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Gerda Asmund had developed a certain level of awareness as a child, a sensitivity that came close to the level of pure, untutored instinct.
At the moment, as she studied the updated data on her navigation monitor to see what kind of hazards awaited the Stargazer in the solar system they were approaching, that awareness told her she was being watched. But it was experience that told her by whom.
Turning to her twin sister, Idun, who was sitting at the helm panel beside her, she said in a soft voice, "Just behind you and to the right. At the engineering console."
Idun's brow creased ever so slightly. Then she cast a glance over her shoulder in the indicated direction. When she returned her attention to her helm controls, it was with an air of puzzlement so subtle and unobtrusive that only her sister was likely to recognize it.
"Refsland?" said Idun.
William Refsland was the ship's senior transporter operator -- an efficient and responsible member of the crew, by all accounts. But he displayed what was, in Gerda's estimate, a single very annoying habit.
"He keeps staring at us," she told her sister.
"What's so funny?" Gerda asked.
"I'll bet he's fantasizing," her sister said.
Gerda looked at her. "Fantasizing?"
"We're twins," Idun said, as if that were all the explanation Gerda needed.
"And?" said the navigator.
Her sister sighed. "Refsland is probably imagining what it would be like to have sex with us." Then, seeing that Gerda was still perplexed, she added, "You know...at the same time?"
Gerda realized her mouth was hanging open. She closed it. "Why do you say that?" she asked.
"It's a fairly common daydream among human males," said Idun. "You've never heard of it?"
"No," said Gerda, uncomfortable with her ignorance. "I haven't. But why would anyone want to have sex with two people at once? Wouldn't it be dangerous?"
"Only among Klingons," Idun noted.
Gerda frowned. "Right. Stupid of me."
Humans had a significantly gentler sex life than Klingons did -- Gerda and her sister being notable exceptions to that rule. Having been raised on the Klingon homeworld by a Klingon family, their sexual hungers and behaviors had been formed in the steaming cauldron of their adopted culture -- much to the chagrin of Gerda's recently adopted lover, Carter Greyhorse.
Or at least, Gerda added, that was the way he had felt at first. After a while, Greyhorse had grown accustomed to her decidedly Klingon brand of intimacy.
She glanced at Refsland again. He seemed intent on his console, where it was his job to periodically study ambient conditions against the prospect of an emergency transport. But Gerda got the impression that he was only biding his time before he snuck another peek at her and her sister.
The navigator felt a hot lump of anger lodge in her throat. It wasn't the notion that Refsland wanted to have sex with her that bothered her so much. It was the idea that he coveted her only because she was a twin.
Without meaning to, she expressed the thought out loud.
"I know," said Idun, though she didn't sound particularly resentful. "It's as if we're a matched set of bat'leths, valuable only because we're exactly the same."
Gerda shot another look at Refsland. He was talking to Paxton, the communications officer, and laughing about something she couldn't make out.
For their sake, Gerda hoped it wasn't what she thought it was.
"Besides," she pointed out, "if Refsland wants to have sex with two women at once, why does he prefer that they look alike? Wouldn't it be a more satisfying experience for him if they looked different from each other?"
Idun grunted. "One would think so. Sometimes I find humans more difficult to understand than any other species I've met -- Vulcans included."
Gerda nodded in agreement. And it didn't seem to help that she and her sister were humans themselves.
As she thought that, she noticed that Refsland was leaving the bridge. With a sigh of relief, Gerda turned back to her monitor and resumed her search for navigational hazards.
It was a job she did better than anyone else on the Stargazer, Idun included. So much for their being exactly the same, she reflected, putting the thought of Refsland and his irksome imagination aside.
Ensign Andreas Nikolas stopped in front of his captain's featureless, gray ready-room door and smoothed the front of his cranberry-colored uniform.
It would take a moment before the door chimed to let Picard know there was someone outside it. The ensign used that time to put himself in the right frame of mind. After all, it wasn't every day he had a private meeting with his captain.
Nikolas just wished he had some idea what it was about.
