a a a
A mobile drydock was a massive space vehicle indeed, and one was on its way to them with a new port nacelle assembly for the crippled Yorktown. How well the giant, folded, spidery framework would navigate the nebula no one, Including its captain, knew. But they’d cross that bridge when they came to it.
The bent and limping Yorktown and the headless Breitling parked side by side once again, next to the derelict Harrington’s Home, in synchronous orbit above the dead encampment. It was a nice clear day down there and the planet’s surface shone the deep green of jungle, spotted with the bright blue of its big fresh water lakes. It made a grand sight outside the Yorktown’s lounge windows. A fourth wounded vehicle, the Gorn probe, hung behind the Breitling’s hull. McKinney planned on towing it back to Earth himself and setting it down in the forecourt of Federation Headquarters in Paris. He was sure some official somewhere would take it away from him sometime before he got anywhere near Earth, but it was a nice plan.
Julius and Tia Bedford stood in the Yorktown’s officers’ lounge staring out the window at their home, and at their heritage – the wreck of their grandparents’ dreams.
"All our lives we’d heard about The Ship from the Firsts," Tia said with awe. "It’s … Oh, how can there be a word for it? Shocking, I suppose. ‘Awe-inspiring?’ What they must have gone through!"
McKinney told her, "We have their record tapes and logs. If you ever feel up to looking them over, I mean if it wouldn’t upset you."
"Upset me?" She looked at him, astonished at his offer. "Oh no, I’d be fascinated! Oh, it would be a wonderful help to me!"
Julius hugged her across her shoulders. "My Tia says she wants to write a history of the, um, generations of Harrington’s Home."
T’Lar said, "That would be a worthy effort. I would look forward to reading their story." She looked at McKinney. "After, of course, I brush up on ancient Earth fairy tales." He laughed at his friend. She looked mildly offended. "I merely wish to close a gap in my English vocabulary," she explained. "I find your obscure references ... disturbing."
McKinney smiled. "But I like disturbing you."
"I know," she said flatly. "And I enjoy thwarting you."
Princess Elayna was seated at the lounge’s oak dinner table. She had asked everyone to go about their business as if she wasn’t a royal envoy and just let her sit and rest. Leftenant Dockray had told her about Doctor Van der Roll. He’d told McKinney that Elayna had cried for a couple of hours, until she’d cried herself dry, then still couldn’t talk for hours more. Her voice was quite hoarse when she finally felt that she was presentable enough to socialize. After all, she’d said, the Breitling had suffered more loss among its crew than she had from hers. And now, like a true professional diplomat, she was as composed as could be. But McKinney could see the edge of a sulk hovering around her pretty face. McKinney sat beside her for a moment, leaving the Bedfords to marvel at the sights.
"I don’t suppose I’ll ever understand," she whispered huskily.
"I do," McKinney answered matter-of-factly. "Anthony and I aren’t that different."
She looked surprised. "Well, I know you were always a little nervous around me, but…"
"Princess, I was stark staring terrified!" She looked amazed, and almost cracked a smile at his admission. He went on, "I would have rather wrestled a live Gorn than face the responsibility that Captain Dubronin was putting on me."
"But … why? It’s just, well, socializing!"
He nodded. "You see, that comes easy to you. I have to work hard at it, think of the right thing to say. Since it’s so hard, it scares me. Anthony had too many things coming at him all at once – his responsibility to you, his affection for you – and he was afraid he was going to fail you in both respects – and what horrible things might happen to you. Plus his fear of space travel. Phobias are very difficult to overcome. Combine all this with the fear that we wouldn’t get you home in time, and he felt responsible for the potential ruination of the government."
"Oh but that’s silly! None of it is up to him." She suddenly looked sad again. "Was up to him." Then, ver quietly and hoarsely: "All he had to do was take care of me."
"Well. They don’t call it irrational fear for nothing. I think, al least, I finally figured that out."
