Disclaimer: Star Trek is the property of Paramount/Viacom. This story is the property of Joanne Seward and is copyright © 1994 by Joanne Seward. Rated PG. Originally printed in Lone Star Trek #7.

 

The Captain's Holiday

Joanne Seward

 

James T. Kirk, captain of the USS Enterprise, leaned against the bulkhead, hazel eyes fixed on the planet of his birth. Softly, he said, "Now, that's a sight for sore eyes."

"It's good to be home," agreed Leonard McCoy. His attention too, was riveted on the cloud-wreathed globe before them. Then the skin around his eyes crinkled as he observed wryly, "Of course, give some people a couple of weeks to say hello, and they'll be itching to be off again."

Guilty as charged, Kirk thought with a smile. He had no idea how he was going to amuse himself for the six weeks the Enterprise was to remain in space dock for equipment updates. Damned if I'll admit it, though.

Eyeing the doctor, he said, "Don't try to tell me I'm the only one who can't stand being planet-bound, Bones."

McCoy shook his head emphatically. "Don't look at me, Captain, Sir. I'm your basic garden-variety homebody."

Kirk drew himself to his full height, hands planted lightly on slim hips. "Care to explain your presence on this ship then, Doctor?"

"Insanity," McCoy said succinctly. He ruined the effect by adding, "Doesn't mean I don't miss good old terra firma, though."

Kirk held out his hands as though he were displaying an argument for consideration. "I miss it, too but--"

McCoy cut him off. "Not the same, Jim. For me, space is a temporary arrangement. For you, it's life itself."

He paused for a moment. When he spoke again his voice had taken on a different, more thoughtful tone.

"Y'know, there's a theory that this undeniable urge to go where no one's been before, this 'wanderlust,' for lack of a better term, is genetic. Proponents of the theory say it can be mapped out in an individual's genetic code."

Kirk peered through the semi-darkness of the observation deck. "You believe it, Bones?"

McCoy's sapphire eyes twinkled in response. "Until I got to know you, no. Now, I'm not sure."

"You're kidding." Kirk's own eyes narrowed. "Aren't you?"

"No." Serious now, McCoy folded his arms across his chest. "If ever there was a perfect example of what the people who subscribe to the theory call an 'alpha,' you're it, Jim. You're the sort who would have led the Eskimos across the Bering landmass, or set sail in a ship no sturdier than a teacup to search for a new world. A few hundred years later you'd have been busy exploring Antarctica or heading for the moon. Like that old docu-vid they show the incoming-cadets puts it, you have the right stuff."

Kirk considered McCoy's words carefully. "Okay. If I'm an alpha, what does that make you?"

McCoy grinned. "That's easy. I'm a nest-builder. I like to stay home and take care of my family."

It was Kirk's turn to grin. "This from someone who's spent the last three years on a deep space mission and is slated to spend the next two the same way? No way, Bones. I'm not buying."

McCoy gave an affronted sniff then smiled a self-satisfied smile. "No conflict there. My nest just happens to be able to achieve warp speed."

Kirk had to agree there was a lot of truth in what the doctor said. Intrigued despite himself, he asked, "What about Spock? Is he one of these 'alphas' of yours?"

"They're not my alphas, and that's a different kettle of fish altogether," McCoy answered, a touch of irritation in his tone. Giving a little shrug, he continued, "Spock would be just as happy doing research in a lab somewhere. If a Vulcan can be happy," he added parenthetically.

Kirk said, "You could be right, I s--"

The intercom whistled. "Bridge to Captain Kirk."

"Hmmph! Speak of the devil and the devil speaks," McCoy commented wryly.

Ignoring him, the captain crossed the observation deck and opened the channel.

"Here, Mr. Spock."

"We have received permission to dock, Captain. I believe you expressed a desire to be on the bridge."

"On my way." Kirk severed the connection. Eyes wide, sandy brows raised, he said, "Coming, Doctor?"

"Wouldn't miss it for the world," McCoy answered with another grin as he shot a final approving look at the placidly revolving blue planet.

* * *

Spock stood next to the transporter console, his eyes on the blizzard of scintillating light that had been Leonard McCoy. A small, 'fleet issue duffel was slung over his blue-clad shoulder, occupying the space where a tricorder more often resided. The majority of the crew had already departed for their extended shore leave.

"Captain, if you prefer, I could remain aboard."

"What for?" Kirk inquired reasonably. "The ship isn't going anywhere, and I'll be as close as the nearest transporter."

He eyed the panel closely, then adjusted the coordinates to those of the jitney Spock was to board for the voyage to Vulcan. Exhibiting the crooked smile that had made him famous the Federation over, Kirk jabbed a thumb in the direction of the platform. "Go on, Mister. Get up there before I decide to send you to Georgia to spend your leave in Doctor McCoy's salubrious company."

Obediently, the Vulcan took his place on the transporter pad. "Really, Captain, I see no reason for you to issue threats. I was merely..."

"Merely trying to avoid a trip home," Kirk replied jocularly. "Listen, if I have to spend the next few weeks in Iowa, I see no reason to let you weasel out of visiting Vulcan. Have a good trip and be sure to give my regards to your mother and father."

"Indeed." The look on the Vulcan's face could not be called a smile but it came close -- a soothing warmth in the dark eyes, a slight relaxation at the corners of the lips. "May your journey also be pleasant, Jim."

"Thanks, Spock." Kirk smiled widely, scanned the controls in front of him one more time, then, placing his hands on the levers, glanced at his friend. "Energizing."

A hum filled the air, a flurry of luminescent snowflakes invaded the space where Spock stood, then the Vulcan faded out of existence, and Kirk was alone.

* * *

A week later, Jim Kirk relaxed on the veranda of the Kirk farm. Due to numerous small delays he had arrived only this morning.

Now it was dusk and, although the calendar said it was spring, the air was quite chilly. Accustomed as he was to the regulated temperature of his ship, Kirk felt distinctly cold.

To his mother and teen-age nephew, however, it was ideal stargazing weather. Pulling his winter-weight jacket snug around his neck, Kirk was forced to agree. Darkness gathered rapidly, and while the view couldn't compare with that gained from outside the atmosphere, the air had a clarity that urged one's eyes upward.

"It's so good to have you home, Jim. We'll have time to get to know each other again." Winona smoothed back a wisp of silver streaked, golden-brown hair, then wrapped one arm around her son, the other around her orphaned grandson.

"It's good to be here, Mom." But even as he spoke, Kirk was aware of a niggling sense of displacement. Damn McCoy for being right, he thought. Winona asked so little of him, why couldn't he give it whole-heartedly?

Peter chimed in from Winona's other side. "I'm glad you're here while I'm on vacation, Uncle Jim. We can do some neat things together."

"Of course." Another reason to feel guilty. Kirk hadn't seen Peter since he handed him over to the Federation representative charged with escorting him home. The young man standing at Winona's side was so much older than the grief-stricken child who had dogged Kirk's footsteps aboard the Enterprise in the days after his parents' deaths. How could a child be so greatly altered in such a short time?

"Grandma is planning a welcome home party for Saturday." Peter's voice was filled with excitement. "She's invited just about everyone in town--"

"Don't exaggerate, Peter." Despite the dim light, Winona could detect the tightening of small muscles surrounding Jim's mouth. "I hope you won't dislike it too much, Jim. It's only natural for your friends to want to see you."

Silently, Kirk thanked a number of adversaries for honing his diplomatic skills. "Of course not, Mom. How could I dislike seeing old friends?" Skillfully directing the conversation away from himself, he pointed to the heavens. "See that reddish 'star,' Peter'?"

"That's not a star, Uncle Jim. That's Mars. It's in Cancer, now. Pluto's there too, but we can't pick it out. There's Orion. It's my favorite constellation."

The boy went on, eagerly pointing out stars and groupings for the next quarter of an hour. It was only when Jim shivered that Winona spoke again.

"Time to go in, Peter. Your uncle is cold and, if I remember correctly, you have some sort of project due right after the vacation."

Uttering the prerequisite protest, Peter allowed himself to be hurried into the warm house, where he quickly inveigled his uncle into assisting him with the science project.

Winona simply shook her head and settled herself in a comfortable rocker with a favorite book.

* * *

The following morning Kirk and his mother sat nibbling triangles of toast and sipping coffee. "Peter seems to have quite a bent for science, Mom."

"Naturally." Winona gave a tight smile. "It comes with the territory."

Kirk knew that smile. Winona had worn it the day he received notification of his acceptance into Starfleet Academy. "What are his college plans?"

Winona made an unintelligible sound, then shook her head, hazel eyes shadowed. "He's only in his first year of high school, Jim."

"Yes, but..."

"What do you think?" she asked.

"The Academy. And you're not pleased."

Her eyes sparkled with long-withheld tears. "Of course not. I've lost my husband, a son, and a daughter-in-law to space." Standing abruptly, she snatched up the coffee mugs.

"I understand," Kirk said. "I really do." He paused, nodding an affirmative when she gestured to the coffee maker. 'What will you do?"

Winona placed the refilled cups on the table with a heartfelt sigh. The corners of her mouth turned up ruefully. "Put name tags in his underwear, hug him, and let him go."

Kirk returned the smile. That was precisely what she had done when he left for the Academy. Even after Sam's death there hadn't been a single word said about him leaving Starfleet. Pushing back his chair, he moved to her side and enfolded her in a warm embrace. "You're really something, Mom."

A single tear made its way down her cheek and onto her son's broad chest. "I am, aren't I?"

* * *

"The presets are never one hundred percent accurate so you'll usually have to adjust the anti-gray cushion." Jim Kirk watched as Peter pushed the lever upward. The flitter rose rapidly. Too rapidly. Quickly the boy jerked the lever and the vehicle plummeted.

Kirk reached over and gave the instrument a gentle nudge. "It's okay, you'll learn to compensate." The flitter rose easily, settling at the chosen altitude.

Peter's eyes never left the control panel in front of him. He didn't even blink. "You make it seem so simple."

"It is, once you get the hang of it." Kirk replied.

To himself, he grimaced. He could run a starship, survey a planet, satisfy Starfleet's insatiable desire for written reports, but giving driving lessons to adolescents was another story. He'd been in the flitter for ten minutes and already he could feel perspiration seeping through the underarms of the sweatshirt he was wearing. Fighting Klingons was easier than this. Damn. Ferrying diplomats is easier, and that's saying something! "Relax," he murmured to himself. "Breathe."

"Okay, let's see if you can get us to the south field. Take it nice and slow. Move your selector into the forward position and set your direction." Kirk felt himself holding his breath again. He reminded himself to exhale.

"That's it. Nice and easy. Good, now you're going to have to bank slightly... Great." He wiped his upper lip.

* * *

The morning after Winona's welcome home party, Kirk sat at the kitchen table, warmed by the gentle spring sunlight flooding through the east-facing window, a mug of aromatic coffee in his cupped hands.

The party hadn't been as bad as he'd feared. There had been an awkward moment when he found himself confronted by a woman with warm honey-blond hair, skin the color of ivory and the texture of velvet, and eyes that refused to be classified as anything other than violet. Kirk had stared blankly, certain he should have known who she was, but...

Winona had come to his aid, hugging the woman and exclaiming. "You remember Susan, of course. Susan Warsing. It's hard to believe she's a sophisticated newswoman for the Federation News Network, isn't it? I remember the two of you on your first day of school. I don't know which one of you was quieter. You were both afraid to say 'boo.'"

She gave the younger woman another hug. "I'm glad you were able to be here, Sue. It wouldn't be the same without you." With that Winona had murmured something about checking the kitchen and disappeared leaving Kirk to face his former classmate alone.

Sue Warsing smiled, those fascinating eyes on a level with his own. "So, Jim. Tell the truth. Did you forget me?"

Kirk's brows rose and his lips pressed together as he surveyed the woman in front of him. "Not forget, exactly, but I can't say I recall you looking anything like this..."

