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Randall Landers


2284

Captain's Log, Stardate 8474.6

The Cooper is en route to Xantharus IV. Our mission is to ferry three of the Federation's negotiators to a peace conference called for by the Barrier Alliance. On a personal note, I am deeply concerned about the potential for treachery with our Orion hosts. It has become common knowledge that the Orions have been involved with slavery, drug trafficking, sabotage, illegal weapons manufacturing and dealing among other unsavory activities. Given that only a decade ago, the Director of the Barrier Alliance was killed by Federation forces, I am deeply worried some sort of retaliation is likely. At least I am comforted by the presence of the Federation destroyer Shenandoah which is providing escort.

Captain Hikaru Sulu of the U.S.S. Cooper thumbed the 'off' switch and sighed deeply.

The Barrier Alliance had contacted the Federation and had requested a peace conference on Xantharus IV, and the Federation eagerly agreed. The prospect of opening new markets was apparently too enticing to turn down. Given the recent Klingon hostilities, many Federation planets were eagerly seeking new worlds on which they could sell their wares and services, and Starfleet itself was looking for allies in case major hostilities broke out with the Klingons or the increasingly reticent Romulans.

But to make peace with the Orions, a race considered to be even more barbaric than the Klingons... It was almost too much for Sulu to stomach. The Barrier was established to prevent Orion ships from unauthorized incursions into Federation territory. It was several hundred lightyears in area, and basically served as a shield between the Federation and the Orions. Basically an enormous blockade, the perimeter of the Barrier was monitored and defended by hundreds of Starfleet destroyers and frigates. There were outposts just like those along the Romulan Neutral Zone and the Organian Treaty Zone.

Even with the colossal blockade known as The Barrier in place, the Orions still managed to make trouble for the Federation. In fact, the Barrier had proven as inadequate as the other treaty zones at stopping Orion encroachment into Federation territory. As recently as twenty years ago, there had been a major slave trade, piracy (especially of dilithium-carrying freighters), subterfuge (such as the events that had transpired aboard the Enterprise during one of its journeys to the conference planetoid Babel) and drug trafficking. A decade ago there had been collusion between Orions and Romulans performing experimentation on Vulcans, and Sulu himself had been forced into service to rescue Commander Spock and Doctor Chapel.

Finally, there had been the matter of the U.S.S. Nelson and the Orion ship Star of Acadia seven years ago. The Director of the Barrier Alliance had set up the passenger liner Star of Acadia with a false IFF signal, and the Nelson had destroyed the vessel, thinking it was about to attack. The matter had been investigated by Admiral James T. Kirk and a reporter, Caren Hollis. It was she who recorded the admission of the Director that the entire affair had been concocted to humiliate the Federation, and it was she who was later kidnapped, imprisoned and brutally executed by the Director. A daring rescue attempt, led by Kirk, failed to bring her back alive, but the Director had been killed in the mle that followed. The Orions had withdrawn their embassies from all Federation planets after that incident.

Now they wanted to normalize their relations with the Federation. The Orions wanted all their past transgressions forgiven and forgotten. And, for reasons Sulu could understand with his head but not his heart, the Federation was eager and willing to agree to this conference.

To complicate matters of a personal nature for Sulu, the captain of the Shenandoah was none other than an former crewmate from the Enterprise, Paul Freeman. The two had never been on the best of terms, stemming from a disagreement over one Lieutenant Karen Lang and a reprimand on her record, a reprimand Freeman felt Sulu should have received instead.

Sulu stood suddenly, agitated by the memory of the entire incident. He stepped forward, but stumbled over the astrogator. "Damn," he muttered to himself, looking around the bridge. Would he ever get used to the almost cramped space of the science ship bridge? He'd have to, he decided, since this was a three year assignment.

"Sir?" asked Commander Xon, his Vulcan executive officer from the science station. Xon had been the science officer of the Cooper when Sulu had first served aboard the ship as its executive officer.

"Nothing, Xon." The captain of the scout ship gazed at the viewscreen. "Small universe, isn't it?"

The Vulcan was once again more perceptive than his race was often given credit for. He strode forward, gazing at the destroyer before them. "Indeed, and in more ways than one."

A very small universe, Sulu thought. It was only last week that the Enterprise had returned to Earth from Vulcan. Sybok's katra had been released, and both Sulu and Chekov had been assigned to new vessels. Sulu was given his first captaincy, and Chekov was posted as the executive officer of the Kongo. Two hours out of Starbase 12, the Kongo had been attacked and virtually destroyed by the Romulans. The Cooper had assisted in rescue operations, and Sulu had spoken with Chekov about the death of Captain Matterson. The event had shaken Chekov, but Sulu felt sure that Chekov would be all right. In fact, in this morning's mail, a stargram from Chekov had announced the Russian's transfer to the Enterprise. Sulu was happy for his friend, but wondered if Chekov would be happy there, serving as third officer, chief of security and personnel, instead of being in line for a command of his own.

Sulu glanced over at Xon. The Vulcan was rapidly becoming as well known as Captain Spock. His bearing was actually a little lighter than Spock's, and Sulu had learned while serving with Xon that most Vulcans regarded the younger Vulcan as quite liberal. During one rather memorable occasion, Xon had let his guard down with Sulu and Janet Rachelson, the former security chief of the Cooper. That had made for quite an interesting evening... I wonder how Janet is getting along aboard the Samson? He chuckled. And K.C. Johnson aboard the Alliance?

Sulu's thoughts were interrupted by an announcement from Lieutenant Commander Anex, the Edoan communications officer. "Incoming message from the Shenandoah, Captain."

"On screen," Sulu ordered, sitting up straighter in the center seat. Always need to look our best...

The image of Commander Paul Freeman faded in to view.

"Sulu," he acknowledged, "we're scheduled to make orbit in the next fifteen minutes. Our sensors have detected several Orion Blockade Runners closing in on us." Xon made several adjustments at the sciences station. "They are broadcasting messages indicating their good intentions, but I'd feel better if we raised shields."

"No can do, Captain," Sulu responded. "Ambassador Sarek has made that perfectly clear to me. We cannot respond unless challenged." He smiled. "Take it easy, Paul. If they don't drop shields when we make orbit, we'll raise ours. Just follow our lead."

"Our sensors are confirming the readings from the Shenandoah," reported the Vulcan science officer. "The Blockade Runners are closing on us, but the interception point is Xantharus Four."

Now it was Freeman's turn to sigh. "Sulu, I don't like going in like this. `Fools rush in where angels fear to tread.'"

Sulu chuckled softly, and responded with his own quote. "`Fear is the enemy, the only enemy.'"

Freeman grimaced. "I should have known better than to try to out quote you, Hikaru. Shenandoah out."

Sulu glanced over at his science officer. "Let's just keep an eye on things, shall we, Xon?"

"I always endeavor to be observant," responded the executive officer from the science station.

"How well I remember that," the captain chuckled.

Sulu again surveyed the bridge, making sure all was in order for the drop out of subspace. The Kzinti navigator, Kre'slyt, was checking their position and plotting the courses of the intercepting vessels. The helmsman, Tchenn, a native of the planet Skorr, was setting up possible evasive maneuvers. Sulu chose to address them. "Gentlemen, make us battle ready, but let's not be obvious about it. The ambassador would not take a kindly view of it."

"Indeed, I would not," came a resonating voice from the open turbolift doors.

