“We’ve got a Klingon situation,” Rear Admiral James T. Kirk said.
“A Klingon situation?” Lieutenant Rowland echoed. “Where, sir?”
“I’m glad you asked.” Kirk tapped a display on his desk, and a viewscreen on the wall illuminated. He walked over to it. Rowland, no doubt, saw only dots and swirling lines, but the admiral knew what he was looking at. He had been studying it for a week. And Kirk saw trouble.
“These lines,” he said, pointing, “indicate the movement of Klingon vessels through this region. All within the past few months.”
“That’s a lot of lines,” Rowland said. Lieutenant Giancarlo Rowland was bright, but young and more than a little green. He was Kirk’s flag aide, and since the admiral was desk-bound, that meant Rowland’s duties were largely administrative and occasionally ceremonial. Kirk expected that Rowland would distinguish himself in starship duty one of these days, and become a captain before too long. He was young and bright and green, but he was also ambitious, and getting himself linked to an admiral was a wise move, politically speaking.
“Exactly. Which means a lot of Klingon traffic.”
“Do we know why, sir?” Rowland asked. A soft southern accent revealed his east Texas roots. “I mean, why they’re there?”
“Not yet,” Kirk said. “Frankly, there’s not much there. It’s a sparsely populated little corner of the galaxy. There is one inhabited planet in the vicinity—but again, sparsely populated. I’ve actually been there. It’s a Class-M planet, very Earthlike in many respects, but the entire global population can’t be more than a few hundred thousand, if that.”
“Capable of warp travel?”
“Well, maybe I’m just bein’ dense, sir, but I don’t see what they could possibly have that Klingons would want.”
The admiral peered at the chart. He had been asking himself the same question for days. He’d been studying every reported Klingon sighting, mapping them, and trying to figure out what their big-picture plan might be. It was easy to simply assume that the Klingons were up to no good, for no other reason than that they were Klingons.
That was dangerous thinking, though. Klingons didn’t think like humans did. They planned, schemed, and they had reasons for the things they did. If the Klingons were suddenly active in this one particular sector, there was some motivation behind it.
“I don’t know, either,” he said at last. “But we need to find out.”
Kirk pointed toward Rowland, then back at himself. “We. You and me.”
“I guess we need to go on a little trip.”
“A little trip?” Rowland asked.
Kirk returned to his desk and backed out of the chart until it showed a vast swath of the galaxy, with Earth in the lower left corner. The sector under discussion was visible in the upper right.
“That’s . . .”
“It’s not next door,” Kirk said.
“Boy, I’ll say.”
“Is that a problem, Lieutenant?”
“No, sir!” Rowland said quickly. He stood there, staring at the chart.
“Is there something wrong?” Kirk asked after a minute.
“No, sir. It’s just . . . well, I’ve never been that far out there.”
“Most people haven’t, Giancarlo. It’s a rare privilege. I think you’ll like it.”
“I’m sure you’re right.”
“I usually am,” Kirk said with a grin.
“One more question, sir?”
“You wouldn’t have heard of it,” Kirk said. “It’s called Neural.”
Realization dawned in the lieutenant’s eyes. “You’ve been there twice,” he said. “You commanded your first planetary survey there.”
“That’s right,” Kirk said again.
“You were a lieutenant. And, what? My age.”
“About that,” Kirk said. Two years younger. “You’ve been studying my career.”
“I know everything there is to know, sir. About your career, that is.”
“I mean, everything in Starfleet’s records. I’m sure there’s plenty more that’s not in those.”
“All the best parts,” Kirk said. “Just the boring stuff goes in the official record.” He tapped his temple. “The good stuff’s in here.”
“I have no doubt, sir.”
“We’ll need a ship,” Kirk said.
“A ship, sir?”
“To get to Neural. They can’t walk here, but we can’t walk there, either.”
“But we can’t—we need to take this to the Federation Council, have them raise a protest with the Organians. If the Klingon Empire is in violation of the Treaty—”
Kirk cut him off with a wave of his hand. “No Federation, no Starfleet. Nothing on the record. Civilian transportation. A charter, since there aren’t any commercial flights passing anywhere near there.”
“Why not, sir?”
“It’s a long story,” Kirk said. “I’ll tell you sometime. Let’s just say I have some unfinished business on Neural. If that is in any way responsible for what’s happening there now, with the Klingons, then I need to set things straight if I can. Not Starfleet. Me.” He wondered briefly if this was a fool’s errand. Second chances were possible, Kirk believed that with all his heart, but they were as rare as snowmen in July. The admiral shook his head to clear it. “When I left Neural, I informed Starfleet of the Klingon presence there. The Federation Council raised the issue with the Klingons, and the two sides agreed that Neural fell under the hands-off policy dictated by the Treaty of Organia. If they’ve broken that agreement, I want to know about it.”
