Star Trek Return Fire 1: “Earl Grey, Hot”

Star Trek

Return Fire

Episode One: “Earl Grey, Hot”

Bernard Schaffer

Edited by Laurie Laliberte

1. Earl Grey, Hot

 

The professor looked out over the crowd of eager cadets and waited for silence.  They were the best and they knew it.  Starfleet Academy’s top students, best performers, highest decorated.  The boys in the front were strong and decided-looking, sitting with their arms flexed just enough that their biceps bulged against their uniforms, hoping one of the few females seated nearby was looking. The girls looked more focused.  They were the ones with something to prove, Wesley Crusher thought.  They were the ones who wanted revenge.     

“May I continue?” Wesley said.  He balanced himself on his good leg to lean back against his podium and stroked his full, gray beard, making eye contact with as many of them as he could.  “This next block is probably the most difficult of all the ones I teach.  It causes more controversy than anything else you’ll learn during your time here, and probably with good reason.  It’s also the one we get the most complaints about from parents,” he added with a wry smile. “You see, Starfleet has a way of lying to its young cadets.”

He let that one sink in for a minute, watching how the class shifted uneasily in their seats.  “It doesn’t come right out and say it, of course, but your entire curriculum, this entire facility, and the whole of Starfleet Command, has a way of propagating this myth about what you’ll experience in space.  It’s all about adventure, right?  It’s all about seeking out brave new worlds, etcetera, etcetera.  Nobody signed up to be a requisitions officer, did you?”  He scanned the room with his finger and said, “No, I didn’t think so.  You want to be a captain!  You want to be an explorer.  Right?”

Some of the students nodded, and Wesley folded his hands behind his back.  His professor’s robe was getting tight around his middle.  The excuse he gave his doctor was that he wasn’t really becoming a saggy old man; it was simply the effects of the Earth’s gravity on him after spending his adolescent years in space.  He lifted his head and said, “Who here thinks they might die in service?”

Nobody moved.  “Statistics prior to the Great Invasion say that twelve percent of all Starfleet Officers would either die or be critically injured in the course of their duties.  Obviously, we cannot accurately factor what those statistics were during the Invasion.  The casualty rate, particularly for women, was appallingly high during that period.  I am certain that many of you were already aware of this sad fact.”

He looked at them, studying their faces.  Now he had their attention.  “Let me ask you this instead.  If you were going to die while in service to Starfleet, how would it be?”

“In battle,” the young man nearest to him said.  “Killing Borg.”

There were many murmurs of agreement to that and Wesley nodded, “Understandable.  But the Delta Quadrant is far away and the Hive has not dared cross the border in decades.  What else besides battle might take your young lives?”

“Transporter malfunction,” someone else said.

“Alien disease.”

“All tragically real possibilities,” Wesley said.  He activated a large holographic projection of a starship travelling through space.  “This is classified footage of the USS Janeway Event.  You will never see it again unless you wind up working for Starfleet Intelligence.  The Janeway was on a routine mission to the Alpha Quadrant when a series of misfortunes struck.”  Wesley paused the image and aimed a bright red light on the ship’s nacelles.  The image started to move again in slow motion, going frame by frame, so that the explosion in the ship started as a small crack along its surface with bright yellow flame beneath it.  As Wesley advanced the frames, the ship blew to pieces directly in front the class.  “Fifteen hundred people onboard.  Men, women and children.  Fifteen hundred lives, here one moment, thinking about their work, their families, their problems, their lives.  Working, eating, arguing, making love, sleeping, and all the things you can imagine happen at any given time on board a vessel, gone like that,” Wesley said with a snap of his fingers.  “Not in battle.  Not saving some civilization.  A failed reactor coil.”

The faces looked a little less confident now.  Wesley ended the projection and said, “Still, mass tragedies like the Janeway are big events.  There’s media coverage and boards of inquiry.  But large scale incidents are not the only kind that happen.  Not by a long shot.”

He pressed a button on his console and the shimmering hologram of a dark-skinned, bald-headed man appeared before the class.  His Starfleet captain’s uniform was so perfectly detailed, Wesley could see the fabric patterns on his shirt sleeves.  “This is Captain Benjamin Sisko, one year before he led the attack on the Dominion fleet at Cardassian Prime.  By all accounts, Captain Sisko was an exemplary commanding officer and probably candidate for the Admiralty.”

Wesley paused in front of the hologram, looking into its deeply set eyes, admiring its proud gaze.  “During his assignment to Deep Space Nine, Sisko was contacted by an alien species that occupied a nearby wormhole.  These beings would often remove Sisko from our dimension and place him inside their own, completely at their own whim.  Finally, they decided to keep him.”  Wesley looked over his shoulder at the audience, “His command, his son, his pregnant wife, and everything he knew was left behind, without any warning.  Sisko appeared in a vision to his wife and told her he expected to return in a year, that the Prophets, as they wished to be known, had much to teach him.”

The next hologram showed a shriveled man being wheeled in front of the class, pushed by another of the Academy’s professors.  Wesley stood in the same place he had twenty years before, on the day the hologram was recorded, and the image of Miles O’Brien nodded at Wesley as it walked past.  O’Brien’s hologram pushed the withered man to a place in front of the class, then turned and walked away.  Wesley glanced at the corner of the room where one of the cadets sat, a young man with startlingly green eyes that slanted ever so slightly at the corners as evidence of his Asian heritage.  Liam O’Brian looked up as his grandfather walked past him to leave the classroom, his eyes never leaving the shimmering image until it vanished.

