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Noah crested the low rise and saw just what he had expected: a Federation pre-fab building sitting on the spot he had specified when he ordered it. It wasn't much to look at, now, but it was his and right now, that's all that mattered. Noah shifted how the rucksack sat on his shoulders and began walking the last few meters to The Dive Shack. 

It had begun as an idea when he was a Junior at Starfleet Academy: he would retire somewhere and run a recreational underwater diving service. It would give him the chance to explore and dive, two of his most favorite past times, and he could share his enthusiasm with others. Throughout his career, Noah always wondered if this particular dream would actually come to fruition and the last several months were no exceptions. He had scouted this exact spot sometime ago and had registered for the land grant through the impressive bureaucracy of the Federation's Department of Environmental Resources Management. On the day he'd received the message that he'd been granted the plot, Noah dug out the worn and tattered schematic that he'd produced in his downtime on Bersallis III and had sent it to the building vendor. 

Although the vendor had cited 'long wait times' for a custom job, the Bollian had delivered (literally, in this case) his goods inside of 8 months from final sale. It had been a long wait, Noah reflected as he reached the rear of the building. 

As he set down his rucksack against the building, he visually scanned the various other crates and boxes and containers that were, more or less, neatly set out near the building. He hoped everything was here but didn't trust in hope alone. Instead he pulled out a personal PADD and pulled up the manifest. He checked off the generator set, the pier pilings and decking and the additional construction material needed for the open air porch that would connect to the pier. 

Noah knew the first priority should be the generator set and a rumbling peel of thunder to the east confirmed his instinct. Noah peered around the right hand side of the Shack and saw one of TW IV's many thunderstorm systems rolling in. It was about 15 kilometers away, just breaking over the ridge of mountains that formed the end of the Jipya Rwenzori chain. 

Noah used all of his considerable knowledge of TW IV's weather (which wasn't much) and estimated he had about an hour before the edge of the storm found him and another hour till the entire system was on top of him. 

"Not much time, in other words," Noah grumbled aloud. He went back to his rucksack and fished around until he came out with a tool kit. He then set to installing the generator set, as per the instructions the building vendor had sent him. 

Noah was about 15 minutes from being done when the first drops hit him. He knew that hurrying would be potentially dangerous, so he chose to ignore the rain as it fell. By the time he was finished, Noah was completely drenched. Earlier, he had taken the precaution to put his rucksack inside the Shack (which gave him the chance to deactivate the biometric lock) and he looked forward to dry clothing now. He threw the master arm lever for the power source and was rewarded with a row of green status lights that indicated he had power. He finalized the settings on the power source and closed the service hatch. He used the hand torch to locate and retrieve the last few hand tools he'd been using and headed into the Shack. 

Noah stopped just inside what would be the back door, set down his tools and turned on one of the lamps he'd thought to bring with him. It would do until he could change into dry clothes and then set up the environmental controls. 

Once Noah had dry clothes on, he located the environmental controls panel. He located a shelf that was situated nearby and placed the lamp on it. The controls were rather simple: lights, power outlets and temperature controls. He turned the lights and the outlets on and then set out his makings for a meal. He had wanted some solitude from the Outpost, so he made sure to pack a minimum of two weeks' food and enough fresh water for the hike out; he'd be using the Shack's water production ability or in worse case scenario, he could purify from the river. 

Noah picked a dehydrated meal, this one was an Efrosian stew whose name was quite unpronounceable to anyone but Efrosians, and opened the pouch. He listened to the storm as he set about finishing the meal by locating the rehydration spout and filling the pouch of stew to the appropriate level. 

While his stew rehydrated, Noah took the opportunity to familiarize himself with the Shack. It was a modest building at 1200 square feet. It was comprised of a large, main chamber (in which  he stood) joined by a hall (to Noah's right) that led to a small but comfortable living chamber. This would be Noah's quarters once he'd retired here and where he was standing would be the Shack's rental area. Eventually, Noah planned to add a covered seating area where he had come in at that would give his patrons a place to gather and talk shop. 

Who knows, Noah thought absentmindedly stirring his stew, maybe I'll even set a small bar and serve drinks. 

For now, he contented himself with the tasks at hand. Once the storm let up, he'd need to check everything again and possibly work on the decking to the pier area. For now, he contented himself with plopping down on the floor and eating his stew. He mulled over his future as he ate his meal, enjoying the sounds of the storm outside. When he'd requested this leave from Captain Arzie, he'd been pretty bitter at Starfleet. He'd been brought to Court Martial because of his handling of the Lolthene incident. The Trial Judge from Fleet JAG had given Noah a serious going over; ultimately, Noah felt as though she had been more thorough than necessary and this theory was borne out when the officer admitted, off-the-record, of course, that JAG had sent them with a mission in mind: make sure everyone learns that the Prime Directive is no longer open to individual interpretation. 

That's exactly what had happened. Noah had walked away a free man, but his mind had been changed about Starfleet. A lot of the glory had become tarnished as a result and Noah seriously considered if he would actually return to duty or take an early retirement. He had the land, he had the Shack now…but it didn't seem to be the right time. 

Noah finished his stew and placed the empty package into the waste control unit beside him. He got up and got to setting up his bedding. The storm was still blowing at what sounded like full-steam, so Noah decided on an early bedtime. He changed into his old Academy PT gear, turned off the main lights and crawled into bed by the lantern light. He stared at the ceiling for a few moments, thoughts of the last few weeks running through his head. He chuckled as he remembered the look on Behr's face when Noah had pretended to have affections for him. His thoughts then drifted to the first time he sat down at one of Bobby Joe's tables and sampled what could only be described as heaven on a plate. But before long, Eris's face swam into Noah's vision. She was, as she always came to him, smiling and happy. Noah indulged himself a moment's vision and then shook his head to clear the memory. He tossed and turned for the better part of an hour, listening to the storm and hunting sleep. It had been quite some time since he'd had this much trouble getting to sleep. He tensed all the muscles in his body and then relaxed them. He repeated this exercise for several more repetitions and then yawned. He felt ready to try again. He listened to the rain, which had calmed to a deluge, and relaxed each muscle in his body. Within ten minutes, Noah was asleep and dreaming. 