Cocking his head, he continued. "The Suzy Warsing I remember was a half a head shorter than me and had long mousy hair that she wore in braids over her shoulders." He gave a grin of the gigawatt variety, adding, "...With big bows at the ends, to match her clothes."

Warsing returned the grin, her eyes glinting mischievously. She subjected him to a visual inspection thorough enough to bring a flush to Kirk's cheeks.

"That's funny. The Jimmy Kirk I remember couldn't put two words together when faced with a girl. I always thought that was why he carried around that pile of old-fashioned paper books... If he couldn't see the girls, he wouldn't have to talk to them!"

Kirk's mother interrupted, "I thought you would sleep in."

Kirk looked up to find Winona surveying him from the doorway. "No such luck. Peter wants another lesson. I figured we'd go right after breakfast." Widening his eyes expressively, he explained, "That'll give me all day to recover."

"If you prefer, I can take him. After all, I did teach you and Sam to drive." Winona bustled around, opening cabinets and placing ingredients on the counter. "Do you want pancakes or waffles?"

"Neither. If I'm not careful, by the time I go back to the Enterprise I'll be ready for one of McCoy's rabbit food regimens. Seriously, Mom, do you think Peter is ready for this? He had me sweating like ... like..." Kirk cudgeled his brain for a suitable analogy and came up empty.

"I haven't felt like that since the first time I had to pilot a ship into spacedock on manual with malfunctioning maneuvering thrusters. After all, he's only fourteen. He can't get his junior operator's license until he's fifteen. Why not wait a bit?"

"He'll be fifteen in two months, Jim. More important, he needs to spend time with another man, someone he looks up to. But if you're really uncomfortable..."

Winona allowed the thought to trail off as she sat down opposite her son. The morning sun on his even features revealed lines of stress and fatigue around his mouth and eyes that were not evident at other times.

"No," Kirk said. "It's okay. After all, you managed to teach both Sam and me. It's time someone else's hair turned white overnight." He ducked, then bobbed up again to plant a light kiss on her cheek.

"You! My hair did not turn white, it just got a little streaky!"

* * *

The flitter lessons continued, and Peter's ability did improve.

"It had to," Kirk informed McCoy when he placed a commcall to the doctor in Georgia. "It couldn't have gotten worse."

McCoy chuckled. "Well, we finally know how to put the fear of God in the famous Captain James T. Kirk. Just send him out in the family flitter for a driving lesson!"

Kirk shook his head incredulously, "Until you've tried it, Bones, you just have no idea."

"Nah, I suppose not. I wasn't around when Joanna was learning to drive." For a moment the light seemed to go out of the doctor's eyes but he sounded cheerful enough as he asked, "So, you're havin' a good time after all?"

Kirk's features took on a thoughtful cast. "I've hardly had a chance to think about it, but, yes, I am." Laughing at McCoy's disbelieving expression, he continued, "Spending time with Peter is, well ..." He gave a shrug, knowing McCoy was busy filling in the blanks.

On Deneva, he'd done everything he could, everything anyone could, to prevent the deaths of his brother and his wife. Still, he couldn't help feeling he should have done more. Illogical, as Spock would have said. All the same it was how he felt. McCoy, with his intimate knowledge of his captain's psyche, was fully aware of it.

Kirk tried again, hoping McCoy would take him at his word. "It's fun, Bones."

McCoy accepted the statement graciously, saying only, "So ... what are you and that tireless young scalawag planning for tonight?"

Kirk made a sound that resembled a snort, but his eyes were dancing. "You won't believe this, but the kids went back to school Monday; tonight there's a dance. Guess who's going as a chaperon?"

"You're right, I don't believe it," McCoy teased. "Isn't that sort of like inviting the fox into the henhouse?"

"Thanks for the vote of confidence!" Kirk said in mock offense. He ruined the effect by adding, "Besides, I was never into nest-robbing." Glancing over his shoulder as Peter came into the room and dropped his school stuff on the counter next to the comm unit, he asked, "Want to say 'hi' to Doctor McCoy, Peter?"

Peter stuck his head next to Jim's and waved. "Hi, Doctor Bones! Uncle Jim is teaching me to drive the flitter."

"So I've heard, Peter. Dammit, Jim. Just look at him. He's growin' like a weed!" McCoy noted the expression on the boy's face and grinned. "I know, I know. Everyone says that. But at the rate you're goin', maybe you'll finish your growin' early, and you won't have to listen to it anymore. Instead, they'll be commentin' on how much taller you are than your famous uncle!" He ignored the elder Kirk's open mouth and sharply inhaled breath. "Gotta go, Jim. Have fun tonight."

"We will, Bones. Talk to you soon. Kirk out."

As the screen went blank, Peter looked down at his uncle. "Do you think we have time to go out in the flitter this afternoon?"

"Sure, Peter. As long as you do those chores your grandmother asked you to do first."

"Y-y-e-e-e-s-s-s!" Before Jim could say more, the boy was gone.

In Georgia, Leonard McCoy gave vent to a rather undignified sound. "Hee-he-he. Jim Kirk playing the disciplinarian father... I wonder what Spock would say about this turn of events?" Again, he chortled gleefully. "It'd almost be worth a subspace call to Vulcan to find out!"

* * *

"Ahem... Ahh, excuse me..." Kirk peered into the dark recess, his expression one of ingenuous courtesy. "I said 'excuse me.' I hate to intrude but," he paused while the intertwined couple untangled their various limbs. "The last time I saw a hold that tight was at a wrestling match on a planet where the people have eight arms and resemble what we call an octopus."

He turned away, allowing them privacy to rearrange their clothing then, as the kids emerged from the shadowed space beneath the bleachers, made a quiet suggestion. "I'll be checking back here again in a little while, so you might want to consider an alternate form of exercise..."

Between luring amorous adolescents out of dark corners, Kirk found himself conversing over the blare of the music with other chaperons and a few of the teens as well. He ably fielded numerous questions about life in space. in the process discovering several students who were anxiously awaiting replies to their Academy applications. Nonetheless, he remained alert to his surroundings, feeling as though he were patrolling a particularly noisy version of the neutral zone.

"Un-uh. I wouldn't do that if I were you." Kirk swooped down on an enterprising sixteen year old and captured the bottle of cheap vodka. Gesturing to the watery red liquid in the punch bowl, he said, "If you think that stuff tastes bad now, just imagine it after you pour this garbage in there." He examined the open bottle, made a show of grimacing then gently guided the speechless boy away. "However," he added in wry imitation of Spock's manner, "it should make an excellent drain cleaner."

On his return Kirk found himself facing the entrancing violet eyes of Susan Warsing for the second time since his return to Earth.

His own eyes twinkled as he handed the empty liquor bottle to the boy and gave him a little shove. "Take this and put it in the recycler."

"Well, if it isn't the famous Captain Kirk." Warsing smiled, taking any possible sting out of the words.

Kirk returned the smile and then some. "Are you doing a report on youth and its foibles, Ms Warsing, or is there some other reason for your presence at this glittering social event?"

"Definitely another reason," the newswoman responded dryly. "I was drafted by my sister to take her place as a chaperon. She and her husband wanted a romantic evening together. What about you? Unless the Enterprise took a very wrong turn, you must be here for the same reason." Not giving him a chance to reply, she glanced in the direction of the would-be punch spiker. "You handled that well."

Kirk chuckled. "It's not all that different from disciplining junior officers." He turned toward the janitors closet he'd discovered earlier. "Would you care to join me in my endeavors? The prospect of spending the next hour and a half rooting out young lovers would be much improved if I had someone to talk to."

"Undoubtedly true," Warsing replied. "Shall we?"

As they circled the gym keeping a watchful eye on the youthful revelers conversation turned to a number of subjects. Susan's concise comments and clearly stated opinions showed her to be even better informed and more discerning than her editorials on FNN would have indicated.

Kirk gave her an appraising look. "You know, I still can't get over the difference in you, Susan. You're like a different person from the girl I went to school with."

Warsing smiled, a hint of teasing evident when she replied, "And you're not? It's hard to believe you're the same Jimmy Kirk who never opened his mouth."

Kirk chuckled. "There are those who say I never shut it."

"From what I've heard, you're only a big mouth when you feel deeply about something. In my book, that's not only acceptable, it's mandatory." She made a wry face and added, "Of course, doing that very thing has gotten me in trouble on a number of occasions..."

Kirk grimaced. "Me, too." His fingers strayed to his temples, massaging them absently as they began yet another circuit of the gym.

"Is something wrong?"

"Hmm? Oh, no. The music is rather ... raucous. I've been exposed to many different types of music, but..." Kirk grimaced again. "My first officer is an accomplished musician, as is my communications officer. I suspect neither of them would deign to call this music."

Warsing's eyes widened, giving him further opportunity to stare into their violet depths. "Don't tell me you don't like Big Bang? That's almost treason. If I were to announce it on the news, you'd lose half your teen fans."

"I didn't know I had any," Kirk replied, startled at the thought.

"Do you mean to say you haven't been deluged by kids wanting to know how to get into Starfleet, or what it's like to be the captain of a starship? You are, after all, the youngest starship commander in the fleet."

"Not deluged, no. People ask questions..." He shrugged. "I guess I'm so used to it, I hardly notice. It never occurred to me to categorize them. And the age business, well..."

 

 
"I see." She paused, then chuckled. "So, what's it like?" Kirk's eyebrows rose just a little. "Is this an interview?"

"No, this is little Suzy Warsing asking a former schoolmate what it's like, living such a glamorous life."

Kirk smiled. "Try a different adjective--stressful, fatiguing, on occasion, awe-inspiring...What about you? Your job would be considered glamorous by most people."

"The same people who think being a starship captain is glamorous, no doubt." Warsing returned the smile. "It's hard work. I travel around so much, sometimes I can't even Text Box: *remember where I am when I wake up in the morning."

"That's one problem I don't have... Unless I fall asleep on the bridge. I try not to make a habit of it, though. Who wants it being said that the captain snores? Besides, my first officer and CMO keep a pretty close eye on me. They know when I've been pushing too hard, and make no bones about telling me, either."

Kirk grinned, then eyed the curtains which masked floor length windows facing onto the school's central courtyard. "Speaking of pushing..." He leaned against the draperies, dislodging several couples. "They don't give up, do they?"

"I guess not. Listen... Is this music more to your liking?"

Kirk recognized a tune that had to be several centuries old. "Mmm. Must be the last dance."

"That's right. 10:30 on the nose."

Kirk cocked his head, looking boyishly appealing. "I don't know much about chaperon etiquette. Is it acceptable for us to dance the last dance?"

Warsing smiled and repeated her earlier comment. "Not only acceptable, it's mandatory."

"I'm glad to hear it." Kirk stood very straight. Holding out his hand, he bowed slightly. "May I have the honor of this dance, Ms Warsing?"

Violet eyes sparkling back at him. "Why thank you, Captain. I thought you would never ask."

With that she stepped into his arms and they glided away, insulated from the swirl of youthful bodies by the invisible force field created when a man and woman find each other irresistibly intriguing.

* * *

Kirk was up early the next morning. He was assisting Winona with her patio garden when the comm-unit buzzed.

Winona looked toward the house, a flicker of irritation crossing her face. "Oh, drat that thing. I've never figured out how come people always call when you're in the middle of something."

Jim smiled warmly, recognizing familiar sentiments. "I'll get it, Mom. You stay here." Wiping his hands on a rag, he stepped into the house through the french doors. "Kirk residence."

Sue Warsing's face appeared on the screen. "Jim. I'm glad I caught you. I have to leave this afternoon on a last minute assignment, but I didn't want to go without saying goodbye, How about meeting me for an early lunch?"

"I'm sorry to hear you're leaving, but lunch would be great." As he said the words, Jim knew they were true. He'd enjoyed the time he'd spent with Sue last evening and had been looking forward to seeing her again.

"Is half an hour at the Burger Bin okay?"