Wesley walked up to the hologram sitting in its wheelchair at the front of his class and clasped his hands behind his back, making sure all of the students were looking.  It was uncomfortable for them, that much was certain.  Benjamin Sisko was an invalid whose limbs were bone-thin and curled up close to his body compulsively.  His head drooped to the side and long streams of drool spilled out of his open mouth that contained no teeth.

“Nineteen years later, this is what returned to Deep Space Nine.  By that point, no one who had served with the Captain remained aboard or had any idea he might someday return as suddenly as he left.  He’d been declared dead by the Federation and his wife had already remarried and moved halfway across the galaxy.  My colleague, the late Professor O’Brien, whom you just saw in the hologram came upon a posting on the Engineer’s network regarding the matter and immediately recognized his former Captain.”  Wesley looked out over the class, “Benjamin Sisko lingered in the state you see him in for another five years in a Federation hospital.”

One of the girls in the front row raised her hand, “Why did the Prophets want him?”

Wesley shrugged, “We will never be certain.  At the time, Captain Sisko thought he was destined to fulfill their grand scheme, and in some ways, he may have been.  The whole story is never quite apparent to us, though, and whatever their reasons for keeping him inside the wormhole, he was not the same when he returned.”

Some of the cadets were visibly distressed by the image on the hologram, covering their eyes with their hands, or looking down at their desks.  Wesley paused the image and brought up the first one, of a proud, strong Captain Benjamin Sisko in his Starfleet Uniform.  Wesley stood beside the hologram and said, “I suggest that any of you would be lucky to be compared to the man standing before you, both in terms of service and capability.  I also suggest that if something like this can happen to him, it can happen to you.”  Wesley turned the hologram off and clapped his hands together loudly, breaking the spell of despair that had fallen over his audience, “Okay, now that you’re all thoroughly depressed, I have some good news.  You’re getting out early today.”  The cadets faces instantly brightened and began to shift around in their seats to gather their things, forcing Wesley to raise his voice, “Those of you taking The Test tomorrow should go home and get some rest.  In other words, don’t go out to the bars.”

He watched as his class got up from their seats and began to file out.  For a moment, Liam O’Brien stopped in his passage toward the door, looking at the professor as if he were about to say something.  Wesley turned toward the young man and said, “Yes?” but by then, Liam had already turned away.

***

The sun was setting over the remains of the Golden Gate Bridge and the Bay glistened in hues of red and gold, as if the water were summoning it down to rest.  As the Academy’s most senior professor, Wesley had his choice of offices.  The one with the best view also happened to be the one closest to his classroom.  He looked at the hover chair sitting in the corner of the room, the same one he’d ridden in as he finally left the hospital after the Invasion and returned to the Academy.  People lined the halls as he entered, the chair whirring six inches off the ground like an elaborate flying carpet.  They welcomed him home and smiled kindly as he passed, but raw pity was evident on their faces.

That day, he’d stood up from the chair and refused to use it ever again.

Wesley sipped the rest of his wine, red and strong to the last, then lifted the green glass bottle from his table to refill it.  The label was worn and faded now.  “Chateau Picard, Labarre,” he whispered with a quiet nod.  Of course, the wine he was drinking had not been bottled in France.  The original bottle had been a gift from Jean-Luc many decades ago and Wesley had entered its composition into his office’s food replicator.  It had been so long since he’d tasted the original that he often wondered if he would even recognize it any longer.  He always refilled it in the same bottle though.  It helped support the illusion.

His door beeped and Wesley set down the bottle and said, “Come in.”

The doors whisked open instantly.  “Good evening, Professor Crusher.  I hope I’m not intruding on you.”

Wesley turned to see Liam O’Brien standing in his doorway.  He held up his empty glass and said, “I always enjoy a drink after teaching that particular module.  I suppose it is my attempt to gain some sort of perspective.”  The cadet nodded silently, clearly he had no idea what the old man was talking about.  Wesley waved for him to come and sit and said, “What can I do for you, Liam?”

“Tomorrow’s my day.  For the test, I mean.”

“So it is,” Wesley said.  “And what have you done to prepare yourself?”

“Besides come here, you mean?”

Wesley smiled softly, “I am forbidden from telling you anything about the test.  Your grandfather would never forgive me.”

Liam held up his hand, “That isn’t what I meant, Professor.  I just wanted someone to talk to. Someone I could trust.”  He pointed at the glass in Wesley’s hand and said, “Someone with a little perspective.”

“I see,” Wesley said.  He eased himself down on the couch and massaged his ruined leg, grunting as he worked the tangle of muscles and cybernetics that formed his thigh and knee.   “Well, when I was your age and took the test, it was still the old Klingon scenario.”

Liam’s eyes widened, “Really?”

Wesley nodded, “Seems a little moot now, doesn’t it?  I doubt any of you have ever even seen a Klingon.  Anyway, I was on the committee that proposed changing the test.  You would not believe the resistance we faced from the senior faculty.  Some traditions die harder than others.  No one wanted to admit that such an important part of their youth had become obsolete.”

“But you did change it, obviously,” Liam said.  “All of the postings I’ve seen talk about different scenarios that are randomly chosen.  It could be the Dominion, the Tholians, I guess the obvious choice is … ” the young man’s voice trailed off.