McKinney had suggested that Captain Grey might at least like to meet the people his ship was damaged for, and Grey had grudgingly offered to host the Breitling’s officers and their guests aboard the Yorktown for a formal dinner (since the Breitling’s guest facilities had been vaporized with her saucer section). Grey wasn’t in the most sociable of moods, considering he and his ship would be sitting here in this nebula pocket for at least a week while their nacelle was replaced, while McKinney continued on to Groningen with his passengers. But he put on his diplomatic face for the princess, and his compassionate one for the Bedfords. For McKinney, he occasionally spared an accusing glare.
The Yorktown did put out a good spread, McKinney thought. Grey had enlisted some yeomen to wait a formal dinner in deference to Elayna’s royal status. Tia and Julius were overwhelmed by the amount and quality of food being served. They’d been able to eat certain of the planet’s animals, but catching them had been a rare trick, and none of them had adapted to being bred as livestock. Meat was a sporadic part of their diet, and now a real turkey had been uncovered on the table before them. Julius leaned in and inhaled its aroma greedily. McKinney couldn’t tell if his tears were a result of the steam rising off it or not.
Doctor Alejandro had spent several thorough hours giving the Bedfords their first-ever physicals. McKinney’s first worry was relieved when they proved completely clear of cancer. Their generation had grown up with the planet’s particular ratio of elements and their bodies had adapted just fine. Being removed from that environment should pose no problems for them in terms of food and air ingestion. They reported being light-headed some of the time, and Alejandro had told them that the higher oxygen content in human-standard air was the cause. Given time, they’d get accustomed to it. "Meanwhile," he’d joked, "breath less." McKinney reviewed Alejandro’s optimistic report in his head as he watch the couple tuck in to the hearty meal.
"Mister and Missus Bedford," Captain Grey addressed. "Granted it will be a week before we can leave, but if you like, you’re welcome to travel with us to the nearest starbase. From there, we can get you back to Earth in short order." Something in his tone told McKinney he really hadn’t wanted to make that offer, but politeness required it.
Julius had to wash down a mouthful of beets before he could answer, but Tia spoke for them. "Oh, but I couldn’t do that to Commander McKinney, Captain!"
Oh God, McKinney thought, the man’s going to really despise me.
Julius finished, "We wanted to see the princess’ planet first. If that’s all right."
"Of course," Elayna smiled, though not with her full wattage. "We’d be happy to have you."
Grey glared. "McKinney, my part in this little debacle of yours has pretty much been, show up, get shot, get my ship wrecked, do nothing useful, and then end up feeding your passengers. I’m not very happy."
"Yes, Sir," McKinney said, neutrally.
"We’re both going to have to sit out inquiries for damaging our ships."
"Especially galling, since my damage was entirely your fault."
Elayna looked up sharply from her meal. "Oh now wait just one minute, Captain," she said in her sternest Official voice. Grey flashed her a surprised, angry look at the interruption, which he quickly changed to dead neutral in the glare of the Royal Envoy from Groningen. "Commander McKinney was no more responsible for this situation than Captain Dubronin or yourself!"
Grey was only taken aback for a moment. "With respect, Ma’am…"
She raised a hand armed with a spoon to stop him, and he demonstrated the wisdom that Starfleet requires of its starship commanders. "I beg your pardon, Captain Grey," she went on, in a voice that would stop a roomful of quarreling diplomats cold.
This girl is eighteen? McKinney marveled once again.
Princess Elayna continued, "Please review the situation, Sir. Captain Dubronin was following orders, which brought her here. Again it was orders – standing orders – which forced her to track down the SOS signal. Then with his captain dead, and command dropped in his lap suddenly, Commander McKinney did his best to carry out both his original orders, and the dictates of his conscience." Grey raised a finger to make a point, but she bulldozed him. "Excuse me, I’m not finished. You, Captain were also following orders to come to our aid, correct?"
"Yes, but –"
She shook her head vehemently. "No one here is any more responsible for our troubles than anyone else. If you need to point fingers, aim one at the Gorn government for leaving that hideous device lying around where anyone could trip over it, and direct your anger into joining Commander McKinney in making his case against them."
Grey huffed and folded his arms. He cast a baleful look at McKinney.
"And by the way, Commander McKinney," she continued, and paused to take an apparently painful breath.
