by E. L. Zimmerman
Before he realized how quickly the unlikely series of events had unfolded, Will Riker had graciously invited Admiral Edward Jellico – a man he had long-considered to be a mortal enemy within the highest ranks of the Federation – to join him at his table. From the server, Jellico had ordered two steins of Romulan Ale, which she delivered without delay, and, together, Will and the admiral marveled at the magnificent view of the Enterprise-E through the viewport.
“She’s quite the ship,” the man remarked, setting his glass down on the transparent steel table before him.
“That she is,” Will agreed politely.
“Perhaps her lines aren’t as elegant or graceful as the Enterprise-D. I don’t know your opinion of Starfleet’s current take on ship designs, but I happen to prefer the earlier Galaxy Class. Still, she’s the Enterprise, and she’s still something to look at.”
“That she is,” Will said, realizing he had unintentionally repeated himself.
“You’re a lucky man to have her, Will.”
Lifting his head slightly, he studied the admiral’s expression, expecting to find hints of the dissatisfaction he knew Jellico had felt with Riker while serving on board the Enterprise. Try as he might, Will searched but couldn’t find the veiled disdain he was expecting. “I like to think that I’ve earned her … sir.”
With one hand, Jellico waved off what a reasonable person might’ve seen as a parry to his blow. “Of course, you have! Ten times over! I wasn’t thinking otherwise.”
With a surprised yet curt smile, Will nodded. “Thank you, sir.”
Narrowing his eyes at the captain, Jellico stated, with a touch of humor in his voice, “And you can stop calling me ‘sir.’ I may be a senior officer, but I’ll share a little confession with you, Will: I’ve grown very weary of the constant reminder in the last few weeks.”
His smile turning into a polite laugh, Will raised his stein for a sip of his ale. “Now there’s a feeling I can identify with … sir.”
Jellico returned the smile. “Thank you for agreeing to meet me here.”
Startled, Will sank back in the padding of his chair, nearly spitting the blue liquid from his mouth in utter shock. He had been ordered by Starfleet Command to deliver the Enterprise to Starbase 118 to complete several crew transfers, one of which he trusted Deanna was taking care of at the moment, and to meet with an unnamed admiral for new orders.
“You?” he asked, incredulous.
The admiral reclined in his seat, visibly hoping to match the captain’s lead. “That’s right. I wanted to meet with you personally to discuss the Enterprise’s next assignment. I am, after all, in charge of the Fleet.”
Forcibly, Will swallowed his ale. “In charge of the Fleet?”
Still smiling graciously, the officer took his own helping of ale, and he glanced casually around the Captain’s Lounge. “Well, the official announcement was delayed at my request,” he explained, folding his hands on the table in front of himself. “I wanted to take some time to familiarize myself with what’s been happening at Starfleet Command and throughout the quadrant. Before I was publicly accepting the challenge to serve as Fleet Admiral, I wanted to be absolutely certain of what I was getting myself into … long before the vultures came calling to, as they say, peck the life out of me.”
“You’ll pardon me for saying, admiral,” Will tried, “but, based on our past experience with one another, you never were the type to … shall we say … take it one step at a time?”
Their server approached, and the admiral waved her off easily. “Will, I think you’ll find in time that I’ve always a purpose behind what I do.”
“A purpose?” the captain asked.
“Admiral, with all due respect, when you came aboard the Enterprise, you practically ripped her out from under the crew’s feet!”
With an expression of seriousness, Jellico replied, “You don’t have to agree, but I believe that my actions were dictated by the circumstances. To be perfectly honest, I never meant to step on anyone’s toes, most certainly yours.”
“You practically confined me to quarters!”
“Your actions confined yourself, Will,” the admiral explained. “Asking you to step aside was never part of any personal agenda on my part. It was never part of any grand scheme.”
“Then why did you allow it to happen?”
“Unfortunately, I didn’t feel that we could accomplish together the goal spelled out for me in taking the assignment while Picard was being held by the Cardassians.”
“Held and tortured,” he corrected.
“That’s right, Will. Held and tortured. We did what we could to stop that, and we were successful in the end.”
Reaching out, the junior officer swiped up his ale and took another full swallow.
“Will, I’m not here to mince words with you, and I’m certainly not here to mend old wounds … but, if it’s any consolation, I won’t pull rank if you won’t.”
With a tone of finality, William Riker concluded, “Perhaps it would be best if we spoke about the mission. That is, after all, the reason we’re here … sir.”
Sighing, Jellico stared at the captain. There were no sparks of anger or vile in his eyes. There was just a look of calm determination. “Fine,” he agreed. “Let’s talk about the mission. I have no problem with that, Will, but let’s get something perfectly straight between the two of us … captain.”
“Why not, sir?”
With a slight smile, the man offered, “Neither you nor I owe the other any debt of gratitude. As you said, you earned your promotion by the merit in your own actions and your own decisions. I understand, appreciate, and agree with that assessment. But … I want you to understand that you’ve been given the opportunity to sit in the center seat at my request.”
