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“I haven’t seen a starship crew this excited over a mission since my first assignment out of the Academy. It’s not just that we’ll get a chance to finally truly explore new regions of the galaxy. I think it’s also the fact that we’re getting to do it now, after the Dominion War and the various crises that we’ve had to deal with before and after. There has been an increasing sense of resignation—and I don’t mean just on this ship—that the purpose of Starfleet has become fighting wars and dealing with galactic emergencies. It has become so prevalent that some of the younger officers and recruits these days only know about Starfleet’s mission of exploration through reading about it. But I’m convinced that for many of those people—and I count myself among those—when they first dreamt about joining Starfleet, they did so because they were enrapt by the stories of the great explorers of yesteryear and the chance to someday follow into their footsteps.”

Tazla Star nodded with a growing smile on her face while listening to her captain speak. “Some of my career choices may say otherwise, but I was one of those kids with stars in her eyes when I grew up. There was a time when I had wanted to be an explorer more than anything.”
Michael Owens considered his red-haired first officer sitting opposite him at the desk of his ready room and had to admit that he didn't have an easy time imagining her having had the same dreams he'd had when he was a child. And perhaps this was because part of him still saw her as the woman she had been when she had first joined his crew two years earlier, when all he had truly known about the former starship captain had been that she had shown poor judgment and acted rashly just months into her first command and as a result people had lost their lives. She had later admitted that she had spent a significant time of her career as a clandestine operative for a shady branch of Starfleet Intelligence, mostly beholden to one ruthless individual who had been chiefly responsible for her eventual downfall.

He had long since moved past his trust issues with Tazla Star who had repeatedly shown herself more than willing to not only start her career anew on Eagle but also put herself in harm's way to protect her new ship and crew. There was no denying that she had come a long way since that first day she had stepped into his office, and perhaps—Michael thought—it wasn't so hard after all to imagine that this version of Star had once shared much more in common with him than he would have ever thought possible.

The annunciator interrupted his brief reverie and he glanced towards the doors of his ready room. “Come in.”

The doors parted with a hiss to allow Louise Hopkins to step into his office, bringing with her a padd. “Captain. Commander.”
“Lieutenant,” Star said. “How’s that new power plant fitting in?”

The young engineer smirked. “Oh, she’s fitting in quite nicely, Commander. I know the Mark-X wasn’t designed for this class of ship but I won’t stop until she feels like the most natural fit and purrs like a wildcat.”

Michael nodded. “And you’ll have the time to do just that. It’ll take us a good three weeks to reach the Pleiades, even using this new warp sled we’ll be using to get us there.”

“That’s why I’m here,” she said and handed him the padd. “I’ve finished the work schedule to get the ship ready to connect to the sled. I’m still a little nervous about the idea of hooking all our systems up to another vessel and letting it take us into warp, especially with the untested upgrades we’ve only just installed on Eagle.”

“I’ve been assured that this warp sled is perfectly safe and fully compatible with all our systems,” Michael said as he glanced over the padd.

“Yes,” the engineer said, sounding cautious. “I have been told the same thing. But still, we’ll be the first Starfleet ship to use this technology during an extended period of time. I guess I just don’t like the idea of being the guinea pig for Starfleet R&D.”

Star smirked. “Ah, Lieutenant, where’s your sense of adventure? Starfleet was founded on the idea of testing new and experimental technologies. The first transporter, the warp-five engine, the duotronic computer system; it all had to start somewhere. Why not us for the next great thing? Imagine, they may mention your name in the history books among Cochrane, Erickson, and Daystrom.”

But Michael could tell that Louise Hopkins wasn’t the type to clamor for glory and fame. After all, differently to him and Star, she had clearly not signed up to Starfleet to become an explorer, generally having preferred the more familiar surroundings of her engineering room instead.

“Don’t get me wrong, I love the idea of new technologies. Eagle hasn’t exactly been on the forefront of cutting-edge systems over the years. It’s just with the new warp drive, the improved weapons systems, those transphasic shields and now the warp sled, there is a lot of things that could go wrong and if they do, we might be a long way from a friendly port to get help.”

“Sounds like a challenge to me,” Michael said. “And if there is one thing I know you’ve never shied away from it’s a challenge.”

The little spark in her eyes revealed that she wasn’t about to start now. “I guess that’s true.”

“That’s what I thought,” he said and handed her back the padd. “How long to make the necessary modifications to prepare for the warp sled?”

“Oh, those are easy. Half a day or so. We should be all ready to go once we get to our rendezvous. I suggest we take our time once we get there though, I want to complete a few full level one system diagnostic before I'm going to be totally comfortable to hand over our propulsion to another vessel."