“The Borg,” Wesley said quietly.  “It’s all right, Liam.  You can say it around me.”

“Yes, professor,” Liam said.  He looked down at his hands, “I’m sorry.”

“It’s quite all right.  I learned a very long time ago that life goes on, regardless of what you lose or how you lose it.”

“Is that why you drink?”

“To forget my wife and daughter, you mean?” Wesley said.

“Yes.”

“No,” Wesley said.  “I drink to try and gain perspective about losing them.”

Liam sighed and stood up, “I am sorry I disturbed you, professor.  It was rude of me to come here.”

“On the contrary,” Wesley said, “I feel honored.  Cadets traditionally visit the holodecks to seek guidance from James T. Kirk.  They think they might somehow glean some of his secrets as to how to beat The Test.  That’s good enough company for me to be in, I think.”

Liam smiled with slight embarrassment, “I already talked to Kirk.”

“You did?” Wesley said.  “And what did he say?”

“I … don’t believe … in the … no-win … scenario!” Liam said, mimicking the hologram’s voice to near perfection.

Wesley laughed, “Yes, well, holodecks were invented long after Kirk’s time.  They had to piece together his persona from old starlogs and the like.  I’m sure the actual person was far less flamboyant.  You’ll get much better results from more modern people, the ones who were properly scanned with thought toward living on in holodeck form to give guidance to the rest of us.”

“Do you have any suggestions?” Liam said.

Wesley took a long sip of his wine and said, “Only one comes to mind.”

***

Whoever used the holodeck before him forgot to clear their list of preferences.  Wesley only glanced at the selection, knowing that the entire area was under constant surveillance and having no desire to be reprimanded for intruding on someone else’s privacy.  But still, the choices were salacious.

Night with an Orion slave girl.

Night as an Orion slave girl.

Tribble touch.

The Captain’s harsh reprimand.

Liam surpassed a laugh and cleared the screen, pulling up the program that Professor Crusher had provided him.  Liam took a deep breath and opened the holodeck doors.  He stepped into a brightly lit countryside, with rolling hills of green that looked down at a small village far below.  Chimney smoke trailed up from their roofs toward the open blue sky where the massive cumulus clouds looked something like a starship armada hovering overhead.

He kept walking, searching in every direction for some sign of importance.  The professor had refused to tell him who he was going to see or what.  For all he knew, he was about to experience the first air raid of the second World War, or the quiet moments just before the Great Invasion.  Liam found himself spinning around in circles as he searched the sky for signs of movement, now wishing the enormous clouds were gone so he had a clearer view.

A man called out to him, “Can I help you, young man?”

Liam bolted upright, reflexively snapping to attention.  He quickly pulled down on his uniform to adjust it and announced himself, “Starfleet cadet Liam H. O’Brien, sir.  Senior year, command school, sir.”

The old man was dressed in a long grey smock decorated with slashes of paint.  His arms and hands were tinged with light blue and white, the same colors that were now running from the long paintbrush in his hand onto the grass at his feet.  Liam wondered if he’d been painting a picture or simply rolling around in the paints for fun.

“Professor Crusher sent me, sir.  To speak with you.”

“Ah,” the old man said.  “In that case, go away.”  With that, he turned from Liam and headed back toward a small easel perched on the crest of the hill.

“Sir?” Liam said, hurrying after him.

“I said, go away!  Tell Wesley that he should know me better than to send some cadet to try and lure me back to the academy.  I shall not return.”

Liam found he had to walk quickly to keep up with the man, who must be in his early nineties but still moved with a certain speed that belied his age.  He was trim and spry and Liam thought that if perhaps the man were not so bald he might have guessed him to be only in his late sixties.  “I didn’t come to lure you back to anything,” Liam called out.  “Wait, why won’t you go back to the Academy?  What’s wrong with it?”

“Too much to do!”  The old man stopped in front of his easel and scowled at the image painted on it.  He sighed with defeat and threw down his paintbrush, “Utter rubbish.  You would think that after all this time I could paint a simple French countryside, but alas, my hands and vision betray me.”

“You could always get your eyes re-focused.  Or your synapses enhanced to compensate for old age,” Liam said.

The old man’s face wrinkled into a scowl.

Liam turned back to the painting and said, “Actually, I think it’s pretty good.”

The old man stopped and reconsidered the painting, moving to where the boy stood to see if from his angle.  “I suppose it has a certain rustic charm.  What did you say your name was?”

“Liam O’Brian, sir.  Starfleet cadet.”

The old man held out his paint-covered hand, “Jean-Luc Picard.  Private citizen.  Also, dead person.”

Liam cocked his head, “Sorry, sir?”

“Dead person,” Picard said.  “Do you really believe I’m standing on this hill with you?  According to the records, I died thirty years ago.”  He eyed the young cadet warily, “You do know this is a computer simulation, lad, don’t you?”

“Well, yes, I do.  I’m just not sure you’re supposed to.”

“It was one of the requirements I gave when they wanted to hook all those things up to me and scan and graph every little corner of my brain.  I insisted that they make me cognizant of the fact that I am not alive and that none of this is real.”

Liam let out a long, slow breath.  “I can’t imagine what that’s like, to be honest.”

“It’s damn strange,” Picard said with a quick smile.

“So if you know this is all a hologram and you’re not really here, why are you yelling at me that you don’t want to go back to the Academy?”

