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The Stars My Destination

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Art by [archiveofourown.org profile]mific

Part I: your sons and your daughters

Jonn got up in the morning chill, pulling on a clean flight suit directly over the clothes he'd slept in. Insulated gloves, too, and an extra pair of socks. "The fuck ya doin', Shep?" Mitch slurred from inside his cocoon of blankets, shifting without opening his eyes.

"Preflight," Jonn said quietly. "Go back to sleep."

Mitch muttered something indistinct and most likely obscene, and rolled over; Dex, on the next bunk over, slept right on through, and never even quit snoring. Jonn shoved his boots on and pulled a watch cap down over his ears, then snagged his parka off its hook and ventured out of the bunkhouse.

Brassy sunlight reflected off patches of ice on the ground, and in the distance the edge of the sea wall glittered pink and gold and lavender from the sunlight. Jonn took a deep breath, coughing a little on the cold air, before he headed to the mess hall; halfway there he broke into a jog, for the warmth. His boots crunched on the frosty regolith, and left gritty, orangish prints on the floor of the old airlock that functioned as a front door. The mess was almost empty at this hour, a few early risers mingling with those heading to bed from the third shift, both bleary and quiet over coffee and toast. Under a layer of grime and scuff marks, you could still make out the old logo of the Mars Defensive Perimeter inlaid in the middle of the floor; Hope of the Home World! declared a mural along the far wall, with a broad-shouldered figure in an old-fashioned space suit pointing one finger off into a sea of stars. Somebody had hung a flier for a poker tournament over his face.

Jonn lingered just long enough to fill up on coffee, which took the edge off his fatigue but didn't do much to warm his hands and feet. Then back out in the cold, out to the airstrip where the winds howled down off the sea in screaming gales even on a good-weather day. The shuttle was waiting for him, its maintenance logs hanging on the pilot's-side door. He didn't bother to look at them before he started his own inspection.

When he was still chipping crusts of carbon off the edges of the plasma vents, Mitch wandered over with a thermos that steamed in the frosty air. "You're fucking nuts, Shep," he said conversationally.

"And yet you brought me coffee," Jonn said, sitting up. "Love you, too, asshole."

Mitch loudly slurped from the thermos before he passed it over. "What's with the early wake-up call? Nobody's on patrol until oh-eight-hundred."

"Special assignment," Jonn told him. He'd taken his gloves off to adjust some couplings, and the heat of the thermos felt good on his frozen fingers. Also, there was never too much coffee.

Mitch snorted. "Yeah, right. Who'd you piss off this time?"

Jonn sipped the coffee; it was so sweet he could nearly feel his teeth start to dissolve on contact. "Starfleet Command."

He passed thermos back and Mitch almost dropped it; he fumbled and caught it with a funny half-smile on his face, as if he wasn't quite sure where the punchline was coming from but already knew it would be good. "What's Starfleet got to do with the Perimeter?" he finally asked. "I thought they'd forgotten about us like fifty years ago."

Jonn shrugged. "Over my pay grade. All I know is the flight plan and the passenger." A Starfleet admiral en route to Clarke Station, Iapetus, and why the hell he couldn't just hitch a ride on one of his own damn ships instead of using the Perimeter as a taxi service—well, that was over Jonn's pay grade too.

Mitch shook his head. "Fuck me backwards. Hey, whoever it is, ask him if we're ever gonna get comp grade on retirement benefits? I been out here long enough for a fucking commodore's pension."

"Gimme the coffee and fuck off," Jonn suggested. "I got work to do."

"Love you too, Shep!" Mitch said, but he left the thermos on the ground when he ambled back to the base.

Jonn finished tuning up and finished the coffee, in that order, and then retreated into the cockpit of the shuttle for warmth. The cargo compartment was sealed and depressurized to conserve life support, since it was just him and the passenger for this one. Three hours to Iapetus, a little more than that for the return trip to account for planetary motion. Glorified taxi service. Still, it'd be the first time in the past month he'd even left orbit.

The admiral arrived on a skimmer, with Kasseinova driving; she cut a deep turn as she came to a stop, antigravs shimmering over the dusty synthecrete as the bottom of the skimmer dipped dangerously low. She flipped a half-wave, half-salute at Jonn and called out "He's all yours!" as the admiral climbed down from the passenger side; he thanked her as he grabbed his bag off the back, but his words were half-swallowed as she revved the chuttering engine and raced back to the garage. Jonn was actually kind of surprised she even stopped long enough for him to get off.

