October 20th 2297
Nyota Penda Uhura, Captain of the Hyperion, released another personnel folder from her readout queue, calling the next one up to view. Starfleet expected every captain to report on the status of their crew, in terms of performance and potential, and she felt that it was incumbent upon her to look at each individuals dossier herself. Not, of course, that she felt responsible for every member of her ships contingent: the majority of the people in the Hyperion would have their performance report written by their supervising officer, and she would do little more than read the recommendation over and discuss any she was uncertain about with the supervising crewmember.
In terms of direct personal scrutiny, her task, as far as she was concerned, was to review the dossiers of the supervisors and her bridge crew. Though that lessened the size of her task tremendously, the Bantu woman still found it tiresome. Naturally, there had been some interesting points: reading up on Doctor MBenga had revealed a few surprises, including a passion for playing old board games and scuba diving that she knew nothing about, for instance, and Indris religious preference, which Uhura had always assumed was Hindu, turning out to be Christian. Eletto had turned out to have a great deal more theological training than shed have guessed: with the background he had, she realized, he met Starfleet standards as a chaplain, and she made a mental note to see if he was willing to act in that capacity on top of his other responsibilities. Other discoveries were less surprising: Joe Tucker, her weapons officer, was deeply enamored of playing war games, particularly ones which simulated actual battles, and Ken Reichard, her next in command, was even more deeply enamored of Marie Webb, with rumors that a proposal of matrimony might come at the end of the current mission. Despite not being sure how that tidbit had gotten into a performance file, it brought a smile to Uhuras face: she still remembered talking to Amy Reichard, Kens mother, and hearing her disappointment that Ken was shipping out again. The rumor, if true, would certainly brighten Amys day. In the interest of keeping the file up to Starfleets standards, she deleted the personal reference.
Opening the folder on the screen before her, Uhura was pleased to find that it was the last of the stack. The name on the folder was Marsden. Even before she opened it, it dawned on her that there was something wrong: the folders name read, "Marsden, James, Ensign." Surprised, she double checked to make sure that the folder was the most recent one. Marsden had done a tour of duty with her on the Enterprise, as she recalled; that was far enough back that she was sure he should have reached Lieutenant or more likely, Lieutenant Commander.
Her eyebrows rose slightly, and she moved a little closer to the readout before her. Given the stellar performance she had seen on her bridge, and the positive comments shed overheard in conversation, some of which had been almost envious of his skill at the helm, she was sure that there had to be something juicy in his background that was holding him back. That it could have been an egregious mistake seemed to her inconceivable; the Marsden she knew was far too sharp for that. Something more along the lines of the kind of thing that Jim Kirk used to pull seemed much more likely.
Despite going through the file with a fine-toothed comb, nothing showed up. For some unthinkable, unimaginable reason, a stellar member of Starfleet had managed to stay stuck as an ensign despite glowing recommendations. Uhura touched the communications patch. "ODoul?"
"Is Marsden on the bridge?"
"No, maam. Do you need him?"
"I want him in the ready room in ten minutes, please. Im going over the personnel folders, and I want to talk to him." The captain realized that her remark sounded like there might be discipline planned, but rather than worsen the situation by trying to undo the mistaken impression she feared the tone of her voice and the tenor of her request might have conveyed, she let it drop, hoping nothing more would come of it.
"Yes, sir. Is there trouble, Captain?" It was obvious that ODoul had caught the inadvertent overtone, and was considering the pros and cons of warning a fellow crewman.
"No, just curiosity, Deanna. Im glad Im not a cat; the curiosity would kill me."
"Ill have him up there as swiftly as I can, maam."
"Thanks, Deanna." Uhura broke the connection, going back to Marsdens file, hoping to solve the conundrum on her own. The annunciator on the door chimed before she had even the least inkling of what had gone wrong. "Come!"
Marsden entered, Uhura standing and waving him to a chair in front of her. "What can I do for you, Captain? Deanna said I wasnt in trouble, when I asked, so Ive got to figure something else is up."
"Im hungry for some explanation. Ive been going over the personnel files for the bridge crew, and your file rather stands out, Ensign." Her brows moved together and her forehead wrinkled. "What in space is a man of your incredible capability doing as an ensign, after all these years? You should be a lieutenant, if not a lieutenant commander by now. Who did you offend, and how in space did you do it so thoroughly?"
The ensign shuffled his feet under the table and fidgeted with his fingers for a moment or two before he answered,clearly trying to think up an evasion. "Hey, cant a fellow just like being an ensign and just refuse the promotion when someone offers it? Im in no hurry to look for trouble. Increased rank means increased responsibility."
