Prologue: Where Do the Children Play, Part 1
Michael Owens glanced out of the large windows to watch the stars seemingly streaking by his ship. It had been a long time since they had headed this way, straight back towards Sector zero-zero-one, the Sol System, and Eagle’s de-facto home base.
It was long overdue. It was also the first chance for most of the crew to have a proper shore leave after the two long and exhaustive years fighting the Dominion. Eagle hadn’t served on the frontlines of that conflict on a consistent basis, but even those missions which at first glance had appeared to take them away from the ongoing struggle for survival had more often than not turned out to be just as taxing on the ship and her crew. Emotionally as well as physically.
In fact, their previous first officer, a man Michael had considered not just a fellow officer but a friend as well, had lost his life in one of those missions and so had many others.
The latest reports from Counselor Trenira had shown that the war years had taken a heavy toll on the crew. Of course, Michael didn’t need a report to witness this first hand.
He turned away from the windows of the observation lounge to see the tired-faced of the men and women who made up his senior crew and who sat at the long dark glass and wood-trimmed conference table.
This crew desperately needed a break, a chance to reconnect with everything they had come so very close to give their own lives to protect. They needed a break or they would run the risk of breaking themselves.
And the same could be said for the ship. Eagle had performed admirably over the last two and a half years; she had shown her mettle and toughness time and time again. But even the most resilient starship could only take so much, have so many patch repairs after countless encounters with enemies determined to turn her into scrap metal before she stopped functioning altogether.
The signs were all there. The once pristine hull was pockmarked throughout her saucer and engineering section; a number of corridors and rooms were still so damaged, they were near uninhabitable and had to be sealed off, and the deck plates groaned and rattled every time the ship jumped to warp, as if writhing in anguish at having to exert the effort.
After having commanded her for nearly five years, Eagle had become more than a home to Michael and those who crewed her. She had become an extension of their being and it pained him to see her suffering just as much as it troubled him to see any member of his crew in such a state.
He looked towards his red-haired Trill first officer as he took his chair at the end of the table, letting her know to continue with the meeting.
She picked things up after a short nod. “We’ll be arriving on Earth as scheduled on stardate 53356.3, just under two days from now. I’ve been assured we already have a berth at McKinley with our name on it. We’ll get a full hull and systems overhaul, as well as long overdue upgrades to the warp core, sensors and weapons systems. Maintenance work will last three weeks which will give everyone plenty of time to catch some R&R.”
Michael let his glance wander from the first officer to the rest of the senior staff. There was no doubt that every last one of these people could use a vacation. Even his Vulcan science officer somehow seemed a lot less stoic than he had used to before the war.
“Commander, I understand you’re planning to visit Vulcan?” he said.
Xylion offered one of his minuscule nods in response. “That is correct. Mister Bensu and myself are due to depart by shuttle craft in two hours and twenty-five minutes.”
DeMara Deen shook her head. “I still don’t see how crossing the Vulcan’s Forge can be considered a vacation. By any stretch of the imagination.”
The science officer regarded the young, blonde-haired Tenarian with a raised eyebrow. “Retracing the steps of one’s kahs’wan is considered an enlightening experience for most Vulcans. I am looking forward to the challenge and the opportunities for reflection and meditation this journey will afford.”
Doctor Katanga, the veteran physician offered a smirk. “I think that is about as excited as I’ve ever heard you talk about anything, Xylion. Just make sure you pack plenty of sunscreen.”
Michael smiled and then focused his attention on the octogenarian chief medical officer. “Doctor, how do you plan to spend your shore leave?”
“I will once again undertake the futile attempt to catch up with that ever-growing beast which is my extended family. Last thing I heard I turned into a great-grandfather. Again.”
Michael didn’t doubt it, even though he didn’t necessarily look it, and certainly didn’t sound it, the African doctor had the years on him to have a family large enough to crew a starship of his own. The heavy sigh he uttered was clearly betrayed by the sparkle in his eyes which provided sufficient proof that the man was in fact quite looking forward to welcoming the latest additions to his growing clan.