In the interest of courtesy, Jonn told the man in the black parka, "Don't mind her, sir, she's like that with everybody."

"So I noticed," the admiral said, adjusting his grip on his jump bag. He raised an eyebrow when he took in the shuttle in all her glory. "That's my ride, I take it?"

"She's faster than she looks," Jonn said, thumping the scratched hull plates.

"She looks older than you do," the admiral shot back.

"That's the Perimeter, sir: where starships go to die." Jonn picked up the light helmet out of the pilot-side knee well and put it on directly over his cap. "You might want to strap in, by the way. She doesn't corner too well anymore."

The admiral just shook his head, but he knew where to stow his bag and coat, and how to secure the harness. Jonn went through his preflight with the base controller and Mars spacelane control, jiggling the switches as necessary in order to get the instrument reading he wanted. "Flight, this is shuttle Marquette-One-Niner-Kappa en route to Clarke Station, requesting permission to launch."

"Shuttle Marquette-One-Niner-Kappa, this is Flight, you are cleared for orbital exit."

He eased the shuttle up, mindful of the wind, coaxing the balky atmospheric thrusters to escape velocity. The base fell away below them, a rusty eye of aging buildings and eroded airstrips surrounded on almost all sides by the ever-rising Uchronia Sea. "Not half bad with the old girl," the admiral observed as they ascended. "Where'd you learn to fly a Marquette class shuttle?"

"Same place I learned to fly Hudsons, Popovs, Curies, Sanbaos..."

The admiral whistled lowly. "That's a lot of training for the Perimeter."

"We fly what we have," Jonn said. "You learn a lot of stuff on Mars."

"I suppose I'm a bit biased," the admiral admitted, making a face. "It's not exactly my favorite planet in this system."

Jonn engaged the impulse engines and turned the nose of the shuttle up, straight into the sky, which darkened as they rose. "I kind of like it here, actually," he said.

The admiral looked over at him. "You like it here?" he echoed, eyebrows briefly disappearing under his own helmet.

Jonn just shrugged. "Home is where you file your flight plan, y'know? Leaving atmosphere now, sir. ETA three hours."

They didn't speak again until he was out of Martian space—really out in space, even if the crowded lanes between the worlds of Sol hardly counted as space travel. That was when the admiral said, "What's your name, Flight Officer?"

"Sheppard, sir."

He had been about to make a minute course correction; the admiral sudden reached over and rested his hand on the controls, just barely blocking them off. "Flight Officer Sheppard, I'm going to request we finish this journey under radio silence," he said calmly. "If anyone hails us, respond only with the call sign Sierra-Gulf-Zero-Alpha. You can resume flying under Marquette-One-Niner-Kappa when you return to the inner system."

"Sir?" Jonn asked, licking his lips.

"Just think of it as a favor," the admiral said, and for the first time Jonn caught a bit of a smile on his stoney face. "I think your orders mentioned something about a security clearance?"

"I wasn't aware I had one, sir," Jonn said.

"You do now."

The admiral removed his hand, and Jonn tweaked them back onto course. Then he reset the shuttle's transponder to the new call sign as ordered. He wasn't sure if he really wanted to ask any of the questions that sprang to mind, whether they would get him any answers or not. Over your pay grade, he told himself sternly. Enjoy the damn flight.

Past Ceres, traffic opened out; Jupiter was way out of their flight path, as were most of the orbiting platforms, so there was nothing to look at but the slow parralax of the star field. Saturn started out as just a speck in the windows, a speck that gradually grew and brightened against the black, and by infinitesimal degrees took on a shape and color. Jonn could've programmed the flight path and spent the rest of the trip picking his nose, if he'd wanted to, but he liked the excuse to keep his hands on the controls. The admiral did a crossword puzzle. They didn't speak.

The planet swelled and filled the forward windows, with the famous rings and the thousand-year storms on its skin; eventually it became more of a background than an object, moonlets tumbling against the pale bands of clouds. Titan Control acknowledged them as they circled around, and didn't seem too worried about the strange call sign; they passed by a hydrogen refinery without even a ping. And then there was Iapetus, nearly eclipsed, with its big black spot like a dark eye. Clarke Station, hovering above, made the pupil: it had started out like the MDP, an outpost to defend a system that no longer needed defending, but unlike Jonn's base on Uchronia Planitia, Clarke had been reborn under the aegis of Starfleet. It still had the stern, clumsy profile of an old military base, but rumor had it that if anything happened to old Mama Earth, all of Starfleet operations could relocate to Clarke to prepare for the relief effort...or the counterstrike, depending on circumstances.