Cool, grey light streamed in through the Shack's windows and informed Noah of dawn's arrival. He lay in his bunk for several moments, savoring the ability to wake up on his own terms instead of having to jump out of his bunk and start his day. Here, now, Noah dictated the course and pace of the day. It was an alien feeling, to be sure. 

After a leisurely 30 minutes, Noah crawled out of his sleeping bag and dressed for the day. He used some of the water he brought from the Outpost to brew his morning tea. He could have used the replicator, but sometimes he needed the real thing. Against wall opposite the environmental controls, built into the countertop, sat a small heating element. Noah filled the kettle from his canteen and then placed it on the heating element. He poked the controls into life and made sure the element was set to high. He then moved to one of the windows that looked out to the rear of the Shack. He could barely make out the low rise where he'd surveyed everything yesterday. Instead of being just rain, a low-hanging fog had also formed. 

Noah thought how much TW IV, right then, reminded him of a certain little Andorian village he had visited in his youth.  

He chuckled mirthlessly and wondered where the memory had come from. He hadn't thought about that place or that day for...  

The kettle's whistle told Noah that it was time for his morning "cuppa". He dug through his ruck and found the battered stainless steel mug he'd had since his Academy days. He also pulled out a small, airtight container and moved to the kettle. He pulled the vessel off the heating element, removed its top, opened the airtight container and dug out three, small round objects. These he dropped into the kettle and replaced the container's lid. He set it aside for the moment and closed the kettle up. He looked out the window again and let his mind wander to a place it hadn't gone to for some time.... 

Starfleet Academy - 10 years before 

"Did you see the posting," Eris chided. Noah looked up from the weights he was working out with and looked her in the eye. 

"No. What are they," he asked, excitement working into his voice. 

"Oh, nothing special, Masterson" Eris joked. Before Noah could reply, she turned on her heel and walked away. 

Noah was in the middle of taking weights off a barbell; he thought about just walking away and checking the postings. But he finished his task and rushed out of the gym and to the Cadet Common Area. He punched up his current Training Schedule. Noah saw the next day's training mission roster. He was assigned to one of the two shuttles and a notation that more details would be in his personal comms box. 

Noah looked to the gym. He hadn't missed a workout yet, but this was different... 

Noah ran back into the gym, dodged several lower classmen and ducked into the locker room. The thought of changing into a uniform briefly flashed across his mind. He decided against it. Instead, he grabbed his duffel and made for the dorms. 

He took the five flights of two stairs two at a time and slid to a stop in front of his room. He punched in his code and was through the door before it was fully open. He tossed his bag at his bunk and moved to the computer terminal, not caring that his bag missed his bunk completely. 

Several nerve-wracking moments later, Noah was into his comms box, reading the mission briefing. He was assigned to one of two Away Teams, as Engineer, and would double as shuttle's crew. His crew was being led by T'Pala, a Vulcan cadet of his cohort. Eris was assigned to the other shuttle as Pilot, which explained her smugness. He was happy for her; she had worked hard to receive the high marks in small craft piloting that her transcript showed. 

The mission was a scaled-up version of one they'd performed before: the two shuttles would warp to a point designated by the Training Cadre, land on an uninhabited planetoid or asteroid, carry out a predesignated mission and return to the Academy. This time the crews would take a pair of Danube-class runabouts out to a point near Orion, plant live explosives on a ship's hull and then act as boarders on the ship, a retired Saladin-class destroyer. 

Noah read and re-read the orders. He was excited; he was going to be in charge of not only the explosives but also the well-being of his shuttle. This was what he was training for. As he started to read the orders a third time, his door chime went off. He turned off the terminal and went to the door. On the other side stood his mission commander, Cadet T'Pala. 

"Greetings, Cadet Masterson. I am Cadet T'Pala. Do you have some free time to discuss our impending mission," she asked formally. 

"Uh…sure," Noah replied, turning to look at his computer terminal suspiciously. 

"I hesitate to mention this but regulations state that cadets shall only wear PT attire when engaged in PT," T'Pala said pointedly. 

Noah looked down and sheepishly grinned. 

"Can we meet in the common area in say…," Noah began. 

"Fifteen minutes," T'Pala finished. 

Noah merely nodded and chuckled by way of reply. 

Fifteen minutes later, Noah entered the dorm's common area attired in a cadet's Duty Uniform and looked for T'Pala. He found her seated at one of the many tables, sipping what looked like water and reading a PADD. 

"Thanks for waiting," Noah said walking up. 

"Don't mention it," T'Pala said. She gestured to one of the unoccupied chairs and Noah took a seat. 

"I asked you here because I don't know much about Engineering," T'Pala explained. 

"While I am familiar with many of the formulae, theories and principles, I am quite ignorant to the practical applications of them," she continued when Noah said nothing. Noah nodded his understanding, prompting another explanation from T'Pala. 

"This is my first mission in command. I have chosen the Command division as my major and getting good marks on this exercise would have an impact later in my career." 

"Ok. Where would you like to start," Noah asked politely. 

"The explosives: how much will we need to merely breach the hull and not destroy the hulk," T'Pala asked. 

For the next thirty minutes, Noah patiently answered T'Pala's questions and she noted the answers on her PADD. She rapid fired questions at Noah and to his credit, he answered them. They covered everything from which detonators he would use (and why) to the best ways to reroute power from non-critical systems to critical systems, both in nominal and emergency situations. 

"Thank you for sharing your knowledge," T'Pala said after looking at her wrist chronograph. 

"My pleasure. Hope it helps us tomorrow," Noah replied optimistically.  

Noah politely excused himself in order to make his next class but his mind was focused on the next day's exercise. Later that evening, Eris stopped by. She mentioned that even though she was piloting her shuttle, the crew leader (a junior to Eris's sophomore) was overconfident and usually wrong on many things. 

"T'Pala stopped by and grilled me about the Engineering aspects of the mission. She said it was because she didn't have any practical experience but I wonder if it wasn't also to see if I knew my stuff," Noah opined. 