“So a civilian charter . . .”
“Right. Something small and fast, preferably. Something that can get in and out of orbit before the Klingons know it’s there.”
“Pack an extra toothbrush,” Kirk suggested. “I don’t know if they’ve invented those yet, and we’ll be staying awhile.”
“How long, sir?”
“I have no idea.” Kirk sat behind his desk. It was a beautiful thing, carved mahogany with brass fittings, in a vaguely nautical design. It was big and it weighed a ton, and it felt like an anchor chained to his leg. He loved Earth, but like so many things, that love was felt more fervently from a distance. A desk in Starfleet’s headquarters had never been one of his career goals. His title, chief of Starfleet Operations, sounded impressive. But to Kirk the title was little more than a cruel joke, since by definition, the chief of Starfleet Operations never operated among the stars.
Kirk hadn’t realized, until he’d decided he had to go back to Neural, how much he missed it. And now that he did realize it, it was all he could think about.
* * *
Over the next few days, James Kirk had much to do. Chief of Starfleet Operations was a mouthful of a title, but it wasn’t a meaningless one. Starfleet had hundreds of ships and thousands of people assigned to missions all over the galaxy. And one day, hopefully, Kirk thought, outside it. Plenty of people served under him, and although Kirk delegated as much as he could, he was still a busy executive. Before he could leave, the admiral had to make sure the people who reported to him would be able to pick up the slack. Kirk tried to look ahead, to project every major decision he might have to make, and he left instructions as to how he would act. It wouldn’t do to compound his mistakes on Neural by letting something important slip by here.
Rowland was also busy. Leading a Starfleet star-ship on a multi-year interstellar mission involved a lot of preparation, but when one stepped on board that last time, one knew the ship was fully outfitted, provisioned, and prepared for any eventuality. But a long voyage on a civilian craft was a different matter. While one could hope that the ship was ready for anything, the reality might not match those hopes. Controls and regulations for civilian space travel were strict, but people had been skirting transportation laws since the first hot-rodder had figured out how to remove his car’s muffler, if not before.
Kirk’s last official act was to notify key people about where he was going. Although the trip had to be made without official authorization—the phrase “plausible deniability” had entered bureaucratic lexicon during the mid–twentieth century and had not left it since—a rear admiral couldn’t simply abandon his duties and disappear.
* * *
Admiral Elaine Kucera was looking down at a data slate on her desk when Kirk entered, but she was expecting him, so he stood in the doorway until she crooked a finger. “Jim,” she said, pointing toward a guest chair.
He sat. Waited. Finally, Kucera raised her chin and fixed him with gray eyes that he had always found fascinating and just the slightest bit disconcerting. “I’ve considered your request, Jim.”
“I don’t like it. Not one little bit. It’s risky. It’s impulsive. It sounds like something you thought through in about fifteen seconds, while doing two other things.”
Kirk didn’t like the sound of that. She wouldn’t dismiss his proposal without giving him a chance to argue his position, would she? “I can assure you, Admiral—”
Kucera held her hand up. “I said it sounds like that. I understand that it’s not. Jim, we’ve known each other a long time.”
She stopped him, again. “I know how long.”
Suddenly, Kirk was a plebe again, with Cadet Elaine Kucera inspecting his rack.
“My point is, as outrageous as this seems, on the face of it, I’m inclined to go along with it.”
He felt himself relaxing. “Thank you.”
“Wouldn’t you like to know why?”
What he wanted was to pocket the win and leave. “Why?”
She breathed out a long sigh. “Do you remember what Gary called you? Back at the Academy?”
“Gary Mitchell? He called me a great many things. Most of them aren’t repeatable in polite company.”
“He once said you were a ‘stack of books with legs.’ ” A smile broke, unbidden, on Kucera’s face. “Still cracks me up to think about it. It was so right, so accurate. I knew you’d have a great Starfleet career, even then. But I thought it would be in a lab someplace, or one of our think tanks. You didn’t strike me as the impulsive type. You were going to be the thinker, the guy who stayed behind and charted courses, or developed policy positions for others to carry out. That’s what I thought.”
“Are you disappointed?” Kirk asked with a smile.
“Not one little bit. I’ve never been so happy to be wrong.”
“My point is that you confounded my expectations. You know your stuff. But you’re not an egghead. You became a captain and then you accomplished real things. Great things. Important ones. Not as theory, but as fact. I don’t know if you understand just how rare you are, Rear Admiral James Tiberius Kirk. Starfleet’s packed with smart people, and talented and accomplished officers. But we don’t have many who combine those traits in exactly the way you do.”
Kirk wasn’t sure how to respond. He was afraid she was working toward denying his request, after all. He had never wanted to be indispensable, because once you were tagged with that, you lost any freedom of movement you might once have had. “Admiral—”
Those gray eyes bored into him. “It’s just us here, Jim. I’m still Elaine.”
