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The normal low-level buzz of conversation on the bridge tapered off as Captain Calhoun stepped out from the turbolift.
He had missed an entire shift, which was unprecedented for him. Everyone understood, however, and no one knew quite what to say to him when he did reappear.
He went to his command chair, took his seat, and when he looked around at the respectfully silent crew, a smile played across his lips. It was a sad smile, but a smile just the same.
"Captain," began Shelby.
"Commander...it's all right," he interrupted. "All of you...really...it's all right. The important thing...the thing I'm not going to lose sight of...is that he went out like a warrior."
There were nods from all around.
"It was very...Xenexian of him, believe it or not. The notion of dying in one's bed is anathema to my people. To die in combat, on the other hand, is very much to be desired...and to die in combat while saving others is the highest, most noble passing that anyone could wish for. I will miss him...and regret the time that we did not spend together, and the time we will not have...but the bottom line is, he died heroically. All of us...should only be so fortunate as to have that opportunity," said Mackenzie Calhoun, five minutes before the Excalibur blew up...
Copyright © 2000 by Paramount Pictures
Chapter Two: POST MORTEMS...
"I still can't believe the ship blew up."
Mark McHenry had shown up exactly at the appointed time, which was rather surprising to Elizabeth Paula Shelby. She would have been willing to bet that if anyone had shown up late, it was going to be McHenry. The former navigator of the former Starship Excalibur, despite his nearly supernatural ability to know precisely where he was in the galaxy at any given moment (with or without instrumentation), still seemed like a rather unstable individual to Shelby. She had grown accustomed to him, at best, but never truly comfortable. If there was any member of her crew that she suspected would "flake out" at some point, it was McHenry.
Mentally she corrected herself. No, it wasn't her crew anymore, was it. They were just...people. People getting together at a San Francisco bar that was a popular hangout for Starfleet personnel. Puckishly named for the Starfleet oath, the bar -- Strange New Worlds (its motto: "Explore Us!") -- had been around for as long as anyone could remember. The only bar with a longer-standing reputation than Strange New Worlds was the Captain's Table, and that was considered more of a popular myth than anything else. "Worlds," as it was known for short, was copiously decorated with assorted Starfleet paraphernalia. There were dedication plaques salvaged from ships that had been decommissioned or destroyed, ornaments acquired from worlds throughout the Federation. There was a fascinating wall which had nothing but bladed weapons from dozens of primitive worlds, each of them gleaming behind glass, time having done nothing to diminish their capacity for destruction. There were pictures of various Starfleet captains and notables, many of them signed by the subjects. In short, Strange New Worlds radiated years, decades of tradition.
Shelby was paying no attention to any of it.
The command crew (former crew, dammit!) had agreed that there would be a get-together, a post mortem. Robin Lefler had been the organizer, which was certainly consistent for her. No one was more of a go-getter than Ensign Lefler. Shelby had been the last one to agree to come, and even when she had agreed she had done so reluctantly. In retrospect, as she sat across the table from McHenry, waiting for the others, she decided that she had behaved poorly. She should have been spearheading the assembling of the crew, not trying to avoid it. She should have presented a cheerful face, she should have been more supportive, she should have been...been something other than what she was.
McHenry was looking at her curiously, snapping his fingers in her face. She blinked in surprise and focused on him. "Commander?" he said again.
"What's the problem, McHenry?"
"Well," he said reasonably, "it's just that I've been talking for a while now, and I noticed you weren't contributing much to the conversation. And then it occurred to me that maybe I was just hogging it, so I shut up so that you could jump in. Except there was a staggering lack of it. Jumping in, I mean. You just sort of sat there and stared off into..."
"Space?" she asked, her lips spreading into a mirthless smile. "Well...space is my business, isn't it."
"Is it?" inquired McHenry.
It seemed an odd thing for him to say, and she wanted to pursue it, but then someone else approached the table. It was Robin Lefler -- without her mother, Morgan, in tow. Shelby was a bit grateful for that, because Morgan made her nervous. She hated to admit that, even to herself (certainly she had not said it to anyone else). But the simple truth was that Morgan Primus was still a woman whom Shelby couldn't get a feeling for. She had exotic features and an air about her that made her seem as if she were partly removed from the time in which she lived.
As for Robin, she could not have been more of a contrast to her mother. She had a perpetually open face that seemed incapable of any sort of guile. Small wonder that she was the most abysmal poker player on the ship...
Not was, dammit. Had been the most abysmal poker player on the ship.
The unexpected, automatic scolding caused Shelby to pause in her musings before continuing on the path down which they were taking her. Yes, Robin had indeed been atrocious at cards, unable to conceal glee when holding a good hand, equally unable to hide her disappointment when the cards did not fall in her favor. Morgan was a walking question; Robin was a walking punch line.
"Hello, Ensign," she said. "Where's your mother? I thought you two were virtually joined at the hip these days."
But Robin was smiling as if Shelby hadn't spoken. "I'm afraid I don't answer to that anymore."
"Answer to what...?" said Shelby in confusion, and then she noticed the additional pip on her collar. "Lieutenant! Now, are we sure this time?"
"I had it confirmed three ways from Sunday," Lefler told her. There was an empty chair between McHenry and Shelby, and Lefler was leaning on it. "I wasn't subjecting myself to that kind of embarrassment again."
Lefler had had good reason to be embarrassed. A computer glitch had misreported Lefler as having received a promotion to lieutenant, and she'd been quite enamored of the promotion until the error had been turned up and the rank correction made. Lefler had not been pleased about being "busted" back to ensign, and so she was justifiably proud that this time it was one hundred percent legitimate. "They told me that you were partly responsible for getting me the bump up, Commander."
Shelby shrugged but couldn't quite erase the smile. "You deserved it, Lieutenant."
"I love it," Lefler told her. "No more having to put up with the old low-rank crap duties. As a lieutenant, I'll have -- "
"Brand new, higher-ranked crap duties," McHenry informed her, sounding somewhat more amused than he would have wanted to let on.