"Could be," Eris said, rising from her chair and moving to drape her arms around Noah's neck and chest from behind him. 

"But either way," she said resting her head against his back, "you know Engineering. You're crew's going to be fine." 

"Who's your Engineer," Noah asked cringing inwardly because he'd forgotten to ask until now. 

"A Klingon freshman by the name of Klaaj," Eris said. 

Noah briefly choked on some water he was sipping. After sputtering for a moment, he regained his voice. 

"Keep well clear of any explosives Klaaj places," he warned. The look of worry and disease on Eris's face drew a further explanation. 

"He's a firm believer in solving any of life's problems with a improper amount of explosives," Noah explained. 

"It can't be that bad…" Eris said, her voice trailing off when she moved around the desk and saw Noah's expression. 

"Oh, it can be that bad, huh" she said. 

Noah proceeded to regale Eris with a tale from the Engineering range about young Klaaj. An hour later, Eris understood Noah's trepidations and her face must have showed it.  

"Hey, don't worry about it," Noah said, an easy smile forming. 

"You're gonna be driving the runabout. Klaag may have a tendency to overcompensate with explosives but you'll be clear of it," he reminded her. 

Noah got up and moved to sit beside her on his bunk. They embraced for a quick moment, a reassuring squeeze and then Noah pulled away and stared into Eris's ice blue eyes. She nodded her thanks and then stole a quick kiss. 

"Almost lights out and I have to get back" Eris reasoned. She gathered her things and they quickly kissed again, this one much hungrier than the previous. 

Eris playfully pushed off of Noah and whisked out the door. Noah spent the next twenty minutes putting together his mission gear and then setting out his uniform for the next day. After stifling three yawns in a row, Noah gave in and climbed into bed. He barely turned off the lights before he succumbed to sleep. 

The next morning, the two teams assembled on Pad 6 Epsilon, one of the Academy's numerous shuttle pads, as per their orders. T'pala did a head check and then split the group into two teams, Alpha and Bravo. 

Before she could do anything else, however, one of the proctors arrived and ushered the waiting cadets to a waiting shuttle. The flight to Spacedock One was brief and smooth. Once the shuttle landed, the cadets were taken to a briefing room and the cadre laid out their expectations for the training as well as all the pertinent information for the mission. The crews sat through another safety briefing and then they were shepherded to another shuttlebay. As the cadets walked onto the bay's deck, a collective breath caught in their mouths. Before them sat two Danube class runabouts, the Zambezi and Neretva, but the spectacle that had caught their breaths: a freshly commissioned Sovereign-class ship was moored behind the runabouts. 

After a heartbeat, the cadre turned the cadets over to T'pala for crew assignments. 

"We will split into two teams: Sigma and Epsilon. Sigma will be my team with Cadet Stephax as pilot, Cadet Verela as Operations, Cadet Masterson as Engineering, Cadet Yamazaki as Science and myself as Tactical/ Command." 

"Epsilon will be Cadet sh'Vrina as Pilot, Cadet Chami as Operations, Cadet Klaag as Engineering, Cadet Nerex as Science and Cadet Rress as Tactical and Second in Command. Epsilon will fly the Zambezi and Sigma will fly the Neretva," T'Pala finished succinctly.  

She pulled out a miniPADD and tapped a string of commands on the screen before addressing the group again. 

"Mission plans and SOP have been uploaded to your PADDs and to the runabouts' on-board computers. Are there any questions," T'pala asked. 

No one in the group had any questions; they were too well briefed on what was supposed to be an easy but exciting field problem. 

Noah sat at the front edge of the pre-fab chair, staring at the deck and his boots. He had no idea how long they had been back on Spacedock One. Once arriving, the cadets had been pushed into this room by a pair of security officers, who know stood guard outside. All attempts to gain their attention had been unsuccessful and had quickly dissipated. 

The door opened and two people walked in: Admiral Cohen, commandant of the Academy, and a distinguished appearing female Vulcan. Seeing who was entering the room, T'pala called the room to attention. Verela, seated next to Noah, reached over and hauled Masterson to his feet. 

"Stand easy, cadets," the Commandant barked. One of the security officers secured the door and the Commandant addressed the crew. 

"My junior year at the Academy, I watched a shuttle full of my classmates disintegrate during re-entry. We had toured the latest Ambassador class cruiser and were returning to Earth. Their shields failed and they slowly burned up. I say that to say this: I've been where you are. My best advice is this," he paused looking around the room, making eye contact. 

"Talk. Talk with each other, talk with councilors or your spiritual advisors or even just faculty at the Academy. Hell, talk to your bartender if you can't find anyone else. Who ever it is…talk to them about this. Don't bottle it up because it will eat at your souls," he concluded. 

"This is T'pret, Special Council to the Academy. She will be taking your depositions shortly so collect your thoughts regarding this matter. We owe our comrades nothing less," he said. He made to leave the room but paused, catching sight of Masterson. The Commandant motioned to T'pala to have her follow him. He opened  the door and stepped outside. After a perceptible pause, T'pala followed the Commandant into the corridor. 

"You were the overall commander, cadet" he asked with no preamble. 

"I was, sir," T'pala answered. 

"What's his story," he asked, motioning through the open door toward Masterson. 

"He had a…romantic involvement…with the pilot of the other Runabout, sir," T'pala answered. 

The Commandant didn’t say anything for a moment, waiting for T'pala to go on. 

"The other runabout's Engineer was one of the first casualties. I had Masterson use the remote access option to take over duties for the other vessel," T'pala finished. 

He made several general queries about Masterson and his character, which T'pala answered in the affirmative. 

"Watch him, cadet. Watch him closely because this could go badly for him," the Commandant told T'pala. 

"Understood, sir," T'pala said looking over her shoulder at Masterson. 

"Please state your name, rank and position for the record," T'pret said. 

"T'pala, Cadet, Acting commander of the mission in question." 

"And what year of your coursework at Starfleet Academy are you currently in, Cadet," T'pala asked. 

"I am a Junior," replied T'pala. 

"For the record, Cadet, have you been briefed about your rights concerning this deposition," T'pret asked. 