“All right, Elaine. Are we—”
“I’m saying you can go, Jim. I’m saying I’d hate to lose you and I think your plan’s a hare-brained one, but that doesn’t matter. Because it’s you, and if anybody can pull it off, you can. Also, because I know if I didn’t let you do it, you’d make me miserable. So yes, fine. You can go, and I’ll keep your secret.”
“Thank you, Elaine,” Kirk said.
She placed her palms flat against the desk. “Don’t thank me,” she said. “Tell me what your backup plan is. I know you have one . . .”
* * *
Four days later, during the hour before sunrise, Kirk met Rowland on the beach near Golden Gate Park. Dense fog made the ocean all but invisible, except where the gentle surf pushed water up across the sand. Even the sound seemed muffled, like the steady, calm, throbbing heartbeat of the planet. Kirk had always liked the park, especially this end of it, with its wild tangles of trees and underbrush. He was glad the city had maintained it; although it had suffered during the Eugenics Wars, since then it had been restored to its original glory, and it remained a landmark for tourists and locals alike.
On this early morning, the beach was empty. Kirk and Rowland waited quietly, dressed in civilian clothing thanks to the journey’s unofficial nature. Each held a duffel containing changes of clothing and other personal items, as well as Starfleet-issued phasers and communicators. When Rowland suggested the park meeting point, Kirk had been surprised. “I thought we’d be picked up at a spaceport,” he had said. “They have transporter technology?”
“The Captain Cook is a decommissioned Starfleet vessel,” Rowland explained. “They have transporters. I thought that was a priority.”
“It’ll certainly make it easier to get to Neural,” Kirk replied. “They’ll only have to enter its orbit long enough to beam us down.”
“Givin’ the Klingons considerably less time to spot the ship,” Rowland said. “That was my thinkin’.”
“Good job, Mister Rowland.” Kirk studied his aide as they waited. The kid was resourceful; anticipating his commanding officer’s needs would serve him well in his Starfleet career.
Rowland was tall and lanky, with a long neck and huge hands. His hair was a dirty blond, with a hairline that was already receding. He had quick, green eyes that seemed to miss nothing, a jaw that could have been carved from granite, and a nose that was almost flat at the top but then angled out toward the end. He had a pretty girlfriend named Shonna, whom Kirk had met, a civilian who worked in the city. Rowland wanted to marry her but was torn about the timing. Should he do it before he was assigned a berth on a starship, an assignment that could take him away for five years? Or wait until after, when he might have worked his way up through the ranks and be assured of a planetside post? Kirk had told him, “You won’t regret marrying her, even if you have to go away. But you might regret not doing it when you had the chance.”
Since offering that small slice of wisdom, Kirk had informed Rowland that they were leaving on a secret mission of unknown duration. Rowland couldn’t tell Shonna where he was going, or when he’d be back, and they hadn’t had time to marry.
“What are we waiting for?” Kirk asked after a while.
“Them,” Rowland said, tilting his head toward the park.
Kirk peered through the mist and saw two people walking their way, also in civilian clothes and carrying duffel bags of their own. “Who’s that?”
“Security personnel. Apryl Burch and Titus Hay.”
“Sir, you’re a Starfleet admiral. You can get away with almost anything you want. But that doesn’t include goin’ to a strange, potentially dangerous planet without a security detachment. Command was very clear about that.”
“I told them no,” Kirk said.
“They told me that under no circumstances could you make this trip without ’em. They wanted to send six, but I talked them down to two.”
“And you didn’t tell me?”
“Orders. You’d have raised a fuss and tried to get around it somehow. I happen to agree with Command.”
“You—” Kirk let the sentence go unfinished. They hadn’t even left the city and his young protégé had outmaneuvered him. “All right,” he said. “You win this one, Mister Rowland.” With a grin, he added, “Don’t let it go to your head.”
“Not a chance, sir.”
The first wan light of sunrise paled the fog ever so slightly, and Kirk was able to make out the newcomers. Titus Hay was big and dark, a hulking man with massive shoulders and a shock of black curls on his head. Apryl Burch was smaller but sturdy, her red hair cropped short in a no-nonsense style. Hay walked with an easy, rolling gait, while Burch’s movements were more controlled, her head pivoting from right to left, as if she were scanning the perimeter with every step. Looking for threats already? Couldn’t be too careful, Kirk supposed, but this was safe ground.
Rowland made the introductions. Kirk had barely finished shaking hands all around when Rowland’s communicator chirped. He answered twice in the affirmative, and the next thing Kirk knew, a familiar sensation gripped him, a sudden queasiness in the pit of his stomach, and they were all gone, leaving only the fog.