She shook her head. "Im not buying that for a second, Marsden. I may have been born in the evening, but it wasnt this evening, and it wasnt yesterday evening, either. This isnt a Klingon hunt, man, Im just trying to understand whats going on. You may not be as familiar to me as Doctor MBenga, but youre no stranger either. This isnt the noise Id expect from the co-developer of the trick that bailed us out when we were outgunned by a ship load of Klingons trying to take Pernod Nicholsen from us shortly after we started out this mission."
"Aw, that was just a lucky trick, thats all."
She cupped her hand in her hand, closing her eyes to quickly formulate how to proceed.
"Nothing of the sort, Ensign; the maneuver you and Tucker pulled together was brilliant." She opened her eyes and leaned forward a little. "Youre trying to evade me, Mister Marsden. I refuse to be easily evaded."
The helmsman shrugged. "I guess my previous commanding officers and the folks down in psych were easier to con than you are. Still, its true, Captain. I just havent chosen to take the exam that I have to pass to go up to the next level. You know every step up until Captain requires a proficiency test of some sort. Its just that I dont feel like taking the test."
"I see." Leaning back, Uhura thought about the answer for a moment. It still didnt add up, in her mind. "Jim, that still doesnt make a lot of sense to me. Youre sharp, youre experienced, and youre amazingly competent. Its not like there isnt any fire in your belly: Ive seen you pilot evasive maneuvers in combat, and if we could tap the fire Ive seen in your belly, we could power a warp engine, with energy to spare. Youre holding something back, and I want to know what it is. You deserve better than what youre settling for, and if I can help you get past this and back onto track where you belong, I want to do it. Its not like Im going to go telling tales on you. I want to help. The James Marsden I know and have come to respect is well worth the effort."
Briefly, the ensign looked away then turned back. "It all boils down to one professor at Starfleet Academy, Captain. Did you ever have a professor that rode your case hard, one that never seemed to be satisfied with your work, no matter how well you did?"
The Bantu chuckled. "Did I ever! It was in my first year. There were a couple of them, reallyboth of them were convinced I had greater potential than I was showing, and they were determined to whip it out of me if I wouldnt show it on my own. By the time I was done with their classes, theyd taught me to give everything I had, and they were proud of what theyd made of me."
"Yeah, well, this one never got off my back, and was never satisfied with anything I did, ever. I spent four years at Starfleet Academy listening to this guy tell me that I would never amount to anything, that I was a total loser, that I should get out of Starfleet and take up some sort of civilian career because Starfleet would chew me up and spit me out in little, bitty pieces." Marsdens eyes squeezed shut; as his head tilted slightly forward, Uhura could see a tear in the corner of one eye. "It got to the point where I was scared to sit an exam. Even when I got the top mark in the class, Id hear about the fact that I didnt get a perfect mark. Im Human, Captain. Theres only so much abuse the Human soul can take before it snaps." He looked up. "Text exams still scare me out of my gourd. I tried taking the practice version of the test for promotion. It never got logged. I froze up before I could even answer the first question: Name."
Without thinking, Uhura reached out, grasping the ensigns hand sympathetically. "I didnt know, Jim. Its clearly an incredibly painful memory for you, and I sincerely appreciate your candor and the courage it must have taken for you to admit that. But I cant believe any one professor at Starfleet could ride you for all four years. I didnt think that was possible."
"Believe it, Captain. Its possible." He looked her squarely in the face. "Its not like Id make up an embarrassing story like this, after all. You wouldnt believe the effort hiding this from the Psych team cost me."
"Who was this monster?"
For a moment, it almost seemed to the captain that the man was going to cry. He looked away, his face clearly showing the struggle to hold back tears that had needed shed for many long, painful years. Sensing that silence was the wisest course, the Bantu waited for him to compose himself. Ultimately, he turned back to face her. "I guess it doesnt matter anymore; hes long since dead." Marsden took a deep breath, letting it out slowly. "It wasnt anyone I took classes from, Captain. It was my step-father. He never accepted me, never accepted the fact that none of the kids hed had with his first wife ever amounted to anything, let alone got into the academy. When my mother died, half way through my third year, he really turned on me. I think he was taking his grief over Mothers death out on me." He shrugged. "So theres the whole story, Captain. He still haunts me, even after all these years."
There was an uncomfortable silence for some time, as Uhura digested the story, and as Marsden came to grips with having spilled his soul. Marsden finally stood. "If that will be all, Captain, Ill return to my cabin."
The captain stood, too. "No, Jim. That will not be all. Theres no way Im going to let a dead mans hand crush a good man like you. What is it going to take to get you past this?"