“Before I forget,” said Owens and glanced towards his left to find DeMara Deen. “I’ve had word from the Diplomatic Corps. It appears now that things have quieted down a bit, they are working overtime to renewing old alliances and making new ones.”
Deen nodded. “So I’ve heard. Apparently, they are holding a major, intergalactic conference on Earth.”
“That’s right. And there will be a Tenarian delegation there as well. I’ve been told that the delegation will be led by a man you are quite familiar with,” he said with a twinkle in his eye. “Yeega will be on Earth.”
Michael Owens had served for four years on Tenaria after he had been part of the crew of the Fearless which had been the first Federation starship to make contact with Deen’s people and their paradise-like planet. As such he knew well that she had practically grown up with Yeega, her second cousin, and a person she had always been very fond of. He was surprised to find however that her reaction to the news of reuniting with a close friend, after years of having been away from her home world, was not at all what he had expected. She simply offered a little bob of her head, as if to simply acknowledge what she had learned.
“In any case,” Michael continued, recovering quickly from her subdued reaction. “The Corps has reached out to me for some insight on the delegation and I mentioned that Yeega is your cousin. They’d love to speak to you about him when we arrive.”
Deen offered a little smile in response which Michael was certain failed to reach all the way to her eyes. He knew that her usual indomitable optimism had been dampened quite a bit over the war years, and especially since their final mission of that conflict which had concluded with a terrible personal loss for her.
If nothing else, he had expected that seeing a close friend, and a fellow kinsman would have lifted her spirits instantly.
Star seemed to sense the awkwardness that had ensued between the captain and Deen and focused the room’s attention towards Lif Culsten, the silver-haired helmsman as well as on chief engineer Louise Hopkins sitting at his side. “I understand the two of you are getting ready for a long trip.”
“Only if you are absolutely sure that you can do without me,” said Hopkins. “There’s going to be a lot of work that will need to be done on the ship and those spacedock crews might not be familiar with the alterations I’ve made to—“
Star held up a hand to stop the engineer and then raised a padd sitting on the table in front of her with the other. “The notes you’ve provided me are quite extensive,” she said and glanced over the padd. “This is what? Fifty pages of commentary on ship’s systems?”
Hopkins gave a little, innocent shrug. “I made a lot of modifications. I guess I never realized how many until I started writing them all down in one place.”
Michael smirked knowing full well that Louise Hopkins had been a bit of a prodigy when she had joined Eagle, becoming one of the youngest chief engineers in the fleet. She was older now of course and had matured quite a bit, partly thanks to the incredible strain that the war years had put on her and her team, but she was still as eager and as brilliant as ever. “I’m sure they’ll be able to make do without you, Louise.”
She seemed almost relieved at hearing this and then turned to look at Lif Culsten sitting beside her. “This means we should be all good to go for Krellon. I can’t wait to see your home world.”
“Yeah, it’ll be great,” he said, sounding anything but excited.
“I’m certainly jealous,” said Deen. “It is notoriously difficult for non-Krellonians to get permission to enter their territory. I hear there are some amazing cultural and natural monuments on Krellon. You’ll be one of the very few outsiders to get a look at those, Lou.”
Hopkins nodded eagerly. “I know, I can’t wait,” she said and then shot Culsten a sidelong look. “Just wish I wasn’t the only one excited about the trip.”
“We’ll be spending a week inside a small shuttle getting there, for a few days on Krellon only to spend another week coming back,” he said, “that’s not exactly what I’d call a relaxing holiday.”
Deen shot them both a mischievous smile. “I think that all depends on the company, no? I can think of plenty of things you could do to pass the time.”
This caused Louise Hopkins to blush so much, her entire face was turning bright red and even Culsten looked just a tad embarrassed. Michael was surprised himself, it was not like Deen to be quite that forward with her insinuations.