"Shove off, McHenry," Lefler said without heat. "You're just worried I'm going to be breathing down your neck."
"Your breathing down my neck would be the most excitement I've had since Burgy and I broke up," McHenry sighed regretfully.
Lefler swung the chair out and was about to sit when suddenly Shelby put a hand on the seat and said softly, "No. That's Mac's chair."
McHenry and Lefler exchanged glances, and then Lefler said quietly, "Of course. I'm sorry." She stepped around the table and sat at another, unclaimed seat.
"So...as I was saying...where's your mother?" asked Shelby. There had been a brief flash of anxiety when she'd warned Lefler away from the chair reserved for Captain Mackenzie Calhoun, but now that the moment was past, so was Shelby's concern.
"She's researching vacation sites. There'll be some time before we're reassigned, and she suggested it might be nice if we could get away together somewhere, just mother and daughter. Work on the relationship without the pressure of day-to-day starship life on us."
"Well, good thing the ship blew up then. There's a pressure reliever for you."
If McHenry had been fishing for a laugh, his hook came back spectacularly bereft of results. The women just stared at him, and Shelby's face was darkening as if a cloud were draping itself over her. "It was just a joke," he said.
"Oh. Was that what it was? It was certainly wearing a cunning disguise," Shelby said with no trace of amusement.
McHenry mumbled something that very vaguely sounded like "Sorry." Shelby hesitated and then decided that it would be wisest not to pursue it.
Other crew members were now strolling in. There was Soleta, the erstwhile science officer, poised and elegant as her Vulcan heritage dictated. And here came Burgoyne 172, the Hermat who had helped conceive the child being cradled in the arms of Chief Medical Officer Selar. It was almost amusing to watch her. The Vulcan doctor was trying to hold her newborn offspring in such a way that it seemed as if the infant was only of passing interest to her. But the looks she would give the child, the sudden and swift reactions to the smallest instance of the baby's discomfort, were more than enough to convince any onlooker of just who was in charge of the relationship: Mother or child? Yes, definitely no contest. The child...
Just what was it again.
When Shelby had first inquired, it had been the common, offhand inquiry one always makes. Boy or girl? The problem was, when one was dealing with an off-spring whose mother was a Vulcan, and whose father was a dual-sexed "Hermat" named Burgoyne, the usually harmless question suddenly became a loaded one. Selar had said, "Boy," and they'd gone on to state that they'd named the boy "Xyon," after Mackenzie Calhoun's late son. Nevertheless, there'd been something about the way that Selar had said it. It seemed to Shelby that she wasn't answering in a matter-of-fact way, as she did with pretty much every other question. Instead she had spoken quickly, as if wanting to terminate the conversation as quickly as possible. As if...
...as if the entire discussion was uncomfortable for her.
Burgoyne started to sit in the empty seat next to Shelby, but she put a hand quickly down. "Mac's chair," she said.
Selar cast a slightly puzzled look at Burgoyne, but then little Xyon whimpered slightly for attention and Selar looked to him instead. "Of course. Foolish of me" was all Burgoyne said before s/he moved to another chair on the far side of the table.
A waitress began taking drink orders, and the officers started making small talk with one another. It seemed so odd to Shelby, so labored. On the Excalibur, there was always something to discuss. There was some circumstance involving the ship, some situation that they were mired in...any of a hundred distractions, big and small, that formed the basis for conversation, relationships, and social intercourse of all types. It all seemed to build up from the commonality forced by the late, lamented starship.
There was a slight, repetitious vibration from the floor beneath her feet, which was enough to signal Shelby that Zak Kebron was coming. The others felt it, too, but it didn't slow down their conversation. Soleta seemed most interested in little Xyon. Outwardly she was treating the child almost as a matter of scientific curiosity, but Shelby suspected that Soleta was wondering how and when the Vulcan mating urge, Pon farr, would affect her. Burgoyne was engaged in an animated conversation with McHenry. Now, that was certainly an odd thing to see. McHenry and Burgoyne had been involved before circumstances had brought Burgy and Selar together. Shelby liked to believe that she had seen much of what the galaxy had to offer and that nothing fazed her, but still...a relationship that jumped both species and gender was a new one even for her experience.
"Commander? You okay?" It was Lefler, leaning forward and speaking to Shelby. Her tone was soft, but nevertheless there was something in it that promptly caught the attention of the others at the table. Suddenly all eyes were focused on Shelby, and she shifted uncomfortably in her chair, disliking being subjected to sudden scrutiny.
"I'm fine," she said with the irritable tone of someone whose attitude didn't match her words.
"Good." It was the deep, basso voice of Kebron. The massive security officer was standing directly behind Shelby, taking in the assemblage with his level gaze. He glanced at the empty chair next to Shelby. "Reserved for the captain?" he inquired.
"Of course" was all he said. He moved to another section of the table and looked disapprovingly at the narrowness of the chairs. He pulled two together and sat, looking less than comfortable but obviously resolving to deal with it with his customary stoicism. The waitress came back over upon seeing the new customer, which was understandable; Kebron was somewhat hard to miss. "You're a Brikar, right?" she said. "I've heard Brikars are sort of like rock people. Is that true?"
When he said nothing further, the waitress shrugged slightly and held up her order padd. "What can I get you?"
McHenry covered his mouth to hide a snicker. Shelby rolled her eyes.
"You want magma." The waitress did not appear amused. "We don't serve magma."
"I had it here last time."
"When was the last time you were here?"
"The Mesozoic era."
Now Burgoyne was laughing as well. Selar and Soleta simply looked at each other with the air of those who did not suffer fools gladly.
The waitress blew air impatiently between her lips and, tilting her head slightly, asked, "Can we just, you know...forget I ever said anything about 'rock people'?"
"On the rocks," McHenry put in.
