Shuttlepod #47 was making a low and slow pass around the full length and breadth of the starship Apollo, staying within five meters of the hull to keep the highly sensitive metallurgical analysis it was carrying in range. After more than a month in drydock, she was finally fit to return to duty, and Captain Sean Gaudain wanted to see for himself that every hull plate, fastener, and emitter on his ship was once again fighting-fit. He’d spent most of the refit on the planet’s surface because he knew he wouldn’t be able to stay away otherwise; the thought of seeing the Apollo with her nacelles removed for overhaul made his stomach turn. There were worse ways to spend a month than on an idyllic Betazoid colony, but one more day of warmth, leisure, and sunshine was going to make him lose his mind.
The Apollo’s three months in the Delta Quadrant had been rough but well within the ship’s capabilities. Kazon vessels were only a threat in large numbers, and their other contacts had been largely peaceful. It was the Breen Crisis that had really put the ship through the wringer, though. In just a month and a half, the Apollo’s engines logged more time at maximum warp than other ships were likely to see in a year or more.
With her powerful sensors, the Apollo was used to pinpoint the location of Breen raiders, intercept them, and then jump back to warp before their wreckage was even cold, all as part of the hunt for the sister ship to the Breen dreadnought that had nearly destroyed Starbase 38, and which Gaudain’s mentor had given his life to defeat.
Following a successful trial mission to the Delta Quadrant, the first thing Gaudain had seen from the bridge was the starship Hephaestion ram the dreadnought with one person aboard: Vice Admiral Jonathan Knox, who he’d served under as a bridge officer on that same ship for almost half of his career. Both ships were vaporized instantly, leaving the Apollo to mop up fighters, and the very next day they’d been sent out on interdiction duties.
War was something that Gaudain had hoped he’d left behind when the Dominion War had ended. He’d barely earned his commission—a year early because of how desperate Starfleet was for officers—when he’d watched his fiancé get sucked out of a hull breach on the bridge of the Hephaestion during a Dominion surprise attack.
The shuttlepod paused as Gaudain stared at the Apollo’s bridge module, his equipment focused for far longer than was necessary on the upper sensor dome. Thinking about Knox had made him think about Durand, and that’s not where his mind needed to be. He’d learned to depersonalize combat, and Knox had helped him get past it just on human terms. For the next decade, he’d served in increasingly senior bridge officer roles under Knox, not always meeting the older man’s expectations for formality, duty, and rule-following, but modulated by his mentorship just enough to channel his rebellious nature, which Durand’s death had exacerbated, into solid performance as an officer.
He’d followed him from the Hephaestion to the Agincourt and then finally as his executive officer on the Sagan before Knox had been promoted eventually to flag rank. Without his guidance, some of his tendencies towards reckless behavior began to resurface, and he stymied himself for over seven years at the rank of lieutenant commander, even as his classmates began to get their own ships. Bouncing between three different ships in a short period forced him to learn how to follow the rules, to be the model officer everyone was always looking for, and which Durand and Knox had both been.
Four years of service as a commander on the newly-built explorer Missouri had finally earned him his own command; he’d had the transfer orders printed in hardcopy and framed, because it had Knox’s signature on it, and that was more valuable to him than anything in the world.
His first real mission in the center seat had gone very well, and before he could revel in that success with his mentor, his ship exploded. Twenty-five years of learning to depersonalize war, to think about it in terms of civilizations and fleets, went away in an instant.
For every citation for bravery that Gaudain received in the subsequent months for the Apollo’s success, he got at least one dressing down from Knox’s successor, Rear Admiral Hayden, who was just as attached to Knox as he had been, but also just as disapproving of excessive danger or showmanship as the old man had been. They’d scraped shields with a Breen ship while chasing it through an asteroid field. He’d intentionally caused a solar flare to prevent a Breen cruiser from escaping. The list of things that were technically not prohibited but definitely not sanctioned by the rule book was kilometers long.
