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Peter David

  Soleta faced the man who had raped her mother . . .

  . . . and was, because of that act, her father.

  “I am no threat,” he said. “Do you believe that?”

  She looked away from him. “I . . . would like to believe it. I would like to think that no one is beyond redemption. But it is impossible for me simply to forget what you have done.”

  “No. No need, Soleta. . . . I know that apologies oftentimes cannot be nearly enough . . . but in the end, it is all I have to give.”

  They headed in the direction of his apartment in silence. He was walking slowly, and Soleta noticed that he was developing a slight limp. She wondered how much longer he truly had. If she were dying, she would be doing everything she could to put to rights anything that she had done wrong. What was it like for there to be things in one’s past that could never, ever truly be put right?

  They passed the alley where they had first really “encountered” each other. The shadows were stretching, much as they had that first time. And hands reached from the darkness, grabbed both Soleta and Rajari, and hauled them into the alley. . . .




  This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

  An Original Publication of POCKET BOOKS

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  eISBN-13: 978-0-743-42225-3

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  THE NORMAL LOW-LEVEL BUZZ of conversation on the bridge tapered off as Captain Calhoun stepped out from the turbolift.

  He had missed an entire shift, which was unprecedented for him. Everyone understood, however, and no one knew quite what to say to him when he did reappear.

  He went to his command chair, took his seat, and when he looked around at the respectfully silent crew, a smile played across his lips. It was a sad smile, but a smile just the same.

  “Captain,” began Shelby.

  “Commander . . . it’s all right,” he interrupted. “All of you . . . really . . . it’s all right. The important thing . . . the thing I’m not going to lose sight of . . . is that he went out like a warrior.”

  There were nods from all around.

  “It was very . . . Xenexian of him, believe it or not. The notion of dying in one’s bed is anathema to my people. To die in combat, on the other hand, is very much to be desired . . . and to die in combat while saving others is the highest, most noble passing that anyone could wish for. I will miss him . . . and regret the time that we did not spend together, and the time we will not have . . . but the bottom line is, he died heroically. All of us . . . should only be so fortunate as to have that opportunity,” said Mackenzie Calhoun, five minutes before the Excalibur blew up. . . .


  “I STILL CAN’T BELIEVE the ship blew up.”

  Mark McHenry had shown up exactly at the appointed time, which was rather surprising to Elizabeth Paula Shelby. She would have been willing to bet that if anyone had shown up late, it was going to be McHenry. The former navigator of the former Starship Excalibur, despite his nearly supernatural ability to know precisely where he was in the galaxy at any given moment (with or without instrumentation), still seemed like a rather unstable individual to Shelby. She had grown accustomed to him, at best, but never truly comfortable. If there was any member of her crew that she suspected would “flake out” at some point, it was McHenry.

  Her crew.

  Mentally she corrected herself. No, it wasn’t her crew anymore, was it. They were just . . . people. People getting together at a San Francisco bar that was a popular hangout for Starfleet personnel. Puckishly named for the Starfleet oath, the bar—Strange New Worlds (its motto: “Explore Us!”)—had been around for as long as anyone could remember. The only bar with a longer-standing reputation than Strange New Worlds was the Captain’s Table, and that was considered more of a popular myth than anything else. “Worlds,” as it was known for short, was copiously decorated with assorted Starfleet paraphernalia. There were dedication plaques salvaged from ships that had been decommissioned or destroyed, ornaments acquired from worlds throughout the Federation. There was a fascinating wall which had nothing but bladed weapons from dozens of primitive worlds, each of them gleaming behind glass, time having done nothing to diminish their capacity for destruction. There were pictures of various Starfleet captains and notables, many of them signed by the subjects. In short, Strange New Worlds radiated years, decades of tradition.

  Shelby was paying no attention to any of it.

  The command crew (former crew, dammit!) had agreed that there would be a get-together, a post mortem. Robin Lefler had been the organizer, which was certainly consistent for her. No one was more of a go-getter than Ensign Lefler. Shelby had been the last one to agree to come, and even when she had agreed she had done so reluctantly. In retrospect, as she sat across the table from McHenry, waiting for the others, she decided that she had behaved poorly. She should have been spearheading the assembling of the crew, not trying to avoid it. She should have presented a cheerful face, she should have been more supportive, she should have been . . . been something other than what she was.


  McHenry was looking at her curiously, snapping his fingers in her face. She blinked in surprise and focused on him. “Commander?” he said again.

  “What’s the problem, McHenry?”

  “Well,” he said reasonably, “it’s just that I’ve been talking for a while now, and I noticed you weren’t contributing much to the conversation. And then it occurred to me that maybe I was just hogging it, so I shut up so that you could jump in. Except there was a staggering lack of it. Jumping in, I mean. You just sort of sat there and stared off into . . .”

  “Space?” she asked, her lips spreading into a mirthless smile. “Well . . . space is my business, isn’t it.”