Sulu turned with a start. "Ambassador," he responded. "Just following the Scout's motto: `Be prepared,'" he explained sheepishly. "And I don't believe that establishing some pre-set evasive maneuvers could be considered hostile."

"Perhaps not, but it indicates a lack of confidence in the success of this mission."

"No offense was intended, Ambassador Sarek..."

"And none was taken, Captain Sulu." The Vulcan's tone softened somewhat. "You are, of course, at liberty to take any reasonable action you deem necessary, providing it will not impede my mission."

Sulu had noticed that the ambassador and the other two members of the negotiating team were all expecting a quick and successful end to their negotiations with the members of the Barrier Alliance. Their attitude was maddening to the scout ship captain. It had all the makings of a potential disaster. The Orions, the Ursinoids, and the Artonians were all members of the Barrier Alliance, and combined could make for one potentially serious military threat. The Orions had dominated the Barrier Alliance (in fact, the union of planets was often referred to as "the Orion Barrier Alliance") and their enmity toward the Federation was well known. Yes, it seemed that the confidence of the Federation diplomats was misplaced.

Sulu walked forward and stepped up to the second tier. Turning to his right, he addressed his communications officer. "Universal peace and hello," the captain ordered, "until such time as the ambassador directs you to do otherwise."

The Edoan, Anex, complied with the order, and turned to face his captain. "Coming to the holotheater tonight, sir?"

"What's playing?"

"Debbie Does Deneva."

"More of Doctor Cord's personal collection, I see," said Sulu, making his way to the engineering station.

"She does know how to pick her pornography, sir," mumbled Anex sotto voce.

"I suppose she does," the captain said, under his breath. "We'll, see." He tapped the engineer on her shoulder. "Well, Chief?"

Commander Deneice Maliszewski turned. "Just running a diagnostic, Skipper. The warp drive on this baby is still purring like a kitten with a saucer of milk." Maliszewski had served aboard the U.S.S. Anwar Sadat with Uhura, and had been the designer of the transwarp technology with which Starfleet was beginning to equip its ships. Maliszewski was a genius as far as engineering concepts went, but was not adept at handling the complex personalities in and politics of the Starfleet Corps of Engineers' Design and Research division. In fact, she had stormed off the Excelsior project when Captain Styles, the commanding officer, had issued a reprimand to her; she had called one of the project directors an idiot in the heat of an argument, and Styles found her attitude "detrimental" to the project. Sulu was glad to have an experienced engineer aboard the Cooper, even if it was an extremely over-qualified one. Unfortunately, the transwarp had been unable to work properly...something was missing in the equations, and Maliszewski was no longer in position to determine what.

Tchenn called from the helm. "Now penetrating the Orion Barrier. Entering the Xantharus system." The Skorr's talons flexed reflexively. His battle instincts were primed, the captain decided.

"Take us out of warp," Sulu ordered. "Standard orbit above Xantharus Four," he said as he made his way to the center seat. He surveyed the instrument panels of the helm and navigation stations for trouble, but found none.

The scout ship dropped out of subspace, and the Shenandoah, keeping pace the entire way, dropped out as well. Matching every move with the Cooper, the destroyer positioned itself a hundred meters to the port side of the scoutship. Sulu smiled as he noted Kre'slyt carefully checking the Shenandoah's position and course against their own, making certain that a collision between the two vessels would be unlikely.

Ambassador Sarek strode across the bridge to stand before the mainviewer. His presence among the negotiators was welcomed by Sulu, as the others were relatively unknown to him. Ambassador Groll, a Gorn, had worked closely with the Federation negotiators in coming up with the treaty between the Federation and the Gorn Confederation, but she had confined herself to her quarters as she found the temperature of the ship quite chilly for a Gorn her age to endure. The other member of the negotiation team was Ambassador William Slovak, a Terran male on his first deep space assignment. He was here to `learn from the masters,' as he put it. Of all three negotiators, Sulu found him to be the most likeable, but distant. All of the negotiators were confident that a quick resolution would be found. Sulu had even heard Groll suggesting that the Barrier might actually be abolished.

Sarek turned to the communications officer, Anex. "Summon the other members of my team. We will be beaming down in five minutes to the courtyard of the Barrier Alliance Consortium complex."

Anex carefully glanced at his captain, and Sulu nodded ever so slightly in assent.

"Captain, the Blockade Runners are rapidly approaching. Their shields are up," reported Xon. There was just a hint of alarm in the Vulcan's voice.

Sulu snapped his head toward the communications bay. "Any answer to peace and hello?"

"No, sir," answered the Edoan.

"Yellow alert," the captain snapped. So they want to play chicken, eh?

As the alarm klaxon sounded, Ambassador Sarek tersely addressed Sulu. "You will cancel that order, Captain."

Sulu stood, facing the screen, and ignored the ambassador completely. "Shields up."

"Captain Sulu, may I remind you--"

"You may not," interjected the Cooper's captain, politely but firmly.

"Blockade Runners now lowering shields," came Xon's voice.

"Shields down," ordered Sulu just as Ambassador Sarek was about to speak again. The captain turned to face Starfleet's most respected negotiator. "Ambassador, I mean no disrespect, sir, but I will not jeopardize this ship with its large number of civilians aboard. Orions respect force. Were we to sit here unresponsive, we would be inviting an attack."

"I shall note your actions in my report to Starfleet..." advised Sarek. His tone softened. "...along with your explanation and my satisfaction with it. My apologies for attempting to subvert your command, Captain."

"No offense taken, Ambassador," answered Sulu. "Position report of the Blockade Runners?" the Cooper's captain asked of his science officer.

Xon adjusted the mainviewer display to tactical. "One has assumed position directly between the Shenandoah and the Cooper. The others have formed a defensive sphere around both vessels."

"Gutsy," acknowledged Sulu, viewing the tactical display.

"Provocative," the Kzinti navigator Kre'slyt suggested.

"Both," First Officer Xon corrected.

"Stand down from yellow alert, but keep the shields and weapons on standby. If they so much as sneeze in our direction, I want those shields up," ordered Sulu.

"Yes, sir," answered Kre'slyt.

"Captain Sulu, the negotiation team is in Transporter Room One. They are...anxiously awaiting Ambassador Sarek," announced Anex.

"Tell them I am on my way," responded Sarek as he headed toward the turbolift doors. "We shall beam down immediately."

Maybe Paul's right. `Fools rush in where angels fear to tread.'

*****

Commander Paul Freeman tightly gripped the armrests of the center seat of the Shenandoah. Here they were, nine hundred fifty lightyears from Sol, on the enemy's side of the Barrier blockade. Like Sulu, this was his first command, a mission of galactic importance, an enemy renowned for treachery, and he and the Shenandoah were right in the middle of it.