"That'll be fine, Susan. I'll see you there."

* * *

The Burger Bin was a teen hangout. Kirk was surprised to see how little it had changed since his own school days. He spotted Susan, already seated, at a corner table. Her attention was fully engaged by the information displayed on a hand-held recorder.

"Excuse me. Is this seat taken?" Kirk inquired, smiling at the way she jumped. He slid into the seat opposite her without waiting for an answer.

"Oh! You startled me. I have so many things to take care of before I leave, I thought I'd try to tie up some loose ends while I was waiting... Can you imagine? Contacting me this morning to leave this afternoon for an unknown destination for an unknown length of time..." Warsing's tone was rueful as she returned his smile.

The service slot slid open, and two huge burgers were delivered onto the table, accompanied by french fries and onion rings. Susan put the reader down. "I ordered for both of us. I hope that's okay..."

Kirk grinned at the food. "More than okay -- it looks great," he enthused. "And to answer your question, believe it or not, I can."

Susan bit off a mouthful of burger, chewed, then nodded. "Yeah, I guess you can. I shouldn't complain, anyway. I've been waiting forever for an assignment like this." She fluttered long lashes at him, deliberately coquettish. "This is the first time the network has let me out of the Sol system."

"Congratulations." Kirk's stomach twisted at the sight of those incredible eyes, fringed with dark lashes. Damn FNN... "What's the assignment?" He took a bite of his own burger, and was surprised to discover that it tasted almost as good as he'd remembered.

"I'm not sure. Some sort of white collar crime expose," Susan said in an off-hand voice. She dipped one end of a fry in melted cheese, the other in ketchup, nibbled her way down the cheesy side, ditto the ketchup, then licked her fingers.

Kirk watched, fascinated by her method. "Criminals, even white collar ones, can be rough."

"I doubt it. FNN rarely takes chances with its 'pretty people.' Besides, I'm a big girl. I can take care of myself."

Kirk noted the audible quotes. "Pretty people?"

"Mmm." Susan licked her lips, then dabbed delicately at them with the disposable napkin. "Pretty people. The people who do the holovid broadcasts. We're seldom sent anyplace where we might mess our hair or chip a fingernail. Most of the investigative work is done by people who aren't quite so photogenic."

Kirk decided to ignore the bitter note in her voice. He hadn't seen Sue Warsing since he left for the Academy. How could he know what it had taken for her to rise to the position she presently held? Instead, he settled for a mild warning. "I consider myself a 'big boy,' too, Sue. All the same, there've been times when I wasn't able to take care of myself. A little caution never hurts."

She was quiet for a moment, then lips turning up at the corners, asked, "So, who takes care of the captain when he can't take care of himself?"

Kirk considered a flippant answer, decided against it. "A lot of people. My first officer has saved my skin more times than I care to recall. When his efforts fail, my chief surgeon, Leonard McCoy, gets to pick up the pieces. He swears I've broken every bone in my body." Kirk popped another fry in his mouth then, recalling McCoy's scoldings, added, "Twice."

Susan shook her head. "For his sake I hope that's an exaggeration."

"It is," Kirk said. Honesty prompted him to add, "But only a little one."

The remainder of the meal passed far too quickly for Kirk's liking. Soon, it was time to go. He saw Susan to her flitter, a red sport model, gave her a chaste peck on the cheek then throwing caution to the winds, pulled her to him and gave her a real kiss. Her response was gratifyingly enthusiastic.

Enjoying the warm, citrus smell of her, he whispered, "I wish you didn't have to go."

Sue ran her hands through his regulation haircut. "So do I, but maybe it's better this way. If I stayed, in a couple of weeks, I'd be the one saying that."

"It still wouldn't be any easier." Kirk pulled out a slip of paper on which he'd carefully jotted his SPO -- Starfleet Post Office -- number. "Now that we've gotten reacquainted, I'd like to stay in touch. You have my mother's comm-number. If you need anything, or if you just feel like talking, you can reach me there for the next week or so. After that--" He extended the paper. "--you can send a taped message. Starfleet will forward it. It takes a while, but I'd like to hear from you."

Text Box: *Text Box:  Susan accepted the bit of paper. She opened the pouch she wore slung over her shoulder and tucked the number carefully into an inside pocket. "Thank you, Jim. I'd like it too. I'll contact you as soon as I know where I'm going." She tossed her belongings in the flitter, pressed a last quick kiss to Kirk's lips, then climbed in and started the engine.

* * *

During the days that followed, Kirk had a crash course in the novel experience of being the one left behind. He busied himself with minor repairs around the house, helped Winona plant hundreds of pink and white impatiens in her annual bed and accompanied Peter on numerous practice drives. All the same, he found himself listening eagerly for the comm-signal and watching FNN's holovid broadcasts with an attention he'd rarely given them in the past.

This particular morning he was elbow deep in the workings of the kitchen disposal/recycler unit when the comm signaled.

"See," Winona said rhetorically as she crossed the room to answer it. "Another proof of Winona's law." Into the audio pickup she said, "Kirk residence, Winona here."

The face that appeared on the screen, open-natured and smiling, was not one she was familiar with, but she immediately recognized the Starfleet uniform.

"Ah ... Mrs. Kirk. You don't know me, but I'm a friend of your son's. I've been trying to reach him. Starfleet said he was staying with you while he's on leave and--"

At the sound of the caller's voice Jim Kirk was at his mother's side. "Jeremiah! Are you on Earth? I haven't heard from you since I don't know when. How are you?"

Taking in the rank insignia, Winona smiled at the screen. "I guess you've found him, Commodore. It was pleasant talking to you." "

"Nice talking to you too, Ma'am," the prematurely grey-haired officer responded. To Kirk, he went on, "No, Jim. I'm not on Earth. I'm here on the base. I managed to wangle a private subspace communication. Rank hath its privileges and all that."

"I'll say. That's a long distance to be making a private call in realtime." Kirk grinned and dropped into the chair in front of the communit. "Which leads me to wonder what you want..."

"You know me too well. But you're right. I need a favor..." Kirk waited to hear what Soden had to say.

"My second in command had to return to Earth. Compassionate leave," Soden added in answer to Kirk's unspoken query, "and I'm due at the conference on Starbase Eleven next week. I can't skip it, and Starfleet doesn't have anyone of suitable rank and experience to fill in for me. I'm between a rock and a hard place."

Kirk lifted his shoulders, hands open before him. "I'm honored you thought of me, Jer, but I'm not of sufficient rank myself. Regulations state that base commanders possess at least the rank of commodore."

"'Fleet will give you a temporary bump, Jim. Problem is, you're on leave so you have to do this voluntarily. I can't order you."

Kirk grinned. Jeremiah Soden seldom issued orders, he made polite requests. Force of character did the rest. "Let me talk to my mother, Jer."

When he turned he could see Winona smiling wistfully but giving him a 'go ahead' sign all the same.

He faced the screen again. "It seems I've already worn out my welcome."

"It's selfish of me, but I'm glad to hear it," Soden replied. "Your transportation is all arranged. All you have to do is get yourself to HQ by this time tomorrow morning."

"Not in hurry, are you?" Kirk asked with a wry smile.

Soden made a face. "The trip will take you three days at standard cruise. That gives me less than one day to show you around and be off myself. I'm sorry it's such a rush. I wouldn't ask this of you if I weren't stuck."

"Don't worry about it. I'll see you in four days."

"Four days," Jeremiah Soden echoed with a nod, then the transmission was ended.

The remainder of the day was spent in hurried preparations. After reassembling the disposal/recycler, Kirk gathered his belongings, contacted Starfleet to arrange priority beaming to San Francisco, then treated his mother and Peter to dinner in the fanciest restaurant Riverside had to offer. The following morning he disappeared in a conflagration of twinkling lights, reminding Winona of the fairy tales she had regaled her sons with in earlier days.

* * *

"Jim." Commodore Soden clapped Kirk on the back, nearly pitching the smaller man headfirst onto the decking. "Or should I say, Acting Commodore James T. Kirk?"

"JER!" Kirk ignored the question, but returned the slap heartily.

Jeremiah Soden seemed not to notice. "I wish I could hang around and shoot the breeze, but my transport leaves in four hours. Just time to give you the five credit tour, wrap up some unfinished business and scramble aboard."

Kirk had to laugh. Soden had never done anything so undignified as 'scramble.' He doubted the commodore was going to start now.

Soden laughed too, but an instant later he was all business. Motioning a youthful lieutenant forward, he said, "This is Terrence Grieff. Good Grieff, I call him. He'll be your second-in-command."

Kirk surveyed the younger officer. He stood half a head taller than Kirk, and was slender to the point of appearing willowy. His skin was the color of dark honey, his eyes a deep arresting grey. "Lieutenant Grieff," Kirk gave a nod and held out his hand.

Grieff accepted it with a firm clasp. "Commodore Kirk. It will be a pleasure serving with you, sir."

Kirk made an appropriate response, one portion of his mind appraising the young man's quiet but confident demeanor as Soden dismissed him with a nod and a reminder of jobs to be done.

Grieff gone, the commodore eyed the duffel dangling from Kirk's shoulder and gave a curt jerk of his chin. The ensign behind the transporter console immediately stepped forward and relieved Kirk of the offending baggage. Startled, Kirk released the bag into the ensign's care.

Soden barely noticed as he led the way from the transporter room. "You have a choice, you can use my quarters or one of the guest suites. I'd suggest the guest suite."

Kirk's eyebrows rose. "Oh?"

"You'll have more room and there's an external viewport. It's also farther from the operations center. Make 'em think twice about waking you up in the middle of the night just 'cause one of the turbolifts is out of order." Soden grinned and added, "In case you didn't know, ops is what we call it on a starbase. It's essentially analogous with the bridge of a starship."

"Thanks for the thumbnail definition," Kirk replied, his head canted slightly to the right. Wry amusement glowed in his eyes. "The guest suite sounds fine."

"Good choice," Soden said with a significant glance at the ensign holding Kirk's duffel. The young man immediately made himself scarce. "C'mon, Jim," the commodore urged. "Time's a-wasting."

* * *

If anyone could make Jim Kirk appear sluggish, Jeremiah Soden was the man. Over the course of the next few hours he led Kirk through the entire base complex, introducing him to everyone down to the maintenance personnel and BX manager. He appeared to know the names of every man and woman under his command, and not a few of their children and pets as well.

Finally they paused in a recreation/observation lounge for a cup of coffee and a well-earned rest.

"I promise you won't have any problems, Jim. I've seen to it things should pretty much take care of themselves. You're just here to lend countenance."

Kirk's eyebrows rose at the odd phrase and Soden laughed.

"I'm doing it again. Watch out for that secretary of mine. She's an English scholar. Specializes in old romances. If you're not careful you'll find yourself mouthing a half dozen of her antique sayings. Oh, and by the way, don't go getting any ideas about her. She's old enough to be your mother, has four grown children and three grandchildren, along with assorted degrees in administration and literature."

Kirk returned the smile. "I'll be careful." Looking out the viewport at the lavender and green swirled ball spinning below, he asked, "What about the planet? Is the colony under your jurisdiction?"

Soden followed Kirk's gaze. "Not technically," he replied, "though we do have a symbiotic relationship. It's a small colony. Only a few thousand families, some farming, some small businesses, an industrial park. A small town in space. There are a couple of mountains for climbing and some beautiful beaches, if you're interested. Many of my people spend their leave time on Trisla. We return the favor by handling their medical needs. Not exactly SOP, but..."

Kirk gave an understanding nod. "I see." The Federation had so many different peoples and planets that the disregard of standard operating procedure was almost SOP in itself.

"Well," Soden glanced at the chronometer mounted discreetly over the viewport and got to his feet. "Time for me to take my leave. My bags are already in the docking bay."

At the airlock, Soden paused and faced the younger man. "I guess this is farewell."

Kirk moved his head in an affirmative. "Have a pleasant time at the conference, Jer."

