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Alone in her office, Fleet Admiral Alynna Nechayev relaxed in her favorite overstuffed chair and held her mug of coffee close to her nose, allowing its aroma to warm and tickle her nostrils. The chair was positioned so that she could look out over San Francisco Bay, watching as the first feeble rays of sunlight began to highlight the Golden Gate Bridge through the dense morning fog.
The coffee, along with the splendid view, was her private pleasure, one of few she allowed herself while ensconced in the surroundings of Starfleet Headquarters. The combination of Colombian beans and Klingon raktajino was a blend introduced to her by friend and colleague William Ross, and it had quickly become a favored component of her morning ritual. After all, reading status reports and intelligence briefings before sunrise went a lot easier over a good cup of coffee.
On this day, however, Nechayev was also able to take satisfaction from another quarter. The padd resting in her lap and containing the latest status report from Jean-Luc Picard, sent from the Dokaalan sector and the site of the Enterprise's current mission, had already proven to be the highlight of the scores of reports she was required to review. She had no doubt the report would cause much discussion during the various meetings she would be required to attend today.
The sound of her door chime interrupted her reverie. "Come," she called out, spinning her chair around in time to see her office doors parting to allow Admiral Ross himself to enter.
"Good morning, Alynna," Ross said as he stepped into the room. With his immaculately tailored Starfleet uniform, close-cut dark black hair liberally peppered with gray, and blue eyes that seemed powerful enough to bore through tritanium, the admiral presented the epitome of a Starfleet flag officer. That description went far beyond simple appearances, of course, as Nechayev knew all too well. Ross had overseen much of Starfleet's operations during the Dominion War, establishing himself as a dynamic leader and imaginative tactical commander. It could be well argued that a significant portion of the Federation's success during the war was directly attributable to William Ross.
"Hello, Bill," Nechayev replied as she rose from her chair. Crossing the room toward the replicator set into the wall to the left of her desk, she asked, "Coffee?"
Ross nodded. "Absolutely," he said as he took a chair opposite hers by the window. Holding up the padd he had brought with him, he added, "The morning briefs make for interesting reading, don't they?"
"You could say that," she replied as she moved back across the room, offering to Ross one of the two coffee mugs she carried. Settling into her own seat, she looked through the window and saw that the hills surrounding the bay were becoming visible as sunlight began to peek over the eastern horizon, signaling the start of a new day. "I'm sure the day's meetings will be just as enjoyable." She took a sip from her second mug of the morning, savoring the rich brew and knowing that her private time to truly enjoy the enticing beverage had passed. It was no more than fuel now, providing what she hoped would be enough energy to push through the numerous reports, briefings, and meetings that were part and parcel of the day-to-day life of a high-ranking Starfleet staff officer.
"Some of these new directives are a little troubling," Ross said, glancing down at his padd. "Can you believe all this? Proposals for augmenting security patrols along the Klingon and Romulan borders as well as the Bajoran sector, long-term plans for retrofitting all Starfleet vessels with heavier armaments regardless of their current mission, permanent assignment of ground-combat units to line ships." Looking up, he shook his head. "I've even heard rumors of some new kind of elite classified unit being developed to test starship and starbase security using the tactics of known enemies. That's a bit extreme, don't you think?"
"I hadn't heard that one yet," Nechayev replied, thinking to herself as she spoke the words that, on the surface, the idea did indeed seem a bit over the top. Upon further reflection, however, the admiral realized there might well be some merit in the concept worth pursuing.
Shrugging after a moment, she added, "Still, we've learned some hard lessons over the years. Mr. Azernal seems hell-bent to see that we learn from them and that we don't get caught with our pants down ever again."
In addition to his notable political skills, Koll Azernal, chief of staff to the Federation President, had garnered like many of his fellow Zakdorn a reputation as a renowned and cunning military strategist. More so than people like Ross, Benjamin Sisko, and even Nechayev herself, Azernal's tactical prowess had contributed significantly to the Federation's winning of the Dominion War. Now, in the wake of that success, Azernal was using his formidable talents along with his newfound popularity to push forward policies designed to ensure the Federation's continued protection.