Kebron fired him a sidelong glance. "Don't push it."
As the waitress, shaking her head, walked away, Lefler looked back to Shelby. "Commander...maybe you should really talk about it. Maybe," and she glanced at the others, "maybe we all should. About the destruction of the Excalibur. About how it happened. About..."
"You've missed your calling," Burgoyne said wryly. "You should be a ship's counselor."
"My mother's said that, too," Lefler admitted with a laugh. "She told me she'd be so proud to have a ship's counselor for a daughter."
"Lieutenant...Robin," Shelby said, placing a friendly hand on Lefler's, "I know you're just trying to help. And maybe there's something to be said for what you're suggesting. But the simple truth is this: We've been reliving it, all of us, for the past few weeks. Board of inquiries up one side and down the other, poring over every detail again and again. Every minute of the ship's last five minutes of life, everything that all of us did, and endlessly being asked -- and asking ourselves -- whether there was anything else we could have done, any other way we could have handled it. I don't know about you, but I am..." She drummed her fingers on the table. "I am tired. I am so tired of second-guessing myself. That's what these inquiries do to you. They don't just try to answer the questions that the board has. They start raising all sorts of questions in your own head, to the point where you don't know which end is up, what's right and what's wrong."
"You did nothing wrong."
It was a new arrival who had spoken. They looked up and saw that Ambassador Si Cwan had come up behind them. His advent was quite the contrary of Kebron's. Whereas Kebron had telegraphed his coming with every step, the erstwhile crew of the Excalibur hadn't noticed the Thallonian until he was right up behind them. Whether it was because they were so engrossed in discussion, or because Si Cwan just had a preternatural knack for entering a room unseen, Shelby couldn't be sure. Standing next to him was his younger sister, Kalinda. The change that she had undergone had been quite something to see as far as Shelby was concerned. She had first come aboard the Excalibur confused, out of place, unsure of something as fundamental as her own identity. Now, however, she had a regal and confident bearing that was nearly on par with that of her brother. However, there was still a slight twinkle of mischievousness in her eye that Shelby found amusingly appealing.
"Thank you for the vote of confidence, Ambassador," she said. "Please, take a seat."
He glanced at the one next to Shelby but said nothing, as if he intuited its purpose. Instead he and Kalinda took up chairs at the far end of the table.
"What I was saying," continued Shelby, "is that we've all gone over those last, depressing minutes so many times...that, frankly, I'm sick to death of post mortems. I suspect we all are." There were concurring nods from around the table from everyone except Kebron, who didn't really have a neck that permitted nodding, so he tilted his upper torso slightly.
"Therefore, I suggest we make an agreement. For our mutual sanity, none of us ever discusses the destruction of the Excalibur again. We all know what happened. There's no need to belabor it ad infinitum, ad nauseam. So let's just not talk about it. No recriminations, no second-guessing, no finger pointing...because that's what any talks about it would invariably devolve into. And I know this group. We won't all be blaming each other."
"No. We'll be blaming ourselves," said Lefler. Again there were nods.
"So we're agreed?"
There were choruses of affirmation from around the table, and Shelby let out a relieved sigh. "Good. Good, I'm glad. And I think that's a decision that Mac would approve...of..."
"Would have approved of," Selar corrected.
Everyone looked at her, and she looked at the scowls focused upon her. "It is simply proper grammar," she said coolly. "It is proper, after all, to speak of someone in the past tense when they are..."
"Selar," Burgoyne stopped her softly. "Not now."
At that moment, someone from an adjoining table came over and rested a hand on the empty chair next to Shelby. "Excuse me, we could use another chair...is someone using this -- "
"No," said Shelby.
"Oh, good," and he started to pull away the chair.
And it was Kebron who rumbled, "Move that chair, lose the arm."
The officer froze where he was and looked around at the stony faces at the table. He released the chair and said with obvious annoyance, "Boy, you people are touchy." He went in search of another chair as Shelby gently slid the chair back into place.
"You didn't have to do that, Zak," said Shelby.
"I'm glad you did."
They stared at the empty chair for a time longer, and then Shelby raised her glass. "To Mackenzie Calhoun...the best damned captain in the fleet."
"Short. To the point. Indisputable. I approve," said Si Cwan, lifting his glass, and the others joined as well. They clinked glasses and drank in silence.
It had been Lefler who had asked, but it was really on the minds of all the people at the table. Finally it was Shelby who spoke as she said, "Well, Lieutenant...Lieutenant, I say again, just in case you can't get enough of hearing that," she added with a faint smile, "you know the regs on that as well as anyone."
"I know that part," Lefler said.
"I don't," said Kalinda, looking around in confusion. "Would somebody mind explaining it to me?"
"When a ship has been lost -- although exceptions are sometimes made in times of war -- there's a prescribed 'cooldown' period for the senior staff," explained Soleta. "The thinking is that the loss of a vessel is a traumatic event, and officers need time to cope and come to terms."
"What nonsense," said Si Cwan with a snort. "If one has experienced a setback, the best thing to do is throw yourself right back into the same situation. That way you can -- "
"Die faster?" asked Kebron.
Si Cwan ignored him. "If one has time to dwell on the circumstances that have brought one to an unfortunate pass, such thoughts can hamper one's effectiveness. The more time you have to think about it, the more you're liable to second-guess yourself."
"There's something to be said for that," admitted Shelby.
"Which is why," Selar spoke up, "you have requested immediate reassignment and a waiver of the waiting period."
Shelby looked up at her in obvious surprise. "How did you know that?"
"I did not know it," Selar replied. "Until you confirmed it just now, that is."
"Vulcans," growled Shelby.
The others looked at her with interest. "You asked for a waiver? Really, Commander?" asked Lefler.
"Well, there's special circumstances..."
"A ship," McHenry said immediately. "You're angling for command. That's it, isn't it."
"Come on," Lefler prompted. "You're among friends, Commander."