"Have a pleasant time as the base CO, Jim." Soden stepped into the airlock, then turned to peer over his shoulder. "Just don't get so comfortable that I find myself without a job to return to."

"See to it that you don't forget to come back," Kirk retorted. "I have a starship to run, you know."

"And you don't want to hand it over to that tame Vulcan of yours," Jeremiah teased.

"That's right," Kirk replied with a grin and a wave.

* * *

Kirk quickly discovered Soden hadn't been fooling when he said there would be little for him to do. Most of the routine work was handled by the romantically inclined (though he had yet to see any sign of it) secretary, Lieutenant Dunn, and the quietly efficient Grieff.

All that remained for Kirk was to answer those communications which required a more experienced officer's attention and to hold up his rank for inspection on rare occasions when Grieff's authority was questioned by an importunate freighter captain or shuttle pilot.

Consequently, he found himself spending long hours in his borrowed office, reading books from the base library, and when they paled, from Dunn's personal collection. Despite this, he was left with time on his hands, an intolerable fate for the captain of the Enterprise.

He became aware of an unaccustomed emptiness, and it wasn't long before he realized he was missing Spock's companionship, the solemn presence at his side, as well as McCoy's more easily riled company. On a different level, he found himself wondering where Sue Warsing was and with whom.

Determined not to give in to the monotony of his temporary sinecure, Kirk made it a habit to tour the base daily. Each morning, directly after breakfast, he would begin in the engineering section and work his way up to the CO's office in the operations center. He quickly became acquainted with the chief engineer, the head of the hydroponic farm, the dietician, and Loretta Stroehm, the base doctor.

Kirk might have been attracted to the platinum-haired beauty had her first words to him not been, "So there you are. Did you know you're overdue for your quarterly physical?"

He neatly side-stepped the issue, pointing out that, officially, he was on leave. From then on he avoided the transparent double doors of the base infirmary as though it housed a colony of Syrenean lepers.

The daily inspection took only a small part of an eight-hour shift, however, leaving Kirk with more than six hours to fill. By the morning of the fifth day, he'd had it with this inaction. The aura of unused energy surrounding him was nearly palpable as he burst through the door leading from the operations center to the Dunn's office with the force of a photon torpedo.

Lieutenant Dunn looked up, surprised, from the monitor she'd been studying. "Good morning, Commodore."

"'Morning," Kirk replied brusquely.

Dunn blinked but her smile remained firmly in place. "Transporter platform three is off-line. A slight imbalance in the translation circuits -- nothing to worry about. Grieff is overseeing repairs. The energy consumption reports are ready for you to sign, also the monthly base utilization report. Just initial them and I'll take it from there, sir. There are some communications tapes on your desk, mostly routine. Oh, I almost forgot. There's one that's flagged 'personal.' I put it on the top of the pile."

"Thanks, Eileen," Kirk struggled to summon up a decent imitation of his usual smile for the secretary then headed for Soden's office. Between her and Grieff he felt like the third nacelle on a ship requiring only two.

Waiting until the door between the offices slid shut, Kirk scooped up the electronic clipboard bearing the reports and settled into the chair, once again irritated by its overly "cushy" upholstery.

He scanned the first report, finding it much like the fuel consumption reports he was accustomed to. He quickly initialed it with the attached stylus then touched the keypad, bringing up the base utilization report. This too, he scanned, intrigued by the number and variety of ships making use of the base facilities over a period of one month. He initialed that too, then, flicking on the viewscreen, eyed the pile of comm tapes.

Resolutely, he lifted the one with the little sticker marked 'personal' and put it at the bottom of the stack. He'd save it for later, a treat for dutifully dealing with more mundane matters.

As he worked, Kirk couldn't help wondering who the message could be from. He ticked off possibilities as he scrolled through pages of communiques that Dunn had no doubt already filed for Soden's use on his return.

McCoy? Maybe. Spock? Not likely. Home? Perhaps. His mother was a regular correspondent and after his abruptly shortened leave she might be feeling lonely. She has Peter, though, Kirk reminded himself, then, Wonder how the driving is going? Another possibility came to mind. What about Susan? Heart beating a little faster, Kirk skimmed the contents of the next communique.

Finally he reached the bottom of the pile. Feeling virtuous, he slid the plastic square into the slot and waited, outwardly patient, for the SPO insignia to clear the screen. A smile blossomed on his face as Susan Warsing features filled the screen. He leaned forward, as though he could somehow shorten the distance between them.

"Hi, Jim. I don't know how long it will be before you receive this, but I had to let you know how great it is to be out of the nest. I can't tell you the details of the investigation, but I can tell you about the wonderful planet I'm on right now. You wouldn't believe it, Jim."

She grinned out of the screen at him. "Then again, maybe you would. Anyway, the sky here is practically purple. It's incredibly lovely. Almost lovely enough to make me want to stay, take a job with one of the local stations.

"That's out of the question, though. If everything works out the way we expect, we'll be finishing up here within the next day or two. Give the technical whizzes a couple of days to splice and edit and you should be seeing it on FNN within a week, ten days at the most.

"This is what I hoped for when I went into journalism, Jim. Not regurgitating the news, but going out and getting it myself, interviewing people, figuring out what questions to ask, how to get a witness's confidence, the whole nine yards.

"And just think, if my producer likes it, this piece could be my ticket to more off-planet work. You could be running into me every time you turn around." She grinned again. "How would you like that, Jimmy Kirk?"

Her enthusiasm was catching; Kirk couldn't help smiling back at the recorded image.

"I guess you can tell I'm really excited. My only regret is that I didn't have more time to spend with you. I honestly do hope our paths cross again, Jim. I enjoyed the time we spent together and am hoping to do it again sometime."

There was a knocking sound in the background. Warsing glanced away for a moment, her voice muffled as she called, "Come."

Looking back at the visual pickup, she said, "Looks like it's time to get back to the salt mines. Call me if you can. The station will see that it gets to me. And whatever you do, take care of yourself, okay?" She blew a kiss at the screen then it went blank.

Kirk stared at nothing for a moment then sighed. Thrusting himself out of the chair he strode to the door. It slid open at his approach and he paused on the threshold, shoulders thrown back, chest high. "Eileen, I'm going out of my mind. Didn't Jeremiah leave any real work for me to do?"

The secretary pivoted in her chair. She met the statement with a calm smile. "Well, there was one thing..." She gave him a doubt-ridden glance. "Commodore Soden didn't want to burden you with it though."

Kirk grinned eagerly, his eyes crinkling at the corners.

"Whatever it is, Lieutenant, believe me, it won't be a burden."

Having said that, he folded himself gracefully into the chair opposite her. "So... What is it?"

"The annual inspection of the beaches on Trisia," Dunn replied evenly.

Kirk's eyes grew wide then slowly narrowed, darkening their golden light to a dusky brown. "I get it. Jer put you up to this."

Dunn smiled, her own china-blue eyes sparkling, but she carefully avoided a direct answer. "The commodore did say you might become bored, sir, and he does usually make a trip to the beach at this time of year. He thought you might enjoy a short stay at the beach house the Federation reserves for important visitors."

Kirk shook his head at the white-haired woman. "Eileen, I'm not here for fun in the sun--"

The comm-unit on Dunn's desk emitted a shrill beep. A frown creased her comfortable features as she said, "That's the emergency signal."

Like a ship coming out of warp, Kirk wasn't there and then he was, standing behind Dunn, his eyes welded to the monitor screen. Undesirable as the reaction might be, he felt more alive than he had since he left the Enterprise. "Go ahead. I'll listen in."

Dunn was already responding. She touched a button then another one at the top of her board. Immediately the paperwork that had filled the screen was replaced with the face of the communications officer. "Dunn here. Go ahead, Communications."

"Lieutenant, we've received a request from Federated Bio-Systems for emergency assistance. They require the services of a skilled hostage negotiator."

Whatever Kirk had expected, it hadn't been this. Leaning over Dunn's shoulder, he inquired, "What seems to be their problem, Communications?"

Startled at Kirk's sudden appearance, the young officer said, "Unknown, sir. We just received a message requesting a hostage negotiator. I have requested additional information."

"Good," Kirk said softly, then again, more softly still, "Good." He turned to Dunn. "Is there a hostage negotiator on the base?"

Like a starship, one never knew what one might find aboard a starbase.

"No, sir. We had a labor negotiator, but she left on the same transport as Commodore Soden--"

Kirk had heard all he needed. "Very well. Communications, get me that information ASAP."

Dunn's computer began chortling and talking to itself. Simultaneously, the officer on the screen said, "Incoming information, Commodore. I've forwarded it to your console and Lieutenant Dunn's."

"Excellent," Kirk murmured, then, "Dunn--"

"I'll get Commander Grieff up here immediately, sir."

Kirk nodded and crossed the short distance to the office that had been his for the last week. Gone was the fugue that had surrounded him. In its place was an air of tightly-controlled energy.

Dunn watched from the corner of her eye, fascinated by the rapid transformation.

* * *

Kirk took possession of the chair, no longer aware of its overpadded comfort. Now, it was a command chair, the same as the center seat aboard the Enterprise. He spoke, activating the computer. A sense of quiet satisfaction filled him as the information forwarded by communications flooded the screen. Kirk began to read, all of his attention directed to the glowing words in front of him.

It seemed only moments had passed when the door swished open and Dunn entered the inner office.

"I've transferred all available information on Federated Bio-Systems and Vincent Pferris to your console, Commodore, including Commodore Soden's personal notes regarding the corporation and its personnel."

"Thank you, Lieutenant." Again, Kirk gave a command and the computer began spewing forth the additional information. A distant portion of his mind noted again Dunn's efficiency. Hers was the sort of assistance that could make or break a commander.

Seconds later the door whispered open again and Grieff strode into the office. "Dunn said you wanted me."

Kirk gave a nod. "Sit down." When the younger man was settled, he said, "We have a hostage situation on Trisla." He swiveled the screen to face Grieff. "Watch."

Grieff's eyes widened perceptibly at the image of a very ordinary-looking man, old-fashioned explosives strapped to his waist and chest, delivering a threat to blow up the headquarters of Federated Bio-Systems and the eighty-seven people trapped with him in the lowest level of the facility.

"Pferris..." Grieff murmured.

Interested, Kirk asked, "Do you know him?"

Watching the recording as though mesmerized, Grieff responded, "I know of him. We met once at a party, but it was just a matter of an introduction. I was one more uniform in a long line of uniforms."

"Hmm. Too bad. It could have been useful."

When the recording ended, Kirk said, "I've gone over Commodore Soden's personal notes on Federated and this man, Pferris." He glanced at the name he'd jotted on a pad. "...Uh, Vincent Pferris. I assume you're aware of the commodore's opinions..." He let the words trail off into an interrogatory lift of his brows. He'd occasionally been accused of sharing too much information with his subordinates. Knowing Soden, the commodore would also err, if error it was, in that direction.

"Aye, sir." Grieff's voice was quietly efficient. "Naturally, I haven't read the commodore's personal notes, but I'm aware of the situation on Trisla, the suspected illegal bioresearch, the alleged dumping of toxic chemicals. The commodore has longed to intervene, but..."

He gave a little shrug then went on. "Trisla is an independent colony. As long as we have no proof... And Federated is careful. Very careful. No one has ever gotten anything but circumstantial evidence. Some of their known research rides the line, but..."

Grieff sighed and pushed a tight curl back from his forehead.

"You can't take a corporation that's provided a quarter of the breakthroughs in Federation medical technology to court on a basis of rumors and innuendo, sir."

"Understood." Kirk rested his forearms on the desk, his hands clasped in front of him. "But the situation is different now. We've been asked for assistance. Moreover, it's our duty as Starfleet officers to protect the innocent. Therefore..." Kirk shrugged. His eyebrows echoed the move as he said, "We help."