"Although I was already aware of them, I was, in fact, informed of my rights prior to this conversation," T'pala answered. 

"If you have no objections, then, we shall proceed with the deposition," T'pret said, looking at her PADD. 

"I have no objections, Councilor." 

"Then the floor is yours, Cadet." 

T'pala took a calming breath and collected her thoughts. She quickly summarized the safety briefing that the cadets had received and also the briefing she had given. 

"Thank you Cadet. In your own words, describe what occurred once you and the other cadets arrived at the range," T'pret instructed. 

… 

The Nerevta dropped out of warp exactly where it was supposed to: 100 kilometers above the decommissioned USS Hektor, a Saladin-class destroyer. A split second later, the Zambezi dropped out of warp about 100 meters to the Nerevta's starboard side. 

Both ships slowly descended toward the Hektor. According to the plan that the cadre had briefed the cadets on, the Nerevta would place their simulated charges first. After a simulated detonation (one of the cadets would say 'BOOM'), the Zambezi would take her turn. Once this was complete, the two teams would then rally and acts as boarders and "retake" the Hektor. All of this would be captured by sensor suites in the runabouts as well as in each of the cadets' suits. 

A shadow flitted across the Hektor's saucer section, moving too fast to be identified with the naked eye. The sensors aboard each of the Danube class runabouts, however, were sharper than the eye. An alarm at the Tactical station caught T'pala's attention and she tapped her comms badge. 

"Rress, are you receiving this alarm," T'pala asked. 

"I am. There seems to be a small vessel moving down the length of the Hektor," Rress responded. 

"Verela, begin hailing that vessel on every channel. Inform them this is a Starfleet live fire range and that, for their safety, they should evacuate," T'pala ordered. 

Verela acknowledged the order and began broadcasting. 

"Wait…there's…" was all that Rress had time to say before the Zambezi was rocked by disruptors. The line of bolts stitched across the ship's hull, striking it amidships and raking the nacelle on the starboard side of the craft. The small, attacking craft broke over hard and began a reversal of its course for a return shot at the Zambezi. The Zambezi's nacelle exploded in a shower of plasma that lit up space with its intensity. 

Just as the crew of the Nerevta figured out what was happening, they too were rocked by a salvo of disrupter shots from another of the small, agile craft. This one, however, attacked from the port side of the Nerevta and then continued on, passing over the top of the runabout. 

Before the words could form in T'pala's throat, Verela had put the Nerevta at Red Alert and was cycling down secondary systems in order to shunt that power to shields and weapons. Masterson saw the move and made sure that the power conduits connections were intact. 

Stephax, at the helm, also took the initiative and put the Nerevta into a series of evasive manuevers designed to maximize the runabout's defensive capabilities. 

T'pala quickly tapped the comms button on her console. 

"Zambezi, this is Nerevta. Please respond," she said. She didn't wait for the return signal to start scanning for the attackers. 

"I'm showing three life signs, Commander," Yamazaki reported from Science. 

"Attackers at bearing 030, mark 45 and closing fast," Stephax chimed in. 

"Commander, the Zambezi doesn't have shields and their life support is failing quickly," Masterson reported, using one of the external monitors for an eyeball of the situation. 

He switched to an MSD of the Nerevta and reported their own woes. 

"The hull took most of the damage; breaches are sealed and structural integrity is at 82 percent. We lost the forward shield generator and the quantum torpedo launcher has no EPS grid connection. Life support is at 78 percent and rising," Masterson rattled off as he read his displays. 

"Stephax, put us between the attackers and the Zambezi; Verela, angle and extend our shields to cover the Zambezi once we're in position; Masterson, use the command override controls to slave the Zambezi's engineering controls to your station," T'pala ordered in rapid-fire fashion. 

Noah turned to his console and his fingers flew over the touchscreen controls. He had Zambezi's Engineering controls up in less than 60 seconds. 

"Oh, that's not good…" he mumbled under his breath and began punching in commands on the terminal. For some reason, the Zambezi wasn't responding to any of Noah's commands, regardless of their authority. 

Stephax maneuvered the Nerevta in place as another volley of disruptor blasts impacted the shields. 

"Shields extended and holding at 79 percent, Commander," Verela reported. 

The Nerevta returned fire with phasers as the first attacker passed and then at the second one in its turn. Both ships felt another blast from each of the attackers. 

"Zambezi's down to one nacelle, life support is on emergency and her EPS grid is stuck in a feedback loop, cycling between diagnostics and full function," Masterson reported as he worked. He knew that he needed to reboot the EPS grid quickly or the Zambezi would be in serious trouble. A stray thought shot across his mind about who was alive and who was dead, but he shook his head to clear the thought and kept working. 

"Verela, contact Starbase One and report our situation. Request immediate backup and orders," T'pala said between phaser shots. 

Masterson finally got the EPS grid rebooted and restored partial power to the Zambezi. He reported as much to T'pala, who nodded and tapped her comms badge to open a channel. 

"T'pala to Zambezi, please respond." 

Masterson paused in his tasks to listen for a response. 

"T'pala to Zambezi, respond." 

At first, all that could be heard was the life support systems cycling on and then someone starting coughing. 

"sh'Vrina here, Commander. We lost Klaag, Chami and Rress when we were attacked," Eris reported shakily. 

Noah's heart leaped for joy when her heard Eris's voice but then the pragmatic side of him kicked in and he continued to work at the console. 

"Partial power restored; working on shields, Commander," Masterson reported and turned back to his work. 

"Understood, Masterson. Sh'Vrina, as soon as Masterson has shields restored, I am ordering you to disengage and make best possible warp back to Starbase One. Acknowledge," T'pala said. 

"Acknowledged, Commander," Eris responded. The duo of ships was rocked by another volley of disruptor bolts. 

"Shields at 62 percent, Commander, and showing signs of failing," Verela reported. 

Her comment caught Noah's ear and he looked to the Nerevta's display. 

"I concur. I'm re-routing power from secondary EPS grid for the torpedo launcher to shields," he told Verela. 