"With all due respect, Captain, if I knew, Id have done it long since. I cant look at a display with a test question on it without going into a total, complete funk." He scratched his head, almost absent mindedly. "Its the old conundrum: all I have to do to get past my test phobia is to take a test and do really well on it, but all I have to do to take a test and do really well on it is get past my test phobia. Where do you start?"
"I dont know. All I know is that Im going to scrounge until I find an answer." She tilted her head to one side. "That, and Im going to go over your background and experience to see where you need a little coaching, and see to it that you get it. Youre one of the best helmsmen there ever was, Ensign. You deserve better, and if youll work with me, I propose to do whatever I can to see to it that you get past this. Are you willing?"
"What have I got to lose, Captain? I guess its like my biological father used to say: its not that you go down that matters; its whether youve got the guts to go down trying. Im willing to risk going down trying."
"Good. And I have no intention of seeing you go down." Uhura smiled. "Dismissed, Ensign. Prepare to be tutored as soon as I find out what you need."
As much as she had been able, and as a master of the communications systems on a starship she was capable of a great deal, Uhura did what she could to identify areas where Marsden might be weak. There had been very few that she had found, and all of them had been in either mathematics or in emergency first aid. Of all the beings on her ship that seemed to her appropriate to bring Marsden up to speed, pairing up Eletto and TSoral seemed the best choice; with Eletto trying to learn the Vulcan language and Vulcan customs from TSoral, the two had become accustomed to collaborating. When they had been asked to work with their fellow crewman, both had expressed willingness.
The trouble, of course, was Marsdens almost phobic reaction to taking a test. Having him tutored was, as far as Uhura could see, nothing more than a confidence building maneuver. It didnt address his fears at all. For the hundredth time, she turned to the readout, looking through Starfleet regulations, hoping against hope that she could find some loophole, some alternative to testing. Outside of earning a field commission during a war, there just didnt seem to be one, no matter where she looked. Exhausted, both mentally and emotionally, she got up and stretched. Prolonged sitting, hunched over the terminal reading intently, was obviously not something her body appreciated her doing. Several minutes of effort failed to get the sharp pain out of her left side. Concerned, she decided to head to Sickbay, hoping that she might meet MBenga there and, when he had dealt with her little medical crisis, chivvy him into a quiet cup of something or other.
Walking didnt seem to help at all; if anything, the movement seemed to make her discomfort start throbbing. Once in the turbolift, it seemed as if she could feel every jolt and bump. When the doors opened onto Sickbay, she saw MBenga, Eletto and Davids, deep in some discussion over a medical record. Uhura tried to smile, but realized that the pain she was experiencing wouldnt let her. Taking a step even hurt, worse than it had when she had boarded the turbolift. Clutching the jamb of the turbolifts door, she called out. "Keme, help."
All three turned toward the turbolift at once. Youth and speed won out over experience and age: Davids arrived first, mediscanner in one hand, hypospray in the other. The hypospray hissed as MBenga then Eletto arrived. Davids looked up. "Kidney stone, gentlemen, and unless Im very much mistaken, shes sporting a real photon torpedo of an infection behind it. Lets get her to a medbed."
MBenga said nothing; he scooped the captain up and carried her to the medbed. He looked up at the readings. "On the money, Hardav. Marie! Get an operative field over here; this beast isnt going to pass on its own."
Gently, Davids pushed MBenga aside. "I dont mean to be rude, Keme, but I think you need to let Giac and I handle this. Its an objectivity thing, yknow?"
Meekly, the half-Zulu, half-Masai physician stepped back. "Of course." He stepped out of the way of Nurse Webb and the operative field. "I just forget, sometimes."
Even as Webb was moving the operative field in place, Eletto and Davids were tapping controls. Eletto looked up. "Ive had days like that too, Keme. Looking at the analysis of the stone shows that it was probably caused by the excessive oxalates in the meat on Koemul One. We shouldve caught this before it got this bad. Well have to check Running Bear and me later. Hardav, what about some neokef and squaladine for the infection?"
"Took the words out of my mouth, Icicle." Hardav tapped on the controls.
"Stones out; were looking good." Eletto looked up at MBenga, picking up where hed left off only a moment earlier. "Especially when it was family that was hurtingmy kids, my grandkid, especially my wife." He backed away from the operative field. "Believe me, I know the feeling. But the captains going to be fine; shes just going to need a little tender, loving care for a day or two."
"How about you let me take care of the TLC, guys?" MBenga was clearly starting to relax. "That doesnt take a whole lot of objectivity, does it?"
Davids snickered loudly. "Giac, there aint a pole in the universe long enough for me to touch that one."