"Princess?" McKinney raised an eyebrow.
She clutched her stomach, looked at him sideways and nodded. "It’s all the excitement, I suppose."
"Oh, you’re not! Excuse me," McKinney blurted and ran to the comm panel on the wall, shaking his head and muttering one thing after another. "This is Commander McKinney. I need a channel to the Breitling immediately." Yorktown’s comm officer acknowledged and patched him through. "McKinney to Tchalabi." There was a nerve tingling pause while the air remained silent.
"Tchalabi here, Sir."
"How’s our top speed looking?"
"Repairs are going well, Sir. We could manage warp seven in a pinch. Wait, come to think of it, without the mass of the saucer, we might crack warp eight."
"We have a pinch. Standby, we’re shipping out immediately."
Melody and Dockray each held one of Elayna’s hands. Melody’s she held tightly, but Dockray’s she gripped with whatever pain she was feeling and he gripped back with equal force. The armsman said, "There’s no way we’ll make it, McKinney! It’s still almost two days trip!" He sounded more angry than afraid, cursing the fates.
The Princess let out a fatalistic chuckle. "Well it is my first baby. I could be in labor for that long."
"A shot to delay it? I’ll call the doctor." Grey suggested
"No!" Elayna shouted passionately.
Dockray angrily explained the pertinent rules of succession to Grey.
McKinney continued speaking into the comm, feeling those old familiar butterflies returning. "Transporter room, can you beam us over directly from here?"
"It may only be , forgive me, gas," Elayna joked.
T’Lar knelt down between Melody and Elayna. "I may have a solution, Princess, if you are willing. There will be no drugs or artificial means involved to be detected by your doctors, or to go counter to your laws."
a a a
With no sharp prow to ply the subtleties of subspace, its warp dynamics shot to hell by the absence of its primary hull section, the Breitling shuddered and banged through the usually undetectable transitions between warp factors. True to his word, Dennis Tchalabi coaxed his patched reactor to push the decapitated starship, just barely, through the door of warp factor eight. Once settled into a flank speed cruise, the ship continued to vibrate uncomfortably, and the engineer kept watch on his baby from his station in Main Engineering through the night. Starships were not designed for this treatment. Since the Constitution class ships, primary hulls had been detachable, but only for emergencies, with the intent that the saucer then became a lifeboat for the crew of a crippled ship. It wasn’t generally thought that the reverse was true, and the carefully designed warp field was not optimized to work without its complimentary ship profile intact. It had been done before – McKinney wasn’t breaking new ground here – but no one had ever suggested it was a good idea. McKinney only hoped that he wasn’t causing the spaceframe irreparable damage by pushing it this hard.
All the while, Princess Elayna lay on a bed in the makeshift sick bay that Doctor Alejandro had set up in one of the cargo holds, and T’Lar sat on a stool at the head of that bed with her slim fingers lightly brushing the young girl’s temples. Neither woman stirred, nor opened their eyes, for the duration of the trip.
And when the stubby remainder of the USS Breitling dropped out of warp and slid into Groningen’s orbit, and Lieutenant T’Lar at last released the bearer of the Heir to the Throne from her trance, Elayna still had fourteen blissful hours of labor before little Prince Roger the Fourth was born, on his homeworld.
a a a
In orbit above the capital, McKinney and his friend T’Lar sat sharing their dinner in a small break room on deck nineteen, still waiting to hear if Elayna’s baby was born yet. Four small, round tables occupied a tiny alcove at the end of a corridor, with one oblong porthole looking down on Groningen’s cloudy hemisphere. The Vulcan simply ate the collection of greens on her plate without fuss or ceremony, while McKinney picked through his chef’s salad for the bits he liked, leaving the rest for last.
"Thank you for saving our hash, Lara."
She looked at his meal. "You are having a chef’s salad, not hash."
For once, he wasn’t sure if she was kidding him. "It’s an old colloquialism. Thanks for saving us."
"I see. It seemed the best recourse. Though it is not usually acceptable to reveal our ways to non-Vulcans."
"You folks are a puzzlement to we mere humans. We know you have mental disciplines that we can’t match, but you’re always surprising us with new ones when it counts."