For her part Verela simply grunted and began shoring up the damaged shields as best she could. When he was finished with that, Noah turned back to the Zambezi's shields. Her EPS grid was partially fried; it would require a complete overhaul to get Zambezi's shields to 100 percent. But Noah knew he could cheat a bit. 

"Zambezi, this is Masterson. I'm going to 'hotwire' your aft shield generator to pump the energy into the hull and frame substructure. It won't be the most stable of arrangements but it should last long enough for you to get away," Masterson reported over the comms. 

"Thanks, Nerevta," Eris replied, her voice full of emotion. 

Before he could complete his repair, though, another wave of blasts rocked the runabouts. 

Nerevta's computer indicated a hull breach in the aft cargo section, which was configured as an airlock for the boarding part of the now-scrubbed training mission. 

"Stay focused on those shields, Masterson," T'pala ordered, gritting her teeth as she concentrated on firing at the attackers. 

"Starbase One reports USS Cromwell is en route and will arrive in 5 minutes, Commander" Verela reported. 

Another brace of shots rocked the pair of ships. Despite best efforts, their combined shields fell to below 50 percent. 

Masterson continued re-routing the grid into the superstructure of the Zambezi, overriding several safety warnings in the process. Finally the MSD of the Zambezi showed weak aft shields; despite everything, the best that Masterson could coax out of the generator was 31 percent. 

"Losing too much in the transfer…." he mumbled to no one in particular. 

"Zambezi's shields holding at 31 percent, Commander," he reported to T'pala. 

"Acknowledged. Zambezi, this is T'pala. Make you escape now; we will provide covering fire and then retreat once you are away," T'pala ordered. 

"Acknowledged, Nerevta. Zambezi is making for Starbase One at best possible speed," Eris responded. 

"Helm, bring us about and put us in the path of intercept for the two attackers," T'pala ordered. 

"Aye, Commander. Coming about to…bearing 151 mark 34, best possible speed," Stephax reported. 

Masterson switched his focus to the Nerevta and her weapons. He knew there was no hope for the torpedo launcher but he wanted to make sure all phasers were sufficiently charged. He noticed Verela syphoning off small amounts of power, intermittently, from the force fields that held the hull breaches in check. He disagreed with this practice, but wasn't going to force the issue. Instead, he pulled power from the tertiary environmental lighting conduit and noticed a corresponding dimming of particular lights in the cabin. No one else noticed. 

"Attackers moving to intercept Zambezi; helm, plot intercept course. Keep us in position to draw their attention, Mister Stephax," T'pala ordered. 

Noah watched his MSD as T'pala fired several shots at the two attackers' aft quarters. The pair split, breaking to each side. The port vessel broke high and to the port side, leaving the other to go low on the Nerevta's starboard side. 

Stephax followed the attacker on the port side but took care to slew the aft end of the Nerevta about, so that T'pala could target each ship with phasers. She saw the move and targeted each with a bank, firing on each. 

Masterson switched over to the Zambezi's controls, knowing that when she went to he would lose all contact. He confirmed that his rigged aft shield plating was holding when Stephax spoke up. 

"I've got a third attacker coming fast from the starboard, low quarter," Yamakazi shouted. 

Noah whipped his head around to see the tactical display. Sure enough, a third vessel had appeared from somewhere and was taking the opportunity to engage Zambezi. Stephax tried to heel around and head toward Zambezi but the other two cut him off. He twisted and reversed course, T'pala firing as the ship moved, but as he lined up again, one of the others fired and then forced Stephax to veer off. 

"Zambezi, you've got a fast mover on your six! Warp out, now." T'pala barked. 

There was no verbal response from Eris or Nerex but the Zambezi weaved erractically and then dove in an escape. The attacker merely altered his pursuit and pushed on more speed. 

"Eris, honey, you have to get out of there," Masterson said, his voice quivering. 

"I can't, Noah. My warp core is offline," Eris responded, her voice frail and unsure. 

Noah looked at his console. Indeed, the core was offline. He began punching in commands to try and bring it back online. 

"Please, baby, for Eris," Noah pleaded with the console. He continued to cycle through commands, never looking up. As soon as one was confirmed, Noah began punching in another until finally, the damaged ship's LCARS reported the warp core back online. 

"You did it," came a gleeful exclamation from the Zambezi. 

"Baby, you've got to fly out now," Masterson pleaded. 

Any further communications were cut short as the attacker finally caught up to the Zambezi and raked her from the stern cargo area to the forward crew section. The beleaguered ship couldn't withstand the punishing and simply exploded. The attacker pulled up sharply to avoid the debris field and came about, heading straight in for the Nerevta. However, she didn't make 2 kilometers before she was vaporised by a shot from almost directly overhead. 

"Nerevta, this is Cromwell. Sorry we got here so late," said a masculine voice over the comms. 

Noah stared numbly at the LCARS screen that had only a moment ago shown the Zambezi's slaved controls. He couldn't focus on what he was doing. Time dilated to an almost impercetible crawl. He knew his shipmates were working on keeping their vessel together but not Noah. He didn't care. Eris was gone…wasn't she? 

Noah punched in a command and the Engineering console gave way for a Science oriented version of itself. Noah began scanning the debris field. After all, the Zambezi's crew had been wearing EVA suits just like he was. At first, something was returned on one of the sweeps. Noah felt a glimmer of hope and tightened the search… 

"Noah, don't. It's pre-animate protein structures from the replicators," Yamakazi said, laying a gentle hand on his shoulder. Noah turned to regard her through tear-filled eyes. 

"I saw the same thing. They're gone…" she said, gesturing helplessly to her console that displayed similar results. 

"Nerevta, Cromwell. We've scared off the other two attackers. Stand-by to be taken aboard by tow," came the masculine voice again. 

Noah didn't know what to do. He looked from his console to Yamakazi's, not realizing the tears that were flowing freely. All he could do was stare at his hands and the decking beneath in helpless sorrow. 

… 

"…and that was when I had to help…relocate Cadet Masterson to the Cromwell's Sick Bay," T'pala finished. 

"And why was that," T'pret gently inquired. 