The words were barely out of his mouth before he was on his feet and moving toward the outer office. "Eileen, we're going down there. I'm going to try to talk this Pferris into releasing the hostages. You'll be in charge here. Alert the transporter room to standby. We'll need communicators and phasers..."

Dunn watched as Kirk headed for the door, Grieff in tow. "Aye, sir. And..." Kirk darted a look over his shoulder.

"Good luck, sir. To both of you."

Kirk nodded and kept going.

* * *

Grieff handed Kirk one of the utility belts that were ready and waiting on the transporter console then took the other for himself. "Too bad we can't just beam the hostages out."

Kirk jerked his chin in agreement. He ran a quick check on the phaser and communicator. "Unfortunately, the lowest level of the facility is shielded, and Pferris controls the shields. Besides, even utilizing all available pads, we'd still only be able to beam out twenty-four at one time. That'd be bound to have a deleterious effect on the remaining hostages' chances."

"Like taking away a baby's bottle..." Grieff remarked, copying Kirk's actions.

"What I don't understand is why they require shielding in the first place?" The ensign behind the console flushed, half-expecting a reprimand for speaking out of turn.

But all Kirk said was, "Interesting question." Sandy brows high, he added, "Maybe we'll be able to find the answer. Right, Mr. Grieff?"

"Uh, right, Commodore."

Curious at Grieff's reticence, Kirk asked, "Have you been involved in this sort of thing before?" He secured the utility belt firmly around his hips, taking comfort in its familiar weight.

The lieutenant shook his head and followed Kirk to the pads. "No, sir. A few simulations during training. My MOS is administration with a second in engineering. They don't teach administrators or engineers a whole lot about hostage negotiations."

Kirk positioned himself on one of the disks. With a grim smile he said, "There are just two rules in this situation: don't give anything without getting something in return, and don't further endanger the hostages. If we can manage that--" He gave a little shrug that seemed to say, "We'll see." Aloud, he murmured, "Energize."

* * *

They materialized in a first floor cafeteria that had been turned into an emergency command post. The area buzzed with reporters, relatives of the hostages, executives of Federated Bio-Systems and representatives of the local police. The noise level was so high as to be nearly unbearable. In one corner an irate man shouted at another man whom Kirk recognized from his hurried research as Reginald Reims, Federated's CEO; in another, a girl in her early teens sobbed brokenly. At her side, a boy only a year or two older looked as though he would have liked to join her.

Kirk frowned. "Can't the police get some of these people out of here?"

Grieff shook his head. "Trisla is a small colony, Commodore. Other than the three corporations in this industrial park, it's mostly residential, with a smattering of small businesses and family-run farms. The police force is more of a neighborhood patrol than a true police department. Their primary duty is preventing littering and rescuing kids whose swimming prowess isn't quite what they thought. They're not even authorized to carry phasers. I don't think they're going to be of much help to us."

Kirk made an eloquent non-verbal reply and started toward Reims. As he approached, he darted a significant glance in the direction of the man who until only moments ago had been haranguing the CEO.

Interpreting the look, Grieff took one of the local police officers aside and requested he assist the distraught man. The officer nodded and busied himself with leading the man to a table where another patrol officer was pouring hot coffee into mugs and urging persons in various emotional states to be seated.

Temporarily satisfied, Kirk said, "Reims." He studied the CEO carefully as he held out his hand.

Reims was just above his own height and stocky. Kirk would have put his age at mid-fifties had he not read the bio which gave his actual age as forty-two. Apparently running a medical research firm didn't do much for its officers' health. "Why are all these people here? If that bomb goes..."

"Who the hell are you?" Reims shouted above the din. "Why didn't Soden come down himself?"

"I'm Commodore James T. Kirk, filling in for Commodore Soden." Kirk replied, pitching his voice to be heard. "This is Lieutenant Grieff, my second in command."

Reims ignored Grieff's hand as he had Kirk's. "Hmmph. Kirk. I've heard of you. Thought you were only a captain."

"The rank goes with the assignment, Mr. Reims," Kirk replied, refusing to allow himself to be ruffled. "To get back to the matter at hand, if that bomb explodes--"

"The entire lower level is shielded. No matter what happens down there, this floor wont be damaged."

Kirk took a breath. Reims was an example of a type he most disliked -- an apparently intelligent being who believed his own PR.

Resisting the urge to pound some sense into the man's head, he said calmly, "I beg to differ with you, Mr. Reims. If the shield generator is damaged, this entire building will end up where the basement used to be. You have to get these people out of here." His voice took on a harsher, more determined note. "You can see to the evacuation yourself or I'll declare martial law and beam down an armed security contingent to see that its done."

Reims stared at Kirk for a moment then, as if relieved to have the matter taken out of his hands, deflated visibly. "Please do, Commodore. As you can see, the majority of our internal security force is deployed at the various exits and entrances to the subterranean level, and the local police..."

Kirk didn't wait to hear a repeat of Grieff's explanation. Lips pressed tightly together, he unholstered his communicator. "Kirk to Starbase."

"Dunn here, Commodore."

"Lieutenant, I want an armed security contingent beamed down to these coordinates. Better send some medical personnel, too. Emotions are running high and it's going to get worse before it gets better."

"Understood, sir. They'll be down ASAP."

"Good. Kirk out." He closed the communicator. Peripherally, he noted a twinkle of lights, the hum of a transporter, the tingle in the air that signaled materialization, then six officers in security red were standing in the area that had been designated as a beam down point. He pointed a well-shaped hand in their direction. "Looks like this should be right down your alley, Grieff."

The younger man nodded. He swallowed hard, grey eyes earnest. "Sir, if I might make a suggestion?"

Kirk's brows rose expectantly. "Yes?"

"It might be a good idea to move the command post to a safer location. "

"Good thinking, Lieutenant. Any suggestions as to where?"

"I've been taking tricorder readings, sir. That area," Grieff gestured to a small room, "can be partitioned off from the main cafeteria for parties or meetings. That alcove should be relatively safe. It juts out beyond the subterranean level. A portable force field projector will shield the area, creating a protective bubble for the negotiators. In the event Pferris does set off the bomb, the bubble will protect them long enough for assistance to arrive. "

Kirk gave an abrupt jerk of his head. "See to it."

"Aye, sir." Grieff sketched a salute then crossed the room to where the redshirts stood, issuing orders into his communicator as he went.

A good officer, Kirk thought. If only he had a little more experience...

His musings were interrupted by another scintillating flash. A second group of security personnel materialized. They were accompanied by two women in sciences blue -- the medical team Kirk had requested. Satisfied, he turned his attention back to Reims.

Gripping the executive's arm, he steered him toward a quiet corner. "How about explaining how this whole mess came about."

"I have no idea, Kirk. You have to believe me." Reims spoke rapidly, like a cadet caught in the act of cheating, yet trying to absolve himself all the same.

"Everything was fine and then that press team showed up. We were always aware that Pferris was a bit of a nutcase--you know, one of those loonies who believes in a utopian society. No profit margin, no rich or poor, everyone sharing and sharing alike.

"I was always surprised he didn't decide to go and live on one of the 'peace and love' planets. Good thing he didn't, though. His daughter wouldn't have lived this long without proper medical care. Until this business came about, the man was one of the best medical researchers in the Federation. And his work covered a half dozen different areas of research. Biomechanicals, regen, genetics, immunology..."

Kirk listened to the stream of seemingly useless information. He looked for all the galaxy as though he were buying it. Those who knew him though wouldn't have been the least bit surprised when he interrupted. "Yes...." Hazel eyes grew wider still. "Yes. That's all very well," a Kirkian pause, "but what set him off?"

"Who knows? This reporter had been hanging around and then he went off the deep end."

Kirk's eyes narrowed, suddenly darker, difficult to fathom. "What reporter? What did the reporter want? I need details, man, details!"

"Oh, you know. That reporter from FNN--"

Kirk waited. There was an odd sensation, a shivery prickle in his gut as he asked, "What's the reporter's name?"

A youthful aide ran up to Reims side. "Mr. Reims, Pferris is accepting our communication. He demands to speak to the negotiator now."

Wishing he'd been able to gather more information, Kirk said, "Reims, get someone to go through Pferris' personnel file. Track down his remaining family, close friends, anyone who can help me get a handle on who he is. In the meantime..." Lips tight, he tugged his gold tunic down over his hips and squared his shoulders, "It looks like I'm on."

* * *

Jim Kirk stretched and rubbed eyes bleary from staring at a blank comm-screen. He took a sip from a cup of coffee someone had placed in front of him. It was hot and sweet. Excruciatingly sweet.

Grieff's engineers had had little success in discovering a way into the subterranean labs. Nor had they determined a method of lowering Pferris's shields.

Yet there had to be one. If only Spock and Scotty were here. McCoy too, to offer insights into Pferris' tortured mind.

From his initial abortive conversation with Pferris, Kirk had learned little other than the man was vastly overwrought. Pferris had refused to allow visual communication, ranting on in audio-only. At first demanding Kirk hand over Reims and several other high-ranking officers of Federated Bio-Systems, he'd later withdrawn the demand, insisting the deaths of the hostages would serve to enlighten the Federation as to what went on in the name of science.

Quickly held conferences with friends and relatives of the hostage-taker had given Kirk little to go on. His best source of information had been Loretta Stroehm, the base physician. It had been she who diagnosed Pferris' daughter's illness, a rare and incurable cancer-like disease, and recommended an off-planet hospice where the child would receive the best of care.

"I suggested that Pferris and his wife remain with her, take a leave of absence from Federated," Stroehm explained as she took a break from the task of calming relatives and friends of the numerous hostages.

She continued thoughtfully, "He felt the work he was doing here couldn't be left at that point in its development... Shortly after that his wife was killed."

Kirk was stunned by the compassion he read in Stroehm's ice-green eyes. He'd only seen compassion that deep in two sets of eyes, and neither of them was here today. "Did he mention his belief that his daughter's disease was caused by work that was going on at Federated?"

"He did," Stroehm replied. One slender hand tortured a wisp of white-blond hair that had somehow escaped confinement. "I told him if he could give me solid evidence, I could bring inspectors in from the Federation Environmental Protection Agency, the Federation Institutes of Health, oh, a half dozen places, but I needed something to go on."

Stroehm shook her head. "He brought nothing. Then, when his wife was killed, he insisted it was somehow planned, retribution for his accusations against Federated or some sort of workplace hazard that shouldn't have existed.

"I checked it out, Commodore. There was no evidence of foul play nor of the sort of hazard Pferris described. Brianna Pferris had been working long hours, not getting enough sleep, eating only when reminded, all while operating equipment that requires one's full attention. Add to that her concern over her daughter's illness... She made an error in judgment and she paid for it with her life."

Stroehm leaned her head in her hands, kneading her temples. "Again I urged Pferris to take time off, perhaps see a counselor of some sort. Now I can't help wondering if I should have done more."

He shook his head slowly, thoughtfully. "I don't see what you more you could have done, Doc."

"Call from Lieutenant Dunn, sir. She says it's important." Grieff sounded breathless as he relayed the message.

Kirk hit a button on the panel in front of him. "Kirk here."

"Commodore, I managed to wangle a recording of a message Pferris received early this morning out of a friend over at Trisla CommCentral. I think you should hear it."

Kirk's gaze flickered. "Go ahead, Dunn." He needed something, some little advantage to work with if there was to be any chance of ending this situation without bloodshed. Maybe Dunn's message would be it.

"Aye, sir."

There was a moment of hiss-filled silence, then a male voice, warm and consoling, said, "Doctor Pferris, I'm sorry I have to tell you this way, but your daughter passed away at 5 p.m. local time. She experienced no pain, merely slipped away in her sleep. I'm sorry."

An awkward pause, then the voice added, "Dorine's body has been placed in stasis until you can make the final arrangements. There is no hurry. Please take as much time as you require in letting us know how to proceed."

Several seconds more hiss, then the voice Kirk had first heard mere hours ago replied, "Thank you. I'll be in touch."