“Sensible,” said Star and exchanged a quick nod with the captain. “Make sure you work closely with Culsten on this,” she added. “We’ll still be responsible for navigation and I want to make sure he is as prepared as he can be piloting the sled.”

Michael didn’t miss the pained look that crossed her features when Star mentioned the Krellonian helmsman. “Uh, yes … yes, of course. If you’ll excuse me now. I better get started on the modifications.”

Michael dismissed her with a nod and the engineer headed for the exit.

“Oh, Louise?” he said before she had reached the doors.

Hopkins turned around.

“I know you’ll be busy over the next three weeks working on your new warp core, not to mention keeping an eye on that sled but I really hope you’ll be able to join us for the ship’s concert. The performers really worked hard on their acts.” Ordinarily he wouldn’t have felt it necessary to remind anyone about the upcoming concert but Hopkins had a tendency to skip social gatherings whenever she could.

“I’ll make sure to make time for it,” she said and then quickly left.

Michael looked back at his first officer. “Is there something the matter between our pilot and engineer I’m not aware of?” he said. While the couple hadn’t exactly advertised their relationship, it hadn’t been a great secret either, especially since they had only recently spent nearly three weeks on shore leave together.

“I’m not entirely sure,” she said. “But I think there may have been some tension between them ever since they came back from Krellon a few weeks ago.”

There was a reason why he wasn’t exactly fond of the idea of his officers engaging in relationships with each other. And while Starfleet was infamous for its proclivity of having long and detailed regulations on most aspects of the service, and had quite a few guidelines regarding fraternization between officers and enlisted personnel, there were no rules against members of a starship crew, of any rank or position, to become romantically involved with each other.

And Michael could appreciate that it was unrealistic to expect people who served together on a relatively large starship which practically functioned like a small community, not to gravitate towards each other over time. He also understood that this could also lead to serious challenges as well, such as when Gene Edison, his former first officer who had fallen in love with ship’s security chief Nora Laas had been tragically killed in action while at her side. It had taken the usually steadfast Bajoran a long time to get over that terrible loss.

Star seemed to know what he was thinking. "I'll keep an eye on them," she said, and he nodded. "Now, about that ship concert," she added, clearly not wishing to stay on the subject, most likely since she possessed a more liberal view on inter-ship romances than he did. "I hear you've gotten a sneak peek at some of the acts already."

He smiled, remembering DeMara impressive rehearsal he had witnessed the previous day. No, it hadn’t been Rossini, which he would have preferred, and the performance had felt a little bit too forced and risqué for his tastes, but there was no doubt it would be a hit with the crew once they got to see her and her troop singing and tap dancing all over the stage in a week’s time. “Yes, I was lucky enough to get an early taste.”

She offered him a beaming grin. “Rank hath its privileges.”

“Indeed. And from what I’ve seen, they will quite literally bring the house down,” he said.

“Bridge to Captain.”

Michael glanced towards the ceiling upon hearing Lieutenant Alendra’s voice who was apparently the duty bridge officer at present. “Go ahead, Lieutenant.”
“Sir, we’ve just picked up a ship on an intercept course. And they’re in a real hurry to get to us.”

Michael and his first officer exchanged puzzled looks, neither of them expecting a rendezvous until they reached the Aldebaran system where Eagle was due to link up with the warp sled.

“We’ll be right there, Owens out,” he said and stood.

“Are we expecting guests?” Star asked as she followed him onto the bridge.

“Not to my knowledge,” he said just before he stepped through the parting doors and walked onto the bridge where Alendra had already gotten up from the command chair to make way for him.

“Sensors have just identified her as the Alexander Hamilton. And she’s doing warp nine point two,” she said.

Lieutenant Lance Stanmore turned around from the operations console he was currently manning. "Sir, according to her transponder signal she’s carrying Admiral Throl’s flag.”

Michael nodded. Throl was his commanding officer but it was unusual for him to come out in person to speak to him. In fact, he could not remember the last time they had met under such circumstances. Whatever it was he wanted, it was very urgent, very important, or quite possibly both.

Alendra had moved to the tactical board on the horseshoe-shaped console behind and above the command area. “Sir, the admiral is requesting permission to beam onboard.”

“Helm, drop out us out of warp and prepare for the rendezvous,” Michael said.

“Aye, sir,” responded Ensign Srena and after only a moment, the Andorian had cut the warp engines as evidenced by the settling starscape on the view screen. “We’ll be in transporter range in four minutes.”

