PART ONE: ASSEMBLY
It was all around. It seemed to be drowning him in its cold dark waves. His arms reached out only to find more black as far as he could reach. He had always had nightmares about drowning in some deep, dark abyss which no light ever came in to or went out of. He often thought this must be what the inside of a black hole would be like.
Then, far ahead in the blackness, a tiny speck of light appeared. It seemed to be growing larger, as if it were steadily and swiftly coming towards him. Closer and closer it came, like the opening at the end of a dark tunnel. Was this the ultimate journey to the afterlife that every being in the known universe was said to have experienced? Suddenly the light engulfed him, blotting out the blackness. Its brilliance was momentarily blinding, but within a few heartbeats it faded.
The image which then came into focus was decidedly less than heavenly: Diagnostic beds with their life sensor lights blinking off and on in a spectrum of different colors indicating the lifesigns of their occupants. Humanoid medical technicians, nurses, and physicians paced around the confines of the room, every one clothed in either medical scrubs, casual or formal uniforms. This place, he realized, was a starship medical bay and that he occupied one of the many diagnostic beds. He sighed somewhat disappointedly.
He then noticed a pretty, blonde medical technician hovering over him and smiling in what could only be described as a pleased manner. "Doctor T'Ma," she called over her shoulder. "He's come around."
He then noticed the not-unattractive Vulcan medical officer come to his bed. T'Ma eyed him curiously and then dismissed the technician with a curt, "Thank you, Pulaski." She then returned her attentions to the man on the diagnostic bed. "Well Commander, you gave us quite a headache there for a while."
"Sorry if I was a pain. How bad was it?"
"Your wounds were quite serious. I wasn't certain I had found the correct antidote to the poison inflicted on you, but obviously I did." Not many people were comfortable around Vulcan physicians, their bedside manner was often cold and matter-of-fact, but somehow he found it rather comforting. He even suspected that underneath that collected outward façade, T'Ma was smiling the widest smile anyone could imagine. He often wondered what she would be like if she just loosened up.
Lost in his reverie he hadn't noticed that T'Ma had moved over to the communications panel on the far end of sickbay and had activated the call button. "Captain," she spoke into the receiver. "Commander Bairnson has just woken up. Would you care to see him?"
"I'm on my way Doctor," came the captain's short reply. T'Ma then moved on to see to the other patients which littered the sickbay.
Commander Jack Bairnson sat up on his bed and looked around him. He surveyed the happenings in the sickbay. There were about seventeen other people in the bay in the same instant that he was. Some were dressed in now-tattered and soiled Starfleet uniforms, others were dressed in more of a civilian manner. Bairnson's thoughts raced back to the events that led to his internment in the sickbay. The distress call from Omega Omicron 2 stating that they were under attack had brought the Excelsior to their aid. Jack Bairnson had been appointed to lead an Away Team down to the planet to investigate and had found the planet's major settlement destroyed. The few colonists who remained were tired and frightened and before Bairnson could get any information on the attackers, they returned.
A fierce battle had ensued in which Bairnson and his Away Team fought bravely against an unseen enemy. And then, Bairnson remembered the strange sensation he felt at his neck. As though he had been injected with a hypo that had been set too high. Then he remembered the pain, then the paralysis, and finally falling down into the blackness he had been trapped in not more than five minutes ago. Now he was back on the Excelsior and he felt a twinge of sadness as he surveyed the injured remnants of his Away Team and the colonists they had tried to protect. He couldn't help but feel a sense of failure.
Then suddenly Bairnson's attention returned to reality as the Excelsior's captain entered sick bay and was escorted over to his bed by Doctor T'Ma. Captain Sulu smiled congenially at his first officer. "Well Jack," he began. "You gave us quite a scare back there."
Bairnson pulled his thoughts together as best he could. "Yes sir. The Doctor said so before you arrived."
Sulu turned to his chief medical officer and couldn't help but chuckle silently at the Vulcan woman who had come to be known on the ship as the "Cold Fish." Bairnson had always held Captain Sulu with a certain sense of awe, and even though he had been the Excelsior's executive officer under Sulu for five years now, he had never lost the feeling. Sulu had served with Captain Kirk and was very much a part of Federation history, and Bairnson couldn't believe his luck when he had been chosen to serve under him on the Federation's flagship.