The word, for some reason, thudded in Shelby's head. Friends. Was that what she was among, truly? She wanted to open up to them, tell them what was on her mind. And yet...
"The truth is," she said, pushing her doubts aside, "I've gotten word through the grapevine that Captain Hodgkiss of the Exeter is being bumped upstairs in Starfleet, and his command is coming open. I'm putting my bid in now, and as near as I can tell, I'm the front-runner."
"That's great!" Lefler said. "You really think you have a good shot?"
"If you'd like," offered McHenry, "I can put in a good word for you."
"As can I," Si Cwan added.
Kebron made a rude noise. "Recommendations from you two? She'll be busted in rank within the week."
"You know," Si Cwan said, "I like you better when you're saying almost nothing."
McHenry leaned forward and said, "What about us?"
Shelby felt a stirring of dread in the pit of her stomach. "You?"
"Are you bringing us along? As your new command crew? Keep us together?"
It was the question that Shelby had been dreading, and she had absolutely no answer at the ready because she still hadn't managed to sort out her feelings on the matter. When she spoke, her mouth was open and talking and she had no idea what words were going to come out until she heard them. "As much as I can see Si Cwan's point regarding getting right back into the saddle...there's something to be said for the cooldown period. Particularly considering the circumstances that we were in. Exploring a territory with virtually no Federation backup, a single ship trying to lend aid to, and pull together, an entire sector of space? It was one hell of an assignment and, frankly, I'm amazed that we..." She paused, looked at the empty chair, and then amended quietly, "...that as many of us...survived it as we did...and for as long. Since Starfleet is extending you the time off, I'd suggest you take it. Don't be like me; I'm angling for the assignment against Starfleet counselors' orders. Besides, I..."
"Besides...you what?" said Burgoyne. S/he had one elegantly tapered eyebrow raised. "There's something else you want to say, isn't there."
"Maybe she hates us," suggested McHenry.
"No! No, Mark, that's absurd," she said defensively. "You don't think that. I hope none of you thinks that. But the problem is that there are already some extremely capable command people in place on the Exeter. It's not exactly fair to shunt them aside, no matter what my personal preferences are. Would any of you be comfortable with my just walking in and dismissing the command crew there out of hand? Well? Would you?"
There was a thoughtful silence around the table.
"I have no problem with that," McHenry said.
"Me neither," said Lefler.
"Seems logical," said Soleta.
"I would if I were you," Si Cwan told her.
"Let's just kill them," rumbled Kebron, which drew laughter from the others.
Shelby felt her heart sink. It was going to be tougher than she'd anticipated. "It's just that...well...what's the best way to put this?" She scratched her chin thoughtfully. "The crew that we had -- the sensibilities, the style, the mix of personalities -- was unique. I've served aboard a variety of starships and I've never seen one quite like it. And I can't help but think that this particular mix of personalities worked as well as it did because of Mac." She was relieved to see that there was slow nodding from around her. "Mac created something very special aboard the Excalibur. Something that wasn't exactly regulation, but not exactly anarchic, either. And it worked because of him. And I'm...not sure that it would work without him. You see what I'm saying?"
"You're saying it'd be like trying to make an award-winning cake batter without eggs," said Lefler.
"Yes!" Shelby slapped the table in affirmation. "Yes, that's exactly it. One of the key ingredients would be missing, and because of that, the cake wouldn't rise."
"Actually, eggs do not cause the cake to rise," Soleta said immediately. "That happens because of -- "
"We're getting off track here," Shelby said quickly. "The point is, Mackenzie Calhoun was what made it work. I'm...not him. And that's not an easy admission to make because, to be perfectly honest, for a time there I felt as if I was infinitely superior to him. More qualified, a better leader. But in the time I was with him, I came to appreciate him for the truly great captain that he was. If I tried to be just like him...I'd fall short. And you people would suffer because of it. It's not fair to me, and it's not fair to you."
Once again there was a considered silence at the table. Shelby was sure she could hear her heart thudding against her ribs.
It was Selar who broke the silence. "She is correct."
"You agree with the commander, Selar?" asked Burgoyne.
"That would be implicit in 'She is correct,' yes," Selar said with lacerating sarcasm. "To maintain the previous crew would be to maintain the ghost of Mackenzie Calhoun at all times. We would be trying to re-create that which can not be re-created. Furthermore, consciously or unconsciously, we would be holding Commander Shelby up against Captain Calhoun in all matters. Even if we did not intend to do so...even if we said nothing to give her cause to think that we are...the commander would very likely wonder if we were consistently measuring her against Captain Calhoun."
"But didn't she run that risk as second-in-command of the Excalibur?" inquired Soleta. Shelby was amused to watch the exchange; they were acting as if she were no longer seated at the table. "She was stylistically different during those periods, but there were no difficulties."
"She was always seen as a temporary replacement," Selar replied briskly. "Even if any of us did disagree with anything she did, there was always the knowledge that Captain Calhoun would be returning shortly. But now..."
"We'd be stuck with her," said McHenry, and suddenly he turned to Shelby, looking a bit chagrined. "Sorry. No offense meant."
"None taken," Shelby said, although she wasn't entirely sure about that.
"I'd miss you all terribly, though," said Lefler.
"People come and go," Burgoyne said with a small shrug. "It is the nature of the life that we have chosen. You can't really avoid it."
"I suppose," sighed Lefler.
"I, myself, do not mind at all the notion of time off. It will allow me to return to Vulcan," Selar said. She glanced down at Xyon with that air of faint, distant fascination, as if she could not believe it possible that the infant was in her arms. "There are certain...avenues to be pursued to prepare Xyon for his future, and I must -- "
Burgoyne's correction was quiet but firm, and Shelby felt an immediate edginess entering the proceedings. She had a very strong suspicion that they were all seeing a definite hint of a discussion that had already been held between Burgoyne and Selar.
