Stardate 4757.7 (7 October 2268)
Starbase One, Earth Orbit
Temporary Office, C.O. USS Excalibur
Captain McAfee stared at Espinoza with open incredulity. “Well, damn, Commander, you’ve got brass; I’ll give you that. Why should I consider you for my first officer?”
“If I can have ten minutes of your time, I will tell you.”
She glanced at the chronometer, then back at the tall, dark and handsome officer, before making a decision.
“Tell you what, Mr. Espinoza, I’m about to walk to the officer’s mess. You have between here and there to catch my interest. If I like what I hear, you can sit with me and we’ll discuss the possibility. Otherwise, we can shake hands and you can let me eat in peace. Deal?”
Raul inclined his head. “Fair enough.”
“Alright, let’s go. You’re on the clock.”
McAfee stepped smartly into the corridor, surprising Espinoza who had to hurry to catch up. They stepped onto a waiting turbo-lift to descend three levels to the Commons Deck.
“Your name wasn’t even on the list of available officers, Commander. That would seem to be a strike against you. Also, by the color of your tunic, you’re either in security or engineering, not command. Strike two. Lucky for you I’m not aware of an apparent strike three . . . yet. Your turn. Start talking.”
“I served as Second Officer on the USS Cairo,” he said, simply.
McAfee stared at the dusky skinned man. “Computer, stop lift.”
The station’s computer instantly complied, causing the lift car to pause between levels. She searched his face carefully, looking for any sign of subterfuge. Apparently satisfied with what she saw, she spoke.
“You served with Bryce Allender?” she asked, softly.
He nodded. “Yes sir. He’s the one that suggested I come see you.”
She considered that. “Alright, that’s easy enough to verify, and if true, definitely a point in your favor. But tell me something, Commander. If you were second officer on the Cairo, how did you escape court-martial along with the rest of the senior officers?”
A sad smile crept across his face. “That’s just it Captain, I didn’t escape court martial. None of us did. I just now received my promotion to commander, even though I’ve been on the list for six years.”
That certainly explained why Espinoza was not on her first officer list. She had thus far limited the search to candidates with at least two years in grade.
“Computer, resume,” ordered McAfee and the lift began to move once more. “Tell you what, Commander, you’ve at least piqued my curiosity. I’m not making any promises, mind you, but I’ll give you a chance to make your pitch while I eat dinner.”
Espinoza followed McAfee into the spacious officer’s mess on the Commons’ deck. He declined food, but McAfee availed herself of soup, a sandwich and an apple from the bank of food slots. They found a somewhat private table away from the few other officers that were dining at the late hour.
“You sure you don’t want something, Commander? The station food isn’t too bad.”
“Thank you, no, I’m fine Captain.” He clasped his hands together on the table and appeared to gather his thoughts.
“You are, of course, familiar with the events of Stardate 3378.9?”
McAfee nodded as she chewed a bite of her turkey sandwich. Who could forget? That was the date that the destroyer, USS Cairo, in violation of several Starfleet directives, crossed into the Romulan Neutral Zone and rescued two transport vessels that had blundered into Romulan space.
The Cairo defended the civilian vessels from an attack by a Romulan D-7, one of the ships acquired from the Klingons. The Cairo took heavy damage and numerous casualties, but bought the 500 civilians enough time to make it back to Federation space and safety.
Captain Allender, McAfee’s old shipmate from their days as junior officers on the Canberra, was regaled as a hero by the press and the colonists. Unfortunately, the acclaim did not shield the command crew of the Cairo from the wrath of the admiralty, who decided to make an example of Allender and his senior officers.
In point of fact, Allender had defied the sector commander’s direct order to break off his rescue attempt and return to Federation space. Ultimately, Allender resigned his commission and left Starfleet. The other senior officers were reduced a grade in rank and cast off to mundane jobs on remote stations or support ships.
“Yes, Commander. I remember it all too well. Tell me, what have you been doing since? . . .”