"No kidding, Hardav. And even if there was one long enough, I dont think either of us could lift it. In fact, I dont think the two of us together could lift a pole that long." Eletto looked at his colleague. "How much privacy do you need for that TLC, Keme?"
From the medbed, Uhuras voice joined the conversation. "Hed better not need too much privacy around you two clowns. How long am I going to be flat on my back?"
"Up to you, Captain," Hardav offered. "Medically, youre good to go, as long as you dont push yourself too hard for a day or two."
She nodded, sitting up on the side of the medbed carefully. "I feel better; at least that horrible pain is gone. But Im still feeling a little weak. Would one of you fine gentlemen care to loan a poor, suffering woman his arm?" Uhura was looking MBenga squarely in the face as she spoke.
"My honor, Captain." MBenga stepped over, helping her onto her feet; she was still a mite wobbly. "Is there anything else I can help you with?" The look on his face looked like he had a quiet meal for two on his mind.
"Besides a light supper? Yes. Ive got an administrative problem thats been bugging me, and Im looking for a little help."
"Let me guess." It was Eletto. "Marsden, right? Him and his test phobia."
"Exactly. Im looking for a way around the testing, at least for the first test. If you folks could come up with an idea that is still within regulations, Id appreciate it." She turned to MBenga. "I really would appreciate some supper, too, big fellah. If you can spare a patient a moment, that is."
"Gladly, Captain. Allow me." MBenga moved her toward the turbolift. "That chart can wait for tomorrow, guys. I have business."
"If our favorite icicle and I can cook up a scam to solve the Marsden problem, are you game, Captain?" For once, Davids face was serious about something other than a medical problem. "Before you answer, remember whos talking."
Uhura leaned on MBengas arm, still weak from her episode but not at all minding using the man as a prop. "I know whos talking: the King of Crazy and the Outside-the-Box-Doc. As far as Im concerned, as long as itll pass muster on regulations, and it doesnt involve you doing anything to create forged records using the clandestine stuff you, the Mole and Snowdome probably still have on tap, Ill back you up one wall and down the next."
"You heard her, Doctor MBenga! Ill count on you as a material witness!" The physicians assistant grinned.
"Count on me. If, of course, a patient doesnt move me differently." MBenga helped Uhura into the turbolift; the doors closed, whisking them off to the forward cafeteria. Davids looked over at the remaining physician. "Looked to me like he figured that chart could wait forever, Giac. What do you think?"
"I agree. Lets clean up." Eletto took his own advice. "Do you really have any angles on Marsden and the test phobia thing, or was that just gas?"
"I think Ive got one, but I want to run it past you and Keme, and double check the regulations, and maybe Marsdens psych profile. Its a bit out of the box, but if you think hes ready..." The physicians assistant let the sentence die, unfinished.
"I wouldnt expect anything else from you, Hardav." Eletto wheeled the operative field back into storage. "Whatve you got up your sleeve?"
Marsden returned to his quarters, his stomach digesting his supper as his mind digested the tutoring Eletto and TSoral had done. Intellectually, he knew that he was ready to handle the exam, but every time he thought of facing a readout with a multiple choice or essay question on it, panic began to well up in him. No matter how ready his mind might be, his heart was anything but ready. As much as he appreciated the captains efforts, he knew he was wasting his time, as well as that of two valued friends who, he was sure, would probably have preferred to spend the time together without his interference.
He was just about to sit down and prop his feet up when the BellComm chimed. The voice was the computers. "Ensign Marsden, report to the ready room immediately." Dispassionately, the machine repeated the command until he slapped the contact, silencing it. This, he didnt need, but despite being tired from a full shift at the helm and two hours of intensive tutoring from Eletto and TSoral, he got up and made his way to the turbolift. As he made his way from the turbolift door to the ready room, he had the strange feeling that all of the crew on the bridge were watching him, almost as if hed turned into a Gorn or a Horta or something. The ready room door slid open, and he stepped through.
Before him, seated at the table, was Uhura, with MBenga to her right, Indri to her left. Uhura spoke first. "Take a seat, Ensign."
Silently, Marsden complied, confused but trusting his superior officers. He hadnt collected his wits enough to ask what was happening when MBenga snapped a question. "Youve just seen an Andorian get hit in the head by a large flying object. The being is down, not breathing. What are you going to do?"
Without thinking, Marsden replied. "Hike my tired carcass to the being, slapping a wall comm unit and yelling for Medical to get an emergency team to my location immediately. As long as it isnt Drevan, who would be pulling a practical joke by holding his breath, the first thing to do is make sure the antennae are aligned; if theyre not, the chitinous exoskeleton of the one not facing forward has probably been dislocated, and is putting pressure on the sensory extension of the beings central nervous system into the antenna. The correct emergency procedure is to gently distract the misaligned antenna from the beings carapace, then when I feel it pop back into place over the indentation its supposed to seat into, gently allow it to drop into place."