Sure enough, Selar leaned forward and said in a low voice, which was still easily heard by everyone else at the table, "We have discussed this already."
"No, we have not. Because a real discussion doesn't consist of you telling me what will be, period, end of conversation."
"Is there a problem?" asked Shelby delicately.
"No," Selar and Burgoyne both said immediately.
And I thought Vulcans didn't lie, thought Shelby, but naturally she said nothing. "Oh, good. And I'm sure if there were a problem, the two of you would be able to work it out since, of course, there is the child to consider."
"I assure you, Commander," said Selar with as testy a tone as she ever adopted, "that my child's -- "
" -- welfare," she continued, ignoring Burgoyne's interruption, "is of the greatest importance."
"And what about you, Si Cwan?" asked Shelby, suddenly feeling that it would be best if she steered the conversation in a different direction. "You and Kalinda. You're not part of Starfleet. Will you return to Sector 221-G?"
Kalinda looked in confusion at her brother. "Return to what...?"
He glanced at Kalinda and smiled. It was something that the imperious Thallonian, as red-hued as most of his race, didn't do all that often. Shelby realized that he had a rather attractive smile, and she also noticed that Robin Lefler seemed just a bit entranced by it. "Sector 221-G is how they refer to Thallonian space. You studied star charts, little sister; I'd have thought you'd have noticed that."
"Forgive my lapses, Cwan," she said with amused sarcasm. "I was trying to assimilate a lot at one time."
"Could you use a word other than 'assimilate'?" requested Shelby.
"Oh. Uhm...okay," said Kalinda uncertainly, not at all understanding Shelby's reaction but obviously not wanting to give offense. "I was trying to...absorb...a lot at one time?"
Shelby nodded in approval.
Si Cwan, making no effort to explain Shelby's reaction to his sister, instead said to Shelby, "To be honest, I am not certain. Without the backing of a starship or similar impressive vessel, my endeavors to pull together the fractured worlds of our former empire would be doomed. My other great incentive for returning to my home space would have been to find Kally...except she is right here," and he indicated her. "So I am left wondering what the purpose would be. I find that I am left somewhat at loose ends. There is not much call for a former ruler whose entire empire fell apart and whose homeworld was shattered from within by a gigantic flaming legendary bird."
"On the upside," said McHenry cheerfully, "if there is call for a former ruler whose entire empire fell apart and whose homeworld was shattered from within by a gigantic flaming legendary bird, then you're probably the front-runner for the job."
"I will take great comfort in that, McHenry. The thought will keep me warm on many a cold night."
"You do have a knack for defusing a situation," Shelby said. "People tend to listen to you. You have a great deal of..."
"Charisma?" suggested Lefler, not taking her eyes off Si Cwan.
"I was going to say 'presence,' but that's certainly another acceptable word," said Shelby. "The point is, the title of 'Ambassador' was given you purely as a courtesy. A means of describing just what the hell it was you were doing on the ship. But if you were actually to join the Federation diplomatic corps, you could be tremendously effective."
Kalinda laughed at that in a tone that immediately caught Shelby's attention, and not in a positive way. "You seem to think that's funny, Kalinda."
She leaned forward and said, "What you are suggesting -- if I'm understanding you correctly -- is that Si Cwan go around to different worlds and represent the viewpoints and agendas of the Federation."
"Well, essentially, that's what it would entail."
And she laughed again. "Si Cwan represents only Si Cwan. I fear very little good would come from what you're suggesting."
"Is that the case, Cwan?" asked Lefler.
Si Cwan smiled. "I fear my sister knows me all too well. I had no difficulty representing the Thallonian point of view because it was my own. If I were to take up a post with the Federation, however, it will inevitably require me to fight the good fight on behalf of something that I do not truly believe in. Not only would I be a hindrance, but also in that sort of situation I might even prove something of a danger. No...no, I am afraid that I will have to search elsewhere for finding a new purpose in the galaxy."
Kebron looked around with faint impatience, having finished his drink some minutes ago and not having seen the waitress since. "Perhaps you could work here. They're apparently short on help."
"Thank you for your suggestion, Kebron," said Si Cwan, controlling his mirth with relative ease. "And what will you do during your 'downtime.' A shame paper is a thing of the past in your society; you could serve as a weight for stacks of it."
"I have my plans," he said vaguely.
"And they would be -- ?"
They all knew better than to try and pursue that line of conversation. "Well, the truth is, my mother will be thrilled," said Lefler. "She said she wouldn't mind having some nice time off. And she also said that she thought it would be a good chance to reestablish mother/daughter bonds. For us to get to really, truly get to understand each other."
"Do you think she's right?" asked Shelby.
Lefler shrugged. "Who ever knows what's going through that woman's head?" She turned to McHenry. "What about you, Mark?"
"I don't know what's going through her head."
"No, I mean what are you going to do? In the off time?"
"Oh." He spread his hands wide and said, "I'm just going to be a bum. Not do anything of consequence. Not think about anything."
"Is that possible for you?" asked Soleta. "Your mind always seems to be moving, whether you want it to or not. I've known you for nearly two decades and I don't believe you're capable of not thinking about anything."
"Thanks, I'm flattered...I guess. Perhaps," he said thoughtfully, "I'll catch up on cartoons."
"On what?" Soleta looked at him blankly. There were puzzled expressions on the part of just about everyone else.
"Cartoons. Ensign Janos showed some to me. He managed to find some ancient holovids, some transfers that were done. Drawings that are given a semblance of life via slight variance of drawings in -- "
"I know technically what they are, McHenry," said Shelby. "I'm just not sure how and why they'd be of interest."
"I like to think about the universe, Commander," McHenry said with a wry grin. "Think about how it all fits together. But a cartoon universe opens up a whole new world of possibilities. The laws of physics don't seem to be terribly involved. Is it because they exist in a world of chaos...or is it that there are indeed laws, but they're different ones? And if one believes in those laws, can they be applied to the real world? Are laws and rules physical absolutes...or are they all in the mind? It's an intriguing notion to pursue, don't you think?" When Shelby stared at him blankly, he turned to Soleta. "Don't you think so, Soleta?"
