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FIRST CHOICE


  Captain Eloise Allston let out a sigh as she read what was on the datapadd.

  “I’ve been dreading this day,” she stated sombrely.

  There was a high pitched and rapid clicking sound. “It was inevitable, Captain,” translated her universal translator.

  Allston put the padd down and looked up at the person on the other side of her ready room desk. “Doesn’t mean I can’t lament it.”

  “I am also sadden by this. However, it is my time to return to my home-nest and undergo the phase,” explained Commander Uodob staring back at her with his large, unblinking compound eyes.

  The phase, a Federation standard term due to the inability to effectively translate the term, was the final stage in the Kaferian lifecycle. It was a complex and to Allston a wholly alien process that required Uodob to return to the nest where he was hatched to undergo the process. Once back in his nest he would never leave it living out the rest of his life there. Any other course meant a premature death for him.

  The insectoid Kaferians already had a shorter lifespan than other species, such as Humans like herself, and the phase shortened even that in terms of being able to pursue lives beyond their nests. After twenty-seven years of life they could start to experience the initial stages of the phase at any moment with little to no forewarning. Once that happened they had to make their way back to their nest. Uodob was just twenty-eight, so Allston had spent over a year with this day at the back of her mind.

  “I’ve read about the phase. I can’t begin to fully comprehend the journey that lies before you,” Allston said.

  “Yes. I am displaying nervousness about the change, but within I am excited as well,” stated Uodob. Though his deep olive green features didn’t show either emotion.

  Non-insectoid species found it difficult to read Kaferian emotions. Scent played a very significant role in their communication, often providing important emotive components. The universal translator Allston used wasn’t able to factor that in. This resulted in the translation often being flat in tone, which often seemed in stark contrast to the rapid and high pitch clicking of their speech.

  Their rigid and smooth exoskeleton also removed typical facial expressions as signs. While their antennae and mandibles were able to express their emotions few humanoids had the exposure to Kaferians to readily read them. This meant Kaferians that interacted with other species often took to stating how they felt to compensate for these barriers of communication. Uodob had served on the Swiftfire for over five years, but Allston still struggled to pick up on his non-verbal signals at times.

  “You will require a replacement for me,” he stated.

  “I will,” she replied gesturing for Uodob to take a seat.

  “Do you have anyone in mind?” he asked as he sat down.

  It was a question Allston had put a lot of thought into. While she hadn’t been looking forward to losing Uodob as he said it was inevitable. Though her first choice was probably going to come as a bit of a surprise.

  “I do. Though they aren’t from this ship.”

  “Really? I am surprised,” Uodob stated confirming Allston’s thoughts. “Do you not believe anyone on the ship is ready to take the position?”

  “Rank-wise the only people who could step up to commander are in engineering and medical. Either of them want to make that change.”

  “You don’t have to have someone become a full commander to be first officer. A lieutenant commander could fulfil the position.”

  “That’s true. However, none of those potential candidates are ready to take the first officer’s position.” She paused before asking, “Do you disagree with me on that?”

  Uodob’s mandibles twitched in a manner that she recognised as a sign of him thinking something over.

  “I believe your assessment to be fair, Captain,” replied Uodob, possibly diplomatically. “May I enquire who this outside candidate is?”

  “Lieutenant Commander Jonathan Masters.”

  “I am feeling a sense of familiarity regarding that name.”

  “Do you remember rescuing a shuttlecraft a few years ago in the Hyralan system?”

  There was more mandible twitching before Uodob answered, “Yes. That was just prior to my elevation to first officer. We had to get close to the Hyralan’s primary star to effect that rescue. It was quite harrowing.”

  Allston knew that Uodob was understating things. They had to get very close to the star. As dangerous as it was for the Swiftfire it was magnitudes more so for the shuttle. It had nowhere near the protection against the forces acting on it as their much larger Excelsior class exploratory cruiser. Despite the dangers to both the ship and the shuttle they had rescued with no loss of life.

  “He was the shuttle’s occupant. I was very impressed by his actions during the Hyralan Incident.”

  The “Hyralan Incident” had started out as an anti-slavery operation by the USS Parthian, which Masters had been assigned to, that in the end resulted in a major diplomatic incident between the Federation and Romulan Star Empire. This was what gave what would otherwise have been a fairly minor affair a much greater significance.

  The Swiftfire had only played a small role in the incident. By the time the Swiftfire got involved the actions that would define the incident and the subsequent fallout had occurred. As such its rescuing of Masters was merely a footnote in the event. Despite that Allston was glad to have been involved in preserving the life of a fellow member of Starfleet, particularly one of Masters’ calibre.

  “He was responsible for saving hundreds of lives. That is indeed an impressive feat. Though I recall some controversy surrounding what happened. I am feeling a sense of unease regarding him.”

  “There were some deaths as well. In the aftermath there were questions about how responsible Masters was for them and whether his actions where appropriate,” explained Allston.

  “Am I to assume you do not agree with that?”

  Allston tapped her fingers on the padd as she formulated how to best respond to that question. “In terms of his actions been inappropriate; no I don’t. When you’re in a position where you make decisions with other people’s lives that can result in the harm or death of those you command. Sometimes knowingly and other times it’s an unfortunate occurrence.”

  Uodob titled his head down and his antennae followed suit laying forward as flat as they could. “This is bringing up feelings of guilt within me. I am quite solemn over some of my decisions in the past.”

  “There’s always a responsibility for the orders you give. That doesn’t mean they were the wrong orders, though it often doesn’t make accepting the outcome any easier,” spoke Allston from a place of experience. “When it comes to his actions at Hyralan I am confident that the then Lieutenant Masters did the right thing. Initially I had hoped to have him assigned to the Swiftfire after he recovered from his injuries sustained during the incident.”

  “Why was he not?”

  “It came down to need. I already had a chief of security whereas the just out of the yards USS Bougainville actually needed officers for senior positions. I’ve kept an eye on him though and was waiting for a suitable position here to come up. I believe the time could be now.”

  “I have always trusted in your good judgement. If not for it I may never have reached first officer before I had to return home. Not every being would have taken a chance on someone who would be forced to leave at any moment in the near future.”

