Captain’s log, stardate 8791.8. The Phoenix is en route to the Gamma Ceti star system for a in-depth survey mission following up on the initial visit by the U.S.S. Kongo three years ago. This will be the Phoenix’s first mission under my command, and the entire crew is anxious to put the system upgrades through their paces. Included in our mission will be a planetside excursion to Gamma Ceti IV, the only M-Class planet in the system. I may even let Mister Jarvis land the saucer to test out its independent flight mode. I’m anxious to see how it performs myself.
Commander Jack Conrad popped the lid off of one of the small cargo crates sitting on his bunk, removing two framed photos, and placing them on his desk. One of the photos showed a much younger Jack, with another human male and an Andorian female, each dressed in gray Starfleet cadet dress uniforms. The iconic Golden Gate Bridge loomed large above the Presidio campus in the background. The other photo was from his honeymoon five years ago. He was shirtless on a beach in Costa Rica with his wife, Commander Jessica Morales, arms wrapped around his chest, hanging on his back. Their smiles beamed in the Central American sunlight and their hair was damp, having just come in from a swim in the ocean.
Jack reached back into the crate and removed another frame, this one containing a sketch Jessica had done about halfway through the Phoenix’s twelve-month refit. Art had not been a natural skill she possessed, but during the refit, she had taken to sketching design ideas out on paper. In between working out equations she would doodle, and eventually her doodles evolved into proper works of art. She had done caricatures for almost every major member of the Project Phoenix refit team, with the exception of Commodore Babish, who would not have cared to see her treatment of his prodigious nose.
The work Jessica produced of her husband depicted Jack in a spacesuit, waving a Stetson hat in one hand and holding a lasso tied to the Phoenix in the other. In giant letters above Jack and the starship were the words “SPACE COWBOY,” a nickname Jack had acquired at Starfleet Academy given partly because of his childhood spent growing up in an agricultural community on Benecia Colony, but also because of his bravado, and sometimes reckless nature, as a pilot.
As he affixed Jessica’s sketch to the bulkhead above the desk, the door chime sounded.
“Come on in,” he announced.
The doors parted to reveal the Phoenix’s engineer Ned Hennessy. Jack heaved a sigh of relief.
“For a moment, I thought it was going to be T’Prana,” he said to the engineer.
Ned offered a weak chuckle in response. The Vulcan officer, who was serving as first officer and science officer, had been Jack’s shadow from the moment she arrived on board forty-eight hours ago. She was just out of command school, newly promoted to lieutenant commander, and eager to please. Jack found it uncharacteristic of a Vulcan to want anyone’s approval, much less a human’s. He was sure there was a story there.
As Ned stepped inside Jack’s quarters, his gaze scanned the room, finally falling upon the photos on Jack’s desk.
“That’s a good one of you and Jess,” he said pointing toward the honeymoon photo.
“We need another vacation,” Jack replied as he put his skivvies into a drawer. “Would you hand me that paperweight in that crate near your leg?”
Ned looked down and retrieved the glass orb, handing it carefully to Jack. As he did so, his eyes squinted behind the round frames of his spectacles as he lifted the other frame to take a look at the second photo.
“My God, we were young,” he said as he looked at his younger self next to Jack. His hair was longer and his face full of excitement for the future. They all had that expression: young cadets on the way to their first assignments, ready to conquer the universe. Ned replaced the photo on Jack’s desk.
“Don’t I know it,” Jack answered. “How’s everything in engineering?”
“By the numbers so far. The upgraded electroplasma distribution network is handling power demands well. Warp field stability is surpassing expectations. So is the engineering staff.”
“Ned, you could have told me this over the comm system.”
“You asked, sir.”
“Ned, twenty-four hours ago, you were still calling me ‘Jack.’ There’s no need to go formal now.”
“I’m just trying to acclimate to my new life.”
Jack looked around his quarters, still in disarray from not yet being unpacked. There was a small box on one of the two chairs in the room. He moved it and pointed toward the now vacant chair. “Sit,” he said.
Ned lowered himself into the seat, as Jack moved a crate aside to sit on his bunk. The two men stared at each other for a long moment before Jack finally spoke up.
“You got a raw deal, Ned. There’s no one who’d argue against that.”
“-is a horse’s ass for doing this to you,” Jack said, finishing Ned’s sentence. “I can count on one hand the number of times the reserve activation clause has been used, and in those cases the officers who were affected actually requested it.”