"No," she said.
He looked at her with pity. "And you call yourself a scientist. So what are you going to do that's so wonderful, then?"
"I will be going home," said Soleta. "It is the fifth anniversary of my mother's passing. I think it would be best if I were with my father at this time."
There were murmurs of sympathy from around the table. Soleta inclined her head slightly. "Your condolences are appreciated, although not particularly essential. I have long since come to terms with her death. My being with my father will simply be a matter of courtesy."
"Vulcans are very fortunate," said Shelby. "That you can compartmentalize that way. Just...decide to move on and do so. Humans aren't quite that tidy. We can't control how long we mourn."
"Yes, you can. You simply choose not to," said Soleta.
Shelby looked at her curiously. "You're telling me that you can just...decide when to stop missing someone? You're saying that you can simply decide that you won't miss...him," and she indicated the empty chair with a tilt of her head. "Just take that initiative, make that call. Decide that today you will mourn, tomorrow you won't? You can really do that?"
"You sound surprised, Commander," Selar stepped in. "You must comprehend relative perceptions of such matters. To us, our ability to do just as you describe is not at all difficult to understand. What is difficult to understand is why you cannot do the same. Mourning is not like a disease that must be treated and has a life of its own. You do it until you decide not to, and then you move on."
"It's not quite as easy as that," Shelby said quietly.
"Yes. Actually, it is."
And suddenly Shelby felt a hot flash of temper as she looked at the Vulcan doctor's complacent expression. Her infant had fallen asleep in her arms and looked serene and peaceful, and for some reason the sight in its entirety angered Shelby tremendously.
"Tell me, then, Doctor, precisely how long you chose to mourn your husband? Was that a conscious, carefully prescribed period of mourning? Or did you just forget him seconds after he died, or minutes, or what -- ?"
"Oookay, this is getting out of hand," Burgoyne said immediately, and it was clear that the others were starting to look uncomfortable.
"No," Selar said to Burgoyne and the others. "No...it is a fair question. The answer, Commander, is precisely eight months, two weeks, and one day."
Shelby stared at her. Selar's Vulcan demeanor was utterly inscrutable.
And Shelby, in spite of herself, laughed. The others weren't quite sure how to react, and then Selar shook her head but there seemed to be -- just ever so slightly -- the barest hint of upturned amusement at the edges of her mouth. Immediately there was a collective sigh of relief from around the table as Shelby said, "I'm sorry. That was uncalled for."
"You felt it was necessary to say. Therefore it was called for." She didn't seem especially perturbed. Then again, being a Vulcan, that should not have been a surprise.
"I guess I should envy you."
"Envy is illogical. But I can see the reasoning for it," Selar told her.
From then on, things proceeded more calmly. There were no more flare-ups, no outbursts, no exhibitions of temper. Instead there was simply a group of people, talking about this and that, occasionally laughing or kidding one another. It was a good feeling, a relaxed feeling. For a time, Shelby even felt as if she was with family. It was a sensation that she found most disconcerting, and she shoved it away because it represented to her something with which she simply did not want to deal.
After a time, conversation turned once more to Captain Calhoun. They began to trade stories and recollections, sometimes correcting each other, other times embellishing. On several occasions "improvements" were made upon tales that they already knew very well, and they were all perfectly aware that the add-ons had been made. But no one said anything at those times. Instead they would just look with reverence at the empty chair.
Finally Selar announced that it was time for her to leave, claiming fatigue. Burgoyne naturally departed with her, although Shelby could have sworn that Selar looked vaguely uncomfortable. And once they had left, it was as if a plug had been pulled from a drain. One by one, or occasionally in pairs, they departed. No one said anything about the likelihood that this was the last time they would all see each other. It was as if no one wanted to deal with it. So instead there were murmurs of "Later," or "See you around," or "Stay in touch."
Shelby knew the routine all too well. There had always been other crews, other departures, and other promises that this time -- this time -- they would stay in touch. And they always meant it, really, truly, absolutely. There would even be efforts initially before -- invariably -- time passed and the communiquÉs from the old crew members stopped coming. Why? Out of sight, out of mind, that was why. There was a reason that old Earth sayings became old; it was because they were true.
There was no question in Shelby's mind that she was going to be the last one out. What surprised her was that it came down to her and Soleta. For a time the young science officer sat in contemplative silence opposite her, and then she said, "Those were interesting stories. About Captain Calhoun."
"Yes. They were."
"Many of them were not as I recalled them. There seemed to be a tendency to exaggeration."
"I know," Shelby said, smiling. "That's how you build legends. You make them bigger and bigger, because people don't like to believe in real life. They're surrounded by real life; they don't need regurgitation of what's already around them. Legends are to give you something to aspire to. So you have to make them bigger than life."
"I see. So that is to be the legacy of Captain Calhoun? Impossible exploits?"
"Well," said Shelby thoughtfully, "the interesting thing is that, in Mac's case, some of the things he did for real were so much bigger than life, that it doesn't need all that much building up. His reality was...well..." She shrugged. "Surreal. Or maybe superreal. I don't know. I've probably had too much to drink." She swirled some liquid around in the bottom of her glass and came to the startled realization that she had forgotten what it was that she had poured for herself.
"Probably," agreed Soleta. She gave it some more thought. "So do you approve of the truth or don't you?"
"It's not that simple, Soleta."
"Sometimes it is, yes." Her eyes narrowed. "You weren't truthful with us."
"I already explained. Talking about Mac, it -- "
"Not about that. About why you do not wish to keep the command crew together...or at least, not together with you. The fact is that you do not like us."
At first Shelby couldn't say a word. Her mouth was moving, but nothing was coming out. Finally she relocated her voice and, mustering as much hurt as she could manage, said, "Soleta! How can you say that?"