His speech to the Federation Council a month previously had left no doubt as to his feelings on the matter. Citing the invasions by the Borg and the Dominion in recent years as well as other interstellar emergencies along the way, Azernal had shown no mercy in recounting how these incidents had exposed and exploited numerous weaknesses in Starfleet's ability to defend the borders and people of the Federation. In his view, drastic changes were required, and it was an opinion that appeared to be gaining support.
"You have to admit he has a point," Nechayev continued. "Maybe it is time we reexamined our approach to defense. We've been taking it on the chin for a long time, Bill. Some of what Azernal is proposing makes sense, when you think about it."
Sipping his coffee, Ross replied, "I'm not going to argue that we can always do better when it comes to defense." He held up his padd for emphasis. "But some of this smacks of 'too much too fast.' Even Starfleet Academy's having to jump through hoops. Admiral Brand's staff worked two nights straight putting together a proposal for expanding the Academy's combat strategies and tactics curriculum, and introducing it earlier in the cadets' training cycle. Azernal wants to increase class sizes at Command School, too, so we can put more junior officers through before they take their first assignment."
Her attention partly focused on the world beyond her window, Nechayev said, "None of that is out of line. In fact, some of it's been on the table for discussion for quite a while now." Light flickered beyond the window that formed the back wall of the office and a crack of thunder reverberated through its thick glass. She turned to see that the approaching dawn had revealed a distant squall line of gray clouds converging on the bay. Rain was about to christen the new day, it seemed. She hoped the imminent storm was not an omen that might signal a change in her mood.
Nechayev knew that getting Admiral Brand to recommend changes to the Academy's military training curriculum would not have been difficult. The Academy superintendent had proposed greater emphasis on such subjects almost from the first day she had assumed that posting and soon after the initial discovery of the Borg and the awesome threat they represented.
"There may be such a thing as going too far," Ross countered, rising from his chair and crossing to the replicator. "Azernal's paying a lot of attention to military initiatives, but what about other areas? We still have a lot of problems to solve, after all."
He had a point, Nechayev conceded. More than a year after the end of the Dominion War, rebuilding efforts were still under way on many member worlds and would require much in the way of time and resources to complete. If those concerns were ignored, the Federation risked alienating valuable allies at a time they were most needed. While Nechayev appreciated the need for a strong defense and had always advocated what she believed to be reasonable measures to assure that security, she had not joined Starfleet merely to wage war. Were the policy changes proposed by Koll Azernal too drastic?
"I imagine the Federation Council will make sure he doesn't go too far," she said. "President Zife has assured the Federation that his first priority is rebuilding and reconstruction efforts. I'm sure that when he submits his plan to the council, all the issues, civilian and military, will be addressed accordingly."
"I hope you're right," Ross said as he retrieved another cup of coffee from the replicator and moved back toward his chair. "For the first time in a while, we're at a point where we can concentrate on something besides war. I joined Starfleet to explore, after all."
As he passed her, Nechayev caught the scent of his coffee, its pleasing aroma touching off a grumbling in her stomach and reminding her that she had not yet eaten breakfast. A glance to the wall chronometer told her that she had fifteen minutes to see to that particular issue before the demands of her daily schedule began in earnest.
Ignoring her stomach for the moment, she instead said, "I take it you've reviewed Picard's report?"
Ross nodded as he sipped his coffee. "First thing." Shrugging, he added, "I needed a pick-me-up after the stuff I've been going over the last few days. His report is remarkable, to say the least."
"That there are survivors is what's remarkable," Nechayev replied, "but considering their predicament, that they're thriving the way they are is incredible."
Rather than finding the decimated remnants of a planet that had once been home to a prosperous civilization, Jean-Luc Picard and the Enterprise had instead found survivors of the catastrophe that had destroyed the home planet of the Dokaalan more than two centuries earlier. Having accomplished rudimentary spaceflight, the Dokaalan had established a network of mining colonies in the immense asteroid field that drifted in orbit between the fifth and sixth planets of their solar system. The colonies had provided a rich source of minerals and raw materials, extracted from the asteroids and transferred back to the homeworld.