  He was right. Several of Allston’s peers had questioned her decision to seek Uodob’s elevation to first officer givens his advanced age for a Kaferian. However, she felt he had earned the promotion and deserved to be the ship’s first officer. She had hoped it would have been longer than two years, but in the end she still regarded that decision to be the correct one.

  “It’s easy to have faith in someone. The real achievement is living up to and exceeding it. Which you have done, Uodob.”

  “I am thankful for your compliment, Captain. On your choice, how successful do you believe you will be in seeing your desires fulfilled?”

  “I can offer the position, but Starfleet Command would still have to approve it. Obviously the wishes of a commanding officer has some weight, but it isn’t everything. Masters’ commanding officer could appeal or resist and that would also be factored in. Of course Command might have plans of their own for Commander Masters or the first officer’s position here,” Allston paused as her fingers went to the small, bronze coin inlaid into her desk. As she touched the ship’s good luck charm she continued, “The best chance I have is to get Masters’ CO to agree that a transfer is a good thing and hope it will be enough.”

 

  “You may enter,” called out Captain Jeong Kyu-Seon from the other side of the door.

  The door in front of Lieutenant Commander Jonathan Masters slid open and he stepped into the captain’s ready room. Jeong looked his normal composed self, though given Jeong had just summoned him a few minutes ago he supposed that the captain had been expecting him. Masters on the other hand had been off duty and wasn’t sure as to why the captain wanted to speak to him.

  “You wanted to see me, Captain.”

  “Take a seat, Commander.”

  As Masters took a seat opposite Jeong he mind raced through possibilities as to why he was summoned. Captain Jeong wasn’t one to call a casual meeting with his subordinates. He preferred to keep a professional distance between himself and his crew. To be called in, particularly when off duty, suggested something of significant importance.

  “Is there a problem, Captain?” he asked.

  “No. At least not a type of problem you might be expecting,” replied Jeong. Masters was even more confused than before. Thankfully Jeong got to the point immediately. “I have received an unexpected request from another captain. They are seeking to have you transferred from the Bougainville to their vessel.”

  This was definitely not what Masters expected. “Someone wants me transferred off the Bougainville? I haven’t made any such requests, sir. I value my place here.”

  Jeong raised a hand to signal for Masters to calm down. “Don’t worry, I know. This request is out of the blue. Are you familiar with Captain Allston of the USS Swiftfire?”

  Again that was not what Masters had expected. He shifted uncomfortably in his seat as he answered, “No. I mean, I know of her of course. The ship did save my life, but I never met the Captain or any of the crew in person. I was…not conscious during my time on the Swiftfire. I only regained consciousness once I was off the ship and on Starbase 212.”

  “Have you spoken to her since the events at Hyralan?”

  He made a concerted effort not to display anything but a neutral response. “No. I’ve never had any contact with the captain of the Swiftfire.”

  Masters carefully watched Jeong’s reaction. He could understand that he might come across a bit unappreciative towards those who saved him. He liked to think that it was because of his injuries and then a busy life as to why he never contacted his saviours. However, the truth was he simply wanted to put those events three years ago behind him.

  “It seems she has kept an eye on you at least,” replied Jeong without displaying any signs of judgement over Masters’ answer.

  Masters tried to let that comment wash over him. He had a mixed history concerning superior officers that ‘kept an eye on him’. His surname carried some weight within Starfleet due to who his parents were and that came with its own set of baggage.

  “What’s the position? Security chief?” he asked.

  “No. Captain Allston wants you to replace her outgoing first officer.”

  “First officer!” he said surprised. “I’m…that’s unexpected.”

  “Why is that, Commander?” asked Jeong with interest. “Do you not want to continue advancement towards commanding your own vessel?”

  “I of course do hope to command a starship one day. I know to do that I have to do my time as a first officer,” Masters paused before he continued. “I guess I haven’t really looked too far ahead in terms of my career. I’m settled here.”

  “Settling here might not be the best thing for you career-wise. Commander Royk is happy, or at least as happy as a Vulcan can be with his position. Given their long lifespans Vulcans don’t always seek to progress their careers at the same pace as Humans may. It would likely be a significant amount of time before you could progress here.”

  Masters had not been lying when he said he hadn’t looked too far ahead. He’d only spent just over two years on the Bougainville and was more than willing to serve longer. While he saw becoming first officer here as his next step, he hadn’t considered how he would do it nor how long it would take. It seemed clear what would be best for his career.

  “So I’m to be transferred?”

  “That decision has yet to be made, which is why I’m discussing this with you. Captain Allston contacted me with her intention to request your transfer to gauge what my response might be. While Command has the final say, her request for your transfer would potentially be more successful if there is no resistance from your current commanding officer.”

  “What did you say, sir?”

  “I told her that I had to consider it. I did this because I believe you should have some input into this decision. If this offer interests you I will support the request. If you don’t think you’re ready to take this new position I’ll do my best to resist it. There is nothing wrong with the latter. It can take more courage to be honest about your limitations. So I want you to carefully consider what you want. Captain Allston is looking for a fairly speedy reply from me regarding this. I’d like to know tomorrow how you’d like me to respond.”

  “Yes, sir.”

  “Good. You have some deliberating to do, Commander. Dismissed.”

  Masters stood and exited the ready room. Within a few short minutes Masters felt like his life had been thrown into turmoil. His mind was in a daze as he made his way to the turbolift on the bridge. The sound and activity of the bridge around him melted away into obscurity as he was completely absorbed in his own thoughts.

  “Everything alright?” came a whisper shocking him out of his self-reflection.

  He glanced to his side where Lieutenant Susan Core stood. She had managed to saunter next to him unnoticed as he waited for the turbolift. Her curiosity of what he had seen Jeong about mixed with a slight look of concern on her face.

  “Fine. Just…tired,” he replied forcing a fake smile.

  She gave him a look that suggested she didn’t believe him. She knew him too well to be so easily fooled by the front he put up. He saw her open her mouth to no doubt push the issue, but she stopped herself. She must have realised that she was unlikely to pry the truth out of him on the bridge. Thankfully the turbolift arrived allowing him to escape the awkward silence between them.

  “I’ll see you later, Commander,” promised Core as he stepped into the turbolift.

  Masters just nodded in response. As the doors to the turbolift closed his mind was focused on a further future.