"Because two Security officers, a Klingon female and a large Bolian male, could not physically remove him from his station. I used a Vulcan nerve manipulation to incapacitate Masterson and the Security officers then moved him to Sick Bay," T'pala responded. 

T'pret nodded her understanding and reached up to turn off the recording device. 

"Thank you for your testimony, Cadet T'pala. You may return to your cadre now. I believe they are preparing to return you to the Academy. 

Not knowing what else to do, T'pala stood and offered the Vulcan salute. 

"Live long and prosper, T'pret," she said. 

T'pret stood, returned the salute and offered her own return salutation. 

T'pala turned and left the room. In the corridor outside, she found a waiting Security officer who escorted her to another holding area, this one containing her crew and several cadre members. 

She saw the wreck that Masterson and for the first time in a great many years, felt sorrow. 

Over the next few weeks, T'pala noticed Masterson's absence. First, she noticed he wasn't participating in the pair of classes they shared. Then, she noticed he had stopped working out. A quick perusal of the replicator logs indicated he wasn't attending communal meals, either. She took it upon herself to visit his quarters after class one day. 

She pressed the chime button and waited for an answer. Unexpectedly, Masterson answered the door. He had the same haggard look as the last time she'd seen him. He looked her up and down and then invited her into the room with a sweeping gesture. T'Pala entered and waited for Masterson to lead further into the room's sitting area. She noticed that he was wearing a PT uniform and her more sensitive olfactory detected that he had showered that morning. 

"What can I do for you," Masterson asked, waving T'Pala into a chair as he seated himself on the couch. 

"I noticed that you hadn't been in class and had, for all intents and purposes, withdrawn from the student body. I was…concerned," she explained. Noah noticed that her intonation at the end of the statement made it sound like a question. 

"Can I offer you a beverage, T'Pala," Noah asked, rising from the couch and starting toward the replicator. 

"Perhaps a mineral water," T'Pala responded. 

Noah ordered two mineral waters and returned to the couch. He set hers on the low table between them. 

"Technically, I'm on a Psychiatric evaluation period. The cadre has been very…liberal in how that evaluation order has been interpreted," Noah explained. 

For her part, T'Pala merely nodded her understanding and sipped the mineral water. 

"Additionally, I requested some time away from the student body because of…" he trailed off, his voice breaking. 

"I understand that Eris's parents are going to be coming this week to collect her personal belongings," T'Pala said. 

Noah didn't respond but simply looked into the glass he was holding, swallowed hard and nodded. 

"If you would like, I could meet with them. It would be appropriate since I was the mission commander," T'Pala reasoned. Noah shook his head, took a sip of water and explained. 

"I have to meet with them. They were aware of our relationship and knew that we were planning on getting married after graduation," Noah explained. 

"That and I have some of…Eris's…things," he said, barely holding back the tears. 

After an awkward moment as Noah gained control of himself, he continued on. 

"It would be appropriate that you be there and I think Eris's parents would appreciate the gesture as you were her last commanding officer," Noah offered. 

"I will, of course, follow your recommendations. I know very little pertaining to Andorian cultural practices," T'Pala said. 

"If I may be candid for a moment…" T'Pala asked after several moments of silence. 

Noah sipped his water and then gestured for her to go on. 

"There are mind-meld techniques available that would help you to…process, if that's the right word, this experience more efficiently…if you wish," T'Pala explained. 

Noah smiled a thin, lopsided grin. 

I'll be damned, he thought. She actually cares about me. 

"I appreciate the offer, T'Pala. I really do. But, as a human, how I process this guilt and grief will define me for the rest of my life…and the only way that I can do that is by accepting and acknowledging those feelings. Once I do that, I can begin to put to rest those internal, self-accusations that cause those feelings," Noah explained. 

T'Pala sat quietly for a moment and absorbed this information. Finally, she spoke. 

"I do not understand your emotions but your plan to deal with them seems to be well thought out and has its own type of logic to it. I wish you well and offer my help when ever you may need it." 

At that, she rose from the chair, placed the half full glass on the table and turned to leave. She stopped at the door and turned back to Noah, who had followed to see her out. 

"I will notify you when Eris's parents arrive on campus. You have my most sincere condolences, Noah. Eris was a gifted student and her loss will be known for some time to come," she said before leaving. 

Noah was left there at the doorway, surprised by the candor and warmth of the Vulcan's words. 

Several days later 

Noah looked up at the door. He wasn't expecting anyone but sure enough, the chime had sounded. 

Probably another class mate looking in on me, he thought as he moved to the door. 

Opening the door revealed something far different: Eris's mother and father stood framed in the door. 

No one said anything for several tense heartbeats. Then Noah's upbringing kicked in. 

"Please, come in," Noah said, bowing slightly, as he motioned them into his quarters. 

The pair nodded and entered the room, moving to sit on the couch and leaving the chair to Noah. 

"We are the parents of Eris," her father said, in Basic. "I am Thaalen and this is my wife, Ankisar." 

"Eris told me much about you," Ankisar said. 

"You honor my home with your presence," Noah said in flawless Andorian. 

Both parents shared a glance but said nothing. 

"My adoptive mother was a xenolinguist at the Daystrom Institute," Noah began explaining, "so, languages come easy to me." 

"She didn't tell me you had mastered our language," Ankisar smiled. 

"Did she tell you we were planning to be married after we had graduated," Noah asked. 

"Yes, she did. It was all she talked about," Thaalen said, a wistful smile creeping onto his face. 

Noah didn't trust his voice but simply returned the smile. He motioned for Thaalen and Ankisar to be seated and then remembered he hadn't served them anything. 

"May I offer you a refreshment," he asked. 

Ankisar crossed the gap between them and took Noah by the hand, leading him to a seat next to Thaalen. 

"Please, do not worry after us. We have met with the staff and the other members of your crew. They're the reason that we're here. We were worried about you," Ankisar said kindly. 

"I haven't gone back to class because I can't face them. I can't look at them and not think of Eris…and the others," Noah said. 

"While it will be painful, you can not…" Thaalen was interrupted by the door chime. 

Noah looked toward the door and wondered who else could be needing his attention. 

The door chimed again. 