  “Is it?” inquired McHenry.

  It seemed an odd thing for him to say, and she wanted to pursue it, but then someone else approached the table. It was Robin Lefler—without her mother, Morgan, in tow. Shelby was a bit grateful for that, because Morgan made her nervous. She hated to admit that, even to herself (certainly she had not said it to anyone else). But the simple truth was that Morgan Primus was still a woman whom Shelby couldn’t get a feeling for. She had exotic features and an air about her that made her seem as if she were partly removed from the time in which she lived.

  As for Robin, she could not have been more of a contrast to her mother. She had a perpetually open face that seemed incapable of any sort of guile. Small wonder that she was the most abysmal poker player on the ship . . .

  Not was, dammit. Had been the most abysmal poker player on the ship.

  The unexpected, automatic scolding caused Shelby to pause in her musi
ngs before continuing on the path down which they were taking her. Yes, Robin had indeed been atrocious at cards, unable to conceal glee when holding a good hand, equally unable to hide her disappointment when the cards did not fall in her favor. Morgan was a walking question; Robin was a walking punch line.

  “Hello, Ensign,” she said. “Where’s your mother? I thought you two were virtually joined at the hip these days.”

  But Robin was smiling as if Shelby hadn’t spoken. “I’m afraid I don’t answer to that anymore.”

  “Answer to what . . . ?” said Shelby in confusion, and then she noticed the additional pip on her collar. “Lieutenant! Now, are we sure this time?”

  “I had it confirmed three ways from Sunday,” Lefler told her. There was an empty chair between McHenry and Shelby, and Lefler was leaning on it. “I wasn’t subjecting myself to that kind of embarrassment again.”

  Lefler had had good reason to be embarrassed. A computer glitch had misreported Lefler as having received a promotion to lieutenant, and she’d been quite enamored of the promotion until the error had been turned up and the rank correction made. Lefler had not been pleased about being “busted” back to ensign, and so she was justifiably proud that this time it was one hundred percent legitimate. “They told me that you were partly responsible for getting me the bump up, Commander.”

  Shelby shrugged but couldn’t quite erase the smile. “You deserved it, Lieutenant.”

  “I love it,” Lefler told her. “No more having to put up with the old low-rank crap duties. As a lieutenant, I’ll have—”

  “Brand new, higher-ranked crap duties,” McHenry informed her, sounding somewhat more amused than he would have wanted to let on.

  “Shove off, McHenry,” Lefler said without heat. “You’re just worried I’m going to be breathing down your neck.”

  “Your breathing down my neck would be the most excitement I’ve had since Burgy and I broke up,” McHenry sighed regretfully.

  Lefler swung the chair out and was about to sit when suddenly Shelby put a hand on the seat and said softly, “No. That’s Mac’s chair.”

  McHenry and Lefler exchanged glances, and then Lefler said quietly, “Of course. I’m sorry.” She stepped around the table and sat at another, unclaimed seat.

  “So . . . as I was saying . . . where’s your mother?” asked Shelby. There had been a brief flash of anxiety when she’d warned Lefler away from the chair reserved for Captain Mackenzie Calhoun, but now that the moment was past, so was Shelby’s concern.

  “She’s researching vacation sites. There’ll be some time before we’re reassigned, and she suggested it might be nice if we could get away together somewhere, just mother and daughter. Work on the relationship without the pressure of day-to-day starship life on us.”

  “Well, good thing the ship blew up then. There’s a pressure reliever for you.”

  If McHenry had been fishing for a laugh, his hook came back spectacularly bereft of results. The women just stared at him, and Shelby’s face was darkening as if a cloud were draping itself over her. “It was just a joke,” he said.

  “Oh. Was that what it was? It was certainly wearing a cunning disguise,” Shelby said with no trace of amusement.

  McHenry mumbled something that very vaguely sounded like “Sorry.” Shelby hesitated and then decided that it would be wisest not to pursue it.

  Other crew members were now strolling in. There was Soleta, the erstwhile science officer, poised and elegant as her Vulcan heritage dictated. And here came Burgoyne 172, the Hermat who had helped conceive the child being cradled in the arms of Chief Medical Officer Selar. It was almost amusing to watch her. The Vulcan doctor was trying to hold her newborn offspring in such a way that it seemed as if the infant was only of passing interest to her. But the looks she would give the child, the sudden and swift reactions to the smallest instance of the baby’s discomfort, were more than enough to convince any onlooker of just who was in charge of the relationship: Mother or child? Yes, definitely no contest. The child . . .

  The child . . .

  Just what was it again.

  When Shelby had first inquired, it had been the common, offhand inquiry one always makes. Boy or girl? The problem was, when one was dealing with an offspring whose mother was a Vulcan, and whose father was a dual-sexed “Hermat” named Burgoyne, the usually harmless question suddenly became a loaded one. Selar had said, “Boy,” and they’d gone on to state that they’d named the boy “Xyon,” after Mackenzie Calhoun’s late son. Nevertheless, there’d been something about the way that Selar had said it. It seemed to Shelby that she wasn’t answering in a matter-of-fact way, as she did with pretty much every other question. Instead she had spoken quickly, as if wanting to terminate the conversation as quickly as possible. As if . . .