“It’s retribution, Jack,” Ned said. “He’s trying to get me out of the way.”
“Retribution for what, though?”
Ned merely shrugged.
Jack stood up and began pacing the deck in what little space was available, avoiding the cargo crates as he did. Jack and Ned had gone to Starfleet Academy together and eventually their careers brought them back together on the U.S.S. Lexington. Jack was the senior helm officer and Ned was a science officer. They were both on board the ship during the disastrous M-5 wargames with the U.S.S. Enterprise, and they both had seen friends die in the attack. After that, while Jack remained in the fleet, Ned spent the rest of his time in Starfleet teaching at the academy before mustering out. Without the routine of Starfleet duty, Ned charted his own course, pursued advanced degrees in engineering, and eventually fell into a professorship at University of the Federation, where he had achieved a great level of success as a teacher and researcher.
In a very big way, Jack was responsible for Ned being taken out of Starfleet mothballs, and right now he was feeling immense guilt over it. When he was given command of the Phoenix and the refit, his first call was to Ned, asking his old friend to take a sabbatical from academia. “It’ll be fun,” Jack said at the time, and Ned did not hesitate. Indeed, Ned’s contributions to the team had allowed the ship to launch on its test missions months ahead of what had initially been projected.
Then came the mysterious personnel orders. The officer assigned as the Phoenix’s chief engineer, Lieutenant Commander Musa, was finishing up teaching a semester at Starfleet Academy and would arrive at Meridian Station mere days before the ship would launch. Babish put a hold on Sotonwa’s transfer. When Jack asked why, Babish merely said he was examining some other options. Less than twenty-four hours before the ship left drydock, Babish activated Ned’s reserve status, assigning him as the Phoenix’s chief engineer. Ned did not take the news well, showing up at Jack and Jessica’s apartment dressed in his old blue Starfleet tunic, reeking of Aldebaran whiskey. Jack protested to Babish, and threatened to take it over the commodore’s head. Babish acknowledged that it was Ned’s right to appeal, but that the matter would get tied up in bureaucratic red tape for so long that the Phoenix would have concluded its two-year mission by the time a ruling was made.
It wasn’t fair, but it was the reality both Jack and Ned were stuck with. Jack had apologized profusely for bringing him onto the refit team in the first place. He could not figure out Babish’s logic.
“We both butted heads with him,” Jack said. “I don’t understand why he’d-”
“Jack, let’s just drop it,” Ned said. “None of this is going to make the next two years go by any quicker.”
Ned sounded defensive, and Jack wanted to pursue the topic, but the engineer’s tone indicated he wanted to drop the subject. Jack sat back down on his bunk.
“All right. Fair enough, but you obviously stopped by here for some reason, so what’s up?”
“Do I have to wear this all the time?” Ned gestured at the maroon uniform jacket and trousers.
For all the melancholy that was hanging in the room, Jack managed a smile and a laugh.
“No, I’m not going to make you wear it on duty. If the commodore or any other brass ever visit, you’ll have to, but to me you’re a civilian contractor on temporary assignment to Starfleet, and specifically to me. Outside of port, I have broad authority in that matter. However…” Jack rose to open up another of the cargo crates, he dug around for a few moments until he produced a small box. “I do need to change your costume jewelry. Stand up, Ned.”
Ned rose from the chair, and Jack approached him. He removed the lieutenant insignia from his shoulder strap and sleeve. He opened the box and removed two lieutenant commander pins, placing them on Ned’s uniform.
“This is another perk of starship command. I’m granting you a field promotion to lieutenant commander. It will boost your pension and might even get you free drinks at most any civilian bar in the Federation.”
“Charming, though after the other night, I think I’ll be on the wagon for the time being.” Ned looked at the newly placed insignia on the ochre shoulder strap. Jack detected a barely perceptible smile on his face.
“You should have spent your academy years building a tolerance, like I did.”
“Agreed. I’d have needed to be drunk most of the time to fly the way you do.”
The commander clapped the engineer on the shoulder. “At least you’re getting your sense of humor back. Now, get out of here and go put on that ratty lab coat you love so much. I’m due on the bridge.”
“Actually,” Ned said looking down again at the new insignia, “I think I’ll keep this on a few more hours, just to remind the folks in engineering who’s in charge.”
Jack was about to retort when the communications panel whistled.
“Bridge to captain.” It was T’Prana.