Finally, the duranium surface slid aside with an audible breath of air, revealing the warm but efficient interior of Picard's ready room. As Nikolas walked inside, he saw that the captain -- a man only about five years his senior -- was studying some information on his computer monitor.
The ensign smiled deferentially. "You wanted to see me, sir?"
Picard turned to him and pointed to the chair on the other side of his sleek, black desk. "I did indeed, Ensign. Have a seat."
As Nikolas sat down, he saw Picard's brow crease ever so slightly. He didn't think it was a good sign.
But what had he done to deserve a reprimand? Nothing he could think of. Then what -- ?
"Prior to your arrival on the Stargazer," the captain began abruptly, "you had a reputation for being impulsive, headstrong, and even -- on occasion -- insubordinate."
True, Nikolas had to concede, if only to himself. But as Picard himself had noted, that was before the ensign arrived on the Stargazer.
"It appears you earned that reputation by virtue of several well-documented arguments with Academy professors, colleagues, and superior officers."
Nikolas frowned. True again. But --
"On at least two occasions," Picard continued, "those arguments blossomed into actual fistfights."
Nikolas could feel a caustic response coming on and he stifled it. Otherwise, he would be showing the captain that the behavior he had described was still an issue.
"Permission to speak freely, sir?" he asked.
The captain sat back in his chair and nodded. "Go ahead."
Nikolas leaned forward. "With all due respect, sir, I've done my best to put all that behind me. No one has tried harder than I have to be a cooperative and productive member of this crew."
"Without question," Picard said, "you have done exemplary work here. Every officer with whom you've come in contact has attested to that fact."
The ensign didn't get it. "Then...why am I here?"
"You're here," said the captain, "because in the course of the last few weeks, you've twice been taken to sickbay with a rather spectacular collection of bruises and lacerations. And in both cases, it was the result of injuries you had suffered in the ship's gymnasium."
Again, the facts were difficult to dispute.
"Considering your penchant for getting into fights before you joined us," Picard went on, "I am concerned. If this is a step backward, I want to nip it in the bud."
The ensign shook his head. "It's not what you think, sir."
"Then what is it?" Picard asked.
"That first time," said Nikolas, "was when I tried to stop Ensign Caber from beating up Lieutenant Obal."
The captain's eyes narrowed. "A laudable gesture. However, Mr. Obal made it clear that he could take care of himself. One wonders why it was necessary for you to intervene."
"Sir," Nikolas rejoined, suppressing a surge of indignation, "I had no way of knowing that Obal could defend himself. I mean, he's not exactly a mountain of muscle. For all I knew, Ensign Caber was going to kill him."
Picard considered the response. "You thought you had to go to your friend's rescue. That's certainly understandable." His gaze hardened. "Or rather, it would be, if that were the only instance of this sort of behavior."
The ensign knew where the captain was going next. "You're talking about my sparring session with Lieutenant Asmund."
"I am," Picard confirmed. He tapped the screen of his computer monitor with a fingernail. "According to Doctor Greyhorse's report, at least one of the blows you took to your head was serious enough to cause you to lose consciousness."
Nikolas sighed. "I didn't expect it to go that far."
"But it was a sparring session. And your opponent was one of the most formidable hand-to-hand fighters on the ship."
"I know that now, sir. But at the time -- "
"You had no idea. I believe that." Nonetheless, Picard seemed unimpressed. "Where there is smoke, Ensign, there is fire. And where there are fights, there is the will to engage in them."
Nikolas groped for a way to assure the captain that he wasn't going to get into any more fights. But in the end, all he could say was "It won't happen again."
The captain looked at him. "I'm glad you said that. But it doesn't set my mind at ease."
What more can I do? Nikolas wondered silently.
"If I were you," said Picard, "I would take special care to avoid physical conflicts with my colleagues -- whether they start in anger or not." His features softened. "It would be a shame to mar what is becoming a most compelling case for promotion."
Nikolas found himself smiling. "Promotion, sir?"
"That's correct, Ensign. But if that's to be even a possibility, you'll have to show me that you can stay out of sickbay. Understood?"
A promotion. Nikolas nodded. "Understood, sir."
"In that case," said Picard, "you are dismissed."
"Yes, sir," the ensign responded. "Thank you, sir."