It was that technological achievement which had also allowed thousands of Dokaalan to seek shelter among the mining colonies as their world fell victim to months of increasing tectonic stresses, uncontrollable forces that ultimately tore the planet apart. Millions of Dokaalan were lost in the disaster, leaving behind a scant fraction of the population to fend for themselves in the brutal environs of space and the asteroid field. Those people and their descendants had gone on to fashion a new way of life, one based at first on sheer survival and later augmented by fierce determination and the desire to honor those who had lost their lives so long ago.
rd"Their level of technology is on a par with Earth's at the time of our first permanent settlements on the moon," Ross said. "Their space vessels possess a rough equivalent to impulse drive, which at least make interplanetary journeys possible within reasonable amounts of time, but their warp-drive efforts have been almost nonexistent save for the rudimentary engines used to power the trio of unmanned probes they sent with their call for help."
Still, it was enough, she conceded. Primitive though the Dokaalan's efforts at faster-than-light travel might have been, they were still sufficient to circumvent any dissenting opinions voiced by some members of Starfleet and the Federation Council that interacting with these people was a violation of the Prime Directive. Per that very strict principle, such contact was reserved for those species who demonstrated the ability to travel at warp speeds and had therefore unlocked the potential to hurl themselves into the midst of an interstellar community they were in all likelihood ill prepared to face. So far as Nechayev was concerned, the Dokaalan certainly qualified in that regard, having met the directive's criteria in their own unique way.
"I'd like to go back two hundred years," she said, "and tell our predecessors what a mistake they made by not sending a ship out to investigate when they found that first probe."
Ross chuckled at that. "I wouldn't be too hard on them, Alynna. Times were different back then, after all."
"True enough," Nechayev conceded. "What did they have? One or two long-range ships that could travel at warp five? That, and the Vulcans second-guessing everything Starfleet did." Shaking her head, she added, "It was definitely a different time." But an exciting one, she amended silently.
"As for the Dokaalan, this terraforming project of theirs has a lot of people talking," Ross continued, retrieving his padd and scrolling to that portion of Picard's report. "Terraform Command is already jumping all over themselves to get a ship out there just from the information in the Enterprise chief engineer's preliminary report." Shaking his head, he added, "I wonder if they're excited about the possibility of learning about a new terraforming method, or just scared that someone else out there has the know-how to try it."
A rhythmic tapping sound from the window caught Nechayev's ear and she looked up to see the first raindrops smacking against the glass. The storm was definitely on the move, she decided.
"I don't think we have anything to worry about in that regard," she said. "According to Picard's report, the Dokaalan are motivated solely by survival and a desire to make a real home for themselves. Besides, it'll take generations before that planet of theirs is ready."
The rain smacking against the window was growing more insistent now, and even from her vantage point high above the ground she could see trees far below swaying as the wind picked up, and idly wondered if the weather-modification network would be required to make adjustments for the coming storm's intensity.
Interesting thought, she mused, considering the topic of conversation.
Placing his coffee cup on a table positioned between their chairs, Ross said, "He also said that they've declined offers not only to be relocated to another suitable planet, but even for us to assist them in their current efforts. Still, I've already spoken to Captain Scott and he tells me that as soon as we give the word he can send the Musgrave and its S.C.E. detachment to the Dokaalan system. They'll act as an advance team until a full contingent from Terraform Command can get out there."
Nechayev nodded at that. The Starfleet Corps of Engineers might not be the best long-term solution if the Dokaalan changed their minds and accepted the offer of Federation assistance, but she knew that Captain Montgomery Scott's department of versatile engineering and technical specialists was more than capable of filling in until a properly trained group of terraforming experts could be dispatched to the Dokaalan sector. In addition to providing assistance as quickly as possible, the presence of the Musgrave would be able to showcase Starfleet's vast array of talents and proficiency.
"The tough part will be convincing the Dokaalan to accept our help," she said.
"From everything Picard's included in his reports," Ross replied, "the Dokaalan are a proud and peaceful people." Nodding in approval, he added, "Still, if anyone can convince them of our desire to help them in any way we can, it's him. I trust his judgment."
It was refreshing to hear someone else say that, Nechayev realized, especially when that someone was Ross. In the weeks since the incident with the Ontailians, it almost seemed as though no one in the halls of power at Starfleet Command was willing to voice their support of Jean-Luc Picard. This despite the fact that at least a few of those same people knew the truth behind the incident and why he had taken the blame for it. Even Ross himself had offered the notion in the aftermath of that incident that perhaps the time had come for Picard to retire. He had later retracted that statement, and his comment now further illustrated his restored faith in the Enterprise captain.
