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The Last Round-Up
By Christie Golden
Pocket BooksCopyright © 2002 Christie Golden
All right reserved.
It was a dead world.
It had never supported life of its own. The planet known in Federation records as Polluxara IV had no intelligent life that might interfere with the Prime Directive. It sported not so much as a microbe, but within its lifeless, rocky exterior had once flowed a rich vein of what was then one of the most precious substances in the universe - dilithium.
It was this deposit that had led Earth, almost a hundred and fifty years ago, to establish a colony in order to mine the mineral. But now, once again, Polluxara IV was lifeless, save for the twenty-seven souls that stood safely encased in environmental suits on its still-radioactive exterior.
Captain James Tiberius Kirk, once Admiral Kirk, and earlier and since captain of the U.S.S. Enterprise, was one of the twenty-seven. The others were much younger and, at this moment, were quieter than he had ever heard them.
Kirk wasn't surprised. Standing at the site of a great tragedy had that effect.
Towering above them were the ruins of what had once been a colony of vital importance to a pre-Federation Earth. There remained only sharp shards of metal and other materials, warped, melted, twisted, and pulverized. The bodies werelong gone, of course. What the Earth forces could come and retrieve to honor with a hero's burial had been so gathered, decades past. But there hadn't been enough remains to bury of most of them; hadn't been enough to find.
Kirk didn't speak immediately after they materialized. He let the cadets look around and absorb what they saw for themselves. The wide-eyed solemnity he saw in their faces - a mixture of species that would have stunned those who had died here a century ago - made him nod slightly in approval. Good kids, all of them. He'd been right to call in a few favors on this.
Time for the pop quiz.
"Cadet Singh," Kirk said sharply. Indira Singh's head whipped around.
"Sir!" she answered, snapping to attention despite the mute testimony to death that lay all around her.
"Tell me about Commander Lowe, if you please."
Light glimmered on her protective faceplate, but not so much that Kirk couldn't see her lick her lips nervously. "Commander Sabra Lowe led the mining colony here in the middle part of the twenty-second century. It was a state-of-the-art colony that turned out swift production of a very pure form of dilithium, almost ninety-two percent pure."
"How many other active dilithium mining colonies were there at that time?" Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Cadet Skalli Jksili raise her long, slender arm, but he ignored her.
"Only seven. Polluxara IV turned out - " Singh hesitated, and her dark eyes widened as she frantically sought the answer. "Four point oh seven two times the amount of the others." She breathed easier.
"Very good. You've just made an excellent start on your final."
A chorus of protest rose as the students realized that Kirk was apparently springing at least part of the final exam of his course, "Command Decisions and Their Consequences," on them here, now, unannounced. The sounds were oddly comforting to Kirk, standing here among the ruins. It was a sound that reminded him that life had to go on, no matter how many colonies -
"I did tell you to do your research," Kirk reminded them mildly, raising a hand to still them. They quieted at once. "Now. Cadet Brown. Tell me what happened here a few years later." He could see Cadet Skalli shaking her head in disgust.
Cadet Christopher Brown stood at attention, trying not to smile. Kirk had given him an easier question.
"Commander Lowe received advance warning of an attack. The scout reported that the Romulans, then a relatively unknown species, were approaching."
"And their goal was to completely destroy the colony, in order to strike fear into the heart of Earth forces."
"Negative, sir!" Brown's smile widened as he caught Kirk's trick question. "Their goal was to take over the colony in order to harvest the dilithium."
"Which was to be used how?"
"To develop warp drive and create more ships to bring to bear against Earth forces in the war. Sir!"
"Very good. You too have a head start on the final, Mr. Brown. Cadet T'Pran, pick up the narrative from this point."
Cadet Skalli was now actually stomping in impatience. Kirk had once tried to curb these physical displays of her irritation, but it was impossible. It was simply a part of what she was - a Huanni.
T'Pran, a coolly beautiful young Vulcan female whose calm demeanor was the antithesis of Skalli's, predictably showed no emotion as she obeyed Kirk's request.
"There was insufficient time for Earth to send defense vessels. The colony had no weapons other than approximately two hundred handheld phase guns, fourteen primitive torpedoes, sixteen assorted pieces of mining equipment, and four thousand, eight hundred and twenty-seven detonation devices."
