For the last several minutes, Pavel Chekov had remained completely silent. Paying them little attention, he noticed that members of the Bridge crew had shuffled past, busily attending to their duties. Someone - he wasn't certain who - had bumped into him and offered sincere apologies. He thought he had replied, he knew it was in his nature to be courteous, but now he couldn't be sure that he had said a word. There was, after all, no consolation in such activity. Instead, he stood motionless on the raised deck, occupying a small space directly in front of the communications console, his eyes fixed straight ahead. Arms crossed, he stared unflinchingly at the main viewer, watching as the Enterprise-B slowly crawled on its own power back into the Epsilon Hangar. The jutting supersteel clamps lowered and were preparing to lock the crippled ship into stasis, and the man braced himself for the minor tremor that customarily followed such a docking maneuver. It came, and he was prepared. He stood firm, his arms tightened around his chest, his eyes locked at the expanse of twinkling stars on the Bridge's monitor.
"You're liable to crack a molar," he heard.
Brought back from statuesque lifelessness, a surprised Chekov turned to face his friend. "What's that?"
"Your teeth," Scotty said, pointing at his comrade's jaw.
"What about my teeth?"
Sighing heavily, the engineer explained, "In case you hadn't noticed, you've been grinding your teeth for ten minutes now."
"While I'm not your personal physician or your counselor or your dentist, I'm still warning you that you're about to crack a molar."
Reaching up, Chekov touched his jaw. To his astonishment, he found his muscles knotted and aching. Massaging the soreness gingerly with his fingertips, he replied, "Funny thing. I hadn't noticed."
Smiling weakly but showing a glint of wisdom in his learned eyes, Scotty added, "Aye, 'life plays tricks with the uninvolved,' Chekov. When I was a lad, my father used to tell me that." Somberly, he glanced around at the Bridge crew busily attending to their consoles. "That saying of his stuck with me throughout the years, but I was never certain of its relevance. Today ... for the first time ... I think I understand what he meant."
Her expression sullen, Ensign Demora Sulu glanced up from helm. "Docking complete, captain," she announced, the console before her chirping the affirmative. Curtly, she silenced the unit with the tap of a finger.
"Thank you, Ensign Sulu," Captain Harriman answered.
"Epsilon Hangar Control reports that repair crews will begin primary maintenance immediately following a full structural assessment," she continued, reading the report scrolling quickly across her station's visual interface. "The Hangar Chief also wants me to relay that all previously scheduled equipment installations and modifications have been delayed until further notice."
Gripping the arms of his captain's chair, John Harriman nodded, pursing his lips tightly. "I would have imagined as such," he finally stated, a hint of disappointment sounding in young voice. "Still, it's comforting to receive confirmation from Hangar Control. Thank you, ensign."
Sensing the man's defeat, Scotty quickly added, "It's nothing personal, Mr. Harriman." He watched as the captain turned in his chair to face him. The engineer put on his best cheerful smile. "Starfleet has its duty to do. Right now, your best command decision is to leave them to it." Inclining his silver-haired head in the direction of the main viewer, he explained, "'Twas ne'er a ship built that was meant for the corral. She'll fly soon enough. She's a mare waiting to be set free. She's the right name, and she's the crew to see the job done. Before ye know it, you'll all be out there, blazing a trail amongst the stars. You'll see."
Returning the smile, Harriman remained silent, uncertain of the words to say but, nonetheless, appreciating the warmth, veracity, and compassion shared so openly by a veteran officer of Mr. Scott's reputation. He wished he could find something to say. He wished for any words of consolation that would elevate the spirits of everyone around him ... but, for the time being, words failed him. Any and all sentiment remained safely out of his reach, and he knew it would stay there until the perfect moment arrived. Even during his days at the Academy, her 'verbal aptitude' scores remained surprisingly low, despite his superior performance on tactical, strategic, and political analytical puzzles. Words escaped John Harriman, and he wondered when they would finally find him.
"Captain," Lieutenant Kenneth Birch announced from Communications. "Hangar Control reports that Admiral Thane MacDonald has beamed on board and is en route to the Bridge."
A sensation of dread and coldness washed over the young captain. He sat back in his chair, his thoughts drifting to images of what had occurred in space only hours ago. He tried blocking the pictures from his mind, but he failed. They played over and over and over again in his mind's eye like a twentieth century motion picture - the destruction of the El-Aurian vessel, the devilish twisting of the brilliant energy ribbon, the buckling of the Enterprise's Bridge before him.
Weakly, Harriman asked, "Admiral ... MacDonald?"
"Yes, sir," Birch confirmed. "He's with Starfleet Intelligence."
"Intelligence?" Chekov interrupted, turning slightly in the direction of the Communications Officer. "I'm sorry, but did you say that the admiral was with Starfleet Intelligence?"