  . . . as if the entire discussion was uncomfortable for her.

  Burgoyne started to sit in the empty seat next to Shelby, but she put a hand quickly down. “Mac’s chair,” she said.

  Selar cast a slightly puzzled look at Burgoyne, but then little Xyon whimpered slightly for attention and Selar looked to him instead. “Of course. Foolish of me” was all Burgoyne said before s/he moved to another chair on the far side of the table.

  A waitress began taking drink orders, and the officers started making small talk with one another. It seemed so odd to Shelby, so labored. On the Excalibur, there was always something to discuss. There was some circumstance involving the ship, some situation that they were mired in . . . any of a hundred distractions, big and small, that formed the basis for conversation, relationships, and social intercourse of all types. It all seemed to build up from the commonality forced by the late, lamented starship.

  There was a slight, repetitious vibration from the floor beneath her feet, which was enough to signal Shelby that Zak Kebron was coming. The others felt it, too, but it didn’t slow down their conversation. Soleta seemed most interested in little Xyon. Outwardly she was treating the child almost as a matter of scientific curiosity, but Shelby suspected that Soleta was wondering how and when the Vulcan mating urge, Pon farr, would affect her. Burgoyne was engaged in an animated conversation with McHenry. Now, that was certainly an odd thing to see. McHenry and Burgoyne had been involved before circumstances had brought Burgy and Selar together. Shelby liked to believe that she had seen much of what the galaxy had to offer and that nothing fazed her, but still . . . a relationship that jumped both species and gender was a new one even for her experience.

  “Commander? You okay?” It was Lefler, leaning forward and speaking to Shelby. Her tone was soft, but nevertheless there was something in it that promptly caught the attention of the others at the table. Suddenly all eyes were focused on Shelby, and she shifted uncomfortably in her chair, disliking being subjected to sudden scrutiny.

  “I’m fine,” she said with the irritable tone of someone whose attitude didn’t match her words.

  “Good.” It was the deep, basso voice of Kebron. The massive security officer was standing directly behind Shelby, taking in the assemblage with his level gaze. He glanced at the empty chair next to Shelby. “Reserved for the captain?” he inquired.


  “Of course” was all he said. He moved to another section of the table and looked disapprovingly at the narrowness of the chairs. He pulled two together and sat, looking less than comfortable but obviously resolving to deal with it with his customary stoicism. The waitress came back over upon seeing the new customer, which was understandable; Kebron was somewhat hard to miss. “You’re a Brikar, right?” she said. “I’ve heard Brikars are sort of like rock people. Is that true?”


  When he said nothing further, the waitress shrugged slightly and held up her order padd. “What can I get you?”


  McHenry covered his mouth to hide a snicker. Shelby rolled her eyes.

  “You want magma.” The waitress did not appear amused. “We don’t serve magma.”

  “I had it here last time.”

  “When was the last time you were here?”

  “The Mesozoic era.”

  Now Burgoyne was laughing as well. Selar and Soleta simply looked at each other with the air of those who did not suffer fools gladly.

  The waitress blew air impatiently between her lips and, tilting her head slightly, asked, “Can we just, you know . . . forget I ever said anything about ‘rock people’?”

  “Gladly. Scotch.”

  “On the rocks,” McHenry put in.

  Kebron fired him a sidelong glance. “Don’t push it.”

  As the waitress, shaking her head, walked away, Lefler looked back to Shelby. “Commander . . . maybe you should really talk about it. Maybe,” and she glanced at the others, “maybe we all should. About the destruction of the Excalibur. About how it happened. About . . .”

  “You’ve missed your calling,” Burgoyne said wryly. “You should be a ship’s counselor.”

  “My mother’s said that, too,” Lefler admitted with a laugh. “She told me she’d be so proud to have a ship’s counselor for a daughter.”

  “Lieutenant . . . Robin,” Shelby said, placing a friendly hand on Lefler’s, “I know you’re just trying to help. And maybe there’s something to be said for what you’re suggesting. But the simple truth is this: We’ve been reliving it, all of us, for the past few weeks. Board of inquiries up one side and down the other, poring over every detail again and again. Every minute of the ship’s last five minutes of life, everything that all of us did, and endlessly being asked—and asking our-selves—whether there was anything else we could have done, any other way we could have handled it. I don’t know about you, but I am . . .” She drummed her fingers on the table. “I am tired. I am so tired of second-guessing myself. That’s what these inquiries do to you. They don’t just try to answer the questions that the board has. They start raising all sorts of questions in your own head, to the point where you don’t know which end is up, what’s right and what’s wrong.”