Not for the first time, Kirk marveled at how Vulcans used the word approximately.
"Very good. Cadet Lasskas, continue."
The translator turned Lasskas's hissing dialect into intelligible Federation standard, though it played a bit with sentence structure.
"Commander Lowe choice had none. Selected she to colony destroy, detonation devices all deployed at time same. Not Romulan hands fall into, precious dilithium, at time of war when vulnerable Earth. Died eight and forty and one hundred males and females by order of Commander Lowe."
"Most of that is correct, but there's something very wrong with that answer. Do you know what it is?"
Lasskas's sharp-toothed muzzle opened and his thick, green, forked tongue fluttered. Since the rest of his face was unable to move, that long tongue was the only indicator of his emotions. He clearly had no idea what Kirk was getting at.
"Anybody know what was incorrect about Cadet Lasskas's answer?" He could all but see their sharp minds turning as they tried to find the factual flaw in Lasskas's statement. They were all being too literal. Not even Skalli's hand was up this time. Her pale purple face was screwed up in frustration.
Kirk didn't enlighten them at once. He began to walk around the area, carefully.
"We're in a place of death, cadets. Even safely in our environment suits, we can feel it, can sense it. This is sacred ground. A place where lives were sacrificed in order to preserve noble ideals. One day, any of you might be looking at a similar scenario. I want you to take a moment and put yourself in Commander Lowe's position. Imagine yourself as commander of a colony of over a hundred people - people who looked to you to keep them safe...their families safe. Most of them hadn't signed on for this out of a desire for adventure or even any particular sense of loyalty. There was good money to be had for hard work on this planet."
They were quiet now, attentive. For the first time since he started this class at the beginning of the semester, Kirk felt that he was finally managing to get through to them. Hitherto, he had thought them too starry-eyed to really listen. It had taken this - a risky visit to a devastated world that still leaked radiation from its death throes - to do it, but he thought he had succeeded. If they understood this one message, it wouldn't matter to him what they had scored the rest of the semester.
"And then you hear from one of your scouts, who is attacked and killed shortly after he sends the message, that Romulans are on the way," Kirk continued, his voice ringing in this silent place. "Romulans. You've never even seen them, only heard vague rumors about these faceless beings hitting outposts hard, then vanishing. And now, they're coming. For you."
A few of them shifted uneasily. Others gazed at him raptly. Chief among these was Skalli. Kirk quickly looked elsewhere. Skalli never needed much encouragement.
"They're coming for you," he repeated, "and your home planet can't do a damn thing to protect you. You're too far away. You know what they want, and you know their tactics. They've never left anyone alive before." He paused in midstride and whirled back, catching their eyes with his own hazel ones.
"But they've never wanted anything from an outpost before. They might take you prisoner. They might agree to let you go. You just don't know. Now do you see why Cadet Lasskas's answer wasn't correct?"
They stared at him blankly. Skalli was obviously frustrated that she couldn't grasp what her instructor was getting at, and the rest seemed uneasy as well.
Kirk sighed. Maybe they were just too young. Maybe at their age, he wouldn't have been able to comprehend this either. After all, wasn't he the one who secretly reprogrammed the simulation computer in order to become the only Academy student able to wring victory from the Kobayashi Maru simulation?
"Cadet Lasskas's answer was factually correct. But you've got to take into consideration more than just facts if you're to be a good officer in Starfleet. You've got to consider things like hunches, intuitions, gut feelings...and knowing that you always have a choice." He glanced over at Lasskas, who was hanging his reptilian head. "You said Commander Lowe didn't have a choice. From our perspective, a hundred-odd years in the future, that statement seems obvious."
He spread his hands. "Of course she had to destroy the colony, and sacrifice every one of those one hundred and forty-eight men and women, didn't she? We all know that's what she had to do, don't we?" he said, exaggerating the words. "She couldn't risk having that much dilithium fall into Romulan hands at that crucial juncture. Just push a button. An easy decision. It's in all the textbooks, so it must have been obvious, an easy choice. It has as much relevance to us now as the fall of Lamaria, or the losses at Normandy in 1944, back on Earth. Which is to say, not very much."