The old man shrugged, “I have to find ways of amusing myself now and then.  So, what can a bored holographic rendering of an old man long since dead do for a young man such as yourself, then?”

“Professor Crusher sent me to talk to you because I have to take The Test tomorrow.  He thought you might be able to give me some tips for command.”

“I see,” Picard said.

“Well?  Do you have any?”

Picard’s eyes narrowed on the young man, “Why don’t you stop wasting both of our time and tell me the real thing you’d like to talk about?  I can see it on your face as plain as day.  Out with it, or off you go.”

Liam felt the air escape from his chest, realizing his carefully erected wall of defense had just been undone by a computer projection.  He looked down at the ground and said, “I’m thinking about quitting.”

“Because of the test tomorrow?”

“No,” Liam said defensively.  “I’m not afraid of the test.”

“Very well then, what is it?”

“I don’t believe in Starfleet anymore.  The Great Invasion stripped us of who we are.  All I see is nostalgia for the past and this pretense that we’re still the same as when people like you were there.”

Picard remained silent, regarding the young man carefully.  Finally he said, “Go on.”

“I don’t want to spend my life serving a dying organization.  The Federation is only a fourth of what it was ten years ago.  The Klingons are gone.  The Vulcans have withdrawn from outside contact.  This whole galactic region is one massive graveyard.  I feel like, well, what’s the point, really?  Maybe I’d be better off joining a merchant fleet and getting away from all this.”

“I see,” Picard said.

“No you don’t.   You know what they call your era?  The Golden Age.  You had the best technology, the best fleet, the best organizational structure, and nothing could stop you.  It’s nothing like it used to be.”

“So quit.”

“Quit?” Liam said.  “That’s your big advice?”

“Yes, quit!” the old man shouted.  “Do you seriously think we had any concept of living in a Golden Age?  We were rife with pundits who proclaimed the age of discovery was dead.  It’s all been seen and done, they whined, so why should we bother?  What they failed to see, what you fail to see, is that the Federation is only as strong or as weak as those who serve it.  When it is just you sitting in that chair, facing down an enemy intent on destroying you and the thousands of men, women and children aboard your ship, you will see what you are made of, believe me.  That is the way it has always been and that is the way it shall always be.  Quit if you must and get out of the way, for surely there are sterner men eager for the chance to secure a better future for those yet to come.”

Liam looked down at the rolling hills beneath his feet and said, “I’ve never been yelled at by the hologram of a dead guy before.”

The old man put his arm around Liam’s shoulder and squeezed it, “The Test is like life, my boy.  It is designed to break you.  To make you quit.  What matters is how you face up to that.”

“But no one ever survives, no matter what they do.”

Picard’s eyes glittered over his wry smile, “Just like life.”

Liam sighed, “Maybe I didn’t really want to quit.  Maybe I just wanted to have someone give me a reason to keep going.”

“That much was obvious from the moment you arrived.”

“You could have said so, then.  There was no reason to yell.”

Picard winked at him, “I gave up being diplomatic on the day I died.  Now I just endeavor to keep myself amused.”

***

Liam woke the next morning at o-six-hundred hours.  Not really woke, he thought.  More like flopped around uselessly in bed until it was finally time to get up.  He walked to the center of his room and said, “Lights.”  The overhead panels instantly illuminated.  He rolled his neck around and shifted his shoulders back and forth, “Heavy bag.”

A ceiling panel slid sideways and a thick canvas bag lowered toward the ground.  Liam bounced back and forth, rocking his hips as he found his rhythm.  He popped a jab, making light contact with the bag, and popped another one, dancing around the target, then making his way back.  He jabbed again and again, then closed the distance with a punishing uppercut to the middle of the bag, trying to fold it in half.

He slammed his fists into the bag with blurring speed, punching until he was too exhausted to move.  He stepped back, listening to the bag swing on its heavy chain.  His knuckles were raw and bloody.  “Retract bag,” he said, between heavy breaths.

The bathing stall was filled with warm red light.  Liam stripped out of his shorts and tossed them into the laundry processor, taking his place on the room’s bare floor as he pressed the activation button.  Pulsating rays washed over his body from every direction, cleansing the bad bacteria from his skin and hair.  He opened his mouth to let the rays scrub his teeth and tongue and turned his head side to side to cleanse his ears.

He rolled his shoulders back and forth, feeling the warmth penetrating his muscles.  He tried to force himself to relax.  It didn’t work.

He checked the wall unit near his dormitory door for the orders of the day.  In flashing red letters it read: O’BRIEN –  Observation Holodeck at 0730, Standard Uniform.

“I’m going first,” he muttered.  “Just perfect.”

The hallways were empty as he approached the holodeck area, giving him the eerie sensation that all of the other students had abandoned the school in the middle of the night, or that they were now huddled in some far off room watching in anticipation of him making a buffoon of himself.  He came to the holodeck’s closed doors and looked around, waiting to see if one of the professors came up to him.  Waiting for someone to tell him what to do.

He checked the time.  0730 hours.  Liam looked around one more time, then walked up to the doors and said, “Hello?  Cadet O’Brien reporting for The Test.”  There was no response.  Liam reached for the holodeck doors only to watch them vanish.  His body turned translucent and shimmered bright green, captured by a transporter beam.  “What’s happening?” he cried out.