After the Apollo was relieved on the Breen frontier, there was no time to rest, though, as they’d been sent straight to the Klingon border on Admiral Beckett’s emergency signal to the Fourth Fleet to muster against Klingon rebels in the Archanis sector. More combat, more citations, and not a few dressings down, and eleven casualties when a lucky shot from a Klingon ship had pierced the shuttle bay and destroyed the forcefield generator while he had crew in there prying open the hatches of escape pods from another Starfleet ship.
Hence the refit, and hence the month of shore leave. No one at Fourth Fleet Command questioned his literal sanity, and he had been highly successful in command, but there was great concern that further combat service would break him. And it might have.
Guardian shook himself out of his reverie and completed the last three degrees of his survey. The yard engineers had done perfectly. The Apollo was better than new, and this time they’d be able to do some actual exploring, he thought with gritted teeth.
What he was not expecting when the shuttle touched down on the hanger deck was to find Captain Marcus Bancroft standing there waiting for him when the gull-wing doors opened.
“Captain Gaudain, I trust your inspection of the Apollo was satisfactory? Bancroft asked, in his perfectly polite and perfectly posh accent.
Bancroft was another one of Knox’s former devotées, his last Chief of Staff. At 30 or 31, he was Gaudain’s equal in rank even with a decade and a half less service, because he was just that brilliant. He was also extremely good-looking, and, in Gaudain’s experience, quite the gymnast.
“What happened to ‘Sean’?”
The other captain pursed his lips for a split second.
“It was my recollection that ‘Sean’ died a month ago when he left me waiting at a very difficult-to-get table at Vandorin’s Bistro before telling me over the comm that he’d been unavoidably ‘tied up,” he shot, after only missing that one-half of one beat.
Gaudain had the decency to at least look sheepish. It was supposed to have been their third date, or third encounter, anyway, after two times back on Starbase 38. It was the day after he found out the Apollo was going to have her nacelles detached, her warp core replaced, and every square nanometer from bow to stern cleaned and polished. The prospect of spending a month or more on shore leave combined with the idea of unfamiliar hands all over his ship had hit him hard.
He’d woken up at 2115 hours more hungover than he’d ever been, with an empty bottle of expensive bourbon on the nightstand next to him, for a date that was supposed to have started at 2015, and all he’d managed to tell Bancroft that he’d been “tied up.”
Bancroft’s eyes flashed and his facial expression was somewhere between anger and insecurity. It was a look of ‘what did I do wrong?’ which made Gaudain feel even more guilty about the whole thing. The other man was the sort of person Gaudain should have been dating, polite, respectful, and great to take to fancy formal functions, but he was such an opposite personality that there was no way it would have worked out anyway.
“I’m sorry that I didn’t have the balls to tell you that I was depressed my ship was about to get torn apart, and I’m sorry that I missed out on what I’m sure would have been another wonderful and memorable evening,” Gaudain offered. “I’m also sorry that I left you high and dry. You didn’t deserve that.”
“Tell me one thing: did you stand me up because you were with someone else?”
“Fine. I accept your apology, and will be able to consent to a re-do in approximately three months, once I have been able to process my contempt for you, Sean Gaudain,” Bancroft replied, looking down to brush a non-existent speck of lint off of his uniform.
“Fair enough,” Gaudain replied, with a slight smirk. “I assume that’s not why you’re here, though?”
“No. Vice Admiral Seagraves wants to see you,” Bancroft replied, rocking slightly on the balls of his feet.
“Lead on, then,” Gaudain replied, butterflies in his stomach. “Am I about to be fired?”
Bancroft rolled his eyes. “No.”
Gaudain didn’t fully believe him, but the signal was that silence would be preferred for their journey. The travel core was a short way from the shuttle bay, where they walked through a transporter arch that took them to the administration levels high above the docking bay. After passing through a long, wide hall flanked by staffers at their desks, Bancroft chimed at the Admiral’s door, and when it opened he left him to enter alone.
When Gaudain had taken command of the Apollo, it was under Knox, and he hadn’t actually met Seagraves before. She was seated behind an impressive desk, which had an equally impressive view of space through a large viewport, flanked by a flag with Starfleet Command’s insignia on one side and her personal three-star standard on the other.