And he left the captain's ready room a lot more lighthearted than when he entered it.
Vigo packed the last of the three uniforms he intended to take planetside with him. Then he closed his gray plastic garment case, latched it, removed it from his bed, and placed it on the floor beside his bedroom door.
The Stargazer's chief weapons officer took a look around his quarters and decided that everything was in order. With nothing to do until he was called down to the shuttlebay, he sat down on the room's only chair.
It was a bit too small for him. In fact, all the furniture in his quarters, indeed in the entire ship, was too small. But then, he wasn't the first Pandrilite who had been forced to overcome that problem in his dealings with other species.
As Vigo reflected on that, he heard a soft, melodic chime. Getting up from his chair, he emerged from his bedroom into the small anteroom beyond it and said, "Please come in."
The doors to the anteroom parted, revealing his friend and colleague Pug Joseph. The ship's acting security chief, Joseph, was a stocky, sandy-haired man whose straightforwardness had endeared him to the other members of the crew.
Vigo found it a refreshing quality in a species that often seemed to pride itself on its guile. Not that that was all bad. It made the humans on board some of Vigo's most challenging sharash'di partners.
"So," said Joseph, "all packed?"
"As a matter of fact," said Vigo, "I am."
Joseph smiled. "Boy, I envy you. I mean, going down to Wayland Prime...every weapons innovation in the last ten years has come out of that place."
Vigo couldn't argue with Joseph's assessment of the place. The Level One Development Facility on Wayland Prime had become a veritable hotbed of innovation thanks to the handful of brilliant tactical engineers Starfleet had assembled there.
"And," Joseph added, "as if that weren't enough of a plum, you're going to be one of the first weapons officers in the fleet to see the new Type Nine emitter."
Truly, Vigo was looking forward to examining the new and improved ship's-phaser emitter, and watching it perform in test mode. But that wouldn't be the biggest thrill he was likely to encounter on Wayland Prime.
"Hey," said Joseph, "I heard the guy who spearheaded the Type Nine project is a Pandrilite. Name's Ejanix."
Vigo nodded. "Yes."
"Do you know him?"
The weapons chief smiled to himself. "As matter of fact," he said, "I do."
First Officer Gilaad Ben Zoma stood in the middle of the Stargazer's shuttlebay and considered nothing.
At least, it looked like nothing. It was actually a transparent, semipermeable barrier that separated the atmosphere in the shuttlebay from the vacuum of space.
"So it's working all right now?" he asked.
par"It's working fine," said Chiang, the shuttlebay supervisor, "as you can see."
Ben Zoma smiled. "Or not see, as the case may be."
Earlier that morning, the barrier had displayed some instability, as evidenced by the pale yellow ripples running through it. Then, about an hour ago, it had actually begun to sputter.
The last thing anyone else in the shuttlebay wanted was an unstable barrier, considering that everyone's lives depended on how well it worked. Chiang had made note of that to Ben Zoma, who had in turn made note of it to Simenon and his engineers.
The result? A new wave projector and a much more relaxed Lieutenant Chiang.
"Let me know if you have any more trouble with it," Ben Zoma advised the supervisor.
"Don't worry," said Chiang. "I will."
That promise exacted, the first officer strode across the shuttlebay and headed for the exit. He was just shy of the doors when they slid open and admitted Lieutenant Kastiigan.
"Commander Ben Zoma," he said happily. "I was told you would be down here."
"Well," said Ben Zoma, "you were told right."
Kastiigan had been with them for just a few weeks -- ever since the previous science officer was relieved of her duties and sent back to Earth. In that short time, the Kandilkari had shown himself to be as canny and dedicated a science officer as anyone could have wanted.
"May I speak with you for a moment?" Kastiigan asked.
"Sure," said the first officer. "I've got nothing urgent at the moment. What is it?"
The science officer lifted his chin. "I understand Lieutenant Vigo is going to attend a meeting on Wayland Prime."
"That's true," Ben Zoma told him. "They're demonstrating a new generation of phaser technology for Vigo and a few other weapons officers."
"I don't suppose there is any possibility of danger there?" Kastiigan asked.