“Moving on,” said Star, once again the one to keep on track. “Mister Leva, I can see here that you and Lieutenant Nora have decided to stay on board,” she said after referring to her padd, a small frown growing on her face.
“Part of the maintenance schedule is an overhaul of the primary phaser distribution grid. I’ve been talking to Lou about doing this for a couple of years now, so it’s kind of a pet project for me. I would really like to try and get those changes made while we get the chance. I might even be able to coax a bit more overall firepower out of the grid.”
Louise Hopkins nodded. “I think some of your designs could really increase efficiency,” she said but then blushed again slightly when she realized that she had invited a few smiles from around the table.
“And I’ve volunteered to assist,” said Nora Laas, the Bajoran chief of security. “It’ll give me a chance to brush up on my weapons and tactical knowledge which I’m the first to admit I’ve been neglecting for far too long. “Your security officer should be able to handle things at tactical in a crunch, and to be totally honest I’m not so sure I’d be that useful at doing that at present.”
Michael shook his head. “There is a reason we have a dedicated tactical weapons team, Laas. There has never been any expectation that we’d need you to take over in that capacity. And I certainly don’t want you to forgo R&R for this,” he said, knowing well that Nora Laas needed some time away from the ship perhaps more than anyone else present.
“I’ll find some time for shore leave, I promise,” she said in what sounded very much like an effort to deflect from the topic. “How, if I may ask, is our fearless captain planning to spend his time off?”
Star took that one. “The captain has threatened to introduce his first officer to the wonders of scuba diving,” she said and shot Owens a quick look. “Even though I still suspect that this is all a ruse to drown me and leave me for dead at the bottom of one of those blue Earth oceans.”
“That does sound tempting,” Michael said with a little smile. “But believe me, once you get a taste of exploring the Great Barrier Reef and its rich diversity of life, it’ll be hard to tear you away from it again.”
“I’ll take your word for it, sir.”
“Any plans on visiting family?” asked Deen.
Michael nodded. “In fact, yes,” he said. “I’m hoping to spend some time with my cousins family. I hear great things about my nephew Cory. Apparently, he’s a rising star at the Academy.”
“How about the Admiral?”
Michael frowned at Deen’s insistence to bring up his father. He tugged on his uniform jacket. “Yes, I suppose I’ll run into him as well,” he said and then looked towards Star. “Any other business, Commander?”
The Trill seemed momentarily flustered but quickly recovered as she glanced back at her padd. “Just one last item. The civilians.”
“Yes, of course,” Michael said when he remembered. After all, he had placed that particular item on the staff meeting’s agenda himself. “As you all know, the Marines are due to leave Eagle once we arrive on Earth.” He couldn’t help his glance from wandering towards an empty chair at the far end of the table.
His weren’t the only ones. That chair had been occupied by Major Cesar Wasco for nearly two years and ever since he and his company had come on board in the early days of the Dominion War. He and his men had performed admirably during that period, in fact, Michael doubted very much that most of them would still be here now if it hadn’t been for their dedication and willingness to place themselves in harm’s way. Wasco himself had lost his life in that struggle, tragically not at the hands of an enemy but at those of an ally.
“I have learned that a great number of starship captain in the fleet have opted to keep their Marine contingents as additional security forces and Command has, for the most part, allowed for this to happen. And while the advantages of having a well-trained military force on board can hardly be overstated, the downside is the fact that we would not have enough room to accommodate Eagle’s civilian population to return. I thought I open the matter up to discussion before I make my final decision.”
Unsurprisingly the security chief and former Marine herself jumped in straight away. “My vote is to keep the Marines, sir. My team and I have worked with them very closely over the last two years, we practically work like a seamless unit and it has greatly improved our effectiveness when dealing with hostile elements.”
“Of which we are likely to see a lot fewer now that the war is over,” said Katanga.
The Bajoran shook her head. “Don’t be so sure of that, Doctor. The galaxy has become a very different place. A much more dangerous place. Piracy and lawlessness even within Federation borders have greatly increased. Minor powers which previously were hardly a threat to Federation security have become emboldened by the losses we have taken during the war.”
