STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION:
by Mel Gilden
Captain Wesley Crusher of the starship Enterprise brooded as he watched the tactical display on the main screen. Enterprise was a blue dot at the center of a three dimensional grid. The three Romulan warbirds were red sparks closing fast.
"Mr. Worf, sound red alert. Mr. Winston-Smyth, ahead full impulse."
The klaxon sounded. Lights flashed. All decks reported in. Gosh, it was exciting. Captain Crusher felt a hot adrenaline rush as he gripped the arms of his command chair. Next to him, Commander Riker was sweating heavily. Crusher smiled sardonically. He would not wait for the warbirds to arrive. He wanted to meet them on his own terms.
Data sang out, "Five hundred thousand klicks and closing."
"Ready main phasers. Fire on my command."
"Visual," Captain Crusher called out.
The tactical display on the main screen dissolved into the view forward. The Romulan ships seemed to be right off Enterprise's bow. Crusher knew the proximity of the Romulan ships was only an illusion, but he also know they were too close for comfort.
A spot on the center Romulan ship flashed and a photon torpedo whirled toward them.
"Shields," Crusher cried.
Enterprise rocked with the impact of the torpedo. The bridge lights dimmed momentarily.
"Minor damage on deck six," Worf said. "Shields still intact."
Data said, "Warbirds now at sublight. Speed falling. Stabalizing at one half impulse. Ten thousand klicks and closing."
"Tactical," Crusher demanded. The blips representing the two flank warbirds peeled off to either side while the center one came ahead under a barrage of phaser fire. Crusher knew what the Romulans had in mind. It was an old trick. While one warbird kept him busy at his bow, the other two would close in on both sides, concentrating their fire on his warp engines, hoping to detonate his matter/ anti-matter pods. "We must do something, Captain," Riker said. He sounded desperate.
"Wait, wait," Crusher said. He never took his eyes off the tactical display. He said, "Mr. Winston-Smyth, on my command, full impulse power for one second, heading zero one five mark four."
Winston-Smyth glanced worriedly at Crusher, but said, "Aye, sir" and laid in the velocity.
"Wait. Wait. Wait." He cried, "Now, Mr. Winston-Smyth."
The tactical display showed Enterprise rising straight up. "Fire phasers." Three red lines reached from the blue circle to the three red blips. Each blip exploded into a small fireworks flower, leaving the blue circle alone on the screen.
"Survivors?" Crusher said.
Data said, "Sensors indicate none."
Riker shook his head and said, "You're a man of iron nerves, sir."
Crusher nodded and smiled sardonically. He enjoyed his victory, and yet something was missing from it. Victory meant little if it was too easy. It was always too easy. Not like in the real universe. He shook his head and said, "Number One, you have the bridge." He strode to the door and into his ready room where he sat down at his desk and rested his chin on his fists.
It wasn't Guinan's fault he wasn't satisfied, or his mom's either. Mom was swell and Wesley liked her a lot. Still, she was a Starfleet officer mostly because she was a doctor; when it came to actually being a command officer--well, she'd never been to command school, and she did not have the experience Wesley felt he needed to call upon. He'd been a little nervous about going to Will Riker or anybody else on the bridge. They'd help him, of course, but he asked them enough questions. And they might think his request was out of line, or worse yet, silly.
So he'd gone to Guinan.
It was ship's day so Ten Forward was nearly empty. An off-duty couple spoke low in a corner. Guinan was behind the bar wiping it down with a purple rag the same color as her dress and hat. She smiled warmly when she saw him--she did everything warmly--and said, "Taking a study break?"
"Sort of," Wesley said. He sat down and did not meet her eyes.
"What'll you have?" Guinan said.
"A clear ether, please."
While Guinan spritzed soda into a tall glass, she said, "What's wrong?"
"What makes you think something is wrong?" Sometimes Guinan was so intuitive, it was almost scary. He watched her build the drink. The food slot could have delivered it ready-made, but there was a need in the human soul to watch a recreational drink being prepared. Besides, the preparation gave the bartender and his customer more time to talk, a friendly tradition that had survived for centuries on many planets.
She set the tall glass before him. Red tendrils leaked into the clear liquid from a cherry speared with a green plastic space ship in the shape of a dart. While Wesley chewed on the cherry, Guinan said, "You never take study breaks, Wesley. You're more likely to study all night."
"Yeah, well," he said and played with the little plastic space ship.
She continued wiping the bar.
Wesley took a deep breath and said, "I don't know if I'll make a good commander."
"Is it important that you know right now? Seems to me you have your hands full going to school and serving on the bridge."
Wesley shrugged. It was important. If he wouldn't make a good commander, he might as well leave Enterprise, leave Starfleet and get a job with one of the big Federation conglomerates. Deneva Dilithium would probably take him right now. He sipped his clear ether. It was cold and sweet.
