The intercom shrilled its alert, and Ginn whistled the three note response code and barked, "Carlsbad," without looking up from her terminal.
"What are you still doing in your room, Carlsbad?" asked Lieutenant Guilbrandtsen's voice. "The last shuttle dirtside leaves in ten minutes; you should be packed and waiting."
Ginn resisted an impulse to sigh. "I'm not going down, Gully. I thought I'd take advantage of the quiet and get a little ahead on my school work."
"You thought..." There was a pause; Gully did sigh, and the intercom transmitted it clearly. "Guilbrandtsen out."
That was enough to make Ginn look up and glare at the inter- com. She rested her head on her knuckles and closed her eyes. Her litany of curses was beginning to sound like a prayer; she ran through it quickly, mentally reciting choice words about Star Fleet Command, the Academy and its staff, and most of all the Federation Star Ship Switchblade.
She slumped back in her chair and wondered what had gone wrong. She had done well at the Academy. She should have gotten a six-month cadet berth on a cruiser or a dreadnought, had a chance to dazzle her commanding officer, and received her regular commission with an "Exemplary Cadet Performance" citation.
But it hadn't happened that way. For some bizarre reason, the vacuum-skulls at the Academy had singled her out for two years in Purgatory aboard an ERPL. She was going to be a year and a half behind her Academy classmates going into her specialty school; she wasn't going to have a chance to hobnob with the up and coming mid-grade officers who were the key to good future assignments; she was off the fast track, and her career was out the airlock.
The door buzzer sounded; Ginn whistled an acknowledgement and the door opened. Lieutenant Guilbrandtsen strode in, wearing a civilian jumpsuit that managed to be sexy even on her too-thin frame. Gully sat on the edge of Ginn's desk, crossed her arms, and stared at Ginn unsympathetically.
"I take it this isn't a social call, Lieutenant?" Ginn asked.
"Beats me," Guilbrandtsen answered humorlessly. "One of my various titles is Morale Officer, and from that perspective, you are a pain in the ass. Why aren't you going dirtside?"
"I told you, I wanted to get some of my school work done."
"That isn't due 'till you get back to the Academy, Carlsbad. And unless you're an idiot-- which you may be, I'm not sure yet-- it won't matter three figs by then. The last time I checked, you already had three-fourths of your work done, and we've only been out for eleven weeks. Why aren't you going dirtside?"
"I don't feel like it, Gully. Is that a crime?"
Gully shook her head. "No. It's just stupid. This is the last completely Federation-friendly port we're going to see in over a year. Once we get on-station, you won't be allowed off ship in civies, or unarmed. This is the last chance you'll have in a long time to really let your hair down, and you're going to ignore it. That's stupid."
"I'm not the tourist type, Gully. And I don't really feel like touring the bars with a bunch of..." Ginn struggled to find an alternative to her first choice of words.
"I didn't say that."
"You didn't have to. You've got a serious attitude problem, Carlsbad, and if you don't do something about it, you're going to waste one of the best opportunities you've ever had."
"This tin can?"
Gully didn't quite snarl. "There are, including a certain supernumerary officer-puppy, twenty-four persons on this ship. Do you know how many of them didn't volunteer for ERPL duty?" She paused for effect, then continued before Ginny could answer. "One supernumerary officer-puppy. Think you might be missing some- thing?"
"You requested this duty?"
"Damn straight. Right out of Nursing school. I had the grades to pick my ticket, and I got lucky and drew Switchblade."
"Was that before or after you fell in love with the Captain?"
Gully's eyes bulged, then she laughed. "I didn't meet the Skipper until the day I first came on board. And I'm not in love with him by any definition I've ever heard. He's my good friend, and my Captain, and I respect the hell out of him, but..." She shrugged. "The first time I met him, as soon as we had finished introductions, he gave me his best Vulcan deadpan and asked if I was aware that my duties as Morale Officer included making sure that the Captain didn't get squirrelly from sexual frustration. And then he grinned. I said that that sounded reasonable, and I'd see what I could arrange. I took the path of least resistance, and it still seems reasonable.