Star nodded. “Recent intelligence reports do show increased threat levels from a number of foreign powers which border our space.”
“My point is, we are going to need all the help that we can get to be prepared for these new threats. I’m not saying that my security team isn’t up to the task. But having the Marines here could mean the difference between a single casualty in an enemy encounter or having to send dozens of condolence letters.”
That last point was clearly directed at Owens himself and Michael didn’t fault her for it. She had a point and the ensuing silence showed that most of the others could see it too. Even Katanga didn’t have an immediate come back to this, no doubt the images of his sickbay overflowing with wartime casualties still too fresh in his memory.
All eyes turned towards DeMara Deen. Little surprise there. Even though she may not have been her usually buoyant self lately, she was still the biggest humanist on the ship. The little fact that she wasn’t actually human didn’t stop her.
“I mean, yes, I understand the security aspect of it but I believe that we would be giving up too much by not allowing the civilians to come back. I’ve already had dozens of requests to lift the moratorium on non-Starfleet personnel on board from wives and husbands and the many parents we have on the ship. Speaking strictly in terms of morale, having families reunited will greatly increase crew efficiency which has still not returned to its pre-war levels.”
“I can attest that Counselor Trenira agrees with that. She told me pretty much the same thing just the other day,” said Doctor Katanga.
Deen nodded. “We’ve been talking about it for a while. And don’t make the mistake to believe that a nice long shore leave will cure all our ills. If we keep people away from their immediate families for too long, it will have a negative effect. I mean it is the reason why Starfleet decided to allow families on starships in the first place. And there are other advantages as well. Many of the civilians fulfill important duties on this ship which will be sorely missed.”
Xylion seemed to agree with that point. “Nine of my researchers were civilians and their contributions were significant and valuable to ongoing scientific projects.”
“And it’s not just them. I’m also talking about the people looking after the arboretum, tending bar in the Nest, civilian ambassadors and the various other experts in fields that we otherwise would not have access to. They are all part of what makes this ship tick. And that diversity is what Starfleet is all about, isn’t it exactly that image of an all-inclusive Federation we want to present to our allies and enemies alike. Not to mention any new civilizations we might hopefully encounter.”
Her impassioned speech left an impression and for a moment silence returned.
“Yes, until said civilization decides to turn their weapons on us and starts shooting,” Leva said eventually and getting a grunt of approval from Nora sitting next to him.
“One could argue that it’s an occupational hazard in our line of work,” said Lif Culsten. “And for anyone who decides to serve on a starship. Starfleet and civilian alike.”
“Yes,” Deen said and glanced right at the captain. “And all those civilians coming on board are fully aware of those dangers. And they believe, just like I do, that the rewards far outweigh the risks.”
Michael considered that argument. It was, of course, the very same one that had occupied Federation minds on all levels ever since Starfleet had decided to allow for civilians to serve on starships. Nora was not wrong of course, back in those days the galaxy had been a very different place. Or had it?
The security chief had been busy working on a padd for the last minute and handed it to Leva to pass it on to the captain. The half-Romulan nodded in agreement when he spotted the content but when Deen got a hold of it, she frowned before passing it on to Owens.
“Before you make your decision, sir,” said Nora just as Michael was getting hold if it. “I do have an alternative proposal. I’ll have to call in some favors to make it work but I think in principle it is a setup that would be ideal for Eagle and fulfill all our needs.”
Michael looked at the padd and then nodded at her, acknowledging the fact that she had clearly given this some thought, expecting this very argument. “Very well. I’ll make a decision on this before we are due to leave Earth.” He glanced at his right to find Star. “I think that’s all folks.”
The first officer nodded and stood. “Dismissed then. And oh yeah, make sure you all enjoy yourselves over the next few weeks. If I find out that you’re not, we’re going to have words.”
Story Notes: Special Thanks to Galen4 for his contributions as a story editor.