The electrostatic field surrounding him flickered and shifted and Liam found himself suddenly rematerialized on the bridge of a starship, surrounded by a bustle of activity.  Starfleet officers moved about the bridge of a ship, checking their consoles and conferring with one another about various readings.  The transformation of his surroundings was so sudden that he instinctively tried to back away, but bumped into a set of closed turbo-lift doors.

A large-bellied, white bearded man turned to face him from the center of the bridge and said, “Commander O’Brien?  Welcome aboard.  We’ve been waiting for you.  I expected you to use the main transporter instead of beaming directly to the Bridge, but I suppose it doesn’t matter.”

Liam inspected the man’s uniform, trying to gain his bearings.  Four pips across the collar, he thought.  Old school uniforms.  He snapped a salute and said, “Good morning, Captain.  I guess Starfleet thought you needed me here straight away.”

The bridge was circular with observation screens that wrapped around its entire circumference, with various star charts and readings overlaid throughout.  A science vessel, Liam decided.  What scenario could this be?  He checked the maps and distances to their surroundings and grunted in familiarity.  They were in the Sol System.  Not far from Earth.

The captain did not return the salute but instead extended his hand.  His skin was soft and covered in light liver spots, “Will Riker.  It’s a pleasure to meet you.  I served with your grandfather on the Enterprise.”

A handsome older woman came around the captain’s side, her long gray hair twisted in a braid that spilled down her back.  She placed her arm on Riker’s shoulder and said, “We served with him, he means.  Deanna Riker.  Station counselor.”

Liam shook her hand as well, distracted by the beeps and whirs going on all around him, knowing it was just a matter of time before the warp core exploded or the ship came under fire.  Let’s get it on, he thought.  I’m ready.

“Are you all right, Commander?” the counselor said.  “You seem distracted.”

“I’m sorry, ma’am.  It’s just … transporter disorientation, probably.”

The captain looked surprised, but he said, “If you want to go visit sickbay, we can always go through your orientation at a later time.”

“No,” Liam said.  “I’d rather just get this over with now.”

Deanna cocked an eyebrow at her husband and the three of them moved toward the set of command chairs at the center of the bridge.  Liam wiped his hands on his pants, leaving them damp.  He looked around at the sensor stations and said, “So.  Any reports of suspicious activity in the sector?”

Captain Riker frowned and said, “Not that I’m aware of.”

“No ship’s under attack?  No hostile ships approaching the Neutral Zone?”

“The Neutral Zone?” Riker said with a chuckle.  “We’re nowhere near the Neutral Zone.”

Liam nodded and tried to breathe.  He looked up at the ceiling, trying to imagine where his instructors were standing, looking down at him with their clipboards, analyzing his every move.  “Are you sure?” Liam said suspiciously.

Deanna leaned in and said, “I think I understand what’s bothering you.  You were expecting a more exciting assignment.”

“I was?”

“Of course.  It’s perfectly normal.  A young man fresh from the Academy.  I’m sure you were hoping to land an assignment on a Sovereign class ship.  Instead you wound up stuck on a research vessel with the oldest captain in the fleet.”  The captain winced at his wife’s words, but Deanna patted him on the arm and said, “It’s all right, dear.  You’re still the most handsome.”

Liam sat back in his chair and tried to outthink the situation.  He’d never heard of anyone named Will Riker or a science research vessel in the Sol System being involved in anything noteworthy.  Was it possible this was the scenario?  Was he being tested to see how he would react to just being asked to follow rules?

How funny, he thought.  The other cadets must be green with envy.  They’re letting the first guy off easy just to keep everyone else on their toes.  The next cadet’s scenario, that was going to be something to see. They’ll probably let me do this for a few hours and then break us for lunch.

Liam smiled confidently and said, “I’m sorry.  You’re right, Counselor.  I apologize for any rudeness.  Captain, what’s my first assignment?”

“We’re running trajectories for approaching comets to this area, scanning them for any useable resources that we can extract.  Can you take the comm while the crew sees to that?  I have an appointment I can’t miss.”

“Absolutely,” Liam smirked.  He leaned back in his seat and crossed his legs, “I’ve got this.  Go do your thing.”

“My thing?” Riker said.

Liam winked.

Riker and his wife exchanged glances, but she cocked her head at the turbo-lift and tugged on her husband’s arm to get him to follow her.  “I’m sure Commander O’Brien won’t break anything while we’re gone.”

Liam watched the Rikers walk past his chair and head up the steps toward the lift’s platform.  He nodded at the lieutenants manning the research consoles in front of him and said, “Carry on, folks.  Looking good.”

The turbo-lift doors whooshed open behind him and he heard the excited greetings of the Rikers and a young girl, who cried out, “Auntie Deanna!”

“You’re early,” Captain Riker said.

A man replied, “Vanessa couldn’t wait any longer.  She was so excited to come up and see you both.”

The voice made Liam jolt.  He recognized it instantly.  He found himself turning slowly in his chair to see the face of a younger, happier Professor Wesley Crusher.  There was a beautiful woman standing at the Professor’s side and a smiling little girl, no older than ten, with her arms wrapped around Deanna Riker.

“Oh, no,” Liam whispered.

“Captain Riker, we are receiving an all-channel system wide distress signal from Sector 112,” one of the Lieutenants said over their shoulder.

Riker looked back at her and frowned.  “Give me a moment, Wesley.”  He patted Deanna on the shoulder and headed back down the steps.  Liam shot to his feet to walk with his captain over to the console.  “Put it on your screen,” Riker said quietly.  “We have guests, so keep it low.”