Ben Zoma was surprised by the question. "I don't think so. Why do you ask?"
The Kandilkari shrugged. "I just want you to know that if there was a possibility of danger, I would be perfectly willing to attend the demonstration with Lieutenant Vigo."
The first officer smiled at the notion. "You mean as his bodyguard?"
"If you like. I just find the idea of our weapons officer facing some serious danger on his own a bit disturbing."
"As would I," Ben Zoma said. "That is, if there were any serious danger -- which there isn't."
"Yes," said Kastiigan. "You mentioned that."
"So there's really no need for a bodyguard," the first officer added, just to make sure there was no confusion.
"Apparently not," said the Kandilkari.
The room was silent for a moment. Ben Zoma felt compelled to throw some sound into it.
"Is there anything else?" he asked.
"Nothing," the science officer assured him. "Thank you for your time, Commander."
"No problem," said Ben Zoma.
But as Kastiigan left him standing there in the shuttlebay, he found himself wondering just what in blazes they had been talking about.
Ensign Cole Paris couldn't help liking the way things were turning out.
He liked the fact that he had come to grips with his chronic anxiety problem, born of trying to live up to the illustrious Paris name. He liked the trust Captain Picard had begun to place in him, making him the number-two helm officer on the ship behind the amazing Idun Asmund.
And he liked the fact that Second Officer Wu had decided to remain on the Stargazer, instead of returning to her old ship for the sake of a promotion.
Having Wu around gave Paris a comfort level he had never enjoyed before -- not just since he had graduated from the Academy, but ever. It gave him the confidence to take on any challenge that came his way, and on a ship like the Stargazer they came his way all the time.
Paris was even getting used to Nikolas, his roommate. The guy wasn't much for neatness or discipline, and he was a little too preoccupied sometimes with the opposite sex, but he did everything the senior staff officers expected of him -- and more, if he could.
And if Paris needed a hand with something, he was sure that Nikolas would give it to him. There was something to be said for that as well.
At that particular moment, Paris was on his way to the bridge to give someone else a hand. Lieutenant Asmund had asked him to recalibrate the helm controls on one of the Stargazer's shuttlecraft. Normally, that would have been a job for Lieutenant Chiang's people in the shuttlebay, but Lieutenant Asmund was going to have to use the shuttle soon and she preferred that Paris take care of it.
It was quite a compliment, the ensign mused. Of course, Lieutenant Chiang might not think so. In fact --
Before he could complete his thought, he realized he was about to bump into something. His reflexes taking over, he sidestepped the object.
It was only after he took stock of his surroundings that he realized it wasn't an object he had avoided. Or rather, it wasn't just an object.
It was Ensign Jiterica, inside the Starfleet standard-issue containment suit she was forced to wear in order to operate as a member of the crew.
Unlike anyone else on the Stargazer, Jiterica was a Nizhrak -- a low-density being whose species developed in the upper atmosphere of a gas giant. In her natural state, she was a cloud of ionic particles larger than the confines of the ship's bridge. Hence, the containment suit, which allowed her to interact with the rest of the crew and fit into the same spaces they did.
Unfortunately, the suit was awkward for Jiterica to move. Even something as simple as standing up or sitting down was a difficult and complex maneuver. On top of that, the suit was a bulky item that took up more room than most of the ensign's fellow crewmen.
Which occasionally made her a target for someone who wasn't watching where he was going.
Paris looked through Jiterica's faceplate, where he could see a ghostly female countenance. The Nizhrak was getting better at simulating a human face, he noted. A lot better.
"I'm sorry," he said earnestly. "I didn't see you coming."
What appeared to be a smile took hold of the Nizhrak's face. "It's all right," Jiterica said in the mechanical voice the suit allowed her. "I'm not injured."
Funny, thought Paris. The technology in the suit didn't permit inflection. And yet Jiterica seemed to have found a way to impose a tone on her voice.
A rather pleasant tone, at that.
He found himself smiling back at her. "It's a good thing I wasn't this clumsy that day in the shuttle. Otherwise we never would have rescued the Belladonna."