But now the fate of the Cooper and the Shenandoah, and, perhaps, the peace of the arm of the galaxy, rode on the success or failure of their mission. He quickly surveyed his bridge crew. The executive officer, Lieutenant Commander Dawson Walking Bear, was at the helm, carefully monitoring the position of the Orion ships. Walking Bear and he had served aboard the Enterprise from 2266 until her refit began in 2270. The navigator, Ensign Kenny Bushmiller, shifted the forward screen to a tactical mode. The young man glanced over his shoulder, and the captain nodded in approval. Ensign Bess Lauderbeck, the communications officer, was maintaining constant communication with her opposite number aboard the Cooper. Lauderbeck and Bushmiller had just graduated from Starfleet Academy, and were all too nervous for his liking. But Walking Bear was a well-known veteran, having served aboard many ships, including the Enterprise and the Saratoga. The science officer, Lieutenant Commander Karen Lang, was also a veteran, having also served aboard the Enterprise with Walking Bear and himself. There was that nasty blotch on her record which had stunted her career for a time, but she was now well on the way to continuing her advancement in rank and stature. That blotch wouldn't have been there if it weren't for Sulu... Finally there was the engineer, Lieutenant Gorgi Brazus, a Tellarite and son of Commodore Brazus. In 2271, he had been one of the targets of a Kzinti kidnapping attempt. Now he was arguably Starfleet's most argumentative engineer, but also one of the best available.

"Captain, we've got an scrambled message incoming from Captain Sulu," reported Lauderbeck.

"Audio, Ensign." The information available on the tactical screen was too important to him to abandon it just for a face-to-face communication.

"Captain Freeman? Just wanted to advise you that the diplomatic party is beaming down now."

"Understood. Did you convince Sarek to take some security officers with him?"

"Didn't have the time. These Orion escorts are keeping us busy," Sulu explained.

"That's an understatement." Freeman paused a minute in thought as the Orion ships continued darting between the two Federation ships. "Sulu, you're the mission commander. I request permission to withdraw from orbit, just to give us some maneuvering room."

"Negative, Captain," Sulu replied. "Paul, I'd love to get us both out of here, but I've got my orders."

And I've got mine, Freeman added silently. "Understood. Shenandoah out."

*****

Ambassadors Sarek, Groll and Slovak found themselves before the fountain at the headquarters of the Barrier Alliance Consortium. The Gorn slowly surveyed the elegant and simply beauty of the structure. Sarek and Slovak were more interested in the Orion troops which had quickly surrounded them. Ambassador Groll stepped forward. "We bid you greetings from the United Federation of Planets and from the Gorn Confederation."

The troops were not impressed, but an elderly Orion stepped to the front of the ranks. "We bid you welcome to our world," he said. "I am Plarnek Tren, current Director of the Barrier Alliance Consortium. I shall be your host as well as the chief spokesperson for my people."

"Live long and prosper, Plarnek Tren," spoke Sarek, his hand upraised in the Vulcan salute.

The Orion returned the Vulcan salute, saying, "Peace and long life, Sarek of Vulcan. We greet you again in our territory, again as a representative for peace." The Director was referring to the last time a Federation peace envoy had been sent to parley with the Orioni Worldlords. Starfleet's Captain Soo Chi of the Federation had successfully repelled a woefully inadequate Orion invasion fleet at Rigel and had forced the Orion fleet back to Quadrant 17. Sarek had then traveled to Xantharus IV to negotiate the terms of an accord which stood since that year of 2207.

The seventy-seven-year-old memory was still quite a vivid one to Sarek as he had entered pon farr during the accords, and had to be rushed back to Vulcan following the signing of the pact. But that was the past... He indicated the Gorn. "Allow me to introduce the members of our party. First, Ambassador Groll of the Gorn Confederation."

The Gorn ambassador stepped forward, and she bowed slightly. This was a crucial moment; the Orions and the Gorn had been conducting open hostilities for the past two decades. Some had even called it an undeclared war. Now the spokespersons for the two governments stood face to face. "We greet you, Ambassador Groll, even though our forces have been at odds for years. Let us hope this will lead to a better understanding among our peoples."

"Let us do more than hope," suggested Groll. "Let us make an end to our differences."

"This is Ambassador Slovak," recommenced the Vulcan.

"On behalf of the Barrier Alliance, we extend our greetings to the ambassador from Earth," said Plarnek Tren with all due solemnity.

Slovak nodded politely, but said nothing. Sarek narrowed his eyes, and Groll turned her head quickly toward the Terran. "Ambassador Slovak?" she prompted.

"Yes? Oh, of course. You expect me to utter some banal greeting indicating our good intentions and the like. Well, talk is cheap, Plarnek Tren. I'm here to see an agreement is reached, not just talked about."

Plarnek Tren stared at the young Human for a minute, then laughed...loudly. The troops around them laughed as well. "Humans! It is no wonder you defeated our forces years ago so easily. And it amazes us that your race did not elect to master us. Such brusqueness, such boldness. You remind me of our ancestors who conquered the galaxy. Yes, Ambassador Slovak, let us reach that agreement. If you please, gentlebeings, step this way," the Orion said, gesturing toward the stairs.

Still unsettled by Slovak's departure from decorum, Sarek and Groll looked at each other, each performing their race's equivalent of a shrug, and followed Slovak and Tren who had already made their way up the staircase into the headquarters of the Barrier Alliance Consortium.

"Whose idea was it to bring him along?" growled Groll to Sarek.

"Mine," answered the Vulcan. "I only hope it was a decision I don't come to regret."

*****

"So what's the movie tonight, Hikaru?" asked Freeman. It had been two days since the negotiators had beamed down, and the two captains had decided that a joint venture on the Cooper might ease some of the tensions their crews felt. The Cooper, with its holovid theater, was the obvious choice for the gathering. There was still a ring of tension in the air, and the crew of each ship were keeping company with their own.

Sulu shifted uncomfortably in the theater's chair. He and Freeman had decided to sit together while Commander Ariel Cord, the Cooper's chief medical officer, set up the film. Seeing Freeman had brought back quite a few memories. Sulu had been romantically involved with Lieutenant Karen Lang aboard the Enterprise. Both Sulu and Freeman, had been pursuing a relationship with her when she had made an oversight during a landing party and failed to note a plant with a lethal life cycle. The crew of the Enterprise had been stricken with the parasitic plant embryos, but were saved by Doctor McCoy's insight. Lang had received an official reprimand, and Freeman had blamed Sulu who had `distracted' Lang in the first place. Sulu never told Freeman or Lang, but he had received an unofficial reprimand from Captain Kirk.

"Earth to Sulu."

"Huh? Oh, one of Ariel's."

Freeman's eyes widened slightly. "Not one of her porno flicks!" he whispered. Ariel Cord, the daughter of entertainment mogul Aaron Cord, was infamous for her collection of erotic films, especially since she had starred in many of them.

The captain of the Cooper rolled his eyes toward heaven. "Who knows? You've heard how she is. Those aren't rumors. They're all true."

The lights dimmed, and the film began. Freeman chuckled as he saw the title. "She's got to be kidding."

Sulu smiled. "I haven't seen this one since I was a kid."

Cord came up and sat down beside Freeman. "Great choice, huh?"

"At least it's not pornographic...unlike most of the films in your collection," the captain of the Cooper said.

Freeman winced at the annoying electronic tones which comprised the music. "But why Forbidden Planet?"

"In honor of the planet below," explained Cord. "After all, can you think of a more forbidden world than Xantharus Four?"

"Yeah, Talos Four," countered Freeman, who almost immediately regretted it. Cord had been involved briefly with Christopher Pike. The remark was not lost on her, and she suddenly began staring at her boots. "Sorry," Freeman offered. "Just being an insensitive jerk." He glanced over to Sulu. "I guess he's rubbing off on me."

"Look, Paul. We've got to talk about this problem between us..." began Sulu.