The screen on the console crackled with static, showing a young communications officer frantically pressing a button just beneath the viewscreen.  ” … help us.  We’re coming under attack.  Can’t anyone read us?”

Riker pressed the communications button, “This is the Hawking Observation Center.  Who is attacking you?”

” … they beamed in and started grabbing them.  … just the women.”

“Who beamed in?” Riker shouted into the speaker.

There was a flash of light on the screen and the officer cried out once just before it went dead.  Riker pressed the button again and again, “What is your status?  Come in.  What is your status?”  He looked at the communications officer and said, “Get me whatever you can.”

Liam grabbed Riker by the arm.  The fabric of the captain’s uniform wrinkled between Liam’s fingers, as real as his own.  “It’s the Borg, Captain.”

“The Borg?  That’s impossible.  The Voyager mission destroyed their Unicomplex.”

“Captain, listen to me!  The Borg are coming and none of the women aboard this ship are safe.  We have to take defensive positions.”

Riker leaned in close to Liam, eyes glowering down at him, “And how in the hell do you have this information, young man?”

“I just do, sir.  You have to trust me.”

Riker turned away toward the Crusher family and the counselor and said, “This is going to take a few minutes.  Why don’t you take Vanessa into the Ready Room?”

“But I want to see the Bridge,” Vanessa complained.  “Can I sit in the Captain’s chair?”

Riker’s eyes pleaded with Deanna and she instantly put her arms around the child’s shoulders and began steering her back toward the Ready Room.  “Of course you can, darling, but first, Auntie Deanna wants to show you where the Captain has his private meetings, all right?”

Professor Crusher waved to his wife and said he’d be along soon and came down the steps to join us.  “What is it?”

“I’m not sure,” Riker said.

“I am,” Liam said.  “This is the Great Invasion.  They’re trying to wipe humanity out.”

“That is enough, Commander,” the Captain barked.

“Captain, we have a Federation ship entering our sector,” the communications officer said.

Riker stormed back to the Captain’s chair and sunk into it.  He grabbed the armrests and called out, “On screen.”

A large military vessel decelerated into the airspace surrounding their station, it’s hull white and gleaming.  “This is Captain Bolaris of the USS ND Tyson.  There has been a breach of the system’s inner perimeter.  All transporter devices have been deactivated in this region for your own protection.  I repeat, do not attempt transport.”

Riker glanced at Liam.  Thick beads of sweat were forming on his forehead.  “They wouldn’t close transporters unless they were afraid of something coming in.”

“Raise shields and arm your weapons, Captain.”

“We don’t have any,” he said.

“What about warp drive?  Let’s clear the area until it’s safe.”

“We are a stationary research facility, Commander.  We have no weapons and no warp capabilities, do you understand me?”  Riker looked around at the rest of the bridge crew stared back at him with sheet-white faces.  “All right, everyone.  Let’s take a deep breath and not get carried away.  Starfleet is aware of the situation and they are responding accordingly.”  The bridge lights flickered as he finished speaking and one of the computer consoles sizzled and popped with an electrical surge.  “What was that?” Riker called out.

“Unknown interference, Captain,” one of the lieutenants said.  “The system went off line for a moment.”

“Get diagnostics back up, close all research programs immediately.  I want full range sensor sweeps of this entire sector.”

The communications channel chirped again.  It was Captain Bolaris, “All ships in the immediate vicinity, be advised we are picking up a strong radiation surplus of … WE ARE THE HIVE MIND.  YOUR SPECIES HAS BEEN SELECTED FOR EXTINCTION.”

The voice made Liam’s blood run cold.  He and the Captain looked at one another for one brief, terrible moment, just before the communications channels on their own bridge blared out, “WE ARE THE HIVE MIND.  PREPARE FOR ANNIHILATION.”

Liam turned to look at the monitoring screens, watching as a dozen Borg cubes appeared in the dark space surrounding their station.  “Red alert!  All hands to battle stations!”

“We don’t have battle stations,” Riker shouted.

“Then arm yourselves with whatever you can find, for God’s sake.  Prepare to defend this ship!”

The lights on the bridge flickered again and went out.

Liam felt the static electricity of a nearby transporter beam and saw its shimmering blue light, followed by the awful sound of cybernetic limbs twisting and creaking.  One of the female crewmembers screamed and someone shouted her name, only to turn into a sickening wet gurgle.  Liam leapt out of his chair and raced in that direction, colliding with something hard and metal.  It clicked and whirred as it turned its face toward him, blinding him with its glaring red laser.  He could see its face, once human, now drilled through with wires and circuits.

It clenched him by the throat, crushing his windpipe and Liam staggered back, struggling for a foothold.  The pain was real.  The terror was real.  He clawed at the Borg’s mechanical hand, trying to pry its steel fingers from his skin.  He tried to scream for help.  Something was wrong with the simulation.  Someone had tampered with the safety protocols.

His fingers were too numb now to even hold onto the Borg’s claw.  Maybe this wasn’t a simulation after all, he thought.  One of those damn temporal anomalies.  Some maniac with an experimental transporter beam in the science lab accidentally sent me back in time and now I’m going to die at the hands of this maniac cyborg. 

No. 

The word echoed in his mind like a stone crashing the surface of still water.

No. 