"Please excuse me," Noah said, switching to Basic. 

He moved to the door and was surprised for the second time that day. This time framed in the doorway was his adoptive father and mother, Ichiro and Shinobu Hisakawa. 

"What…you…" Noah was dumbstruck. 

"Hi, son" his father said. To any observer it would have sounded cold but between Noah and Ichiro it was the warmest of greetings. Shinobu Hisakawa, however, didn't beat around the bush. She moved with a speed that belied her advancing age and wrapped her arms around Noah's midsection. 

"We came as soon as we got the news," she said, not letting go. 

"Uh, why don't you come in. There's someone I'd like you to meet," Noah said. 

The trio turned and made their way to the sitting area. Thaalen and Ankisar had risen and were standing together, arms around one another. 

"Thaalen, Ankisar, these are my parents, Ichiro and Shinobu Hiakawa. Mom, Dad…these are Eris's parents," Noah said making the introductions. 

In a move that Noah wouldn't have predicted in his lifetime, his parents bowed deeply to the Andorians. 

"Your presence here honors our family, "Ichiro said before standing upright. 

Thaalen and Ankisar shared another glance. Noah picked up on the unease. 

"My parents are from Japan," Noah began explaining, "a culture that is steeped in respect and honor for guests." 

"But evidently not so much that you offer them a refreshment," Shinobu chided gently. 

"Oh, not so. Noah has tried to offer us refreshments, but we refused. We came because we were worried about him," Ankisar explained in reply. 

Shinobu smiled at this and a touch of sadness crept into her face. 

"We were too, " Ichiro said sadly. 

Thaalen looked at his wife and waited until she nodded, then he spoke. 

"In our culture, Andorians gather to mark the passing of a clansman," Thaalen explained. 

"It is a solemn occasion and one reserved for Andorians only. But we want to make sure that the healing purpose of this ceremony is shared by all, " Thaalen said. 

"To be honest, we have no clansmen. We are outcasts within Andorian society because we bore a shan that was…barren," Ankisar explained, casting her eyes down. 

Both Ichiro and Shinobu gasped quietly but said nothing else. 

"But we were hoping that since Eris had formed a relationship with you, Noah, and a tight bond with the other cadets that you would honor us by gathering with us to remember her," Thaalen said quietly. 

Noah didn’t trust his voice. A single tear rolled down his left cheek and all he could do was nod. 

"You honor us, Thaalen, by inviting us to such an occasion. We could do no less," Ichiro answered. 

Both Thaalen and Ankisar sighed heavy sighs of relief. 

… 

The Dive Shack, Present Day 

Noah was pulled from his reverie when the kettle whistled. He shook the last vestiges of the memories from his head and poured the boiling water over the tea. The rain had stopped and Noah was looking forward to putting the rest of the Shack together. He hoped the work would allow his mind to settle the matter of staying in Starfleet. He sipped the tea and then stepped outside to begin this day's work. 

Slowly through the day, the area became transformed. Noah started by attaching gear storage racks inside the building. The gear wouldn't arrive for another 3 weeks standard, but that didn't matter. He completed the Shack itself by lunch and proved this by using the replicator to create a decent Bolian spiced poke bowl. After his lunch, Noah opened up one of the gear bags he'd brought with him from the Outpost and removed his personal SCUBA gear and prepped for a dive. He wanted to get the pilings in place before another storm came in and further muddied the waters. 

Normally, Noah would have used a dry suit/ full helmet set up but a quick glance at the sky (and an earlier perusal of the weather via OPX's satellites) told him speed was of the essence. Instead, Noah pulled on a pair of diving trunks and flippers. He kept the full face helm as he would need the extra sensor information. He checked all of his settings and carried his gear to the spot he'd use for the pier. He then went back and used the antigrav sled to maneuver the pilings and planks for the pier into place at water's edge. He then picked up his PADD and pulled up a subroutine he'd written. 

"Computer," he said to the audio input port, "check settings." 

"Please verify which settings to use," the PADD responded. 

Noah tapped on the appropriate document and the PADD chirped its acknowledgement. 

"Align visual sensor with equipment to be verified," the PADD prompted. 

Noah pointed the sensor window at his tanks and helmet, sitting on the beach in front of him. He noticed that the PADD's "processing" light was lit, telling him the device was working. 

"All settings are within known parameters," the PADD answered after a moment. 

Noah had written the interactive subroutine after he'd realized that he was the only diver on OPX. While going on a dive alone wasn't unheard of, Noah didn't like the thought of not having someone check his settings. As an afterthought, he squatted down and flipped over his ubiquitous sling bag to find his comms badge where he'd left it. 

"Masterson to Guptha," he said after the badge chirped that a channel was open. 

"Guptha here, sir " came the prompt reply. 

"Guptha, I'm setting the pilings for the pier. I won't have my comms badge but my helmet has tracking and comms functions built in. Will you monitor the channel and standby for emergency beam-out if I need it," Masterson asked. 

"Absolutely, Chief," Guptha responded. She had been with him since he'd been called back to Bersallis III, back when he'd been Chief of Operations. When OPX had relocated to TW IV, she'd continued the practice, even when he'd been Chief Engineer. Her response gave him pause. If he left Starfleet, how many people like Guptha would be affected? 

As he went through the ritual of donning his gear, he thought about senior officers had helped him along in his career. Most of them had been good officers; a few stood out in his mind as superb and a few more stood out as lackluster. 

He shook the thoughts from his head and pulled the helmet into place. The unit was a clamshell design that snapped shut and sealed at his right ear. Once he snapped it shut, the face plate came to life and displayed a wide range of information: time left on his tanks, depth, relative pressure at depth, water temperature and current speed. Once in the water, the sensors along the top of the helmet would also be able to give him an enhanced view of the area directly in front of him. 

He made a quick check of the comms and made sure Guptha had a solid fix on him and he calmly waded into the water. At his left hip, a bag of antigrav belts would help him in placing the pilings. 

Once under the waves, Noah made sure that his breathing equipment was stabilized before moving to the spot for the pilings. 