Bairnson had come to regard Sulu as a sort of guru. Like the elderly master at an ancient Oriental monastery where the monks studied Buddhism and the Martial Arts. In fact Sulu had taught Bairnson what little Kung Fu he knew and he never ceased to marvel at how much concern for his crew Sulu must have. He knew that if he were ever granted a command of his own, Jack Bairnson would certainly try to emulate Hikaru Sulu in every respect.
The aging Oriental face of the captain then turned back to Jack as Doctor T'Ma wandered off to tend to other patients in the sickbay, or so it appeared. Was Bairnson imagining things, or did it appear that T'Ma was blushing?
"So, how are you feeling, Jack?" Sulu queried.
"Well sir," Bairnson replied. "To be honest I've been better."
"Yes, so I see."
Bairnson composed himself as he tried to report his findings. "The enemy, whoever they were, attacked without warning. I don't think anyone really saw them. We tried to hold them off, sir, but..."
Bairnson noticed Sulu raising his hand, stopping him in mid-sentence. "Yes, yes. You can tell me all about that when you're ready to return to duty."
"I'm not sure I should return to duty, sir."
"Now Jack, what do you mean by that remark?"
Bairnson tried to compose himself as best he could, but it wasn't quite what he'd hoped for. "I couldn't save the colonists, I couldn't determine who the attackers were... I..." Dammit! Why couldn't he control his emotions?
Sulu's tone was warm and understanding. "Jack, you did what anyone could have asked of you. You found out what you could, and when you were attacked and overwhelmed, you got as many of your Away Team and the colonists as you could out of there."
"I failed, sir..."
"No Jack, don't say that! You performed under pressure in the best tradition of Starfleet."
"I don't know, sir."
"Can I tell you a story, Jack? And can you keep it in the strictest confidence?"
Sulu leaned close to Bairnson's ear. "One time, I was on shore leave in Yosemite National Park on Earth with a friend of mine, Pavel Checkov..."
"Captain Checkov? Of the Leonov?" Jack realized he had interrupted.
"Yes. Well, we were hiking in the woods when we suddenly realized we were lost! Can you imagine that? The helmsman and navigator of the U.S.S. Enterprise, who had charted countless unexplored regions of space for the Federation were lost in a forested nature reserve on Earth."
"So what happened, sir?"
"I radioed the ship and a shuttlecraft came and picked us up!" It wasn't until several moments later that Jack Bairnson realized he had been laughing riotously with his captain. He suddenly felt closer to this man he admired so much than he had ever felt before. Like they were friends at long last.
After Sulu had calmed himself he said, "So do you think you'll be alright now, Number One?"
"Yes sir," Jack smiled. "I think so."
"That's good," Sulu continued. "Because I sort of have a surprise for you when you're ready to return to duty."
"What's that, sir?" Bairnson inquired, his curiosity piqued.
"I think I'll wait 'til you're ready to return to duty to tell you." Sulu intimated. "Give you an incentive for returning at all." Sulu then winked at his executive officer and silently strode out of sickbay.
Sulu had often played these mind puzzle games with Bairnson in the past. Sulu felt the games to be useful and found that it kept his officers always alert. His favorite player was Jack Bairnson; he played the games better than any other officer on the Excelsior. Often the games came up in times of crisis or stress which required quick yet thoughtful answers. Bairnson was correct seven out of ten times, but this time he couldn't even fathom what Captain Sulu had on his mind.
The following days were long, full, and at times, painful for Jack Bairnson as he set on a course back to a full recovery. Doctor T'Ma couldn't help but marvel at the rapid pace at which this human was healing. It was as though Captain Sulu's visit and subsequent message had spurred Jack Bairnson on his path back.
Bairnson too marveled at the speed at which he was recovering. Only a few days ago, Jack would have been content to let death embrace him. And now, only five days after he had awakened from that icy blackness in the Excelsior's sickbay, Bairnson was ready to return to duty.