Suddenly, there was a roar and a crash. Feet and fists were flying, and so were bodies. "What the hell--?" asked Freeman, bolting to his feet.

Sulu was already on the communicator. "Security to holovid theater on the double!" He made his way over to the commotion and was trying to break it up when a phaser rang out in the room. The security alarm sounded, and everyone stopped what they were doing to see who had fired a phaser.

Captain Paul Freeman holstered his phaser and sat back down, carefully studying the faces of those involved. The remains of a bowl of popcorn smoldered on a nearby table. "What gives, ladies and gentlemen?"

Sulu's eyes flickered with disapproval, but Freeman disregarded Sulu's glare. The door opened, and part of the Starfleet Marine detachment aboard the Cooper flooded the room, forcefully separating the former combatants. Xon walked in behind them, cautiously entering the room. "Captain?" he asked. "Captains?" he corrected himself.

"Situation is under control, Mister Xon," answered the Cooper's commanding officer.

"Under control, but as yet unexplained," added Freeman as he made his way to the two who had started the fight. "Lauderbeck? Your explanation, please," the captain asked of a nearby member of his crew.

The Shenandoah's communication officer shrugged. "I don't know, sir." It was an obviously brazen lie.

Sulu stepped to Freeman's side. "Captain, let's clear this room except for the two combatants and this ensign who seems to have a memory problem."

"Agreed, Captain."

Sulu nodded to Sergeant P'rhtin, a Kzinti warrior who was in charge of the marine detachment. "Clear the area, Sergeant. All off-duty crewmembers are confined to quarters until further notice. Commander Xon, I'd like you to remain."

Sulu stared at a spot on the floor until his orders were carried out. After a few moments, he looked up. Lieutenant Benjamin Franklin, the second navigation officer of the Cooper since 2272, was standing at attention. Sulu was disturbed. Franklin had not advanced as rapidly through the ranks as expected; his laid back attitude earned him only average marks. But he had never been known to be a fighter. In fact, he was known to go out of his way to avoid confrontations. "Mister Franklin, I presume you have some explanation?"

"I have none, sir. I apologize for my actions, and await your decision," came the passive reply.

Sulu did a mental double-take, but allowed none of his surprise to cross his face. "Very well. You are relieved of duty until further notice. You are confined to your quarters, and will accept no visitors. Your cabinmate will be temporarily reassigned to my quarters as we have no guest quarters available. Dismissed."

Franklin strolled casually from the theater. Sulu turned to Freeman who was sizing up his own crewman. The Shenandoah's navigator, Ensign Kenny Bushmiller, was still standing at attention, but there was a faint sneer on his face as Franklin left the room. Freeman strode forward and stood with his face mere inches from the navigator. "Mister Bushmiller, I demand you tell me exactly what happened, or I'll have you in a detention cell until the Klingons make peace with the Federation."

"The jerk was putting some moves on Bess."

"That `jerk' is a senior officer, Mister, and a man I have had the pleasure of instructing at the Academy some years ago. If he wants to engage in a relationship with Mister Lauderbeck, that's his business and hers. Not yours."

"Like hell it's not!" the young man answered angrily. "I've been going steady with her since last year when we graduated from the Academy. Everybody knows that."

"Well, I didn't," countered Freeman. "Son, you've made one hell of a mistake here. You are to return to the Shenandoah, and place yourself in the brig. Striking a fellow officer is a court-martial offense, and your career with Starfleet just may now be finished. Now, get the hell out of here."

Bushmiller, crestfallen, made his way toward the door, his face beet red, eyes brimming with unshed tears.

Freeman turned on Ensign Bess Lauderbeck. "Now, Mister, what have you got to add?"

She was openly angry at her captain. "Look, Captain, Kenny's just immature. Franklin asked if I'd like to go back to his cabin after the film, and Kenny freaked. Kenny's never had a girlfriend before; he hasn't had to deal with jealousy before. But to court-martial him and kick him out of Starfleet because he lost his cool?"

"Ensign, did I tell him I was going have him stand before a court-martial? Did I say I was kicking him out of the 'fleet?" asked Freeman softly. "No, I didn't. And I wouldn't just for something like this. But Mister Bushmiller needs to learn a little restraint. I intend to let him cool his jets in the brig until tomorrow, then chew his ass out one more time before reinstating him to duty. But I don't want you uttering one damn word about this to him or anyone else. Understood?"

"Yes, sir." Lauderbeck headed for the door.

"One more thing, Ensign," Freeman said. "Next time you question one of my decisions, you may regret it. Dismissed."

Lauderbeck blanched and continued out the door.

After the doors closed, Freeman let out a deep sigh. "Whew! I can't believe it! A fight among our crewmembers!"

"What did you expect?" asked Cord. "Two days of this ultra-tense atmosphere, surrounded by hostile craft. We're lucky we're not down in Sickbay patching up those two."

"Yeah, this little baby is still quite a conversation stopper," the Shenandoah's captain patted his holstered phaser.

"Well, I would appreciate it if next time you refrain from firing that thing aboard my ship. Someone could have gotten hurt," Sulu said in a tone of voice that let Freeman know he wasn't happy about the phaser.

"Someone would've gotten hurt if I hadn't."

"That's your opinion, Paul. I just don't happen to share it," he snapped.

Suddenly, they were all slammed to the deck. The red alert klaxon blared. The ship shuddered again, and the gravity system surged. Freeman whipped out his communicator as he struggled to regain his feet. "Shenandoah, this is Freeman. Status?"

"We're under attack," came Lieutenant Commander Dawson Walking Bear's voice.

"Damn the Orions! Beam me aboard!" Freeman ordered.

"We're unable to beam you back, sir. Shields are up. The attackers are not Orions, Captain. Sensors have identified the configuration of the attacking vessels as that of Tholian battlecruisers."

"Holy fuck! The quartz-heads! Who'd've thought that!" exclaimed Cord as the deck buckled again.

Sulu had made his way to the wall communicator. He punched at it. "Bridge? Sulu here. Status?"

Chief Engineer Maliszewski answered. "We're taking all kinds of hits, sir. I've got Kre'slyt and Tchenn working on getting us out of this system to get some maneuvering room. The Shenandoah's been badly damaged, sir. Their shields have failed, but they're still putting up quite a fight."

"Sulu, you've got to beam me over there!" insisted Freeman.

"Paul, if you can get to the transporter room, you should be able to get back there. Xon, I need you and me on the bridge. Ariel, get Sickbay ready. If we pull through this, you'll be working overtime."

Sulu and Xon made their way to the end of the corridor, as Freeman made his way to the opposite end. "Good luck!" he called as he entered the transporter room.

*****

Commander Deneice Maliszewski struggled to maintain her hold on the bridge railing. "Maintain course and speed, boys!" she called to the helmsman and navigator. "Anex, have you managed to raise Starfleet?"

"Negative, Commander," the Edoan replied.

"Emergency distress call," the engineer ordered. She made her way to the science station. The relief science officer, Lieutenant Gjav Gragrar, a Tellarite, lay dead on the deck; debris had fallen from the ceiling, crushing his head. She checked the sensors which were still operational. The Shenandoah was taking a beating, but was keeping pace with them as they made their drive into deep space.

She flipped a switch, and tried to get an analysis on the Tholian's weapon system. "It's some form of plasma torpedo," she muttered to herself. She scanned for their Orion escorts. "Nothing left of them but dust."