"That's all there is, Commodore." Dunn's voice held a tremor as she spoke. "I thought you should know."

"Yes. Thank you, Eileen." Kirk severed the communication, his face almost Vulcan in its demeanor.

"So..." He rubbed his eyes, unconsciously echoing Stroehm's actions. Somewhere during the hours he'd spent in his hastily set-up command post, Kirk had lost the sense of "something to be done." It had deteriorated into a fuzziness of mind and body as he went over and over the facts he had to work with.

Pferris' wife had died recently in a work-related accident. Kirk now knew he'd received notification of his daughter's death only hours ago. Pferris placed the blame for both misfortunes firmly on the shoulders of Federated Bio-Systems.

If Jeremiah Soden's suspicions were on target. Kirk reflected, it was possible that Pferris was correct. That was of no importance, though. The important thing now was to get the hostages out without pushing Pferris over the edge.

Kirk took another mouthful of the sludge-like liquid he'd been chug-a-lugging and, repressing the urge to gag, swallowed. He thought again of the moment when Sue Warsing's face had appeared on the screen in front of him.

"Commodore Kirk. Commendations on your promotion."

Abdominal muscles, already tense, had contracted forcing bile up into his throat at the sight of her, beautiful face taut with fear, yet doing the job she'd worked so hard to earn: report the news.

"Thank you, Ms. Warsing. Too bad I can't say the same for your choice of assignment."

"Yes. Well, you can't deny it's exciting."

Pferris had interrupted, shoving Warsing away from the visual pickup. "What is this? Chit-chat at five?"

That had been hours ago. It marked the last visual Pferris had transmitted. Will it be the last time I see Susan? Kirk asked himself. Banishing the thought, he pressed the transmit button.

"Look, Pferris, I understand what you're saying, but you have to understand me, too. That's how these things work. If you disarm the bomb, let the people go, we can talk. Commodore Soden and his medical officer, Doctor Stroehm, both suspected something wasn't quite right at Federated but they had no proof. With your documentation, the Federation could take care of the whole thing. Indictments, everything."

Silence.

Kirk continued his monologue, hoping the scientist was listening. "I know you, Pferris." In an odd way it was true. In the twelve to experts and friends, rereading the notes Dunn had turned over to him, he felt he had come to know the man, to understand what motivated him, in some measure to share his pain.

"You're not a killer. You believe in life. I owe my career to your work. Without the medical technology available to Starfleet, your technology, Pferris, I wouldn't be here. If I were alive I'd be at a desk back on Earth, pushing papers."

More silence.

"Look, let me beam down some food and supplies. Those people haven't eaten in what, fourteen, fifteen hours?"

The subtle hiss of an open channel told him Pferris was listening. "Pferris?" More demanding, "Pferris, talk to me."

Once again Kirk damned whoever had thought it a good idea to shield the underground level of the Federated complex without placing auxiliary controls elsewhere in the building. With the shield activated it was impossible to determine Pferris' precise location, impossible to deactivate the bomb he wore. All the same the engineers were working on the problem. Kirk wasn't a big believer in the word "impossible."

Suddenly the screen in front of him flickered to life. The man staring out of it was red-eyed. Stubble decorated his chin; dark circles carved deep canyons in the cheeks.

"You're right." Pferris voice was husky, tired. "I'm not a killer. Not like Reims and his flunkies."

Behind Kirk, Reims made an outraged squawk. Someone, Grieff, Kirk suspected, silenced him immediately.

Pferris was still speaking. "--to release some of the hostages. It's not their fault Federated has been playing with outlawed technology, illegal procedures.

"Remember, though. I know you too, Kirk. I know you sometimes ignore rules. I'm going to assume you're smart enough to ignore the one that says, 'Get them when they drop their shields.' If you don't, I've made some adjustments to the transporter down here. Any attempt to beam anything in while I'm beaming the hostages out and you'll get an unpleasant surprise. Do you understand?"

Kirk nodded. Grieff's scans had told him that much. The commander had been unable to discern exactly what alterations Pferris had made, but he'd been quite certain that what materialized would not resemble the person who had stepped onto the pads.

"I understand, Pferris. How many of the hostages are you going beam out?"

Pferris glowered. "That's for me to know."

And you to find out. Kirk's mind completed the childish taunt. "Of course."

"And, Kirk, I'd suggest getting them out of the building while you can." The image winked out, then in a far corner of the cafeteria a disheveled group of people shimmered into existence.

Kirk made a slashing motion with his hand. Grieff hit a button. The portable force field rippled and winked out of existence. Red-shirted security officers swarmed from the command post toward the freed hostages. They hurried them from the building to the nearby location that had been chosen as a beam-up point.

"Six down, eighty-one to go," Grieff commented.

Kirk nodded and once again spoke into the audio pickup.

* * *

More hours trickled by. Having finally accepted the stimulant offered by Doctor Stroehm, Kirk felt much as he imagined the antique clock on his mother's mantel must have when he'd zealously overwound it at the age of seven.

He glanced at the chronometer taped to the communications board, did some mental calculations. How long had he sat in this chair, how long since he'd stolen a minute for a trip to the head, how long since his body had touched a mattress? Not for the first time Kirk wondered if Vulcan time-sense was a blessing or a curse.

A fresh squad of redshirts was scattered about the dining alcove. In a corner Reims dozed on a pale green banquette, producing an odd assortment of strangled snores and choking sounds.

Kirk had been surprised when the Reims turned down the suggestion that he leave. Federated's CEO hadn't struck him as someone willing to endanger his cushy life. Maybe his assessment of the CEO had been incorrect. And maybe Reims is doing his best to make Federated look less of the villain in the piece, a more cynical aspect of his mind countered.

Stroehm moved quietly from Grieff to Kirk, medical scanner in hand. Long-accustomed to McCoy's hovering, he paid little attention to her or the whirring instrument.

"How?" He cleared his throat. Hours of speaking over comm-links had left his throat drier than the Vulcan desert. "How many still down there?"

"Uh..." Grieff looked as worn as Kirk felt. "Fifteen, Commodore. Not including Pferris."

"Any sign that..." Kirk lost the thread of his question. Despite the "buzz" they imparted to sights and sounds around him, Stroehm's injections had little effect. He tried again. "Any indication of renewed transporter activity?"

"No, sir. Nothing." Grieff replied, then unable to prevent it, yawned, his jaw popping from the strain.

Kirk fought off an answering yawn, managed to transform it into a sigh.

The experts had long ago given up speculating what Pferris would do next. His actions refused any profile they attempted to draw. It was Kirk's belief that Pferris would not come out of this alive. He had lost too much, had no reason to continue to live.

And therein lay the problem. Pferris had made no demands, therefore Kirk could make no concessions. The usual play of give and take had been negated in these odd negotiations. All Kirk could do was talk, use his gut knowledge of the human psyche to try to keep Pferris alive long enough to get the remaining hostages out before the unbalanced scientist blew himself to pieces.

Stroehm finished her scan, made a few disapproving noises and moved toward the opposite end of Reims' banquette.

"Can't you shut him up?" The request was less than diplomatic, but then Kirk wasn't feeling very diplomatic anymore.

"Only if we wake him." The doctor conjured up something that might, under normal circumstances, have been a smile. "Or get him out of here altogether."

Kirk sighed. Tempting as it sounded, it would mean dropping the force field. They'd had to do so each time Pferris beamed a group of hostages to the main floor. And each time Kirk had prayed that Pferris wouldn't crack, wouldn't set the bomb off until the released hostages had been escorted out and the security people had returned to the shielded alcove. He dared not chance all their lives just to be rid of Reims irritating snores...

"Do you know her, sir?"

Called back to the present, Kirk looked up to meet Grieff's soft grey eyes. "Hmm?"

"The reporter, sir. Susan Warsing. Do you know her?"

There was an aura about Grieff, a sense of deep compassion wrapped around a core of flexible duranium. It reminded Kirk of Spock; ironically, it made him miss the Vulcan's presence all the more. "What makes you think that?"

"Your face. For a moment when you were speaking to her there seemed to be more than what was said aloud."

Uncertain if he'd said too much, Grieff flushed, embarrassment bringing a hint of deep rose to his dusky cheeks.

Kirk's brows arced upward. "Let's hope Pferris isn't as observant as you are. But, yes, I do know her. Sue Warsing and I grew up in the same town, went to school together. This was supposed to be her big break."

He took a deep breath, let it out slowly. Gently rubbing the skin above his right eye in hopes of easing the ache brought on by too much caffeine, too many stimulants, he added in a whisper, "Pray God, it's not her last."

"Aye, sir," Grieff agreed warmly. Suddenly he sat straighter, eyes locked on the tricorder in his hands. "Commodore--"

As he spoke the disharmonic tones of a matter/energy transporter running close to overload became audible.

"I hear it." Kirk murmured, unaware of the breath caught and held.

Security personnel snapped to the alert, inching close enough to the force field as to cause minor sparks and displays of static electricity.

Pferris had played all sorts of games with the transporter, beaming two and three persons to a pad, then a strictly regulation one per pad, transported one group almost before the previous group was clear then waited several hours before beaming one woman. Now, Kirk waited, one eye on the blank screen in front of him, the other straining to count the number of persons materializing on the far side of the cafeteria.

"Cancel force field!" he snapped.

"Canceling field, aye!" Grieff responded. Redshirts spilled into the cafeteria proper, a scarlet sea punctuated by dots of blue -- Stroehm and her paramedics.

Grieff stood, balanced on tiptoe to see over the milling heads. "Nine, sir."

Kirk was standing too, his eyes searching for one particular face. "That means six still down there." And one of them is Susan. Wearily, he reached for the transmit button.

The communicator signaled. Grieff responded. He listened for a moment then turned to Kirk. "Dunn reports base comm has received a transmission that appears to be from Pferris -- computer files, sir. Text, audio and visual according to the file extensions, coded to your voice print--"

On the table between them a tricorder beeped. Grieff's eyes flicked to the minuscule display. "Sir! We're picking up something -- it's going, sir. It's going to--"

Kirk's balled fist came down hard on the transmit button. He leaned toward the audio pickup as though he could somehow get closer to Pferris that way, make him feel the intensity of his words. "Pferris, don't. I'll personally see to it that--"

Whatever else he might have said was lost in a dull rumble from the underground labs. Kirk's gaze flickered to the cafeteria proper.

"Head for the beam up point," he shouted to redshirts and medical personnel assisting the dazed hostages. "Get them out of here now!"

Time shifted. Security and medical personnel complied with Kirk's orders, but slowly, as though swimming through the gelatinous seas of Syvant IV. One of the released hostages appeared barely conscious. He stumbled, pitching forward awkwardly. Stroehm dragged his arm over her shoulder, urging him toward the exit.

"They're not going to make it," Grieff breathed. He took an abortive step toward the threshold then glanced back at the force field controls.

"Man your post!" Kirk commanded.

"Sir, come back! You'll never do it."

Time turned elastic, putty-like, stretching and shrinking uncontrollably. Kirk surged forward, ignoring Grieff. Reaching his objective, he pulled the hostage into a firefighters carry.

His other hand gripped the doctor just above the elbow.

"Raise the field, Grieff." Shoving Stroehm toward the exit, he battled the bucking floor. "Do it now!"

"Sir!"

"Do it," Kirk ordered again. "Maximum output. Don't worry about us."

Something gave. The building shivered. The cafeteria floor bulged upward. Slowly, hypnotically, cracks appeared.

Just when it seemed time could stretch no farther, Grieff responded to Kirk's command. The force field popped into place, crackling when it made contact with the bits of dust and debris that rained down.

Chunks of flooring flew upward, then, reaching the apex of their flight, showered back in slow motion to basement below. Smoke billowed. A piece of debris struck Kirk on the brow. Oblivious to pain or the trickle of blood oozing from the injury, he fought to reach the exit and the safety of the outdoors.

One-handed, the doctor grappled with her communicator. "Stroehm to base. Lock on to me and beam up three, now!"