"Nice try. It doesnt work, and it isnt Drevan. Now what?" Surprisingly, it was Indris voice firing the question.
"Credits to croutons, it was the other antenna; same procedure with it. And before you ask, if that doesnt do it, its time to start doing bear hugs on the Andorian, to simulate their version of breathing and circulation, until the sickbay sickos get to the scene." Marsden took a breath, preparing to ask what was going on, but wasnt given the chance.
"Youve got the conn. Your science officer reports an unusual anisotropy in the background neutrino flux. Your response?" It was Uhuras voice hurling a question at him, this time.
"Trigger yellow alert status, including getting the shields up. It might just be a glitch, but thats the signature of a cloaked Klingon ship; the neutrino flux is the main thing that their cloak wont cloak, if you see what I mean." He shook his head, as if clearing it from cobwebs. "Theres also going to be a minor change in background radiation in the electromagnetic frequencies, but its going to be subtler; if there werent a little bit of absorption in EM, the cloaked ship would be blind. Once the shields are up and yellow alerts in place, if the science officer isnt checking for that anisotropy, Ill get him or her or it on the task, and do the kicking of the rear end later. If its a cloaked Klingon in Federation space, theres no time to waste; the knotheads are probably planning to open fire any second. Microseconds count big on this one."
Again, the ensign took a breath, planning to ask what the three of them thought they were doing, only to have one question after another hurled at him, almost faster than he could respond. Some questions were simple; some seemed simple, but the initial responses, even though correct, failed and forced him to reassess and re-solve the problem. If he had the temerity to pause for even as much as half a minute, one of the three inquisitors would light on him, throwing another complication into the problem, rendering it harder and harder to solve.
During the first half hour or so, Marsden periodically tried to wedge in a question about what was going on, but he was never able to; at the end of the first hour of questions, he no longer had enough energy left in him to do more than assault the questions with what little wit he had left. Still the three pounded him, relentlessly, mercilessly. By the end of the second hour, hed gotten a second wind, and become determined to deal with anything they threw at him. After what seemed like an endless duration of pummeling, Marsden saw MBenga look up. "Enough. Its time for a consensus."
Somehow, the ensign sensed that there would be nothing to gain from saying anything. Realizing that he had been hunched forward, gripping the arms of his chair so tightly that his knuckles were white, the Human forced himself to lean back, relax and wait to see what happened next. He looked at the wall clock: it had been just over three hours of questions. MBenga, Uhura and Indri were in whispered conference; strain as he might, Marsden couldnt quite make out what they were saying to each other.
Uhura finally stood. "Ensign Marsden, you are probably wondering what in space has been going on, and you are owed an explanation. According to Starfleet regulation, you have to survive testing to rise in ranks from Ensign forward; the last rank requiring testing to reach is Captain. Starfleet Regulation allows for a number of testing modes, to accommodate the needs of different species and members of any species who have specific challenges. One option is an unannounced oral exam."
Indri picked up the thread. "Specifically, the regulations require that the oral exam include the ships captain, and two other, senior officers. We are your oral examination board, Jim."
Uhura was busy tapping on a communications patch in front of her, so MBenga continued. "Under certain circumstances, it is permissible for a candidate to sit multiple examinations at once, particularly in the case of a crew member with sufficient longevity in the service without having achieved the promotions that would have been expected. Youve taken and passed more than one exam, Mister Marsden."
Having finished her task, the captain looked up. "The results of your oral examination have been logged with Starfleet, and based on your tenure of service, and your examination results, your record with Starfleet has been appropriately emended."
Gaping with surprise, the helmsman looked from face to face, perhaps too exhausted to make any sense of what he was hearing. "Forgive me, Captain, but its been a grueling three hours, and Im not sure Im following you folks."
"Then just accept our congratulations, Jim, and go get some sleep. You are dismissed, Lieutenant. You are instructed to begin preparation for your exam to reach Lieutenant Commander at your first opportunity." Brilliantly white teeth appeared in the middle of Uhuras smile.
For a moment longer, Marsden stared, not quite comprehending. Slowly, the significance of his dismissal filtered through the tiredness to reach his awareness. MBenga and Indri smiled, too, as they saw comprehension register on Marsdens face. The newly-minted lieutenant stood, snapping off a crisp salute. "Thank you, Captain." He stepped through the door and onto the bridge to the sounds of the congratulatory cheering of his shipmates.
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