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Stone and Anvil, Page 2

Peter David

  The captain didn’t quite seem to know whether to be annoyed or amused, and opted for a slight chuckle. “No. That’s not a requirement. Although there will certainly be times along the road where you’ll want to tear your hair out, metaphorically speaking.” He paused and studied M’k’n’zy. “Are you sure about this, M’k’n’zy? You haven’t had time to give it much thought…”

  “That’s not true,” replied M’k’n’zy. “I’ve given a lot of thought to my place in the world once we’re free. I just…haven’t come up with anything I liked. Perhaps that’s because my place is somewhere else. At the very least, it’s something I’d like to try.”

  “All right,” PEE-cahd said gamely. “It…wouldn’t be something that could be arranged overnight.”

  “That doesn’t concern me,” replied M’k’n’zy. “I’ve spent my entire life looking toward gains years down the line rather than immediately. I can wait.” He paused, then asked, “What…exactly…am I waiting for?”

  “Well…” PEE-cahd scratched his chin thoughtfully. “As I’m sure you can guess, Starfleet doesn’t simply tap you on the head and say you’re a captain.”

  “Why not?” said M’k’n’zy. He was genuinely surprised. Although he hadn’t given much consideration to precisely what was involved, it certainly seemed straightforward enough. He’d been a leader of men for most of his life. Being a captain, why…that simply involved leading other men while wearing some sort of uniform.

  “To start out,” said a clearly amused PEE-cahd, “you have to learn your way around a starship. That’s a rather daunting undertaking.”

  “Daunting? Why? How long could it take? A day?”

  “It’s a starship, M’k’n’zy.”

  “So.” M’k’n’zy shrugged. “How big could it be, PEE-cahd?”

  PEE-cahd studied him for a moment, then tapped his chest again. “Picard to Crusher.”

  “Crusher here, Captain,” came back the voice of the man who’d earlier been standing near PEE-cahd when he’d first arrived on Xenex. M’k’n’zy was taken aback. It seemed almost magical to him.

  “Jack…send down the Columbus to these coordinates, would you? Unmanned. Autonav should suffice, I’d think.”

  “You’re not simply beaming up to the ship, sir?”

  “I’m taking the pretty route…or as you’d call it, the scenic route.”

  “Not much scenic about this route, sir, with all respect.”

  “Oh, you’d be surprised. Picard out.” He smiled at M’k’n’zy and there was something challenging in his look. “Would you care to go for a ride? If you’re reluctant to, I’d understan—”

  M’k’n’zy looked at him defiantly. “What, PEE-cahd, you think I’m afraid? I’m not afraid. Of anything.”

  “Good. By the way, it’s ‘Picard.’ Short ‘i,’ accent on the second syllable.”

  By the time the Columbus arrived, M’k’n’zy more or less had down the correct pronunciation of Picard’s name. He heard the vessel arriving before he saw it, the engine’s roar alerting him. He looked up and saw it descending from the sky. Other Xenexians had stopped to watch as well. They weren’t entirely primitive as a people; they’d seen flying ships before. Still, it wasn’t all that common a sight. And when they did see them, more often than not it was in the form of troop transports for Danteri soldiers. So there was understandable tension in the air as a crowd gathered, and M’k’n’zy noticed that more than a few were reaching for weapons. Immediately he calmed them, assuring them that there was no threat nor did Picard pose one.

  The ship settled to the ground and a door opened in the side. Picard stepped in, turned, and gestured for M’k’n’zy to follow him. The Xenexian did so cautiously and, once inside, glanced around the interior of the ship. Picard settled himself in at helm and glanced over at M’k’n’zy. “Take a seat,” he said.

  M’k’n’zy did so, and suddenly his stomach was jolted as the vessel eased into the air. Picard glanced back at him. “Ever been off the ground before?” M’k’n’zy shook his head, a bit more frantically than he would have liked. A thin smile crossed Picard’s face. “It can be quite disorienting for the uninitiated.”

  “I’m fine,” M’k’n’zy said immediately.

  “I’ll take it easy on you. I’ll minimize the barrel rolls.”

  “Fly however you want. I can handle it.”