“Since the court-martial, you mean?” Espinoza smiled bleakly and McAfee noticed the lines of stress near his eyes, the wisps of gray in his hair.
“I spent an interesting year as First Officer on a prison transport ship. That was when I traded in the gold shirt for this red one. After that, I was ‘promoted’ to Security Chief on Deep Space K-4, which, considering its remote location has been a very restful if uninteresting assignment.”
“So how did you come to be here, Mr. Espinoza? It must be at least a ten day trip from that station.”
“More like two weeks. I had some accumulated leave time, which will run out the day after tomorrow. After that . . .”
“After that, you’ll be AWOL,” she finished, “considering there’s no way you can get back in two days.” She shook her head in wonder. “You’re taking a hell of a chance, Mr. Espinoza. If I don’t take you on as First Officer, you’ll be going back to your brig, only on the wrong side of the force-field.”
“Yes sir, that’s true.”
“So, I’m supposed to feel sorry for you and do you a favor because you served under an old friend of mine, right?”
Espinoza leaned forward and spoke quietly but with earnest. “Captain, I’m a damn good officer, that’s something else you can verify. All I’m looking for is a second chance. I’m not ashamed of anything in my past and I’m proud to be associated with the Captain and crew of the Cairo. If you’re looking for a First Officer that can do the job and do it well, I’m your man!”
McAfee regarded Espinoza with quiet scrutiny. “One question, Mister. If you had it to do over again, would you still have followed Captain Allender into the Neutral Zone, knowing it was a direct violation of orders and several Federation statutes?”
“To save the lives of those civilians? Without hesitation. At least I can look at myself in the mirror, Captain.”
Grace tossed her napkin on her tray, clasped her hands together and shook her head slowly. Espinoza sat in silence, merely watching her. Finally, she pinched the bridge of her nose, in a vain attempt to stave off the headache that was building.
“Be in my office at 0830, Commander. I still have some questions for you.”
Raul relaxed slightly, a slight grin on his lips. “I guess this means I didn’t strike out?”
“Let’s say you’re standing on third base with two outs. You’re not home yet. Where are you staying?”
“I have a room in the Transit Officers Quarters.”
“Good. I am about to stay up very late checking you out very thoroughly, Commander Espinoza. If I find one single blip other than the Cairo incident that I don’t like, I’ll personally call your base commander and have you shipped back in irons. Got it?”
“Yes sir. And thank you, Captain.”
“For what? You don't have the job yet.”
“I know. But thanks for giving me a shot.”
She nodded. “That was for Bryce. Everything else will be up to you.”
* * *
Stardate 4758.1 (8 October 2268)
Starbase One, Earth Orbit
Temporary Office, C.O. USS Excalibur
Lt. Simon Collins whistled as he carried two cups of coffee down the corridor toward Captain McAfee’s office. He managed to also carry three data slates tucked under his arm. The young officer had learned very early how to save steps and time any way he could. He enjoyed serving as McAfee’s aide, but she could be a demanding taskmaster, so it was to his advantage to stay a step or two ahead of her.
The office door slid open upon sensing his bio-signature. As he stepped in, he came to an abrupt stop, shaking his head at the sight before him.
Grace McAfee was asleep with her head cradled on the desk. The light from the computer screen created multi-hued shadows across her hair which cascaded down across her face.
Collins cleared his throat. McAfee jerked awake and blinked, looking around her desk in a disoriented manner. Squinting, she looked towards Lt. Collins.
“Simon? What time is it?”
“Oh-seven fifty five, sir. I take it you spent the night here?”
She straightened, wincing at a twinge in her neck. “You take it correctly. Now I’ll take some of that coffee you’re holding.”
Clark set the steaming cup on the desk before McAfee, who accepted it gratefully. She took several sips of the hot coffee, wincing again and trying to work the kink out of her neck.
“Captain, why don’t you go get some rest? I’ll get things straightened up in here.”