Jack stepped over to his desk and pushed aside a crate that was obstructing the communications panel. He thumbed open the channel.
“Conrad here. Go ahead.”
“We have an incoming transmission from Commodore al Rashid at Starbase 21, sir.”
“On my way. Conrad out.”
Jack picked up his uniform jacket and slipped into it. He beckoned Ned to follow him. “Tag along, engineer. After all, that little bauble I just gave you also makes you second officer.”
Ned grimaced at the statement. “And I thought it was for my winning personality.”
It was a short walk from Jack’s quarters to the bridge. Lieutenant Rains, the communications officer, was the first to see him enter.
“Captain on the bridge,” she announced.
T’Prana rose from the command chair and took her place at the science station. Ensigns Jarvis and Robinson sat at helm and navigation, respectively. Ned leaned on the railing behind the engineering station where one of his junior officers sat.
“I have the commodore standing by, sir,” Rains said.
“Put him on screen, lieutenant.”
The screen switched from standby mode to an image of Commodore Faisal al Rashid, seated at his desk on Starbase 21. Jack didn’t know the commodore personally, but knew him by reputation. He was from an old Federation family. One of his ancestors was Haroun al Rashid, one of the early Federation presidents after holding several leadership positions in Terra’s United Earth planetary government. He had been captain of the Constitution-class U.S.S. Ti-Ho before being promoted to fleet captain and command of the dreadnought U.S.S. Directorate, showing the flag along the Klingon neutral zone. After that, there was no place for him to go but up into the flag ranks and a starbase administration assignment.
“Commodore,” Jack said as he settled into the command chair. “To what do we owe the honor?”
“I apologize in advance for the inconvenience, captain, but your present mission is being put on hold. I’m placing you on detached duty for a special assignment.”
Jack tried to stifle a worried expression, but al Rashid saw through it.
“I assure you it’s only temporary, but time is of the essence, Commander Conrad.”
“We serve at the pleasure of Starfleet, commodore,” Jack replied. “What are our orders?”
“The cultural survey team on Mercia VII was supposed to transmit a routine check-in forty-eight hours ago. They did not. Repeated attempts to contact the team have failed. There’s no time for you to come to Twenty-One, so I have dispatched Doctor Aidan Grant via shuttlecraft. Doctor Grant was part of a Starfleet mission to Mercia VI twenty years ago, and will brief you on the planet’s culture, humanoid inhabitants, and Prime Directive protocols related to landing parties integrating into pre-warp societies.”
“Hold on, commodore,” Jack said. “Did you say ‘landing party’?”
“Yes, commander. If the team has been compromised, we’re looking at a possible cultural contamination on a grand scale. Mercia VII’s current state of development is comparable to Earth’s Middle Ages. Doctor Grant will have more information for you when he arrives.”
“I see,” Jack said. I guess we won’t be test landing the saucer.
“I’m sending a coded transmission with the rendezvous coordinates. Proceed with all speed.”
“Aye, sir,” Jack said, rising from the chair. “We won’t let you down, commodore.”
“Good luck, captain. Starbase 21 out.”
Stepped up toward the science station and addressed his first officer.
“Get me everything Starfleet has on Mercia VII. I want to be up to speed on this before we meet Doctor Grant.”
“Yes, sir. I’ll start selecting a landing party.”
Jack almost did a double take at his first officer’s statement. For a Vulcan, she sounded over eager, if not a tad presumptuous.
“Reign it in, commander,” he said quietly. He turned toward the rest of the bridge and spoke loud enough for everyone to hear. “Let’s wait until our visitor briefs us.”
“Captain,” Rains’ voice rang from the other side of the bridge, “receiving encoded coordinates from Starbase 21.”
“Decode and transmit to Mister Robinson.” He stepped down to the helm and navigation console. “Set a course for the rendezvous point. Most direct route.”
“I’d like to see a weather report before I—”
Jack smiled at the young man.
“You’re in deep space now, ensign, and we have to move quickly. We can correct the course along the way.”
“Of course, sir.” The young ensign averted his gaze from Jack as his dark skinned hands programmed the course into the navigation console. “Course set.”
“Mister Jarvis, ahead warp…”
Up by the engineering station Ned was subtly signaling to Jack with six fingers.
Jack allowed his gaze to circle the bridge, finally settling back on Red Jarvis at the helm.
“Let’s go to work.”