The floor crumbled. Kirk's fleet issue boots made scrabbling sounds as he struggled toward solid ground, the weight of the unconscious man pressing down on his shoulders.

Another step. The tiles beneath his left foot disappeared. Unable to regain his balance, he and his unconscious burden tumbled after them through the growing hole.

The lights flickered once, twice, three times, then failed completely.

A swarm of electronic fireflies engulfed the spot where Kirk had been. Finding nothing to lock on to, the beam faded, leaving only the eerie blue of the portable force field to light the devastated cafeteria.

* * *

"Where are they?" Stroehm demanded.

The tech manning the transporter looked both frightened and confused. "I don't know, Doctor. I had them." He shrugged helplessly. "Then they were gone, Ma'am. There was nothing to lock onto."

"Oh my God. The floor was going. They must have slipped. Fallen."

The comm-unit on the console whistled. "Do you have them, transporter room two?"

The doctor strode across the room. "Stroehm, here."

"Thank God!" Dunn's normally level voice blurted from the speaker. "Grieff thought we'd lost you."

"I'm the only one who beamed up. Kirk and the injured hostage are still down there."

Silence greeted her pronouncement.

"Eileen?"

"Yes, I'm here. Okay. I'll notify Grieff. And the searchers. Now that Pferris' shields are down they can beam in as soon as the engineers say it's safe."

Forgetting Dunn couldn't see her, Stroehm nodded. "Notify me when the search teams beam down."

"Shouldn't you get some rest, Doctor?"

Stroehm smiled bitterly. "Those are supposed to be my words."

* * *

Darkness, as absolute as that of space. Kirk lay where he'd landed, his head cradled on something soft. Not quite conscious, nor yet unconscious, he was definitely alive. A single breath of the acrid, smoke-tainted air flowing through his abused throat was enough to convince him of the fact.

Someone groaned. Dully, he realized the sound came from his own chest.

As though the groan had released an avalanche of pain, he was suddenly aware of his body as a mass of discomforts major and minor: an itchy/tingly sensation in his right forearm and hand, the aftereffect of glancing contact with a transporter beam, the searing pain in his head and shoulder resulting from the fall, his shaky, racing pulse the culmination of stimulants, adrenaline, shock.

Now might be a good time for one of McCoy's magic potions.

Ignoring the little voice, ignoring the desire to remain where he was, Kirk pushed himself to his knees.

Another groan, this one from beneath him.

Comprehension dawned. The hostage -- the soft substance that had broken Kirk's fall.

Carefully Kirk crawled off the man, doing his utmost to cause no further harm. He squatted, followed an outstretched limb to the attached torso, searching out the carotid pulse. It beat strong, perhaps a bit fast, but steady under his tingling fingers.

He took hold of an arm, thought about straightening it. An image of McCoy formed in his mind. Best not, he thought. Instead, he reached for his communicator and endured a symphony of complaining muscles and joints.

The sadistic little voice inside his head spoke up again. It'll feel even better tomorrow. Kirk shut the voice out, patting the spot where his communicator should have been. Not there, his injured fingers told him.

"Damn," Kirk said aloud. He looked up to where a blacker area defined what was left of the ceiling. He drew a breath, choking again on dust and the stench of shorted electricals. Fighting the urge to cough, he shouted into the darkness. "Grieff!"

* * *

"Beam me up."

"Terry, you don't know what will happen when you drop that force field. It will only be a few more minutes until we can get some people down there, set up additional fields, anti-gray units."

"Lieutenant, I am giving you a direct order. I am going to shut down the portable field generator in exactly sixty seconds and I expect you to see to it Mr. Reims and I are beamed up at once."

Grieff's voice was cold, distant. Dunn had never known him to sound like that. He ruined the effect by adding, "C'mon, Dunn. I'm an engineer. Trust me. It'll be okay."

On the base, Dunn sighed. Though old enough to be Grieff's mother, in the chain of command he was her superior.

"Very well, Lieutenant. Better make it two minutes, though. I'll patch you straight through to the transporter room. You can coordinate with them."

"Thanks, Eileen. Love you."

"I just hope you get a chance to tell me in person, Lieutenant," Dunn replied with some asperity.

"I will," Grieff promised.

* * *

Again Kirk shouted into the darkness, listened to the silence that replied. So, James T. What are you going to do now?

The answer was simple. Enacting it was not.

Kirk clambered awkwardly to his feet then stood, swaying, as he tried to get his bearings in the smoke-filled void.

I was facing that way when I fell. The spot where Pferris was beaming the hostages must be to my left. Assuming he had them somewhere nearby, they should be in that direction.

He stumbled forward on his chosen heading, again ignoring the little voice that told him there was no solid basis for his deductions. He must simply assume he was correct and try to maintain a straight line of travel.

Underfoot, glass crunched. Kirk inched onward, disregarding it. Chemical-laden smoke seared his eyes, his ears ached from the strain of listening. More than once he stepped in a slippery-sticky patch of something he preferred not to consider too deeply.

He tripped over a pile of debris, slicing his palm open as he instinctively put his hands out to break his fall.

He stumbled again, striking his head. Blood clouded his vision, but, in truth, there was no vision here amid the smoke and darkness. He plunged onward, his heaving chest betraying lungs struggling to draw oxygen from smoke laden air. Little noises tricked his overworked ears.

Kirk tripped and fell yet again, landing on stinging knees. He started to push himself up, but faltered. it would be so much easier to wait for rescue, wait for lights, wait for oxygen. To simply curl up and go to sleep.

It was while he was thus engaged in self-pity that he became aware of the sound. At first he thought it was his own wheezing breath but somehow his brain identified it as coming from another.

He gathered his strength. "SUSAN!"

The result more nearly resembled a hoarse mew than a shout. "Jim?"

"Sue? Where are you?" Realizing the foolishness of the question, he said, "Keep talking. I'll follow your voice."

"Wait-- There. Can you see it?"

Kirk stared into the darkness. "What am I looking for?"

“The power light on my camera."

Scanning the void ahead of him, Kirk spotted the telltale light and began working toward it. "Are you injured?"

There was a muffled laugh and the red light wavered. "I'm not sure. Something fell on my legs and I can't get out from under it. It...." She paused and, Kirk was certain, swallowed hard. "It hurts a lot. I've been telling myself that's the good news."

"You're probably right." He ducked under a section of low-hanging ceiling then, finding himself virtually on top of the red light, dropped to his knees. "Sue?"

There was a tremor in her voice as she said, "I knew you'd come."

"I'm sorry I wasn't able to figure a way to get you out before this happened."

As he spoke Kirk used his hands to identify the object that held Warsing pinned to the floor. It felt like a computer console of some sort. Getting a firm grip on an edge, Kirk heaved. The console shifted slightly.

He heaved again. Pain exploded through his right shoulder, but it was Susan's roughly drawn breath that caused him to say, "I can't move it. We'll have to wait for the rescue teams. It won't be long. They've been standing by for hours."

"Okay," she responded, and Kirk felt certain she spoke through clenched teeth. Hating to broach the subject, he asked, "The others, Sue. Where are they?"

"Dead." A single syllable, no trace of doubt.

Kirk was chilled by the icy stillness in his childhood schoolmate's voice. "Are you certain?"

"I don't see how they could still be alive. They were over there." He sensed a finger pointing.

"Pferris made it a point to keep me away from the others. He seemed to think I was more valuable to him than the others. I don't know why..."

Kirk knew though. Susan's was the face that was famous. Well-known in their own fields, camera people, directors and technicians were not the way to get attention.

This was the same reason the Enterprise was often singled out from other starships: she was the flagship, the ship featured in the docu-vid series, the one known to the public with an oddly seductive sense of false intimacy.

Kirk remained silent however, not explaining, just listening. Sue was shaking now, shivering uncontrollably. Her teeth chattered with a force that made him wince.

"...He had me record every beam up. This time he s-set up the shot so both he and the team w-would be in the picture. He m-moved over th-there--"

She pointed to an area that Kirk's dark-accustomed eyes could just discern. "He t-tripped. Can you believe it? R-right before he reached the transporter console, he j-just t-tripped and s-set off the b-bomb. I s-sat here like a statue and ... and w-w-watched ... watched...m-my entire...t-team ... get b-blown ... to pieces."

Kirk put his arm around her as she gave way to tears of grief and shock. The reaction was a natural one, and necessary in its own way. It would be repeated many times before her sense of guilt and responsibility faded into the tapestry of memories that was Sue Warsing.

Minutes passed. The sobs downgraded to an occasional sniff then stopped completely. The shivering tapered off. Heads together, they slipped into the healing cocoon that exists somewhere between sleep and unconsciousness.

Neither stirred when the rescue team arrived. Speaking in hushed whispers they ran scanners over the pair, injected drugs to counteract shock and exhaustion then, having done what they could, loaded them onto gurneys and beamed them up to the base.

* * *

The star-studded tapestry of space welcomed him, comforted him, engulfed him in its familiarity.

"Jim..."

Like an annoying insect, the voice returned to buzz at his ear. Kirk did his best to ignore it, to burrow further into his chosen world.

A fine-boned hand shook him gently. “Time to wake up, Jim."

"You're not supposed to be here," Kirk mumbled, his eyes locked stubbornly shut.

"Like hell, I'm not," the voice exclaimed.

Reluctantly, Kirk gave in. To resist would be like attempting to withstand the force of gravity. "Bones?" he queried, lifting one lid.

"Who else?" the doctor asked, meeting the cockeyed stare with a shrug.

Kirk shook off the last remnants of sleep. Memory returned with a rush as he pushed himself to a half-sitting position. McCoy made an abortive move to help. Kirk ignored it, inhaling deeply, then muttering a heartfelt, "Ow," when his injuries protested.

"You were supposed to be in Georgia."

"I was." McCoy rocked back on his heels to lean against the narrow table that protruded from the wall. "But when I heard you were doing your best to get smeared all over the cosmos, I figured shore leave could wait. From the looks of you, I was just in time."

"As I understand it, Starfleet Command had a small part in your decision, Doctor," a deep voice commented dryly.

Kirk's head spun toward the voice. "You're here, too, Spock?" He already regretted the rapid movement.

"Obviously, Commodore," the Vulcan replied from his place on the threshold of the small private room Kirk had been assigned.

"Uh, 'Jim' will do, Spock, " Kirk said with an expressive twist to his lips. "I've just about had it with that commodore business."

"Good thing, too." A new voice entered the conversation.

Spock stepped further into the room to allow its owner to enter.

"I left you in charge of an orderly starbase and come back to find complete pandemonium. I simply don't understand you, Jimmy-boy. If there's no excitement about, you have to create some."

Kirk grinned up at Soden's even features. "Jeremy! But I don't understand. What are you all doing here? How long have I been out?"

"Not long enough," McCoy grumbled with a glance at the monitors over Kirk's head. "You've been asleep for about four hours--"

"Then how--"

"Which isn't nearly long enough."

"Doctor...

McCoy met Spock's stern gaze. "All right, all right. I haven't forgotten."

The captain knew by the expression on McCoy's face that there'd been a disagreement between them.

"Look, Jim, we'll tell you the whole story, but first I have to ask you to do something. Pferris transmitted a whole passel of data to the base computer, but it's locked under your voice print." McCoy shot a fulminating glance at the Vulcan before continuing. "I tried to get Spock to diddle the computer like he did that one time, but he refused."

"As I explained, Doctor, Starfleet has upgraded security to prevent a repetition of that episode."

"And you can't get around it, Spock? Tell me another one. Anyway, Starfleet, the media, the Federation Colonial Authority, the FEPA, the FMA, and the FIH, not to mention Federated Bio-Systems itself are all scratching and clawing to get at that information. Spock and Commodore Soden here seem to agree that it can't wait." The physician pulled a computer link on an articulated arm closer to Kirk's bed. "So, if it's okay with you..."