"But I wanted ERPL duty long before that. I was eighty-sixth percentile at the Academy-- good enough for med school, and I wanted medicine. But I also wanted to space, and I wasn't likely to do well enough to get a shipboard berth. 80% of Star Fleet's doctors are at starbases or spacestations, and I wasn't likely to come out of med school at better than fiftieth percentile. I went for nursing and graduated at ninety-sixth, which let me pick my duty, and I went ERPL.
"Out here I'm Senior Medical Officer, I have almost no administrative garbage to put up with, and I get to write my own rules. I do more surgery than most GP's, because it's me or nothing. When I'm in Sick Bay, nobody argues with me, nobody quotes regs at me, and everybody loves me. I'm Doc Gully, and I've been reigning medical authority for an entire planet dozens of times.
"And I stand bridge watches. How many Star Fleet officers never get to sit in the Worry Seat in their entire careers? I decided that I wanted medicine more than I wanted to fly-- but I still want to fly. You have no idea what it feels like the first time the Skipper says, 'Mister Guilbrandtsen, you have the conn,' and walks off the bridge.
"And if I ever get tired of this... I can go to med school any time I want. I have so many physician equivalent hours that they can't turn me down. If I want to go into administration, I go right to the top of the list: I've been a Senior M.O., and I've got conn time. If I decide to chuck medicine and go to nav school-- no problem: guaranteed admission, one tour as a first officer and I've got my own ship inside of five years.
"It's like that for all of us, Carls... Ginn. These 'losers' could build this bucket from parts while under fire. They can teach you twice as much as you learned at the Academy in half the time, and they'll be glad to do it-- because there's no knowing when your knowing something extra will save their lives."
Gully's communicator chirped, and she acknowledged it, then stepped to the intercom. "Guilbrandtsen. What now?"
"Bus's leavin', Gully. You comin', or should we sell your luggage?"
"On my way." She turned to Ginn. "So you're staying. Fine. But spend some time on mental hygiene, okay? I'll talk to you when I get back." Ginny nodded noncommittally; Gully turned back to the intercom and punched out another code.
"Slark," came the Skipper's voice.
"Gully. Carlsbad's staying up. You might consider the 'House of York'."
"Already under discussion. Have fun, Sal."
"Guilbrandtsen out." She stepped to the door and turned, threw Ginn a mocking salute, and left.
Three hours later the power failed. Ginn went through the terminal shut down routine she had learned in grade school re- flexively, then sat back to wonder what was going on. The amber backup light had come on; the gravity was obviously functioning, and a moment's concentration assured her that the ventilators were still working. She tried the intercom, found it was dead, and tried the door.
The corridor was awash with the blood red of the its emergency lights; Ginn shuddered, and scolded herself for thinking in those terms. This was not serious, just a minor electrical failure-- which she didn't know how to fix. Suppose it was progressive? How long until the ventilators shut down? Who else was on board and WHERE IN GODS'S NAME WERE THEY?
The common room was also bathed in red, except... There were candles burning at one end of the mess table. Candles. Silver candlesticks. Ship's best china. Two place settings, with a rose lying on the plate across the table. Ginn circled the table for a closer look.
It was a white silk rose, and beneath it was a card. Even in the dim light she could see that it said, in large dark letters, "Virginia Carlsbad". She picked up the card.
"Virginia Carlsbad, Cadet, Star Fleet Extended Range Patrol Vessel, Light, Switchblade." Ginny opened the card. It said, "Sit down, Cadet. This is a Direct Order. Slark." Ginn sat down.
She put the card on the bench beside her, and examined the rose. It was beautifully crafted, and deliciously scented. She wondered where it had been made.
The Captain appeared out of the gloom carrying a large tray on one hand. He caught Ginn's eye and put his other finger to his lips to indicate silence. Ginn clutched the rose and sat up straight.
The Captain set the tray on the table and uncovered it to reveal a more elaborate meal than any Ginn had had since joining Star Fleet. The Captain produced a bottle of wine, poured for each of them, took his seat across from Ginn, and raised his glass. Ginn followed his example.
"Comradeship," the Captain said.
"Obedience," Ginn answered, and the Captain laughed. They drank their toast. "Begging the Captain's pardon..."
"Eat your dinner, Cadet. And call me Skipper, or Slark if you must."