 

  Lieutenant Azihagiser Hist bit down on the deep fried Andorian tuber root and relished in the satisfying crunch that seemed to reverberate through his jaw and all the way to the tips of his antennae. This was one of his favourite dishes. It took him back to his home on the Andorian colony world of Tek’sla. Memories of eating them with friends or family flittered through his mind as he savoured the taste. While this particular dish was replicated rather than organically grown and prepared it still tasted and just importantly smelt like the real thing.

  It had the additional benefit of not being as unhealthy as the actual dish. The replicator could mimic the taste and crunch of being deep fried without the extra addition of the oil and calories in that method of cooking. At least that was the excuse he used when treating himself to the larger helping than he should have.

  As he munched down on another tuber root he spotted Lieutenant Iyer entering the crew lounge. The Human flight controller spotted Hist and gave him a wave before heading to the nearest replicator. As Iyer approached his table with his food he wore a barely concealed look of excitement across his dark features.

  “Azi, can I?” Iyer asked.

  He nodded and gestured for Iyer to take the seat opposite him. “Of course, Vihaan.” Once Iyer was seated he continued, “You look excited. What’s happening?”

  Iyer quickly glanced around clearly checking to see who was within earshot before he leaned forward and said, “I just heard that Commander Uodob has informed the Captain he’s going to be stepping down.”

  Hist had already heard the news. It was partially why he was treating himself to a sizeable helping of fried tuber roots.

  “Really?” he said feigning surprise.

  “Really!” repeated Iyer. “You know what that means?”

  “What?”

  “That the first officer’s position is going to be available. You’ll surely get it,” explained Iyer excitedly.

  “I’m not sure about that,” he said with false modesty.

  He had been thinking about the position for some time now. Uodob had been open about this part of his life and what it would mean for his career. While he had only just tendered his resignation Hist knew that nearly a week ago Uodob had started to become aware that he was starting to experience the initial stages of the phase. While he had no wish for Uodob to leave the ship he had been anticipating this day.

  “Come on! You’re the only choice,” Iyer said with some incredulity.

  “Kiarra and Zim both out rank me,” he stated simply.

  “Doctor Darra’s the chief medical officer. He won’t be offered a first officer’s position. And Kiarra doesn’t want the job.”

  “What makes you so sure Kiarra isn’t interested in being first officer?”

  “I literally just asked her. She said and I quote, ‘I prefer the smell of warp coils’. There’s no one else but you.”

  Hist already knew all that as he had already subtly broached the topic with Lieutenant Commander Prova. He was third officer, behind Prova, but would leapfrog her when he got the position. Not that she’d care. As Iyer had said she had little wish to move into command. If anything she saw her role as second officer as an unfortunate burden of her rank and position.

  He popped another tuber root into his mouth and acted as if he was mulling over what Iyer had said. He agreed with Iyer. He was the only one on the ship who could take the first officer position. There was always the chance that someone off the ship could take the position, but Captain Allston had always promoted officers to senior positions from within the ship’s crew. Anyone taking a senior position had to earn their place on the Swiftfire first. He had done that. He would be the ship’s new first officer. He had no doubt about it.

  With an as humble smile as he could he simply stated, “Well, we’ll just see what happens.”

 

  Susan Core bounced on the balls of her feet as waited by the closed door. It opened revealing Jon Masters, who didn’t look that surprised to see her. He was still partially in uniform, which did surprise Core. It was quite late as she had just finished her beta duty shift and given Masters was meant to on duty at the next alpha shift she had thought that he would be in his sleeping attire. She had expected to be risking waking him, but after their strange interaction on the bridge several hours ago she thought it was worth the risk. While he did look a bit tired, he didn’t look like he’d been asleep.

  “Susan. Hi,” he said.

  “You’re awake! Good! You looked a bit out of it after you saw the Captain, so I thought you maybe wanted to talk. I brought bribes!” she said as she held up a bottle of whisky that she was carrying.

  “I hope you’re not trying to get me drunk and take advantage of me.”

  She gave him a faux guilty look. “You know me too well. Can I come in?”

  Masters stepped back from the door to allow her to enter. The first thing that caught Core’s eye were the large angled windows in front of her that looked out into space. Core’s quarters were in the interior of the ship, but Masters was one of the ship’s senior officers and had quarters on the edge of the ship’s saucer. While all she could see was the blackness of space with lines of light streaking by that was a sign of the ship at warp, she still felt envious.

  As she walked towards the couch positioned under one of the windows she paused as she spotted something unexpected. On the low table in front of the couch was an open bottle of alcohol and two glasses. She quickly glanced around, but didn’t see any signs of anyone else in his quarters.

  “Have you had company?” she asked. “Or are you doing the old ‘you’re not drinking alone if there are two glasses’ trick?”

  Masters shook his head. “No on both counts. The other glass is actually for you.”

  “Really?” she said giving him a questioning look.

  “I thought you’d probably want to see me after your shift ended. I was actually just about to comm you.”

  Any hopes that maybe she had been worrying about Masters unnecessary were fully dispelled now. Him drinking alone wasn’t the best sign, but not necessarily a serious one. The fact he wanted to talk set off alarm bells.

  “Now I’m really starting to worry,” she said concerned. “What happened between you and the Captain that has you ready to reach out to a friend? That’s not like you.”

  Masters conceded with a nod and said, “Let me pour you a drink.”

  Masters walked around her and picked up the bottle off the table. He filled the two short tumblers well over half full before holding on out for Core. She took it and sat down in a chair next to the table as Masters sat down on the couch opposite her.

  She impatiently sat silently as she waited for Masters to speak. He ran a hand through his short black hair as he stared downwards. His lack of eye contact suggested that whatever he was about to say it wasn’t something she was going to like. After several seconds he finally looked up at her.

  “The Captain has received a request, well not a request so much as a notification that someone wishes me to transfer to a new assignment.”

  “Someone on the ship?” she asked confused.

  “No. Another captain. That’s why I saw Jeong. He was informing me of this and that the decision of how he should respond to this request would be up to me. So I’ve spent the last couple of hours considering it. And I’ve come to a decision,” Masters paused, “I’m going to tell the Captain that I am open to the transfer.”

  The shock of what Masters said hit her like punch to the stomach. She had not expected this at all. She had thought maybe Masters and Jeong had a disagreement over an operation on the ship. Or that maybe Masters had made some sort of request of the Captain and had been turned down. This was so much worse.

