet because I want the chance for that command. I've virtually given up any chance for having a marriage and children. Surely the 'fleet will...." Her voice trailed off.
"Reward you?" He sighed. "I hope so, Uhura. I hope so." He glanced at a chrono on the wall. "Talk to Jim Kirk about it. Be honest with him about how you feel, and he'll be honest with you. Now, let's get to this briefing..."
Sulu looked at the dossier on each of the bridge cadets. There was Bennington, the weapons station officer. He was Terran, twenty-two years old, dark-haired, muscular, bright, energetic and much taller than most Terrans. There was Michaels, the damage control officer, also twenty-two, black, male, short, extremely bright and very talkative. Lewandowski, the blonde-haired navigator, was twenty-three, male, non-talkative, slightly below the average Starfleet Academy grad in intelligence, and, according to the psych labs, unlikely to commit his life to the service. And then there was Saavik, Vulcan-Romulan, twenty-two years old, female, and she was one of the most temperamental cadets ever registered in the Academy. Spock had declared "her Vulcan-Romulan admixture makes for a very volatile personality," and he also felt she wasn't ready for command. Kirk had vehemently disagreed, citing the volatile nature of the Andorians who were generally considered ideal Starfleet cadets. Of course, there had been that incident with Cadet Moore; although it had been purely self-defense, fighting never looked good on one's record.
His chrono beeped. It was time. He tossed the dossier cassettes into his bag, zipped it up, and stepped toward the door. He glanced around the cabin he had shared with K.C. Johnson for the past eight years. Casey wasn't there, so he walked down the small hall to the Cooper's transporter room.
Johnson and Rachelson were standing there, waiting for him. He walked up and gave each of them a hug.
"I guess this is goodbye, Casey, Janet," he said, stepping up on the platform.
"More like au revoir," said Rachelson. "Until we see you again."
He smiled at them.
"We were going to have a cat fight for you, babe, but the galley was all out of Jello."
"Casey, please," Sulu implored. "I'll see you both later."
"I hope so," the doctor said, but something in her tone indicated she didn't think he would.
In the awkward minute or two while they awaited the transporter tech to finish locking onto the coordinates of Starfleet Headquarters, Sulu glanced at his two friends, his two lovers.
"Take care," said Rachelson as Transporter Tech Spencer signaled his readiness to beam Sulu down.
"I'll be back soon," Sulu promised as the beam began to envelop him. "Admiral Kirk tells me it's just a little training cruise..."
Uhura and McCoy were there at Starfleet Headquarter's main transporter lounge, waiting for the rest of the group. "Good morning, Doctor McCoy, Uhura."
"It's about time!" snapped the physician. "Now where in Hell is Jim?"
As if to answer, Uhura's communicator beeped. She opened it. "Commander Uhura here."
"Commander? This is Admiral Kirk."
"Jim, where in Hell are you?" snapped McCoy loudly in Uhura's direction.
"Where in Hell are you, Doctor? I'm sitting here at the Centroplex lounge waiting for my communications officer, helmsman and chief medical officer to beam up so we can take a travel pod over to the Enterprise and get this show on the road."
"If you'd told us to meet you there in the first place..." snapped McCoy.
"Now, wait a minute--" came the admiral's voice as McCoy closed the lid on Uhura's communicator.
"Let's make him wait for a few more minutes," said the doctor evilly.
"If it's all right with you, Doctor McCoy, I'd like to get started," said Sulu in an apologetic manner.
"Well, all right, damn it. You don't have to nag like that."
Uhura opened the communicator again. "Centroplex, this is Commander Uhura. Three to beam up, these coordinates."
"Acknowledging, Commander Uhura. Energizing now."
The travel pod was still used from time to time, especially by dignitaries who were visiting a starship on inspection tours. It was never quite the same, seeing a ship from a pod as it approached from the Centroplex station.
After confirming the final approach course, Sulu turned back to Admiral Kirk who was seated in the back of the pod.
The admiral stepped forward, looking out on the shuttlebay of the starship. "I hate inspections," he said simply.
"I'm delighted. Any chance to go aboard the Enterprise..." The sentence went unfinished. He had no need to continue; they all knew what he was talking about. They had nearly lost the Enterprise to the scrap yards.
"Well, I, for one, am glad to have you at the helm for three weeks," said Kirk. "I don't think these kids can steer."
Sulu backed the travel pod into the docking ring, connections were made, and the door opened. The helm officer noted the admiral's height increased by two inches as he stepped onto the photon torpedo deck of the starship on which he had served over eight years.
"Permission to come aboard, Captain?" asked Kirk perfunctorily.
"Welcome, Admiral. I think you know my trainee crew; certainly, they have come to know you."
"Yes, we've been through death and life together," the admiral said, scanning the cadets and crewmembers assembled on the deck.
Sulu glanced at Saavik, standing there at Spock's side, obviously serving as the officer of the day. Uhura smiled at the young woman, who did not respond. As Kirk stepped forward, he handed the book he'd been reading to Uhura, and Sulu smiled as Kirk walked toward his former chief engineer.
"Mister Scott, you ol' space dog. You're well?"
"I...had a wee bout, sair, but Doctor McCoy pulled me through."
"Wee bout of what?" asked Kirk; he hadn't heard of any illness.
"Shore leave, Admiral," provided the doctor.
Sulu noticed how much Uhura was fuming over being handed the book like some hand-maiden.
"Oh, I see," mumbled Kirk as he continued to inspect the crew, oblivious to Uhura's discomfiture. "And who do we have here?"