The ship shuddered again, and the sensor system died. "Damn. Where's the skipper?"

The emergency port opened, and up through the deck came Sulu and Xon. "Status, Chief?"

"The Tholians are maintaining their attack on us and the Shenandoah using plasma torpedoes. Sensors are dead, and the shields are failing."

"Screens?"

"Holding for a while. Once the shields go, though, don't expect the screens to disperse the energy of those torpedoes. They're too powerful."

The ship shook violently, and an alarm went off at the engineer's station. She rushed across the trembling deck. "We're losing containment in engineering. We've got to jettison the engine pod."

Sulu thought about it for a second. "That'll leave us lame, even if we make it into deep space. It'll be a turkey shoot."

Xon crawled under the science console and began an attempt to rewire the station. Sulu sat down in the center seat. "How many attackers?" he asked.

"Four, sir," answered Tchenn. The Skorr's fingers danced across the phaser and photon torpedo controls, firing at will at the Tholians.

"Get me a tactical overlay," Sulu ordered.

"Unable to do so, sir, until we have the sensors back on line," answered the helmsman.

"Sensors are coming back on line, Captain," reported Xon. "I have managed to interlink the sensor relays through the subspace relays--"

"Fine, Xon. Now, get me that tactical display."

"Containment failure in one minute," warned Maliszewski from the engineering station.

"Warm up the engine. Can we get some maneuvering out of it?"

"Sure," the engineer responded sarcastically, "for another fifty seconds or so."

"Navigator," ordered the captain, "set a direct course toward the Tholians. They appear to be linking up to create one of their energy webs."

"Engines on line. Course change implemented. Engines engaged," reported Kre'slyt.

"Drop pod," ordered Sulu.

A sudden smile dawned on the chief engineer's face. "Aye, sir!"

There was a slight jar as the engine pod was released.

"Helmsman, navigator, get us away from that point. Hard about, maximum impulse."

"Yes, Captain."

Sulu glanced at the tactical display. The Shenandoah had passed them, still heading for the limits of the star system where combat would be easier. Unfortunately, the destroyer looked incapable of engaging in combat in the first place, let alone standing a chance against the Tholians. No matter, Sulu decided. In less than a minute, there would be no more Tholians.

"Maximum impulse achieved, sir."

"Time until detonation?" Sulu asked Maliszewski.

"Five seconds."

"The Tholians are retreating from the pod," reported Xon. "They are still within range of the explosion...as are we."

The screen exploded with actinic light. The Cooper was thrown by the force of the explosion toward the Xantharus system's Oort Cloud.

On the bridge of the science ship, no one was moving.

*****

On the bridge of the Shenandoah, all hands were at battle-ready. The explosion of the Cooper's engine pod had sent a sub-space shockwave which had thrown the small scout ship out of the star system, just as it had the destroyer. But the destroyer had ridden out the turbulence with relatively little damage.

Freeman gripped the railing as he surveyed his crew. At the helm, Walking Bear was maintaining fire on the two surviving Tholian ships. The navigator, Lieutenant DiFalco, plotted evasive maneuver after evasive maneuver and implemented them in order. Lauderbeck was still trying to cut through the Tholian jamming and contact the Starfleet forces at the Barrier for assistance. Science Officer Lang was scanning the sector for additional Tholians.

Freeman, though, could not tear his eyes away from the view of the Cooper, tumbling end over end. The screen suddenly flashed in brilliance.

"Another one bites the dust!" reported Walking Bear. "One Tholian battlecruiser to go!"

"Maintain firing rate. Engineer?"

The Tellarite, Brazus, turned from his station. "What is it? Can't you see I'm busy trying to keep this ship in one piece?!"

Freeman ignored the tone of the response. "Status?"

The Tellarite grunted. "I just told you; I'm trying to keep this ship in one piece. Now diverting power from primary lighting and reducing life support systems to minimum."

"Cut all life support. Cut secondary lighting. Cut communications. Divert all power to weapons, shields and engines."

"Yes, sir," Brazus grunted in approval. Unless the Shenandoah was successful in battle, there would be no need for life support, communications or lighting.

The lighting on the bridge shifted from red to a pale sickly green-yellow glow that came from the glowpups beneath the gangway and along the vents atop each bridge station. Only the instrumentation at the helm, navigation, science and engineering stations glowed brightly.

The ship shuddered again. "Direct hit to navigational deflector. It's off-line, sir," reported Lang.

"Not as though we're going to be using it any time soon," muttered Walking Bear. "As many hits as we've taken on the engine..."

"Mind your post, Walking Bear," prompted the captain.

"I am...I am...Got him!" the helmsman exclaimed. The screen flashed again, only to clear as quickly. On it now, the Cooper tumbled slowly as it drifted through the expanding cloud of plasma that had been a Tholian battlecruiser. The Tholians had been using the Cooper to shield themselves from the Shenandoah's torpedoes, but to no avail.

"Confirmation, science officer?"

"Kill is confirmed, Captain. The Tholian battlecruiser has been destroyed."

"Fan-damn-tastic! Damage control reports in five minutes. Sensors?"

"Sector is clear, sir," reported Lang from the science station. "Sensors detect life aboard the Cooper. There are quite a few survivors, sir."

"Stand down to yellow alert. Walking Bear, get me a rescue team to the transporter room in five minutes. I want a team on the Cooper immediately."

"Transporters are down, Captain," reported Brazus, a bit contritely, but still with more civility than he'd shown two minutes earlier. "Shuttlebay has been totally destroyed. No shuttlecraft survived."

Freeman considered the problem. "Maneuvering thrusters, Walking Bear. Get us close enough for an EVA."

"Power being routed through auxiliary circuits. We should have lighting again...now," reported the Tellarite engineer as the main lighting returned to the bridge.

"Communications have cleared, sir. I am in contact with the starship Challenger. Captain Garrovick is coming on line."

"Hello, Paul?" came the voice over the intercom system.

"David, you son of a bitch, how the hell have you been?"

"Apparently a lot better than you. We received the distress signal from the Cooper and your ship. We're en route and expect to arrive in fifteen minutes. The Enterprise and the Invincible will be there within an hour. Can you give me a picture of the situation?"

"Tholians, David. Four battlecruisers. All confirmed destroyed. Damage...well, the Cooper has seen better days. She's tumbling out of control; Sulu dropped her engine pod and used it as a weapon. I'm going to send an EVA rescue team just to try to assess the situation there...and, David, it doesn't look good. The Shenandoah's in little better shape. We're going to need a few weeks in a spacedock."

There was another voice on the speaker, but unclear. Then Garrovick returned. "Shenandoah, we're detecting a fleet of vessels approaching the Xantharus system. Can you confirm?"

Freeman turned to Lang, who was bent over the sensor arrays. "Confirmed, Captain Freeman. I've got sixteen Tholian battlecruisers on approach. Several Orion ships have engaged them, but it's David versus Goliath, and this time David doesn't have a sling."

"Cancel the EVA, Walking Bear," Freeman told his executive officer who had been on the ship's intercom taking damage control reports and assigning crewmembers to the EVA team. Walking Bear looked as though he were going to argue, but thought better of it, much to Freeman's relief. The Shenandoah's captain spoke into the intercom. "Did you copy that, Challenger?"

"Affirmative, Captain." There was something in Garrovick's voice. "Paul...we're not going to get there in time."