"It is not difficult."
"After all we've been through, how can you say that...I mean, it's absurd."
Soleta finished out the last of her own drink. "Commonality of experience, even purpose, does not dictate commonality of personalities. I do not think the less of you; you could not help it. The situation virtually dictated your frame of mind."
"I'm not following..."
"You were brought aboard in order to make certain that the more maverick Captain Calhoun would act in a manner consistent with Starfleet protocol. His command style was different. His command choices were different. 'Eccentric,' to put it delicately. They were not the crew that you would have chosen. Therefore, by definition, you had a natural antipathy for them."
"I think you're way overstating it, Soleta."
She started to speak, then looked down, unable to meet Soleta's gaze. "Well...maybe not too way overstating it. But somewhat. Besides, it became moot. I learned to accept the crew for all its strengths as well as any perceived weaknesses on my part."
"Nevertheless, your antipathy did not simply disappear. Rather, it was something that you had to work to overcome. If you climb a mountain, that does not cause the mountain to disappear. It simply means that you are able to get over the obstacle if you truly dedicate yourself to it. The obstacle, however, remains, and it was something with which you had to struggle constantly. Face it, Commander...the crew of the Excalibur was not exactly your dream crew. You held yourself separate from us. Your hesitancy and lack of comfort were quite evident, even though your ability to hide it became so polished that you succeeded in fooling those who desired to be fooled."
"Really," said Shelby, unamused. "And who would that be? Those who desired to be fooled, I mean."
"Everyone but me. Well...and perhaps Selar. But Selar does not seem to like anyone, so perhaps that's not a fair comparison."
"So you and you alone decided that I didn't like the crew."
"No, you decided that, Commander. I simply observed it. That's my job, you see. To observe the natural world and draw conclusions about it. People are part of that natural world, so of course I observe them and draw conclusions."
"And your conclusion was this antipathy you say I have."
"You are a lover of regulations, Commander. A lover of order. You embrace the more arcane military aspects of Starfleet with more zeal than any officer under which I've served," Soleta told her. "The Excalibur did not have a spit-and-polish crew. That is what you are hoping to assemble on the Exeter. Believe it or not, I certainly wish you the best of luck. I hope that you are able to put together a crew that Admiral Jellico would be proud of."
"I'll put together a crew that I'll be proud of, and I couldn't give a damn what other people think." Feeling the drink swirling about in her head, Shelby stabbed a finger at Soleta and demanded, "What are you saying? That I care more about regs than I do about people?"
"I had not been saying that, but I wouldn't disagree with that assessment."
"Then you couldn't be more wrong. Then you haven't been paying the least bit of attention to the person I am and the person I've become. What I care about most, though, is the interaction between the people and the regulations. Rules were created for specific reasons, and most of the time, those reasons involve the protection of others. When you toss aside the rules, you risk the safety of all concerned. That's something I never entirely got Mac to understand." She shook her head, looking discouraged. "He was so used to being self-reliant..."
"He led armies, Commander, in his youth," Soleta pointed out. "Someone who has legions of men backing him up is very much aware that no one person can carry the day by himself. You may be underestimating his capabilities."
"Well, that's certainly a mistake I won't have the opportunity to make again, will I," shot back Shelby.
"You sound upset, Commander."
"You're damned right I'm upset! Dammit, Soleta, I haven't slept in weeks. Every time I start to drift off, I can see Mac in my head. I haven't strung more than an hour or two of sleep together since we lost the ship. I'm coming off the loss of one ship and I have to overcome all my apprehension as I vie to be commander of another. And you sit here now and tell me that, hell, I never really liked the Excalibur crew to begin with. Maybe this is just some weird trick of logic so that you don't have to admit to missing me when I'm gone, or to try and vilify me in your own mind so that you won't have to wonder why I'm not bringing you along as science officer. Hmmm?" Shelby laughed in what sounded remarkably like triumph. "No, you didn't think of that at all."
"You, Commander, have had a bit to drink."
"I, Lieutenant, am perfectly fit, thank you very much. And I don't appreciate being insulted by -- "
"Insult?" An eyebrow arched. "Did you perceive insult? My apologies. I simply thought I was stating fact."
"No. It was opinion; opinion that I don't happen to agree with."
"You are saying that you do not value regulations and procedure over people."
"That is exactly and precisely what I am saying."
"I am half-Romulan."
Shelby felt as if she had just been whapped with a mental two-by-four. All of the pleasant buzzing she'd been feeling from the alcohol was dispelled in an instant. "Wh-what?"
"I am half-Romulan," Soleta said again. "My mother was Vulcan, but my father, Romulan. I did not inform Starfleet of this."
She felt as if all the color was draining from her face. "But...but you have to. Regulations clearly state -- "
"That anyone with blood ties to a race considered actively and aggressively hostile to the Federation must offer full disclosure of those ties or face being discharged from Starfleet." Soleta was amazingly calm. "I did not know of the ties at the time that I enlisted in Starfleet. I since discovered the truth, but have chosen not to apprise Starfleet of it. I am concerned that the delayed revelation could have a negative impact on my career. That I would be relegated to minor duties and be subject to such intense monitoring and scrutiny that I would find it intolerable and be forced to depart Starfleet anyway."
"Soleta, this...this is crazy..."
"Furthermore," continued Soleta as if Shelby had not spoken, "any officer who learns of any undisclosed blood ties to an actively and aggressively hostile race is obligated to report those ties immediately to Starfleet." She tilted her chin toward Shelby's comm badge. "You can use that, I imagine. Someone must be on duty somewhere. You can call it in."
"Soleta, I...I don't understand why you're telling me this. Is this supposed to be some sort of test or something...?"
"The Excalibur blew up. We all know the cause. But what if that cause was not what we thought it to be? What if I was a saboteur? What if I was in fact responsible for the loss of the ship? Should that not be investigated? Doesn't Starfleet have a right to know?"