"Begging the Captain's pardon, but are you coming on to me?"
"Cadet... Carlsbad..." Slark sighed. "May I call you Ginn?"
"If you insist, Captain."
"I don't insist. I want your permission."
"Certainly, Cap... Sir."
Slark shook his head and chuckled. "What color is the rose, Ginn?"
"White. But if it's the only rose on board, white is better than nothing."
Slark's face settled into a typically Vulcan expressionless mask. "You're creative. Not logical, but creative. Given that the source of the rose has a tendency to give away flowers, and that he has recently had ninety days on Terra to replenish his personal stores, is it not logical that he would have access to whatever variety of rose he required?"
Ginn blinked. "I suppose so."
"Unless, of course, I'm lying." Slark's face shattered into a broad grin.
"How do you do that? One minute you're the perfect Vulcan, and the next you're a Marine with pointy ears."
"The advantages of a Vulcan education. One of the many compromises my parents made regarding me was that I live with my mother, and attend the Vulcan Embassy school. I learned early how to act and think like a Vulcan without sacrificing myself in the process. I've been told that if I ever visit Vulcan I'll probably be sent to a mental hospital. In their eyes, I'm a dangerous lunatic, a threat to their social order. If I was ever stranded on the planet, they'd probably be right. Your turn to talk; I want to eat."
"I don't have much to say; most of my mind is taken up with questions I can't answer."
"So tell me your questions."
"What am I doing on Switchblade? Do I want to be here? How did I end up with this assignment? Do I really believe you aren't making a pass at me? If so, why am I sort of disappointed? How many of the stories I've heard about you are true? Is it possible to reconcile the keeping of political prisoners with the Federation Charter?"
Slark laughed. "That sounds like an Academy essay if I've ever heard one."
"It is. I have to argue both sides of the issue convincingly."
"Any thoughts on how to do it?"
"Only on the negative side. The right to self determination, freedom of speech, things like that. I have no idea of how to justify imprisoning someone for his beliefs. I grew up believing there was no such thing."
Slark stared at her across the top of his wine glass. "How about imprisoning someone for his knowledge?"
"Suppose a man stumbled onto a secret that would cause a war if he released it to the public, and he was determined to do just that?"
"Freedom of speech?"
"Maybe. Is one man's freedom of speech worth a hundred thousand innocent lives?"
"That's an even nastier question than the one I started with."
"Just a clearer statement of it. Try this one: Does the Federation keep political prisoners?"
"Of course... not. I don't think I like that question very much."
"I don't either, and I know the answer. Let's table that until after dinner."
"What do you mean you know the answer? You can't unless..."
"After dinner, Cadet."
They ate in silence for several minutes. Ginn restarted the conversation by asking, "Why aren't you a vegetarian?"
Slark cocked an eyebrow. "Should I be?"
"You're a Vulcan."
"I'm an H-V cross. Which means that there isn't enough statistical data to make any meaningful predictions. Beyond a tendency to conspicuous ears."
Ginn stared at him. She was suddenly aware that the questions she wanted to ask were too personal to ask anyone, much less her commanding officer. "Excuse me, I didn't mean..."
Slark grinned. "No offense taken, Ginn. I'm used to it, and you don't get to be King of the Tin Can if you've got thin skin."
"There's a book in my cabin that a friend of mine wrote, a PhD thesis in genetics. It includes case studies on seventeen of us. With one exception, we inherit our hemoglobin type from our mothers, and beyond that it's up for grabs. My mother was human and I have iron-based blood, primarily human architecture, primarily Vulcan muscle tissue, and a brain that gives scanners fits-- almost a perfect cross."
"Hemoglobin is sex-linked?"
"Only mechanically. Seems that neither human nor Vulcan placentas can deal with copper-based blood on one side and iron- based on the other. Conceptions occur, but they miscarry early."
"But there was an exception?"
"Isn't technology wonderful?"
Ginn stared. "Excuse me?"
"His father was a wealthy Vulcan politician, and issued a 'spare no expense' order. Vulcan technology can do some pretty amazing things. He pulled the same sort of stunt with regard to keeping the girl alive-- the last I heard, she was over one thirty and still going. Fragile as hell, though."