I’m not letting this thing kill me. 

He reached up for the Borg’s face and dug in with his thumbs, tearing and ripping whatever he could grab.  He twisted and pulled and crushed flesh and rubbery connectors even as his brain screamed for oxygen.  Liam unleashed a flurry of punches into the Borg’s chest, trying to smash it to pieces despite his knuckles splitting open on the sharp cornered edges of its armor.

Something cold and wet splashed Liam across the face and he looked up to see a long triple-bladed dagger sunk deep in the side of the Borg’s head.  The deathgrip on Liam’s throat instantly relaxed and the cyborg collapsed to the ground, its limbs clicking and whirring to the last.

Captain Riker planted his foot against the Borg’s face and withdrew his Klingon d’k tahg from the mess of circuitry and skull.  Liam clutched his throat and gasped for air, repressing the urge to vomit.  “Come on,” Riker urged.

Liam followed the captain through the dark bridge, past the screams and the sparking electronics, trying to keep up.  “I thought you didn’t have any weapons on board!”

“I forgot.  It’s a good thing Klingons give knives as wedding presents.”

The communications officer screamed from the center of the bridge and Liam turned in time to see a Borg drone clutch her around the head and neck and vanish in a bright blue transporter flash.  “They’re taking the women so we can’t reproduce.  They got tired of fighting us head on.  Now they’re trying to wipe us out permanently,” Liam said.

Riker forced his way into the Ready Room, dagger held high over his head to strike anything that moved.  Professor Crusher and his wife and daughter were backed to the far end of the room, behind his desk, arms wrapped around one another.  “Where’s Deanna?” Riker said.

“They took her, Will,” Crusher gasped.  “I tried to stop them but they vanished with her.”

“She saved me,” Vanessa whimpered.  “One of those things grabbed me and she fought them off.”

Their words fell on the captain like a guillotine.  He staggered into the office’s desk, eyes moving around the room without focusing.  Liam pressed himself against Riker to steady him and said, “Captain, we can get her back.”

“No we can’t.”

“Yes we can.  We’ll get this family out of here and then you and I will transport on the Borg ship and find her.”

“We have no weapons.”

“I don’t care!” Liam shouted.  “I’m not giving up and neither are you, damn it.  Listen to me!  I’m not from this time.  I’m from the future and the Borg are not going to stop unless we fight them to the last man, and if that’s why I’m here, so be it.  Let’s fight.”

A bright blue transporter beam filled the back of the room, and the Borg’s red focal beam zeroed in on the back of Captain Riker.  Liam’s face flushed with indignant outrage.  He cracked his knuckles, “Oh yeah.  Come get some you robot son of a bitch.  I’m ready.”

He felt Riker’s strong hand cover his as the captain slid the handle of his d’k tahg into palm.  “You deal with him,” Riker said, jaw quivering.  “I’m going to get the Crushers out of here.”

“Yes, sir,” Liam said.  He took the dagger and switched it from hand to hand, shifting his weight back and forth like a boxer, eyeing the Borg’s cruel face as it advanced toward the Crushers.  “That’s right,” he nodded.  “That’s right.  Time for the pain.”

The Borg raised its arm to sweep Liam aside and Liam slipped it gracefully, coming up in time to land a picturesque right cross in the center of the machine’s face.  Cybernetics attached to cheekbones and eye sockets shifted and snapped at the casings, shooting sparks into the Borg’s face.  Liam instantly left-hooked with the Klingon dagger’s blade, slicing through the connecting wires and soft throat flesh it was bolted into.

The Borg stumbled once and teetered back and forth as its gears and pinions forced it to keep moving, to finish the mission, but red sparks erupted from its severed wires like beheaded snakes and it collapsed to the ground.

Liam thrust his arms in the air and released an animalistic cry of victory that died in his throat at the sight of four more Borg drones beaming into the Ready Room directly in front of him.  He shifted his stance with the dagger and shouted, “Captain, we’ve got company!”

Riker was bent over a panel on the wall, using a small hand tool to calibrate the burned out controls.  “I just need another minute, Commander.  Hold them off.”

The four drones advanced in formation, the tip of their spear descending on Liam while the others flanked and came around.  Liam slashed to his right and left, screaming for them to get back.

“Hold that line, Mr. O’Brien,” Riker shouted.

Liam’s knife sparked against their attachments and saw blades and electrified hooks.  He stabbed at their necks and slashed at their faces but severed only dead flesh.  Their red lights were focused on Vanessa, her terror-stricken face buried against her mother’s stomach as she moaned for her parents to protect her.

Wesley Crusher unglued himself from his wife’s clutched hands.  “Let go of me, hon,” he whispered.

“No!  Stay with us!”

“Daddy, don’t go!”

He kissed Vanessa on the top of her head and forced their hands away from him as he turned toward the Borg, his hands clenched into fists.  “Get back, Professor!” Liam shouted.

“You can’t have them,” Wesley muttered.  “You can’t have them!”  He charged at the closest Borg, arms flailing wildly but the machine stabbed a sharp claw into Wesley’s shoulder and twisted viciously.  Wesley screamed in fury and raised his foot to drive it into the monster’s gut, kicking with all of his strength.  The Borg snatched Wesley’s leg in mid-air, plucking it by the ankle and twisting.  The bones snapped in Wesley’s hip and knee and his scream was deafening.  The Borg yanked its claw out of the Professor’s shoulder and drove it into the meaty flesh of Wesley’s thigh and scraped it away, rough metal on raw bone.