"Of course." Moving as little as possible, Kirk spoke into the audio pick-up. "This is James T. Kirk, Serial number SC937-0176CEC. I hereby release all files transmitted by Vincent Pferris and locked under my voice print to the office of the base commander. Access shall be on a need to know basis." To the three officers clustered about his bed, he said, "There. Think that will do it?"

Soden grinned down at him. Dressed in a blue infirmary jumpsuit, assorted bruises and cuts marring his fair skin, Kirk looked more like a cadet fresh from an impromptu wrestling match than a man who had spent the last day and a haft trying to keep another man from blowing himself and eighty-something other people to kingdom come. "It'll do, Jim. Just one thing... You're still in command.

Kirk returned the grin. "Computer note, I hereby formally return command to Commodore Jeremiah Soden."

"And I formally accept, Captain." Soden surveyed him for a moment longer before adding, "I'll talk to you later, Jim. Right now I'm going to go and see how many of my staff you've managed to steal away from me. So far, I've heard your praises sung by Grieff, Dunn, Stroehm, the entire communications department, security, you name it."

Kirk grinned again, recalling his first encounter with the base doctor. "You don't have to worry about Doctor Stroehm. I don't think she likes me."

"Does that mean I get to keep my job on the Enterprise?" McCoy interjected.

"Yup." Kirk answered then smiled in his first officer's direction. "I don't know about Spock though. Give that young Grieff a few years and he'll make a damn good first..."

"I shall consider myself warned, Captain," Spock murmured. Kirk felt, more than saw, him relax ever so slightly.

"Me, too," Soden said as he headed for the door. Pausing on the threshold, he chuckled. "By the way, my impression of Loretta's reaction to you differs from yours by about one hundred eighty degrees, Jim." He disappeared into the corridor before Kirk could formulate a suitable response.

Alone with Spock and McCoy, Kirk tried to get comfortable. "I ache in places I didn't know existed and I don't even remember getting hurt," he complained.

Instantly. McCoy's brows beetled into a frown fierce enough to scare a squadron of Klingon Marines. Arms folded across his chest, bobbing slightly on the balls of his feet, he asked truculently, "You don't, hmm? Well, let's see."

A rueful smile gracing his bruised face, Kirk held up his hand to ward off a listing of the indignities to which he had submitted his body. "It's okay, Bones. I plead guilty and hereby surrender to your tender loving care. Now, please, tell me how you got here and how Susan is."

"We got here via the Enterprise. Except for Spock, that is. 'Fleet sent out a high-warp courier for him--"

"Bones!" The nickname came out as a hoarse squeak.

"Well, Jim, the long and short of it is, when FNN got wind of what was going on they pulled every string imaginable to get to Trisia ASAP. This just so happened to correspond with an uprising on Co-Op."

As he spoke, McCoy busied himself making Kirk more comfortable, adjusting the bed, slipping a pillow under the injured shoulder.

"Y'see, it seems some people were getting more out of the co-op than others. Starfleet had already sent a courier out to pick Spock up and ordered Scotty to take the Enterprise out to meet him."

"While we were doing that, 'fleet, in its infinite wisdom, decided we could drop off the FNN people at Trisla. And, as long as we were doing that, there was no reason we couldn't stop by Starbase Seventeen to ferry Commodore Soden back here."

McCoy shrugged at the vagaries of decision-making, adding, "As for Ms. Warsing, she's as well as anyone with a crushed femur and fractured pelvis has any right to be. She's still asleep but she'll be fine. Despite whatever her opinion of certain people may be, Loretta Stroehm is an excellent surgeon."

Kirk shook his head and wished he hadn't. "So. We're going to Co-op."

Though not a muscle moved, Spock's face somehow took on a decidedly disapproving cast. "We are not," he said firmly.

"But Bones said--"

"The disturbance on Co-op took care of itself." The explanation, if explanation it was, was less than informative.

"I see." Kirk tilted his head, waiting for McCoy to expand on Spock's response. "H'ever, there's this little outbreak of locust-pox on Moorshum IV."

"We're going there?" Kirk pushed back the thin blanket and let his legs dangle over the side of the bed. Idly he wondered who'd ever chosen that particular shade of red-orange thermocrylic for use in medical facilities. It certainly couldn't be considered restful and it had a disturbing ability to upset one's stomach.

Gently returning Kirk's legs to the bed and tucking the cover back around him, McCoy said, "Uh-huh. Just as soon as your doctor deems you medically fit for beaming."

"Bones, I'm fine. If Moorshum needs supplies..."

"You're far from fine," McCoy said sharply, "but I have to agree there's no reason you can't transport back to the Enterprise." Blue eyes frowning he added, "Unfortunately, there are a lot of people who want some answers about what happened here, Jim. A debriefing has been scheduled for fourteen hundred hours. That's five hours from now. I suggest you get some sleep, Commodore."

Kirk grinned wryly at the borrowed rank but he said nothing, giving in to the urge to seek out the dream world from which he'd been so rudely awakened

* * *

The physical therapy room aboard the Enterprise was dimly lit, the volume on the small viewscreen low, a compromise intended to make the patient forget the torture his therapist was putting him through. On the screen a golden-haired women held center stage.

"There are still many questions," Sue Warsing said gravely, "for those in charge at Federated Bio-Systems. Questions from the FEPA, the FIH, questions from the people of Trisla and those who work at Federated, just to name a few.

"It appears that Federated was in the wrong, but to the extent that Vincent Pferris alleged? From the information now available, it seems doubtful."

"Again," McCoy ordered quietly as he guided Kirk through a set of exercises intended to restore strength and mobility to his injured shoulder. "One more time... Good. Keep it up. And again... Good."

"Bones," Kirk puffed. His cheeks were flushed, his features burnished with perspiration. "You're killing me."

"Uh-huh," the doctor responded unsympathetically.

On the monitor the camera backed off, framing the speaker and her anti-gravity chair against the exterior of the wreckage that had once been Federated Bio-Systems' first floor cafeteria and employee lounge.

"It is possible the tragedy that occurred here could have been avoided had someone been willing to listen, if someone had been there for Vincent Pferris when he needed them. Perhaps had Federated not been so busy covering certain parts of its corporate anatomy, none of this would have happened.

"C'mon, Jim. Just one more and you're finished."

Working against the pain, the captain complied. "But will I be alive?" he grumped, using humor to take the edge off the depression he'd been unable to shake since returning to the ship.

McCoy grinned back, playing his part in the ritual. "You'll live." Perching his slender rump on the edge of the massage table and folding his arms across his chest, he asked gently, "Feel like talking about it?"

Kirk considered the offer. "No." A grimace crossed his face as he grabbed for a nearby towel and draped it around his neck.

Tiny muscles tightened in McCoy's cheeks and jaw but he merely said, "Fair enough..."

On the screen, Warsing was still speaking. "...Perhaps this disaster will serve to remind us that in our ever-more computerized galaxy, people remain feeling beings. Their needs must be met, their emotions dealt with. The cost of not doing so is simply too great to contemplate."

With a finger she activated a control on the armrest. The chair lifted from the ground. then, as a memorial to the deceased members of the FNN team scrolled by, Susan Warsing silently guided the float chair away from the scene of the hostage-taking, her editorial completed.

McCoy pointed to a pool filled with a gently bubbling broth of chemicals designed to heal abused bodies. "In."

Watching Kirk watch the docu-vid had given him a clue as to what the problem was. Now, observing the captain closely as he shed the warm-up pants he wore over a brief swim suit and slid gingerly into the warm bath, McCoy added, "She must be some woman. She shouldn't have been out of bed for a week and here she is, two days later, doing a live report."

"She is that," Kirk affirmed softly.

"Hmmph," McCoy grunted. "Another alpha for you. They never know when to call it quits."

Privately, he considered it a crime that either Kirk or Warsing was back on the job. Neither FNN nor Starfleet seemed to realize the extent of their injuries, but McCoy knew. He'd seen Warsing's preliminary scans, treated Kirk's wounds himself. None were life-threatening, but pulled muscles, lungs compromised by smoke and burning chemicals, a hairline fracture of the collarbone and torn rotator cuff on Kirk's part, a crushed femur and fractured pelvis on Warsing's were nothing to ignore. All the same they were being ignored, all in the name of duty.

Kirk read the expression in his CMO's eyes. "It's okay, Bones. I'll survive. Moorshum's epidemic is more important than my little aches and pains. As for Sue Warsing," He halted, shaking his head. "She saw her crew die, Bones."

McCoy nodded, understanding some, if not all, of the implications of those five words.

Kirk didn't notice. In his mind he was traveling back in time to the scant half hour following the debriefing. It was the only time he'd been able to spend with Sue before the Enterprise warped out on her emergency medical mission.

* * *

"When do you leave?" Sue's voice was taut, strained.

"We're scheduled to leave orbit at 1600 hours..." Kirk replied. He raised his hands, palms upmost, an action that was suddenly painful. Repressing the urge to inhale sharply, he said, "The Enterprise could get you back to Earth faster than a commercial flight, Sue, and McCoy is an excellent doctor. He'd have you back together before you could say 'ahh.'"

Feeling strangely awkward, he added, "I guess I don't have to tell you, you'd be more than welcome."

"I'd like to but--" She shook her head. "FNN is flying the families of my crew out for an on-site memorial service. I owe it to them to be here."

"I understand." Bridging the uncomfortable silence that followed his words, Kirk asked. "What are your plans? Are you going to stay with FNN?"

"Yes. It's what I've worked for. I'm finally getting to where I'll be able to do the kind of stories that matter."

She paused, turning her head away from him. "It's odd, though... I keep thinking that if I'd arrived a few days earlier, maybe I could have made a difference. Maybe Pferris never would have gone off the deep end if he'd had someone to talk to. Maybe I could have prevented all of this. Maybe..." Her voice broke. She swallowed then went on, "Maybe my crew would still be alive."

"Don't, Sue. Start thinking 'if' and 'maybe' and you'll end up a basket case. It's too bad you can't talk to McCoy. He has a lot of experience dealing with..." Hoping she wouldn't take offense, Kirk drew a deep breath, "overly responsible personalities."

Her melodious voice was pitched ever-so-slightly higher than usual. "Is that what it's called?"

Kirk gave a restrained shrug. "It's what Bones calls it when he takes me to task for feeling responsible formatters beyond my control."

Warsing turned back to meet his worried gaze. Her eyes were brilliant with unshed tears. "I'll be okay, Jim. Don't worry about me."

"I will though." Daring his injuries to interfere, Kirk bent down and brushed his lips against hers.

"McCoy to Captain." McCoy was speaking, had been for some time if the concerned look he was giving Kirk meant anything. "Jim, Uhura's calling, says there's a personal communication for you." He held out a thick terrycloth robe. "It's live, not recorded. You can take it in here if you want."

Kirk shrugged into the robe, then wished he'd not moved quite so vigorously. Reluctant to let even McCoy witness the discomfort he was experiencing, he crossed to the monitor and stabbed at a button. "Pipe it down here, Lieutenant."

"Aye, sir." Uhura's exquisite features blinked out, to be replaced by others, pale but equally lovely.

Kirk's brows rose. "Sue. I just saw your piece on Ferris. You did a good job."

"Thanks, Jim." Warsing flushed. "Actually, that's partly why I'm calling. It seems it's already having an effect on my career. I suggested a segment on life aboard a starship and my boss agreed. FNN okayed it on his say-so. Just like that. I have to wait for the official go-ahead from Starfleet but I couldn't waft to tell you. Commodore Soden said the orders would be coming through sometime in the next twenty-four hours. Assuming everything goes the way we expect, we should be able to join you as soon as you finish your mission to Moorshum IV." She smiled at him, adding, "I did warn you I was going to be underfoot from now on."

"That's great Sue. I was disappointed not to have more time to spend with you."

A crooked smile gracing his lined face, McCoy slipped quietly from the room. "Should be interesting," he murmured, "seeing what happens when two alphas get together."

THE END