  “You know…I suspect you could.”

  The ship moved skyward. Surreptitiously, M’k’n’zy gripped the underside of the chair, digging his fingers into it. Grozit, what the hell have you gotten yourself into? M’k’n’zy demanded of himself silently. After a minute or two, however, his initial, albeit unspoken, fears eased up. He began to relax into it. He discovered that he liked the relative quiet, broken only by the gentle humming of the engines.

  From his seat, he looked around the interior of the vessel. There were lights and panels and all manner of things that he couldn’t comprehend. But he knew he was a fast learner. He was confident that he could pick it all up pretty quickly.

  Then he looked out the front viewscreen. The stars were so much closer, and he gazed with wonderment and awe.

  “Impressive, isn’t it,” said Picard as if he could read the boy’s mind.

  “They’re not twinkling. Why aren’t they twinkling?”

  “Because you’re seeing them without an atmosphere between you. There’s no refraction of the light.”

  “Oh,” said M’k’n’zy, acting as if he understood. He paused and then went on, “When I was a child, there were stories that the night sky was a solid object—a screen that stood between us and great and terrible gods. And that no one could venture near it lest they tear a hole in the sky and the great and terrible gods come pouring through it to wreak havoc upon us.”

  “You’ll find no screens nor fearsome gods up here, M’k’n’zy. Although there is the odd hole or two, but you can learn about that later.”

  “Learn how? Where?”

  “Well, there’s an academy. A school, back on the planet where I was born. The best, the brightest, the most gifted of young people attend it to learn and grow and, ultimately, see if they have what it takes to be a Starfleet officer.”

  “Are you in charge of it?”

  “No, no.” Picard smiled. “I couldn’t exactly see myself running a school for gifted youngsters. Not sure I’d have the patience. But there are excellent people in charge of it. It’s called Starfleet Academy.”

  “How long would I attend it?”

  “Four years.”

  “Four years?”

  “If it’s of any consolation, that’s Earth years. I believe each one is a few days shorter than a Xenexian year. Oh, come now, M’k’n’zy. You said you always looked toward the long term.”

  “Yes, but…” He shook his head. “It just seems such a waste of time. Four years to learn about a ship like this? I mean, yes, we have nothing like this on Xenex, but—”

  “A ship like this?” Picard laughed.

  M’k’n’zy bristled at the response. “What’s so funny?” he demanded.

  “It’s not your fault, M’k’n’zy. It’s mine. Obviously, I didn’t make it clear to you. This ship…it’s called a shuttle. It takes us to the actual ship…which, as you can see on the screen, is just ahead, orbiting your world.”

  M’k’n’zy stared at the vessel they were approaching. “Well, that doesn’t seem…”

  They drew closer.

  “…so…” he finished, but he could barely form the words.

  The closer they got, the more gargantuan it became. All the blood drained out of M’k’n’zy’s face. “Grozit,” he said softly. “It’s…it’s huge! You…you gave me no idea…it’s gargantuan!”

  “Well, I don’t like to brag,” said Picard.

  They drew to within one hundred kilometers of the vessel, and it took up the entire viewscreen. Slowly Picard piloted the shuttle around the Stargazer, pointing out various sections of the ship such as the engi
nes, the bridge, and other highlights. M’k’n’zy only partly took it all in. He was busy trying to comprehend what he was seeing, and being only marginally successful. “Can I go inside?”

  “No,” Picard said firmly.

  “Why not?”

  “Because frankly,” he said, “I’m not quite sure you’re ready for it, M’k’n’zy. My concern is you might find it so overwhelming that it could prove a disincentive for you to pursue studies at the Academy. That would be unfortunate. I think you have vast potential.”

  “Potential? To rule one of those?”

  “We prefer the term ‘command,’ although the monarchist in me finds your description entertaining,” admitted Picard.

  M’k’n’zy wanted to argue the point with him but decided against it. He was beginning to sense that this man, this Picard, had great wisdom to him. And if he said he felt it would be counterproductive to bring M’k’n’zy aboard now, then he would abide by that.

  “Can we go around it again?” he asked.