  Core could barely look at Masters as she asked, “You’re leaving the ship?”

  “Nothing’s been confirmed. This whole thing is more statements of intent by two parties as to what they want. It’s up to Starfleet Command on whether I get reassigned or not.”

  Core leaned forward in her chair and looked down into the brown liquid in the glass that she held before her. She raised it to her lips and took a big swig, downing almost half of it in one go. The burning sensation of the alcohol flowing down her throat briefly distracted her from the situation.

  When she looked back up Masters was quietly watching her. The concern and worry he was feeling over her reaction was very well concealed. However, Core knew him too well to not be able to see past some of the layers he put forward.

  “What’s the new assignment?” she asked breaking the silence.

  “First officer of the USS Swiftfire.”

  “Never heard of it,” said Core dismissively. She downed the rest of her drink and slid her glass on the table towards the bottle.

  Masters got the hint and refilled her glass, though not as full as the first drink. She guessed he might be a bit wary of the speed that she had demolished her first glass.

  “It was the ship that saved me during the Hyralan Incident,” he explained before placing her glass closer to her.

  Core and Masters had grown very close over the last two years. She knew much of his past, as he did hers. He would know that she would remember the Swiftfire and its connection to him. Her previous lie had been a jab at Masters born out of the swirling emotions inside her right now. He had not taken the bait.

  As she picked up her refilled glass she decided to instead use her knowledge of Masters against him. “After what you told me about Captain Osteran I can’t believe you’re going to accept someone chasing after you.”

  “In a way neither can I,” he replied before taking a sip of his drink. “Though I think this is a different case. I made use of my…well, let’s just say I found out more about Captain Eloise Allston of the Swiftfire and I’m comfortable with what I’ve learnt.”

  “But it could still end up like your time on the Parthian,” she pushed.

  Masters glanced down at his glass as he swirled the contents around. Core thought she might have gotten through to him, but that hope was quickly dashed. “I can’t say with a hundred percent certainty that it won’t. However, I can’t be scared of that. Not if I want to advance my career towards where I want to be.”

  “Where do you want to be?” she asked despite knowing the answer.

  “That centre chair on the bridge. To own it. Not just occupy it, but to know that it’s my place. The reality is to do that I’m going to eventually have to leave this ship.”

  It was what she expected him to say and even worse she knew he was right. She took a large gulp of her drink, though not as big as her first swig. She focused on the burning again, though it was less intense this time. She knew she was attempting to fight a battle that had already been lost.

  “And it has to be now?” she asked.

  “I wasn’t looking for it, but I can’t just ignore the opportunity,” he replied, again being annoyingly correct.

  “Do you think drinking while making such a huge decision was the right thing to do?”

  “I only had one drink and that was just before you got here when I was building myself up towards telling you.”

  “You were that worried about my reaction?” she said with surprise, though she noted that given her response so far it did make some sense.

  “I didn’t think you’d collapse on the floor and wail up at the sky, but I knew that you weren’t going to like the news.”

  “You’re right. I don’t. I’d rather you stay here,” she said bluntly. “But this isn’t just about me, as annoying as that is. I care about you enough to support you’re terrible, terrible decision.”

 “I’m definitely feeling supported,” he said quietly as he finished off his glass of whisky.

  “I’m happy and proud that you’re getting what you want, what you deserve. But I’m also angry, sad, confused and so much more because you’re leaving me. It’s terrible for me!”

  “We’ve only served together for two years. You’ll probably forget about me within a week.”

  Core gave Masters a harsh glare as she replied, “Don’t you dare try to diminish our relationship.”

  Masters raised a hand in a gesture to appease her. “I’m sorry, that wasn’t my intention.”

  “Let me feel what I feel. I know you and I don’t process or display emotions the same way all the time, but I’m…all over the place right now.” Masters looked apologetic and chastised by her tone. Core knew she had probably taken what was an off the cuff comment too seriously and added guilt to the range of emotions swirling inside her. She took a deep breath and asked in a softer tone, “Please tell me you’re feeling something like I’m feeling right now.”

  “Of course. On the outside I’m doing my best to keep things level, but on the inside that turmoil is there. This wasn’t an easy decision. You were definitely a factor I took into account when I was weighing up what to do.”

  “Just not enough to stop you from leaving,” she muttered as she brought her glass to her lips to finish off its contents.

  “Now who’s diminishing our relationship?”

  The throwing of her own words back at her raised Core’s ire momentarily and her jaw set as she fired a steely glare at Masters. However, her comment was more egregious than his and she deserved the light reprimand he just delivered. She quickly averted her eyes from him and instead focused on her empty glass.

  “There’s still one question you haven’t asked,” stated Masters after several moments of silence.

  Core knew what it was because it was the one on her mind right now. She slowly started to spin her glass in her hands and watched the remnants of her drink slide around the bottom edge of the glass.

  “Because I know no matter the answer I’m not going to like it,” she replied quietly.

  “I could be leaving in a couple of days.”

  Core shut her eyes tightly as dismay joined the party. “That soon.”

  “It’ll probably take only two or three days for Command to made a decision. If approved, which I’ve gathered is close to a certainty, Captain Allston requires a new first officer as soon as possible. That means I’d immediately be packing my belonging and leaving.”

  Core looked up from her glass at Masters. “So this might be the last time we can spend any quality time together off duty. Our shifts don’t line up very well.”

  “I know. That’s why I’m more than willing to give up some sleep to share a drink or two with you now and make the most of what little time we have left. That is if you’re willing to?”

  Core’s confusion and anger had been replaced by resignation. Masters was leaving, one of her closest friends in the entire universe, let along on the Bougainville.  She could focus on these negative emotions and let them dictate what she should do. Or she could put them aside, even if just for now, and be with her friend who was taking a major step forward in his life.

  Core didn’t have to debate for long on her choice. She stood up, reached for the bottle and poured herself another drink. Instead of returning to her seat she moved to next to Masters on the couch.

  She raised her glass towards him in a gesture he mirrored. She clinked her glass against his, smiled warmly and said with absolute sincerity, “There’s nowhere I’d rather be.”

 

  “Enter.”

  The door slid open and Hist stepped into Captain Allston’s ready room.

  “You wanted to see me, Captain,” he stated.