Liam slashed and swung until his arms were hard to lift.  Sweat dripped into his eyes and he blinked rapidly, trying to keep his bearings.  The Borg drones were mutilated with severed hoses and slashed faces but still they advanced.  He heard Captain Riker cry out and turned to look just as two transporter beams appeared behind them and both Vanessa and her mother vanished in clenched cybernetic arms.

From the corner of his eye he saw something sailing toward his face, too late, he tried to turn away, but the Borg’s saw teeth caught his cheek.  The blades chewed through his bones and teeth and he tasted burning flesh and metal in his mouth.  The floor fell out from beneath him and he found himself lying next to the motionless, mangled body of Wesley Crusher.

The Borg stepped over the two of them, heading for the last remaining person in the room.  More and more of the creatures filtered into the Ready Room, their dark business completed in the rest of the station.  Their armored surfaces were smeared crimson.

The security vault on Riker’s wall panel finally hissed and popped open.  His hands dove into the safe only to re-emerge with a small round ball that sizzled and sparked with blue electricity.  He held the ball defiantly at the Borg, his body covered in red laser lights from dozens of their optics.  “You bastards want me?” Riker said.  “Come get me.”

Liam lifted his head and moaned, his wet hands still clenched around the handle of the d’k tahg.  He reached for Professor Crusher, trying to shake him back to life.

Riker called out, “Commander O’Brien.”

Liam tried to respond but could not get his mouth to work.

“Catch.”

Riker tossed a small Starfleet shaped pendant that turned over and over in the air before it landed on the carpeted floor in front of Liam.  Liam picked it up with numb fingers to look at it and it burst into shimmering field of blue light.  The emergency transporter beam formed around Liam and the Professor, struggling to break through the Borg’s dampening field.  “I always kept one for a special situation,” Riker said with a grim smile.  “Live to fight another day.”

“No!” Liam cried out, his voice vanishing as the transporter dissolved him and the professor to nothingness, instantly careening them through space and time back to Earth.

Riker let the blinking blue ball fall out of his hands to the ground, where the Borg watched it roll across the floor toward them with stupefied expressions.  He thought of Deanna.

The Hawking Observation Center burst into fragments, a massive explosion with the force and energy of a small supernova that rolled through the space surrounding it.  The Borg cubes hovering around it shuddered at the impact, their hulls fractured and cracked, causing a chain reaction of explosions that could be seen from the Earth’s surface far below.

***

Liam O’Brien’s eyes fluttered open under the gentle lights of the Starfleet Academy sickbay.  He jerked awake, tossing the sheets off of him and scrambling to defend himself, even as Professor Wesley Crusher told him, “It’s all right, Liam.  It’s all right.  You’re safe.”

Liam clutched his chest and tried to breathe, “Oh my … oh my God, Professor.”  He looked up at Wesley and tears filled his eyes and choked his throat.  “I tried.  I tried so hard, but I couldn’t save them.  I’m so sorry.”

“It wasn’t real, son,” Wesley said gently.  He took Liam’s hand in his and sat down on the sickbay bed beside him, “It wasn’t real, and it wasn’t your fault.  It was The Test.”

Liam reached up and touched his face, feeling that it was intact.  “The Test?” he whispered.  The terror and anger were all too real.  He could still feel the tangled mass of metal and cold skin from the Borg he’d struggled with.  “How could you do that to me?”

“It was necessary, Liam,” Wesley said.

“No!  How can that ever be necessary?  I thought people were dying!  I thought your family was dying right in front of my eyes!”

“I know,” Wesley said.  “Believe me, it wasn’t easy for me to watch either, but we had to be sure.  I promise you that, Liam.  The only reason I allowed them to run that scenario was because we had to be sure.”

“We who?”

A muscular, stern-looking man walked into the room dressed in a Starfleet Captain’s uniform.  He looked down at Wesley with a carefully considered gaze.  The long, jagged scar along the side of his face started just under his right eye and continued down past his lips.  “Is this the young man you told me about?” the captain said.

“Yes, sir, it is,” Wesley said.  He stood up and waved his hand, “Captain Jeremy Rollins, this is Liam O’Brien.”

Rollins grunted as he extended his hand, “I heard you met my old friends, the Hive.”

Liam took his hand and shook, unable to take his eyes off the man’s scar.  “It was you.  That was your experience onboard the Hawking.  You and the Professor’s, I mean.”

Rollins didn’t respond and didn’t let go of Liam’s hand.  He leaned down and said, “You fought hard, from what I am told, but I have a question for you, cadet.  Is there any fight left in you?”

Liam thought of what it had been like to be trapped as people were being kidnapped and murdered all around him.  He nodded and said, “Yes, sir, there is.  Plenty.”

The captain nodded, “Good.”  He clapped his hand around Wesley’s shoulder and smiled thinly, “You look like hell, old friend.”

“It’s these youngsters.  They’re wearing me out.”

“I bet.  Let’s have drinks before me and Mr. O’Brien ship out.”

“Excuse me, but, ship out, sir?” Liam said.

Captain Rollins looked back at him, his eyes hard and narrow.  “We’re leaving for the Delta Quadrant, Liam.  It’s time the Borg learned what it means to be hunted.”

***

Stay Tuned for Star Trek Return Fire Episode Two

 

 

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