  “Why not?” said Picard, and continued the shuttle on its circular course.

  “It’s…” M’k’n’zy shook his head. “It must be the biggest spaceship in the galaxy.”

  Picard again chuckled. “Actually, it’s not even the biggest ship in the fleet. There are others far larger, with crew complements of over a thousand. The Stargazer has just over six hundred people aboard.”

  M’k’n’zy stared at Picard, stared at the ship, stared back at Picard.

  “I’m starting to think,” said M’k’n’zy, “that four years of schooling may not be enough to learn everything.”

  “It’s not,” Picard assured him, as the stars shone temptingly in the sky. “The actual learning starts when you graduate.”

  Chapter Two


  In the Ten-Forward lounge of the Trident, M’Ress sat nursing a drink without having the slightest idea of how she was supposed to feel.

  It was silent in the lounge, which was unusual considering the time of day. Usually at this point there was boisterousness and loud chatting, laughing and men and women cozying up to each other. There had been nothing like this lounge on the Enterprise, nearly a century gone, that M’Ress had served on. If one wanted to go and knock back drinks, one visited with Dr. McCoy or (M’Ress’s preference) Montgomery Scott. Private parties would be staged and good times were had by all.

  There were no good times being had this day.

  Word was out all over the ship of the brutal, hideous murder of Lieutenant Commander Gleau. And because there were no secrets aboard a starship, the history between Gleau and M’Ress had become common knowledge.

  She glanced around the Ten-Forward, holding her drink tightly as she did so. She realized that she was squeezing it to the point where, if she didn’t ease up, she might shatter the glass. That wouldn’t look particularly good, and would feel even worse. Then her hand began shaking violently, and she put the glass down lest she drop it.

  She was certain that all eyes were upon her. Lieutenant Gold was at a table, and he was trying not to look at her, but kept doing so. And over there was Ensign Yarborough, and she was looking as well, and there was Ensign Janos, and he was staring at her openly, except thanks to the white-furred security man’s superb intellect, he looked more as if he were studying a specimen under a microscope. And there were several crewmen whose names she didn’t know, but they were looking at her, too.

  She wanted to scream. She wanted to run, or howl, because she knew what they were all thinking: They thought she had done it. They thought she had just shredded Gleau with her claws, and the dually horrific aspect of it was that on the one hand she was appalled that they would think that of her, and on the other she couldn’t blame them. If she were on the outside looking in, she’d have thought the same thing.

  Even though she was seated in a secluded corner of the lounge, she nevertheless felt as if all eyes were boring into her. Finally, unable to take it anymore, she got to her feet with the intention of bolting. But she stopped cold when she realized there was someone directly in her path. It was a mark of just how distracted she was that she didn’t detect the scent of the new arrival before actually seeing her.

  Katerina Mueller, executive officer of the Trident, was standing there with her hands draped behind her back. “Going somewhere, Lieutenant?” she asked.

  “I was thinking…back to my quarters, ma’am,” said M’Ress.

  “Ma’am?” Mueller looked at her skeptically.

  “Sir?” M’Ress ventured.

  “Generally ‘XO’ will do. Or ‘Commander,’ ” said Mueller, and it was at that point that M’Ress noticed that Mueller was holding a bottle of clear liquid that didn’t look at all like synthehol. Furthermore, the scent of alcohol was wafting off her breath. She hadn’t consumed sufficient drink to be remotely inebriated, apparently, but she was certainly relaxed. “But in this case…call me Kat. Appropriate, don’t you think, what with you and your feline…thing.” She gestured vaguely. “Mind if I sit?” Not only did she not wait for M’Ress’s invitation, but she was perched upon the chair opposite M’Ress before getting past the word “I.” M’Ress, perplexed, slowly sat back down.

  Swirling the glass’s contents, Mueller said, “Would you like some?”

  “No thank you.”

  “Good,” said Mueller, and promptly refilled half of M’Ress’s glass with the contents of the bottle.

  M’Ress stared at it, and then looked up at Mueller. Mueller managed a ragged smile. Cautiously, M’Ress said, “XO,” and quickly amended it when Mueller waggled a finger at her. “Kat…I…thought you didn’t like me.”