"He-- the father-- doesn't sound like any Vulcan I've ever met."
"He isn't. He's a romantic-- the only Vulcan male to ever legally marry a human female that I know of-- and considered benignly crazy by the Vulcans. They tolerate him because he's brilliant, and his madness is functional-- he enjoys negotiating with humans."
"What happened to the son?"
"He became a starship captain. Don't we all?"
Ginn laughed. "Did you just make all of that up?"
Slark shook his head. "Afraid not."
Ginn smiled sheepishly. "Time to change the subject?"
Slark shrugged. "Your choice. I can run this one on autopilot, and I might have to work on the next one."
"If you're sure... Why do H-V crosses happen at all? The idea of interbreeding with humans seems so far out of the Vulcan character."
"Because humans will mate with anything that holds still for it, and if offspring are possible, sooner or later they will occur."
Slark shrugged. "It's honest. And the proper inflection on that is 'We awful humans', not 'Those awful humans'. Though I try to rise above the herd."
"It's still not very flattering."
"It wasn't meant to be. It is well documented that humans of both sexes find pointed ears extremely sexy-- a fact for which I have occasionally been grateful-- and Vulcans are notoriously bad at blending into human society. Between lack of interest and arrogance, they tend to get into some rather amazing situations-- and some of those produce offspring."
Ginn chuckled. "Is this where you tell me your story?"
"You've been dying to hear it."
"Yes. If you don't mind."
"It's actually another lecture on the hazards of command, with a mild pornographic twist."
"You're telling me this is a training lecture?"
"Sort of. Would you have sex with a man you despised if it was the only way to save his life?"
"You're right, this is a training exercise. Umm. 'Insufficient data'?"
"What more do you need?"
"'Despise' is a broad term. Am I saving him for the gallows?"
Slark laughed. "Well answered! All right, three situations, all dealing with a comrade-in-arms who is disagreeable in the extreme, but not spiteful or malicious: one, for his sake as a fellow sentient; two, for his sake as someone for whose life you are responsible; three, when the survival of your entire command depended on his survival."
"Yes to all three, with progressively decreasing hesitation. But don't test me on it."
Slark nodded. "My mother did get tested on it-- her situation was somewhere between number two and number three-- and she ended up with me. She was Senior Medical Officer for a shipwreck. Local stellar conditions made sub-space communication impossible, and the only hope of rescue was to build a robot ship from the wreckage, send it out of the interference zone, and have it transmit a message back to Star Fleet.
"The only person who had the knowledge to make it work was the Senior Engineering Officer, a universally disliked Vulcan with a marked dislike for humans. And he got a bad dose of mating drive, which he tried to hide-- he just withdrew into himself and prepared to die.
"Mother diagnosed the situation, and wasn't happy about it. She asked for volunteers, but got no takers. She didn't feel she could order someone else to have sex with the old bastard, and since there was a severe contraceptive shortage, and since she was over forty and of questionable fertility, she drew the duty himself. They chained the old monster down, and mother administered the cure at regular intervals until his vital signs turned around.
"There's a joke in H-V circles that the probability of a given union being fertile is equal to one minus your best guess. My mother never thought that was very funny. Star Fleet gave her a full-and-a-half disability pension for 'impairment acquired in the line of duty', and my father chipped in all of his accumulated back pay from the time they were stranded, and most of his savings, before my mother even thought about seeing a lawyer.
"I was five years old when they rescued us. I had never been in an enclosed space before they loaded me onto the shuttle. I had been told over and over about starships, but I didn't believe any of it. And that's stayed with me. I can disassemble and rebuild any system on this ship without a manual, but it's still magic."
"You really love it out here, don't you?"
"I'm alive out here. I learned to love star ships, but I never did learn to stand cities. I grew up on a first name basis with everyone within a parsec; I like it that way."
Ginn chuckled. "I guess that makes sense. Would you pass up a promotion to stay out here?"
"I already have. I'm the highest ranking, most senior ERPL captain in the fleet. And I intend to stay here."
"Won't you run into the maximum time-in-rank restrictions?"
Slark shook his head. "I'm a vulcan, remember? As long as I pass my physicals and make my efficiency quotas, I'm exempt."