She shook her head mildly as she moved on to her soup. "It is not that you ‘can’t’ have our mental disciplines at all, Daniel. Those are achievable by anyone with the dedication to learn. Granted, humans have no telepathic abilities, so the mind-touching techniques will be beyond your reach. But anyone at all can learn the self-disciplines that we practice."
He chuckled to himself. "We poor muddled beings who only use ten percent of our brain? I can’t imagine."
"And that is part of the problem. Imagination and an open mind, the willingness to learn, and, perhaps, sufficient confidence in one’s self, are required. You are correct that few humans have these qualities."
He was trying to decide whether or not to be offended by that.
T’Lar continued, "Again, I can, in just a few hours, teach you meditation techniques that will solve any sleep problem you may have. Or ways to disregard your raging human emotions and get on with the job at hand."
Now he was sure she was playing with his head. "Well, thank you," he laughed, "but I don’t think I’ll be needing that any more."
Truly, after the last few days, he didn’t think anything would ever bother him again.
The small comm screen on the bulkhead chirped, and the duty comm officer’s voice announced, "Commander McKinney, there’s a call from the surface for you, Sir."
"Mm," he said with a mouthful of chicken bits. "Patch it through here, please."
He got up to get closer to the little 20 centimeter screen on the wall. After a moment, Melody’s face appeared, bright and smiling.
"Hello!" McKinney said, pleased to see her. "What’s happening?"
"It’s a boy!" she beamed. "See for yourself."
Melody stepped aside and there was the Princess of Groningen, looking exhausted but otherwise as presentable as for a royal reception, except that she was resting in bed. A rather luxurious bed at that. In her arms was a squirming mass of arms and legs, thankfully not nursing. McKinney could handle seeing royalty in a bathrobe or dog-tired, but he had to draw the line somewhere. He wished he could see this picture on the main bridge viewscreen! There was a man next to the bed who must have been Elayna’s husband – Roger, was it? Elayna held the baby up to the camera like a prize and flashed her best smile at McKinney.
"We made it, Commander! Lara? Are you there?" she asked.
T’Lar approached and McKinney made room for her. "Here, Princess. I am pleased that everything worked out well."
"Thanks to you. Thank you both! Oh, thank your whole crew, Commander." She was acting more like an eighteen-year-old girl who just had a baby than a princess, and McKinney found it delightfully refreshing.
Prince Roger addressed the camera. He didn’t look very much older than Elayna, maybe twenty or so with a rakish black beard that unfortunately made McKinney think of William Tell. "Hello, Commander. I can’t thank you enough. I want to extend my government’s condolences for your losses, and our apologies for your trouble on our behalf."
"Thank you, Your Highness," McKinney replied smoothly. "But please, there’s no need to apologize. Someone would have stumbled over that situation eventually. It was only our mission to help you that made it possible to find out the fate of those poor people, and remove the danger of it happening again." Wow, McKinney thought, that came out awfully easily!
"Thank you, Commander, that’s kind of you," the prince said. He was a much more serious and formal person than his wife. But McKinney got an impression of likeability. Roger continued, "I’d like to invite you and your officers down for a formal reception tomorrow evening, so my father can thank you in person."
The … king? To his own surprise, McKinney didn’t get a rush of fear at the thought. It might even be fun to rub elbows with royalty.
"We’d be happy to come, Highness. Um … excuse me, but the ship’s clock isn’t on your local time…."
Elayna chimed in, glancing at a clock at her bedside. "In … oh … sixteen hours and twenty minutes, Commander?"
"Yes Ma’am," he smiled. "I hope you’ll excuse our appearance, our dress uniforms were on the part of the ship that blew up."
Elayna laughed, and her husband tried to look disapproving at her lightness. "That will be fine, Commander. We’ll see you then,"
"Thank you, Highness."
"Well, we should sign off now, I think," the princess said. "I’m frightfully tired behind all this makeup and giddiness, and the baby needs his sleep."
"See you soon, then," McKinney said amiably, and signed off.
That night, Daniel McKinney slept like a baby too.