"So, it's important. Captain Picard has already given you more reponsibility than he would trust to the average kid your age. You seem to be doing pretty well with it."
Wesley shrugged again. "That's not command," he said. "That's just delegated authority." "Oh," Guinan said and nodded as if she understood. Maybe she did.
"I want command. Life and death decisions that have to be made in a split second. I need to test myself against a starship in crisis."
"I see." She added more seltzer to Wesley's glass. He watched the fizz bubble and jump. She said, "How do cadets test themselves against starships in crisis without killing anybody?"
"Starfleet sets up scenarios in a holoroom at the academy."
Guinan smiled and raised her eyebrows.
Wesley was suddenly excited. "The holodeck, of course."
"Why didn't I think of that?"
"You were too close to the problem. You were looking for a real solution, when in this case fantasy will do just as well."
"Right, right. Do you think the holodeck has a command training program?"
"One way to find out."
He thanked Guinan and left Ten Forward without finishing his drink. The turbolift took him to deck eleven where the holodeck computer told him that a variety of training programs and subroutines were available. Wesley made his selection and entered.
He started his training in the holodeck version of Picard's ready room and set himself some problems involving realtime ship-related decisions: should a particular crewmember be promoted; what was the proper discipline for a particular infraction; what was the proper diplomatic maneuver to use when dealing with an angry or recalcitrant alien dignitary?
Wesley did not get a perfect score on any of the problems, but his rating was always in the green or acceptable range. According to the computer, nobody ever got a perfect score. One could approach perfection but never reach it.
Then he'd summoned up the bridge of Enterprise on the holodeck, manned as it really was manned, except that he was the captain instead of Picard. He'd tried his command skills against Klingon renegades and Ferengi and now against Romulans. It was like playing a swift game of 3-D chess with the computer.
Wesley had studied the famous battles against the Klingons, the Ferengi, and the Romulans. He had the same data the computer had, so the tactics of the adversaries was predictable within a certain range. It was the predictability that bothered Wesley. The Starfleet charge, "to boldly go where no one has gone before," meant that predictability would be the exception rather than the rule.
The ready room was so quiet, and he was thinking so hard that the pleasant female voice of the computer made him jump when it said, "Lieutenant Shubunkin is waiting for you outside the holodeck."
"Oh my gosh," Wesley said. "Stop program."
Since he was alone, the only thing that showed Wesley the computer had complied was that the spiny fish in the tank across the room seemed to freeze.
The computer said, "Do you wish this program saved?"
Wesley considered his alternatives. He had learned pretty much all he could challenging the computer. It was fun, but it was basically a game for kids. He'd have to dig a little deeper, maybe design his own aliens. If he wanted Romulans again, he could have them. Their characteristics were in the computer's permanent memory. Wesley stood up and called out, "Cancel program and admit Lieutenant Shubunkin."
Without a sound the captain's ready room wavered and disappeared, leaving Wesley at one side of a big room that was featureless but for grid markings on all six interior surfaces, and a doorway. The doors slid open and Lieutenant Shubunkin strode in with the peculiar rolling gait of the Proboscideans. His trunk was weaving like an angry snake. He said, "We had an appointment."
"Yes, sir. I just lost track of the time."
"Not a healthy occupation for an ensign," Shubunkin said. "Evidently, Dr. Crusher is experiencing the same difficulty."
"What difficulty is that?"
Dr. Crusher stepped into the room. She planted her fists deep in the pockets of her smock and looked at Shubunkin with her eyebrows up, daring him to accuse her of anything at all. Wesley generally wilted when his mom looked at him that way, and evidently Dr. Crusher's hard clear gaze had the same effect on Lieutenant Shubunkin. He said, "I am merely eager to begin."
"So begin," Dr. Crusher said and shrugged in Wesley's direction, making Wesley smile.
"Computer," Shubunkin said.
"Run read-only program `Baldwin.'"
Immediately the three of them were standing in the middle of an alien jungle. Chattering, squealing, and feral noises with no Earthly name came from all around. Lumps of polished wood as big as houses were caught in nets of vines that hummed as the light spicy wind blew through them. Twirling things sailed among tangles of trees with thin trunks that rose to incredible heights. Wesley could not see the sky because of the patchwork of leaves overhead.
"Hot, isn't it?" said Wesley as he pulled his collar away from his neck with a finger. He, Dr. Crusher and Lieutenant Shubunkin sat down on crystaline rocks that thrust from among the dead brown leaves like giant's teeth.
The only things that spoiled the perfect illusion were the standard English words floating in mid-air and the dramatic music. The words said, "OMNIOLOGY PRESENTS: `The Alien Universe of Eric Baldwin.'"