There was dead silence on the bridge of the Shenandoah. "Understood. See you in hell, David. Freeman out." He thumbed the button, cutting the line. He turned to Lauderbeck. "Intership, please." As she nodded, he pressed the comm button. "Captain to crew. At present, we're virtually crippled. We do have maneuvering capabilities, and our phasers and torpedo banks are functional. But we are facing an overwhelming force, one which is rapidly closing in on this star system. Our duty is to protect ourselves, and to protect the Cooper which is still tumbling out of control...Do me proud, people. Freeman out."

And the destroyer Shenandoah turned to face the oncoming armada.

*****

The conference was in its second day of negotiations, and Sarek was beginning to realize how deep the Orion antipathy for the Federation truly was. Clearly, the treaty he had negotiated years earlier had virtually crippled the Orion commerce routes, but the trade was of such a clearly illicit nature that there was no choice; slavery, drug trafficking, piracy were all recognized as crimes by virtually all space-faring races.

The Orion negotiator, Plarnek Tren was truly skilled in his craft. Tren, whose great-grandfather had been the Orion negotiator all those years ago, had basically set up his government's position in a matter of minutes, and had done it in such a skillful manner that it was only upon reflection following their first session that Sarek had determined the Orions had no intentions of making any concessions whatsoever. Slovak had not been fooled by the Orion's oratory; in fact, the junior member of the negotiations team had been extremely angry following the session. Groll, her age showing, had failed to notice the Orion's insistence that the Federation make unilateral concessions.

Slovak demanded the opportunity to present the Federation's position, and given the steadfast view of the Orions, Sarek and Groll had consented. The young Human stood before the Orioni Worldlords and their mediator now, berating them.

"And I would like to thank the Orioni Worldlords for inviting us here to this conference, hoping to invite the Federation to offer what would amount to a unilateral disarmament and virtual surrender. Well, gentlemen, the Federation wants peace, but we were not sent here to give you the key to the back door, so to speak. We're here to listen to what you may have to say, we're here to listen to any proposal you may have, we're here to accept any petition you may wish to present on joining the Federation, but, and this must be clearly understood by all, gentlemen, we are not here to give you free reign in Federation space."

Sarek nodded in approval. Sometimes diplomacy was not the best tactic when negotiating, and Slovak certainly was not diplomatic. The Vulcan looked over the shocked faces of the old men which were the Orioni Worldlords, and registered absolute surprise on their countenances.

"An unpleasant young man, but extremely forthright in his oration. He is clearly defining the Federation's goals for this conference, but his brutal honesty may be more than the Worldlords can tolerate. I wouldn't be surprised if we're summarily executed following his address," remarked Groll sotto voce.

Sarek silenced the Gorn with a raised eyebrow.

Slovak continued his speech. "Gentlemen, you must realized that the United Federation of Planets has never nor will ever tolerate the very businesses you claim you need in order to survive economically. We will not tolerate slavery, drug trafficking, weapons dealing, piracy, nor any other of your `valued' forms of commerce. You must realize, gentlemen, that this very problem was addressed on my own planet some centuries ago. Many of my world's nations were engaged in these very activities, and for the same reason you claim: economic survival. And to some extent, they were right. The technologically advanced nations did not share their technology, did not share in their economic success. It was a short-sighted policy. It was contemptible.

"Today, The United Federation of Planets has no such short-sighted policy. We have open markets for all member races; we've eliminated poverty from our worlds through the development of resources, services and products, and we have built a large market base. There is more than enough room for your products, your services, your resources. But it has no room for activities which are detrimental to the populations of the member worlds of our Federation. In essence, there is no room for activities which are anti-life."

Slovak looked at his notes. "According to our estimates, were the present member races of the Barrier Alliance to join the United Federation of Planets, the Alliance members could expect a three-hundred percent increase in productivity, just to meet the demands of the Federation member worlds for your art, your works of fiction and poetry, your music, and other products and services."

"I have a question!" called one of the Orioni Worldlords. Plarnek Tren tried to silence the old Orion, but he would have none of it.

"Ask it," responded Slovak as Groll and Sarek looked disconcerted at this breach of protocol.

"You expect me to believe that the Federation has an interest in Orion novels and poetry?"

"Yes, sir, I do. `Above all words, honor these three: "Let me help."'" Slovak look at the Worldlords. "That's what we're saying here. Let us help. We can remake your worlds, bring you the advances of medicine and science, and above all, they will remain your worlds. We will not interfere with your government, with your laws, with your culture. All we ask is that you give up these `activities' which are unbecoming of a space-faring people. Is that such a terrible price to pay? Do you really enjoy these slave auctions, trafficking in illegal drugs, selling contraband weapons and material to backward planets? Do you really profit from them? If you think you do, then you will remain as you are. Pariahs to the rest of the known galaxy, outcasts to be spurned, to be held in contempt."

"And what of Ardana? You interfered there!" called another Worldlord.

"Ardana joined the Federation on its own volition, and agreed to the same conditions we've set down here. Then they chose to violate those conditions. But we did nothing to them, despite rumors to the contrary. We simply placed their world on probation, and denied them free access to our markets, much as we have denied you access to those markets. And the Ardanans chose to renounce their caste system. Today, they have a thriving world and culture."

"And you don't call that interference! It's contemptible!"

Slovak smiled sarcastically. "And slavery isn't? No, gentlemen, it is clear to me that you are not ready to parley with the Federation. Now, just why did you invite us here?"

Suddenly, there was a siren in the distance, and the building trembled. Sarek bolted to his feet. "Plarnek Tren, what is the meaning of this?"

The Orioni Worldlords looked uncomfortable, as though they were small children with their hands caught in the cookie jar. It was a startling change in their demeanor, and it chilled Sarek. "Allow me to repeat Ambassador Slovak's question, why have we been invited here."

"Remain calm, Ambassadors," Tren said assuredly. "This building is quite safe. Even now, it is being lowered beneath the surface of the planet, and the thermocrete bomb shield will cover it shortly. The deflector shields will supplement these measures, and we're quite safe from the attack."

"Attack?" growled Groll. "Attack from whom?"

Tren sighed.

"Tell them, Tren," called one of the Worldlords. "Tell them why we have sued for peace!"

Slovak chuckled. "Who is it? It can't be the Klingons or the Romulans; they're on the far side of the Federation from here. It can't be the Gorn; they've sent Groll here for the conference. Is it the Kelvans? Have they returned?"

"No, not the Kelvans, thankfully. No, it's a foe we've had little contact with, but I understand the Vulcans have had dealings with them. The attackers are Tholians, Ambassadors. They strike without warning, and always without mercy. Our defense fleet has been reduced to fighter craft."

"Tholians? This confirms a report I read in the Vulcan Science Academy Journal," remarked Sarek casually. "The Tholians' central hive recently underwent a number of changes. The observers likened it to the swarming behavior of many insects. Perhaps this threat from the Tholians is a result of this swarming behavior."

"And perhaps they're tired of Orion raids on their planets," suggested Slovak.

The building shook suddenly. "You said we were safe?" asked Groll.

Tren looked uncertain. "This structure was designed by the Director of the Barrier Alliance Consortium. He and his daughter used it to conduct their...business. It was designed to withstand even an invasion from the Starfleet Marine Corps. However..."

"You're not sure, eh? Well, at least you've spared us the cost of a funeral," muttered Slovak.