He stepped confidently onto the turbolift which would take him to the ship's main bridge. As the long ride to the bridge progressed, Bairnson's mind was racing. Why should it do that? Was it anticipation of Captain Sulu's impending announcement that concerned him? Was it the almost embarrassing praise he knew he would receive after he stepped onto the bridge? Or was it something else entirely?
Omega Omicron 2.
Even though Captain Sulu had reassured Bairnson that he had done all that he could on that planet, it was still bothering him. Bairnson hated mysteries and Omega Omicron 2 was still plaguing him. Who had the mysterious attackers been? Why did they attack in the first place? And most of all, who had shot him?
Bairnson's reverie was broken by the familiar hiss of the turbolift doors opening onto the bridge of the Excelsior. He looked up somewhat sheepishly and noticed that indeed, all eyes on the bridge were trained on him. As he took his first tiny steps onto the bridge in five days, he heard the first pair of hands slap together. Gradually, the other crew members present on the bridge followed suit. The sound of the applause had to have been amplified by the confines of the bridge; Bairnson's mind just couldn't accept that this applause was for him. On top of the applause, Jack received a number of pats on the back and short hugs from a couple of the female crew members as he made his way to the command chair in the center of the bridge.
As he sat in the unoccupied command chair, he nodded in acknowledgement of the crew's accolades. What a bunch, he thought to himself. All Starfleet officers offering the best of what the Federation has, each one hoping to advance in their own particular fields as far as they could, and yet each one of them will take the time to welcome back an officer who had been ill for maybe a few days. Jack sighed and brushed back his thick auburn hair taking it all in.
Suddenly, the Excelsior's internal communicator bleeped on, and the familiar voice of Captain Sulu was heard. "Sulu to Bairnson."
Jack pushed the reply button on the right arm of the command seat, "Bairnson here, Captain."
"If you can bear to tear yourself away from the accolades I know your friends on the bridge are giving you, I'd like to see you in my ready room."
"On my way sir," Bairnson chuckled. Many of the upper eschelons of Starfleet Command found Captain Sulu's somewhat loose attitude towards his crew a bit unprofessional, but that only made Jack admire him more. Jack had been a bit of a rebel himself, and it did his heart good to know that he had a few kindred spirits in the universe.
Jack Bairnson stepped off the turbolift once again, only this time onto one of the levels of the Excelsior immediately below the bridge. He strode down the corridor for several minutes exchanging greetings with other on-duty officers as he made his way. Finally, he came to the door he was looking for. He pressed the call button and awaited the "enter" reply which came shortly.
The doors opened with their familiar hiss of hydraulic operations, and Jack Bairnson entered the spacious briefing room. The walls along the interior of the room were decorated with several pieces of art from different famous galactic artists. In the center of the room was a large table surrounded by ten maroon-colored, plush upholstered chairs. The chair at the head of the table was occupied at the moment by Captain Sulu.
Bairnson stood at attention. "You wanted to see me sir?"
"Yes Jack," Sulu replied. "Sit down and relax."
Jack approached the table and took his usual seat at the Captain's right. Sulu then rose from his chair and walked over to the replicator situated on the far wall of the briefing room.
As Jack gazed out of the room's large observation window at the panorama of stars that littered the blackness of space, he heard Sulu ask, "How do you like your tea, Jack?"
Bairnson slowly turned, still lost in his reverie. "Hmmm? Oh, sweet sir. Very sweet."
Bairnson tried to compose his thoughts again as Sulu ordered the replicator to make two cups of tea, one of which was Bairnson's "very sweet." It wouldn't do Jack Bairnson to be daydreaming again, especially not here in the presence of his captain.
Sulu brought the steaming cups of hot tea over to the table. He handed Jack his cup and then sat down taking a sip of his own. Replicator tea would never replace fresh-brewed in Bairnson's opinion, but until Starfleet engineers came up with a better kind of replicator system than what was currently available, he would live with it.
When he finished his sip, Captain Sulu sighed with contentment and then observed his first officer. "Not drinking it right off the bat I see."
"No sir," Bairnson replied. "I like to wait until it's just right for me."
"Yes," Sulu replied. "You know Jack, you can tell a lot about a person by the way they drink their tea."