Baldwin was an exologist, an expert on alien cultures and their artifacts. He was a tall wirey man with the face of a benign demon. According to the documentary, he had escaped death many times, usually either just before or just after he'd made an important discovery. An entire wing of the North American Museum of Extraterrestrial Biology was named after him.
As the program continued, the crystal rocks they were sitting on became toadstools, rock outcroppings, coral reefs and finally, merely chairs. Along the way Baldwin was threatened by angry natives, kidnapped by pirates and smugglers (of both the water and space variety), twisted through weird dimensions by alien artifacts and pursued by rival exologists. Each time he was threatened with death or worse, he managed to narrowly escape using an impressive combination of creativity and physical strength. The documentary ended, leaving Crusher, Wesley and Shubunkin standing on the blank holodeck. Dr. Crusher sighed and said, "What a man."
"Captain Picard says he's the single most important exologist in the Federation."
"He should know," Dr. Crusher said. "They went to school together."
Shubunkin said, "Perhaps. But there are other exologists. Proboscidean exologists . . . . "
He allowed the observation to dangle freely, but neither Wesley nor Dr. Crusher took hold of it. Personally, Wesley suspected that Lieutenant Shubunkin was just jealous. Dr. Crusher only said, "You may be right," thanked him for running the documentary and went back to sick bay, still visibly pining for Eric Baldwin.
After the door had knitted itself shut with a pneumatic sigh, Lieutenant Shubunken and Ensign Crusher watched it as if they thought it might open again. Shubunkin said, "On my planet, if someone says `You may be right,' that is what they mean. I think your mother means something else."
"You may be right," Wesley said, and immediately wished he hadn't.
"Ah," said Shubunkin. "The famous human sense of humor."
"Not a very good example," Wesley said, hoping to redeem himself. He went on quickly, "I'd like to ask you a question."
Wesley took a deep breath and said, "I want to design some aliens I can practice strategy and tactics against." Wesley didn't want to admit his self-doubts about his command abilities. Not to Shubunkin, anyway.
Shubunkin said, "By aliens, I assume you mean non-humans."
"Not `of course.' To me, you are an alien."
Wesley could see why most of the bridge crew had difficulty getting along with Shubunkin. Even Counselor Troi, who could get along with anybody, found him a little abbrasive. The guy knew his stuff, but he was too ready to show it off--in this instance by giving Wesley a lecture on racial relativism. Wesley took a deep breath and said, "Yes, sir. I mean non-humans."
"The Enterprise computers hold a detailed description of every encounter between races from the founding of the Federation. Surely using them, the computer can design something that will satisfy you."
"Actually, sir, I was looking for something a little more unusual."
Shubunkin's trunk swayed from side to side. Wesley had learned that this was the equivalent of a human nod. Shubunkin said, "You want bigger and badder aliens. Faster, less predictable aliens."
Shubunkin grabbed the tip of his trunk and stroked it as if it were a beard. He said, "The Borders Scale might be of use."
"It's a complex scale of social, intellectual and emotional values. Among other things, six different kinds of creativity are listed, as well as honor, courage, mercy,fierceness, ruthlessness, arrogance, mental and physical speed. Hundreds of catagories. I believe Borders even created a subsection concerning sense of humor. Her scale is a useful tool when trying to quantify similarities and differences between races."
Wesley squinted as he considered the possibilities. He said, "There must be more to it than just plugging in random numbers."
"Certainly. The first value to some extent defines what the second must be. The first and second together help define the third. All creatures are consistant within their own system. The thing that makes one race seem alien to another is the difference in their systems."
Wesley saw that creating a new alien, even using the Borders Scale, would be quite a challenge. After learning all he could about the Borders Scale from the library computer, he could probably get Geordie La Forge to help with the programming.
The computer said, "Personal memo for Wesley Crusher: Your bridge shift begins in ten minutes."
"Acknowledged. Thanks, Lieutenant. You've been a big help."
As Wesley walked quickly from the room, he wondered if Shubunkin was being arrogant again, or if this was another case of a Proboscidean saying what he meant. Wesley could not help feeling that Shubunkin was strange, even for a Proboscidean.
As Enterprise dropped out of warp, Picard glanced at the man in the seat on his right. He was large and round with side whiskers rather longer than regulations allowed. His thick face shown as if perpetually sweating despite the controlled climate of Enterprise. His chubby fingers never stopped moving on the arms of the chair. The form-fitting design of the Starfleet uniform did not make him look thinner, though the short cape he affected, helped. Commander Riker stood behind and above him, next to Worf at the tactical rail.
Ensign Crusher came onto the bridge with a minute to spare before his shift began. Winston-Smyth gave up her chair at the conn and Wesley sat down, immediately logging in his arrival with a few deft touches on the conn control panel. Feeling much too much like a tour guide, Picard said, "We've just dropped out of warp, Commander Mont. Mr. Data, how long till we reach Tantamon IV?"
"Fourteen minutes and twenty-two seconds, sir."