As they passed within range, Jonn asked, "Permission to hail the base, sir?"

"Go ahead, Sheppard," the admiral said, not looking up from his padd.

But just as Jonn reached out to toggle the communications switch, an emergency broadcase forces a channel open on its own. "All inbound craft, we have an unmanned drone that can seek a target on its own," a calm male voice announced. "Shut down your engines immediately and go into unpowered standby. This is not a drill. I repeat, all inbound craft..."

"What the hell are they talking about?" Jonn muttered, automatically checking his sensor screens. Didn't look like anybody else was even on this side of the planet...

The admiral, however, had looked up from his puzzle with a grim expression. "You heard the man, Sheppard."

"What do they mean, drone—?" he started to ask, even as he reached for the engine controls. It would take a few minutes for them to cycle down to idle, before he could safely shut them down—and then they'd have perhaps ten minutes of air left, on residual life support. The depressurized cargo hold didn't seem like such a great idea anymore.

But before he could finish his sentence, he saw a speck of light cross the moon's profile. A speck that curved in a way no meteor or photon torpedo could. A speck that was suddenly coming towards them.

"Too late," he said, and activated the shields—such as they were on a Marquette—instead.

The admiral let his padd drop and opened the active sensors on the copilot's station with practiced ease. "It's got a lock on us," he said as the speck of light—the drone?—grew brighter with proximity. "Weapons powering on."

"Hang on," Jonn said, and took a deep breath.

The drone, whatever that meant, was closing on them fast—too fast, he thought, faster than anything he'd ever seen in Sol. But objects in motion tended to stay in motion, and while a Marquette might not win any awards for handling, their maneuvering thrusters were overpowered for their size. "Now might be a good time to try some evasive maneuvers," the admiral said anxiously as the drone closed the distance, showing off a profile meant for atmospheric flight—fat teardrop body, slightly forward-swept wings.

"Trust me," Jonn said. The admiral started to say something to that, then just shook his head.

At the last possible second, he rolled off to starboard, away from the atmosphere. He could feel the delayed jerk when the inertial dampeners maxed out, but the drone's volley of plasma sailed wide, and it overshot their position...and then banked sharply around for another pass.

"What the hell is this thing?" he blurted.

"Pull up," the admiral snapped. "Get out of its range."

But that wasn't too damn likely—by the looks of things the drone was faster than a Marquette on its best day, and the best day for this one had been a decade ago. Instead Jonn rolled the other direction, closer to the moon, as the drone made its return pass. This time the inertial dampeners cut out sooner, and the proximity sensors wailed in protest.

The admiral played the sensor board. "It's coming around again. We need to get out of here, Sheppard."

"Got a better idea," Jonn said, and went into a straight dive. He could buy some acceleration from the gravity well, albeit not much; that wasn't the point anyway. On the HUD he watched the hull temperature rising as he hit atmosphere, and the shield began drawing more and more power to compensate for the friction. The drone was still on their tail, but its shell temperature was rising, too, and its weapons—two stubby cannons under the wings—seemed to be fixed in position; on their curved trajectory, each volley of light went wide, under the Marquette's belly and into the ice.

The other thing rising was the air temperature in the cabin. "Are you trying to blow a power coupling?" the admiral asked incredulously. "Pull up!"

"Just trust me on this," he said, and angled the shuttle even closer to the cratered surface.

They burst around the terminus into weak daylight, and the shields hit their maximum draw. Now the hull temperature really started to spike. The drone was closing fast, and matching their trajectory...they were perilously close to the surface, and the atmosphere was just thick enough for turbulence. He watched the altimeter drop precipitously—

"Sheppard, what the hell are you doing?"

He reached for the thrusters. "Pulling up."

He stopped acceleration for a moment and threw the Marquette into an awkward spin. Somewhere in the cabin ceiling, something sparked and burned, and the structural integrity system went totally red. For a moment they were falling upside-down, for a moment the drone appeared to be coming right for them in a halo of burning gasses, and then Jonn goosed the engines. Come on, old girl, give me just a little bit more—

The inertial dampeners coughed, and change in delta-vee was enough to slam them both forward; Jonn's face bounced off the console in front of him, and only the rim of his helmet kept him from breaking his nose. A moment after that, he felt the whole shuttle rattle with the shockwave of the drone's passage. "Holy Hannah," the admiral muttered, bracing himself with both arms on the edge of his board.