Paris was, of course, referring to the research vessel the Stargazer had encountered a couple of weeks earlier. Caught in a cosmic sinkhole, the Belladonna and her crew were slowly but surely slipping away.
But Paris and Jiterica, working together, gave the research ship a chance at survival. And in the end, that was all the Belladonna needed.
Paris remembered how good it felt to know he'd had a part in saving all those scientists. And he remembered also how close he had felt to Jiterica, whose life had been in his hands.
He didn't know why he hadn't seen much of Jiterica after that, but he regretted the oversight. He had liked that feeling of closeness. He didn't want to lose it.
"You're not clumsy," she told him. "I'm the clumsy one." And she used an arm of the suit to point to its chest.
"Anyone would be clumsy if they had to walk around in that suit all day," he said.
Jiterica's expression seemed to falter then, and he was afraid that he had insulted her. But a moment later, the smile returned to her face.
"It is difficult," she said. "I just didn't think anyone here understood that."
Paris shrugged. "I think we all do. We just don't say it."
Jiterica looked at him. "You did."
And the expression behind her faceplate changed again. But this time, it didn't seem to falter. If anything, it grew stronger and more distinct -- especially the eyes.
They seemed to reach right into him, even more so than a pair of human eyes might have.
That's when Paris remembered that he had someplace to go. "I'd like to stay and talk," he said, "but I'm due in the shuttlebay. But...maybe we can get together some other time."
Jiterica's head seemed to tilt a little behind her faceplate. "Some other time," she echoed.
Paris looked at her a moment longer. Then he made his way past her and headed for the turbolift.
But as he came to a bend in the corridor, he turned back...and saw that she was still standing there where he had left her, watching him go. It pleased him that it was so, though at the time he couldn't have said why.
Admiral Arlen McAteer leaned back in his plastiform chair and considered the slightly convex screen of his desktop monitor, where a swarm of tiny, bright-red dots were scattered as if at random over a stark green-on-black grid.
The grid represented the sector of the Alpha Quadrant for which the admiral and the captains assigned to him were responsible. The tiny red dots stood for the Starfleet vessels commanded by those captains.
There was a great deal going on these days in McAteer's sector. A great deal of unrest among the various species residing there. A great deal of posturing and finger-pointing and secret deal-making.
Like any admiral worth his salt, McAteer recognized these maneuverings for what they were -- a prelude to armed conflict. It was the obvious conclusion. All the classic signs were there.
McAteer had already distinguished himself many times over the course of his Starfleet career. He wouldn't have become an admiral otherwise.
But if he could forestall what was shaping up to be a fair-sized war with repercussions in the Alpha Quadrant and beyond, it would make his other accomplishments pale by comparison. It would be his signature achievement, the one that cadets would study at the Academy for hundreds of years to come.
All he would have to do was head off the harbingers of the conflict one by one. But it wouldn't be easy. He would need to use all the resources at his disposal and deploy them with surgical precision.
Fortunately for McAteer, he was blessed with a cadre of veteran captains, men and women whose judgment had been tested time and again under the most dangerous and demanding circumstances. The officers in command of the admiral's vessels were among the most experienced in the fleet.
With one notable exception.
Sighing, McAteer tapped out a command on his keyboard. The image on his screen changed, its grid and its swarm of red dots giving way to a white-stars-and- laurel-leaf design on a field of startling blue.
The Federation insignia. It was what came up on the admiral's monitor whenever he started to compose a subspace message to one of his subordinates -- in this case, the green apple he would have dearly loved to replace with an older and more seasoned officer.
McAteer still hoped to do that. But for the time being, he was embroiled in the most complex card game of his career, and he had to play the hand he had been dealt.
Leaning forward in his chair, the admiral said, "Good day, Captain. I trust this communication finds you well. By the time you receive it, you will have dropped off your weapons officer at Wayland Prime and should be awaiting new orders. Well, here they are.
"You're to proceed to the Mara Zenaya system, where our long-range scans have revealed the appearance of a peculiar anomaly -- one that wasn't there the last time we surveyed the system, and may not be there indefinitely. You're to examine this anomaly close-up, record your findings, and transmit them back to us here on Earth."