"Let's have it on screen."
On the main viewscreen, the forward star field wavered and an earth-type planet appeared. From this distance, Tantamon IV seemed to be covered in gray-green moss on which some cotton wool had snagged. Picard was always amazed how many planets looked like that from space, like the human home world. Enterprise was his home, but like many humans, Picard felt a spiritual connection to the green hills of Terra that never quite went away.
"Standard orbit, Mr. Crusher."
Commander Mont smiled and his hands were still. Like a hungry man mesmerized by a table full of food, Picard thought. In his gruff voice, Mont said, "It's a likely looking place."
Likely for what? Picard wondered. Mont seemed to enjoy saying things that barely made sense. Still, he was the one Starfleet sent to debrief Baldwin after his six months on the planet below. Mont must be good at his job.
The aft turbolift doors opened, and Lieutenant Shubunkin entered the bridge. With his eyes on the screen, he stepped forward.
Picard said, "Mr. Worf, please inform Professor Baldwin of our imminent arrival."
Tantamon IV turned placidly below them for a few seconds. Worf said, "I have Professor Baldwin."
"On screen," said Riker.
The picture on the viewscreen was replaced by a steamy planetary scene. Baldwin, ever the showman as well as the scientist, stood in such a way that Picard and the others on the bridge could see a silver teardrop shape lying in the humid alien jungle behind him. Next to him stood an alien: from what Picard had seen in preliminary reports, it was one of the Tantamon natives.
The jungle was recognizable as such, steamy and dense, but unlike the wild earthly jungle growth that was mostly vertical, the Tantamon jungle seemed to be mostly horizontal, made entirely of bowls of various sizes, styles, and colors. From some of the larger ones buggy eyes looked over the tops from inside. Above each buggy eye was a bright blue cranium.
The alien standing next to Baldwin was probably typical of his race. He--if human sexes meant anything--was on the edge of being human. He had tiny bowls for ears and a shiny blue exoskeleton, which gave him a faintly insecty appearance. Adding to this were the things at the ends of his arms, not hands but delicate pincers with grippinggrooves in them. He might have been wearing clothing. Picard could not tell. Baldwin had grown a beard since Picard had seen him last. Sweat darkened his shirt under his arms and on his chest. His hair was a little wild, and more sweat dripped down strings of it that drooped across his forehead. He looked dashing and wonderful, as he did on the Omniology holochips in Enterprise's library. Picard, not going in much for vanity, had no idea how dashing and wonderful he himself looked to many people, so had a small pang of jealousy that he quickly surpressed.
"It's beautiful," Mont said.
Picard knew that Mont wasn't talking about Baldwin or the alien, or even the jungle, though the jungle was certainly beautiful, once one dumped one's earthly prejudices about what a jungle should look like. Mont was talking about the silver teardrop. All sensor readings that Baldwin had taken matched up nicely with the sensor readings Enterprise had taken months before in the Omega Triangulae region. The teardrop was beautiful scientifically as well as asthetically.
"Good to see you, Jean-Luc," said Baldwin.
"And you, old friend. Do you need help packing?"
"No thanks. I travel pretty light." He smiled, and Picard noticed that Couselor Troi leaned toward the viewscreen with an expression of great interest on her face. "And," Baldwin said, "I always put my clothes where I can find them in the dark."
Picard was certain that such talk was not appropriate to the bridge of a Federation starship. He said, "So I remember. Prepare to beam up."
"Right, Jean-Luc. See you soon."
As he turned away, the screen once more showed the mossy ball of Tantamon IV.
"What do you think of that, then, eh, Shubunkin?" Mont said.
"I think that I do not yet have enough to think about."
"Right you are." Mont rose to his feet with surprising grace and moved like a thundercloud to the after turbolift. "Come along, Shubunkin. We will meet and greet Professor Baldwin."
The two of them got into the turbo lift and the doors closed. Couselor Troi began to speak, but Picard put up a hand to silence her. He knew the turbolift doors would open again in a moment and they did. Lieutenant Shubunkin stepped out and said, "Which transporter room?"
"Number three," said Picard, trying not to smile. "Deck six."
Shubunkin nodded and ducked back into the turbolift.
"Now, Couselor, what is it?"
"There is something odd about Commander Mont."
"And his playmate, Shubunkin too," Riker said.
"That is not what I mean," Troi went on. "Lieutenant Shubunkin is merely a little formal and much too impressed with himself. Commander Mont is hiding something. I would not trust him." "He's a Starfleet officer," Riker said.
"Even Starfleet officers have secrets."
"Logged and noted, Counselor. Mr. Data, make our guest comfortable." As Data stood up and walked toward the turbolift doors, Picard looked at them as if seeing through them and said, "And see if you can be of any use to Commander Mont."
"Understood, Captain," Data said as the doors closed.