Slark smiled. "Almost as handy as having pointed ears."
Ginn smiled back and yawned enormously. "Excuse me! I don't know where that came from. I..." She stopped and stared as one of the candles guttered and went out for no good reason. "Is it getting a bit... close in here, Sir?"
"Probably. The ventilators went out about the time I brought out dinner."
"The power's down. Life support cut out about ten minutes after the lights went down-- about forty minutes ago."
"Aren't you going to do something? Aren't there supposed to be alarms?" Ginn felt the first hint of panic rushing up behind her; she took a deep breath and forced herself to be calm. She looked at Slark, and realized he was studying her with the least hint of a smile. "This is a test, isn't it? You shut the power down deliberately." Slark nodded. "So what am I supposed to do?"
"Solve the problem."
"I don't even know what the problem is."
Slark rolled his eyes. "You have an electrical problem which has affected several ship's systems, most notably life support. If you fail to correct the situation, you will eventually lose consciousness, and, failing outside intervention, die. I intend to provide that intervention, but accidents DO happen."
"But if I pass out..."
"I've seen your med charts. Given the differences in our physiology and conditioning, I should have no trouble affecting repairs after you're incoherent. It will take less than ten minutes and no particular concentration to fix-- if you know exactly what to do."
"Which I don't."
"There is that, yes."
Ginn glared at him and stalked off toward the engineering section, which was sealed. The boat deck was also sealed, and all of the emergency vacc suit stations were empty. "What happened to the vacc suits?"
"They're on the boat deck. I had a very busy afternoon."
Ginn clenched her teeth and said nothing. She opened and inspected the three damage control stations which were not behind locked hatches, but could find nothing wrong. "Now what?"
"I would imagine you should try the secondary stations. There are four of them within reach."
"If I knew where they were."
"If you knew where they were. You might try locating them on the ship's plan."
"If I could call one up on the computer, or if I could get into engineering to look at the hardcopy."
"You do seem to have a problem."
"Yes. I don't suppose you'd be willing to tell me what to do if I asked you?"
"I was wondering when you'd think of that. Nice try, but no, I won't tell you."
"Can I admit that I've had a bad attitude and that I don't know the ship nearly as well as I should and call it quits?"
"Only if you accompany the request with your resignation from Star Fleet."
Ginn glared at him. "No thank you."
They returned to the common room. The air was noticeably staler than it had been. Ginn realized that both candles were still burning. "Begging the Captain's pardon, but was it really necessary to relight the candles?"
"I only relit one. You never bothered to extinguish the other."
Ginn growled and quenched both candles, then looked around the room, wondering what she should do next. The galley door was shut; Slark had closed it behind him manually when he brought in the wine. Ginn strode to the door, hit the manual release, and pushed it open. Ten more candles were standing at intervals around the counter, merrily burning up her oxygen. "You son-of-a-bitch... Sir." Ginn swallowed hard; she heard Slark chuckle behind her.
As she extinguished the candles Ginn reviewed the situation. She wasn't doing well, she knew that. She didn't have the background to solve the problem directly, and Slark had known that in advance. She had done a miserable job of damage control, as evidenced by the candles in the galley. It seemed that her only recourse was to flail about until the test was called for hypoxia.
And yet... Would Slark have set this up just to humiliate her? He had certainly made his point; she was going to have all of the troubleshooting stations memorized to the last switch before the crew came up from dirtside. But what was the point of continuing the test? It wasn't reasonable to expect her to solve the problem by luck, and that was all she had left. Or was it? She wasn't going to resign, and she wasn't going solve the problem... How to get Slark to turn the air back on before she passed out?
Ginn dashed down the corridor to the armory. She grabbed a hand phaser, slapped in a power pack and checked the gauge, then dialed in full power. She stepped back into the corridor just in time to see Slark amble around a corner, following her.
Ginn leveled the phaser. "Freeze! ...Sir!" Slark obeyed, with the exception of one eyebrow. "Remove your tunic, Sir-- very, very slowly, and then put your hands on top of your head." Slark complied. "Now, leave one hand up and drop the phaser and the communicator-- slowly, very slowly."