Michael turned to look at Alendra first. “Lieutenant, advise the Hamilton that we’re ready to receive the admiral,” he said and then to his first officer: “I guess we’re having a guest after all.”

She dipped her head slightly. “I shall welcome the admiral on board and show him directly to your ready room.”

* * *

Just a few minutes later Tazla Star received Admiral Throl in the transporter room.

Tazla liked Throl.

The Denobulan flag officer, almost a full head shorter than she, didn’t carry with him the same kind of arrogance and standoffishness which was often commonplace amongst members of the Admiralty. It was also refreshing not to be subject to the often unspoken but almost always judgmental looks she received from officers of his rank who were not willing to look beyond her blemished record which had ultimately led to her months-long stint at the Starfleet stockade.

Of course she understood that suspicion was justified, after all, the decisions she had made in her past had led to preventable casualties, even if there had been mitigating circumstances, and had it not been for the Dominion War, she most likely would still be in that prison cell today.

Yet Throl seemed to be thinking none of those things as he bounded down the transporter platform, evidencing his great energy and defying his age, and then offered Star a typically wide Denobulan grin after she had formally given him permission to come onboard.

She escorted the admiral up to deck one during which Throl made a few polite comments about the ship and her crew but refused to give away any indication as to the purpose of his visit.

“Michael, it is so good to see you again,” said Throl once he had entered the ready room along with Tazla Star. He had quickly crossed the small office while Owens had left his chair and then vigorously shaken the captain’s hand with both of his.

“Admiral, always a pleasure,” Owens said, returning the friendly smile even if he was biologically incapable of mirroring the Denobulan’s width. “Can I offer you something?”

“I know you are fond of tonic waters,” the admiral said. “I’ll try one, thank you.”

Star beat Owens to the replicator and ordered three beverages before placing them on the captain’s desk.

“I was just pointing out to Commander Star what a fine ship and crew you have here.”

Throl may not have been the most typical Starfleet admiral she had encountered but making general platitudes seemed to be an inherent part of a flag officers repertoire.

“Thank you, sir, we’re all very proud of her,” he said.

"I'm glad we finally got her in for that much-needed overhaul," the admiral continued as he took a sip from the tonic water but without settling down in the chair. "Uh, bitter. But not bad, not bad at all," he said, the unfamiliar beverage distracting him only momentarily. "Starfleet has been very pleased with Eagle’s performance and the new modifications will ensure that she remains one of the fleet’s most reliable ships of the line.”

Owens exchanged a quick look with her before he considered the admiral again. “That’s good to hear and I have every confidence that she will.”

“So do I, Michael,” he said and took in the ready room. “I don’t think I’ve been on Eagle since you first took her on her maiden voyage. I really don’t get out enough.” He stopped in front of the large canvas of the colorful painting of a green landscape surrounding a yellow country home which hung on the far wall. “That’s quite something. Reminds me of an Edward Hopper.”

Tazla threw Owens another look, this time surprised to find that Throl was apparently somewhat of an art aficionado and judging by the captain’s expression he was just as surprised.

Owens smirked as he joined him. “Nothing quite as fancy, I’m afraid. It’s a watercolor painting of my family home on Earth. It was done a few decades ago by a close friend of my father’s.”

Tazla was out of her element, not being particularly familiar with art, all she could really tell from her rudimentary knowledge was that it had been painted in the style of realism and that she had always thought it odd that Owens had it in his office, since it had clearly once belonged to his father with whom he’d had a conflicted relationship while he had still been alive. Not to mention that as a self-proclaimed explorer, she would have expected him to decorate his office with something less homey.

The admiral turned away from the painting and to Owens. “I was very sorry to hear about your father’s passing and that I was not able to attend the funeral. We lost a great man.”

Owens nodded, acknowledging his sentiment but said nothing.

He hadn't opened up to her much about how he felt after his father had passed away just a few weeks ago and while they had still been on Earth. She had actually been right there with him, on shore leave on a boat on the Australian coast, when he had gotten the news. And it had been obvious that it had hit him hard. Much harder, she guessed, than he would have expected. Shore leave had naturally been cancelled, at least for the captain and she had spent a bit of time speaking to him afterwards, but very little of what he had talked about had actually given her any insight into how he had felt about his father when he had been alive, or now, that he had passed.

“Admiral, I take it you didn’t come all the way out here for a social visit. Not that we don’t appreciate you joining us,” Owens said and indicated towards one of the two chairs facing his desk.