"How's that?" asked one of the Worldlords.

"We're already buried," explained the Terran ambassador with a silly grin on his face. "Guess we can all kiss it goodbye."

"I have never understood the fatalism of Humans," commented Sarek. He looked at the assemblage of Worldlords and negotiators. "I propose we put this time to good use and continue our negotiations. I believe Ambassador Slovak has finished. Plarnek Tren?"

Tren looked at the Worldlords. After receiving some reassuring nods, he conceded. "Indeed. Perhaps we can come to some understanding."

*****

"Status, Engineer?" asked Captain Sulu.

Chief Engineer Maliszewski looked over the engineering panel. She'd returned to the engineering section to assess the damages from the attack. "Sir, the Cooper's going to need some time in a spacedock, but we're far from dead. I've re-routed the phaser banks through the impulse engines. The shots we get off will be limited in power. We couldn't expect any damage were we going against anyone else, but the Tholians just have never been adept at shielding their vessels. We should be able to do some damage."

"And maneuvering? Can you stop our tumble?"

"Ensign Rajas and Lieutenant Commander Kahn died during the battle, but I've got several techs from the Marine detachment working on the thrusters."

Sulu's face fell at the news of the deaths of Kahn and Rajas. He'd served with both of them on the Cooper before the entire Genesis affair.

Maliszewski continued, ignoring the crestfallen look on her captain's face. Now was not the time to grieve. "The thrusters probably can't stop this tumble before exhausting the fuel cells. On the other hand, I've got Lieutenants Pierce and Moore from Communications helping with the impulse engines. I hope we can be powered up again in half an hour."

"Photons?" he asked hopefully. They'd been installed only four months ago, prior to his taking command. The Federation's news services had had a field day with the retrofitting of all science survey ships of the Cooper's class with such clearly offensive weapons as photon torpedoes, but it had stemmed from a Klingon attack on a similar vessel. The Schirra had been completely obliterated, even as the captain was trying to surrender.

"Still have thirty-one available. Launching tubes two, six and seven are destroyed. Tubes one and four are inoperable due to circuitry failures."

"That gives me one forward, one starboard and one aft tubes. Damn."

"And no port tube."

"Double damn."

*****

"Tactical report, please, Mister Walking Bear," ordered Freeman.

"Tholian battlecruisers are still bombing Xantharus Four with photon torpedoes. Our position from them is 120 megameters. Two more Tholians are approaching us."

"Hail them, Mister Lauderbeck."

"I've been trying, sir. There's no response."

"Any word from the Cooper?"

"Negative, sir," Lauderbeck answered.

"Life signs?"

Karen Lang looked reassuring. "There are thirty-two survivors, sir. Life signs indicate they're heavily involved with some activity."

"Probably trying to put out fires and make some repairs."

"Wish they'd stop their tumble. It's making me dizzy just looking at it," muttered Brazus from Engineering.

"So what's our status, Engineer? Are we combat ready?"

"No, but I'm sure the Tholians won't mind."

"Probably not."

Alarms began shrieking. "Incoming!" reported Walking Bear.

The shock threw everyone to the deck. "Return fire!"

"Torpedoes away, sir," answered the Comanche.

"Get me phasers, too."

The ship was rocked again.

"Engines are now off-line, sir," reported Brazus. "Containment failure imminent. Now venting antimatter."

"Firing phasers, sir."

There was a loud explosion from beneath the decks.

"Impulse engines have been hit, sir. Fusion reactors are shutting down," reported the Tellarite engineer resignedly.

The tactical screen was becoming more and more cluttered as more and more Tholians arrived.

"Shit," Freeman uttered under his breath as the situation looked hopeless.

Again, the ship took a hit.

"Phaser firing circuits have overloaded. Now switching to backups. Backups are not responding; torpedoes have been exhausted. Shields have failed."

The overhead lighting array fell to the deck behind the center seat. Freeman launched himself forward and hung on for dear life to the forward railing. "Forward view!" he ordered.

Two Tholian ships were bonding with two others. The four then separated, and it was clear that the Tholians were constructing an energy web.

"You know what they do with survivors?" asked Lauderbeck softly.

"Yeah," answered Brazus. "They interrogate them...in person. The prisoners are literally cooked by their body heat in a matter of minutes." He chortled. "In my case, it'll be baked ham."

Freeman shook his head. Only Brazus would made that kind of comment... "Knock it off, Engineer. I don't want it said we all died laughing."

*****

The bridge of the Cooper was a flurry of activity. Captain Sulu took it all in, carefully making sure they were ready. He quickly surveyed the bridge. Xon was at Sciences, monitoring the actions of the Tholian attack on the Shenandoah. A Kzinti, Sergeant P'rhtin of the Marine detachment, had been pressed into serving at the Security station as the Cooper's security officers had all perished. At the communications station, Anex was still at work, trying to make repairs by routing the comm system through other circuits. As navigator, Kre'slyt was preparing their attack course. Helmsman Tchenn was readying the thrusters for firing. Maliszewski was in engineering, so Franklin had taken her place on the bridge. At Life Support, one of the civilians, Connie Toy, was struggling to keep critical systems on line, and no one had seen Lieutenant Commander Jana Haines since before the battle began.

Sulu reflected how bravely the civilians had performed during the crisis. They had suffered heavy casualties to their number, but they were more determined than ever. Doctor Mandala, who had always been a thorn in the side of the Cooper's previous captain, had organized fire fighting brigades among the civilian survivors, and had even assisted Doctor Cord with emergency surgery on some of the critically injured. He only hoped he'd have a chance to thank them all when this battle was over.

On the viewscreen, the Tholians had linked to form a web. "All right, everyone. Let's get it done."

P'rhtin and Kre'slyt growled in anticipation. Tchenn's talons flexed anxiously.

"Thrusters and impulse engines, helmsman. Bring us to a full stop."

The tumbling of the Cooper slowed and became more looping as the impulse engines roared to life. The looping was soon halted. And the Cooper was on course for the Tholians. "Phasers and torpedoes," ordered Sulu. "And I don't want two atoms sticking together when you're finished."

Kre'slyt began the Cooper's assault run on the Tholian ships.

*****

"I've got an impulse engine back on line, sir. I can give you some maneuvering," reported Brazus as though he were personally taking credit for the work being completed by his staff of engineers below decks.

"Captain!" called Walking Bear, gesturing to the screen.

The U.S.S. Cooper, a Mercury-VII science survey ship, was making an impulse-powered attack run on the Tholians.

"Go, Sulu, go!" shouted Freeman, each syllable getting louder as he uttered the cheer.

A bolt of bright blue launched itself from a phaser array and struck the lead Tholian battlecruiser. Two photon torpedoes followed the energy beams, then two more. The lead Tholian didn't even have time to get off a shot; it exploded in an actinic flash. The backlash of the blast tore through the hull of two other battlecruisers, severely crippling them. But the fourth battlecruiser was making a run on the Cooper.

Freeman considered his orders, given to him by Admiral Cartwright himself. The Cooper, with its civilians aboard, was to be protected at all costs. "Helmsman, move us in between the two."

"Captain, that's suicide!" protested Brazus loudly.

Walking Bear ignored the objection and punched the commands into the helm console.