"Yes, sir. That's correct."
Harriman heard the last reply along with a dull buzz in his ears. His first command - his first mission - and he was being greeted on return from space by an admiral from Starfleet Intelligence. Beads of sweat began to form on his brow and along his black, regulation-cut sideburns, and he wiped them away. His heart skipped a beat, and he inhaled deeply, forcing the air to the bottom of his lungs to bring his pulse under his control. Swallowing, he suddenly realized that his might make the record books for the shortest captaincy in the history of the Fleet.
"Thank you, Mr. Birch."
The turbolift doors opened, and John Harriman rose.
Dressed in formal attire, Admiral Thane MacDonald marched onto the Enterprise's Bridge. The man was tall, muscular, and his thick, platinum blonde hair was combed perfectly back, held in place by a slick gel, crowning a high forehead. His goatee, comprised of evenly cropped white whiskers, was barely visible to the naked eye, blending in with his naturally pale skin. His face was riddled with creases, looking not so much like wrinkles as they did creased scars - the end result of battles waged in the political arena instead of on the galactic frontier.
His stern brown eyes locked on the man standing before the center seat.
"Captain," MacDonald said to Harriman, and Chekov thought the word sounded more like a question than it did an acknowledgement of command rank.
"Admiral MacDonald," the man replied, his voice trembling.
Limply, Harriman almost dropped back into the Captain's chair.
Without pause, the imposing figure stated, "John, I'm sure it will come as no surprise that I'm here to, formally, relieve you of your command of the Enterprise."
Chekov's jaw tightened again. He ignored the pain as he watched John Harriman's face turn as pale as the whiskers on MacDonald's chin. 'This isn't right,' he thought angrily. 'Any captain can lose his command, but it isn't right to discipline him in front of his crew.' Turning, he started in the direction of the superior officer, only to sense his friend's grasp on his forearm. Their eyes met.
Scotty cautioned, "Don't do it. I know what you're feelin', but now's not the time nor the place, laddie."
Overhearing the warning, Admiral MacDonald turned in their direction.
"Captains Scott and Chekov," he stated flatly.
Instinctively, the two men glanced at the senior officer.
Inclining his head slightly, the man said, "I want the both of you to know - as well as the rest of the command crew here today - that you have Starfleet's deepest condolences over the loss of your friend."
Still incensed, Chekov tried to break free, but Scotty held firm.
"Admiral," Demora tried, rising from her place at the helm, "there is no denying that what happened today was a tragedy, but Captain Harriman didn't have anything to do with Captain Kirk's death. It was ... it was an accident. Plain and simple, sir."
Ignoring her, MacDonald stepped forward, taking a stand at Harriman's side.
"The members of the galactic press corps are to be escorted to Command Intelligence," he explained, glancing around the Bridge crew, studying their expectant faces. He gave them little emotion - or hint thereof - in return. Chekov and Scotty noticed the admiral's stoic expression. Discreetly, the two men looked at one another once more. They had served one another for decades, and they didn't have to utter aloud any words to know that each of them was in complete agreement with the other's disapproval of the admiral's handling of the Enterprise-B's crew. Thankfully, a simple expression, hidden in their eyes, sufficed.
"Of course, admiral," Harriman agreed, personally relieved with the feeling that he had finally done something right. "You'll find most of the press in Sickbay. They were restless, wanting some activity to keep them busy, so I ordered them there to assist with the injured. I trust that it would occupy their attention while we completed repairs and returned home. The remaining reporters I ordered to the Recreation Lounge. They're being observed by Security."
"Very good," the admiral concurred, smiling confidently.
"Thank you, sir."
"They, along with the El-Aurians saved from destruction by that energy ribbon, are to be fully debriefed ... as will be your entire command crew."
Surprised, Harriman glanced around at his gathering of officers. "My ... my crew, sir?"
"Captain," McDonald began, placing a hand on Harriman's shoulder, "until we know what kind of threat we're facing here, Starfleet needs to keep as tight a lid on this situation as possible."
"Admiral," Harriman interrupted, rising from the captain's chair, accidentally shaking the senior officer's hand away, "with all due respect, I don't believe Starfleet is in any danger. None whatsoever. In fact, the ribbon was heading away from Federation space. Even when we first responded to the El-Aurian distress call, the phenomenon was holding to a vector that would take it well out of the system and into deep space." Quickly, he nodded in the direction of the Sciences Station. "I'm confident that my officers and the Enterprise's sensor logs will confirm that."
Smirking slightly at the junior officer, McDonald replied, "I appreciate your interpretation of the events, captain." Leaning close, he whispered, "If you'll pardon the advice? Save it for another day. It'll serve you well when the time comes."