Sitting in front of the desk was an older man in command red. When he turned his head to look at him, Gaudain noticed that he had the same insignia as Seagraves.
“Reporting as ordered, Admiral,” Gaudain said.
“Yes, I can see that. Have a seat, Captain Gaudain,” Seagraves replied, gesturing towards the empty seat in front of her desk. “Have you met Vice Admiral Kominek?” she asked.
“No, ma’am. But I’m familiar by reputation. You’re with Starfleet Tactical Command, sir?”
Kominek was a minor legend of his own in Starfleet, at least for those who studied tactics. He’d been in command of a Miranda-class ship during the Dominion War, and was one of the few skippers of those frigates not to lose a single crewmember during the war, even among some of the fiercest fighting.
“Formerly. I’m… at-large, now. Between assignments,” Kominek replied, with a small smile.
“Captain, you’ll be taking Admiral Kominek to Parliament and back, so that he can complete the final stages of accession talks for the Coalition of Madena,” Seagraves explained.
“Understood…,” Gaudain said, looking from Kominek to Seagraves and back.
“Why a tactician for this job? I’ve had dealings with the Madenans in the past, and they trust me,” Kominek offered, with a slight shrug. “The universe deals us strange hands, sometimes,” he added, more cryptically.
“There’ll be plenty of time for you to sort out the particulars. Could I speak with the captain alone?” Seagraves interjected, seeming slightly impatient.
“Of course, Aubrey. I’ll see you aboard the Apollo, Captain,” Kominek replied, before leaving the two of them alone.
“Are you up for this, Gaudain?”
“Of course, Admiral. I’ve handled situations much tricker than delivering an admiral to a conference,” Gaudain replied.
Seagraves smirked. “I don’t mean that. I mean returning to duty. You were hit with the Breen and the Klingon conflicts back-to-back,” she replied. “I’d consider yourself lucky, as well, that you weren’t on duty this last month.”
“I was bored out of my mind, ma’am. I want nothing more than to get back out there,” Gaudain confirmed.
Seagraves studied him for a moment. “Your psych reports are well within parameters. But I’ve added a counselor to your crew manifest. I want you to speak with him regularly. Not just for your own sake, but because you’ll be bringing aboard an almost entirely new crew, other than your first officer.”
“Not by choice,” Gaudain reminded her.
“Watch your tone, Captain,” Seagraves said, voice reminding Gaudain slightly of a cobra preparing to strike. “You work well with Commander Everett, but I wasn’t about to let your whole crew sit in spacedock with ships needing staff.”
“They’re a good officer,” Gaudain agreed. “I completed the hull inspection of the ship myself. We’re ready to get out there.”
“Packing your own chute. I can respect that.”
“Excuse me, Admiral?”
“Your own parachute. It means being the one to personally check your rigging, to make sure things are safe,” Seagraves replied, looking him over. “I was in the war, too. On Ajilon Prime. Conflict is not what we’re trained for, and you’ve had a lot of it this year. I understand how that can impact someone, even a Captain. Use this mission as an opportunity to get your bearings again.”
Gaudain frowned slightly. She didn’t think he was up to it, and she was giving him a babysitter for his return to command, a move which was utterly transparent. He respected that she’d open up slightly about her own history, though.
“I’ll admit that it would be nice to get some exploring in, finally,” he conceded.
“I think we’ll be able to accommodate that. Get this done, and we’ll talk about where to send you next. Dismissed, Captain.”
Gaudain nodded and moved as quickly as was dignified out of Seagraves’s office. Bancroft was just finishing handing a PADD to a yeoman when Gaudain passed his office door.
“I guess you were right. I’m not fired,” Gaudain confirmed, with a grin.
“That’s not something I would tease you about,” Bancroft replied, crossing his arms.
“I really am sorry.”
“Don’t apologize again. Once was sufficient. A second time is unattractive,” Bancroft replied, waving his hand dismissively. “I wouldn’t keep your passenger waiting.”