McAteer frowned. "I know what you're thinking. Why send a Constellation-class starship on what appears to be a simple scientific survey mission? As it happens, this may turn out to be more than a simple survey mission -- since Mara Zenaya is situated on what appears to be the edge of Balduk territory."
Every captain in the sector was familiar with the Balduk -- a fiercely proud and intensely territorial species with whom Federation vessels had clashed on more than one occasion. Any captain would also know that the Balduk had a propensity for "creative" charting when it came to the boundaries of their designated space.
"The Balduk haven't yet come out and said that they own the anomaly," said McAteer, "but my guess is that they will do so just as soon as we show up. That's been their modus operandi since our first contact with them. As soon as they see something of value to someone else, they figure it should be of value to them too.
"So you're going to have to perform a balancing act. We don't want to get into a knock-down-drag-out with the Balduk, but we also don't want to lose a chance to study this anomaly."
The admiral smiled. "Good luck, Captain. I look forward to hearing all about it. McAteer out."
Tapping out another command, he ended the message. There, he thought. That ought to do it.
Normally, he wouldn't have been concerned about the outcome of such an assignment -- a walk in the park, really, compared with the missions most of his captains were embarking on these days. But then, it wasn't just any captain he was dispatching to the Mara Zenaya system.
It was Jean-Luc Picard.
Second Officer Elizabeth Wu found the Stargazer's chief engineer just where the computer had said he would be -- in an echo-laden Jefferies tube that led to the forwardmost part of the ship's saucer section.
There, bolted directly onto the Stargazer's tritanium skeleton, was the forward tractor beam emitter -- a sleek, cylindrical assembly about two meters long, with a slender, flexible conduit that allowed it to draw power from the electroplasma power grid. The emitter was surrounded by a half-dozen tiny, saucer-shaped waveguides that further secured it by tying in to the ship's structural integrity field.
Nothing on the Stargazer was anchored more securely -- not even the warp nacelles. But then, a tractor load could place an enormous amount of stress on a tractor emitter -- enough to tear it loose from the ship's spaceframe if measures weren't taken to prevent such an occurrence.
Chief Engineer Phigus Simenon was a Gnalish, a gray, scaly creature slightly shorter than she was, with a long snout, startling red eyes, and a tail that swayed back and forth as he walked.
At the moment, of course, he wasn't walking at all. He was lying on his back under the forward emitter, using a hydrospanner to open its outer casing.
Wu didn't know if Simenon was fixing a problem or anticipating one, but he was clearly engrossed in his work -- so much so that he didn't even glance her way as she crawled toward him, personal access display device in hand.
"I see you're busy," she observed.
"As always," he muttered in his harsh, sibilant voice.
"Well," said Wu, "I won't take up much of your time. I was just wondering if you could shed some light on something for me -- specifically, this subspace message from an Administrator Haywood."
"Haywood?" he echoed. "Don't know him."
"He seems to know you," said Wu. "In fact, he's sent a note of commendation to Captain Picard."
Simenon twisted his head around to regard her with his ruby red eyes. "A note -- ?"
"From the Federation colony on Setlik Three. Apparently," said Wu, "the engineer there is a friend of yours."
Understanding dawned on the Gnalish's lizardlike face. "Chiidasi. Moraal Chiidasi."
"It seems this Chiidasi fellow served with you on one of your previous assignments -- the Onjata, I believe?"
Simenon's grunt confimed it.
"He must have thought quite highly of you," Wu continued, "because when he had some trouble with the colony's power source, you're the one he contacted."
The engineer shrugged his narrow shoulders. "Their matter-antimatter generator was a lot like the warp engine on the Onjata. He knew I was familiar with it, that's all."
"That was one reason," Wu agreed. "The other was that he considered you -- " She held up her padd and read from it. " 'The best engineering mind in all of Starfleet.' That's rather high praise, Mr. Simenon."
He dismissed the notion with a flip of his scaly hand. "That's just Chiidasi showing his gratitude."
The second officer smiled to herself. "No doubt. Anyway, I thought you would want to know."
"Thanks," said Simenon. Then, without any further ado, he went back to his work.