"What are you saying, Soleta? That you were partly responsible? That you were part of some...some Romulan plot?"
"I'm not saying that," Soleta told her. "In fact, I'm saying I'm not. But are you going to inform Starfleet and have them investigate?"
"Soleta, I don't know why you're playing this ridiculous game..."
"This is not a game. This is a scientific inquiry. It's a test, no different than any other test I conduct upon an unknown."
"I'm not an unknown, dammit. It's me. Commander Shelby. We served together."
"We served on the same vessel, yes. Was there anyone on the ship with whom you ever really felt together? Or did you keep us all at arm's length for all the reasons that seemed right at the time?"
For a moment, Shelby thought briefly of Kat Mueller, the night-shift executive officer with whom she'd felt at least a measure of comfort...up until she'd discovered that Mueller and Calhoun had had an affair, at which point all she could envision was Mac in Kat's arms. Mueller providing Calhoun with something that she, Shelby, was unable to.
But what was it? Was it the same comfort level that she was apparently unable to provide others in her former crew? Was that the element that had been holding her back in her own quest for promotion? Was --
Questions, unbidden, were tumbling about in her head, and there was Soleta just sitting there, watching her, scrutinizing her. Soleta, who had just taken a horrific chance, putting forward something as personal and potentially damaging to her career as what she had just told Shelby, in hopes of discovering...
...what? Something about Shelby? Something about herself?
Did the questions never stop?
When she was very young, she had once said to her mother, "Mommy...I can't wait to grow up so that I know everything for sure."
And her mother had smiled down at her and she had said, "When you grow up, the only thing you'll know for sure is how much you don't know." It was not a comment that she had really understood. Of course, now she did understand it. She just didn't like to acknowledge it.
Shelby met Soleta's gaze and then looked down. "Soleta," she said finally, "I don't believe for a moment that you had anything to do with the destruction of Excalibur. I also don't believe that the circumstances of your birth are anyone's business but yours. You're a fine officer, and a fine -- if slightly eccentric -- woman. That, to me, is all that matters. I don't see any need for pulling Starfleet into any of this. If you insist on pushing the matter, and it comes out that you've told me this 'aspect' of your background, naturally I will admit as much to Starfleet."
"You would likely face disciplinary hearings for being less than candid with Starfleet."
"It's a risk I'm prepared to take. Is there anything else you want to tell me? You know...maybe you have an uncle who's a Tholian. Or maybe your third cousin on your grandfather's side had carnal knowledge of the Grand Nagus. Something like that?"
Soleta actually smiled. Shelby realized, belatedly, that she'd seen such broader signs of obvious amusement on Soleta's face before. Soleta had usually covered them quickly, as if embarrassed by the slip. Mentally Shelby had always chalked it up to poor training as a Vulcan. She now realized that it was Soleta's Romulan influence, for Romulans were far more open to displays of emotion, by breeding and temperament, than Vulcans were. Well, perhaps that wasn't such a terrible thing. Rather than her Romulan heritage prompting her to betray the Federation or some similar sinister activity, it was just causing her to crack a smile every now and then. Certainly that tendency wouldn't cause an end to life as it was known.
"Commander Shelby...there may be hope for you yet," said Soleta.
"I shall take that as a compliment."
"It was intended as such." She rose at that point, and Shelby did so with her. Reflexively, Shelby stuck out a hand to shake Soleta's, but instead the science officer held up her hand in a familiar V-fingered salute. "Peace and long life."
Automatically, Shelby returned the gesture. "Live long and prosper."
Soleta inclined her head slightly in acknowledgment of the correct response. There seemed nothing more to be said, and Soleta -- characteristically -- didn't say it. Instead she strode to the door of the pub. Just before she exited, though, she turned and said to Shelby, "Captain Calhoun would have been proud of you."
And then Shelby was alone.
She stared for a long time at the empty chairs around the table...at the empty glass in front of her. At the emptiness of a life which she had once thought so full.
A hand rested on the back of the chair next to her. She glanced up. It was some young officer who had just arrived with several friends. "You seem to have a few empty chairs here. Mind if I take this one? Or is someone going to be sitting here?" he asked.
He was cute. Once upon a time, when she was another woman in another life, she might actively have made a pass at him. Now all she could do was admire his "cuteness" in an abstract way, but be aware that somehow it was from a distance and not really relevant to her life.
She glanced at the chair that she had aggressively kept vacant the entire evening, and then said, "Sure. Take it. It's just an empty chair."
He slid the chair away from the table and Shelby stared at her reflection in the polished surface of the table until long after last call, and long after a weary bartender had ushered the last of the other customers out. Finally, she drew her coat around herself and walked off, alone, into the darkness, dwelling on the irony that -- with all the people she knew who were alive -- the only one she really felt comfortable having with her at that moment was the ghost of Mackenzie Calhoun.
Copyright © 2000 by Paramount Pictures
Posted January 12, 2001
Peter David does it again, His continuation picks up right where the last one leaves off. It doesn't seem like it at first, but moving on to Book 10 will tie some things together. The new Frontier Series needs to be read in order. Each book does enough exlination that it's POSSIBLE to read them out of order, but to get the full effect of Mr. David's masterful talent...In order is the way to go. Highly recommended, as are ALL of Peter David's works.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted August 29, 2000
Where book #8 left off is not the starting point for book #9. Calhoun is dead, his ship destroyed, but it tells nothing of how that happened. It instead tells of the adventures of Soleta, McHenrey and Kebron, and Si Cwan and Kalinda. The tales are engaging and at some parts humerous, others are distinctly disquieting. Peter David,creating the twists this book takes,has done a good job relating the events in a manner that makes you want to keep reading, and when you read the 'ending' you want to run to the nearest bookstore to by the next installment, Renaissance.You will surley want to make Star Trek: New Frontier a new legend in the vast Star Trek franchise.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
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