Again, he surveyed them, standing tall and imposing. He had come to realize, somewhat ruefully, that to many of these youngsters he was a living legend. If he could drum this lesson into their heads, he wouldn't mind the pedestal.
"But they should have meaning, damn it. Every single man who died on the beaches at Normandy had a life that was as dear, as precious to him as life is to any of you. Every single Lamarian who fell defending their home from a vicious onslaught once laughed, and cried, and loved."
He raised his arms and indicated their surroundings. "This particular site is unique. Because there's no atmosphere, it's going to be preserved this way forever. There's no grass here to soften this battlefield, no grave markers to bleach and fade in the sun. We'll always be able to stand here and look at what was willingly done for the good of others as if it happened yesterday. Just because these people died over a century past doesn't mean we should let their sacrifice count for nothing."
He softened his voice. "There is a quote from an ancient book on my world that says, 'Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.' I disagree. It's noble to die for a friend, for someone you love and value. But how much nobler - and harder - is it to die for a stranger? Commander Sabra Lowe died for people she had never met. And she made that choice freely. Now that, cadets, is a command decision. And this is its consequence - both the ruins of Polluxara IV and the fact that you and I are able to stand here today, alive, free, and members of a Federation that values freedom and justice."
To his deep satisfaction, Kirk saw the flickering of understanding pass across some of the painfully youthful faces. He heard a slight thump and turned in the direction of the sound. Not surprisingly, tears were flowing down Skalli's purple face. She had forgotten she was wearing the environmental suit and had bumped her hand on the faceplate in an effort to wipe the river away.
The Huanni had only recently joined the Federation. Kirk had never seen such an emotional race before. It in no way compromised their intelligence or skills, which were considerable, but they were as open in their emotions as the Vulcans were closed - which was saying a lot. Skalli, the very first of her species to be accepted at Starfleet Academy, had come a long way in the single semester Kirk had known her. By Huanni standards, she was coldly logical. He had tried to be understanding of the outbursts while at the same time helping her learn how to control herself. She had confided in him that she wanted to be an ambassador one day. Kirk thought this highly unlikely.
To help her focus, he addressed her. "Cadet Skalli," he said. "We will take a moment to think of those who have died here so that we might live. Please, recite their names, slowly and solemnly." He knew that she, like all her species, had an eidetic memory, and this would be no challenge for her. But she would see it as an honor.
She looked up at him, and in her enormous eyes shone pride and a very intense form of hero worship. Kirk managed not to cringe. She composed herself, and with tears still streaming down her face began to list the names of the colonists.
"Commander Sabra Lowe. First Officer Jason Riley. Second Officer Ramon Sanchez. Chief Engineer Jonathan Bedonie...."
It took a long time, to recite a hundred and forty-eight names. When Kirk caught one of his students fidgeting, he glared at him until he stopped. They stood at attention, until finally, Skalli stated the last name.
Kirk waited a moment longer. At last he said, "We have twenty minutes before we return to the ship. I suggest you take the time to wander the colony and get to know it for yourself. Be mindful that though the residual radiation from the explosion is low it is still present, and that you are not under any circumstances to remove so much as a glove. Also be aware there are many opportunities for a careless cadet to slip and break a leg. I'd advise against it."
There were slight, wary chuckles at this. It figures, thought Kirk. They finally start seeing me as a human being on the last day of class. While it was obvious that the students were thrilled to be able to attend his class, he knew that they were more interested in seeing him than in what he was saying. But talking about major command decisions of the past few centuries - including a few historical ones he himself had made - had only served to remind him that all he was doing was talking. He was horribly bored, itching to get out and do something, which was one reason he had called in a few favors to authorize this field trip to a place that was still largely off-limits. Command decisions weren't textbook cases, they were real, and bloody, and bitter. And heaven knew he'd had more than his share.
"There will be an essay as part of the final exam. It is free-form, and all I want from you is your impressions of Polluxara IV and what happened here. It will be due in my hands when we return to Earth orbit. The students who correctly answered my questions will receive extra credit.
Excerpted from The Last Round-Up by Christie Golden Copyright © 2002 by Christie Golden. Excerpted by permission.
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