"What's the setting on that phaser, Cadet?"
"Full, Sir. I'm dead if you lay your hands on me, and I can't count on being able to stun you quickly enough."
"Very good. Carry on, Mister Carlsbad."
"About those ventilators, Sir."
"You said you could have them on in ten minutes. I am going to blow your head off if they aren't running in fifteen."
Slark smiled. "Very good, Mister Carlsbad."
Eight minutes later Ginn heard the hum of the ventilators coming to life, and breathed a sigh of relief. Thirty seconds later, the lights returned to normal. Which only left one small problem.
"You are aware that mutiny is a capital offense, aren't you, Mister Carlsbad?"
"I was hoping to excuse myself with the fact that you were unnecessarily endangering your command, and therefore incompetent."
"An interesting thought. Are you willing to put the phaser down and discuss the matter?"
"Not just yet, Sir. I want a believable assurance that I passed the test."
"And what would that consist of?"
"I was hoping you might have ideas on that score, Sir."
Slark nodded and pounced. Ginn triggered the phaser, which emitted an end-of-the-world whine, and then she was lying on her back with Slark on top of her.
"I believe you just killed your commanding officer, Mister Carlsbad. How do you feel about that?"
"Relieved and overwhelmingly stupid, Sir."
"As you say." Slark snapped to his feet, then helped Ginn up. He scooped the phaser from the floor, slapped the takedown latches, and dropped the pieces on the table. "Well, Mister Carlsbad?"
"There's no focuser. You pulled the focusing crystal from every phaser in the armory?"
"And put them with the vacc suits..."
"...On the boat deck. Whence I shall no doubt recover them..."
"...And reassemble and realign the phasers, and run basic diagnostics on all of the vacc suits, yes. After which you will report to my quarters for your evaluation."
"Yes, Sir! And Captain?"
"Yes, Mister Carlsbad?"
"Thank you for a wonderful dinner, Sir."
"And you, Ginn."
Ginn pushed the annunciator beside Slark's door with unaccustomed timidity. The door slid open to reveal Slark seated at a table, bent over a sketch pad. He didn't quite look up as he indicated that Ginn should take the seat opposite him.
"What did you think of your performance this evening?"
"It was disappointing, Sir. I demonstrated a frightening ignorance of ship's systems, my detailing was lousy, and my ultimate solution was foolhardy and unnecessarily dangerous."
"Have you devised an alternative?"
"Not with the information I had at the time, no."
"Hmmm. What would you say was the principal topic of the exercise?"
"I knew you didn't have that."
"Something like that. How do you think you did on those terms?"
"Pretty damn well, Sir."
"I'm inclined to agree. The initial inventory was rocky, but once you arrived at a solution, your execution was excellent. And all of that on an overfull stomach, a bottle of wine, and low oxygen. At any rate, I'm putting you in for an 'Exemplary Performance' citation, with immediate promotion to Ensign." He pulled a sheet out from under his pad. "This is a request for transport and soonest reassignment to a specialty school. Constellation is in port and Earthbound; you can be on your way home by the time Switchblade leaves orbit, if you'd like."
Ginn took the form and looked it over, then looked up to meet Slark's eyes. "I would have sold my soul for this yesterday." Slark nodded. "But I didn't have it then, did I? May I keep this, Sir? As a souvenir?" Again Slark nodded. "Begging the Captain's pardon, but Constellation is a passenger liner. I'm an ERPL."
Slark grinned. "No. But you will be. Welcome aboard, Ensign."
"Good to be here, S... Skipper."
"Glad to have you. Dismissed."
"They're saying that we shouldn't be sending our best and brightest to the fringes of the galaxy to be shot at and kidnapped and killed; that the needs of commerce and bureaucracy come before the needs of Star Fleet. But there is an education to be had in the fringes that cannot be gotten elsewhere at any price, and I say that a man who has not seen a fellow sentient through the sights of a live weapon, and has not felt the eyes of a fellow sentient watching him with deadly intent-- a man who has not looked both into and out of the eyes of Death-- is too ignorant of the meaning of life to lead a parade of beggars."
Senator James T. Kirk
Address to the Graduating Class
Star Fleet Academy, 2307