The Ronin had returned to it's orbit around the dead world now with the Klingon Bird of Prey in tow. The planet was a constant reminder to everyone on board of the magnitude of the power they were about to go up against. To completely strip the surface of an entire planet of *everything* -- rocks, trees, entire mountain ranges.... people -- that was an unimaginable feat, but the polished mottled brown globe below them was mute testimony not to be argued with.
Pike knew that the entire crew was suffering. All were anxious, some were becoming short with their fellow crewmembers, some had begun having terrible nightmares. They all were itching to go after the perpetrators of the devastation below, but until the transwarp sled rendezvoused, they were dead in space. It had been seven days now.
Pike was standing off to one side on the lower level of the bridge while Captain Evans and Kira Markos occupied the center chairs and Alpha-shift personnel manned the stations. One didn't have to be a Betazoid to feel the tension in the room. Today would be the day they found out if the *Pony Express* -- what a silly name, thought Pike -- whether it would arrive on schedule.
Minutes as long as a geological era ticked by. Pike looked back at Tyran, but all Tyran could do was shrug apologetically. Pike frowned. If this kept up much longer he was going to strangle somebody. Fortunately for "somebody", a perimeter alert sounded just then on Chief Talsmin's console.
"Captain!" he called. "I have a sensor contact bearing 330 mark 2, extreme sensor range."
"Finally," breathed Evans. Out loud though, he said, "Identification?"
After a few more tense moments while Talsmin fine-tuned the sensors, he announced with great relief, "It's them, sir. A Starfleet transwarp sled."
Now the entire bridge breathed a great sigh of relief. The waiting was finally over! Well, almost....
Captain Evans had risen from his chair and taken a few steps until he stood right behind the helm. He turned to Pike and said, "Admiral, with your permission?" indicating the main screen and the still-invisible sled with an outstretched hand.
Pike knew exactly what Evans' unspoken request was. He would have ordered it himself if Evans hadn't suggested it. They'd hung here motionless long enough -- it was time for action. "By all means, Captain," he said.
Evans smiled. Turning back to the helm, he ordered, "Lay in a course to rendezvous with the *Pony Express*. Warp eight!"
"Aye, sir! Course already laid in," answered McMillan.
*Figures...,* thought Evans wryly. "Engage!"
The *Pony Express* came to a rest inside the *Ronin's* hangar bay. In addition to Admiral Pike, Captain Evans, Commander Bentara and a crewmember were there to meet the new arrival. They waited impatiently as its engines cycled down. Finally, with a short hiss of escaping gasses, the main hatch opened and a young, blonde-headed woman poked her head out.
Pike's jaw dropped. Off to the side, Karissa suddenly had to stifle a laugh, as her mind brushed what Pike was feeling.
"Jamie!" exclaimed Pike. "*You're* the Kelvan expert?!?" He was all but speechless.
The sunny young woman took a few steps down the boarding ladder, then waved and smiled brightly at seeing her old boss. She answered, "Not exactly," and hitched her thumb back at the open hatchway. "Allow me to introduce Lieutenant Benton."
The second occupant of the sled appeared in the hatch now and descended the ladder behind Jamie Piper. He walked forward until he was facing Evans, then stopped and said crisply, "Permission to come aboard, Captain."
"Permission granted," replied Evans formally. The two men shook hands. Evans had a thoughtful look on his face though. After a moment he said, "Why does your name sound familiar, Lieutenant?"
"Perhaps you've heard it in connection with the *USS Virgo*, sir," suggested Benton, referring to the fact that his counterpart from this universe served aboard that starship.
"No.... I'm not familiar with the *Virgo's* personnel."
"Then perhaps you've heard it in connection with my unusual heritage."
It wasn't Evans but Karissa to be the first to guess the truth. She snapped her fingers and said, "You're a Kelvan!"
Benton smiled thinly at the revelation.
Now Pike spoke up. "So that's what makes you an expert on all things Kelvan."
Evans and Pike exchanged glances. Benton's attitude seemed odd -- unenthusiastic at best, at worst almost semi-hostile. Evans cleared his throat and said, "We'll get you stowed in your quarters first, then schedule an official briefing." Addressing the crewman standing off to the side, he said, "Poole, take Lieutenant Benton to his cabin and have his things delivered there."
"Aye sir," answered Poole. Turning to Benton, he said, "This way, Lieutenant," and indicated the door with an outstretched hand. With Poole in the lead, the two men walked out of the hangar.
That strange business taken care of, Pike turned back to Piper. A rare and genuine smile grew on his face as he beheld his trusty assistant unexpectedly here. "It's good to see you, Yeoman," he said.
"Same here, Admiral," returned Piper.
"We'll have to catch up later though." Pike was once again all-business. "Right now the Captain and I have to go over our plans, now that we can finally get under way again."
"That's okay, Admiral."
Karissa stepped forward. "I can take Miss Piper under my wing," she volunteered.
Captain Evans nodded his approval. So while the two men headed off the hangar deck toward the briefing room, the two ladies headed off in another direction.