  “Yes, I did. Take a seat, Lieutenant,” replied Allston from behind her desk.

  Hist made his way to the chair in front of the Captain’s desk all the while working on maintaining a cool and calm demeanour. He had been expecting to be called to see the Captain and there was only one subject that he expected to be discussed.

  “I wanted to talk to you about the position of first officer,” continued Allston as he sat down.

  Hist maintained a neutral expression. This was what he had hoped he had been summoned to discuss. It had been two days since it became common knowledge that Uodob would be leaving. In truth he had expected the Captain to talk to him sooner. While not the next most senior officer on the ship, he considered himself the best candidate for the position. It appeared the Captain believed the same.

  “Yes, sir?” he said with feigned ignorance. This was his moment. He clenched his fists resting on his legs as he waited with anticipation for the words he expected the Captain to say.

  “As you’ve no doubt heard by now Commander Uodob is leaving us and his position will need to be filled. I want you to know that you will not be taking the position.”

  Hist’s heart immediately sank. He had to struggle not to drop his head in disappointment, though he could not stop his antennae from twitching in response to his emotions. He took a moment to fully compose himself.

  “Did Commander Prova put her hand up?” he finally asked.

  “No, Kiarra is happy in engineering. I have made an offer to someone off the ship.”

  Hist was unable to conceal his surprise as he repeated Allston, “Off the ship?”

  “Yes. Lieutenant Commander Jonathan Masters of the USS Bougainville.”

  “Lieutenant Commander Masters?” he again repeated as the unpleasant surprises continued.

  “You may recall him as the person we rescued during the incident in the Hyralan system three years ago,” explained Allston.

  Hist just nodded. Allston had mistaken his response as asking who Masters was. He knew who Masters was. He knew of Masters well before the ship’s involvement with him at Hyralan. The question he had asked was about ‘why him’ rather than ‘who’.

  “No doubt you have questions as to why I chose someone off ship when I’ve almost always promoted from within,” continued Allston. “The problem was the suddenness of Uodob’s departure. I had hoped he would avoid the phase for another year or two. By then I would have been more comfortable considering promoting from within and you would have been on the short list.”

  It was not easy for him to hear that his superior didn’t think he was ready for a position he felt he was ready for. He wanted to argue with her; tell her she was wrong and that he was ready. However, she wouldn’t be telling him this if she hadn’t already made up her mind and have the transfer approved. Which, now he thought about it, would explain why it took several days before she discussed the first officer position with him.

  “What if you couldn’t get him?”

  “If Command didn’t approve his transfer I would have asked them to assign an appropriate officer.”

  “I see,” he replied unable to keep his growing disappointment from leaking into his voice. Not getting the position was difficult to hear, but it was crushing to know that he never really had a chance.

  “I know you’re disappointed with this news, Azi. You’ve taken the long route to get where you are today going from enlisted to an officer. You have years on some of your colleagues of your rank and even higher. However, I don’t think you would expect at this stage in your officer career to be given a first officer’s position on a ship like the Swiftfire. On a smaller frigate or escort maybe, and if you were to seek out those opportunities now I wouldn’t stand in your way. However, I hope you don’t. Because this isn’t a career setback. Being made a first officer when you’re not ready can be. Don’t take this as me doubting you. It is an affirmation that where you are now, being this ships tactical and security chief is where you can best serve Starfleet, this crew and me.”

  “Yes, sir. Thank you for explaining it to me,” he smiled, though Allston’s explanation had done little to lighten his mood.

  “You deserve it. Now, if you want you can take the rest of your shift off. As I said, I would understand if you do want to reassess your situation on the Swiftfire.”

  Hist opened his mouth to accept the Captain’s offer, but paused before the words came out. He sat there for several moments as his mind wrestled with his options. He understood the Captain’s reasoning and deep down he accepted them. However, what rang most with him was the idea of undeserved promotion, though not in relation to him.

  “No, sir. I trust your judgement regarding my place here. The best thing for me to do now is just to get back to work.”

  Allston gave him an appreciative smile. “That’s good to hear. I’ll let you get back to your duties.”

  Dismissed, Hist exited out of the captain’s ready room and back onto the bridge. As he returned Lieutenant Iyer was quick to notice from his flight control position. He glanced over to Hist with an expected look of excitement on his face. It quickly faded when he saw the serious and sombre expression Hist wore. Iyer quickly returned his gaze to his console.

  Hist made his way to the tactical station on the bridge. He sat down and took a moment to get his mind back into the right head space. He accessed the Starfleet personnel records and pulled up those belonging to the new incoming first officer. He would be prepared when he arrived.

 

  Masters put down the last of his luggage in the rear of the shuttle. While he had only been on the ship for two years he had managed to build up quite a collection of belongings. He had been comfortable on the Bougainville and had expected to spend some time on the ship. As such he had made his quarters feel more like home. Packing it all away had been, like all the other times, somewhat emotional. He was going to miss the Bougainville.

  “You can start preflight now if you want,” he called out to the shuttle pilot at the front of the craft. “Everything is onboard now.”

  “Yes, sir,” responded the pilot. “Though it looks like someone’s come to say goodbye.”

  Masters stepped out of the shuttle and saw Commander Royk and Lieutenant Core standing nearby. Royk projected his typical calm, stoic Vulcan demeanour, while Core looked far more emotional. Masters was surprised to see them there. Both were currently on duty and he had said his farewells to them already. He made his way to them.

  “Commander Royk, is there something I forgot? A change in my orders?” he asked.

  “No, Commander Masters. Your orders are still to report to the USS Swiftfire and take on the position of first officer upon your arrival. As for forgetting anything; I cannot answer.”

  Masters eyed Royk with a mix of confusion and suspicion. “You’re not just here to say goodbye, are you?”

  “No. Our farewells were adequately expressed in our previous conversation. We are not here directly related to you.” Masters saw Core give Royk an unsure look. Clearly she didn’t know what was going on either. “This has to do with Lieutenant Core. Usually this would be a more formal ceremony, but given your relationship it is only logical that you would want to witness and be part of it. I beliebe that the Lieutenant feelings will also align with this.”

  “What is going on, Commander?” asked Core nervously.

  Royk turned to Core. “Lieutenant Core I am informing you that you are now the new chief of security of the USS Bougainville. Effective immediately.”

  Core looked shocked. “I’m the new head of security? Are you serious?”