Jonn shook his head to focus himself, and scanned behind them for an impact crater or a debris field of something. Instead he saw the drone, still impossibly not destroyed, matching their new course. No fucking way, he thought, blinking, no goddamn way is that even possible, that thing should've broken up or crashed or fried—

"It's gaining on us again," the admiral said, still a little dazed.

There was one last thing to try, one very stupid thing that would either work or get them killed in extra-dramatic fashion. Jonn plotted the course with one hand while guiding the shuttle higher with the other. "Get ready to route everything we've got to structural integrity," he told the admiral. Then remembered to add, "Sir."

The older man stared at him. "We don't have much left after that little stunt, Sheppard."

He dropped the shields—they weren't going to be much use anyway if that thing scored a hit—and after a moment, started dialing down the inertial dampeners. In the remote likelihood that this worked, he was going to need all the inertia he could get. "This is gonna hurt," he warned the admiral.

"So will getting shot down," he shot back, bracing himself against the slowly rising g-forces.

This had to be timed just right. He carefully adjusted their course, trying to ignore the drone bearing down on them, and hoped that his rough mental math would pan out. Only when he was absolutely sure they were pointed the right direction did he access the main engine controls, the ones that you weren't supposed to be able to alter in mid-flight. All the Marquettes on the Perimeter had the same passcodes, though, and he had no trouble opening up the systems he needed.

"Brace yourself, sir," he warned, watching the drone come closer—closer than he'd let it get so far, because this all relied on timing. He adjusted the engine's intermix ratios, pouring antimatter into the reactor far faster than it could be used, sending the core temperatures spiking dangerously. There was more sparking and burning inside the walls, as power couplings failed under their new load. The inertial dampeners failed completely with a shudder and lurch. The drone was within meters of their position...no, feet...its cannons crackled as it built up a charge...

And then Jonn hit the emergency release valves. Plasma and antimatter belched out of the back of the shuttle and enveloped the drone; the resulting shock wave was a kick in the ass that sent the Marquette leaping forward, and without inertial dampeners the gees were oppressive, plastering Jonn back into his seat like a smothering hand.

And then, silence.

"What in the name of Hell did you do?" the admiral asked hoarsely, as the acceleration subsided.

"We're ballistic," Jonn said. The artificial gravity relied on the inertial dampeners, and the absence of both had his stomach doing a slow, unpleasant roll, but at least he hadn't blown the back end of the shuttle off. "Emergency engine shutdown. Even if it avoided the plasma cloud, the fighter can't have a lock on us now."

For the moment, the admiral actually looked impressed. "Is our orbit stable?" he asked.

Jonn forced a smile, though his face still stung from its encounter with the console. "I'm hoping we won't be here long enough to find out."

On cue, the emergency radio crackled to life. "The drone has been disabled and recalled. All clear. Sierra-Gulf-Zero-Alpha, what's your status?"

"Sierra-Gulf-Zero-Alpha to Clarke Station, we've taken some damage," Jonn replied. (The admiral snorted.) "I had to vent the engine core and I have limited thrusters and no inertial dampeners, so I'd really appreciate a lift into dock."

"Roger that, Sierra-Gulf-Zero-Alpha. Any injuries?"

"Negative, Clarke Station," Jonn said.

"Make that affirmative but minor, Walter," the admiral said. "My chauffeur here is going to need to get patched up. Have Dr. Fraiser see to him personally."

Jonn frowned, and touched the bridge of his nose; his fingers came away stained green. He glanced at the admiral, but he was already trying to coax the ship back to life and seemed unsurprised by the the color of Jonn's blood.

"Roger that, Admiral. We've dispatched a craft to tow you into dock, ETA two minutes."

"Ten four, Clarke Station. Sierra-Gulf-Zero-Alpha out."

-\-\-\-\-

Jonn was hustled away from his shuttle as soon as they docked by some very calm, very polite men in red tunics, as the admiral disappeared in the opposite direction. He got sent him through a brisk medical checkpoint, where he had a chance to wash his face and get the abrasions mended, and somebody assured him his shuttle would be repaired. Jonn ended up in the mess hall, nursing a series of caffeinated beverages and trying to figure out what the hell had happened.