He'd rigged the antigrav sled with a remote pilot function that would drop the pilings in designated locations that he'd plotted out on a map. It wasn't much of a program but he'd push a button and the sled would move to the points and distribute the pilings. Once they were all in place, Noah would move in and more permanently affix them. He waited until all the pilings had been dropped and were not going to fall on him before he moved in and affixed the antigrav belts. 

For millennia, this task had been accomplished by using a surface vessel equipped with a large hydraulic ram that would hammer the pilings into place. But Noah didn't have such a vessel; nor did he have the requisite crew for it. 

Instead he had antigrav technology, in the form of a belt that held four miniature antigrav generators. He had rigged these to essentially ram the pilings into the sediment, to seat the pilings to a depth of 2 meters. After rigging each of the pilings with one of the four belts, a tap on his wrist control pad had the pilings in place. Another tap on the pad extended the pilings to their full height, breaking the surface, not their travel configuration. Noah then moved to collect the belts. 

Noah examined the pilings as he removed the belts. Each seemed intact and each one had been seated properly in the river bed. Satisfied, Noah swam back to the point where he began his dive and exited the water. 

Noah was surprised by his guest when he walked into the Shack. He had finished his dive and been greeted by more rain as he trotted up the beach to the Shack. 

Great thing about freshwater diving, Noah thought to himself, is you don't have to worry about rinsing your gear…especially when there's a rainstorm. 

Motion inside the Shack caught Noah's attention as he was walking in. He wasn't expecting any visitors; only Guptha and Captain Arzie knew about the Shack and the Jelna Rigellian he'd contracted to run the Shack part-time wasn't due for another 3 weeks. 

"I believe you are out of uniform, Commander," T'pala chided. 

Noah looked down at his soaked diving trunks and chuckled. 

"Well, that's the great thing about being on leave, Lieutenant Commander: there isn't a uniform," Noah shot back. 

"Actually, Starfleet Regulation…" she began. 

Noah cut her off with an "whoa" motion with his right hand. 

"I'm really not interested in Regs, T'pala," Noah began, the playful tone devoid from his tone now. 

The Vulcan, for her part, nodded once and raised a sturdy mug to her lips for a sip. 

"Replicator?" 

"Yes. I thought using some of your hard-procured tea would be selfish. So, I settled for this," she answered, motioning to the mug. 

"If you'll get a pot on, I'll change and we can have a proper conversation," Noah offered. 

"I accept," T'pala said, rising and moving to the kettle. 

Noah dug through his rucksack and dug out fresh clothes. He moved to the refresher and changed quickly. He toyed with the notion of a shower, but didn't want to leave T'pala alone that long. It seemed…rude. 

"So, how much longer are you going to be on TW IV," Noah asked, walking back into the room while tugging a shirt into place. 

T'pala had just finished pouring the tea and was holding a mug out to Noah. 

"My shuttle departs at 1300 local," she answered. 

Noah glanced at his battered diver's chronometer…a gift from Eris. 

"So, you came out here to the sticks for the last three hours of you visit," Noah asked sarcasticly. 

"Yes. And no. I came out here…to the sticks as you call it, to check on a colleague who had expressed to his commanding officer his conflict at staying in Starfleet," she responded. 

Noah rolled his eyes and blew out a breath at the ceiling. 

"I've got to be honest, T'pala: the trial has me considering options that didn't exist in my universe before," Noah said, turning the mug in his hand. 

"How do you mean," T'pala asked softly. 

"I've never truly considered leaving Starfleet. I've been posted elsewhere and have served in many capacities but this…farce…has me examining the possibility," Noah said truthfully. 

For her part, T'pala nodded and listened to her friend. After a moment of silence, T'pala inferred, correctly, that Noah was finished speaking. 

"I never wanted to serve in the JAG Corps," she began. Noah sipped his tea and remembered that T'pala had only taken the JAG posting to fast track her career. 

"But, I accepted the assignment not because I wanted it but because I wanted what it would move me toward," she explained. 

"This trial was little more than a way to blame someone for Command inadequacies," she said. She looked up and saw a look on Noah's face that she recognized. She held out a hand to forestall any comments from Noah. 

"Higher than OPX Command, Noah," she explained. She noticed as Noah visibly relaxed. 

"For reasons that elude your understanding and mine, the powers that be were holding you responsible for a First Contact scenario went…awry," she went on. 

"At one point in Starfleet, the same scenario would have been lauded and you would have earned an inordinate amount of praise. It seems that the Dominion Wars and the Borg Wars have made Starfleet Command more xenophobic," she said, raising her eyebrow. 

"In any event," T'pala went on, "you shouldn't allow someone else's emotional reaction to this situation provoke an emotional response from you. I suspect that you know this and are really here to present a physical barrier to those emotions," she finished, stopping to sip from her mug. 

Noah smiled. She was right…as she always had been. He had no more been contemplating leaving Starfleet that she had been contemplating writing a love ballad. His instinct was to put physical distance between himself and the issue so as not to make a rash decision. 

"I hate when you're right," Noah said, a lopsided grin forming at the corner of his mouth, "but I love when you're right." 

For her part, T'pala sipped her tea, tipped the mug's brim to Noah in a mock salute and arched her eyebrow further. 

"I am Vulcan, after all, Noah" she chided him. 


Epilogue



Noah looked around the living quarters for his container of tea. He didn’t spot it immediately so he began retracing his footsteps. He found it on the window sill where he'd set it after making the last cup of tea. He picked up the battered container and turned it in his hand. He felt like it looked: battered but still useful. He was lost in his thoughts when his comm badge chirped.

"Garcia to Masterson," came a heavily accented voice. It was CPO Garcia, one of the Beta watch powerplant specialists. Noah looked at nothing in particular in some confusion; everyone knew he was on leave. Whatever Garcia was calling about must have been important.

"Go ahead, Garcia," Noah responded, a note of surprise creeping into his voice.

"Commander, I know you're on leave but we could use your help…"

Noah didn't hear the rest of Garcia's explanation. He was too busy smiling at fate and how it had confirmed his suspicion. Noah was needed here after all. He concluded the call as he was walking out of The Shack and began the hike back to Outpost Phoenix

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