*****

Sulu observed the Shenandoah's maneuvering. "Oh, Paul," he shook his head, "I'm not going to allow that." He turned to the navigator. "Mister Tchenn, I want a course away from the Shenandoah. I'm not going to let them act as decoy. Maintain firing aft torpedoes. I want the Tholians after us, not them."

"Yes, sir," the Skorr replied.

"Get me tactical, Xon."

The screen was replaced by a tactical schematic. The Cooper was heading away from the Xantharus system into deep space. There was an unknown approaching them from the direction their course was taking them. "Identify that vessel, Xon."

"Sensors can detect its existence, sir, but, with the damage they've taken, they cannot identify its configuration," the Vulcan explained apologetically.

"Shall I take evasive maneuvers?" asked Kre'slyt.

Sulu stood there, staring at the graphical display for a moment. "Negative. Maintain course and speed. And maintain firing rate."

The unknown vessel swung past them at close range, and, for a second, Sulu thought he'd guessed wrong. "Normal view," he ordered.

The U.S.S. Enterprise swung around from behind the Tholian vessel and opened fire. The Tholian took several hits and exploded into a ball of plasma.

"Yes!" crowed Tchinn.

The Enterprise positioned itself alongside the Cooper. "Sensors detect a transporter beam from the Enterprise," reported Xon.

A shower of sparkling light appeared on the bridge before the mainviewer. It solidified into Captain Spock, Doctor McCoy and a damage control party of four. "Permission to come aboard, Captain?" asked Spock.

"Permission granted, Captain. Welcome aboard what's left of the U.S.S. Cooper."

"With your permission, Captain Sulu?"

Sulu nodded.

"Mister Gabler, you and the damage control party will coordinate with Mister Xon; the Cooper is in dire need of repairs. Doctor McCoy, you will report to Sickbay and assist in anyway you can." Spock stepped forward and offered a communicator to Sulu. "As you are the mission commander, Captain Kirk wishes to confer with you immediately."

Sulu took the communicator. "Cooper to Enterprise. Sulu here."

"Enterprise. Kirk here. I'm sorry it took so long to get here, Captain Sulu. The Challenger and the Invincible were held up by another wave of Tholian battlecruisers."

"Better late than never, Captain Kirk," Sulu responded, smiling.

"Your orders, Captain?"

And the strangeness of the situation struck Sulu so heavily that he nearly staggered under the weight of such responsibility. "Set course for Xantharus Four. Repel any Tholians you may find there. Contact the Challenger, and the Shenandoah. Both ships are to make for Xantharus as soon as possible. The Cooper will rendezvous with you there. Notify the Invincible that I want them on system patrol as soon as possible."

"Understood, Captain. We'll rendezvous at Xantharus as soon as you get there. Kirk out."

Sulu turned to his junior officers. "Helm, bring us about. Navigator, set course for Xantharus Four. Get us there on the double. Ahead full."

*****

Personal Log, Stardate 8491.6
Captain Hikaru Sulu recording

The Cooper is being towed to Starbase 45 where it is to be repaired and refitted with a new warp engine pod. Casualties were heavy. Of the seventy-eight beings aboard the Cooper, only twenty-eight have survived. Most of the bodies were unrecovered, having been in sections which were hulled. My crew and I are currently aboard the Enterprise where we will be debriefed on our combat with the Tholians.

The Shenandoah is also en route to Starbase 45, under its own power. While severely damaged, the destroyer lost only two of its crew. The Invincible remains on system patrol in Xantharus, and the Challenger is now on patrol in that sector. No more Tholian vessels have been detected in the area, and the Federation is dispatching Vulcan envoys to the Tholians to parley for a peace accord.

The Federation has successfully negotiated a peace treaty with the Orioni Worldlords and their allies. Ambassador Sarek says he cannot take the credit for it, and he gives full credit to Ambassador Slovak. I don't know what to make of that young man, but he is remaining on Xantharus to facilitate the consolidation of the Barrier Alliance with the Federation. Ambassador Groll is serving the same function for the Gorn Confederation. In honor of this historic accord, the Federation emblem will be changing to reflect the three superpowers amidst the field of stars.

What a week! Maybe now, though, I can get some sleep. But when I think of those who perished, I doubt it.

Earth, Memorial Day, 2285

Captain Hikaru Sulu stood alongside Captain James T. Kirk as the names were read.

"Lieutenant Commander Jana Haines, Lieutenant Gam'tai, Lieutenant John Gould, Lieutenant Chris Waters, Lieutenant Leslie Chambers, Lieutenant Commander Mohammed Kahn, Ensign Rajas..."

A lump formed quickly in Sulu's throat. They were reading the names of the Cooper's fatalities. Some of those named were friends he'd made while serving aboard the Cooper as its executive officer a decade ago. Some of those named were complete strangers. Yet each and every one of them was a knife into Sulu's heart. 

Add to that the thousands of casualties from the Kelvan war, and Janet... He couldn't finish the thought. He wouldn't finish the thought. He just had to stand there and wait...and wait...and wait...

*****

The calling of the dead had concluded, and Jim Kirk looked around the parade ground as several acknowledgments were made by the Commanding Admiral.

On the dias, Admiral Cartwright stood unhappily, having been replaced as Commander-Starfleet by Admiral William Smillie. The Federation Council did not approve of Cartwright's handling of recent events, and so had selected Bill Smillie to serve the Federation's interests as its Commander in Chief. 

Kirk smiled at the thought. Now, with good men like Bill Smillie running things, Starfleet could get some work done, exploring those brave new worlds, seeking out new life and civilizations...

He glanced over at Sulu. The commanding officer of the Cooper had been decorated for his part in this mission, but the look on Sulu's face was full of remorse. Then it dawned on Kirk as to why his former helmsman was so distressed. It was Sulu's first Memorial Day service as a captain.

At the conclusion of the ceremony, Kirk turned to Sulu. He had a pressing engagement elsewhere, in New York, of course, but this was just as important. "Captain, let's go for a walk."

Sulu blinked as if suddenly realizing the ceremony was over, but followed. They walked past the statue of Zefrem Cochrane, and Kirk laughed. "Doesn't look a thing like him."

They entered the garden promenade and strolled at a leisurely pace. "Captain?"

"Hikaru, if you don't mind, call me `Jim,'" said Kirk, amused.

"All right...Jim, I just...I just..." Sulu faltered for the right words.

"It hurts, doesn't it?" Kirk glanced over at the irises. "Each and every one of them hurts."

"Yes," admitted Sulu.

"Good. Let it hurt, Hikaru. Let it always remind you of how fragile life is," Kirk looked distant. "And never forget, Hikaru, never. That's the lesson here." Kirk regarded Sulu carefully. "Don't let life and death be reduced to numbers... If it is, then you and I are just accountants. But we're not. We're starship commanders, each responsible for the lives of our respective crews. We care, and that helps us."

"Helps us? How?"

"It helps make the tough decisions, and it helps us to remain Human."

Sulu looked at Kirk appraisingly. "I think I understand, sir...Jim."

"You might...or you might not. But if you don't, you will." Kirk glanced at his chronometer, noting it was time for him to leave if he wanted to catch that drop tube to New York. He offered his hand, and shook Sulu's firmly. "You're leaving for the Cooper in a few hours, Sulu. I won't see you for a while. Take care of yourself."

"And you, sir."

As Kirk departed, Sulu sat down on the bench. Never forget, Kirk had said.

"I don't think I ever will."


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