Throl nodded and took a seat, followed by Owens. Tazla took the remaining chair by the admiral’s side. “Yes, of course. I’m sure you have been wondering about that and I won’t keep you in suspense any longer. In fact, it is quite imperative that we discuss the matter I’ve come to see you without further delay.”

“I assume your personal visit means that we are no longer heading for the Pleiades,” said Owens, doing a decent job of trying to mask his disappointment even if he wasn’t entirely successful.

"Just to be clear, it is merely delayed. Not canceled," he said quickly. "Now that the war is over, Starfleet still has every intention to allocate some of our admittedly dwindled resources to the purposes of expanding our reach into previously uncharted regions of space."

Owens nodded. “That is good to hear. What is the nature of this delay, Admiral?”

"The Federation Council was contacted five days ago by representatives from the Krellon Star Alliance asking for urgent assistance with a medical emergency on one of their border colonies. An outbreak of a highly infectious viral disease of sorts which has mystified their medical community and has spread across the entire planet in a matter of days."

“The Krellonians?” Owens said, clearly surprised. “I cannot recall a time they have ever sought out any kind of assistance from the Federation.”

“They have a number of trade treaties with us,” said Tazla who was in her element when it came to galactic politics thanks to her intelligence background. “It is a mostly one-sided affair in which we export quite a few resources to them for very little import in return and ostensibly to foster improved relationships with their highly xenophobic government. They’ve also imposed very strict guidelines on any trade or travel arrangements. Last I heard, Federation ships are not allowed to cross in Krellonian space and any cargo is usually transferred onto their own freighters at the border.”

Throl nodded, "That is exactly right, Commander," he said and looked back at the captain. "As you can imagine, the Federation Council believes this to be a possible step to improve and perhaps even normalize relationships between our people. Following the war, we are desperate for new allies and if there is even a small chance that this could lead to more than a costly trade agreement, the Council is willing to extend any help that has been requested."

“Not to mention trying to be a good neighbor,” said Tazla.

Throl offered her grin. “And that, of course.”

“What kind of help have they asked for exactly? What do we know about the medical situation on their world?” Owens asked.

“Very little, I’m afraid. They have not been willing to share any details about the nature of their medical crisis beyond what I’ve told you.”

"Krellonian space is deep in the Beta Quadrant," said Tazla. "It would take us weeks to get there. There must be closer ships which could respond to this emergency, not to mention actual hospital ships which would be better suited for such a mission."

“All very true, Commander. However, Eagle has been requested specifically for this assignment.”

This brought up both officers short. Alarm bells were already beginning to sound in her mind but Owens asked the question first. “Why us? If this is such a critical emergency and they’re reaching out to us for the first time in what seems like forever, why would they request a very specific starship?”

“They haven’t told us. Our best guess is that it might have something to do with your pilot.”

“Lif?” she said.

He nodded. “There aren’t many Krellonians in Starfleet. They can probably be counted on one hand. Lif Culsten I understand is fairly well connected within the Krellonian government even if I wouldn’t be able to tell you exactly how due to the secrecy in which the Krellonians like to shroud themselves in. As it turns out, Mister Culsten hasn’t been exactly forthcoming with his family connections either, according to his file.”

Owens uttered a sigh and tugged down on his uniform jacket which Tazla immediately interpreted as a sign of discomfort. She didn’t blame him at all. “Admiral, I have to be honest, I don’t like any of this.”
“I didn’t think you would, Michael.”

“The last time we were asked to travel to a world to seek out a potential new ally, the mission turned into a disaster. And mostly because of how Starfleet had decided to handle that situation internally.”

She was thankful that he had not looked her way when saying this, considering that she’d had something to do with the way things had turned out on the mission he was referring to.

Throl acknowledged this with a small nod. "I know what you are thinking. This will not be another Tiaita. Yes, Starfleet is desperate for allies but not nearly as much as it was during the darkest days of the war. We are not bending over backward to accommodate the Krellonians. Your mission is to go to their planet and assist them in a medical capacity in any way you can. If you are able to create some goodwill amongst their leadership in the process: Excellent. If it turns out you are not able to assist at all: Than so be it. Neither I nor the Federation Council expects you do to do anything beyond that."

Owens nodded slowly. “There is still the point of getting there.”

“You’ll continue on to Aldebaran and link up with the warp sled. But instead of heading towards Cardassian and Ullian space you’ll be going towards the Amargosa Diaspora. Krellon space lies just beyond. If the sled works out as advertised, the trip will take just a few days.”

“Admiral, a question, if I may?” said Tazla.

“Of course.”

“If this is merely a medical mission—putting aside for the moment that we were specifically requested—why did you come all the way out here in person to tell us this? You could have briefed us about this mission just as well over subspace.”