She shook her head. “Negative. We have a prospective First Officer coming by in half an hour.”
Collins looked surprised. “Really? That was fast.”
“You have no idea.” She rolled her neck again. “Tell you what, I’m going to catch a quick shower and change my uniform. If Commander Espinoza gets here before I return, keep him entertained.”
“Shall I regale him with poetry or perhaps a Broadway show-tune?” he asked, straight-faced.
“Stow the comedy routine, Mister. Just have more coffee waiting when I get back and I’ll overlook it.”
“Aye sir. Anything else?”
“Yeah. Get in touch with Commander Phillips. Pass along my compliments, etc. etc. and see if he’s available for a meeting, make it 1230, and see about the Chief Steward sending lunch down here.”
“Got it. Do you want me here?”
“Yes, you take good notes. I’ll see you in a few minutes.”
* * *
Freshly showered and feeling somewhat more human, Captain McAfee returned at 0815 to find that Commander Espinoza had just arrived.
“It would seem I saved you from Lt. Collins' poetry,” quipped McAfee.
Espinoza looked puzzled. “Beg pardon?”
She smiled. “Never mind, it’s just a lame joke between me and my Yeoman. I assume you two have made introductions?”
“The Lieutenant was kind enough to get me some tea.”
“The Lieutenant is on the ball this morning, that’s more than can be said of his Captain. Have a seat, Commander, let’s talk. Simon? Why don’t you grab some breakfast while we meet.”
“Yes sir. When do you want me back?”
“Give us an hour.”
Lt. Collins exited and Grace gestured for Commander Espinoza to take a seat. She sat down behind the desk, stifling a yawn.
“Long night?” he asked.
“Yes, thanks to you.”
“Sorry,” he said, shrugging.
“Don’t be. It was time well-spent.” She leaned back in her chair. “You have a glowing resume’, Mr. Espinoza. I’ve talked to your former commanders, at least the one’s I could reach. You seem to have a strong work ethic and exceptional leadership qualities. Without exception, they all recommended you for the first officer slot on Excalibur. However . . .”
Espinoza’s smile faded. “Yes?”
“I need to ask you about one particular incident.”
“What would that be?” His voice remained calm, covering his apprehension.
“About six months ago, a prisoner in your charge was rather seriously injured, requiring a lengthy stay in the station’s sickbay.” She glanced at the data slate before her.
“According to the incident report, the prisoner ‘slipped’ in his cell, resulting in a broken nose, three broken ribs and multiple bruises. It seems the prisoner corroborates the official account.” She placed the slate back on her desk and rested her chin on her folded hands.
“I did a bit more digging. It also seems that the prisoner was a repeat offender and had been known to use his wife as a punching bag and had just broken his young daughter’s arm. Am I correct thus far?”
Espinoza’s expression was stony. “You are.”
She nodded. “Commander Espinoza, I am not naïve enough to believe the concocted pile of steaming manure contained in this report. Understanding that, did you in fact, beat the living daylights out of this walking piece of human debris?”
“Yes sir, I did.” Espinoza appeared calm, resigned perhaps to having blown his opportunity for redemption.
McAfee stood, as did Espinoza, who supposed the interview was at an end.
“Commander, why don’t you report to the quartermaster before checking into the BOQ.”
Espinoza looked puzzled. “Sir?”
A slight smile formed on McAfee’s lips. “I don’t condone what you did, Commander, and if you ever file a false report as First Officer of Excalibur, I’ll have your stripes. But I’d be lying if I said that, given the opportunity, I wouldn’t have administered a beating to that miserable bastard myself. Now, get on to the quartermaster and pick up some gold tunics with the Excalibur flash. Be back here by 1215 and I’ll introduce you to the rest of the crew. Actually, you’ve already met half of them. You can meet our Chief Engineer at least, then we’ve got our work filling over 400 other slots.”