In the admiral's defense, he originally had good reason for his original thinking. Indeed, at the outset of the affair she too had been among those with strong feelings that Picard had finally reached the point in his distinguished career where it was time to step down, at least from active starship command. Her thinking had changed after learning the details of the incident, of course, and in the days afterward she had found herself in the unfamiliar position of being Picard's ally, even his protector.
Her relationship with the renowned captain had been a strained one at times, though as the years passed she had come to appreciate the man's talents, experience, and wisdom. To this day she remembered their exchange over Picard's decision not to deploy an invasive computer program into the Borg Collective that might have destroyed the Federation's most feared enemy in one bold maneuver. To him, the attack would have been one of genocide, killing uncounted millions of individuals who were in fact helpless victims forcibly assimilated by the Borg. It was an unconscionable action in his eyes, one he had steadfastly refused to undertake.
While Nechayev still fervently believed that Picard had acted incorrectly from a military standpoint, she had come to respect what had motivated him to make that decision. For Picard, the Federation's laws and guiding principles were more than mere words. He lived his life and carried out his duties in strict adherence to those ideals. It was a position that had run him afoul of his superiors on numerous occasions, including the situation with the Ontailians and the demon ship.
Of course, none of that had prevented Picard from being caught up in the larger machinations of interstellar politics. The proverbial powder keg that was the Ontailian governmental situation was still so delicate that their secession from the Federation was a constant threat. In order to prevent Ontailian leaders from losing the trust of their people in the aftermath of the embarrassing demon-ship incident and perhaps causing enough internal strife that they were forced to renounce their Federation membership, Picard had instead taken responsibility for the affair. His willingness, in Nechayev's eyes at least, had done much to prove not only his loyalty to the Federation but also his absolute competence to command.
I'm sorry to be counted among those who doubted you, Captain, she thought, hoping one day that circumstances would allow her to offer that apology in person.
Listening to the melodic rhythm of the raindrops pelting her office window for a few moments, she said, "I trust him, too, though I wonder what some of his detractors will make of his report." She held up her own padd. "The trouble he ran into during that rescue mission is going to raise some eyebrows. Twenty-seven deaths, including two of his own crew." Shaking her head, she added, "It has to be weighing on him pretty heavily, I'd think, and while I know it wasn't his fault, somebody might use that as just another reason to second-guess Starfleet's decision to give him back command of the Enterprise."
Ross shook his head. "They'd be picking at nits. He saved nearly four hundred victims during that rescue operation. While it's tragic that anyone was lost, it wasn't because Picard was negligent and I'd be happy to take on anyone who said otherwise."
"Something tells me that when push came to shove, you'd have plenty of company," Nechayev replied, smiling at the image their comments evoked. Rising to her feet, she added, "And with that in mind, I suppose we should be heading to the morning briefings."
Hanging his head in fine melodramatic fashion, Ross let go a heavy sigh of mock surrender. "All right, if we have to."
Nechayev chuckled as she moved to her desk to retrieve another padd, the one with her day's agenda as well as the reports she would brief other staff officers on during the morning's meeting session. It was then that her stomach provided her with another rude reminder.
Breakfast. She sighed in amused resignation. Too late now. Hopefully, it was not another omen for the type of day waiting for her.
Those hopes were buoyed, however, by the thought of the agitation Jean-Luc Picard's report would invoke in those people she would face on this day, specifically the ones who had voiced doubt as to the Enterprise captain's abilities and competence to continue as commander of the starship bearing perhaps the most storied name in Federation or even Earth history.
Good work, Picard. Damn good work. His initial report had held such promise, his simple milk-run mission having blossomed into a heartening first-contact situation and a chance to demonstrate all of those qualities that so personified why the United Federation of Planets was founded in the first place.
Alynna Nechayev wished she could be out there with Picard and the Enterprise. As she stepped with Ross into a turbolift on their way to their morning's worth of dreary, boring meetings, a lone question occupied her mind.
"I wonder how things are going out there?"
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