Wu shook her head. Her colleague was quite the interesting character. If his manners were anywhere near as highly developed as his engineering instincts, he would have been the most cultured individual in the fleet.
As it was, she gathered, he was just its best engineer.
From space, Wayland Prime looked to Vigo like most M-class planets, a ragged curtain of clouds partially obscuring an incredibly slow and complex dance of land and water.
Even more complex -- but a lot less noticeable through the starboard observation port of Vigo's shuttle -- was the unusual network of magnetic storms that laced Wayland Prime's upper atmosphere.
The storm layer served as a natural security system for the Level One Development Facility, making it impossible to transport from the Stargazer to the planet's surface. After all, the last thing Starfleet wanted was to make the secrets of its weapons technology easy pickings for enemies and opportunists, and the galaxy seemed to contain a surfeit of both.
Unfortunately, the storm layer also made communication with anyone off-planet an uncertain proposition. Only during the occasional lull in magnetic activity could a voice or data signal punch through to the outside universe.
"It might get a little bumpy here," said Idun Asmund, the Stargazer's primary helm officer, as she made some adjustments in the shuttlecraft's attitude. "But it shouldn't be anything we can't handle."
"That's good to hear," said the weapons chief.
Idun's warning turned out to be a timely one. The shuttle began to bounce as if it were hitting one solid object after another. It went on like that for a minute or so, jolt after jolt. Then the ride began to flatten out.
By that time, they were diving through the bottom of the cloud layer and heading for the barely visible northernmost continent, a massive spiral with a spine of high mountains that boasted one of the few patches of fertile green on the entire globe. Idun made a small course adjustment and pulled the shuttle toward the innermost part of the spiral.
Vigo watched as the clouds thinned and then fled altogether, leaving him with an unobscured view of his destination. That was when he caught sight of it -- the dark, U-shaped building where some of the Federation's greatest engineering minds labored to improve Star-
fleet's existing array of tactical options.
And one of those minds belonged to Ejanix. It was hard for Vigo to believe -- and not because Ejanix's brilliance had ever been the least bit in question. It was simply that university instructors on a world like Pandril seldom rose to interstellar prominence.
Vigo laughed softly to himself. Not seldom, he thought. Never.
Idun glanced back over her shoulder at him. "Did you say something?" she asked.
"No," the weapons chief replied. "Nothing. I was just thinking of something humorous."
Humorous indeed, he added silently. The first time he met Ejanix, he had been a university student and Ejanix a fledgling instructor. It was clear to Vigo from the first day of school that his new teacher was someone special -- someone brighter and more dedicated than his colleagues.
But no matter how bright Ejanix might have been, no matter how dedicated, no one had expected him to receive an invitation to teach on Earth.
Nonetheless, that is what happened. A man named Onotoyo, who was retiring as Starfleet Academy's
tactical-engineering expert, was asked to make a list of recommendations as to his replacement.
He gave only one name -- that of a university teacher on Pandril who had published a monograph on cutting recharge times in phaser batteries. Before Ejanix knew it, he was being wined and dined by the head of the Academy, who entreated him to move to San Francisco and become a member of the most prestigious faculty in the Federation.
Of course, Vigo reflected, the Vulcans might have taken exception to that honorific. In any case, Ejanix accepted the position -- which put him in a position to instruct Vigo a second time when Vigo was accepted into the Academy.
Of course, Vigo reflected, the Vulcans might have taken exception to that honorific. In any case, Ejanix accepted the position -- which put him in a position to instruct Vigo a second time when Vigo was accepted into the Academy.
And no educator was ever happier to see a former student. Ejanix was waiting for Vigo in his dormitory room when he arrived, defying any number of unwritten rules against professor-student fraternization. And he stayed there for hours, discussing everything from the deficiencies of Niagara-class propulsion systems to his travails in trying to replicate traditional Pandrilite delicacies.
Had Ejanix been less prized by the Academy, he might have been reprimanded. As it was, the institution seemed willing to look the other way.
In later years, Vigo came to understand the intensity of Ejanix's friendship. Vigo himself had always wanted to join Starfleet and see the galaxy. He had looked outward to the stars, seeing his future there.