The admiral hesitated for a moment and the look on Owens’ face made it clear that he had been wondering about the exact same thing. “Commander, would you mind giving us the room for a moment?” Throl said.

She shot a brief look at the captain who gave her a nod. “Of course,” she said, stood and left the room.

* * *

“I don’t really appreciate keeping secrets from my first officer, Admiral,” Michael said after the doors had closed behind Tazla Star.

“Nothing I’m about to tell you has to be kept from her, Michael. I just wanted to tell you first before you decided if you wish to share this information.”

He leaned back in his chair slightly, bracing himself for whatever was coming next.

Throl took another sip from his beverage and allowed his gaze to briefly wander over to the large painting before he spoke. Then he looked back at the captain. “This mission is being handled through the Department of Special Affairs and Investigations.”

That in itself was, of course, no great revelation or reason for concern since SAI often took an interest in missions which could have wider implications. But Michael understood why Throl had decided to tell him this in private. SAI had been headed by his late father and what Throl likely didn't know, was that Jonathan Owens had very surprisingly asked him—demanded really—that Michael leave Eagle and came to work for him just a day before he had died.

“There isn’t much more I can tell you since SAI is almost as bad at sharing information as the Krellonian government seems to be. What I can tell you is that since your father’s passing, the agency is being led by a man I think you know quite well.”

"Jarik," Michael said, referring to his half-Vulcan former Academy roommate with whom he had reconnected while on Earth recently and after he had been startled to learn that he had been working for his father for years.

Throl nodded. "Yes. He has been named interim-director and will assume operational command of this mission. He is awaiting you in the Arkaria system which is practically on your way to Krellon space and he will brief you in more detail once you get there."

“I’m confused,” Michael said. “You mentioned that there were no more details to share. That the Krellonians had been very vague about their request.” He continued on before Throl had a chance to speak up again. “No, let me guess. There is more, it’s just that you’re not privy to that information. Something else is going on here. I mean why else would SAI be involved and presumably make you come see me in person instead of using subspace.”

The admiral nodded slowly. “I suspect as much, yes. But Michael, I am not negating on my point from earlier. No matter what else Jarik and SAI are up to, your mission as far as Starfleet Command is concerned is clear. You are to assist the Krellonians with their medical emergency. You are not authorized for anything beyond that. This is not an intelligence op and you are not expected, or in fact cleared, to carry out any kind of clandestine mission against a foreign power.”

“Right,” he said, sounding unconvinced. “And if Jarik asks me to? You said it yourself, he has operational command and Arkaria is at the outer edges of Federation space.”

"Michael, I trust your judgment. You have navigated these kinds of waters before. And whatever decision you end up making, I will back you completely."

“I appreciate the vote of confidence.”

Throl stood. “You’ve earned it,” he said and shook his hand once Michael had stood also. “Watch your back out there and good luck.”

Michael had called Star back into his office to escort the admiral to the transporter room but the nervous energy that Throl’s visit had created didn’t allow him to settle back down in his chair.

The expedition he and his crew had been looking forward to had been put on hold and instead he had been tasked to cross half a quadrant to help out a people suffering from an unknown affliction. Had this been the end of the story, he would not have given the matter another thought, but as was so often the case, there was much more to this seemingly innocuous mission than met the eye, the involvement of his late father’s agency the surest proof of this.

It also couldn’t be a coincidence that Jon Owens had summoned him just a few weeks earlier to his secretive base hidden beneath an old Russian mine to get him to drop everything that mattered in his life to join up with his cause, whatever that may have been.

He had said no at the time, even if after learning of his death due to a heart condition he had kept from him he had wished that he had at least given it some further consideration or at least been less dismissive to his father’s request.

But Jonathan Owens had never shied away from meddling in his Starfleet career, leading many to suspect—him included—that he had pulled the right strings at the right time to get him his own command. It had been a source of constant tension between the two men.

His father had spent most of his early childhood ignoring his existence but when he had managed to drive Matthew—his older brother—away from his family by his constant pressure to follow his own footsteps and join Starfleet, that attention had suddenly shifted on him and Michael had eventually given in. That influence hadn't ended there and for the longest time, Michael had been unable to shake the feeling of his influential father controlling his life from the shadows.

His eyes found the painting of his childhood home which first and foremost reminded him of his better days when his mother had still been alive and before his brother had left it behind for good. Yes, it had been his father's but he had always drawn strength from it, perhaps despite its previous owner. It had served as a reminder where he came from and perhaps what he was trying to leave behind.

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