  “I don’t. I didn’t,” said Mueller, running a finger around the lip of the glass. “I felt that you were getting preferential treatment. ‘Kid gloves,’ as they used to say.”

  “I’m no child. No kid.”

  “Actually, it refers to very soft gloves, made from a ‘kid’ or calf. It means to be handled gently.”

  “Oh. I knew that,” said M’Ress quickly.

  Mueller ignored her. M’Ress wasn’t even sure she’d heard her. “Anyway,” continued Mueller, “because of that—because I felt that everyone was tiptoeing around hurting your feelings since you were the poor, time-displaced Starfleet officer who’d lost friends, family, everyone and everything to the passage of time—”

  “You decided to go out of your way to make me feel unwelcome?” M’Ress wasn’t thrilled about her choice of words, but she really couldn’t think of any other way to put it.

  “More or less,” agreed Mueller with candor. “And now, because of that…I’m temporarily relieved of duty.” As M’Ress’s jaw dropped, she held up the bottle proudly. “What, you didn’t think I’d be drinking on duty, did you?”

  “Why?” asked an astounded M’Ress.

  “It was a mutual decision,” said Mueller. She was about to keep speaking, but she decided to fill up her glass again. She tilted the bottle but unfortunately missed the glass, sending liquid splattering on the tabletop. Heaving a sigh over the waste, she put the bottle to her lips and just drank it straight out. Then she lowered it and fixed her gaze on a point about six inches to the right of where M’Ress was actually sitting. “I went to the captain and explained to her that I would not be the best person to become involved in an investigation of Gleau’s murder.”

  “They…definitely know it’s murder,” M’Ress asked, her voice wavering slightly as she asked it.

  Mueller managed to figure out where M’Ress was sitting and locked her gaze on to the Caitian. “He was torn apart. Hardly sounds like suicide to me. If it is, then Gleau found the single most painful means of terminating one’s own existence in history.”

  “Yes, I…I suppose,” said M’Ress with a sigh. “It’s just…wait,” as Mueller’s words suddenly got through to her. “What do you mean, you’re not the best person?”

  “Oh, he and I had a semipublic spat.”

  “A ‘spat’?”
r />   Mueller bobbed her head. “I slammed him around a little because I became convinced he was dropping into your dreams and threatening you.”

  M’Ress gasped. Her eyes wide, she said, “I…I don’t know what to say…. I…I thought you—”

  “You thought I believed you were crazy. Or looking for attention. Or out to make Gleau’s life miserable because he had sex with you thanks to the Selelvian mind technique called the Knack. Those and other possibilities all occurred to me, and you didn’t come out looking good in any of them.” She pursed her lips and, without even being aware she was doing it, she traced the slim line of the Heidelberg fencing scar that adorned the left side of her face.

  “But you came to believe me! Commander, I can’t…” She realized her voice was getting louder, drawing unwanted notice from everyone. Everyone except Janos, who was simply staring in front of him, looking thoughtful. She lowered her tone to just above a whisper and said, “I can’t tell you how much it means that you—”

  “Save it,” Mueller interrupted her curtly. “I allowed my personal perceptions of you to color how I handled the Gleau situation. If I’d believed you more quickly, if I’d done something else instead of just dismissing you out of hand…”

  “You couldn’t have known.”

  “I should have,” she said brusquely. “But I didn’t. And when my own investigations, coupled with the oddly incomplete psych profile on Gleau, led me to conclude something might well be wrong—I botched it. Handled it badly. I made matters worse. If I’d realized earlier on that Gleau posed a threat…”

  “A threat?” M’Ress echoed the word. She felt as if her world were spiraling dizzyingly, threatening to throw her off. It had seemed forever that she’d been worrying, all on her own, about Gleau. Feeling isolated, bereft of any support. And now what Mueller was saying was tantamount to vindication. “A threat to someone other than me, you mean?”

  “I don’t know,” said Mueller. She rapped her knuckles on the table in vague frustration. “When I confronted him, there was something in his eyes…I just knew. Knew there was more trouble there than I’d thought. But I had nothing really concrete. It was just—”