Not even Starfleet had technology like that...did they? Shuttles hadn't been used as fighters for decades, not since the advent of modern deflectors, and John had never seen anything maneuver like that thing, ever. But if this was some kind of experimental technology, why the hell were they testing it in such a populated place like the Sol system—even Iapetus was close enough to the space lanes, to colonies, to sensor and communication arrays that a rogue drone like that could do a hell of a lot of damage. What if it had made it as far as Titan? Or that hydrogen refinery?

But on the other hand, if it wasn't Federation technology...well, what the hell else could it be?

The mess hall filled up and emptied out again; an NCO stopped by and told Jonn he'd been assigned a bunk for the night, until he and his shuttle were "cleared" to return to Mars. He took the padd and ignored the yeoman, concentrating on his coffee. Eventually, the lights dimmed for the night cycle, and even the staff filtered out except for one middle-aged human woman presiding over a case of sandwiches and a coffee urn. She came over occasionally to top off Jonn's cup, but otherwise she sorted dishes and silverware onto a shelf in an unhurried way, sometimes humming a little under her breath.

The time on the padd said 0130 when the admiral suddenly put in an appearance. He didn't seem surprised to find Jonn there, awake and alone. "Flight Officer Sheppard," he said, nodding a little as he sat down.

"Admiral," Jonn said. He knew it was so far above his pay grade, beyond his concern, that he shouldn't even be thinking about it, but damn it— "You want to tell me what I nearly died for today?"

Instead, the admiral studied him for a moment. "Jonn Sheppard," he said after a while, drawing out the nn like a proper Vulcan name. "Your mother was Commander T'Perr of the Kelvin, am I right?"

"Yes, sir," Jonn said stiffly.

"She was one of Starfleet's finest officers," the admiral continued. "Brilliant, courageous—I had a chance to hear her speak at the Academy on the ethics of first contact once. An amazing woman."

Jonn looked into the dregs of his coffee. "Yeah, I wouldn't know."

"No," the admiral said softly after a while. "You wouldn't, would you? You must've been, what, two years old during the Athos Incident? Younger?"

"What does it matter, sir?" Jonn shot back, glaring.

The admiral took his venom in stride. "I have never seen anyone fly a Marquette-class shuttle like that, and I was assigned to a wing of them back when they were new. You might just be the most naturally gifted pilot I've ever met, and you come from a Starfleet family. So how the hell did you end up wasting your time on the Perimeter?"

Jonn raised his chin. "With all due respect, sir, my mother died before I could remember, and my father builds warp cores to finance his vacation planets. I wanted to fly and the Perimeter let me, and family doesn't have a whole hell of a lot to do with it."

"Did you ever even consider Starfleet?" the admiral pressed.

"You might not have noticed, sir," Jonn said, forcing a smile, "but I'm not real good at following instructions."

The admiral leaned back in his chair and studied him some more. "I can't explain to you what happened today," he finally said. "Because I can't justify giving that kind of security clearance to a Perimeter pilot who never finished his basic education."

"I got my GED," Jonn protested halfheartedly.

The admiral continued. "What I can do is tell you that there are more things in heaven and earth than you've ever dreamed of. And if you were to enlist in Starfleet Academy, you might just get to find out what they are."

Jonn rolled his eyes. "Thanks, sir, but no thanks."

"Your service on the Perimeter would be taken into account," the admiral said—almost pleading at this point, really. "You could be commissioned directly to full lieutenant if you play your cards right. You'd have the opportunity to fly the Federation's most sophisticated ships instead of the broken-down puddle jumpers the Perimeter uses. Four years of school for an officer's stripes and a chance to put your skills to use doing something useful."

"Gee, sir, you don't think the Perimeter is useful?" Jonn asked. "Who's gonna enforce the blood-alcohol limit for inner-system pilots if we don't?"

The admiral stood. "Just think about what I've said, son," he told Jonn with brutal kindness. "And if you change your mind, know I'd be eager to put in a good word for you."

Jonn rolled his eyes. "I don't even know your name, sir."

"Hammond," he replied. "Vice Admiral George Hammond."

"Yeah, thanks," Jonn muttered, as Hammond left the mess hall. The woman sorting silverware watched him go, then raised her eyebrows at Jonn. He carried his empty mug and stained napkin to the dish window before heading to his temporary quarters for the night—not that he actually expected to get any sleep.