  “Of course. Captain Jeong and I agreed with your predecessor that you were the logical replacement.”

  “My predecessor…” Core said confused, but a look of realisation came to her face as she turned her attention to Masters. “You told them you thought I should take your place?”

  Masters grinned as he shrugged nonchalantly, “I might have put in good word for you.”

  “One final thing,” interrupted Royk before anything further could be said. “In conjunction with your new position Starfleet Command has also approved your promotion. You are now Lieutenant Commander Susan Core. Congratulations.” He passed a small box to Masters. “Commander, if you will do the honours.”

  Masters opened the box to find a small, round black pip with a golden outline. If possible Masters’ smile grew wider. He looked up at Core and tilted the box for her to see what was in it. As she saw the rank pip she straightened as she came to attention, though she struggled to keep the smile from her tugging at her lips. He stepped up to her and placed the pip on her collar next to the two golden pips already there.

  “Congratulations, Lieutenant Commander,” he said offering his hand to her.

  Core took his hand. “Thank you, Commander Masters.” She turned to Royk. “And you, Commander Royk. I always knew you were a soft touch!”

  “It was almost sentimental of you, Commander,” added Masters.

  The Vulcan’s expression didn’t change. “Hardly. It was only logical that given your relationship with the now Lieutenant Commander Core that you would want to witness her receiving her promotion. Given you had yet to depart it seemed fitting that I involve you, especially given your role in this event occurring. Now, I have other matters to attend to. Commander Core, the Captain requires a full report on the ship’s current tactical and security status by the end of your duty shift. However, I believe that you would have enough time to… observe current operations in the shuttlebay before seeing to that task.”

  Core smiled widely at Royk. “Thank you, Commander.”

  Royk simply nodded in response. He turned to Masters and held his hand up separating his middle and ring fingers into a ‘v’ shape before saying, “Live long and prosper, Commander Masters.”

  Masters returned the Vulcan gesture and repeated, “Live long and prosper, Commander Royk.”

  The Vulcan first officer of the Bougainville turned and headed for the exit of the shuttlebay.

  “So who do you think planned this?” Core asked quietly. “I don’t think Royk would think of this on his own. I also can’t see the Captain coming up with this either since he is clearly a reincarnated Vulcan in Human form.”

  Masters let out a short chuckle. Many on the ship noted that Captain Jeong’s impersonal formality and by-the-book nature gave him an almost Vulcan demeanour. It was probably why he worked so well with Royk as his first officer. However, the senior officers knew there was more to Jeong than just his captain persona, which the same could also be said of Royk. He was sure it was something Core would soon learn thanks to her new position.

  “Whoever it was I’m glad they did.”

  “More importantly, you put me up for your old job and didn’t think to tell me?” asked Core giving him a playful slap on the arm.

  Masters let out a fake yelp of pain and rubbed his arm pretending her strike had hurt. “In my defence I had no idea what Captain Jeong’s decision would be,” he said with mock defensiveness. He switched to sincerity as he continued, “I’m glad to see that he made what I think is the best choice. You deserve it and the promotion.”

  Core reached out and put her hand on his upper arm and squeezed. She gave him a look of deep gratitude and he could see her green eyes starting to well up ever so slightly. It was clear this meant a great deal to her and it cemented within Masters that he had done right by his close friend. 

  “As happy as I am with this I’d still prefer for you to be here doing this job,” she said.

  “One way or another, as I said before, this was inevitable. One of us was going to have to advance along our career paths eventually and most likely it would’ve meant leaving the ship. You could’ve been offered a position as security chief in a month’s time on some random ship out there.”

  “I would have rejected it,” she replied firmly.

  Masters placed a hand on her shoulder and said, “And I wouldn’t have let you.”

  “Damn it!” Core stepped into him, wrapped her arms around him and squeezed tightly. “This would be so much easier if I didn’t care for you,” she said with exasperation.

  Masters’ own arms wrapped around Core as he held her equally as tightly. Core was the person he was closest to on the Bougainville and probably anywhere else. Paradoxically they were far more than friends, but also could never be more than friends. Leaving her was always going to be the hardest part of moving on.

  “Yeah, it would,” he agreed quietly.

  Masters let Core dictate the length of their hug. As he held her the sweet, floral bouquet of her perfume drifted over him. He didn’t know how long it would be before they would be together in the same place and he savoured the familiar touch and smell of her. Finally she let him go and they separated. With her now free hands Core wiped away the tears that had flowed during their embrace.

  “So you all ready to go?” she asked once she composed herself sufficiently. “I probably should get back on duty before Jeong realises he’s made a huge mistake.”

  “Yes. I’ve loaded the last of my luggage and just need to put myself on the shuttle.”

 The two Starfleet officers started to slowly walk towards the shuttle. They did so in silence, which added to the funereal mood. When they got to the back of the shuttle Masters turned to face a very solemn Core.

  “Well, that’s it,” he said breaking the silence. “I want to say ‘one last goodbye’, but that sounds a bit final.”

  Core nodded. “We both just a subspace call away. Though knowing you I’ll be the one putting the calls in, which you better answer. If you ignore me I will mutiny and use this ship to hunt you down.”

  Masters laughed. “I don’t doubt it for one second.” They stood at the entrance to the shuttle for a few more moments before Masters decided he had to bite the bullet. “Well, I best get going before someone kicks me off the ship.”

  Core once again embraced him. “Have a safe trip,” she said before ending their much briefer second hug. “I’ll get in contact in a few days to check how things are going. And the first thing you say better be that you’re missing me.”

  “Of course. The first words out of my mouth will be ‘I miss you, Sally’.”

  Core gave him a very annoyed look that quickly broke into a smile. She gave him a playful shove and said, “Get out of here, you. Before I have you arrested. I’m head of security you know.”

  “Yes, sir,” he replied giving her a mock salute.

  Masters boarded the shuttle and made his way to the cockpit where the pilot sat waiting for him. As was standard for Starfleet shuttles there were two seats at the front of the craft. Masters sat down in the second seat, to the right of the pilot.

  “Are you ready to depart, Commander?” the pilot asked.

  “I am,” he replied.