Unexpectedly, Will coughed when he tried to swallow his ale.
Jellico held up a PADD he had pulled from a uniform pocket. “Since my brief tour of duty aboard the Enterprise, I’ve been monitoring your career.”
“Based on our brief time together,” Will countered, “I couldn’t imagine why you would take even a remote interest in a single mission I served.”
Ignoring the taunt to debate, the admiral tossed the PADD to the table. He picked up his stein and took a healthy drink. “I understand your position. While it might even amaze you to hear this, everything I’ve seen from you … every decision you’ve made … every challenge you’ve faced … I’ve come to admire.” Casually, he glanced around the Lounge once more, taking in the sight of the various officers celebrating together, reminiscing about old adventures and the ones yet to evolve. “As you well know, the Federation has been through hell. The Borg. The Dominion War. Even your recent events in the Briar Patch exposed one very ugly underside of the Federation Council.” Easily, he turned his attention back to the man seated before him. “While we’ve all been through hell, I’m the first to say that we’re just starting down the road on our way back home. Others in Command are more optimistic than I am. I don’t know. I guess that I’ve always been one who found more enjoyment in rooting for the underdog than in cheering on a faithless champion.”
“Faithless?” Will asked. “Admiral, how can you hold your position and feel that way about the Federation?”
“It isn’t difficult,” he answered. “Will, when you come to know some of the things I’ve come to know … some of the dangers still lurking on our collective horizon … you naturally start to question whether or not the United Federation of Planets is, always, the best form of galactic order available to all species in the universe.” He held up a hand. “Don’t get me wrong here. I’m not advocating a benign dictatorship, nor am I second-guessing my promotion or my position within Fleet Command. On the contrary, this has nothing to do with me.
“I’m talking about our unique situation in the universal family of life itself,” he continued. “It isn’t easy always being our brother’s keeper. I think that’s a lesson some of the top brass have learned from the War with the Dominion, and they learned it with great difficulty and suffered great losses because of it.” He glanced around, ensuring their privacy, before he added, “If you haven’t heard, there were several strategic alliances – member worlds of the Federation – that found the idea of tucking their tail between their legs and seceding the UFP more appealing than standing up to fight for what was ours against the Dominion.”
Shrugging, Will realized that the Enterprise had missed much of the action that came with the war. He understood Starfleet’s position that the Enterprise, serving as the mighty flagship to all of the Fleet, could easily find itself in a jeopardous situation if it were sent to the front lines … but that didn’t mean he had to agree with it.
“Thankfully, the war’s over,” Will acknowledged.
“That we can agree upon.”
“By your own admission, isn’t the Federation en route to the welcome days of business as usual?”
Smiling and nodding, Jellico actually showed a glimmer of pain in his eyes. “If diplomacy were only that simple.” Reaching out, he pulled his stein closer but stopped short of taking another swallow. “Will, when I said that you were lucky to have command of the Enterprise, I didn’t mean to imply that you weren’t deserving of it. I meant, simply, that I was envious of your position. One of the lessons I’ve learned in my brief tenure as Fleet Admiral is that the universe and politics don’t always go hand-in-hand. Sometimes, it’s far easier to worry about the lives of your closest comrades than it is to worry about insulting entire worlds when success is measured by their commitment, not yours, to higher purposes.”
Despite his best attempt, Will Riker actually felt sorry for the admiral.
“But the problems of one middle-aged admiral isn’t what I came here to discuss,” Jellico concluded.
“What did you come here for?”
His heavy thoughts brushed aside, the man finally took another healthy swallow. “I need to brief you on your mission, Captain Riker.” Clearing his throat, he sat up in his chair, and he slid the PADD across the table. “Don’t let this go to your head, but there isn’t another officer in all of Starfleet I’d trust with this, Will. That includes your former commanding officer.” Immediately, he held up his hands in a gesture of surrender. “That isn’t an insult. I hold men like Jean-Luc Picard in the highest regard, but, as I’m well aware, you have a unique connection to the personnel necessary to pull this off with the kind of … delicacy … that it requires.”
Curious, Will retrieved the PADD and activated it. A lush, green planet appeared on the small interface. Information pertaining to the world immediately scrolled across the face.
“Thilon Two?” he read.
“It’s a small Class M planet located in the Thilon System,” Jellico explained. “It isn’t much to look at, unless you’re into the wild outdoors. It boasts several small pockets of civilization. They’re all pre-Warp societies. Starfleet does maintain a duck-blind operation on the planet’s surface, but it only serves the purpose of anthropological study. The Thilonians are, at best, a century away from an industrial revolution. They’re several centuries away from First Contact.”
“If you don’t mind my asking,” Will began, “what’s our immediate interest in their world?”
Edging forward, the admiral reached across the table and tapped a key on the PADD’s user interface. Suddenly, the planet disappeared from the screen, replaced by the image of a Class Two Starfleet Communications Probe.