The Commander stood, momentarily speechless. He was not quite sure he believed what he heard. McAfee cocked her head.
“Is your hearing alright, Commander?”
“Ah, yes sir. Thank you, sir!” He was grinning broadly now.
She nodded. “I’d say, ‘welcome aboard,’ but that’s a few months premature. Go on, get squared-away. I’ll take care of the transfer details with your old C.O.”
Espinoza turned and made his way to the door. He turned back upon reaching it. “Captain, I appreciate the second chance. I won’t let you down.”
Grace smiled wearily. “Commander, you’re gratitude is duly noted. Now, please get the hell out of here; I need a couple of hours sleep before lunch or I’ll be grouchier than usual.”
* * *
As efficient as ever, Lt. Collins was able to procure a nice lunch for the gathered officers of the Excalibur. Their newly minted First Officer, Commander Raul Espinoza, was resplendent in a fresh gold command tunic with the stylized sword and Cochrane delta flash of the Excalibur on his chest. Commander Phillips was arrayed in faded and stained engineering coveralls, but he too wore the Excalibur patch. He was sipping a cup of Earl Grey tea and gamely fielding questions from an eager and curious Lt. Collins.
“So, Commander, why is it that Excalibur’s registry number is NCC-1664? I thought the Constitution and Enterprise were the first two ships of the class.”
“Lad, that’s one of the common misconceptions about the 12 Connies. Constitution and Enterprise were the first two completely new ships in the class, built from the keel up.
Excalibur, Intrepid, Constellation and Republic were all older ships that were rebuilt as Connies after 1700 and 1701 were launched. They maintained their old names and registries, even though they were completely re-built. If you were to put them all side by side, you’d notice subtle differences, especially with the Republic. She still has her original engineering hull which has a decidedly different shape.”
“They were all originally of the old Republic-class, right Mr. Phillips?” added McAfee.
“Correct. ‘Course, technically, there isn’t a Republic-class anymore, even though the Republic still exists. She’s a Connie now, like her sisters.”
“Not to borrow trouble,” interjected Espinoza, “but now all the older Connies are gone, lost in action, except the Excalibur, and she was nearly destroyed too. Coincidence, Mr. Phillips? Or something else.”
A troubled look appeared on the Chief Engineer's face. “Those were all top-line ships, Mr. Espinoza. I doubt any of the newer ships would have fared any better,” but his voice betrayed his own doubts.
“But don’t you be fretting about Excalibur!" Phillips continued with conviction. "When I’m done with her, she’ll be better than new. We’re bringing her up to current build standards, same as the Kongo. She’ll be more than an equal to Enterprise, Lexington, Potempkin . . .”
“Could you share some specifics, please, Commander?” asked McAfee, hiding an amused smile behind her coffee cup.
Phillips cleared his throat, realizing he was sermonizing.
“Certainly, Captain. We’re strengthening the internal bracing, installing a new bridge module, faster-regenerating phaser banks, even an aft torpedo launcher, not to mention hundreds of small but significant upgrades in ship-wide systems. With the new upgrades, she’ll give Enterprise a run for fastest ship honors, and she won’t come apart at the seams the first time the shields fail.”
“Mr. Phillips, I’m no engineer, but I know enough that when you add a system, say a new torpedo launcher, you give up something else,” pressed the Captain.
A small smile formed on Phillips craggy face. “Yes sir, that’s correct.”
“So, what do we lose with the new torpedo launcher?”
“Not so much, an airlock . . . and the bowling alley.”
Lt. Collins blinked in amazement. “The ship has a bowling alley?”
Phillips sipped his tea and winked at the Captain. “Not anymore, lad.”
“Alright, Mr. Phillips thank you for the status report of Excalibur. Now on to staffing matters. Here’s where we stand . . .” continued McAfee.
To be continued
Chapter Notes: Commander Espinoza lays out his case as to why he should serve as First Officer but events from his past may torpedo his chances.