  As the pilot went about the last checks before launch Masters looked out through the window to his right. Core had moved from behind the shuttle to its side. As the shuttle started to launch he raised his hand for one final wave to his close friend. Core returned the gesture as she slowly, yet far too quickly, disappeared from his view as the shuttle moved forward.

  Masters turned his attention forward and stared out the front window of the shuttle as it exited the ship. It cruised slowly between the two upper pods that were one of the signature features of the New Orleans class frigate. Once clear it delicately curved away towards its predetermined course. The points of light that were the stars before them stretched out into lines before there was a sharp flash of light as the shuttle jumped to warp speed. Masters settled back into his chair for the long journey to a new beginning.

 

    Hist stood stony faced as the shuttle cruised into the Swiftfire’s large main shuttlebay, which was located on the lower decks of the Excelsior-class’s engineering hull.

  “Oooooh.”

  He glanced to the woman standing next to him. Commander Prova light brown eyes were wide and an excited smile crossed her green features.

  She obviously sensed him looking at her as she leaned towards him and quietly said, “That’s one of the new Type-9 shuttles. I’ve been nagging the Captain to get one of those on the ship. I wonder if they’ll let me take it apart.”

  Hist shouldn’t have been surprised by the chief engineer’s reaction. Like a lot of those in her profession, particularly those to reach her rank and had her experience, there was an almost irresistible draw towards any new piece of technology or equipment. They wanted to not only get their hands on it, but they also wanted to take it apart to see how it worked.

  “From what I’ve heard of Captain Jeong I don’t think he’d appreciate us tying up his support vessels any longer than necessary,” said Captain Allston from the other side of Prova.

  Hist silently agreed with Allston. The reports on the commanding officer of the Bougainville depicted him as very by-the-book. He seemed to highly value proper procedure and any deviation from that was wasteful. He would expect the shuttle to drop off its passenger and immediately make its way back to the ship.

  “So that’s a…”

  “It’s a ‘no’, Kiarra,” replied Allston.

  Prova pouted slightly and mumbled, “I never get to have fun.”

  During this exchange between his two senior officers the shuttle had settled on the deck. Towards the rear of the shuttle a hatch opened upwards, which was unusual for Starfleet shuttlecraft as they tended to favour the rear hatch folding down into ramp. Though the hatch didn’t seem large enough to create a big enough opening for someone to exit the craft. Hist guessed that the rear access also had a ramp section and that it was simply blocked from his view by the body of the shuttle and its nacelles.

  From the rear of the shuttle stepped out a dark skinned human. He walked around the aft of the shuttle and strode towards them. He looked much like the images in his personnel file, with the exception that he had neatly trimmed facial hair. He made his way directly to the Captain.

  “Captain Allston, Commander Jonathan Masters reporting as ordered,” said Masters as he reached the Captain.

  Commander Masters handed a padd to the Captain. She looked over it and tapped the screen a couple of times before handing it back to Masters.

  “Transfer orders have been accepted,” she explained. “As of stardate 46416.7 you are now part of the crew of the USS Swiftfire. Welcome aboard, Commander Masters.”

  After Masters took the padd from Allston her hand remained outstretched. She smiled welcomingly at their now first officer. He returned the smile as he took her hand and shook it firmly.

  “Thank you, Captain Allston,” Masters replied.

 The Captain gestured to Prova and him.

  “Let me present the ship’s second and third officers. Lieutenant Commander Prova, our chief engineer.”

  Prova gave Masters an equally warm smile as she shook hands with their new first officer and offered her welcome.

  “And Lieutenant Azihagiser Hist. Our chief of security.”

  “Lieutenant Hist,” said Masters stretching out his hand to him.

  Hist took Masters’ hand firmly. “Commander Masters,” he replied formally, keeping his manner professional.

  Masters was slightly taller than Hist, which he knew given he had gone over Masters’ personnel records. However, while Masters had height on Hist he did not have his bulk. Hist superior physical training gave him a powerful frame. He transferred this through his handshake, which was not crushing, but it was firmer than he received from Masters. This simple act should deliver an obvious message that Hist didn’t just look strong.

  Masters disengaged from their handshake first and Hist let his hand go and went back to his attentive stance. As he did he caught a quizzical look from Prova, but he ignored it. Masters had maintained a professional demeanour throughout and had turned his attention back to Captain Allston.

  “I’ll let you meet the other senior officers and department heads later,” Allston said. “Let me walk you to your quarters. There are a few things I’d like to go over with you. Don’t worry about your luggage, it will be beamed directly to your quarters.”

  Allston tasked Prova and Hist to deal with the luggage and then return to their duties. She and the Commander exited the shuttlebay and headed towards his new quarters.

  “He seems nice,” said Prova once they had exited.

  “From the five seconds of interaction you’ve had with him,” he said dismissively.

  “I mean he isn’t an indescribable tentacle being of pure horror from beyond the veil of time and space. That’s a plus.”

  “Sure,’ he replied noncommittally.

  Prova rolled her eyes at him. “I’ll never understand the need some have for chest-beating.”

  Hist scowled. “I was not ‘chest-beating’.”

  “Sure,” Prova retorted in a manner meant to match his earlier tone. He was about to continue arguing with her, but saw her attention was already moving on. Her eyes were locked on the shuttle. “I’ll deal with the luggage. And if while I’m doing that the pilot wants me to check something out or take apart the warp drive I’d be obligated to do so.”

  Prova walked off towards the shuttle and its pilot who was hanging around the rear of the craft. With nothing left here for him to do Hist headed for the exit out of the shuttlebay. At the moment he was the only one that seemed to understand who their new first officer was. However, he was sure with time others would see Masters for who he really was. He’d make sure of it.

 

  Masters looked around his new quarters as he took a momentary break from unpacking. It was definitely larger than his old quarters. It wasn’t surprising given his promotion and that while the refitted type of Excelsior was a far older design than the New Orleans he’d been previously assigned to, it was a larger ship. However, his quarters currently looked vast due to the blank slate state it was in. As such it was completely impersonal, but he hoped that once he unpacked his belongings the space would feel like somewhere he belonged.

  As he continued to unpack he discovered a small wrapped package that he didn’t recognise. He unwrapped it and found it was a framed photograph. The image showed him sitting down and tilting a cake forward that had “Happy Birthday” written on top of it. He wasn’t alone as hugging him from behind was Susan Core. He couldn’t help but smile back at the happy faces as the memories of that night came flooding back.