"How so, sir?"
"Each person has a different way in which they like it. Some like to drink it when it's hot, some wait until it's the perfect temperature for them. Some like to spice it up with cream or sugar, and some prefer to just take it the way it comes." Sulu paused for a moment to let this thought sink in, then he continued. "I like mine hot and plain. I prefer to take it that way, regardless of the consequences."
"Consequences, sir?" Bairnson queried.
"Oh you know, like a burnt roof of the mouth, or maybe it's not stirred properly, or maybe it's just a bad batch, but that's how I like it. Each person's tea is a reflection on their personality. What do you think the way I take my tea reflects on my personality?"
Bairnson pondered this idea for a moment and then replied. "That you see things as they are, and that you take the proverbial bull by the horns and get things the way you want them, no matter what the cost."
Sulu smiled. "Very good, Jack. Now, you on the other hand, you prefer to wait until things come the way that you want them, and when it comes you try to make it more interesting for you than it actually is."
"Yes, I suppose so, sir. Is this what you wanted to talk with me about sir?"
"In a way," Sulu replied vaguely. Sulu then rose from his chair and strode over to the window to gaze out at the stars. He sighed again before he continued. "I wanted the Excelsior, Jack. I wanted to command her more than anything I've ever wanted in my life. I pushed and I scratched my way up the ranks of Starfleet until I finally got her. But you, Jack... you preferred to wait."
Bairnson rose from his seat and joined Sulu staring at the stars. He turned his head to face his commander. "What exactly are you trying tell me, sir?"
Sulu then faced the man that he had called "Number One" for the last five years. "Starfleet Command is offering you your own vessel, Jack."
Bairnson was taken aback by the abruptness of Sulu's announcement. "Me? My own ship?"
"She's yours if you want her, Jack," Sulu nodded.
Bairnson then began pacing the briefing room in sheer disbelief. "Did they say why?"
"Fleet's had its eye on you for the past several months. Your record has been exemplary. They feel that you're ready to go off on your own..." Sulu then paused for moment and finally added, "...and so do I."
Bairnson then glanced up at Sulu following his last statement. "Thank you, sir. That really means a lot to me."
But then Jack ashamedly turned his head away from his captain. "But, this whole thing with Omega Omicron 2 is still bothering me. I'm not sure if I should leave while all this is..."
"Don't worry about Omega Omicron 2," Sulu interrupted forcefully. Somehow Jack still hadn't been able to cope with what had happened. "We'll be able to handle things. Jack, this is the opportunity that you've been waiting for. Starfleet has even given you the option to pick out several members of your own crew! Don't give it up for something that you had absolutely no control over."
Bairnson brightened somewhat upon hearing that last piece of information. And Sulu noticed that for perhaps the first time, Bairnson actually looked younger than his thirty-eight years betrayed. "My own crew?" he queried.
"Well, several members of it anyway."
Bairnson weighed the information on his mind. It had been what he had often dreamed about, and now it was coming to be reality. He could have certain people that he wanted in certain positions. Whatever this ship was, it must have been important for Starfleet to offer an incentive like that. Finally, Sulu noticed that Jack Bairnson, former first officer of the U.S.S. Excelsior was smiling; for what was probably the first time in weeks. Sulu returned the smile. "I take it that smile means you're going to accept?"
"Yes sir!" Jack excitedly replied.
"Good. I'll inform Starfleet of your decision." Sulu then offered his right hand to Bairnson. "Welcome to the club, Captain Bairnson."
Jack Bairnson vigorously returned Sulu's handshake. He liked the sound of his new title, even more than when he became first officer aboard the Excelsior. Then Jack asked the question that was eating away at his mind for the last five minutes. "What ship did they give me, sir?"
Sulu's smile resembled that of a Cheshire cat. As though this had been hidden underneath the whole time. "That's the best part." Sulu then returned his gaze to the stars outside the ship before he continued. "I'm actually kind of jealous of you, Jack. Perhaps I should have been the one to wait."
"Why sir?" Bairnson was genuinely intrigued.
"Because the ship you're getting is the newest flagship of the Starfleet. Construction number: NCC-1701-B. U.S.S. Enterprise."