Ejanix, on the other hand, had only aspired to be a university instructor. He hadn't ever envisioned a time when he might leave Pandril and live on some other world. As a result, he wasn't prepared for the loneliness, the cultural isolation, the lack of the familiar in everyday existence.
So when Vigo showed up at the Academy -- not just a fellow Pandrilite but someone Ejanix had actually known and taught -- Ejanix latched on to him the way a drowning man might latch on to a buoyant kyerota sac.
Over the years Vigo spent at the Academy, the urgency of Ejanix's need for companionship diminished. But at the same time, the two Pandrilites developed a truer friendship -- one based on mutual respect and affection.
Meanwhile, Vigo managed to become one of Ejanix's best students, thriving on his professor's enthusiasm and innovative thinking. When honors were handed out in tactical engineering, Vigo was seldom very far down the list.
The last time he had seen Ejanix was at his graduation from the Academy. By that time, Vigo had already earned a berth on the Gibraltar patrolling the outskirts of Federation space in the vicinity of the Romulan Neutral Zone.
He and his mentor had sworn to keep in touch afterward, and for a while they had kept that promise via subspace packet. But in time, Vigo's resolve had thinned and apparently so had Ejanix's, and even their occasional correspondence was put off in favor of more pressing concerns.
For the last two years, Vigo and Ejanix hadn't communicated at all. But the weapons chief had heard about his old instructor's transfer to the facility on Wayland Prime and his subsequent work on the Type Nine project.
Despite the two-year lapse in their friendship, Vigo had no doubt that Ejanix would be glad to see him. They would pick up right where they had left off. Maybe Vigo would even have time to teach his mentor the game of sharash'di.
He recalled the look of joy and relief on Ejanix's face that first night at the Academy, and -- despite himself -- the weapons chief had to laugh again.
"Nothing again?" asked Idun, not even bothering to turn around this time.
"Nothing again," Vigo confirmed.
Abruptly, the communications monitor came alive on the shuttle's control console. The face that appeared on it belonged to a woman with a dark complexion and long, black hair drawn into a braid.
"This is Chief Echevarria," she said, "of installation security. You're cleared to land."
"Acknowledged," said Idun.
Moments later, she set the shuttle down on an open flat embraced by the U-shaped complex. "Enjoy your stay," she told the Pandrilite as she triggered the mechanism that opened the hatch, letting in the eminently breathable air of Wayland Prime. "I'm sure it will be stimulating."
"No doubt," said Vigo. He smiled at her. "I'll tell you all about it when you pick me up."
"I look forward to it," said the helm officer, without the slightest hint of irony in her voice.
Vigo wrested his garment container from the aft storage compartment. Then he ducked to avoid the upper threshold of the hatch and stepped out onto the native ground cover, which was short, wiry, and blue-green in color.
The sky overhead was pale blue in spots and cloud-covered in others, the temperature cool and the humidity high. It was like Vigo's home on Pandril at the height of summer, the only season when temperatures were consistently above freezing.
As the weapons officer closed the hatch behind him, he saw a door open in the middle of the U shape. A figure in a black jumpsuit emerged from it. It wasn't Ejanix; his Pandrilite stature would have given him away.
Vigo's welcomer, a slim, black-and-white-striped Dedderac, inclined his head as he approached. "Welcome to Wayland Prime," he said in a slightly nasal voice. "I'm Riyyen, one of the engineers who labor here -- and incidentally, the administrator of the place."
"Lieutenant Vigo of the Stargazer".
Riyyen smiled. "Yes, I know. You're the only Pandrilite on the guest list." He indicated the door he had come from with a tilt of his head. "Come on. I'll show you your quarters."
"Thank you," said Vigo.
He was a bit disappointed that Ejanix hadn't been able to meet him. But then, his mentor was probably busy elsewhere in the complex -- perhaps with some refinement of the Type Nine.
With a wave to Idun, he let her know he was good to go. A moment later, she took the shuttle back up.
Vigo watched it go for a moment. Then he followed Riyyen into the development facility.
Copyright © 2003 Paramount Pictures