  The gift had to be from Core, though he wondered when she managed to slip it into his luggage. His fingers felt something on the back of the frame. Turning it over he found an isolinear chip secured to the back. He removed it and went to the desk in the corner of the main living area. The desk was bare expect for the computer monitor sat on top of it. He connected the storage device to the computer and went to access its contents. It immediately requested permission to play a file, which he granted.

  Unsurprisingly the smiling visage of Susan Core appeared on his screen and she started to speak, “Hi, Jon. Hopefully you find this when you get to the Swiftfire otherwise it means I’ve put it in the wrong bag and this might get a bit weird. I hope you liked my new quarters gift. I know you’re not really one for displaying photos of people, but I thought maybe if you were in it you’d be more inclined to display it. Though I was very tempted to sneak in a full sized portrait of yours truly. In the end I went with a picture of us from your birthday last year. Personally I think it was a good choice and timely as well.”

  Masters had to admit she was correct. He had never been a fan of putting images of him, friends or family on display. He just felt they were more of a private thing. That the memories connected to them were best stored away for time when they were needed.

  “I have one last surprise,” continued Core. “I included a small holoprogram with this message. Consider it an early birthday present. I’ll talk to you soon. Enjoy,” she said playfully to conclude her message.

  Masters immediately checked for the holoprogram and found it on the chip. He was both curious and cautious about it given Core’s tone at the end of her message. There were no clues in the programs name and he started to go over options in his mind. He wondered if it was one he had taken part in with her, but nothing special came to mind. At least nothing special enough to warrant making it a gift for him. There was really only one way to find out, so he transferred the program to the ship’s computer and checked for a free holodeck. There wasn’t one currently, but he was able to reserve one for a few hours later.

  Before he got back to unpacking he had to decide what to do with the Core’s other gift. Core was right, it was a good choice of photo and since it was a gift he should appreciate it. He placed the frame on the desk. He moved it around the desk until he found a spot that seemed to work. He sat back and stared at it for several seconds. It made him feel happy and that made the decision for him.

  Masters went back to unpacking and organising his new quarters. By the time he left for the holodeck his quarters felt more accommodating. As he made his way to the holodeck he passed several of his new ship mates. They exchanged polite greetings, but there was still the slight wariness of unfamiliarity, much as he had experienced with the chief of security. He didn’t know them and they definitely didn’t know him. It would take a bit of time for them to become acquainted with each other.

  Arriving at the holodeck and confirming it wasn’t in use Masters entered it. The large room’s surfaces were black and crisscrossed by yellow lines arranged into a grid. Masters secured the doors behind him for privacy.

  “Computer, load program: Core Gift,” he ordered.

  The cavernous gridded space shimmered out of view and was replaced with a more intimate space. It was a space that Masters was very familiar with. It was his old quarters on the Bougainville. They appeared exactly as they were before he packed up and left.

  “When did you manage to record this?” he spoke out loud as he admired the attention to detail.

  “A day or two before you left.”

  Masters nearly jump out of his skin at the unexpected reply. He spun around and saw Susan Core leaning against the bathroom’s door frame. She had a very satisfied smirk on her face that was no doubt at his expense.

  “Susan!”

  “In the flesh. Well, not really.” Core walked towards him as she continued, “I’m a holographic representation of the person you know as Susan Core. I’m compiled of Starfleet personnel and physiological records, and private log files of Susan Core. I’m as close as a computer program can be.”

  “You’re aware you’re a program?” he asked surprised.

  “I am programmed with that knowledge. Susan wanted you to be reminded that I am not her, but just a hologram. She thought that I would be able to fulfil my purpose better this way,” she explained.

  Masters was standing face-to-face with Core, or at least holo-Core. She did look and sound just like the real thing, which wasn’t all that surprising given the capabilities of Federation holographic technology. It would be interesting to see just how similar it was to Core personality-wise.

  “What is your purpose?”

  “My purpose is to be here for you,” she replied reaching out and putting her hand on his arm, which Masters noted was a very Core thing to do. “Moving to a new assignment where you know no one can be stressful and isolating. There will be times when you can’t contact the real me or even want to, but you’ll still want the comforting presence of someone familiar.”

  “And why my old quarters?”

  “I believe it’s in case you get homesick. Though I guess these are now my quarters, both in reality and holographically,” she explained taking a moment to assess the room. “It’s not a critical component of this program. It can be changed without impacting my function.”

  “I really should have expected this from Susan.”

  “I am the perfect gift.”

  Masters laughed. “That’s probably the most ‘Susan’ response you could give.”

  Core dipped her head gracefully and replied, “Thank you. Since this program has been activated I assume you’ve arrived on the Swiftfire.”

  Masters nodded. “A couple of hours ago. Did the meet and greet with the Captain and two other senior officers. Captain Allston gave me a quick rundown of the ship and our current mission, though mostly I’ve spent that time unpacking.”

  “Excellent. Let’s drink to arriving at your new assignment.”

  Core walked over to the replicator and returned with two glasses of sparkling wine.

  As Masters took one of the glasses he commented, “I’m not sure how much this toast means given I’m in a holographic representation of my former posting with a hologram of my closest friend from that ship.”

  “It’s better than toasting alone in your quarters,” replied Core.

  “Is it?”

  “Of course. I’m here.”

  The holo-Core said with such sincerity Masters couldn’t help but smile and shake his head in response. Despite how odd it might seem she was right. It felt better to be here with Core no matter what form she was in.

  Masters raised his glass. “To new adventures.”

  Core mirrored his motion and added, “With new people.”

  They toasted and Masters took a healthy swig of his wine. There was some sweetness to the wine, which he appreciated. He had never been that fond of dry wines. Thankfully Core also shared that preference and it had flowed through to her hologram.

  Distracted by thoughts on the wine he found himself just staring at his drink. The rising bubbles of the fizzy drink were somewhat mesmerising. Remembering he wasn’t alone he looked up and found holo-Core regarding him sympathetically.

  “So, still feeling a bit weird about this whole situation?” asked holo-Core.

  He was going to simply say “no”, but stopped himself. Instead something Core, the real Core, had said not that long ago popped into his mind and it brought a smile to his lips. He reached out with his glass and lightly touched it to hers and said, “There’s nowhere I’d rather be.”


 

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