“Are you familiar with the Vandemark?”
Squinting, searching his memory, the captain answered, “I believe that’s Captain Yanello’s ship.”
“It is, indeed,” Admiral Jellico replied. “Several days ago, the Vandemark detected what Yanello’s crew thought was an unidentified craft emerging from a very small singularity not far from the Thilon System. The damn wormhole opened up right off the ship’s hull! Well, it turns out that the craft was not only a communications probe like the one you’re looking at, but also it was one of our own. The ship’s science officer managed to scan the probe before it was sucked into Thilon Two’s gravity well. It went down, impacted in one of the uncivilized parts of the planet. Fortunately for us, the Starfleet scientists there monitored the craft’s entry into their atmosphere. While the craft is no longer broadcasting a locator signature, the scientists insist that the probe survived re-entry. Apparently, the area where it landed is one thriving marsh. The duck-blind staff insists that they would’ve detected any explosion, and they picked up no traces of any destruction. While they can’t pinpoint the crash site, any operative with a tricorder – within a reasonable proximity – should be able to find and retrieve the probe. Rather than send out a team of anthropologists on a recovery mission, Starfleet thought it best to send in a trained officer or two.”
Confused, Will read over the information scrolling across the small screen. “Forgive me if I sound at a loss, admiral, but what’s all the interest in a communications beacon? It’s an Artemus Class, and they’re retired from service, if I’m correct.”
“If the probe went down in an area where it will go undetected by the Thilonians and not pose any risk of cultural contamination,” the captain reasoned, “is it really worth risking an away team to recover something that will, more likely, serve a museum than it will the Fleet?”
“Take a closer look at that scan, captain.”
Glancing down at the PADD, Will scanned the information –
“Voyager?” he asked incredulously.
“That’s correct,” Jellico said. “That probe, last registered to the USS Voyager, emerged from a singularity.”
“You’ve got to be … that’s amazing …”
Leaning forward, the admiral added, “Now, we don’t know what information that probe might contain … but we do know one thing. Being lost in space who knows how far from Earth or any ship supply depot, Captain Kathryn Janeway certainly wouldn’t go wasting something as valuable as an outdated stellar probe unless she had found a means to communicate … or found information that needed communicating to Starfleet Command.”
Excitement ringing through his ears, Will finished his ale and prepared to stand, eager to take this information back to the Enterprise and get underway. “This is the reason that work has finally sped up on the Pathfinder Project?”
The admiral nodded. “It’s one large piece that adds to the puzzle, but we still don’t know what the puzzle looks like.” Again, he glanced around the Lounge before continuing. “I can’t disclose how, Will, but Starfleet has known that Voyager was lost in space for some time now. We’ve known that it landed in the Delta Quadrant. We’re all only too aware that the Delta Quadrant is precisely what those of us in Command like to call ‘Borg Country.'” He pointed at the PADD. “Now, this probe might contain strategic information about plans for another Borg incursion on our space. It might contain schematics or technology that Janeway managed to steal from our cybernetic friends.”
“On the other hand,” Will interjected, “it might contain only letters to friends and loved ones. It might be simply a message to let us know that they’re alive.”
With an air of seriousness, Jellico replied, “Starfleet is betting it contains something vastly more valuable.” He nodded at the captain. “That’s why I’m giving this to you personally, captain.”
Smiling slowly, Will Riker was pleased to finally hear words of confidence coming from the admiral. “I’ll head the away team myself.”
Curtly, Jellico shook his head.
“That won’t be possible, Will.”
“The Thilonians maintain a matriarch in all of their tribes,” he explained. “You’d be a liability. Deanna wouldn’t.”
“That’s right, captain,” he said. “I want you to head immediately to the Thilon System. I want Deanna Troi dispatched to the surface to recover that probe.” Before Will could object, Jellico added, “She can have Commander Data accompany her … as a personal attaché. That wouldn’t appear suspicious in the event that they’re discovered by any of the Thilonians. They’re nomadic, and my fear is that the marsh may end up being populated by a handful of natives.” Will was intent on objecting, but the admiral continued in interrupting him. “We cannot risk whatever information could be contained in that probe, captain. I’m counting on you and your crew to retrieve it as expeditiously as possible. Do you understand your orders?”
Deflated, Will nodded. “Aye, sir.”
The captain noticed that the admiral’s eyes suddenly rose, looking in a direction away from the table.
“Speaking of Commander Troi.”
Turning, Will saw Deanna arriving at their table. He and Jellico stood. She was smiling broadly, and she quickly extended her hand to the man. Noticing the rank insignia on his collar, she immediately remarked, “Well, if it isn’t … Admiral Jellico?!”
“Deanna,” he replied, taking her hand warmly in his. “What a pleasure it is to see you, and what a small universe it is.”
“Sir?” she asked quizzically.
“We were just talking about you.”