As Kirk continued down the ranks, Sulu thought of Uhura and her annoyance. Was it so much at being handed the book, or was it the person who had handed it to her? Uhura resents it because of her feelings for the admiral, he decided. Of all the people in the galaxy she could have, she chose one she could never have, one whose duties would never allow time for her. And, to think she wants to embark down the same path...He shook his head at the irony, and returned his attention to the inspection.
"That'll be a pleasant surprise, Mister Scott," said Kirk as he walked to the gantry and quickly began to descend the ladder, with McCoy following him.
"I'll see you on the bridge, Admiral," announced Spock. "Company, dismissed."
Sulu and Uhura stepped into a turbolift. "Mad, huh?" he asked.
"Damn it, yes. Wouldn't you be?"
"Uhura, he just wanted you to hold the book."
"I am not his yeoman!"
"He would never think that," said Sulu. "We talked this morning about how I've avoided making decisions. Maybe we should talk about avoiding one's own feelings instead."
Her eyes narrowed, almost in anger at first, then they softened. "Perhaps I should have a long talk with him..."
"Admiral on the bridge!" Sulu called in the time-honored tradition. He was delighted. The controls of the Cooper were identical, but he could sense the power behind these. He ran a system check as he heard Spock order Saavik to take the ship out.
Damn, he thought. That's not going to sit well with the admiral.
Saavik took the center seat and ordered, "Aft thrusters, Mister Sulu."
"Aft thrusters," he responded.
"Ahead one-quarter impulse power," she commanded.
"Ahead one-quarter impulse power," he echoed. Unlike the Cooper, the ship surged ahead majestically, slowly, like the tide coming in.
"We are free and clear to navigate," he reported as the ship cleared the dock.
"Course heading, Captain?" asked Saavik of her mentor.
Spock turned to Kirk who responded, "Captain's discretion."
"Mister Sulu," called Spock, and the helmsman turned to face the Vulcan. "You may...indulge yourself."
"Aye, sir," he responded, smiling. He glanced ahead. On the mainviewer was the constellation Cetus. He set a general course in the direction of its major star.
Uhura has a problem, he decided. If not a chip on her shoulder, it was almost an attitude. Admiral Kirk had not meant anything by handing her the book; he had given it to her for safe-keeping since she was the closest one of them to the admiral.
Kirk and McCoy had left the bridge, and Sulu glanced over at Uhura. The Bantu woman winked at him, and he smiled broadly. It was almost like old times. Sulu smiled and muttered softly to himself, "Who says you can never go home again?"
Sulu noticed some sort of activity at Uhura's station, but he was too busy monitoring a slight trim problem to pay it much attention. Plus, he had other things on his mind.
Hikaru Sulu was not one for thinking things through to their logical conclusion. He had always envied Spock for the Vulcan ability to rationally work through any problem.
He contemplated the decision of whether or not to stay with the Cooper. He wanted to, he really did. But his career would be in the doldrums if he stayed aboard the science vessel for much longer. The position aboard the Excelsior was tempting, very tempting. But could he enjoy serving under a man he did not like? He doubted that. If only there were some way he could stay with the Enterprise...
And what of Janet Rachelson and Casey Johnson? Obviously, the two of them had to be a factor in any decision he made. He was a lover and a friend with both of them. They both knew this, and accepted the relationship. But Rachelson had fallen in love with him, and that was something he was unacquainted with. He didn't feel the same for her, he was certain, and yet there was something niggling in the back of his mind. Perhaps he did love her, the way she wanted him to. But what effect would that have on his career? Starfleet rarely offered promotions and identical assignments to husband-and-wife teams. It was a serious flaw in Starfleet logistics; he knew that there was an attempt under way to revise the promotion-advancement-placement procedures to make allowances for permanent relationships between individuals serving in the fleet. If successful, it would certainly increase the number of people willing to serve in Starfleet. But that was a problem whose solution lay in the distant future.
His current problem was whether or not to accept the assignment aboard the Excelsior. His decision was no. Not now, at any rate. His additional problem included Janet Rachelson. Someone as dedicated to another as she was to him could be a liability to the ship...that's what Williams' remark had implied. But it wasn't his fault that she loved him, was it? Perhaps he needed to give the relationship some time off, and in a way, this temporary assignment aboard the Enterprise might be just the ticket he needed to put some space between Janet and himself.
No, he decided. I won't return to the Cooper either. It's time to move on...I guess I'll just have to break the news to them when I get back from this training mission. I'm going to go to the admiral and request reassignment to the Enterprise. At least I'll be home...
He heard the turbolift open behind him.
Admiral Kirk strolled onto the bridge, determinedly. "Stop energizers," Kirk ordered and he quickly complied. The Enterprise dropped out of subspace as the engines and warp fields were shifted into "neutral."
"An emergency situation has arisen. By order of Starfleet Command, as of now, eighteen hundred hours, I am assuming command of this vessel," stated Kirk. As the admiral continued, Sulu acknowledged an order to set course for Space Lab Regula One and to ready the ship for warp speed. He was deep in thought as Kirk gave a pep talk to the trainees. It may be that you can never go home again, but it sure feels like it.
Kirk left the bridge, and Sulu busied himself at his station, determinedly controlling the surge of adrenalin and silly smile that threatened to plaster itself on his face in reaction to the admiral's words. "So much for the little training cruise," he muttered under his breath, and the Enterprise smoothly shifted into warp speed.
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