Raising his eyebrows, Harriman asked, "My ... interpretation?"
"In point of fact," McDonald pressed onward in his speech, moving away from the center seat, "I'm not talking about the threat that energy ribbon could pose. I'm talking about the death of James Kirk."
Stepping forward, Chekov finally broke Scotty's hold and gripped the railing that encircled the lower command deck. "Admiral, would it be terribly disrespectful of me to ask what you're talking about?"
"Not at all, captain," the admiral said. Glancing around the Bridge, studying the faces aimed at him, he added firmly, "At the very least, everyone here is owed an explanation, but it's my sworn duty to first remind each and every one of you that, first and foremost, you are Starfleet officers. You are bound to a moral and ethical standard well above the norm. Should you deny or ignore that responsibility, you will suffer the consequences for your willful disobedience. What I'm willing to share with you right now doesn't leave this room. Understood?"
He paused, more for effect than efficiency, before continuing.
"As fate would have it," he began, "several of the reporters onboard the Enterprise have already filed - with their respective media outlets - preliminary press releases regarding the apparent death of Captain James Kirk."
Deflated, Scotty closed his eyes. "Saints preserve us," he muttered under his breath.
"Those dispatches that we could intercept, we did," MacDonald continued. "Those reports that we could stop, we have. However, as is often the case in these types of circumstances, several communiqués leaked through, and Starfleet Command is currently negotiating with those persons and entities involved in order to contain the release of this information."
"Can I ask why, sir?" Chekov tried.
MacDonald nodded once, firmly. "Of course, these communiqués were sent through subspace. Holding the highest position possible within Starfleet Intelligence, there isn't a doubt in my mind that some - if not all - of those messages dispatched from this ship were intercepted, encoded, and retransmitted by races, agents, or parties unaligned with the Federation. Consequently, they aren't privy to Federation interests." Again, the admiral paused, glancing around at the faces he held in captive interest. "We've already received reports from patrols noting curious starship movements along the Neutral Zone very near Romulan space."
Taking his hands from the railing, Chekov narrowed his eyes at the senior officer, asking, "And it is Starfleet's official position that these movements indicate what, sir?"
Grimly, MacDonald answered, "Mr. Chekov, it could turn out that the death of James Kirk is nothing more than a single event - a domino, if you will - that begins a series of unprecedented, catastrophic military incursions against Federation territories."
Frowning, the captain crossed his arms, defiantly glaring at the admiral. "Frankly, sir, I would find that premise very hard to believe."
"You might, Mr. Chekov," MacDonald shot, "but there are others in Starfleet - those uniquely skilled in deciphering the hidden meaning behind troop and ship movements - that are certain that Kirk's death turn out to be the harbinger of intergalactic war with a variety of unknown parties."
"Kirk's death?" Scotty asked, aghast. "Admiral, with no disrespect intended to the recently departed, we don't even know that the captain is dead."
"Your opinion is duly noted, Mr. Scott," MacDonald answered, nodding, "and it will go on record. The fact remains that I have my orders."
MacDonald walked up to the ship's primary viewer, spun about, and faced the entire group gathered on the Enterprise-B's main bridge. He clasped his hands behind his back. Eyes firm, he scanned their faces before he said, "As of this moment, I am placing everyone - with the exception of Captains Chekov and Scott - under house arrest pending the completion of a full inquest into the events surrounding the death of James Kirk."
A collective gasp hissed across the Bridge.
"Until further notice, you are all confined to your own residences here on Earth," MacDonald continued. "Each of you will be met by security detachments upon your beaming down to the planet. These men will accompany you to your respective quarters or homes. Until you hear directly from me, you are to speak with no one regarding these events. You are to refrain from speaking with one another, as well, so as not to taint the proceedings."
Unable to contain himself any further, Chekov pounded on the Bridge's railing.
"Admiral, this is outrageous!" He raised one hand, gesturing toward the crew around him. "You're treating these people as if they were criminals! What they did was their jobs! They responded appropriately to a distress call in an act of mercy, and you're branding their service records out of blind adherence to Starfleet policy!"
Lifting his chin slightly, MacDonald replied, "No, Captain Chekov. This is proper. This is protocol. With no disrespect intended to your fellow commander, Kirk rarely followed it, if he even acknowledged it."
"I think you're seeing why right now, Admiral," Scotty added softly, trying to temper the anger of Chekov's outburst.
"I think both you and I know what's appropriate under these circumstances," MacDonald continued, adopting a tone of finality to his voice. The man was no longer going to debate the issue. Right or wrong, he was going to carry out his duty. "It is proper procedure for a full inquest to be convened when an officer dies while under command of another officer, and, while we cannot be entirely certain of Kirk's whereabouts, Starfleet is prepared to handle this matter ... by the book."